Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 3 seconds
Everyone has a story. Gordon Warrell from Old Street talks about Islington’s council housing, Formula 1 racing and the shows Dame Vera Lynn (who will be 100 in March 2017) gave in Islington. Interview by Nicola Baird.
Gordon was born in St Barts Hospital in 1934. He spent the war years evacuated in a very rural part of the Cotswolds, Wootton-under-Edge, although he was back on 8 May 1945 to see the VE day parade going down City Road. “Growing up in the Gloucestershire countryside was idyllic. There were eggs and meat and no food rationing,” he says. Indeed his family didn’t come back to London permanently until the 1950s.
Gordon’s parents were one of the first in Islington to get a council home – first a flat in Middleton Street and then 50 years spent at Telfer House, Lever Street. “I was one of the first into that estate, around April 1964,” says Gordon. “Then two years ago, Islington Council wrote and said they were going to demolish it and rebuild it higher (it’s just two storeys), so I was moved out at Christmas 2014. The work has still not started! But I’m now in Radnor Street, also close to Old Street. When I was born there were no flats at all. It was all little Victorian houses. But I do remember the prefab houses in Central Street. Now Old Street is all towers. London is a concrete city – there’s building everywhere, and so few trees. Sometimes I walk along Highbury Corner, or Marylebone or Old Street and I can feel my chest tightening from the pollution.”
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Despite feeling the pollution Gordon helps campaign for the Labour Party around Bunhill Ward and goes on marches.
“I’m not a member, but I’ve always supported Labour,” he adds showing a newspaper cutting of local Labour councillors he’s met including Paul Smith, James Murray and Richard Watts. “I knew Chris Smith when he was an MP, a nice chap who is now Lord Smith of Finsbury, and he introduced me to his successor, Emily Thornberry, MP.”
Dame Vera Lynn
Gordon is a huge fan of Dame Vera Lynn and looking forward to her 100th birthday in March 2017. “I had a cousin, Rita, and her boyfriend Joey was a Prisoner of War in a Japanese camp [in Burma]. As the Forces Sweetheart Vera Lynn toured the Far East and eventually Joey got in touch with her and started sending her letters. He was released, and when he died in his 70s I took over from him. I’ve got three or four letters from Vera Lynn which I keep in a big tin,” says Gordon.
He was also able to see her sing at the Empire in Finsbury Park and in the Mildmay Club at Newington Green. “She’d sing and then get all the audience to sing! I like the White Cliffs of Dover, and all the famous ones.”
Gordon worked as a mechanic for former navigator/rear gunner and jazz musician turned London-based F1 racing driver, Les Leston. “After the war Les bought Formula 1 cars, 500cc, not too powerful, but he was racing against Sterling Moss and others. I’d help him get the cars ready for the Monte Carlo Rally. He had a garage at Maida Vale. Later he opened the Les Leston Motor Accessories shop – steering wheels, flame-proof overalls/gloves and seat covers – at Chancery Lane, Holborn. There were lots of famous people at the opening party including Ronnie Scott from the jazz club, TV presenter Sylvia Peters, and singers Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine.”
Gordon’s two passions – F1 cars and music – are still key parts of his retirement life. On the day of this interview he talks about watching Lewis Hamilton on the TV race in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and he is also a regular audience member at the free Friday concerts at St Luke’s, the church which his one time MP, Chris Smith helped secure funding for in order to give it a second life as the London Symphony Orchestra’s fabulous home.
- Dame Vera Lynn was born on 20 March 1917 at East Ham, Essex. She began public performances aged seven. During WW2 her songs, eg, We’ll Meet Again and A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square were hugely popular. In 2009 she became the oldest living artist to make it to Number 1 on the British charts – she was 92.
- Read this obituary of Len Leston (1920-2012)
- St Lukes – London Symphony Orchestra is at 161 Old Street, EC1
- St Lukes Community Centre is at 90 Central Street, EC1. It has meet ups, serves lunch daily and runs a Men’s Shed.
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.