Authors: Alan Sugar
Tags: #Business & Economics, #Economic History
I can clearly remember the day I joined Joseph Priestley - 8 September 1958. It was the day after my brother Derek's wedding to Brenda Press. Obviously it had been a big day, as Jewish weddings are, and again I was a page boy, together with Adrian, my sister-in-law's brother. As you can imagine, the next morning I was tired. I'd been up quite late the night before and now the reality was hitting home - I was about to start at a new school. I was very nervous and dreaded the prospect of having to meet a whole new bunch of people. Thankfully, there were a few kids from my class at Northwold Road joining at the same time, so at least there would be some people I knew.
I remember my mum laying out the new school uniform for me and my arrival in the playground on the first day. I stood huddled together with my friends, observing the rather boisterous behaviour of the older pupils. Within minutes, I heard racial remarks about Jews.
'Hey, Charlie, tell that bloody Jew to get out my way - he ain't playing with us.'
'The fucking Yids are using the goalposts - tell 'em to piss off.'
While the comments weren't directed at me, it was still a total shock. It was the first time I'd heard the expression 'Yids' and I couldn't quite understand what was going on. When I went home that night, I described this to my mum and dad. I can't remember whether they gave me any good counselling
on the subject, but I
traumatised. For the first time ever, I realised that I was, apparently, different. How could that be? We'd never heard anything like this at Northwold Road Primary.
The guys with whom I'd joined Joseph Priestley weren't Jewish, but as time went on they started to recognise the fact that I
and regrettably some of them became racists. The point I am illustrating is that you could see how the innocent minds of kids coming from a school like Northwold Road were poisoned by others. One incident that sticks in my mind happened soon after I joined the new school. The Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fell in September and, excused by a letter from Mum and Dad, I was allowed to take two days off for Rosh Hashanah and a day off the following week for Yom Kippur. When I returned there was a completely different atmosphere. I used to sit with a variety of my old friends from Northwold Road, but when I went to take my place on this particular day, the two kids near me were cold and distant. My absence had highlighted to them that I was a Jew - a matter that had never come up before, perhaps because I spoke like any other Cockney kid from Clapton and didn't look typically Jewish, being fair-haired and fair-skinned. Or perhaps these two mates
know I was Jewish but had thought I was just like them anyway.
At first I couldn't work out what was going on. I'd speak to them and get simple 'yes' and 'no' answers, and at breaktime they distanced themselves from me. There was no sign of friendship any more. And then, one day, one of them said something like, 'Well, you Jews are all the same.' From that point on, we never spoke again and I was isolated as a 'different' person. It was quite amazing, considering that a month or so earlier we had been the best of pals.
You have to understand that back then we kids from Northwold School, of all religions and races, knew nothing about the Holocaust or Nazis. Obviously we all knew about the Second World War. We'd learned how great Winston Churchill was and how Britain had won the war, but that's all we were ever taught there. The non-Jewish kids at Northwold Road did not have the opportunity to understand what went on in the Holocaust or form opinions on it. Who knows, if they had been made aware of it, they might have agreed with the Nazis - I'm pretty sure some of the parents did. How else could some of the kids at the new school be racist? It
have come from the parents.
Not all the kids at school had racist tendencies. Obviously the Jewish kids found themselves engaging with each other, myself included, but it's true to say that some of my school pals were non-Jews. I just kept way from the racist lot.
At Woolmer House there were a few Jewish families, but the majority were non-Jewish, and the kids played together in the same way I'd experienced in Northwold Road. Next door to us on the top floor lived the Moores. Percy and Ivy Moore had eleven children and they were a real salt-of-the-earth English family. There was mutual respect between the Sugars and the Moores.
Life was hard in the late fifties - perhaps harder than I ever understood - but for some reason we had a telephone, which was deemed a luxury in those days. I suspect it was because my dad liked to place the odd bet with his bookmaker, though he kept this very close to his chest. He shouldn't really have been betting, considering how he complained about every single penny that had to be spent. In fact, the thought of being without money and not being able to put food on the table used to worry the hell out of him.
My father was also paranoid about running out of electricity. We'd feed the meter with shillings at the start of the week, but because the single-bar heater we had in the lounge consumed electricity at a rate of knots, the meter would sometimes run out by Thursday afternoon and there'd be no money to feed it. The Moores had the same problem. Often Ivy would pop in to borrow a shilling; sometimes Mum would borrow a shilling from her. The respective dads would come home with their pay-packets on Friday, so on Saturday morning the shillings would get thrown into the meter again. It was a crazy system, but it was also a way of saving, because every so often, when the bloke from the electric company came round to empty and read the meter, there would be excess money in the coin tray which he'd refund to Mum. It was a kind of windfall.
Ted, the Co-op milkman, would come round daily. This poor sod used to climb the stairs in our block and deliver milk to every flat. He'd knock on the door at the end of the week to be paid. You'd have to give him your Co-op number (ours was 85 4 139 - how's that for memory?) and he'd hand over a little receipt. You built up points and eventually you were able to redeem them for stuff in the Co-op shops.
Then there was the rent man, who would come round monthly and pick up four weeks' rent at 8s 6d (eight shillings and sixpence) per week - that's around 42p in today's money. The fact that the Sugars and the Moores made sure that the rent was always paid on time shows the kind of discipline and decency that existed in those days.
My dad, who was a tailor, installed a sewing machine in my brother's old bedroom upstairs and called it his 'home workshop'. He wasn't the best tailor in the world - his job (when he could get one) was in the main assembly
process of making ladies' coats. He was involved in things like putting in the padding on the shoulders and working on inner linings. I recall him going to evening classes to improve his tailoring and machinist skills, to try to command better pay in the garment factories, and he'd occasionally knock up coats for relatives and friends. My mum also took a job from time to time, as a felling hand in a clothing factory. In these places it was normal to see a group of women huddled together sewing the linings of coats.
