Mr Bott, the Grocer

More than one person has suggested to me that the Covid-19 crisis reminds them of the war years (1939-45). Among other effects there is the same all perfusing anxiety along with shortages of goods in the shops. Reflecting on this brought back memories of my childhood in Brighton – a beautiful town (now a city) that was badly hit by bombing – and of the people who dominated my landscape of the time. Rationing meant that the butcher, the baker and the grocer were important people and it was essential to gain their goodwill. Below I retail my memories of one of these in particular, Mr Bott, the Grocer.

During the war, we had to register with a grocer to ensure our ration of butter, cheese, eggs and similar items. The nearest to our house was the establishment of Mr. R.A. Bott in the next street. My mother was not keen on Mr Bott, possibly because he was a plausible gentlemen who obviously enjoyed holding court before a shopful of housewives, but convenience won the day. Being but a child, I was not aware of social nuances between my widowed mother and the men she necessarily had to deal with, though I have sometimes put two and two together since. Whatever the problem with Mr Bott, it may have been the reason why I was usually required to accompany my mother on visits to his shop.

Mr Bott supplied each of his customers with a notebook, one of those with a cash column on the right, drawn in red lines. He had a big rubber stamp which listed all the most common items you could buy in his shop and when you went for your groceries you were supposed to present the notebook so that he could stamp a new list into it. As you accumulated your purchases on the counter, Mr Bott would annotate the list with the number or quantity and, of course, the price. Then he would add up the bill with a flourish of his pencil.

The notebook was stoutly bound with a hard cover. At either end was a white fly leaf and on the front one I drew a picture, labelling it carefully “Mr Bott”. My mother was unaware of the drawing until she next visited the grocer’s and Mr Bott opened the notebook to discover his likeness. Fortunately, he was amused, sparing my mother possible embarrassment. Anyone skilled in interpreting children’s drawings would have recognized the very picture of an English grocer of those times. Mr Bott wore well pressed suit trousers and what we would now call a business shirt. He wore a tie, of course, as nearly all men still did then. But his most grocerly accoutrement was his apron, white, crisp, spotless and voluminous. It mounted to within a few inches of the knot in his tie and descended to mid-leg. Its waist ribbons passed round the back and tied in front. Mr Bott was elderly when I knew him, with greying hair and eyes that smiled through steel-rimmed spectacles. He stood safely isolated from the public behind his L-shaped counter which enclosed two sides of the small rectangular space left in the well-stocked but small shop for customers. The other sides were formed by a wall and the door.

Customers would crowd into their small pen and await Mr Bott’s attention, perhaps exchanging gossip in the meantime. When at last the grocer’s amiable notice fell upon you, there was first the inevitable greeting and exchange of small talk. “That lad of yours is shooting up,isn’t he? He’ll soon be out there giving Hitler a run for his money, I’ll be bound.” Then shopping began. In those days of rationing, we could have only half a packet of butter per week. The wrapping was marked along one edge by a sort of ruler line to aid cutting it. This Mr Bott did with a long sharp knife, sticking a rectangle of greaseproof paper on the exposed butter. Perhaps he would treat you to a conspiratorial wink and announce that he had a little extra bacon this week if you were interested – off the ration, of course. When this happened, you knew you had joined the ranks of favoured customers.

Once, my mother had opened a boiled egg only to find that it stank. The previous time this had happened and she had complained, Mr Bott had declined to believe that his eggs could ever be “off”, so this time she wrapped it in greaseproof and took it round to the shop. Mr. Bott was dismayed; he fluttered his hands and protested; it was not necessary to bring the egg back: she had only to tell him – or send the boy – and due reparations would be made. My mother replied that any time she had a bad egg she would bring it back: she was always quick to spot an advantage.

