This article was written by John Wolff. All views and opinions are strictly his own.
Strolling through the City while trying to distract myself from what the eventual Brexit deal might look like, I found myself wandering up Cullum Street. Cullum Street is one of those typical short winding City streets which connects Fenchurch Street to Lime Street. Back in the nineteen fifties and sixties there was a popular sandwich bar there called Allmans.
If you wanted a quick sandwich lunch in those days the only places were Lyons Corner Houses or pubs, and the quality of sandwiches was pretty poor. This was before the arrival of Pret à Manger and others who have raised the standard considerably. The one exception was Allmans.
It was presided over by Gerry Allman, a very friendly and jovial character, and you could buy sandwiches with generous portions and a great variety of fillings.
By the door there was a sort of sentry box made of mahogany with glass windows. Therein sat a pleasant lady who handled all the money. We never knew her name. She was simply known as ‘Cash’. Gerry stood a few yards away behind a long counter which ran down one side of the shop, while a rather unhappy looking assistant worked towards the other end.
As you walked in Gerry would greet everyone with a cheery ”Good morning sir. How are you, sir? What are you going to have today, sir? Very good to see you sir”, thereby grabbing most of the customers for himself as they came in, which is why his assistant always looked rather glum.
You would shout out your order and with a great whirr of knives and in next to no time your sandwich would be handed over. Gerry was very dexterous and never seemed to cut himself. There was a sort of short-hand for what you might order. For example, if you ordered a cream and ginny, it meant cream cheese and ginger. Egg and ancho was hard boiled egg and anchovies. A smokey in brown with a squeeze and a dash was smoked salmon in brown bread with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of red pepper.
All the time while preparing the sandwiches Gerry kept up his friendly patter greeting people as they came in.
When you finished you asked him for a bill. He always remembered what you had had although there might be 15 or 20 other people there.
He scribbled a price on a piece of paper which you handed to ‘Cash’ at the door.The price for two rounds was about three old shillings which was convenient as it equated to the value of one luncheon voucher which most firms gave out in those days.
Then came the important bit. Gerry liked to be tipped and had a good memory for those who tipped him and those who did not. Three old pence was the going rate. You would shout out "Gerry” and throw him a threepenny bit coin from the door over the heads of the other customers. If you were in a playful mood you might throw him three separate one penny coins. He always caught them, usually with one hand while doing something like pouring vinegar on some cod’s roe with the other.
If there was a bit of a party atmosphere, such as at Christmas time, you might have a joke by throwing him six halfpenny coins. I never saw him catch six but he often managed four or five with a big grin on his face and applying English mustard to a sausage sandwich at the same time.
The important thing was if you were a regular tipper Gerry would make sure you jumped the queue. It was always a bit of fun to walk in with a crowd of people in front of you, to shout out your order from the door, and then to watch the faces of the other customers having to hand you over your sandwiches before they got theirs.
Sadly it came to an end when buildings were redeveloped on that side of Cullum Street. Gerry was part of a collection of salt of the earth type City workers one got to know, such as newspaper vendors, waitresses, barmen, underground station ticket collectors, who made the City a more enjoyable and human place in which to work.
Further West in Queen Victoria Street was another City institution, founded in 1830, and still going today: Sweetings Fish and Oyster Restaurant. Sweetings is to fish rather what the George and Vulture and Simpsons off Cornhill are to meat. No booking, lunch only, very English food. You sit where you can find a spare place at a table or bar.
The gentleman’s lavatory is in the basement. I was down there one day when an arthritic old man descended the stairs very slowly.
He was very friendly and opened up a conversation with me as he came down. He continued chatting as he came over and stood beside me, remarking how nice it was that there were still restaurants with character such as this and so on. However, after a while it became obvious that what he can had come down to do was not happening, and he was suffering from a dose of old man’s faulty waterworks. Eventually, becoming increasingly impatient for something to start happening, he looked down and with a loud voice exclaimed “Oh come on, England!”.
Let’s hope that the Brexit negotiations do not suffer from a similar blockage……..