At 83, former cleaner Flo is the undisputed clean queen of Hoxton. She has the kind of bubbling energy, clear skin and mischievous blue eyes that make you forget you’re talking to a woman born in 1936.
‘I’m a Jack Russell, born in a Rottweiler’s body, she confides with an ebullient smile, as she dashes about her pristine kitchen preparing tea. ‘Look at my kitchen, mint ain’t it! I’m a proper cockney see, I know how to keep a nice house and how to stand up for myself. You don’t want have a row with me.’ I don’t doubt it for a moment.
Flo’s immaculate flat is on the third floor of a block in a now gentrified part of Hoxton. It’s not hard to spot which is Flo’s flat. The corridor outside is festooned in bright pot plants, bought for her by her children and grandchildren, and the air has a slight tang of carbolic about it.
‘You have to look after your place, keep it nice,’ she insists. ‘Few people respect things or look after the communal spaces anymore.’ She shakes her head. ‘Look at this.’ And then she’s up and out, bounding along the communal corridor. ‘Some people leave their bikes locked to the railings here, so the old folk can’t get past,’ says Flo, seemingly forgetting she herself is 83. ‘So look I’ve left notes all over the wall.’ Then she wrenches open the communal rubbish chute. ‘Knew it,’ she sniffs, yanking out the bag that’s been dumped on the top and not pushed down the chute. ‘I know just who that is too. I’ll leave it on their doorstep shall I?’
Back inside in her flat, Flo finally sits down. ‘Where do you get your energy from?’ I ask. ‘Bacon and egg for breakfast, then I always have a nice bit of dinner, three veg with everything. Spag bol’s my favourite. I make sure I touch my toes every day,’ she says, leaping to her feet to show me. ‘But I think it’s keeping busy that keeps me young. I’m always out and about, or else I’m cleaning my flat, keeping the block nice, helping out next door or doing my garden.’ Flo’s only concession to being an octogenarian is that she no longer cleans in her high heels.
To Flo, keeping clean was a gesture of pride in the face of poverty. This lifelong tenacity was born in the hard streets of Hoxton, long before it was buried under a landslide of gentrification. ‘I was born down Lewins Court, where people lived collectively, not individually,’ she recalls, settling down to share her fascinating social history. It’s a history of craftiness, of ducking and diving and female endeavour.
‘Dad was a drinker so mum Dolly had to haggle and graft to put food on the table for me and my sisters. Mum was a machinist, and she’d get all the cabbage (left over material) and run up some beautiful clothes for us. ‘You could say it was a rough and ready childhood, I spent a lot of it running my dad’s suits down the pawn shop. Me and my sister Nelly used to answer the door to the rent man, and say, “Mum says to say she’s not in”. All the mums used to sit outside on their chairs, peeling their veg singing ‘fuck ‘’em all’ (The lyrics to George Formby’s Bless ‘Em All with a slight amendment) but I always felt loved. We didn’t have much but we were happy.
‘Even as a kid I was the guv’nor, starting all the games of tin can copper and knock down ginger. Nicking the empties from the back of the local pub, then taking them round the front to claim an extra thruppence. Growing up in Hoxton, you had to learn some crafty ways to survive.
‘I don’t remember being afraid of anyone or anything. Not even my dad. When he used to fall asleep drunk in his chair, I’d put curlers in his hair and make up on his face. ‘I don’t even remember being scared when the war started and the bombs started dropping. We used to shelter down the church crypt on Old Street. After one raid I remember finding a wooden leg, I brought it home to my mum as I remember thinking we could sell it. See what I mean, you have to live on your wits.
‘My sister Lily always used to behave a bit strangely, she’d have these funny turns. We didn’t know it until years later that she suffered with schizophrenia. Despite this, she was always tolerated and looked after down our court, everyone was kind and would bring her home when she had one of her turns.
‘Growing up, I developed even more of a thick skin. As a teenager I’d go to all the local youth clubs, cafes and dances. I met a young Barbara Windsor and we’d meet at this café, nice girl she was. I found a way to fiddle the slot machine and it started spewing out cash which I scooped up in my jumper. ‘You’re a nutcase, Flo,’ she laughed. She was always very bubbly and glamorous, I wasn’t surprised when I saw her on the telly years later. I don’t envy her lifestyle though. I’ve grafted for every penny and I’m proud of that. I started work at fourteen and over the years I’ve had hundreds of jobs, mainly charring, but also running stalls down Brick Lane, Roman Road, Romford and Dagenham Markets. I’d flog anything I could get my hands on from curtains to crockery, I was good at it too. All the old ladies loved me as I used to give them a special price.
‘I’ve done a lot of machining too, worked in a pepper factory. I’ve even cut hair down the bingo hall! Anything to earn a bob. Charring was always my favourite though. I used to clean all four floors of the London Electricity Board. Some of ’em used to dread me coming, I’d give ’em what for if they left their desk in a mess and covered in coffee cups. “Watch out, Flo’s coming” they’d joke.’
‘What do you like so much about cleaning?’ I ask. ‘I dunno, I just like seeing everything sparkling and nice. I’m all kippers and curtains me,’ she laughs. Behind the laughter I sense Flo’s desire to maintain order through keeping her home spotless and her family close. When the world around you is blown to bits and you live a hand-to-mouth existence, it’s no wonder you take pride in the sanctuary beyond your doorstep.
Young mum Flo…
‘Family are everything to me,’ she insists. ‘I’ve got a son, two daughters, and four grandkids and I see them every day.’
Flo’s lovely daughters Linda and Kelly are there while I interview their mum and the banter which flows between them reveal the depth of their love for one another. ‘Kelly’s taking me to see that Olly Moores tomorrow,’ Flo says. ‘Olly Murs, Mum,’ Kelly laughs. Flo’s spent a lifetime looking after her mentally ill sister and caring for her family, and she’s not about to stop now. ‘I’m always shopping for the elderly lady next door and doing her ironing. Then I go down the market and have a good haggle, I love it. I even have a haggle when I go down Sainsbury’s for my lottery ticket. Family are everything, my sister Nelly used to describe us as the ‘glue family’. Nelly’s gone now mind you, so I’m the only in-law/out-law left.’
Before I leave, Flo takes me upstairs to proudly show off her four poster bed and her machining room, complete with a vintage Jones sewing machine.
‘I’ve had that machine forty odd years, nothing wrong with it. This is my dead persons table,’ she says, indicating a table full of beautifully framed photos of people belonging to a by gone age. I think the key to Flo’s longevity is her enthusiasm to live for the day and seek out the pleasure in life.
‘Right,’ she announces. ‘I’ve got to get my skates on, some bits I wanna get down the market.’
I leave, but when I emerge onto the street, Flo’s hanging over the balcony, eyes sparkling with mischief. ‘Ta da babe, be lucky.’ I leave smiling because it’s impossible to do anything but when you’ve spent time in the company of irrepressible Flo, the clean queen of Hoxton. As Flo and her girls would say: ‘Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we’re here, we must dance.’