The 2020 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2021 programme mid August 2021
Pinter/Wesker Memories Walk
Pinter/Wesker Memories Walk - Introduction
Hackney was home to two of Britain’s greatest-ever dramatists – Harold Pinter (1930-2008) and Arnold Wesker (1932-2016).
They are united in being foremost members of the diverse group of playwrights – “Angry Young Men” - who emerged in the late 1950s to react (in very diverse ways) against stale middle class drawing room drama which formed the staple of British theatre.
They are united in becoming celebrated almost as “national treasures”. Pinter received the Nobel Prize in 2005 and Wesker was knighted in 2006.
And (although neither had a religious upbringing) they are united in their Hackney Jewish heritage and both were shaped by the informed questioning central to the working-class Jewish culture in which they were raised.
Current Government restrictions mean that the walk will now have to be self-guided. Detailed walk itineraries will be available for collection from 10.15 am on both Saturday and Sunday outside Hackney Central Station.
The walk will begin at Hackney Central Station and end at the junction of Upper Clapton Road and Cazenove Road.
There were huge differences between these two Hackney Boys. Pinter was concerned with the psychological and unstated; Wesker was engaged with political and social issues.
Pinter went to the famed Grocers School, the “Jewish Eton”. Wesker failed his 11+ and went to Upton House School.
Wesker did National Service. Pinter’s claim to be approved as a conscientious objector was turned down. He was fined but escaped prison.
Wesker was turned down for an LCC grant for RADA and worked in a series of manual jobs including farm labourer and pastrycook before finding his voice as a playwright. Pinter got the grant and went into acting.
Wesker was absorbed with questions of Jewish identity. Pinter, like Wesker, encountered anti-Semitism but side-stepped Jewish themes.
Wesker married a working class girl. Pinter married an actress, Vivienne Merchant and then, from 1974, the famed historian and daughter of a peer, Lady Antonia Fraser.
Pinter was famous and celebrated throughout his career. Wesker, after initial celebrity, fulminated in obscurity before being “rediscovered” towards the end of his life.
Pinter was once asked why, although he and Wesker both were Jewish and both lived in Clapton, how come their writing styles were so different? Pinter’s typically obscurereply was: ‘That's easy to explain, Wesker lived in Upper Clapton, I lived in Lower Clapton’.
This walk will not unlock these many themes but will give some context to the worlds they came from.
Site1: Hackney Central Station
Start from Hackney Central Station (the guided walk will then continue from St Augustine’s Tower across Mare Street opposite Marks and Spencer.
Transport links Overground to Hackney Central or Hackney Downs. Buses close by are 38, 55, 106, 253,254,276, 277, W15. (The 253 used to be the 653 trolleybus which turns up in the writings of both Pinter and Wesker.)
Come down the ramp if coming from the station, cross to Marks and Spencer, go right and cross Mare Street (now pedestrianised) to pass the old church Tower of St Augustine. Continue straight ahead across the churchyard and continue along the Georgian Sutton Place and stop just before you come to Urswick Road at the end of the street.10 minutes
SITE 2: Hackney City Academy: Formerly the site of Upton House School
Wesker described himself as “unschooled” having a war-disrupted primary education at various elementary schools in Whitechapel. Having failed his 11+ he attended Upton House, classed (before the Butler Education Act of 1944) as a “Central School”. This provided decent schooling and vocational training, and Wesker learned to be a very good typist. Like Pinter, Wesker had an excellent English teacher, Mr Walsh. In his engaging autobiography As much as I dare he describes narrowly avoiding being expelled following a battle of wills with a woman teacher he fancied,
The Victorian School attended by Wesker (originally an “industrial school” for truant boys) was replaced by a Brutalist building in the 1960s. Upton House finally closed and was replaced by the current City Academy in 2009. (Every secondary school in Hackney has new buildings.)
Return along Sutton Place, turn right along an alleyway just before you get to the churchyard and continue to the end – Lower Clapton Road - on the far side of the road about 60 yards down see Hackney Baths.20 Minutes
SITE 3: Hackney Baths
This is included in the tour because Wesker gives an excellent description of his weekly visit to Hackney Baths in As much as I dare. The Weskers were rehoused by the LCC in Weald Square Northwold Estate (which we will see later) in 1942 when Wesker was 12. The bath was in the kitchen under a lift up wooden panel but Wesker and his dad preferred to make a weekly trip to the schvitz at Hackney Baths where he would practically scald himself before being turned out when his time was up,
The route continues by crossing over from the alleyway into Clapton Square – once very run down but now very much gentrified. At the end turn left (the road becomes Clapton Place) and continue to the end and turn right into Clarence Road. Continue up Clarence Road with the 1930’s Pembury Estate on you left. Where the estate ends turn left into Downs Park Road. Cross Cricketfield Road and continue along till you reach No 100, Mossbourne Community Academy. 30 Minutes
SITE 4: Mossbourne Community Academy.100 Downs Park Road, E5 8JY.
