Top: George with Wendy, his wife of 22 years.
Bottom: As a schoolboy, in white shirt, with Franco Zeffirelli
Published: 24 August, 2012
by PAVAN AMARA
GEORGE Bartlett was one of Holloway Road’s most familiar faces, with the loyal customers of his Bartletts HiFi shop spanning generations.
George started helping out in the shop – then belonging to his father Bobby – at 30 Holloway Road in 1951, when he was five. Ten years later he was there full time.
Born in Hackney, George, the youngest of three children, was helping to run a market stall in the East End between school and the shop.
“He had loving parents but a tough childhood,” said Wendy, George’s wife of 22 years. “They didn’t have lots of money. It was secondhand clothes, sleeping in the same bed as his siblings and wearing overcoats in bed to keep the cold out.”
His childhood years were not all graft, however. Aged 10, George was chosen from hundreds of children to be one of the Royal Opera House’s musical urchins, singing with Maria Callas in Carmen and with Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor, both directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
“When his voice broke his parents couldn’t afford to pay for singing lessons,” Wendy said. “Otherwise he may have continued with it. Instead, he began working hard with the option he had. He was an East End boy but once he started work he wanted to be a bit posher, so at 15 he learned how to drink espresso because he thought that’s what posh people drank. He’d practise with espresso shots, but later in his life he could laugh at that little phase because he’d become successful.”
Music remained a lifelong love, with the Beatles one of his favourite groups. George never tired of telling his four grandchildren how he once met his hero, John Lennon, in the Holloway Road.
“In the early 60s George saw a white Rolls Royce through the window,” Wendy said. “He was curious so he ran over, and John Lennon came out of the car and walked into a barber shop. He was a huge Beatles fan, and John Lennon apparently smiled at him and said ‘Hello’. Every time George told that story a huge grin spread over his face.”
In 1974, Bartletts HiFi moved to 177 Holloway Road, where it remains.
In 1968, he married his first wife Brenda, and they had two children – Sarah, who’s now 40, and 38-year-old Warren. The marriage later ended, however.
While taking a skiing class in Austria in 1986, George felt sorry for a woman who kept falling over. “He got my phone number but wrote it down wrong,” said Wendy. “So when he came back he called directory inquiries and begged the operator to give out my number. Luckily she did. I’m so grateful to that lady, because if she hadn’t I would not have been so happy with George for so long. When I first went to that ski class, I didn’t think I’d find my future husband and my happiness in there.”
George and Wendy travelled abroad as often as possible, often visiting the Maldive Islands, before the couple were caught in one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history – the South Asian tsunami which killed 230,000 people in 14 countries on Boxing Day 2004.
“George was still in bed and I was on the balcony,” Wendy recalled. “I heard a woman on the beach say: ‘Why’s the water coming so close to us?’ and the next thing I knew our hotel room was flooded so much we couldn’t get the hotel door open because of water pressure.
“Once we were out we climbed onto a water tank on the roof, and when the second wave came over we were safe. It took 36 hours to be rescued. The plane journey back home was so quiet, so eerie. We’d seen a lot. George didn’t talk about it again. I think he found it very difficult to deal with. It was something he didn’t forget.”
On a skiing trip in Aspen in 2007 George was diagnosed with a heart condition. Although medical treatment seemed to fix it, he died of a heart attack on June 1.
“I can’t tell you what a wonderful husband he was,” Wendy said. “I didn’t think it was possible to feel so cared for. We just understood what the other one was thinking.”
On May 28, George and Wendy went to dinner to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. “We had such a wonderful evening. I’m so grateful that on his last evening I got to tell him that I could never have imagined I’d have such a caring husband,” she said. “In the night he had a cardiac arrest.”
Wendy said: “We plan to carry on running Bartletts HiFi just like George would have wanted. People who he served in the 1950s have their grandchildren coming here now.”
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