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Tale of a city: Sunday, bloody Sunday

Maurice Glasman recalls gloomy weekends in Palmers Green.

To understand the grief that hit our family on Sundays in 1970s suburbia requires a leap of imagination. First of all, the shops were closed. Everything was closed. And somewhere in our family was a despairing soul, which came out to play on a Sunday. I still approach Sundays as a stranger in a strange land. “What do you mean you haven’t done your homework? It’s 9pm at night. Why didn’t you tell me?” Those words were said to me as a child and I have said them to my children, always at the end of a miserable Sunday. I realised later that there was something especially grim about London on a Sunday, though I didn’t know that then. I took it all personally.

Thomas De Quincey, in his account of opium addiction, writes: “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London.” At least he was old enough to be on his own and to get hold of some mindaltering drugs. As a nine-year-old boy in Palm - ers Green, the best I could hope for was getting high on the quarter of Maynards wine gums my dad would get for me if he went to pay the paper bill in the morning.

London is a terrible place to be unhappy. Love is out there, friendship is out there, but you are nowhere. And that was my mum’s story on a Sunday. Despite being surrounded by her husband and children, she felt abandoned on a Sunday – restless, disappointed and unloved. That kind of feeling is contagious.

She was the eldest of five daughters born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. Her dad was an occasionally employed presser in a laundry. She had to leave school at 13 and go to work in a factory to feed the family. I sometimes have to remind myself that this was my mother and not my grandmother.

She loved her sisters, with whom she grew up in the same bedroom in a basement on Bethune Road in Stamford Hill. She did all the right things. She married my dad, who ran a toy business. They bought a semi-detached house in Walthamstow, where I was born, and then one in Palmers Green next to the North Circular. There were four of us and we had a bedroom each, a garage, a car, a back garden and a front garden. My dad loved her with all his heart but on a Sunday all that counted for nothing. The pattern was fixed. My elder sister would be doing her homework, my brother would be playing the piano and I would be sitting in the lounge with my dad, who would be doing the Observer magazine crossword. It was just nice to be with him but the storm clouds were gathering. We had London weather in our living room. My mother would come in and say, “I haven’t spoken to anyone all day,” and thus would begin the Sunday outing.

Sometimes, when things were really bad, Mum would decide that she wanted to go to Hampton Court but we would get lost before we got to the maze, or the engine would overheat, or my sister would be sick in the car. Another very bad idea was a “walk on Hampstead Heath” or a “visit to Kenwood”, where there was nowhere to park. It also involved driving down Bishops Avenue, which used to make all of us feel sick.

Family fortunes

Usually, though, it meant going back to Stamford Hill, back to her sisters and her mum in the council flat on Queen Elizabeth Walk. My grandmother lived there with my Auntie Sheila. My Auntie Betty was on the same road, my Auntie Jeanette was round the corner and my Auntie Marion would be there, too. My mum would start to talk, to “feel like my normal self again”, and for me it was all magic.

Stamford Hill was different. A Mr Pound lived in the flat below and he hated noise. Our visits were a nightmare for him and he used to bang on his ceiling with a broom handle to register his disapproval of the sound of our feet on the floor. We all used to freeze like it was the first herald of a pogrom but it wasn’t. We were in London, a city where they didn’t kill the Jews.

There was my Uncle Lawrence, who was a jazz drummer. He used to play records on the gramophone he’d bring round. I remember listening to “Topsy” by Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. American popular music was as alive as a visiting relative, part of the family. And there was my Uncle Shmuel, married to Betty, who had arrived as a child in London from Vienna. My mother told me his story while I was in the bath on a Sunday. I couldn’t have been more than seven.

“He kissed his parents in Vienna and they said they would see him soon but he never saw them again.” “What happened?” “The Nazis killed them.”

All the men smoked and all the children played and all the women talked. It was a dif - ferent world from the one we left behind in Palmers Green. When we drove home, the atmosphere would begin to thin. And when we passed through the North Circular barrier at Brownlow Road, it became difficult to breathe. The next day was almost upon us and I hadn’t done my homework.

That scene ended when my grandmother died, Margaret Thatcher was elected and I went off to university. But there was never any doubt where home was for me. As soon as I could, I moved “back” to Stamford Hill. My mum thought that I only did it to hurt her. Stamford Hill is now the home of the biggest Hasidic community in Europe. Those my mother called “normal Jewish people” continued their trek north and north-west, beyond the North Circular.

When I entered the House of Lords, I chose to become Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill to bring both sides of the story together. I think of how my mother would have taken the news that I was lord of the place where she grew up. I know it would be no substitute for getting in a car and going to see her sisters and their families in that room in Stamford Hill.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue