East Street and the Mystery of Charlie Chaplin

A Life of Crime vs. The Free Market III

Below: two pictures of the Walworth Road entrance to East Street (Lane); the arch being a recent addition seemingly serving no other purpose than reinforcing the name change from Lane to Street that took place when the market was moved there from the Walworth Road many years ago, and so making it at odds with how locals with a historical relationship to the place refer to it.

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Is the ice-cream parlour really still there or are new owners just not bothered about changing the awnings? After all, the original ROFFO’S fascia has been whited out.

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This picture looks older (imo, at least) than it really is; the clothes of the boy (left) placing it late 70s/early 80s. This is how it looked when I lived nearby.

Living so close I experienced the street empty and open to traffic far more than overflowing with market. Riding down there on a motorbike one night, the ground wet as in the picture, I lost the rear end taking a left thanks to a plastic lid from one of the polystyrene cups traders drank tea from.

Combined with the already wet tarmac, riding over it at an angle was like hitting a little patch of black ice that then stayed firmly under the wheel to ensure it kept going horribly asunder.

Lying on my arse laughing while suddenly looking up at the night sky instead of the road ahead is how I learned the Lane could be a potential minefield for anyone on two wheels if the market sweepers had had a bad or couldn’t-be-bothered day.

In the older pic it’s easy to see the pavement on the right being interrupted by a side street. Not so easy to notice are the overhanging lights on the building this side of the corner. They belong (or maybe belonged) to a pub.

I don’t remember its name, despite going in there a couple of times a few years before working the market. It felt a lot longer inside than it looked outside. A layout of stage one end and rows of people sat at tables facing it gave an old music hall kinda feel.

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Inside, the pub felt like a much smaller version of as close to this as it was authentically possible to get, latest fashions withstanding. There was only enough room for a row of tables down each side of the room, no balcony and the piano took up a third of the stage.

On stage someone played piano and sang songs; inbetween spinning off jokes like a machine gun, more often than not at someone in the audience’s expense.

Tables were crammed with people singing along and roaring with laughter.

It was electrifying. Seeming anything but a final dying ember from a bygone era; once vibrant all over London in the name of everyday entertainment eons before the likes of radio and TV came along.

It felt like I’d got there in a time machine instead of walking ten minutes from my front door.

At the time it was a bit of an oddity; today I feel privileged to have experienced something firsthand that felt culturally original, instead of being some contrived recreation.

It wasn’t around much longer to witness.

When I worked the market pubs that were once so full with lunchtime market-related trade they didn’t need to open at nights for a good ol’ Knees Up Mother Brown to still be raking it in, became desolate beyond a couple of people up at the bar or taking out the desperate times on one-armed-bandit fruit machines; the tunes and noises designed to entice that once would’ve been drowned-out by the raucous sound of South London laughter suddenly ringing loudly hollow.

But instead of the end of an era, it just seemed part and parcel of the economic times; it wasn’t the first time the market had had it rough and far from the roughest it’d had it.

A few years after working the market, I walked back in there looking forward to a fat slice of the authenticity on offer, only to find the place almost completely empty apart from five or six ‘chaps‘ drinking and smoking round a solitary pool table down by the now hidden-behind-a-curtain stage.

Like all only-ever-seen-packed-before spaces, it was hugely smaller than it’d previously seemed. The look in the eyes of those playing pool was close enough to be impossible to miss.

It’d become one of those places where unless you knew someone already there, everyone there would assume you to be plod so worthy of a good stabbing-up.

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Funnily enough, the types in question aren’t known for posing for photos while smoking and playing pool. Nonetheless, the Law of Blog demands a pic every now and then, so here’s one of Christmas Yoda instead.

The last thing to do in that situation is turn tail and leave. I stood with the person I’d gone with having a pint at the bar as pool balls clinked loud in a stony silence down by the stage; the players suddenly on edge and wary about anything we might’ve been there to hear them say.

To really bring home the point we weren’t filthy rozzers on the snoop, we had another round.

My friend, though, was from out of town; while not quite a bumpkin, they nonetheless didn’t have the first clue of the dynamic going down.

When they cheerily suggested adding coins to the side of the pool table, so signalling our joining the queue of those already waiting to take on whoever was winner of the previous game (as is the general etiquette for London pub pool tables), it was a quiet, yet resounding enough to be well-beyond any point of being questioned, NO they got in return.

A New Chapter in the Life of Chaplin?

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The one in the picture close up.

In the newer picture (link here to save loads of scrolling), the shop located front right corner is visible and likewise the blue circle with writing on it midway up its front (blue plaques are found all over London, marking places with links to the famous).

It used to be a shoe shop. I once bought a pair of trainers (sneakers) there. It turned out I’d somehow managed to buy a pair way too small and had to take them back; something that involved having to talk to the manager in his office before an exchange would be made.

This meant I had to go upstairs into what once would’ve been a bedroom and so possibly the very room where the young Charlie was born – imagine that!

But as discovered when looking for images of and links to the market, there’s controversy regarding Chaplin’s origins. He had no birth certificate, so things like his referring to East Street as Lane in his autobiography are often considered evidence he did in fact come from that neck of the woods.

I was born in the London Borough of Merton and didn’t start spending any time around East Street until my dad got a flat there circa 1979. At first it was just weekends, moving there permanently in 1984. Still, I always knew the place as East Lane despite its name being changed to Street some considerable years before.

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Charlie Chaplin; apparently we have more in common than a faked birthplace and a too small pair of shoes.

While writing about markets in relation to my fear of free, an old mate from school just happened to post on Facebook some excerpts from a book he was just about to publish (now published) about the history of his extended family.

Reading through, I came across a section talking about how after Chaplin’s death his daughter Victoria found a secret letter in his desk:

In it, he is accused of lying due to autobiographical claims of being born in London; Chaplin’s father had been a member of The Pat Collins’ circus troop and Charlie born in Queen Henty’s caravan on the Black Patch (the book can be checked out here).

It appears Chaplin reinvented his origins to avoid an attachment to gypsies and the associated stigma.

Something I can loosely relate to: once living in London having emigrated from Eire, nearly all my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, including him (he was youngest of eleven siblings) changed at least their forenames so as to avoid sounding too Irish.

Being robbed of my Chaplin-related shoe glory works out surprisingly well: shoeless, I’m left with just socks, which is exactly where I need to be – back on Track with Mr T in Part IV!

Previously in this series:

Thanks for reading. 🙂

N. P. Ryan.

CIRCLEDuckBlack

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