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Original Motor Mouth
By Andrew Wilson
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2015 Bernie Fineman
All rights reserved.
ROSIE THE WELDER AND HARRY THE HUMAN CRANE
My grandparents were Dutch, Italian and Russian on my mother's side and Russian and Polish on my father's side. The reason I've got no family is because in Holland they refused to hang a picture of Hitler in the window, so all that side of the family was taken to concentration camps.
My mum's name was Rose van Boolan, she was born in Stoke Newington and grew up in the East End. When my mum left school, there were no jobs for women around – not traditional ones, anyway – so she started work in the Handley Page aircraft factory, and studied at night school and eventually became a Master Welder. So they called her Rosie the Welder, like 'Rosie the Riveter' in America: a cultural icon during World War Two – a cartoon picture of a strong woman with big biceps, used to recruit women to do munitions manufacturing work.
Like her American namesake, Mum was strong too. She welded gun turrets, floor sections, fuselage, all the strengthening parts of the aircraft. She would do machining, tapping, thread-chasing. She was brilliant – she taught me how to weld! Don't get me wrong, my mum was feminine and beautiful, but she was as strong as a fucking ox. Out of about twenty women in the factory, only two were engineers and that was my mum and her best friend from school, a girl called Sadie Packer. They were best friends all their lives, went to work at Handley Page together, became welders together, joined de Havilland together, did everything together. True best friends. And they were tough old birds, those two.
Rosie was an amazing woman. We never had nothing but no matter how old my clothes were, how patched up, they were always clean. I always remember my mum, with a galvanised bucket and a scrubbing brush and lumps of Wright's Coal Tar Soap, cleaning our clothes. And when I was really little, my joy was once she'd finished washing I got to operate the mangle, and I used to adjust the settings for thicker clothes or thinner clothes. If you folded it right and put it through on the proper setting the washing used to come out almost dry and in the proper shape, amazing! And the smell of that Coal Tar soap, ah, it was beautiful, enough to give me a fucking hard-on even now!
Mum was a brilliant driver, only ever had two lessons in her whole life! Had two when she was nineteen, decided she'd got the hang of it and didn't bother having any more. Drove her whole life but never passed her test, never had a licence, never had any insurance. Didn't care. One day she's heading off to Southend to see a friend, sees blue flashing lights of a police car in her mirror. Mum didn't bottle it, just pulled over and waved them through. I think they took one look at her and thought better of it. Had the cheek of the devil, my mum.
She had a sister called Julie who never married, and looked after my Gran Becky all her life because she wasn't a well woman. But Julie was a big girl, a real bella busta as I call it. My dad used to say she was so tough she could crack walnuts with the cheeks of her arse! For years we tried to set her up with my dad's brother, Simon, because he never married either, but no, they were just good friends.
My mum's dad, Benjamin van Boolan, was a real wheeler dealer – buy a bit of this, sell a bit of that. The ring on the little finger of my right hand was his. He must've had skinnier fingers than me because I can't take it off! To start with I put cardboard down inside it to keep it on, but as I've got older my fingers have got fatter and now you'd have to break my finger to get it off. But don't even try it, sunshine! I've had it since I was ten years of age and it's never been off my finger. Except for once ...
Mum and Dad were both strong characters but they had an old-fashioned marriage, they loved each other and I hardly ever heard them have an argument. Never saw them go anywhere without being hand-in-hand. And that's where the trouble started once. I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, something like that, and I'm starting to earn good money. I'm doing a lot of private work, I'm doing work for the Krays. I was earning a week's money on just one job.
My mum had never been abroad and I thought wouldn't it be nice to send them away on holiday. She loved anything Italian, maybe it was in her blood, but every time some Italian opera came on the radio she would melt. So I thought I would send them on holiday to Italy. I saved and saved and saved for a year, then when it was coming up to their anniversary I went into a travel agent's with pockets full of money – pound notes, loose change, everything I'd saved. They looked at me like I'd mugged an old granny of her pension money or something! I booked Mum and Dad Alitalia flights going to Rimini: beautiful hotel, sea view, the whole lot. I was so excited to tell them I couldn't hold it back, so one Sunday we're having lunch and I say to my mum, 'Wouldn't you like to go abroad sometime?'
'No,' she said, 'I can't be doing with all that foreign food.'
'But you love Italian food,' I said.
'Ah, but Italy isn't abroad.'
WHAT?! I thought.
'I don't think I'll ever be going there,' she said.
So I went up to my bedroom and in those days you didn't just get tickets, you had a whole fucking folder of stuff telling you everything! So I got the folder and I put it down in front of her and she cried her bloody eyes out. Brings a tear to my eye even now thinking about it.
Course, they've never been away before and when the time comes I'm worried about them. They had an early flight and were meant to land at 10 am. Come two in the afternoon I've still not heard nothing. Half three, four o'clock goes by. It's a Saturday so I'm at home and all of a sudden the phone rings. 'Hello son,' says the caller, 'it's Dad.'
'Hello Dad, how is it?'
'It's amazing, absolutely beautiful. But we've got a problem.'
'What? What's the problem?'
'Your mum's in jail.'
