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Reflections of a Wandering Liquor Salesman, Part 2

I recall as a teenager, in late 1960’s Dad took me to see his old house in Clark Street, in London’s East  End. Unannounced, he rang the doorbell of his old home, telling the residents that he used to live there back in the 1930’s. They let us in to have a look around, and lifting an old mat, he showed me a long forgotten trap-door to an underground Cellar where a barrel each of red & white wine used to be kept. These apparently could make nearly all the wines of Europe , with the help of dozens of different body & neck labels !

In those days, and until the mid 1960’s, there was little concern for true denomination of origin, and wines were known as ‘generic’. This was a Wine-Trade trade code word for non-genuine. In the family Wine Shop, we used to sell a bottle of ‘generic’ Spanish Burgundy or Spanish Sauternes, for 6 shillings and 8 pence ( £0.36 in today’s coinage). No one ever questioned whether it was (or wasn’t) genuine Sauternes or Burgundy … the idea was simply that for 6/8 you got a bottle of drinkable medium-sweet red, or sweet white wine. It was only when Britain entered the Common Market,that the notion evolved of Sauternes actually coming from the Sauternes region in Bordeaux, or Champagne coming from the Champagne region in the eastern France.

I recall Harpers Trade Gazette reporting on the long and costly battle between Babycham, and the French Government. Prior to the trial, Babycham used the advertising slogan, ‘The genuine Champagne Perry’ . At the time, we thought the French were being very fussy, and didn’t fully appreciate the implications. Now we realise their genius at protecting the names of Champagne & Cognac, Burgundy & Bordeaux. Imagine if the British had been savvy enough to protect the category of Cheese called ‘Cheddar’, or the Japanese protect the rice wine, ‘Sake’, etc etc. As a young teenager, in the school holidays, and later, on Sunday mornings, I would stock the shelves in the family wine shops and one day, when it was particularly crowded, I began to help serve. Possibly there was some bye-law against 13 year olds serving in a Wine shop, but I didn’t know about that, and apparently neither did our shop manager, Jack Field.

I remember once going out at lunch-time with him to the local cafe in Stoke Newington High Street, and everyone called him Mr Sklar. This surprised me greatly, as my Dad was Mr Sklar, and I knew his name was Jack Field. He casually explained to me that as the Shop was called, “ Sklars of London’, the local East Enders called him Mr Sklar, and he just let them do that… it seemed to me he was giving himself a prestige he didn’t deserve and I told my parents, but they just laughed it off. There were such characters in the East End in those days … the jolly fat old lady who wore a hairnet & a long grey housecoat, and every day came into the shop for a flagon (a 2 pint bottle) of Mackeson, (a sweet stout) and a miniature of whisky . When I served her, she would always laugh and call me ‘a saucy kipper’ ! I never knew her name, nor she mine, but for years, I was her saucy kipper ! Then there was old ‘Teddy Pearce’ who ALWAYS wore a flat cap, and often brought me in a warm fried- egg sandwich, in a white paper bag which he called an ‘egg banjo’. I’ve only ever heard that term in some east-end cafes, and also from some ex-Indian RAF types.

The West Indians who were some of our best customers, would come into the shop and ask for ‘a bottle of you and me’. I soon learned that meant, ‘Black & White whisky’ … a hugely popular brand of whisky which disappeared from the market virtually overnight, when Retail Price Maintenance (RPM) legislation was enacted … but more about that next week…

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