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Sir Michael Caine
By William Hall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2007 William Hall
All rights reserved.
Michael Caine once said; 'When you're born a Cockney, there's no way to go but up!'
He was born almost a Cockney on 14 March 1933. It was a blustery Tuesday morning in the Old Kent Road when Mrs Ellen Micklewhite was hustled into a black cab by her husband Maurice, a worried man because his wife had reached the age of thirty-three and they expected problems with their first child.
A swift dash through the grimy South London streets to Rotherhithe, and she was admitted to the maternity wing of St Olave's Hospital at 8 a.m. Just two hours later, at ten o'clock precisely, baby Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, co-operative from the first, slipped quietly and effortlessly into the world weighing a modest eight pounds and two ounces. 'The first-born sons in the Micklewhites have been called Maurice for three hundred years,' Caine would say later about his initial billing.
Even then they spelled it wrong. The register in the dusty archives at County Hall will show that a Mrs Marie Mickelwhite gave birth to a son, John, in Ward 5B. But at least the birth certificate got it right.
The speed and ease of the delivery surprised everyone – even Mrs Micklewhite herself, a cheerful soul, small, sturdy, rosy-cheeked, a charwoman all her working days who came from stout East End stock.
For young Maurice Joseph, later to become Michael Scott, and later still Michael Caine, his first public appearance was one of the least troublesome events to happen to him in the three decades that followed.
Almost a Cockney? If the wind blows hard enough in a southerly direction, the historic sound of Bow Bells, which is what matters, might conceivably carry the two miles over the close-clustered wharves and cramped rooftops of Limehouse and Wapping, huddled as they were in dingy dark quilted patterns before the high-rise buildings and factories changed the Thames skyline for ever ... all the way across the river to the Victoria Ward on the first floor of St Olave's where he arrived.
If the echoes were a trifle faint, Michael Caine spent a lot of his youth around the East End, still considers himself a true Cockney, and has never let the world, or himself, forget it.
'When people talk about Cockneys being born within the sound of Bow Bells they forget the other bank of the Thames,' he would state convincingly. 'It's also a big Cockney neighbourhood. Anyone born there thinks of himself as a true Cockney.'
It is important to realize how much the conditions into which Michael Caine was born shaped his formative years and moulded his character for all time. Those conditions would harden his attitudes towards people and possessions – the 'us and them' of life. They would foster his innate resentment against the ambiguous values he saw around him, sharpen his wits, and consolidate his ambition to succeed into a driving steam hammer of determination and self-discipline.
In short, it helped create in him an unswerving devotion to the cause of becoming rich or famous, and preferably both.
At all costs, he would beat the system.
In 1933 the world was a bitter place. That spring was the peak of the Great Depression in Britain, with three million unemployed, around twenty per cent of the country's working populace; the average weekly manual wage was standing at £2 10s; dole queues stretched around the blocks; and the introduction of the means test came from a desperate government ruling a country that had hit rock bottom.
The means test meant that you had to show you had no income, no assets, and no money in the bank before you were allowed to claim supplementary benefit. If one had anything to sell, it would have to be sold before the local Employment Office would shell out a single penny.
It was conventional economic wisdom in a last-ditch survival plan. But it didn't stop the hundreds of Jarrow shipbuilders marching on London when William Palmer's yard closed down in the North, as Stanley Baldwin at the head of 550 National Government seats out of 625 in Parliament struggled to control the reins of his runaway country while Ramsay MacDonald hung on as a figurehead prime minister.
Ironically this was the time of the first industrial estates, with buyers paying peppercorn rents for cheap factories in an attempt to get the economy going again. That year, 1933, when Caine was born, was the time when house building hit a record for the century – new houses going up at the rate of 1,000 a day, selling for £350 each, with a down payment of just £5 to clinch the deal. A new Ideal Home was on offer in Sidcup, Kent, at £395: three bedrooms, two reception, garage and garden.
The natural law was working: everything at rock bottom, prices forced down, labour dirt cheap. Now perhaps a brave new world could be built.
Maurice Micklewhite senior was one of the victims of this gigantic depression. He was part of the 'irreducible million' – that grim Home Office statistic which quite simply meant that between the two great wars unemployment never fell below the million mark. Only now it was multiplied three times over.
He joined the sad, straggling line of grey-faced men in mufflers, and cloth caps, hunched into thin coats against the driving rain and wind, who queued hour after forlorn hour on the dole line.
Throughout Britain the same spectre rose. From the Welsh valleys one newspaper sentence said it all: 'A man who looks as if he has enough to eat is a novelty in the mining country.'
