Life & Culture

Talking to strangers: Harry from Hackney and 15 dog owners

Peter Rosengard's been on a family history quest



l I head across London on my red Vespa to Hackney to find the house my mother was born in 471 Kingsland Road, it said on her birth certificate.

Thirty minutes later my satnav announces, “You are at your destination.” I am in a deserted street with a 20 feet high wall on one side. A sign says, “Any person seen conveying items over the wall will be arrested”.For “items” read “prisoners” — my mother definitely wasn’t born in Pentonville Prison. If Moses had bought this satnav he would never have found the Red Sea, let alone crossed it.

Twenty five minutes later I get there; I ring the bell of 471 and a charming man called Harry comes to the door.

“Harry, my mother was born in this house on 21 June 1922,” I say.

“I’ve only lived here for 35 years,” he says.

He tells me all about the house and garden. After 30 minutes I say goodbye and tell my new friend Harry we must meet up for dinner soon.

Sunday lunch.

l “Both my parents lived to be 98,” I tell Cyril. But my sister says, “No! Dad was only 97!”

“OK, so he was 97 and 10 months. I’m rounding him up. Is that so terrible? Cyril, what do you think are the odds of anyone having both parents living to be 98?” I ask him.

He spends the next 20 minutes looking at his phone and writing down numbers on his napkin.

“Three thousand and seventy two to one,” he says.

Cyril is an actuary.


l The government simplifies Covid travel rules. No more lying flat on my back in the Heathrow gents trying to do a lateral flow test! Best of all, my daughter moved to NYC five weeks ago and I can now visit her. I immediately book three flights to JFK for November, December and January. I’ll turn up every month and surprise her! I love surprises, although I’m not 100 percent sure she does.

Wednesday morning. 9am

l There are dogs everywhere. I can’t walk five yards along my street without passing a dog on a lead. “Pandemic dog?” I ask a middle aged man with his labradoodle.

“Certainly not! I’ve had Randolph for years!”

I ask 15 more dog people and not one says, “How do you know!? Yes, I was a lonely person who needed a companion to cuddle during lockdown.”

My next survey will be on previously not religious Jewish guys in their early 30s who have suddenly started wearing a kippah. I have a theory it’s to cover their bald patch: “Prove you’ve got a full head of hair — take off your kippah!”

Thursday night

l As I get up to leave after dinner I look under the table in case I’ve dropped something. I’ve been doing this a lot recently: Isn’t that what old people do?

Friday morning

l I can’t find my phone. I finally remember I gave it to be charged up when I arrived for dinner last night.


l “Surprise me,” I say to the waiter. He comes back two minutes later.

“How do you like your steak?” he asks.

“I said surprise me!”

‘Just in case.” he says.

Guess what I got?

When I was a child, Mum never asked me what I wanted for dinner. She just put it down in front of me and I ate it. I might open a restaurant that only does one thing. I’ll call it ‘Like It or Lump It.’

Saturday 6:50 am

l Alarm rings.

I look at my bedside New Yorker daily cartoon calendar.

Today a cat is telling a puppy, “Be aloof. Put your head in the air and turn and stalk off when they come home. You’ll get more food.” That’s exactly what Xerxes the cat does every time I come in the door! I thought he just doesn’t like me. Now I know it’s a cat thing! It’s made my day and I haven’t even got out of bed yet.

I check my voicemail.

“Dad nobody leaves, voicemail these days,” my daughter told me before flying to NYC. “Please don’t leave me any.”

I’ve got five messages, all from Tuesday morning. Four long totally silent ones. On the fifth, after three minutes of silence I hear a loud ‘miaow’ and my voice saying “Xerxes, get up.”

I hadn’t been able to find my mobile — again — and had been calling it on my landline (remember them?). I’d gone from room to room until I finally heard it ringing. Xerxes was asleep on the sofa, on top of it. That’s all I ever use my landline for now: calling my mobile.

By the way: whatever happened heavy breathers? When did you last hear of one? My sister, who suffered from asthma in her late teens, once got an obscene call in the middle of an asthma attack. The caller said, “Wait a minute. Am I calling you or are you calling me?”

I look again at my mother’s birth certificate: Kingsland Road, number 437.

I’d gone to the wrong house.

Don’t tell Harry.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive