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Sally Flood, Poet

August 20, 2011
by the gentle author

“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 in Whitechapel, early sixties.

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.

You may also like to read about

Chris Searle & the Stepney School Strike

or

Stephen Hicks, the Boxer Poet

18 Responses leave one →
  1. August 20, 2011

    Thanks for giving so much detail about a woman I’ve admired for decades. I love the photograph of Sally & Gladys McGee with a cigarette in her hand. I took quite a few photographs of Gladys but Sally is regrettably still on my ‘to do’ list.

  2. Sally Baldwin permalink
    August 20, 2011

    Wonderful story, today. Wish I knew Sally. Or you, gentle author.

    Sally in the USA

  3. Joan permalink
    August 20, 2011

    Very inspirational. My mum, like Sally, benefited from being evacuated. She was sent, with her school (George Green’s grammar to which she had obtained a scholarship) to the Wye valley and was treated much better than my poor old nan was in a position to do back in the East End. She too had early dreams shattered, though, on being pulled out of school at 14 as my nan needed her to earn some money.

    My nan and grandad had a bath with a table on top in their flat in Hollybush Gardens in Bethnal Green. I can remember that the table bit was so cluttered that I suspect they rarely used the bath.

    And I must make a note to myself to find some interests so as not to be tempted to be over involved in my childrens’ lives. I’m sure that is really important wisdom.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  4. jeannette permalink
    August 20, 2011

    that smile. those fuschias. the charged space.
    thank you.

  5. John permalink
    August 21, 2011

    Just a Corner of Whitechapel but what a mystery. Fantastic. Thanks. :)

  6. Teresa McGill permalink
    August 21, 2011

    I am lucky enough to be one of her children. She has been a wonderful mum always encouraging us to chase our dreams. Mum if you read this I love you and I am so very proud of you xx

  7. Patricia permalink
    August 22, 2011

    That’s my mum!!!! :-)

    The 1962 photos (in the garden, dad, mum and the Christmas photo) were probably taken with dad’s newfangled Polaroid Instamatic (I think it was the Spectra). The film was processed inside the camera and a photo would roll out the bottom to be cut off and hey presto! instant photos!

    I remember mum joining the Basement Writers, she was so nervous she almost changed her mind and stayed home but, she went to that first meeting and met Gladys and from then on, there was no stopping her; she would be writing at every opportunity and mum and Gladys were always dashing off to perform at various events.

    My favourite poem of mum’s is Shades of Grey.

    Well done mum and keep writing!!! Pat xx

  8. Jan permalink
    August 22, 2011

    Good to read all about you. Now want to read your daughter’s favourite poem of yours Shades of Grey. It is always great to hear your writing in class.

  9. Maureen permalink
    August 23, 2011

    What a lovely article about a lovely lady. I am a little biased because she is my mum. But she is an inspiration. We are all so proud of her. She has her own life but still finds time for all of us and we know her greatest joys are her children, her grandchildren and now her beautiful great grandchildren.

  10. Andrew Diamond permalink
    August 23, 2011

    Sally is a brilliant, natural poet and is an inspiration to me. I also write poetry and Sally has encouraged me with her honest and constuctive criticism. If Sally likes it I know it’s good. Her work talks of life as she’s experienced it and as it is. It, clearly, comes from a good soul, displaying hope and kindness against the background of a hard life. I’m very proud to know her and suggest that everyone reads her work because she really is a people’s poet.

  11. Nikkay permalink
    August 25, 2011

    Thats my nan (:
    We’re all so proud of you and everything you’ve done in your life. You taught us all how to follow our dreams and acheive them

  12. Nick Pollard permalink
    August 31, 2011

    Sally’s a lovely, wise, very inspiring and positive person who’s done a lot for the encouragement of what would otherwise be unknown writing and unheard voices. Great to see this and these pictures of her family.

  13. John Parham permalink
    February 1, 2012

    Sally Flood – Wonderful Lady – True Whitechapel Poet! Never can forget those days when Sally and Gladys held Court at The Basement Writers – Old Town Hall on Cable Street!

  14. Josie Pearse permalink
    February 21, 2012

    Fantastic to see you Sally and remember the Basement Writers.

  15. February 25, 2012

    So good to see you Sally! I hope I get to read with you again one day. I only looked up The Basement Writers just now because I blogged this morning about feeling like Gladys’ poem that starts ‘It’s Saturday morning/ the day is still yawning…’. Love, Richenda

  16. May 3, 2012

    Wow! what a wonderful read how lucky am i to be involved with such a wonderful family though-rally enjoyed reading this and seeing the pictures love your poem and i love hearing about our history of this country how blessed are we to have such a wonderful person to give us this information :) lots of love Sharon

  17. Stephen Watson permalink
    July 21, 2012

    Dear Sally, I met you one Sunday afternoon at St Katharines Lock not so long ago when the band was playing all the old songs. You were with your daughter and her baby. I watched you singing all the old songs –My old man said follow the band and don’t dilly dally on the way–and I met you for that little speck of time which was so special.
    I was born on December 26th 1925–the last of ten children–same year as you –My dad died in the Spring of 1940 and we moved from Lincolnshire to Tatsfield near Biggin Hill at the begining of the Battle Of Britain. I worked in West Croydon when I was sixteen–twenty five shillings a week .
    I came to Canada in 1952–got my high school and went to University in 1957 and became a teacher. I have a great love of life and of singing and I write some poetry too.
    Our daughter Melanie Watson works at St Katharines Lock . I want to write a little poem to you –It was so wonderful to meet you! What a great story you have to tell. I hope you meet our Mel one day at the Locks –with all good wishes from Steve and family

  18. Melvyn cooper permalink
    October 10, 2016

    I am fortunate enough to call Sadie my aunt she is a lovley lady and always smiling and I love her to bits and my cousins I wished we were closer than we were xx

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