This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood

This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson Read Free Book Online

Book: This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Alan Johnson
slums and through a front door that was exclusively ours. The trouble was that the front door inquestion was in Crawley, in Sussex. The offer was probably made during a push to populate the new towns being built to ease the housing shortages after the war. Steve was adamant: he had no intention of moving out of Notting Hill, let alone going anywhere near a new town.
    Since Lily had no roots in West London, and given her desperation to improve our circumstances, I’m pretty sure we’d have decamped to Crawley if it had been up to her. She consoled herself with the thought that at least our landlords were the respectable Rowe Housing Trust and not the notorious Peter Rachman, who was by then busy enriching himself by driving out sitting tenants in Notting Hill, who had statutory protection against high rents, in order to exploit the growing demand among new immigrants from the Caribbean for cheap housing. At that time new tenants did not have the same protection as sitting tenants, and people arriving from the West Indies after the war in response to the call for workers in Britain found it almost impossible to find a place to live. They had no alternative but to accept poor conditions and extortionate rents, and Rachman packed as many of them as he could into shared accommodation by subdividing houses into multiple small rooms.
    Rachman’s domain never extended to Southam Street, or at any rate, not to our end of it, largely because our houses were already so overcrowded and mainly under the control of housing trusts. His principal area of operation was the streets south of Westbourne Grove, including Powis Square, Colville Terrace and Talbot Grove.
    So Crawley was rejected and we remained in Southam Street with the Rowe Housing Trust. I used to go with Lily from timeto time to their offices in the Portobello Road to pay the rent. There was a funny wooden, concertina-style hinged door that led directly into the offices from the street. We’d push it open and walk up a couple of floors where we queued to talk to a woman behind a steel and glass grille. I can still vividly remember the cream woodwork, brown lino and the smell of disinfectant.
    The pools were Lily’s only flutter, although she did embrace bingo a few years later, once the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 paved the way for the bingo halls that began to spring up in towns and cities across the country. For Steve, though, the pools were a mere Saturday diversion from the horses. I think he must have placed a bet every day there was a horse to bet on. Had he lived in today’s world of easy access to gambling on anything and everything, he might well have taken it up as a full-time occupation.
    Before the 1960 Act, off-course cash betting on the ‘gee-gees’ was illegal and there was no such thing as a licensed high-street betting shop. Linda and I would be press-ganged into running Steve’s bets. He would collar whichever one of us he found first and send us off with a little parcel of money tightly wrapped in the scrap of paper on which his bet was written. We would be instructed to keep it clutched firmly in the palm of our hand and not to let go of it until we passed it to one of the bookies. These men – invariably, in my memory, fat men with trilby hats on their heads and fags in their mouths, reminiscent of the famous silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock – would lurk in doorways in St Ervans Road or Tavistock Crescent. We never knew their names, and the transaction, which was conducted in complete silence, was over in seconds. You’d hand over the betand the bookie would give you a piece of paper, which Linda or I had to hand back to Steve to prove the bet had been laid. I do not recall ever collecting any winnings on Steve’s behalf, which means either he wasn’t very good at picking winners or that, on the rare occasions when he did win, the walk to find the bookie suddenly became less onerous for him.
    When Lily won the pools in 1957, it wasn’t

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