It wasn't just Dad who sharpened his tailoring skills in his makeshift workshop. I used to watch him and over the years he taught me how to do various things, so I picked up a few skills myself. He showed me an ironing technique that would reinstate the creases in a pair of trousers and he always told me off for not lifting up my trouser legs a bit before I sat down, to avoid stretching the cloth at the knees.
Another area of expertise I acquired courtesy of Dad was being able to shorten a pair of trousers. I became a dab hand at what's known as cross-stitch. Later in life, I would buy a pair of trousers, bravely cut an inch or two off the legs, fold up the bottoms, execute my cross-stitching craft and press them into place. This ability is something which fascinates my wife Ann. I haven't done it for years, but she's always telling people how I can shorten trousers and even dresses. This skill was to play a part in a funny story you'll read about later.
I would also watch my mum cook. I was the talk of the flats when one day, around the age of eleven, for some mad reason, I decided I would make a ginger cake. I'd seen Mum make them many times and knew the ingredients off by heart. You can imagine my mum's surprise when she got home and I presented her with a still-warm cake.
'When did you make this?' she said.
'I've just taken it out of the oven.'
So far, so good. She had a smile on her face and she was nodding her head in happy surprise. Then suddenly it dawned on her that she didn't have any ginger or baking powder.
'How did you make it?' she asked.
I explained that Mrs Clark, a few doors away, had lent me some baking powder and that Mrs Cohen, a floor below, had lent me some ginger powder. And by the way, while I was at it, 'We've now run out of sugar, as I used the last lot.'
She went mad. 'You can't go asking people for things - tell me again who you asked.'
She ran off to Mrs Clark and Mrs Cohen to apologise, but came back with
a smile on her face. It seems that Clarkie and Mrs Cohen were killing themselves laughing at my sheer cheek. They told Mum I'd explained to them I was making a ginger cake as a surprise for her and they just wanted to know if the cake had come out okay. In fact, it was perfect. I took them some when it had cooled down (best eaten a day after cooking). The ginger cake became a historic story in the family and a favourite amongst the neighbours for years after.
I've often wondered where my entrepreneurial spirit came from. It certainly didn't come from my father. He had a skill - making clothes - but he never exploited it. Employment wasn't secure in those days and he was constantly in and out of work. It was normal to be told on Friday night, 'Don't bother to come in on Monday, as there's no work.'
Often the out-of-work tailors would congregate in a huddle outside Black Lion Yard in Whitechapel Road. Sometimes, during school holidays, I would join him, standing around while the men exchanged stories. The conversation usually revolved around which factories might be getting work that week.
You would have thought that, having acquired the skill to make clothes, my father would have realised that by turning out one or two coats a week and selling them, he could make more than the pittance he was earning. He could even have taken it a stage further by advertising the fact that he was available to make coats. But my father was a cautious person, always careful to ensure nothing went so badly wrong that he'd be without money. I don't know why he had this fear; maybe growing up without money had left a scar. My brother Derek once told me that, shortly after the war, the family had the opportunity of buying a house in Dagenham for what sounds a ridiculously small amount of money today - around PS400 - although in those days (1946-7) PS400 was a fortune. Dad didn't have the foresight to do it. The story goes that he also had the opportunity of taking a small shop with a workshop at the back where he could make and sell clothes, but again he didn't go for it.
My mother's side of the family was a slightly different story. Her brother, Uncle John, was the rich uncle - every family has one. My mum's maiden name was Apple, so you can imagine the jokes when an Apple married a Sugar. Uncle John was a real character. He had a store, Apple's Hardware, in Victoria. People used to go there just to see the price tickets on his wares, on which he'd write stupid little quips. For example, a price ticket on a broom would say, 'This broom was used by a very tall girl by the name of Jean, so it's very hygienic.' Pathetic, I know, but if you can imagine the forecourt of his
shop and the pavement lined with all these silly little jokes, you can see why he got himself quite a reputation. Apparently, he exploited the post-war boom and his hardware business enabled him to accumulate money and pick up some properties in the area.
Back at home, lack of money was always the main item on the agenda. We made the most of what we could afford, but we didn't have money for anything more than the basics one needed to live. Certainly there were no luxuries. This was brought into focus for me when I saw some of the more fortunate kids at school starting to amass possessions: a pair of football boots, a ball, a new Dinky toy car, roller skates. I couldn't have these things unless the family clubbed together for my birthday. My parents did their best, but not being able to have what I wanted made me determined to do something for myself - to be self-sufficient.
I had loads of enterprises on the go. Next to Woolmer House there was a rag-and-bone merchant who would go round collecting items such as old iron and other metal, clothing and material. He'd pay scrap value for the stuff. In his yard was a sign saying, 'Wool 5s per lb [five shillings per pound of weight], cotton 1s 6d per pound [one shilling and sixpence], brass and copper 2d per pound [tuppence].' Playing out in the street when I was eleven, I noticed people taking items in and getting money in exchange and I wondered if I could get hold of any stuff, so that I too could make some money. It was during one of my other ventures - car-cleaning - that I found something.
In the back streets of Clapton, some of the big Victorian houses were converted into small garment factories with rooms full of machinists. These factories would sub-contract for bigger manufacturers using 'outdoor workers' (the old name for sub-contractors). One day, while cleaning the factory boss's car, I saw in the front garden some open sacks of material trimmings, ready for the dustman to take away. When I went inside to collect my 1s 6d, I asked the boss what was in these sacks and he explained they were remnants of the material used to make the clothes. I asked him if I could take some and he said I could, but looked puzzled.