Cockney comfort food: eel, pie and mash to the sound of Bow bells

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

Cockney feet mark the beat of history, sang Noël Coward, as if he had ever been east of Holborn. Yet the sugary wartime sentiment finds a moving and resonant echo in Melanie McGrath’s new work of social excavation. The past casts an unusually deep shadow over Bow. And, cleverly, she has found a fresh means of exploring these striated layers of heritage: through the enduring local appetite for minced beef pie, mashed potatoes, and side orders of stewed eels.

G. Kelly’s Pie and Mash is the 100-year- old restaurant in question, on the Roman Road in Bow (there are branches elsewhere). Pie and mash served with ‘liquor’ (parsley sauce) and eels might be described as the forerunner of fried chicken: comfort food devised at a time when comfort was badly needed. It ought now to be an anachronism; yet demand seems consistent. What might this tell us about the broader flow of East End history?

McGrath follows not only the Kellys, and those who worked with the firm across the generations — baking the pies, decapitating the skittish eels — but also the lives of their customers and the market traders all around. From the nerve-tearing insecurity of 19th-century occupations like matchbox making, to successive waves of new immigrant communities; from the multiple horrors of the Great War and the Blitz to a 1970s boutique called ‘Miss Boobs’, McGrath has listened closely to stories passed down. Even those that are slightly old hat come with gaudy new plumage.

The first V-1 flying bomb landed on Grove Road in June 1944; Ron Moss recalls how the blast sent a chemist’s supply of sanitary towels into the sky, and they then fell ‘like giant snowflakes’. In the late 19th century, women who worked at the Bryant and May match factory not only contracted the unspeakably painful and deadly bone-rotting condition ‘Phossy Jaw’; there was also ‘lavishly fluorescent vomit’.

But just as compellingly, here are the ordinary pleasures and satisfactions of life: postwar dance nights (or ‘monkey parades’) at the York Hall; young women swimming at the Victoria Park lido, but chiefly there to ‘watch all the men’s muscles’, as Ann Simmons confesses; illegal betting on pigeon races over the Walthamstow marshes. There is something curiously hermetic about this East End life: leaving the area — either through wartime evacuation or by the lure of larger properties in Essex — seems to cause psychic rupture.

We are also bidden into previously unilluminated corners: the cramped, damp homes in the small community on Fish Island, an isolated spot on the Bow Back Rivers (now a maze of yuppie flats on the edge of the Olympic Park); the unsung Roman Road market, with its perfectly unselfconscious mingling of immigrants. Through the Da Costa and the Lucioni families, we learn of how it was, oddly, possible for Teddy Lucioni Sr to be a Blackshirt in the 1930s while, as his son remembered, ‘some of his best friends were Jews’. Incidentally, eels, jellied or otherwise, are not kosher.

Remembrance of the 1960s and 1970s is equally tasty. Rita Willetts gives birth on the 14th floor of a tower block with the lift out of order; young women in hotpants and white lipstick meet their boyfriends in a Hackney Wick nightclub called ‘The Spooky Lady’; there is Mandrax and Old English Cider. McGrath is less interested in East End myth and more in the minute details of life: for instance, the daily routine of a female lavatory attendant in Bethnal Green.

She also vividly conveys the memories of food: children relishing pear drops at the end of sweet rationing in 1953; ‘golden cutlets’ of fish; and of course, the menu of Kelly’s. Here is the correct way to address the pie: turn it upside down and pierce the pastry ‘to let the steam out’. Condiments are white pepper and vinegar. Never ever brown sauce.

Perhaps there is a shade less focus than in McGrath’s previous family memoir Silvertown, which was bleakly haunting; yet her empathetic ability to inhabit vanished streets and catch authentic voices — at a point when you wonder how much longer they will be around — is rich and compelling. You still won’t be tempted to try the eels, though.

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