Oh God! Now my mind is racing! What has my mum done to get herself banged up? Well, unfortunately for them, the Italians have a habit of pinching ladies' bums. Now my mum and dad always held hands, so she didn't take kindly to some bloke pinching her arse, knowing full well she was with a guy already. Before my dad knew what had happened she'd turned round and taken a swing at him – broken his nose! The policeman across the street saw it and took her away.
My dad, being a wheeler dealer, spoke to the police sergeant and asked, 'How much is it going to cost me to get her out?' So I've got to jump on a bus, late Saturday afternoon, with an hour to get to Tottenham Court Road before the Western Union shuts. Ten minutes to, I fly in and explain the situation. But I haven't got enough money. I have £52 in my account, and with the Western Union cut it comes to £55. I'm begging and begging but they can't do anything. So what do I do? I squeeze my ring off and give it to the bloke. Monday morning I've managed to get the rest of the money, so I go in and buy my ring back. Saved my fucking life that ring did.
My father, Harry, was born in Shacklewell Lane, and then when he married my mum they moved into the Samuel Lewis Trust flats in British Street in Bow, so you could say I'm a proper East Ender. My dad was in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, the REME. He was a proper engineer. During the war he was in Kenya and learnt to speak Swahili! You can imagine how that went down in the East End! I can just about command bleedin' English and he spoke bloody Swahili.
What with Mum being a welder, and Dad in the REME, they were introduced to each other through friends and immediately got on. At some time when Dad was home for a few days they got married and then he was off again. I was born in September 1945 so obviously they were celebrating over Christmas 1944! He only had half a little finger on one hand, 'cos of an accident. Where they loaded the Ack-ack guns, big heavy iron things, he had to close the gun's door. Well, one time he closed the door and left a bit of his finger in there. His exact words were, 'I hope the fucking Germans choke on it!'
He was an RSM, a Regimental Sergeant Major, a real hard bastard, I think he was sent over there to keep the troops in line! He was a career soldier, and joined the REME from school, but the pay wasn't great and he'd be laid off for two or three months at a time, so he would take on other jobs as well. He learnt carpentry, he was a brilliant carpenter. He used to craft little wooden toys for me for Christmas because we never had any money for real toys.
Christmas we'd get an apple, an orange, some chocolate coins, my dad's wooden toy and maybe something like a steel comb. For a time he was a bargee; you know, one of the guys who used to move barges on the docks with massive poles. As stuff came into the docks it was his job, with these massive long poles, to push the barges into places where they could park, which required raw strength. He was a real tough old boy.
When I was younger I used to do private work out of hours for extra money, so I rented a little lock-up garage in Hackney. I had a job one day to do a clutch on an old Vauxhall Viva, and in that old thing you had to take the whole bloody engine out to do the clutch. Should be a two-man job but I didn't care, had a little haltrac hoist (a block-and-tackle type of device for winching up engines out of a car) with a rope that I attached to one of the rafters, tied the end to the engine and lifted it out – Bob's your uncle, Charlie's your aunt, sorted the clutch and it's all done and dusted and ready to go.
So I go to let the engine down and the fucking rope snaps, and the engine drops with such force it wedges, fan-first, into the engine compartment! I'm huffing and puffing and trying with all my might to get it out. I'm straining so hard I nearly do a number-two in my pants but it ain't budging a millimetre. So, tail between my legs, I call my dad. Harry comes down and I show him what I've done.
'You idiot!' he tells me, which doesn't help a lot.
I can't budge it, not by getting a jack underneath it or anything like that. My dad, the Human Crane, stands with both feet on the front wings of the car and pulls it out. With his bare hands! He then ties a spanner to the top of the engine and, one-handed, lifts it up and over and into the engine compartment and holds it there while I bolt it up to the clutch housing. Who needs a fucking crane with Harry Fineman around? I can just about lift an engine with two hands, but I've never before or since seen someone lift a dead weight like that with just one, let alone hold it there for more than a second.
Working on cars runs in my family. Harry's brother, my uncle Simey, Simon Fineman, was Montgomery's personal mechanic. He had that job throughout the war and for that he won the British Empire Medal. He was a mechanic all his life. He told me when I was thirteen or fourteen: 'Learn your craft properly, don't be a cocky little bastard.' I always asked him why he wouldn't teach me but he always said: 'No, same as I'd never teach you to drive, go under a qualified mechanic and let him teach you.' But when I used to do my extra jobs at the weekend when I was sixteen or seventeen and the garage was shut I used to call him in to help. He was the most incredible mechanic, he really was.
After the war my dad and Simey both left the army about the same time, so they set up a little stall in British Street to make some money. It's heartbreaking to remember this. They used to buy job lots of odd shoes – you know, pairs of two left or two rights. And they used to wear these shoes to 'wear them in', so as to try and make one a 'left' and one a 'right'. Dad would do one set of pairs and Simey the other, so my dad's left foot was totally destroyed because it was cramped by wearing right shoes on it so much. And that's what they did to earn extra money. God, when I think back to the things they did, it's like a different world.
