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Our Street is a very personal book. What inspired you to write it?
Following the publication of My East End, I was genuinely surprised at the response to what I had thought of as a book with only local interest. I received letters from all over the world – including, amazingly, Hawaii! – with people saying how they could relate to the book not because they were all originally from East London, but because they could recognize the experience of living in close communities of working people that were going through increasingly rapid moments of change. Those letters which did come from Eastenders often thanked me for telling ‘our story’ – a sentiment which really touched me as my mother and grandmother were great tellers of tales about ‘the old days’, and it made me feel closer to them, part of a tradition; in those letters they offered their own stories in case I should consider writing a follow up. Unsurprisingly, a lot of those stories related were from the Second World War – it was, after all, an astonishing period in which to live: time of global conflict but when people still had to get on with their everyday lives. To paraphrase the words of one gentleman who spoke to me – while it was terrible, of course, what happened in New York on September 11th, that was one day, we had to live through it for six long years. I was so moved and humbled – and, it has to be said, sometimes really amused – by the stories I was told that I couldn’t do anything other than write Our Street, and to record them in a way that I hope does justice to that incredibly brave and resilient generation.
Many people you interviewed for the book viewed World War Two as a Golden Age of the East End. Do you agree?
I think what people were talking about was a time when not only were they young, but when they also had a real purpose in life, vital roles to fulfil in what, it is generally agreed, was a truly just war. And even though they were living their lives day in day out with the fear of bombing, death and loss on their very doorsteps they were in communities and extended families which offered them support and succour in a way that was lost forever for many of them following the war. There was a widely held view that what the Luftwaffe started with the Blitz, the planners finished off once and for all when they broke up those organic communities and neighbourhoods in the post-war slum clearances.
How did you collect the stories that form the book? What was the most shocking piece of research you discovered?
As I mentioned earlier, I was approached by a lot of people who had read My East End, so that was my start – as, of course, were my own family’s stories – but I also contacted local and regional newspapers, and mentioned my research on various radio stations on which I sometimes appear. With people talking to their friends and family about the book, the research soon took on a life of its own. Some of it was even conducted via e-mail with an Eastender who was touring America with his wife in a motor home! While all of the stories were extraordinary – being born post-war, in 1951, I am still in awe of how these amazing people just ‘got on with it’ – some of them were upsetting, not to say shocking. For instance, while some evacuees had kind and loving temporary homes with stand-in parents who they would remain in touch with all their lives, some of the evacuation experiences were little more than cases of child abuse – I found it incredible that adults could be so cruel to children, especially bewildered little ones far away from home.
There is a lot of humour amongst the stories of hardship in the Blitz. Can you give us a couple of examples of this?
Without wriggling away from the question, I’d rather not spoil the stories by telling them second-hand as it’s so often the way the words themselves are used – the rhythm and cheekiness of the language – that make them such a delight. And remember that the stories told by the older respondents are being told by people who had Victorian parents – they still speak the true Cockney that has almost been lost to the dreaded Estuary English that I suppose I speak. So, yes, I have done a bit of wriggling there, but I’d rather the readers looked at the original versions and enjoyed laughing along with them.
What prompted you to start writing?
I passed my eleven plus and, when it was time to choose the options for our examinations, I went along to seek careers advice – if you can call it that. I was told to choose two occupations from a list. I picked poet and concert pianist. The ‘careers person’ – I can see her now – said: ‘At what standard do you play the piano?’ I said, ‘I can’t play the piano, but you said what would I like to do.’ That idea was binned immediately, quickly followed by her saying: ‘And, let’s face it, you’re not going to be a writer either are you?’ I didn’t like school. They gave us a feeble type of elocution lesson and I can remember the agony of being corrected in front of the whole class. It was like having to become bilingual – being expected to speak one way at school and another on the estate where we lived or risk getting in to a fight. When I was 15, I decided I’d had more than enough. It was the 1960s, and there were such high levels of employment, you could change your job in your lunch hour – and I frequently did. Like many girls, I got on the train and went to the city, did lots of different jobs and got married very young. After I had the children John suggested that I went back to college, and once I got my teeth back in to education – on my terms – I realised how much I liked it.
While I was doing post-graduate studies, I was at a history conference at Oxford, and a man – the expert – sitting up on the platform was talking absolute rubbish. What he was saying about working class life was so offensive, but it wasn’t that he was being unkind, it was as though he just didn’t ‘get’ what he was talking about. I couldn’t keep quiet, I had to challenge him, and so I made a few pointed, ‘helpful’ remarks. At the end of the conference, two publishers came up to me and asked if I would write about some of the things I felt so passionately about. I agreed, going with the publisher who let me write what I wanted to rather than wanting me to slot in to some existing category – and that’s how I came to write my first book – Pull No More Bines – a history of hopping and hop pickers, a way of life for working people that was rapidly disappearing.— the Penguin reading Group
To here more of Gilda talking about her writing click here.