Found Memories

Before Christmas I found a collection of old photos in a junk shop on Hainault Road, E10 which had come from a house clearance not far away in Leyton. The first handful I dragged out of the 1980s Marks and Spencers carrier bag contained these pictures of a bike shop on Church Road Leyton, Graystone’s, and what looks like the gathering of a cycling club.

The date “1938” is written on the back of this photo. When I zoomed in, one of the posters on the wall behind reads, “HANGED BY HIS OWN FATHER”. The name of the road is also clearly visible – Capworth Street.

They look such cheerful bunch – I wonder if they were worried about the events in Europe. At the beginning of 1938 the government announced that all British schoolchildren would be issued with gas masks. I bet the kids loved it, but as a parent, I can imagine that would have created a real sense of anxiety, a fear of what was possibly to come. Maybe it never crossed their minds – they were too busy flirting and showing off – discussing the best route to take through Epping Forest.

This is the site of Graystone’s on Church Road now. Although there is no sign of the shop you can see the detail around the front door next to it has survived and the exterior of that house looks pretty much the same.

And Capworth Street seems little changed – although a large group of cyclists posing for a photo in the middle of the road would soon be shunted out of the way by an aggressively driven customised car.

You can’t help wondering what happened to them during the war. I know that the owner of the photos was in the navy and obviously survived – but the rest? 

This photo looks like Marsh Lane Fields from the view of the gasometer behind the line of trees, augmented by the proximity of the house to Marsh Lane (and also to Graystone’s). There’s no date, but another one from the same set is dated 1953, the Goon Show was on the radio, Christie committed his murders at 10 Rillington Place and both Stalin and Dylan Thomas went to their graves (not together of course).

It feels odd to be in possession of somebody else’s memories. Aside from the few photos of local interest the majority of them are classic family snaps – weddings, birthdays, holidays, spanning at least 50 years.

I’m curious to know why some member of the family didn’t want them when the owner died and there was the inevitable sifting through of possessions. Some of them seem to date back to the early part of the century – you’d imagine they’d be treasured heirlooms.

My wife finds them “creepy”, and although I disagree I can see what she means – we weren’t supposed to see these photos (this is well before the Facebook age of obsessively sharing every moment of our lives with a legion of tangetial virtual ‘friends’). The people in these photos are ghosts – not half-remembered school mates.

My Mum’s family were naval folk so I was familiar with the names neatly written on the backs of these photos – Alexandria, Malta Harbour, Gateway of India.

But this one has a different story begging to be conjured out of its fading ink. The writing on the back (in ink this time rather than pencil) says:

“WE THREE”, Nathanya Camp, Palestine Nov’ 1945

From what I can glean online Nathanya Camp was a ‘leave camp’ for British forces serving in the middle east during the war. In November 1945, when this picture was taken, President Truman announced an inquiry “to look into the settlement of Jews in Palestine”. In November 1945 Zionist guerilla fighters were carrying out violent attacks on the Palestinian Railway system leading to the death of a British soldier.

But this is probably the most curious of all the photos. The huge (plastic?) swan, dancer emerging from a grotto on an isolated jetty – it is Lynchian, a still from a discarded work by the Blue Velvet director found in a faded, crumpled Marks and Spencer carrier bag in a junk shop in Leyton, east London.