Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
Tar Blocks, Ginger Beer and Other Childhood Enterprises
There are three reasons why you might never have got the opportunity to read this book. The first is that maybe I wasn't planned to be in this world, the second is that once I did arrive I was abandoned, and the third is that my mum - accidentally - nearly killed me! Being twelve years younger than my closest sibling twins, I often joke that I think (well, I'm sure) I was a 'mistake' - maybe the result of a good night out during the post-war euphoria.
In the late forties, it was normal for babies to be left outside shops in their prams while the mothers went inside. That in itself gives you a picture of what times were like back then - parents were not worried about weirdoes abducting babies. One day, my mum (who hadn't had a baby to think about for twelve years) went to Woolworths and parked me outside in my pram. She did her shopping, walked out and took the 106 bus from Stoke Newington back to Clapton. Only when she was halfway home did it dawn on her: 'I've left Alan outside Woolworths!'
Like all kids, I picked up various bugs and sniffles and occasionally had to be off school. My mum would tuck me up in her bed and nip down to the shops to buy me some comics - the
I'd finish reading them in half an hour and be bored stiff. On one particular day, when I was about ten, I got up, went into the kitchen and sat at the table, watching her cooking.
My mother had no sense of smell at all - an extraordinary phenomenon. I guess in those days medical science wasn't sufficiently advanced to know the reason or come up with a cure. Anyway, as I sat in the kitchen, I started drifting off. I folded my arms on the table and laid my head down, unable to keep awake. I was lucky that around midday my sister Daphne came home from work for lunch. Mum had left one of the gas rings on, and because she couldn't smell, she had no idea that the whole kitchen had filled with gas. It was so bad,
Daphne swears she could even smell the gas from outside the front door. You can imagine her horror when she saw me, head down on the table. She rushed to pick me up and took me out on to the balcony for some fresh air.
I sometimes wonder just how much gas was in the air that day. Mum was cooking on the other gas ring, which was lit, so I reckon it wouldn't have taken too long for the whole room to blow up. So there you have it. I may have entered the world by mistake, been abandoned and nearly killed, but I am here to tell my story.
This may have given you the wrong impression of my mum, Fay, who was the strong centre of the family. She was nearly forty when I was born on 24 March 1947 at Hackney Hospital and she had a difficult labour. To use her words, 'They were very worried about me - I was on the gates.' (On the gates of heaven, she meant.) In the end, I was born by Caesarean section, and was pulled out with a pair of tongs which grabbed me by my upper lip, according to Mum. Later in life, when I was at the swimming baths or at the seaside and came out of the water shivering with cold, two dark marks would appear on my upper lip. Mum would say, 'Look at Alan's upper lip. See those two blue marks? That's where they schlapped him out.' Is that an old wives' tale or what?!
My dad Nathan (Nat to everyone) was also nearly forty when I was born. My parents' relatively advanced age endorses my theory that I wasn't a planned arrival. I was always slightly embarrassed at school on parents' day because they looked much older than the other mums and dads - more like grandparents.
They were both born in the East End of London, my mum on 31 December 1907. She was one of twins, but sadly her twin sister died at birth. Mum was only fourteen when her mother died and, as the eldest of six children, she had the heavy task of running the home - cooking, cleaning and shopping for everyone. Her father, Aaron, had a horse and cart and his business was hauling stuff - I guess in modern-day terms he would be a man with a van. Mum told me one of the highlights in her life was a Sunday out on the horse and cart. They would set off from the East End and venture as far afield as Whipps Cross, where east London meets Essex. I never met my maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, but I was named after him, Alan being the anglicised version of the Hebrew name Aaron.
My dad was born on 3 August 1907, and was also one of six children. I'm told that his father, Simon, was a cobbler, and I think the whole family, as with so many other Jewish families, derived their income from the garment industry one way or another. Anyway, it's safe to say that my parents both
came from ordinary, low-income, working-class families. Certainly there was no inheritance coming my way.
Mum and Dad married on 1 March 1931 at Philpot Street Synagogue. My eldest sister, Shirley, was born on 10 January 1932, ten months after Mum and Dad got married - they didn't hang about. The twins, Daphne and Derek, were born on 28 July 1934. In terms of appearance, Derek and Shirley take after Dad, and Daphne and I take after Mum.
My mum was short, around 5 ft 3 in., and stocky - not fat but strongly built and fit. She got her exercise humping two full shopping bags on and off buses, walking the long distance from the bus stop to our block of flats and then climbing the three flights of stairs up to our flat - and that was when she was in her forties and fifties. It makes me laugh these days how most housewives have cars and, if they can afford it, go down to the gym to keep fit by walking on a treadmill! My build is just like hers and fortunately I am blessed with her fitness. Dad was also stockily built and quite short, around 5 ft 6 in. Although he wasn't fat, he would go up and down in weight and have to cut back on what he ate from time to time and I inherited that tendency too.
By the way, to correct some of the snipers in the media who have in the past used some colourful language to describe me, including 'the short, stocky, 5 ft 6 in. midget', my official height is 5 ft 8 in. and has been since I was sixteen.
My parents' first married home was at 11 Langdown Mansions, near Hessle Street Market in Stepney. They moved to 16 Woolmer House, Upper Clapton - in the borough of Hackney - on 7 June 1942. At that time, people were being moved out of Stepney and the docks area, as it was a prime target for German bombing.
Woolmer House, where I was brought up, was part of a very large council estate on the main Upper Clapton Road. Our block was three storeys high, with no lift, and was situated in a cluster of about three other blocks, with what I called a playground in the middle which had some poles for the housewives to hang out their washing. Opposite ours was another block, Weald Square, where the famous writer Arnold Wesker lived.