– formerly Grocers and then Hackney Downs School
This award-winning Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners building is on the site of the former Grocers (later Hackney Downs) Secondary School. This was called the Jewish Eton (90% Jewish in the 1930s)because of the generations of the great and the good it schooled – High Court Judges, University Professors and Pinter the Nobel Laureate.
Another important Jewish actor and playwright, Steve Berkoff, attended Grocers a few years after Pinter.
Pinter was inspired by his English teacher, Joe Brealey, who liked to nurture and mentor precocious talent. Brealey also taught drama and Pinter took a starring role in the school production of Macbeth. There weren’t many books in the Pinter household and Brealey’s influence, freely acknowledged by Pinter, was immense.
On Brealey’s death in 1977 Pinter wrote the following elegy:
Dear Joe, I'd like to walk with you
From Clapton Pond to Stamford Hill
Through Manor House to Finsbury Park,
On the dead 653 trolleybus,
To Clapton Pond,
And walk across the shadows on to Hackney Downs, and stop by the old bandstand,
You tall in moonlight,
And the quickness in which it all happened,
And the quick shadow in which it persists.
You're gone. I'm at your side,
Walking with you from Clapton Pond to Finsbury Park, And on, and on.
The Victorian school attended by Pinter burned down in 1962, ironically probably because of dodgy electrics in lighting a school play. Hackney Downs went comprehensive in 1971 and in the 1980s catapulted into a disastrous failing school which was closed down. Mossbourne Academy (like City Academy) represented a fresh start for an unlamented school. It is famed for rigorous academic and disciplinary standards.
From Mossbourne School cross over Downs Park Road and take a diagonal right across Hackney Downs. You are heading for the far (north east) Corner of the Downs where you will come to Downs Road at its junction with Queenstown Road. Turn right down Downs Road, it merges into Cricketfield Road. You will come to traffic lights at Lower Clapton Road. Cross over Lower Clapton Road turn left and turn right (3rd turning) into Thistlewaite Road. Pinter’s childhood home at No 19 is marked by a blue plaque.45 Minutes
SITE 5: 19 Thistlethwaite Road, E5 0QG
Pinter grew up as an only child in Thistlewaite Road. He had a more settled childhood than Wesker whose family were somewhat peripatetic in the East End until they were rehoused in Clapton. Pinter’s father was a hardworking tailor with his own business. (Wesker and Berkoff’s families were also in the tailoring trade).
Pinter described himself as rather solitary in childhood who blossomed at Hackney Downs, particularly in the 6th form. He became an avid reader, with a close circle of friends and an eye for the girls. It was a feature of Wesker and Pinter’s childhood that they roamed far and wide around London on the buses, as well as taking youth hostel and camping holidays with friends, with none of the over protectiveness associated sometimes with modern families.
Pinter’s plays often reference London locations as in the following famous passage from The Caretaker
You've got a funny resemblance to a bloke I once knew in Shoreditch. Actually he lived in Aldgate... When I got to know him I found out he was brought up in Putney. That didn't make any difference to me. I know quite a few people who were born in Putney. The only trouble was, he wasn't born in Putney, he was only brought up in Putney. It turns out he was born on the Caledonian Road just before you get to the Nag's Head. His old mum was still living at the Angel. All the buses passed right by the door. She could get a 38, 581, 30 or a 38A, take her down the Essex Road to Dalston Junction in next to no time. Well, of course, if she got the 30 he'd take her up Upper Street way, round by Highbury Corner and down to St Paul's Church, but she'd get to Dalston Junction just the same in the end. I used to leave my bike in her garden...Dead spit of you he was. A bit bigger round the nose but there was nothing in it.
The walk returns to Lower Clapton Road but hard core Pinter pilgrims can take a detour by continuing to the end of Thistlewaite Road, and turning left into Corthwaite Road. Immediately opposite is the former site of the beautiful Clapton Synagogue. Pinter did not have a particularly Jewish upbringing but took his barmitzvah at the synagogue when he was 13.
