By Sam Lomberg MBE
When my Father asked me what I would like to have as a present for my fourth birthday, without hesitating I replied “A dog please”. He thought for a moment, “Well we’ll see, but let’s keep it as a surprise for your Mum”. Of course, I understood later on why he didn’t say yes right away or want me to say anything to my Mother. Dad knew that Mum might not be too keen on the idea since a dog can be messy, needs looking after, and has to be exercised – which they couldn’t rely on me to do – and what happens when we go on holiday? However, Dad always wanted to please me – something he tried to do all his life, so on the Sunday morning prior to my birthday, Dad asked me whether I would like to take a bus ride with him.
“Where to?” I asked. He replied somewhat vaguely, “To the park or somewhere”. Mum was busy in the kitchen and I think she was pleased to see the back of us, so she didn’t say anything and off we went. The moment we were out of the house Dad turned to me with a big smile and said, “We’re off to Club Row”. I was in seventh heaven! Club Row used to be in the East End of London and was an enormous open-air market – a sort of flea market where you could buy almost anything under the sun. You had to be careful of course not to be cheated and it was a known fact that much of what was on sale had been stolen. They used to say they would steal the shirt off your back as you entered the market and then sell it to you on the way out.
We soon found the section where there were a number of ‘merchants’ selling all sorts of animals. As we passed one of them he held up a puppy, as if he sensed what we were looking for – “Luverly little dog, guv, just right for the boy – ‘ere ‘old it yerself sonny”. And before I knew it, there I was with a puppy in my hands. I’ll never forget that moment. A small, warm ball of fluff, all white except for a touch of brown on its head and a blue ribbon tied around its neck. It was just meant for me – I loved it right away. The blue ribbon was supposed to indicate it was a male. Dad took a look, but he didn’t know a thing about dogs. “Are you sure it’s not a bitch?” he asked “Of course not guv, that’s why he’s got a blue ribbon – look for yerself” He held the puppy up, Dad took another look, but obviously he wasn’t sure one way or the other.
“Is it a present for the boy?” He must have been a psychic – “Tell yer what guv, if it’s ‘is berfday, you can ‘ave it for a dollar”. How could he have known it was to be a birthday present? “Matter of fact” Dad said, “It is for his birthday”. “Well, what d’you know”. He stuffed a threepenny bit into my hand, “Get yersel’ some sweets sonny and have a ‘appy birthday”. What a salesman! I could see that Dad was still a bit hesitant, “I hope it’s a healthy dog” – “Its father was a champion, but like so many of us, he got mixed-up with the wrong woman”, the peddler answered with a smile – “It’ll be a real big dog, I promise you”. “That’s not so good, our house is not all that big” said Dad. “Well not that big, but he’ll be a good watchdog and good company for the lad”. Once again he hit the nail right on the head. Dad handed over five shillings and off we went. Both of us smiling and as happy as can be. The bus conductor (they were friendly in those days) remarked on how cute ‘she’ was. “It’s a he not a she” I told him. “They all are in Club Row,” he said. I didn’t understand what he meant. As we entered the house, I got the feeling Dad was a bit nervous of what Mum was going to say and he had good reason. Normally Mum was very quiet and didn’t like fights, but when I walked in first and showed her the puppy, she blew her top. Dad tried to placate her and sent me into another room – I heard Mum say “It can stay here for today, but you’ll have to get rid of it tomorrow”. I was desolate, but Dad came in and said “Don’t worry, tomorrow’s a long way off”. Tomorrow came and went. Bobbie stayed with us for fourteen years, during which time we soon discovered ‘he’ was a ‘she’! And Mum loved her very much. Whether or not Bobbie’s father was a champion was unimportant, because his daughter turned out to be a very cute, intelligent sort of Fox Terrier and although the peddler who sold her to us had no idea about this, she was in fact an excellent watchdog. She was small, but I doubt whether even the bravest of thieves would have been able to get past her. She also protected me. If she thought someone was going to hit me, she would be at them right away, snarling and biting their legs. In those days there used to be a newspaper man on the corner of Charlotte Street and Howland Street and each evening Bobbie would be sent to collect the Evening Standard. She would ‘march’ up to the newspaperman, wag her tail and take the paper carefully in her mouth and make for home. God help anyone who tried to stop her or take the paper out of her mouth.
