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Talking about Gilda (Memories)

“Gilda, she was just so funny, she was lovely, she was so kind hearted, she was just good fun to be around and she used to know everything, I used to call her Mrs Google. You’d ask her for something and she’d call back in two seconds, Mrs Google “such and such and you don’t want to go there, you don’t want to do that”. So she was Mrs Google, knew everything about everything. She used to come into the shop, I would probably go for coffee in the morning and find Gilda in the coffee shop having her Earl Grey and her toast before she went to the Bishopsgate Institute and then I used to coax her to come in and have a blow dry and then about four hours later she’d go out of the salon, and everyone in there just loved her, she’d help them with the crossword, and just talk about… she just knew everything to talk about, conversation just went with Gilda. So, she’d go back, she’d go do some work and then she’d be back in an hours time and then it was… lunchtime… Just great fun to be around…and when you went for lunch if she got there first – she just used to… because she was a writer – she’d just listen and people-watch everyone, and so she would have a story to tell about everyone in the restaurant….just by listening to people. The other memory I’ve got about Gilda is she used to phone me in the morning, I’d be working, but she would just phone me anyway just to see what I was doing, and I’d go like that “I’ll phone you back in ten minutes” and I’d just invent a sore head, phone my boss, and then the next minute Gilda and I were in a taxi going to different museums… so, there was one day we went to the Wallace Museum, and she just knew everything about everything, do you know and so she was like commentating about the history of the Wallace and what this was for and what that was for, and we met this man that actually worked in there I think he was a security guard or something and he got talking to Gilda and he was a fan of Gilda’s and she took his address and she sent him all these books, you know, just so lovely and considerate about her fans… and we used to go to the London Museum as well and it was just great, it was just lovely to spend some quality time with someone, and she just educated you and learn you so much about the history of London you know and everything, just so interesting to be around, such good fun as well.” —Lisa

I met Gilda O’ Neill in the late eighties. We both went to the University of Kent where we met; we were doing MA’s and we had a lot in common! Both east enders with Cockney accents; both been through what we liked to call the ‘Educating Rita experience’. Also both had a fierce interest in working class history. One of the privileges of knowing Gilda was the fact that she always made you, and everyone else around you  feel very special regarding that history. By that  I mean I’ve never been and had a meal with Gilda where she didn’t get everybody in the restaurant’s life story, usually the waitress serving us… This was sometimes very long winded and could be blinking annoying. Love Gilda. I love that she would do that, but the truth is that she was the special one. When I had the privilege of commissioning her MA dissertation for The Women’s Press, her very first book  – Pull No More Bines, – an oral history of hop picking – the truth is that Gilda had a talent and it showed. Her gift was being able to recognize and mine the best stories, the best nuggets people came out with and retelling their stories in way that perhaps many others couldn’t…. So the irony of Gilda, the enigma of Gilda, was that she always made everybody feel special, she always made them feel that THEY had a story to tell… but truth is they did but it was Gilda who was the real story-teller amongst us. Actually that was the wonderful thing about knowing Gilda  she was so empathetic and could make you and your story so interesting – I gather some of my family story ended up in one of her novels – I am not telling you which one but anyone reading who knows me will recognize the crime connection., Ha Ha..”—Lorraine

