Fourth Annual Report
It was four years ago that I published my first post here in the pages of Spitalfields Life and I did it blindly without any grasp of where it might lead. I did not know if I was capable of writing a sentence or taking a photograph, but I hoped that by practising every day I might progress.
Yet these first four years have been a much more eventful journey that I could have imagined. While my central endeavour of doing interviews and writing people’s stories is more than its own reward, there have also been many other unexpected joys resulting indirectly from this activity. So I hope you will not think me immodest if I take this opportunity of the Annual Report to outline a few highlights here.
As a naturally timid person, I would not aspire to overt political action, yet I felt to compelled to write celebrating Gardners Market Sundriesmen, Spitalfields’ oldest family business, when the landlord wanted to replace this beloved institution with a chain store, and it was the resultant public outcry which caused the landlord to relent in his policy. The beauty that I found in the culture and practice of this small independent shop led me to write about hundreds of other such proprietor-owned-and-run establishments that are an important part of the social fabric of the East End. When these shopkeepers read about each other and recognised that they were all struggling with similar issues, two hundred met together in Christ Church, Spitalfields, last November to form the East End Trades Guild of which Paul Gardner is the founding member. Since then, they have constituted themselves as a co-operative to speak for the interests of all small traders in the East End.
The spring, when the Geffrye Museum set out to demolish The Marquis of Lansdowne which had stood on the corner of Geffrye St since at least 1838 to replace it with a concrete box to house their new designer restaurant, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Barker who had been born in a room above the pub in 1931. His family ran The Marquis for more than half a century and his story outlined the meaning and importance of it as a focus for the extended families that once lived in the surrounding streets and worked in the furniture trades based there. It was a recognition of the cultural value of The Marquis of Lansdowne in Haggerston, where long-established communities had been devastated by slum clearances, that was a crucial factor in the Hackney Council Planning Committee’s refusal of permission to demolish the pub.
I often think of how we used to write stories at school and there were so many more talented storytellers than I, yet it puzzles me I am the only one that became a writer. Teaching a series of writing courses over the past eighteen months has been an uplifting experience because – without exception – all of the students have produced talented and accomplished pieces of writing, speaking eloquently in their own voices and confirming my belief in the latent writing abilities of the general population. Additionally, each of these courses has spawned a group of writers who remain in touch, circulating their work and offering moral support to each other.
In July, it was my privilege to give an illustrated lecture at the National Portrait Gallery showing more than one hundred portraits of East Enders from Spitalfields Life, complementing the gallery’s own exhibition of the great and the good from their archive. The lively response of the audience reflected my own excitement in this triumphant moment which gave me the opportunity to feature the work of all the Contributing Photographers whose pictures regularly enliven these pages.
Finally, the book of Spitalfields Life sold out its print run of ten thousand copies in hardback, inspiring me with the courage to become a publisher in my own right. The first title published under the Spitalfields Life Books imprint, Travellers’ Children in London Fields by Colin O’Brien, came out at the beginning of July with The Gentle Author’s London Album, a magnificent picture book funded by you the readers, to be published in October.
No-one is more astonished than I by these outcomes of the act of writing daily stories about the people and culture of the East End. Since my own existence is spent engrossed in my work, although I understand there is a wide readership that extends globally, I only envisage the people that I know reading it. Similarly, I could only conceive of the existence of copies of Spitalfields Life that I saw with my own eyes. Thus it was a strange experience to sign stock copies in Waterstones Piccadilly, London’s largest bookshop, and then go back a week later to discover that my signatures had vanished. It was half an hour later before I realised the obvious, that the signed books had been sold and these were new stock.
You might think that all these activities could prove too much of an appealing distraction, yet it is the practice of publishing a story every day that permits me to limit these marginalia and keeps me focussed upon my central task and delight. When I sit down to write my story, I put the hurly-burly of the day behind me and, in that moment, I am at home. This is the time I look forward to, when I am free to write – and I hope to be doing it for many years to come.
And thus, with all these thoughts in mind, I come to the end of this fourth year of Spitalfields Life.
I am your loyal servant
The Gentle Author
For the next week, I shall be publishing favourite stories from the past year and resuming with new stories on Monday 2nd September.
You may like to read my earlier Annual Reports