Compared to Langdown Mansions, Woolmer House was unashamed luxury. Our corner flat was on the top floor, and it was unusual because it had two levels. It had a toilet and separate bathroom, with a bath that doubled up as a table (you lifted up the hinged top when you wanted a bath), a kitchen, a lounge and one large bedroom on the first level, which was where Mum and Dad slept, while upstairs there were two more bedrooms for the kids.
I have no memories of my eldest sister Shirley when she lived at home,
but I'm told that because I had a mop of curly blond hair she would call me Mopsy! I was a page boy at her wedding when I was five, and a day or so before the event I got hold of a pair of scissors and cut all my curls off. Everyone, including Shirley, went bananas. Why did they let a five-year-old near a pair of scissors, you may ask.
I also have only a vague recollection of Daphne and Derek living at home. Derek had his own room after Shirley moved out and Daphne slept in the same room as me. She got married when I was nine and I was a page boy again. Derek did his National Service in Singapore, and when he came back he worked in a garment factory as a machinist. He was very bright and these days would have gone to university, but back then there was no chance my parents would have been able to support him. While working in the factory he studied for the Knowledge, to become a London taxi driver. I'd sometimes help him study - I'd call out, 'Balls Pond Road to Piccadilly Circus' and he'd have to tell me the route.
As we lived at the top of a block of flats, I never had the chance to play with other kids of my age when I was very young. All I knew were teenagers and adults. It's not so much that I lacked confidence, but it was a definite shock to the system when Mum dropped me off on my first day at Northwold Road Primary School, as I didn't like the idea of going to school and not being with her. At breaktime, when they let us out into the playground, I saw my chance, escaped through the open gate and ran all the way home, crying my eyes out, with a member of staff chasing after me. When I got there, I was greeted by Daphne, who asked, 'What are you doing?' She could see I was upset and then she spotted an out-of-breath teacher, puffing and panting behind me. Between them they calmed me down, and I went back to school like a good boy. I guess this nervousness at the first day of school is quite typical and it can't have taken me long to settle in, as the teachers were soon telling me to stop talking.
I got on like a house on fire with the other kids, who were all from the local area. There were quite a few Jewish kids, but the majority were non-Jewish. At that time, 1953-9, there were only a couple of Asian and black kids, who obviously stood out. I mention this because all of us kids were totally unaware of anything to do with race or religion. We behaved like all children do - joking, larking around, sometimes spiteful to each other, as you would expect. But one thing that was definitely, and pleasantly, missing was racism. It's wonderful to think back to, and I guess it's proof that it is adults who poison the minds of youngsters.
In my last year at Northwold Road Primary, when I was about eleven, we
had an 'open day'. The event took place in the grand hall where the whole school met for assembly each morning. The hall was decked out with pupils' schoolwork, displayed for visiting dignitaries, parents and headteachers of secondary schools.
Typically, a member of each class would take the visitors through his or her class's work. I was chosen by my teacher to talk to the parents of the kids from our class. It came naturally to me, explaining in detail the work on show. Knowing me, I imagine I was offering
detail and maybe repeating myself, especially if I thought the audience wasn't grasping what I was saying. I recall explaining to one parent why a conker tree is called a horse chestnut tree: if you break a leaf off a branch, at the base of its stem you'll see a series of dots in the shape of a horseshoe.
While I was talking, I could see people smiling and whispering to each other and I had no idea why. I know now they were smiling at this little kid who was nevertheless a good presenter. I must have been, because a couple of days later, to my surprise, the headmaster and headmistress, Mr Kershaw and Miss Chitty, came into my classroom and told my teacher, Mr Granger, that I was to come immediately to the assembly hall. I had been chosen to give a presentation on behalf of the whole school to an audience which included the Lord Mayor and an array of visiting secondary school headteachers (one of whom was Mr Harris, my future headmaster at Joseph Priestley Secondary School). Clearly I was already set on the path to what I've been doing for the rest of my life: selling, presenting and marketing.
I wasn't one of the brainy ones at school. In those days, in your final year at primary school, everyone would sit the Eleven Plus exam. If you passed, you would get a place at a grammar school, somewhere like the prestigious Grocers in Hackney Downs. I got a 'marginal pass' in my Eleven Plus, a polite way of saying, 'You failed, but only just.' However, it did allow me to apply for one of the limited number of places the grammar schools would give at their discretion, known as 'governors' places'. You went along for interviews to see whether you could project yourself in such a manner that they would overlook the marginal failure of the Eleven Plus.
I remember going on one such visit to a school in Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green. Throughout the thirty-minute ride on the 653 trolleybus, I was wondering whether I wanted to make this journey for the next five years of my life. With my motor-mouth, I passed the interview with flying colours and was offered a place at the school, but by a stroke of luck I never went there. The stroke of luck was down to my soon-to-be headmaster Mr Harris who, unbeknown to me, had been soliciting Mr Kershaw and Miss
Chitty to recommend to my mum and dad that I should attend
school, Joseph Priestley, in Morning Lane. It was soon going to merge with another school, Upton House, to form what was to be known as Brooke House School, a very advanced and modern comprehensive - one of the first, I believe, to come into existence. Saying yes was the best move my parents made. For me it was perfect, as Brooke House was within walking distance from our flat in Clapton.
That school was a fantastic establishment, with such diversity - I performed in Shakespearian plays
learned bricklaying! There were science laboratories and handicraft workshops, and we were taught plumbing and metalwork, draftsmanship and technical drawing, the arts, economics - basically everything you could think of. I learned how to build a brick wall, operate a lathe, produce hydrogen in a laboratory, do calculus and to this day I can recite act one, scene one of
Brooke House sent many pupils to universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. It was a school of great opportunity for those who wanted to learn, and offered far more than any grammar school could have.