“So, what can I say about Gilda? She was the type of person who when you would meet her, she was totally embracing, very open to hear your, always asking questions, always wanting to know your story engaging in you, interested in what you could tell her and it’s not that she was looking for just you know “What can you tell me about East London’’? Just about yourself.  And once you were lucky enough to be one of her friends… she was a fantastic friend… Just, very warm, very engaging. What used to happen for us sometimes, we would come out on a Sunday afternoon, walk out the front door walk by the tapas bar and there would be Gilda and John sitting in the tapas bar, would be beaconing for you to come in you would sit at their table you would have lunch, you would have a glass of wine and she never talked about you know, “I am Gilda O’Neill, I’ve written all these books… “I’m a historian, I’ve done this, and I’ve done that’… She never bragged about herself. It was all very quiet and sort of… When I found out she was a writer even, I was very surprised.  And then when I was  reading her books and then looking, you know at the beginning of the books and seeing how many books that she had had actually written, she never bragged, she never you know plumed her feathers or you know made a big deal out of it. She was very unassuming, very loving, very affectionate, caring.  You know if you ever had an issue, say you, I’d come home and I’d walk down through the market and I would go by Beadales (wine bar) and she would be there and you go in have a glass of wine with her, and if I had anything that was bothering me and I told her about it she would be on the phone in the week saying, you know, “Is this alright? Are you ok? Let’s do this together’’… So really caring, compassionate and very interested person and very interested in people, in all walks of life, so there’s no snobbery about her. She would just as soon talk to… you know, I hate would to make this differentiation in some way because she wouldn’t do it, but a street cleaner, a homeless person, a millionaire to her they were all the same.  There’s no pretention, no games about her, which just made her such a special person…But, yeah, she used to come up here and eat and always good for a laugh, never a lull in the conversation, always something to talk about… Miss her a lot. But, what a legacy she left us, all those books, just, right now I’m reading ‘The good old days’ which she gave me years ago and every night I am getting in to bed and I love how she says “My grandmother told me this, and my mother and my father and my uncle’’… she weaves her own family history into, you know, our own history in the East London, which you know, makes it so readable, so palatable. Charming person. Very kind, very generous, very generous with her time, with her money. Money was in fact…money was never even an issue with her.  She was always wanting to pay for things, you had to fight with her, “I‘ll buy the glass of wine” “no, I’II pay for the glass of wine”.  But, she wasn’t you know, ostentatious by any means but she was larger than life. When she was in a room Gilda was there because she was interesting and she was interested in other people and I think that’s what made her very special, is that she cared so much for meeting other people and knowing about their lives. As a writer, I am sure a lot of that caring was because she was a writer. I am sure she was thinking “…could I write about this or I want this history or I want this story’’, but she genuinely cared for all.  Very loving, very affectionate, she was always hugging, always kissing… And her and John together… I mean for him to have to walk alone, very difficult because they were such a lovely couple.  I don’t know if anyone has ever told you much but they met and married within one week… which is amazing, absolutely amazing. Many times I asked her to tell the story. She had a boyfriend she had gone to this party and the boyfriend couldn’t come and she met John and the next day he took her out on his motor cycle and they had a motorcycle accident and he ruined her really beautiful boots. And then within a week they were married. Never expected her to die, really expected her to just pull through…” —Debs

“Always entertaining and fun, generous and sociable, enjoying eating and drinking with you, and right from the very beginning you felt she was really interested in you. She really wanted to know about you and your life and it was absolutely a hundred percent genuine, some people feign that thing don’t they, interest, but with her you knew it was real and you felt she got you. I think she got me and I think I got her. It was nice. And there was something about Gilda that made me feel instantly comfortable, I suppose because she wasn’t the conventional academic or author… and I never really felt I met the conventional profile of a solicitor, so perhaps there was a little bit of something there. My family are from the east end a couple of generations back as well and I’ve always been interested in their stories, so there were all these little connections, that made me warm to her…” —Laura

“Ridiculously, as we’re talking about someone who died far too young, I’d describe her as larger than life, someone who embraced life and was determined to live it to the full. She was generous, egalitarian, inclusive, keen to introduce you to other people – it was all very empowering. She didn’t want to mother you or boss you, just to encourage you to tell have your say, do your job, tell your story. And as I recall, all that took place against a very enjoyable background of good food and lots to drink. Work was pleasure too.” —Lesley

“Well I did know Gilda, but a bit late in my life if you like.  It’s only because she knew of other people around here (Spitalfields) but we met up and I found her a very down to earth person and she had a very lovely personality for being an author (laughs). And she had the ‘know how’ because she had the experience of living here through the era she was writing about the East End of course. And she captured a lot of that atmosphere in her books and she wrote quite a number of books actually but there are always stories to tell about the East End. She was always gregarious, outgoing, fun to be with, I mean what more can one ask. It was sad towards the end when we found she wasn’t in a good way through the illnesses she had. So I think she died at a very early age where she had so much more to contribute to the understanding of life in the East End.  And she knew it, and as I knew… ‘Cause I grew up in the ‘30’s I suppose 40’s whatever it might be.  That was a true picture of what went on here at the time and the fortunate thing is that what she’s done will always be around for people to read about and understand and discuss and talk about so she has got that legacy and I think that’s very important. And as I said earlier on she is very good in making friends with people, talking to people, very outgoing and that’s as much as one, that one can expect. So even though, unfortunately she died, she has left a legacy behind her which hopefully will carry on through the years because of the books she has written about the East End that she knew and the East End that I knew…That was why it was such a great loss when she died when she did.” —Michael  (aka the Spitalfields’ crooner)