Everybody in our neighbourhood knew Bobbie, so when she had puppies we had no difficulty in finding homes for them. She was very fussy about her food and would only drink tea with milk and sugar – and if the tea were not to her taste, she would sniff at it and leave it!! She always went down to the street when ‘nature called’ – there wasn’t much traffic in those days, so we weren’t worried and usually she came up again right away. Once, when she had puppies, she decided to give them a special treat. She came back from one of her outings with a large piece of roast chicken in her mouth, which she promptly served up to her babies. We never found out where or how she got the chicken and nobody complained about her having stolen it. Around the end of the twenties, many families including some of our close friends, started moving away from the West End, mostly northwest to places like Cricklewood, Hendon, Golders Green – or Hampstead if they had enough money. Despite the fact I was born in the West End, I was no ‘townie’. We didn’t get to the coast or out in the countryside very often, so I had to be content with long walks in nearby Regent’s Park. When I obtained my first ‘grown-up’ bike, I rode out into the countryside as often as possible. London was not so big at that time, so you didn’t have to go further than places like Epping Forest, Hadley Woods or Sarrat, to feel free of London and enjoy the fresh air. When I was a bit older, my friend David and I would often cycle to Southend or Brighton for the day or take a small tent and stay away for the weekend. Being on the coast was heaven and we would lie there daydreaming about the future. I promised myself that one-day I would live right by the sea.
One evening my Mother suddenly announced that we were going to move. I was jubilant, but not for long! Instead of moving out of town, as I had thought, we were just moving to a larger house in nearby Fitzroy Street. I told my parents that I considered it very unfair of them not to have said anything to me about the move until it was ‘fait accompli’ and that I simply couldn’t understand why they wanted to stay in the West End (We didn’t call it Fitzrovia in those days) instead of moving out of town like so many of our friends. But it was no use. Dad hated travelling to work and in any case he adored the cosmopolitan life of the West End. He loved his Sunday morning visits to the local French café where he could eat real French croissants and drink ‘real coffee’ – He would sit there for hours chatting away or watching or playing chess. Where else but in the West End could he go out for a salt beef sandwich or eat Italian food? Did Cricklewood or Hendon or any of the other places have restaurants like Bertorellis or Chez Antoine? Who needed the countryside when you could go to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and listen to all the people ‘sprouting away’? And what was better than listening to the brass bands playing in Regent’s Park or Hyde Park? – Not to forget the joy of strolling along Oxford Street or Regent Street, looking at shop windows. By this time Bobbie was an old lady – she could sense something was happening and sniffed suspiciously at the boxes, which the removal people had delivered.
On the Sunday morning prior to the move, I took Bobbie with me to take a look at our new home, which until then I had refused to visit. The moment we entered the house I knew I wouldn’t like living there – There was something about the place, I don’t know what, but I just didn’t like it. I looked at Bobbie and could see her tail was between her legs. She looked up at me and as if to show her disapproval, turned and went back to the front door. She obviously shared my views about the house. I told Mum and Dad how I felt, which led to a heated discussion with no result. That night I tucked Bobbie into her basket as usual – she gave me a goodnight ‘kiss’ which turned out to be a farewell one, because next morning we found her dead in her basket. I guess she had decided she didn’t want to move. Now maybe all this is pure coincidence – but it is possible Bobbie sensed the house was not a lucky one? Draw your own conclusion, but during one of the first air raids on London, the house suffered a direct hit.
About the author: Sam Lomberg, MBE: An Englishman in Denmark – interview for in70mm.com