Talk History

for Peter Shrimpton, by Imogen Ince

Peter warns me, just minutes into our first conversation, that he’s a little old fashioned, a self-proclaimed old fogey and proud. Initially, I laughed this off as an amusing, somewhat throwaway comment, yet seeing how the world can change so drastically and so quickly, I’ve begun to understand what a comfort the familiar is. Talking to Peter, hearing him speak, is a strange experience. How do you get to know someone so well without ever seeing them? With the restrictions enforced by the government, there’s little we can do apart from talk to each other, so I listen. I listen to his words, which spit and crackle from my worn phone speaker and into my laptop, the recording software spiking and falling with each sound. It keeps score of our conversations and the generational divide on our tongues.

“I’m not any good with words,” he tells me, during one of our calls, but that’s not what’s important. He’s a storyteller, one whose sentences are littered with fragments of history and words that have yellowed with age. Like clockwork, I call, and like clockwork, he picks up every Monday morning, his voice comforting during such an isolating time. Peter’s stories are a comfort too, a small glimpse into the life he’s lived, where he grew up, ten or so miles from my own family home. When I tell him this, he’s pleased to hear it, and weaves the streets into his stories, his voice a map; some places I know, some are entirely unfamiliar, and he helps me rediscover the city. When I ask how he knows the area so well, Peter replies,

“I became a street sweeper after working in the City, and it was the best thing I ever done.” “You must know the place pretty well,” I say, still testing out the limits of polite conversation. He agrees wholeheartedly and begins to list off street name after street name until I can’t keep up anymore. Canary Wharf onto Canning Town onto Stratford, Ilford, Romford; every place has a story. One of these stories catches my attention, the fondness in his voice seeping into his speech, and I want to ask more. 

The Two Puddings Pub, once located in Stratford, maintained an infamous reputation and was known locally as the Butcher’s Shop, purely for the sheer number of fights that broke out there. Despite this, it was a major draw for a number of figures; hosted footballers like Harry Redknapp, musicians like David Essex, and of course, Peter. The building itself was rather unassuming, the black and white images found on Google reveal the bright piping of its half-moon windows which contrast with the dark tile and cold facade, but the more Peter talks about it, the more it’s brought to life. 

 “It was the only place that stayed open past eleven,” he laughs. “Well, the Puddin’s would shut and then we’d all move to the nightclub upstairs – a proper discotheque. That’s why everyone loved it! It was the only one in the East End of London — people would come from all over the place.” 

When I ask him about the pub’s reputation, he pauses for a second to gather his thoughts; “It could get a bit…” he struggles to find a word, “…it could get a bit feisty. Cliquey. Some people would turn up for a punch up instead of a good time and a pint.”

That night I searched online for any images from the Two Puddings, wanting to put a place to a name. I had expected to find something far less cheery in appearance, and it seemed hard to believe that this was the place that boasted such a notorious reputation, every photo revealing a packed dancefloor with every patron beaming up into the camera lens. The women sport perfectly quaffed beehives, their fringes falling into their smiling eyes, whilst the men look crisp with their gelled hair and blazers. From this little porthole into history, it all seems so glamorous. (On reflection I realise I may be viewing this all through my own rose-tinted glasses, constructed from my desire to live vicariously through Peter’s recounted youth as I spend my own trapped indoors.)

It’s Friday night, and Peter finds himself back at the Two Puddings. He passes the bouncers, a new addition to the establishment, he notes, and heads upstairs. Jostling through the crowd, he and his friends stand at the bar. He orders the usual and looks out to the floor, where the figures dance to the club’s pop records, which is good, but it’s not rock, not yet. Peter’s established a system for this now – have a good time, dance with whoever’s caught his eye, drink a little too much, catch the last train home and hope you didn’t cross the wrong person. 

“It wasn’t a big place, so you had to watch who you’d bump into, but I wasn’t one for causing havoc. Some of my friends were though.” I can hear him smiling down the phone at a memory he’s keeping close to his chest. “Some strange things used to go on all them years ago.”

Peter stopped drinking after his father passed away in ’99, went completely cold turkey one morning, but he’s not afraid to laugh about his drunken tales. He recounts the nights he’d spend at clubs like the Two Puddings, staying up to the early hours of the morning and once finally arriving home, having to get up for work just a few hours later. 

He laughs as he recounts, “It was largely with my mates. They’d all struggle to get up before noon the next day, and I’d get up no problem. Bright and early.” I admire that, knowing that I’d be unlikely to achieve that attitude.

“But I’ve always been like that; never been ill, never caught a cold, not even in flu season.”

In lockdown, Peter walks to stay active and sane. He watches the news, but not too much, and calls friends and family to catch up. He misses the communities he’s helped build, the Any Old Irons programme where he could enjoy the company of other avid West Ham fans, or the shows he’d go uptown to see. Despite this, he never complains; Every phone call starts with an update: How are you? What have you been up to? On occasion he’ll spare a witty barb for whatever politician or public figure who’s been acting out or discuss the development of a vaccine or update me on what lockdown is like in London. He’ll tell me about his walks, about how he’d battle the winter weather for miles at a time, his focus on how fortunate he is to get out, stretch his legs and enjoy himself. In such a frightening time, Peter isn’t fearful – he’s grateful for what he has.

The line goes silent for a moment, and it’s as if I can hear the distance stretching out between us, all one hundred miles of it.

“I’m very lucky with my health. Especially now. Very lucky.”

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