Dear Readers, when I was growing up in the East End of London, a special treat was a trip to Gamages Department Store. Going there wasn’t such a trek as a visit to the ‘real’ West End of Oxford Street, and somehow it always felt more homely and welcoming. There was lots to please small children too.
Firstly, there was the extensive model railway, with the trains going in and out of tunnels and the signals going on and off. From memory, every so often the lights would go off, and the whole railway was illuminated. I have always liked miniature things, and I loved the tiny trees and little people waiting on the platforms, some of them with their dogs and luggage and prams.
Then, there was the extensive toy department – I always loved all the soft toys, and the selection of red pandas and orang utans and furry bison here was unrivalled. Plus, there was a whole section devoted to magic tricks, which kept my little brother amused.
But best of all was the pet department. You could buy a twelve-inch crocodile, or an exotic-looking hamster, or an African grey parrot. But the main attraction was not for sale. This was Jackie, the Indian mynah bird, who had an extensive repertoire of whistles and phrases. I had a friend called Jackie who loved to visit because when the bird said ‘Hello, Jackie!’ she always thought he was talking to her. Jackie was a real East Ender – he said ‘Hello, Darlin’ with just the right degree of lubricity, and you could hear his laugh in Petticoat Lane market any day of the week. He would sometimes get into a row with the African Grey Parrot and the noise was excruciating – normally it would only calm down when grapes were offered by the Pet Department assistant to all the irritated parties.
I did wonder if Jackie, and other animals, were happy: my Dad once made the mistake of taking me to the Club Row pet market to see the animals and I was inconsolable because I couldn’t rescue all the puppies and kittens and caged birds. But Jackie seemed so upbeat, so willing to engage with all the visitors, that at least he never seemed bored, or depressed. I loved to go and see him, and the other animals, and in my childish innocence I figured that they would never sell one of their creatures to anyone who wasn’t perfectly equipped to give them the best possible life.
Mynah birds are members of the starling family, that group of extraordinary avian mimics, and Jackie’s species has the Latin name ‘religiosa’ because in Asia they are often taught to repeat prayers. Jackie was not a particularly reverent bird, as we’ve seen, but if there is a heaven for animals he surely deserves to be in it, when we consider how many people he charmed over the years, and how much happiness he brought to a wide selection of small children.
Gamages closed for good in 1972, when I was twelve years old. There is absolutely no sign of its existence, the whole site having been razed to the ground and this very uninspiring office building replacing it. London is constantly reinventing itself, not always for the better, but I still have my memories, and now they’re shared with you too. The last few years have taught me how memory can be ephemeral even in the living, and how things unshared can disappear like sea-mist. There is no better time to share your stories than now.