Running up to Christmas one year, money was negligible, and where we lived the building looked a bit like a fifty-pence piece: the blocks of flats were aligned so that there was a pentagon in the middle, though we called it 'the square', of course. And they used to get the toughest guys from each block of flats together for fights, and of course people would gamble on the outcome.
In these fights, the wives would come down into the square with a sponge and an old galvanised bucket with water in it. They were like the 'corner team' for their husbands. I think I was about five or six, and I remember I'm looking down from the window and we're on the sixth floor. I was in bed by then, this was about 7 or 8 pm at night, and I'd hear the front door close and I'd know where they were going. So I'd jump out of bed, run into my parents' room, jump on the bed and pull back the blinds.
I've never forgotten it to this day, looking down and seeing my dad in a string vest, braces on top. My mum was there in a pinafore, hair in rollers, carrying a bucket behind my dad. My dad walked up, there must've been a hundred, a hundred-and-fifty people there, and he walks through them into the centre. There was this other big guy. He and my dad shook hands and they pulled their braces down. I'll never forget my mum's face, amazed at the adherence to the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Then all I heard was BANG and the other guy was down. Didn't last even three seconds: one punch and Dad had broken his opponent's jaw. And I knew that the next morning my mum would be up at four o'clock to go to the market to buy a freshly killed chicken. We'd be eating chicken tomorrow night, and probably for the next four days after than an' all!
Dad saved and saved and saved, and eventually bought his first second-hand car, an old Austin Cambridge. In the summer he used to take me and Mum, along with Julie, to Southend for a day at the seaside. A day out then was something to treasure. Mum would make egg-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, homemade pork pies (a good Jewish family!) – the works. Dad was never a fast driver, always careful and steady. If it was a thirty mile-an-hour limit he would do twenty-eight.
So we're travelling along the A127 to Southend one day and out of nowhere one of the early MGA convertibles comes right up our arse, then when he gets the chance he nips right in front of us and gives my dad the V-sign.
We go God knows how many miles out of our way following this car until it comes to a set of lights. I'm about six or seven years old and sat in the back quietly watching this. My dad calmly and silently takes off his glasses, then steps out of the car. Goes over to the MG driver and says, 'Which one of you gave me the V-sign?'
The driver puts up his hand and quick as a flash my dad's grabbed it, got his two fingers and snapped them apart. You could hear them snap like twigs, then there was this bloodcurdling scream. My dad then calmly got back in our car, put his glasses back on and drove off. Nobody has ever said a word about it to this day.
My dad loved that car. It might have been a heap of shit, but it was his pride and joy. One day the brakes failed and he went into a low-loader trailer. The car had no crumple zone like today's vehicles, and the engine went into the passenger seat, just missing his legs, and apparently the trailer, having smashed right through the front of the car, was resting on his chest.
Someone with a smaller frame would've died, but Dad had a sixty-inch chest, all muscle, so he was able to lever the trailer bed upwards so it didn't compress his lungs. My mum never had such a fright as when she got the call from the police to say Dad had been involved in a serious accident. She flew up to the hospital. Next morning she woke up and her hair was white! She had jet-black hair, but by the end of that week her hair had gone completely white through the shock, and it stayed that way for the rest of her life. That's how much they loved each other.
My dad was fantastic. A man's man. Strict but loving. A brilliant father and a hard worker. He hardly drank, would have the odd whisky now and again but that was it. And he only raised his hand to me once. When I was growing up I was a tough little fucker and the one thing my father would never stand for was swearing in front of your mum. My dad used to hang around with some real hard men, not these plastic gangsters you get these days with guns, I'm talking about real hard men. But they never swore in front of my mum neither. They'd come round and they behaved like gentlemen.
I was sixteen or seventeen and I bought a few friends home one night for a cup of tea and a snack, whatever. I walk in the door with three of my mates, all Jack the Lad, and my dad is sat in his chair, with Mum in the kitchen. I say, 'Hello Mum, how you doin',' all that, and then I say, 'Come on Mum, put the kettle on.' She says she's been working all day, do it yourself. I say, 'Fuck's sake!' And we have a good laugh.
Excerpted from Bernie Fineman by Andrew Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Bernie Fineman. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: ROSIE THE WELDER AND HARRY THE HUMAN CRANE,
Chapter Two: GROWING UP,
Chapter Three: A YOUNG T. REX,
Chapter Four: SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS,
Chapter Five: EARLY DAYS IN THE GARAGE,
Chapter Six: THE BLIND BEGGAR,
Chapter Seven: THE LADIES IN MY LIFE,
Chapter Eight: GOING PLACES,
Chapter Nine: BERNIE'S NO-NONSENSE GUIDE TO BUYING A USED CAR,
Chapter Ten: BERNIE'S GUIDE TO CAR SCAMS,
Chapter Eleven: BANGLADESH,
Chapter Twelve: FUCK ME I'M FAMOUS!,
Chapter Thirteen: THE SAMARITANS,
Chapter Fourteen: GORDON RAMSAY, EAT YOUR HEART OUT!,
Chapter Fifteen: CLASSIC COCK-UPS,
Chapter Sixteen: BERNIE'S TIPS AND TRICKS,