Return to Lower Clapton Road and get a bus from the stop just oppostie going north– 253,254 – to Rossington Street stop. It is three stops – preceding stop is Clapton Station. (The distance is about ½mile and it can also be done as a walk.)60 Minutes
SITE 6: Northwold Estate
Walk on in the same direction as the bus. You will pass Klein’s supermarket which is an indication that we are entering the area of Upper Clapton and Stamford Hill which has a large Chassidic Jewish population. On the left is Woolmer House (of which more in a moment) Enter the estate after Woolmer House and Wesker’sflat, 12, Weald Square, stands opposite. There is no blue plaque but perhaps there should be.
Arnold enjoyed a room of his own for the first time at Weald Square after his mother had badgered the LCC for a council flat in Hackney (although turning down a number of previous offers!) Although the area had a large Jewish population (not at that time Chassidic) relatively few had council tenancies and Arnold encountered some anti-semtism.
Wesker’s play Chicken Soup With Barleyreflects the movement of the Wesker family from the East End and the second act is clearly set in Northwold Estate. Although there are parallels one should not read across the characters as equating with Wesker’s own family. The play tracks a family held together by a communist matriarch, Sarah, from 1936 – the time of the heroic resistance to Mosley’s Fascists -to 1956, the dawn of the affluent society and the shock of the Russian invasion to suppress the Hungarian Revolution. Sarah is the one who tenaciously keeps faith and berates her son:
All right! So I’m still a communist! Shoot me then. I’m a communist! I’ve always been one – since the time when all the world was a communist. You know that? When you were a baby and there was unemployment and everybody was thinking so – all the world was a communist. But it’s different now. Now the people have forgotten. I sometimes think they’re not worth fighting for because they forget soeasily. You give them a few shillings in the bank and they can buy a television so they think it’s all over, there’s nothing more to be got, they don’t have to think any more! Is that what you want? A world where people don’t think anymore? Is that what you want me to be satisfied with – a television set? Look at him! My son! He wants to die!
If Wesker was a Jewish boy with his head in the clouds, across the way in Woolmer House lived a boy, a few years younger, with his feet very much on the ground. (Lord) Alan Sugar grew up in Woolmer House before going on to fame and fortune. The two never met and Wesker says in his autobiography that when he tried to enlist Alan for some financial support, he never got a reply.
SITE 7: Cazenove Road
Go back out of the estate to Upper Clapton Road, turn left and come to the corner of Cazenove Road. This is diverse Hackney par excellence with several Orthodox Jewish Schools and the North London Muslim Centre. When Hackney Museum organised a project on Cazenove Road, Wesker generously provided this note of his memories of the place. It provides a nice cameo of his young life:
There were five reasons why Cazenove Road was important for me. One, my first love, Esther Lander, lived in Fountain Road which was off Cazenove Road. Two, my sister lived in Alkham Road also off Cazenove Road. Three, on the corner where Alkham Road met Cazenove Road was the meeting place of Habonim, a Jewish youth organisation to which I belonged. Four, I often walked to Northwold Road elementary school via Cazenove Road, and, last, I sometimes walked the length of Cazenove Road to shop for my mother in Stoke Newington High Street.
There were subsidiary pleasures. The Road was wide and tree-lined with Chestnut trees; in the autumn I loved shuffling my feet through masses of dead leaves looking for conkers which were there in abundance. In the apartment block (name forgotten) that was on the corner of Cazenove Road and Upper Clapton Road live other of my friends from Habonim, the Mond sisters. And a few streets along Upper Clapton Road going towards Stamford Hill (where there used to be two cinemas The Odeon and The Regent) was Forburg Road on the corner of which, in the basement, was the first flat in our married life.
Perhaps the most important location for me was the bus stop on the Upper Clapton Road close to Cazenove Road. In the early days it used to be the 653 trolley bus that stopped there; I don’t know the year London rid itself of that dangerous vehicle but the 253 red bus took over and its importance lay in it being the bus stop to the world. The 253 took us to Manor House underground from where we took tube trains to far away parts of London, to railway stations where we picked up trains for beautiful parts of Britain and foreign capitals.
The walk ends here – you can take the 253 or 254 onwards to Manor House or Finsbury Park or backwards to Hackney. Or like Wesker you can walk down Cazenove Road about 10 minutes to Stoke Newington High Street where there is Stoke Newington station and numerous bus connections.
TOTAL 80 MINUTES