The grocery shop was really just a modified house, as were many little shops in backstreets. When I returned to my old home 40-odd years on, I of course sought out Mr Bott’s tiny emporium. I found the site easily enough but it was no longer a shop. Its outline deformed by new but already weathered building work, it had reverted into a dwelling. The same fate had befallen most of the other little shops around there, including the one on the way to school where I would peer into the window at the complete set of farm toys, all the animals, fences, the farmer and his wife, the milkmaid with the yoke and buckets, and best of all, the horse and cart which I eventually had the joy of owning. I sometimes wonder whether the new occupants of the defunct grocery are ever troubled by the ghost of an elderly gent in a brilliant white apron contemplating his childishly drawn portrait in a small hardbacked notebook.

A ramble but no coffee

Lloyd Square, Islington

We had a late lunch (late because we had spent a busy morning doing not very much) and then went out for our daily stroll. Along the way I took this photo looking west along Lloyd Avenue. You can see the Post Office Tower in the background.

This is a typical Georgian residential square with fine terrace houses built around a central garden girt about by iron railings. In many cases, these gardens have reverted to Council control but Lloyd Square’s garden is still accessible to residents only.

Incidentally, Georgian houses can usually be recognized by two characteristics: firstly, that the windows on the top floor are smaller than those on the lower floors and, secondly, that they have a basement with its own entrance, accessible by an external staircase. This leaves an open space below pavement level for lighting.

We thought we might buy take-away coffee at Myddelton’s Delicatessen but it turns out that they close at 3pm on Saturday so we were unlucky.

It is a fine sunny day today with a pale blue sky. I was very warm despite having only a light coat on. It would be a perfect day for one of our exploratory outings but those are off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

We followed a roughly circular route, in a clockwise direction, which brought us onto Pentonville Road via Penton Rise.

There were quite a few people about on the main road, some of them shoppers coming from the local branch of Tesco. Most played the game and kept their distance.

It would be easy to become neurotic as a result of feeling confined and these daily outings help keep up morale.

Strange times

It has been some time since I posted here and if you have given up on me, I do not blame you.

I ceased posting before the Covid-19 crisis became apparent. One reason was that my intention of “posting on the hoof” turned out more energy- and time-consuming than I had anticipated. Quite often I would return home with a batch of photos and have to compose my post retrospectively, reviving the problems of time and energy that had caused me to close my old blog. To be honest, the pressure of this became too much and I gave up trying. Not that we stopped going out and about. No, that continued (until Covid-19 shut us down) but I simply could not find the courage and energy to write about it and take photos. I took a holiday, you might say, and this threatened to become permanent.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic has of course changed everything. We can no longer travel about but are confined to home except for the daily outing we allow ourselves, either to take a walk through the quiet back streets for air and exercise or to go to the supermarket for needed supplies. As a treat, we may call in at a delicatessen near us for take-away coffee.

By the time the lockdown was imposed, Tigger was already working from home. Each day, Monday to Friday, she would enter her “office” (the the settee in our living room), fire up the company laptop and log onto the company VPN to carry out her tasks in communication with colleagues also working remotely. This Friday, even that changed: along with numbers of her colleagues, Tigger has been “furloughed”. This means that she is not allowed to log on and do any work, though she has been invited to log on for the daily briefings for her team.

Life has changed radically as a result of Covid-19 but I need not stress that point because you and the rest of us are all in the same boat, so to speak, and you understand the situation as well as I do. Our daily life no doubt reflects yours unless you are one of the “key workers” who still go out to work or a member the never-sufficiently-praised NHS personnel, daily fighting the global enemy on the frontline. We must see to it when this is all over that they receive the rewards and gratitude that they so deserve.

The Internet has of course come into its own and sites such as Facebook have never been so busy. Some of the blogs that I follow have become more active. (See under Blogroll in the sidebar.) One of these is Brighton & Hove’s (Discover) blog which frequently publishes articles about its collection, exhibitions and other topics of interest. (I grew up in Brighton and retain an affection for that pleasant and dynamic seaside city.)

