Sally Flood, Poet
“I had always written, as a child,” admitted Sally Flood with a shrug, “but it wasn’t stuff you showed.” For years, when her thoughts wandered whilst working in the factory in Princelet St, Sally wrote poems on the paper that backed the embroidery in the machine she operated – but she always tore up her compositions when her boss appeared.
Then, when she was fifty years old, Sally took some of her poems along to the Basement Writers in Cable St and achieved unexpected recognition, giving her the confidence to call herself a poet for the first time. Since then, Sally’s verse has been widely published, studied in schools and universities, and she has become an experienced performer of her own poetry. “At work, I used to write things to make people laugh,” she explained, “I used to say, ‘Embroidery is my trade, but writing is my hobby.’”
“I’ve got draws full of poems,” she confided to me with a blush, unable to keep track of her prolific writing, now that poetry is her primary occupation and she no longer tears up her compositions. “I’ve got so much here, I don’t know what I’ve got.” she said, rolling her eyes at the craziness of it.
Ambulance helicopters whirl over Sally’s house, night and day, the last in a Georgian terrace which is so close to the hospital in Whitechapel that if you got out of bed on the wrong side you might find yourself in surgery. Sally moved there nearly fifty years ago with her young family, and now she has three grandchildren and five great grandchildren. Framed pictures attest to the family life which filled this house for so many years, while today boxes of toys lie around awaiting visits by the youngest members of her clan.
“In 1975, when my children were growing up and the youngest was fifteen, I decided that I need to do something else, because I didn’t want to be one of those mothers who held onto her children too much.” Sally recalled, “So I joined the Bethnal Green Institute, and it was all ballroom dancing and keep fit, but I found a leaflet Chris Searle had put there for the Basement Writers, so I decided to write a poem and send it along to them. Then I got a letter back asking me to send more – and I was amazed because the poem I sent was one I would otherwise have torn up. Of your own work, you’ve got no real opinion.”
“On my first visit, I went along with my daughter, but there were children of school age and I was turning fifty. I wasn’t sure if I should be there until I met Gladys McGee who was ten years older than me. She was so funny, I learnt so much from her – she had been an unmarried mother in the Land Army. I started going regular, and the first poem I read was published.”
“I think my life is more in poetry than anything else. I sometimes think my writing is like a diary. Chris Searle of the basement writers made such an impression on my life, he gave me the confidence to do this. And when I did my writing, my life took off in a certain direction and I met so many fantastic people.”
Sally’s house is full of cupboards and cabinets filled of files of poems and pictures and embroidery, and the former yard at the back has become a garden with luscious fuchias that are Sally’s favourites. After all these years of activity, it has become her private space for reflection. Sally can now get up when she pleases and enjoy a jam sandwich for breakfast. She can make paintings and tend her garden, and write more poems. The house is full with her thoughts and her memories.
“My grandparents were from Russia and they brought my father over when he was four years old.” Sally told me, taking down the photograph to remind herself,“He became cabinet maker and he was one of the best. In those days, they used to work from six until ten at night, so they knew what work was. I was born in Chambord St, Brick Lane, in 1925, and I grew up there. From there we moved to a two-up two-down in Chicksand St and from there to Bethnal Green, just before the war broke out. We had a bath in the kitchen with a tabletop. It was the first time we had a bath, before that we went to bathhouse. I’m telling you the history of the East End here!
I was evacuated to Norfolk at first. We took the surname Morris from father’s first name, so that people wouldn’t know we were Jewish. The people up there had a suspicion against Londoners and they thought we were all the same. But I was lucky, we ended up in a hotel on the river in Torbay in Devon. Life was fantastic, we used to go fishing. It was a different experience from my life in London. I joined the girl guides, I could never have done that otherwise. Where I was evacuated, they wanted to train me to be a teacher, but my mother came and took me back and said, “They’re going to exploit you, you’re going to be a machinist.”
“Being evacuated meant I went outside my culture, and I saw that English people were nice. I think that’s why I married outside my religion. We were together fifty-five years and I always say it wasn’t enough. If I hadn’t been evacuated I wouldn’t have done that.”
Sally put the photograph of her parents back on the shelf carefully, and turned her head to the pictures of her husband, her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, on different sides of the room. I watched her looking back and forth through time, and the room she inhabited became a charged space in between the past and the future. This is the space where she does her writing. And then Sally brought out a book to show me, opening it to reveal it short poems in her handwriting accompanied by lively drawings of people, reminiscent of the sketches of L. S. Lowry or the doodles of Stevie Smith.
Sally is a paradoxical person to meet. A natural writer who resists complacency, she continues to be surprised by her own work, yet she is knowledgeable of literature and an experienced teacher of writing. Appearing at the door in her apron and talking in her tender sing-song voice, Sally wears her erudition lightly, but it does not mean that she is not serious. With innate dignity and a vast repertoire of stories to tell, Sally Flood is a writer who always speaks from the truth of her own experience.
Maurice Grodinsky, Sally’s father is on the left with Sally’s mother, Annie Grodinsky, on the right, and Freda, Maurice’s mother, in between. At four years old, Maurice was brought to Spitalfields from Bessarabia at the end of the nineteenth century. The two children are Marie and Joey – when this picture was taken in 1925, Sally was yet to be born.
Sally with her first child Danny in the early nineteen fifties.
Sally’s children, Maureen, Jimmy, Pat and Theresa in the yard in Whitechapel in 1962.
Sally’s husband, Joseph Flood.
Sally with her children, Danny, Theresa, Jimmy, Maureen, Pat and Michael.
Sitting by the canal in the nineteen seventies.
Sally with Gladys McGee at the Basement Writers.
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