It’s raining on the Isle of Dogs, just another attempt in vain to try and soothe this smouldering mass of heat into clean remission, as ocean going liners in their tens and twenties set forth to sell a dying empire to far flung nations sick to death of Britannia. And Queenie opens up.
“I’m only alive when I’m singing,” Queenie says, “when I’m not singing, I’m not alive, but when I’m singing for a certain time or a certain person and it comes off, then it’s such a wonderful feeling.”
The Iron Bridge Tavern on Great East India Road, Poplar, is all hers now, but she had to toil to get it. From six until two in the morning, all day amid the heat and smoke of the dirty island and half the night singing amid the cigarette smoke, to the swaying patrons of South London’s public houses. From The Resolute to The Royal Charlie, for Mann, Crossman and Paulin, the whole nine yards, belting them out and knocking them back. Worth it though, “It’s a great old pub this is, wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Now they come from all over to watch her and to sing with her. Girls with Dusty Springfield beehives and Jackie O bobs, sheepishly approach the bar. Shyness masking lustre. It’s all in the eyes. They always ask for the same thing, “a sweet martini and a gin and bitter lemon, please,” or “a gin and bitter lemon and a sweet martini, please,” depending on who comes first.
Queenie’s ensemble of blues players serenade the punters until closing time. George, a trumpet player, is a sooth sayer cast in brass. He is an unquestionable authority on the sounds of the human heart in strife while on her stage, a labourer in Poplar’s town gardens off it, trimming the hydrangea bushes under the gaze of the Virgin Mary, a statue basking in a reverence that would surely be short lived.
Slim is Queenie’s husband, they were practically born on the same street, went to the same school, their two lives have always been intertwined. He spends his mornings talking to toothless old acquaintances on the market, reduced to selling brillo pads from clapped-out barrows to make ends meet, reminiscing about the fallen robins and the fair old birds of their youth. When he’s not trying to unload scrap on W.J.Watt of course. Slim casts iron around that yard like a man half his age, but his heart is heavier than the bags under his eyes appear and a heart under pressure always tends to crack sooner than a heart on the prowl.
“We must go out on top honey, hold me tightly,” Queenie sings as a stranger treads softly down the cellar steps, arm in arm with Diana Dors. Somebody had to have her, she’s only human after all, but who would have thought it would have been him?
Shirley Harris, a bespectacled blonde, without the looks, sitting at the corner of the bar holds court with a gaggle of men. She reads aloud the memoirs of a travelling singer, her diary from a week on the road, “Saturday, had a quiet evening in with mother, talked about escapades with men, turns out she knows more than I do!” As Slim sneaks another cigarette behind the bar and the Jackie O bob returns to inquire after a “sweet martini and a gin and bitter lemon, please.”
“Not salacious Syd?” someone finally interjects, after a long pause.
Queenie stares upon this from her centre-stage microphone, upon this group who came to be with her, to escape a weekday life racked and pinioned to England’s dilapidated despair. She is South London’s suburban Billie Holiday and she is not a dying breed, she is very much alive and there is nothing in her blood stream that will lay down its resistance, if it is ever passed on to another generation. “I’m not the type of person who wants millions,” she says, “I’m quite content with what I’ve got really, think I’ve had the best in life anyway.”
She visits the cemetery every Tuesday afternoon, four bags of shopping in two hands, a scarf tied around her hair, resplendent in a kind of Barbara Windsor glamour. She places the shopping on the grass and kneels at a grave, no name, just a number, a stillborn son, the only one she ever held. Queenie never told anyone his name, she said she had never picked one out. Of course she had, like any mother expecting, but she decided to keep it between him and her, a secret between a mother and a son. Queenie still thinks of him often and sits with him every Tuesday to imagine a life well lived, not one frozen in formaldehyde primed, stalled on a cold, white, hospital table. “But I’m not afraid of Autumn and her sorrow,” she sings, “because I’ll remember April and you.” As the Dusty Springfield beehive weaves her way to the bar and asks for a “gin and bitter lemon and a sweet martini, please.”
Closing time. Everyone still has their misery, but it seems a little softer. Wishing everyone a good night, the last orders bell ringing, Queenie singles out a favourite from the crowd and shouts, “Come back soon! You’ve got such a lovely back!” Before running off the stage to a whiskey soda, a night’s work done, “I just love people,” she says, “people are life aren’t they?”
It’s raining on the Isle of Dogs, with its weather vanes of steel and iron jaws of welcome, it’s a granite lover suspended under a constant smokey sky, a furnace is its heartbeat and diesel is in its blood. Loving it won’t get you very far, but it will keep you alive, held in its iron caress, until you let go of course, or it let’s go of you.