One evening in the long hot summer of 1959, Alfred Gardner was walking home along Commercial Road. Noticing a woman who had collapsed, he ran to a phone box to call an ambulance only to be beaten to it by an older man. Chance encounters often spark friendships and this was to be the start of a camaraderie spanning thirty-seven years. They were an unlikely duo. Gardner, in his late teens, had never journeyed too far from Stepney. Upson, in his early thirties, had an extraordinary life already. For Gardner, the Second World War meant vague memories of returning from evacuation in Hartlepool in 1944 to a Stepney now under threat from Germany’s V1 and V2 rockets. But two years earlier, Upson had faced even greater dangers when the Japanese Air Force bombed Rangoon. The fifteen-year-old, who took up smoking and drinking to appear older, joined Burma’s tiny navy.
Nearly twenty years later, as they wander the streets, pubs and clubs of the East End, a fascinating cast of characters emerges. There are exotics such as Red Boots Danny, the reforming East End cleric Father Joe Williamson. At the Waterman’s Arms, they rub shoulders with celebrities, noticing Clint Eastwood enjoying a quiet drink at the bar. And Upson seems to know everyone. His friend watches amazed as men, women, old and young spring forward to shake his hand and greet him. Gardner, meanwhile, pushes himself into the background. With his photographic memory, he is the camera documenting their travels.
After Upson’s death in 1996, Gardner makes a sentimental journey through Wapping, the walk that the two friends often took. Starting at Tower Bridge, he strolls down St Katharine’s Way and on to Shadwell Park. Much of Wapping has changed out of recognition, the old wharfs replaced by new apartments and penthouses. He stops by Old Aberdeen Wharf to view Rotherhithe opposite. Just as Upson had predicted, the ships are gone, just a few rusty barges clank together...
Alfred Gardner grew up amongst the shattered remnants and rubble of London’s East End that had been hammered by the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Doodlebugs and V2 rockets throughout the Second World War. An area of abject poverty and crime such as Spitalfield’s Dorset Street, home of murderers, gangsters, gin-soaked women and the poorest of the poor, the working class faced surmountable odds to get by and feed their families. Gardner was one such working class hero. Working as a cutter and machinist from 1955-1999, he became an expert on the East End and a historian. In An East End Story, Gardner challenges E. R. Braithwaite’s version of events in To Sir with Love as he was a pupil at the time.
Dimensions: 234 x 156 mm
Illustrations: 50 b/w photographs