for The Lowes, by Denise Monroe
Irenee and George met properly at the Black Lion public house in 1967. They were both Canning Town born and bred, post war babies who had grown up only a few streets apart from each other. Irenee was a couple of years older than George and worked as a comptometer operator for Charrington’s brewery. She’d had a week’s training on the mechanical calculator, inputting figures with a finger and thumb of each hand, and became a skilled operator. She’d always been good with figures and was a quick learner. George had worked at the docks since he was fifteen and was already doing well for himself. This was the early sixties and the Mod scene was big in London. George dressed sharp in his bespoke Mohair suits, sported a French crop and loved music. He liked British R&B acts like Joe Brown or Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds and always wanted something new, music that other people hadn’t heard. He and his mates had clubbed together and bought themselves a 500 weight Thames van so they could drive up to Soho on Friday nights. They would park outside La Discotheque on Wardour Street, go into the club for a bit and then nip out to the van for bottle of the pale ale they had stashed in the back. Usually they had to leave the van overnight after too much beer but could come back the next day and search for new music in the specialist record shops of Soho.
By 1966 Mod music was on the wane and the Hippy movement was growing. George and his mates didn’t like the new sounds and the long hair that went with it so started to hang out at the Black Lion in Plaistow. It wasn’t a music venue but a poser’s pub, where people with a few bob went to look cool. The local gangs of plastic gangsters hung out there, squaring up to each other in the bar, strutting for supremacy. George and Irenee first met one night in January 1967 while in the pub with their mates. George had always hung with a slightly older crowd so fell into easy chat with Irenee and they got on well but then didn’t see each other again for a few months. When they next met George hardly recognised her as she’d lost so much weight; she’d had peritonitis when her appendix burst and had been laid up in Poplar hospital.
Thursday was payday and George would drop his mother her housekeeping and then go out with his mates. It became a regular thing for them to meet up with Irenee and her girlfriends around Canning Town. They’d go for a drink, have a laugh, times were good. On Christmas Eve in 1967 Irenee left the pub and George called after her and offered to walk her home. On the way back she told him that her brother was getting married on Boxing Day and that she was going to be the bridesmaid. She invited George to the evening do but he wasn’t sure he could make it – he usually went out with his mates, what would he tell them? She gave him an ultimatum: he either came to the wedding or stopped messing her around. He said yes.
The wedding was at the Old Boxing Club near Roman Road Market. George was a social creature but wasn’t prepared for the riot that was Irenee’s family. George was an only child, whereas Irenee came from an enormous family of Romany heritage – known disparagingly as diddicoys to the locals who thought themselves better. They were costermongers, market traders, coal merchants and, to George, it seemed there were thousands of them. They knew how to rave and they knew how to row and 19 year-old George felt terrified and out of his depth in this new world. He stayed in the background all night long. Even after he married Irenee, George could feel overwhelmed by her family and like the odd one out when they got together. Years later he discovered that his mother-in-law had him sussed and would warn them all not to wind him up when he came to visit.
George and Irenee were engaged in November 1968. He was 20 and wanted to wait until he was 22 before getting married. Irenee’s sister’s marriage had fallen apart and she had moved back to her parents leaving her rented flat empty, so her mum suggested they take it. George would have been happy for a longer engagement because he liked living at home but a week after his 22nd birthday he married Irenee and they moved into their first flat together.
The flat was on the Scrutton’s Estate and typical of the time. Landlords were under no obligation to do flats up so the decoration and making good was left to the tenants. There was no bathroom and the outside toilet was accessed by walking through the downstairs flat. Gary, their first child, was born about 10 months after they were married and the landlord offered them a self-contained flat that had become available around the corner on Tinto Road. By this time George had left the docks and was driving buses around London. Irenee had given up work to look after their son and would sit Gary in his armchair so that he could watch the workmen shovelling and digging as they laid the New Beckton Road. Maria was born three years later and George traded his bus license for a heavy goods license, taking to the road.
In 1976 the family saved for a holiday in Devon and when they came back Mr Scrutton, their landlord, was waiting for them with a key for a house that had just become available on the estate. Any excitement Irenee felt soon turned to tears when she was shown inside. The previous tenant had been born and died in the house and nothing had been done to it in eighty-eight years. Nobody had lived on the upper floors for thirty years and the entire house was in a terrible state. But Irenee could see that it had potential. She said she’d take it on the condition that she didn’t have to pay rent for the first two months while she made the place habitable. The house had to be fumigated before they even began and when the London Electricity Board condemned the electrics, George had to push the landlord to rewire it and make it safe. They ended up paying only the rates for two years until the house was finally considered finished.
Fifty-one years later and Irenee and George still live in the Scrutton Estate and not much has changed. Some of their neighbours are the people that they went to school with and whom they have known all of their lives. There was a shift in the eighties when Thatcher introduced the right to buy and a lot of their friends, tenants in the council houses, bought and sold their homes and moved out to Essex or further afield. That was never an option for Renee and George as they had a private landlord, but they didn’t want to leave anyway. Canning Town is home. Besides, they are both socialists and firmly believe that houses are for people, not profit. According to Irenee and George, the only decent thing that Thatcher did was to cap and protect their rents, although they are both horrified by what the new young families have to pay to live in the same street as them.
George and Irenee are proud of both of their children. They went to university – which was rare in Canning Town at the time – travelled, worked away and finally returned to the area they had grown up in. This is a double joy to George and Irenee as its enabled them to be a part of their three grandchildren’s lives. The eldest is Jesamine, named after a song from the sixties that George used to sing to Maria when she was a baby. She’s now at the University of East London while her brother Kasper is studying for his GCSE’s. According to his grandma he’s a maths genius, just like his dad and just like Irenee. Gary and his daughter Georgie live just around the corner in a house that belonged to George’s parents. They all share a love of music, a love of politics, and a love for Canning Town.
Irenee and George have been in lockdown since March 2020. It wasn’t so bad at the beginning. Irenee enjoyed the sunshine and worked in the garden where the family would sit when they came to visit. The second lockdown has been much harder as it’s too cold for outdoor visits. Maria is a teacher and she and her family have all had Covid so haven’t been able to visit for a few months. Gary and Georgie visit at the front door but the laptop lessons that she was going to give to her granddad have been postponed until they can be in a room together. Irenee has left the house a couple of times in the last ten months but has become too fearful and doesn’t want to risk becoming ill. For the first time in their life together, George does all the shopping and jokes about how he thinks he’s in charge now. They are both prone to low mood and worry about the world that their grandchildren will inherit. George misses going to the pub with friends that he has known all of his life. Irenee misses seeing her family and chatting with neighbours when she’s out and about. To cheer themselves up Irenee reads thrillers and cop drama, anything with a good story. George thinks about the next gig he can go to. The house that has been their home for forty-six years is now their protector and their prison. In January Irenee had her first vaccine and is looking forward to being able to see her family again. She is still wary at the thought of going out, unsure of how safe she will be. George is waiting to hear when he will be vaccinated but will be back down the Black Lion just as soon as he can.