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Two shrimps and a shilling

Alan Johnson goes back in time to a pie-and-mash shop

Alan Johnson | May/June 2015

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It was 1955. The short journey to Renee’s pie-and-mash shop from our house in Southam Street, west London, took us past other refreshment venues. On the corner where we turned into Golborne Road was the Earl of Warwick pub. During its strictly controlled opening hours, when the horses of local totters (the ubiquitous rag-and-bone men) would be left outside grazing from a nosebag, it provided a refuge for the workmen and out-of-work men of The Town, as we called our bit of north Kensington. The occasional woman gained entry, but children were confined to standing in the doorway to beckon their fathers home. “Dad,” they’d yell, “Mum says your dinner’s on the table now.”

In the dank, beery interior, men would buy packets of Smith’s potato crisps to munch with their pints of light and bitter, Guinness or mild. There was no other brand of crisps—just Smith’s. Local women could earn a few bob putting salt into small squares of blue waxed paper, twisted to make little bags, to go in each packet for optional seasoning. The only adults excluded from the many public houses across London W10 were the West Indians. Every pub had a saloon bar, a public bar and a colour bar.

The author, aged four, with his mother and big sister, Linda. He grew up to be Britain’s home secretary and a prize-winning memoirist

Just across the railway bridge, as you went in the direction of the Portobello Road, was The Bridge fish-and-chip shop, run by a Cypriot family who’d fled during the war for independence in the 1950s. My elder sister Linda, who acted as companion and supervisor on these trips, went to school with their eldest daughter and was full of news about someone called Archbishop Makarios. On the next corner was a shop selling nothing but faggots (rolls of fried chopped liver), pease pudding (split peas boiled and mashed with carrots and onions) and saveloys (smoked-pork sausages).

Although I was constantly hungry, I liked to think my tastes were more refined than my sister’s. She would eat anything, including the shrimps and winkles shovelled into brown paper bags by cloth-capped salesmen, who toured the streets every Sunday afternoon wheeling barrow-loads of the stuff. I claimed to have an aversion to fish, which prevented me from frequenting The Bridge. Actually it was an aversion to the bones that, in those days, came with all fish, including the battered variety.

Linda would eat eels, which may have been boneless but in every other respect were disgusting, and wolfed down pease pudding and saveloys, which I also refused. I was a pie-and-mash man, pure and simple; or, to be more precise, I was a Renee’s pie-and-mash man.

Nowhere could compete with the culinary cathedral that was Renee’s, with its tiled walls and marble tables. We’d be sent there with a shilling for two dinners whenever our free school meals were unavailable—dinner of course being the meal that all civilised people ate at midday. So during the school holidays and on the occasional Saturday, Renee would be our maître d’, and we her sixpenny guests.

We’d queue for our bowl of ambrosia, then squeeze into whatever space was available. On each table was a large, bevelled-glass bottle of vinegar next to a stubby salt-dispenser. A nondescript mound of mash was made glorious by the liquor poured over it. This clear, thickish sauce, flecked with parsley, was obtainable only at Renee’s, as was the pie.

Yes, it was a meat pie: in the same category as shop-bought Telfer’s pies, which came wrapped in cellophane, and Fray Bentos pies, which were tinned; but such was its superiority that comparing Renee’s pie to these others was like comparing “Romeo and Juliet” to a Mills & Boon. Baked to a secret recipe, its crust was dark brown and flaky. When it was crunched with the minced meat soaked in liquor, meat juices and vinegar, the effect was delicate yet robust, subtle yet brash. Twenty minutes later, we’d leave; not so much replete, as less hungry.

Renee is long gone, her shop now a Lebanese restaurant—a reflection of the ever-changing ethnic mix in this cosmopolitan slice of the capital. There are a few other pie-and-mash shops still dotted around London. Many of their aficionados drive in from towns such as Basingstoke and Aylesbury, where local families were sent as the slums were cleared. We too moved, to the Britwell estate in Slough; my sister went even farther. She has lived in Australia for over 30 years and swears she sometimes dreams of the dish that she has exiled herself from.

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