A number of friends have been keeping in touch with me through email and if you feel like commenting on the blog or merely passing the time of day, you are welcome to leave a comment or use the contact form or the email address given in the sidebar under Contact. I will always reply.

To Ilford and Chigwell

The day started sunny but cold – 2°C (35.6°F).

The Angel, Islington

That’s too cold for me. I used to br able to stand the cold but these days I find it harder and harder to do so.

Church of St Nicholas, Blackfriars

We boarded a number 4 bus which took us to Blackfriars where I photographed the Church of St Nicholas with its unusual steeple.

Somewhere in Ilford

It was still cold so we took another long bus ride. This one took us via Stratford (of dire memory!) to Ilford where we took refuge in a Costa Coffee. The above, architecturally indifferent, view is taken just for the sake of completeness.

Ilford, incidentally, takes its name from the local river. Not that you would think so because this is called the Roding. In fact, it used to be called the Hyle and this, joined to ford gave the name to the town.

Old Co-operative store?

We spotted this extensive building bearing the date 1924’and wondered what it was originally. An old Co-operative store, perhaps? Further research required!

Wazir Turkish Restaurant

We were waiting for a bus when we spotted the Wazir Turkish restaurant on the other side of the road and decided that it was time for lunch.

After this we went on a long bus ride as a way of exploring while avoiding the cold. (The temperature reluctantly rose slowly to 6°C, 42.8°F, but it was more comfortable aboard a bus.)

The bus took us to Chigwell and reached its terminus without us realising the fact. So we stayed aboard until the driver saw fit to start the return journey, about 15 minutes, I think. We were upstairs and I don’t know whether the driver knew we were there.

Where’s Chigwell? It’s in the middle of a triangle formed with Ilford, Romford and Epping at its points. (If that helps.)

Interestingly, to arrive there we passed through Hainault. Why is that interesting? Because there is a ancient province called Hainault, sometimes spelled Hainaut, shared by Belgium and France. Is there a connection? Possibly. The official etymology has the British Hainault evolving from Old English words meaning a “wood belonging to a religious community”, in fact that of Barking Abbey. The name was apparently altered to Hainault in the 17th century for supposed but spurious connections with Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, who came from the French Hainault. So yes, there is a connection with the Franco-Belgian Hainau(l)t but it is a spurious one.

Old Police Station, Ilford

Back in Ilford, we changed buses and passed in front of this old police station bearing a date of 1906. It seems to have been closed like many such in recent times. What is its future? To be repurposed or demolished?

The slow journey home

By now the sun had reached the horizon and twilight was dwindling into darkness. We had a front seat on the upper deck of the bus and I took this photo of the road ahead as we edged slowly in convoy towards Central London.

Around Waterloo

It is a cold (9°C), damp and grey day but we have come out for a wander nonetheless. After a bus ride we found ourselves in Waterloo.

The White Hart, Cornwall Road, Waterloo

I liked the look of this pub, the White Hart, with its dark green tiles. They were manufactured locally by the Royal Doulton factory which enjoyed its heyday in the Victoria era and this gives a general date for the pub.

St John’s at Waterloo

I was too close to this church, St John’s at Waterloo, to take a good photo and had to use the panorama function to cover it all. This has caused the slight bending of the verticals. It was designed by Francis Octavius Bedford and built between 1822 and 1824.

St John’s, interior

This view shows the interior of the church, looking towards the altar. It is unusual in being a clear space without columns or side aisles. The chairs have all been moved away to the periphery, emphasising this feature and the somewhat austere design.

The organ and clock

This shows a view of the organ and clock. Below is the font decorated with humanoid sculpted figures.

We thought we would take a look at the Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel to see whether there any good pieces of street art there. On the way, we saw this intriguing sight.

Pigeons perching on bird boxes

As the site is in shadow, it’s a little difficult to see what is going on here. Someone has affixed a set of bird boxes on the side of a building. They are intended for small birds and the pigeons are too big to access them but they are happy to use them as conveniently placed perches. Each box has its attendant pigeon, keeping watch for any chance of food!

Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel

The Tunnel used to be a good place to see street art and well known artists at work. The turnover of works was rapid so that every visit revealed new paintings. In recent years it has become less lively and today tourists and sight-seers easily outnumbered the artists.

We walked the whole length without seeing anything that impressed me. So I collected a couple of examples for the sake of completeness.

Abstract or illegible calligraphy?

A plague of “abstract” art has gone round the world several times since the beginning of the 20th century and it has naturally infected some street artists with its dire bacillus. Another popular strand of street art is calligraphy. This has become more and more complex to the point where it has descended into complete illegibility. Whether this piece is intended to be abstract or is illegible calligraphy is hard to tell.

Cartoon figure

This piece is happily neither abstract nor calligraphy. The cheerful little cartoon figure is perhaps familiar to readers of comics (or “graphic novels”) but is unknown to me.

We rambled a little further until we caught a bus near Victoria Station to return home with seeing anything further that I felt was worth recording photographically.

Horse, elephants and market

We went out this afternoon for a bus ride and ramble. As usual, I took a few photos along the way though the light was wintery-dull and not very suitable for this.

We saw some sculptures at Marble Arch.

Still Water

The first sculpture has been in place long enough now to be a familiar landmark. It is a massive horse’s head by Nic Fiddian-Green, entitled, somewhat counterintuitively, Still Water.

Orphans

The second is the group of life-size elephants by Gillie & Marc entitled Orphans.

The intention is to publicise the damage being done to wild elephant population by ivory poachers and conflict with humans. The display focuses on the orphans, young elephants left helpless and unable to survive as a result of the killing of their mothers. A fuller explanation will be found on the Marble Arch website.

Happily, there is a charity that cares for some of the orphans, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Like all charities, this one needs, and deserves, donations.

Malkia

This is just one of the individual sculptures of juvenile elephants, a female named Malkia.

The mother

In the centre of the group and focal point of the design is a larger figure, representing the mother whose death has left the orphans in their precarious state.

Mercato Mayfair

This building in Mayfair, now crowded with people and market-style stalls, was obviously once a church. When it was such, it was called St Mark’s. Today it describes itself as “a cultural hub and sustainable community market“. It rejoices in the somewhat pretentious (but, then, this is Mayfair) name of Mercato Marfair. More information will be found on this website.

I missed the opportunity to photograph the striking pillared entrance of the building but you will find a picture of it and information about the old church in this Wikipedia entry.

Post Post Office

This beautiful building used to be the Post Office. Many times I have posted items here, renewed my transport pass and performed sundry other transactions that fall within the purview of the Royal Mail.

The old Islington Post Office

Behind the public access area was the sorting and parcels offices. A couple of years ago, the site was sold off for redevelopment and the public office replaced by a modern shop front further along the road. Waiting for a bus to take us home, we spotted that the building is now open in its new incarnation, with the somewhat pretentious name of “Islington Square”. Having 12 minutes to wait for our bus, we crossed the road to take a look.

Here are a few views of what we saw.

Hall with glass ceiling

All traces of the post office have been swept away (except for a plaque recording the building’s original role) and it appears to have become a shopping mall. The need for such seems highly doubtful in an area already well supplied with every kind of retail outlet but, then again, when did developers ever consider social need as a factor in their designs?

Dark passage illuminated with Christmas lights

Quite a few – probably the majority – of premises were boarded up, perhaps still awaiting tenants. The Christmas lights help to make the place look cheerful and it remains to see what it is like when they have gone.

Open area with more shops

Behind the old Post Office is this open area with shops and, presumably, residential accommodation.

We did not explore thoroughly, firstly because the site was clearly not in its final state and, secondly, because it was cold and we didn’t want to miss our bus.

As it stands, I am not sure how useful a contribution this new development will make to the area. That will depend on the businesses that are established here. If they meet people’s needs, it will flourish; if not, it will wither on the vine like so many other ill-conceived projects.