East India Arms public house,
Old Mr Lerner, and the ‘Branch Line’
on Fenchurch Street in 1946
In 1946, the London offices of Henry Hughes & Sons, makers of aeronautical and marine navigational and scientific instruments, were housed in two or three buildings on the south side of Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City of London, the then financial heart of the then British Empire.
The administrative offices of the company’s Overseas Department were situated on the three or four stories above a street-level Greek Restaurant. Just fifty yards from our office building, the sidewalk-pedestrian pavement widened out considerably and curved around the corner of a wonderful city pub named the East India Arms. This delightful, amply stocked, stand-up, old-time City pub, with its sawdust-strewn floor and fine ales, was always well-attended by impeccably shirted-and-tied city gents in their pinstriped trousers, bowler hats and dark jackets. Often among them would be merchant navy officers taking their master mariner ticket examinations at the nearby nautical academy. Though in civilian clothes, they were easily recognizable by their fine Board-of-Trade raincoats. The pub itself was not equipped with a gentlemen's’ toilet because just outside, set into the wide pedestrian paving was a well-maintained and groomed underground public municipal toilet.
Whenever the presence of a member of our company's’ staff was urgently required, but he was found to be absent from the office, the girl at the telephone switchboard was told to seek him through the ‘Branch Line’. This was a direct line to the East India Arms’ bar.
Following on from my young teenage years at the firm’s Huson Works factory in Barkingside during the early years of the war, 1940-43, as related in my book, Crumbs!, I still found myself designated to carry out strange little work-related assignments.
One pleasant task the Overseas Department management would give me every two or three weeks concerned Mr Lerner, an elderly White Russian who was employed as the firm’s translator. Proficient in many European languages (Spanish was especially important for our South American activities), plus Chinese and, naturally, Russian, and several other tongues, he worked alone in a dingy topmost garret of the Overseas Department’s offices above the Greek restaurant. Often enough I would go and visit him and listen to some of his tales of the 1917 revolution in Russia, his years of exile in China, and his eventual adventurous wartime journey into Britain.
Every now and then Mr Lerner would lay down his pen and halt his invaluable translation work and just sit brooding or threatening to resign and depart. He would be offered an increase in salary, a better office, or more time off —none of these things interested him.
So I would be called in by the firm’s top management. I would be given a generous handful of money and told to take old Mr Lerner out to lunch. Then I would climb the stairs, sit with him for a while, listen to a story or two, and show my genuine interest in the curios he had hidden amidst the ancient half-eaten sandwiches and pickles in his desk drawers. Then, around eleven o’clock I would casually mention that I was off to have lunch and did he feel like coming with me. Just as casually Mr Lerner would say, well yes, he would, and down the stairs we would tread to the street, slowly walk a couple of dozen paces along the sidewalk and enter the ‘branch line’, the East India Arms. And for an hour or two, or three, as I drank my beer Mr Lerner would order a touch of this and a touch of that and as he sipped away he would tell me exactly how that particular fortified drink or liqueur was made, where and why it was made and how it differed from country to country. Not only was Mr Lerner an amazing linguist he was a walking world encyclopaedia specializing in alcoholic delicacies.
His scathing remarks and diatribes against all political activities and prominent persons the world over would have earned him a fervid following if he had ever bothered to mount a soapbox on Tower Hill or Hyde Park Corner. Though I never learned anything really concrete of his background or experiences I sensed that they had been terribly horrific and extraordinary.
After these little noonday outings old Mr Lerner would seem to be content for another while. And on many other days, even when not on official entertainment duty, I would often climb the stairs to visit him of my own volition. On those trips I made sure to carry large rolls of plans or other things to show him that I was not headed for lunch and had just come up simply to chat or, more likely, listen awhile.