Writer and broadcaster Bibi Lynch has a special connection with Neal Street. Her mother lived there, at number 50, above Frank’s café, from age 6 until she was 17 and married Daddy Lynch. Bibi tells us what made living on 50 Neal Street so special.
Blimey. So many memories. Actual ‘I know this happened’ memories. Plus, family recollections that may or may not be true but are impressive if I so choose to believe them, and seem interesting because of them.
In the ‘fact’ corner we have me and my mum, her name also Bibi, sitting on the top deck of the 59 bus from Brixton, where we lived, travelling to Holborn with empty Tupperware boxes in our bags.
The boxes were for my grandad’s curry. My grandad was Bangladeshi and made the most delicious chicken curry. Creamy, a bit spicy, amazing enough to travel into town for and to risk the (rightful) wrath of fellow passengers for. Don’t stink out public transport with your food, kids. It’s rude. But soooo tasty.
There was also the dark, scary, freezing outside loo. It was there I perfected the two-second wee.
There was the fruit and veg market. Yep, I’m old enough to remember when the Apple Market sold actual apples. My uncle Royce and I would run around there like little Cockerney urchins. I don’t think we ever nicked the fruit, though. I’m a good girl, I am.
There was Frank’s below the flat. Italian, traditional, bustling, coffee- machine gurgling. And sweet Frank and his lovely daughter Mena. ‘You’re Bibi’s girl?’ And a double serving of custard would be mine.
And then there was that Royce again. Only three years older than me, Roycie – or Joyce – was like my big brother. My handsome, hilarious, sharp, silly brother who would make cake mixture for me and him to eat out of the bowl under Nan’s kitchen table. Those cakes were never baked.
He would put on little indoor-firework shows for me too. Again, under the table.
When Roycie died, I spoke of ‘under the table’ in his eulogy. Under the table was our happy place.
Royce was a brilliant actor, performing at The National and in the original casts of East is East and Bombay Dreams – and, fittingly, the hazier memories of 50 Neal Street are all showbiz-based.
Apparently, the actor Billie Whitelaw lived nearby and would excitedly ask my grandad, Join Ullah, deep
and spiritual questions: ‘John’, she’d say, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ My grandad, who worked in a not-terribly – mystical Bangladeshi restaurant, didn’t really know.
The Ullah children were many and beautiful. It’s said if the English National Opera wanted many and beautiful ‘exotic’ extras, my uncles, aunt and mum would appear on the London Coliseum stage. Ditto film sets. Rumour is they can be spotted in A Town Like Alice.
Another rumour was that Cat Stevens – then Steven Georgiou, now Yusuf Islam – fancied my mum and would
give her his lunch money. Ha! Bad Bibi. Apparently he was in a band with another of my uncles and they would rehearse in my Nan’s front room. But uncle and Steven had a (cat)fight – a broken nose for Georgiou – and the band ‘disbanded’. Six months later, Cat Stevens had his first hit with Matthew & Son.
And, word on the Ullah street is my uncle Farouk used to hang out with legendary record producer Tony Visconti on Neal Street. WHAT?!
I messaged Farouk in New Zealand. ‘Are you all liars?!’
Seems not. Farouk and Visconti were in a local Mushindo Karate club together.
Billie, Cat and Tony. Now there’s a sofa chat.
Farouk told me other stuff about 50 Neal Street. Stuff I didn’t know. There was no running hot water, but there were bed bugs, mice, rats and cockroaches. Oh.
Sort of regretting that curry now.
For updates on Bibi’s radio and writing work, follow her on Twitter @bibilynch and visit bibilynch.com.