“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)
Sunday, 24 August 2014
1914: lunching in London, the boss and the soldier boy to be
A hundred years ago yesterday… August 23, 1914, three weeks after Britain declared war on Germany, the British Expeditionary Force – the nation’s established professional Army – fought its first great action in defence of “little Belgium”: the Battle Of Mons. They fought valiantly, they deployed their brilliant 15-aimed-shots-a-minute marksmanship so skillfully they often fooled their opponents into thinking they had adequate numbers of machine guns. But they lost and a two-week retreat began.
Back home, boys like my father, Sam Sutcliffe, 16 – living with his family in Edmonton, north London, working as a junior office boy in mining company Lake & Currie’s City HQ – heard little of this bad news for some while. However, he writes, they “all felt the same – that life as they had known it was finished, big things looming”.
So, during this interval of worrying and wondering, a look at the life my father saw around him as he traveled daily from a poor family home into the wealthy heart of London.
Not surprisingly, given he’d grown up hungry, in his Memoir he constantly wrote about food. On the one hand, he recorded his own quest for whatever came cheap – and his almost loving appreciation of the places that provided it (again, for new readers, I need to clarify that my father wrote the first part of his story in the third person, calling himself “Tommy”):
“… a chain called Lockharts (bless the promoter of them), where just buying a mug of tea entitled you to sit there and eat the sandwich lunch mother had prepared for you. Rest and refreshment for a penny…
Another place [his friend] Reg introduced Tommy to was known as the Alexandra Trust [near Old Street bus and tram depot], where hundreds of people went for cheap food. And it was cheap – apart from the tea, a large, toasted teacake cost a penny too.”
But Tommy/Sam’s unenvying eye also observed a rather different level of lunching. One of his office-boy duties entailed delivering the food orders for “small, intimate groups” of his bosses’ business associates:
“A day or so beforehand, Tommy had to visit the supplier to hand over the order – often at a famous restaurant and bar over in Cheapside called Sweetings [Queen Victoria Street] where he observed really prosperous City businessmen, bosses all, who wouldn’t even spare the time to sit down to have their lunch. These toffs, as Cockneys called them, clad in fine morning suits, lined the long counter, munching, and drinking their ale or whatever they favoured. The smell of all these delicious foods pleased Tommy; he loved to stand there and look and breathe it in. White-hatted waiters dressed up as chefs carved succulent slices of beef or ham.
When the customers finished eating, they would just throw down some silver on the counter and walk out – no question of bills or talking about the cost…
In addition to the special drinks and foods the restaurant supplied, Tommy had to buy certain cheeses and a special type of coffee. This task took him to a shop of the old style where soft cream cheeses hung from the ceiling in muslin bags… Fortunately, in due course, Tommy would get the chance to do more than look at all this enticing provender.
When one of these feasts had concluded, the bosses would take their guests to a club… Often, when they left Mr Lake’s office – the temporary dining room – Tommy went in to clear up before the caterers came to collect any utensils and crockery they had provided. But he’d pause to inhale the fumes of cigars and cigarettes, the aroma of all this good food, and of an appetising cocktail they regularly took called gin cup which they drank from small, silver tankards, a sprig of a small, mauve flower with a yellow centre floating in each one.
And, until the men from Sweetings arrived, Tommy could eat and drink anything left over —often quite a lot. Quickly as he could, he’d run through the menu. The lovely cream cheese, the crisp little rolls, some meat, ham or tongue or beef, a little salad, and then, of course, the gin cups had not always been emptied so he sampled them as well. It was very good. And one further pleasure he would save for later; some of the senior partner’s Turkish cigarettes – made for him by a chap in Burlington Arcade – would be left lying on the table and Tommy, who sometimes collected parcels of them from the tobacconist, felt free to take some of them if he wished. For a brief while, the boy would think of himself as a man. And fare like a lord.”
Imagine him remembering all those gorgeous smells and tastes 50 to 60 years later, when he wrote his Memoir… However, he also recalled the more frequent occasions when he and his older brother Ted enjoyed less opulent dining:
“If they had no money spare, the brothers would go down to their favourite wharf on the River Thames and sit on the wall with their legs dangling while they ate their sandwiches and watched the seagulls. From time to time they’d throw these birds lumps of rather hardcore cake – their mother’s speciality, nourishing one assumes, but not too appetising… Threw the cake at them more than to them, in truth. They never registered a hit as far as they could see, but they felt sure that, if they had done, the effect would have been pretty deadly.”