The advertising columns were full of oddities: a dentist bartering his services in return for a car or a typewriter. An offer to clean a family memorial 'anywhere in Suffolk' in exchange for a bicycle. Seven lessons on the mandolin for a new raincoat.
What else happened on 14 March 1933?
Caine, a celebrated hive of information – useful or otherwise – could tell you the facts.
'Lloyd George was talking about "all nations marching towards the battlefield with the dove of peace embroidered on their banners". Abroad, the Russian secret police accused six British engineers from Metropolitan Vickers of taking part in a plan to sabotage electric power stations throughout the U.S.S.R.'
And ...? English Test cricketer Harold Larwood was the central figure in a body-line bowling controversy, and vowed he would never visit Australia again (he now lives there).
Samuel Goldwyn's The Kid from Spain, starring Eddie Cantor, opened in the West End, and the first night of Eugene O'Neill's drama All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Embassy Theatre, featuring Flora Robson and Paul Robeson, received high critical acclaim.
Meantime Barker's of Kensington were offering women shoppers a hat and scarf set for 3s 11d (20p), while at Selfridge's you could pick up a pair of crocodile shoes for 12s 9d (just under 64p).
Maurice was too young to know, of course, though he would hear all about it later. But every day his father would come home late after trudging the hard pavements of South London searching for work. Other times he would spend hours slumped in his faded leather armchair in the kitchen staring mutely through the windows at the soulless rooftops outside.
To eke out the dole money Mrs Ellen Micklewhite found a part-time job sewing on buttons at a local clothing shop for 10s a week.
It went on like that for two years.
'It wasn't that my father was a lazy man who didn't want to work,' Caine explained. 'There was simply no work around.' But they always managed to get by, largely thanks to his 'old lady'. Much later, after his father died of cancer, Caine always remained convinced that he would be alive today if the movie star money had come along earlier.
Ellen Micklewhite has been described as 'the finest type of working-class mother', with her whole life revolving around her home, her husband and her baby son. Caine has never forgotten it, and over the years the bond between them seemed to grow rather than slacken.
When Maurice was six months old the family was ordered to move with unseemly haste out of their Old Kent Road home. The reason: 'It was to be torn down as part of a slum clearance project – that's the sort of place it was,' says Caine. They moved to Camberwell, into an old Victorian house whose brick walls had once been yellow but were now darkened to the colour of soot.
It was not the choicest place in the world, nor the best time to be living in it. Out on the streets the first black shirts of Oswald Mosley's Fascist followers could be seen openly for the first time parading in small, then larger groups. In universities other, more covert political animals with names like Burgess and Maclean, Blunt and Philby, were being spawned.
There were certain advantages for those lucky ones who were not on the breadline. You could snap up a Bullnose Morris for £100, straight cash, and drive it away on production of a 5s driving licence, no test needing to be passed. Road accidents soared to an unprecedented level, higher even than they are today – 7,202 fatalities in 1933, compared with 6,352 in 1980.
As a palliative to the gloom and despondency, the picture palaces rose in cathedral splendour, sprouting in fertile array across the country in cities and market towns. Fred Astaire waltzed with Ginger Rogers. Edward G. and Bogey snarled out of the Roxy on the corner. Caine would see all these old films before he was sixteen, playing truant from school to do so and getting soundly thrashed for it. Even now he will go on a movie spree, hopping from one cinema to another, seeing as many as six films in a single day.
When he talks of the days of his childhood, he recalls how the hard times even reached into Covent Garden, home of opera, forced to close the great theatre for six months in the year, take out all the seats, and turn it over to a 'dance academy' where ladies in flapper dresses and white-tied gentlemen were employed to gyrate with businessmen and secretaries, typists and clerks, who paid 6d a dance for the privilege of a dizzy whirl around the floor.
Whatever penury the present held for the Micklewhites, the omens at least augured an interesting future for the small infant with his tight bunch of fair curls who slept so soundly in a cot in the corner of his parents' single bedroom in Camberwell.
Astrologers, studying Michael Caine's birth pattern, have come to the conclusion that he is 'a typical member of his sign': Pisces.
'Like all Fish, he is a complex character,' declared Teri King, a raven-haired soothsayer who prepared Michael's chart as he climbed towards the higher echelons of his career. 'Romantic yet cynical, sensitive, dramatic, restless, tending to expect too much. He can be open with one person and secretive with another, and impractical in the most practical way.'
Meaning? She gave an example: 'You are at a party with two friends, when a stranger walks over and confesses that he is a bigamist with five wives scattered around the world. You may call him a rat. One friend might insist on telephoning the police. But the other friend demands to know: "How did he meet these women?" or "Where are they all living?" or "Does he really care for any of them?" The inquisitive one is Pisces.'