“She liked young people, I am actually not too much older than Gilda, younger sorry I should I say. Oh, (laughs) I don’t know? How old an age would Gilda be now? But she really liked younger people… She was just really generous, liked young people always tried to help them out. I know there were some girls who worked in Beadales (Wine bar) round the corner, helped them out in any way she could. Yeah, just that’s my memory, just this amazing generous woman, you know; liked to go out for a drink, something to eat, yeah we had great fun together. Here and in Brighton that was the two places… and we had a few Beanos to Brighton…it always ended up in carnage (laughs). But yeah I just thought what else I can think of…Just very generous and really I don’t know if this was something from her background but she really…whether because I think most of Gilda’s qualifications came later in life, didn’t they? And I suspect she didn’t get any help at all, at the start, so she was keen to really always keen to really help young people, to get what she never had which was a boost at the beginning… We had mutual interests because a lot of her books were about crime in the past and that’s what I deal with now, crime now and she sort of wrote about crime. But I decided it would be a good idea for me to buy a pub, which was a really fucking stupid idea. And I opened up a pub called the Carpenters Arms on Cheshire Street, it used to be owned by the Kray Twins and she one day saw a really fabulous Veuve Clicquot. It looked but it wasn’t like something from the 1920’s in a skip (laughs). And she sent John in, in his suit to this skip to pull out this (basically it was this great big ice bucket) and we used it in the pub. I always have memories or visions of John in his suit, you know hanging, her, holding him by the ankles, and him hanging in the skip trying to pull out this fabulous Veuve Clicquot you know ice bucket…” —Kate

“I probably only knew Gilda for the last three years that she was around in the area, over that time.  I met her through other friends as we all do around here, and you know first impressions very bubbly, very generous, you know great fun person. I started to have a look at the books she had written and the history and also one of the things that became very apparent was that she was a very frequent telephone guest on radio stations. You know my sister who lives outside of London is an avid listener to radio London and always commented after I said that I had met Gilda, how often she was on and how fascinating she was, you know talking about London and all sorts of things. Overall memories – very, very bright, a lot of fun, very bubbly, very generous. I have continued a very good friendship with John, since Gilda’s passed and you know very sadly missed, she gave a lot to the area, you know considering that all this came a little later in life, having brought up the family and whatever, too have done what she has done and also the depth of research and interest in the area, I think is very good for all of us who not only live in the east end but also peoples who have got any interest in it.” —Matthew

“Ok, I met Gilda, I used to have a stall in Spitalfields at the end of 1999, selling big mirrors and framed prints and artwork that I did and I expanded and ended up with two stalls and it was one of the biggest stalls in the market. Gilda and John used to turn up and it became a regular thing, they used to buy off me and also then she used to come for a chat and then the point was she was just so so…I’ve just said that she was a force of nature and I cannot say one bad word about Gilda, I can’t say one bad word. And she used to come just to chat with me as well and we would have a laugh and I would have a queue of people and me and Gilda were like that and I would just go to my customers, and would go, “Just stay there”. But then, they would join in because she was just so vibrant, so, so positive, cheery and laughing… And I was like that, but not all of the time but I was like that when she appeared, and she would spark off me and I would spark off her and we would be like that and we would dominate people around us… And she was brilliant, I mean she really was. And nothing about what she did and nothing about basically what I did though she was buying off me it was just… simpatico is the word that one could use, you just immediately lock into someone. She locked into me but we locked into her and it was just a joy, and as I say when she came everything else was just forgotten about… not a bad word. …Just such a strong positive, positive… When you meet people who are so positive all the time, then you can be positive, but you are not necessarily feeling like that but, she was just so positive…and you couldn’t help but be lifted by it and that was it basically…And we’d meet socially as well, but she was so supportive of myself, I’ve since garnered she was supportive of everybody basically and…people like that are rare, they really are rare… It didn’t matter if you knew what she’d done or what she was or whatever… I didn’t really realise till I sort of found out and somebody told me, that that didn’t matter either cause she was just, Gilda…and a joy to be with.” —Lindsay

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