But the crystal ball discovered 'an ill-starred Jupiter' which tended to make Caine over-optimistic and over-indulgent, and the lady concluded with a stern warning: 'The latter could very easily result in him becoming overweight if he were not careful.' It's true. For one of his recent films, Deathtrap, he had to shed twenty-five pounds in a month.
In those early days there was no chance of any of them putting on surplus weight. Mr Micklewhite, on the dole and trying to follow the family trade at Billingsgate where two generations had worked among the fish boxes, was subjected to the humiliation of the means test and given the tickets to buy bread that went with it.
In 1933 a labourer earning £3 a week would have had to devote thirty-nine weeks' earnings to buy the cheapest new car, twelve weeks' to buy a motor cycle, and five days' to purchase a suit.
They put a brave face on it. 'My father was a typical example of ability thrown away,' Caine recalls with unconcealed bitterness. It still rankles, though his father is long gone. 'He was a man of much greater intelligence than his background and education allowed him to use. He had a good mind, but was never given a chance to do anything with it.'
The system again, one they were powerless to control or indeed influence it in any noticeable way. In fact Micklewhite senior left school at ten, though by then he had already met Ellen Burchell, his classroom sweetheart. They remained in touch while she stayed on and Maurice took to the streets.
The tough backwaters of South London had been his playground and quite often his battleground too. Mr Micklewhite passed on his instinct for survival, with fists and tongue, to his son. Certainly young Maurice's own childhood, from early Camberwell to teenage East End bomb-sites, ingrained into him a wit, shrewdness and astringent humour that was to stand him well on the long uphill road that lay ahead, a road littered with every would-be actor's failed dreams and broken promises, frustration and despair, before he would ever achieve his ultimate aims.
The dilapidated Victorian house in Camberwell became their tenement home through the years leading up to World War Two. It was only marginally better than the one from which they had been so unceremoniously ousted. Three other families lived in the house, one on each floor.
'We were in the middle. The landlord and his family lived on the floor below us. Another married couple with two children were above us,' Caine recalls.
And in the basement – 'An old pensioner of over eighty lived alone, with my mum popping down each day to give him meals and make sure he was cared for.'
The surroundings were cramped, but not uncomfortable. Mrs Micklewhite saw to that. That lady with the apple cheeks and dark brown hair she always wore in a bun, born on 10 May 1900, in the same year as the Queen Mother, would never let her family go hungry or live in abject poverty. 'When no one wanted buttons sewn on, she would hurry round to nearby offices and scrub their floors and stairs as a charlady. It meant getting up at five a.m., but she was a beehive of energy, and actually relished the work,' says Michael.
And the old lady herself? 'I used to love it,' she would tell you unashamedly, following her reluctant retirement in 1964. 'When I stopped, I felt awful. But I'll get used to not working, I expect.'
She performed minor miracles with the housekeeping money that she and her husband put aside for food and essentials. 'Money was tight, but we took care how we spent it. At least food was cheap. I was always able to manage.'
She did wonders with scrag ends of meat from the local butcher. She would scour the neighbouring East Lane market by the Elephant and Castle, close to where Charlie Chaplin was born, searching out titbits for the table and clothing bargains for the family. It wasn't the Waldorf, yet, but they wouldn't starve.
Even today, when it would be tempting to elaborate on his early hardships, Caine acknowledges: 'We never went hungry. In all the time I can remember, not once did I ever miss a meal or not have enough to eat.'
Like so many homebodies forced to make ends meet, his mother was a marvellous cook. 'She was a very frugal woman with money, always was,' Caine says. 'She was what I call a great "eker-out". Nothing was ever wasted. She would make stews out of all sorts of meat, and when it was cold it would go into a shepherd's pie next day.'
And clothing? Michael can't remember a time when he was shabbily dressed, or cold either. 'We had "tot" stalls down in East Lane market where she would shop around, and you could get second-hand clothes for peanuts. She would buy a shirt for as little as threepence, and a pair of trousers would go for ninepence.'
They weren't rubbish or torn or dirty. 'The rag-and-bone men would pick them up from the rich houses, and their wives would wash the clothes thoroughly. The other kids had just grown out of them, that's all. Some of the clothes I wore were practically new.' He will smile at a sudden thought. 'My mother would never have bought anything that was patched.'
Cockney pride again! 'Maybe. As for her own clothes, she always wore long dresses all her life. I never did see my mother's knees, even when I was sitting on them!'
Excerpted from Sir Michael Caine by William Hall. Copyright © 2007 William Hall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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