Don’t Do It Magazine
Stephanie Boland – This is your second authorship, isn’t it? The Gentle Author and Spitalfields Life?
Yes. I don’t talk much about my own past but I’ve been a writer all my life. My father died unexpectedly in 2001. I’m an only child and my mother had dementia and could no longer live on her own. The only thing she really knew was that she didn’t want to ever leave her home, and the only way that was going to be possible was if I gave up my career and moved in with her. I lived with her for about seven years and was her nurse until she died.
After that I came back to London and it was a time to start again. I wanted to use all the experience I had as a writer to find a new way of working – one that would connect me directly to the world. It wouldn’t mean just sitting in a room every day and writing. It would be going out and meeting people, and also being able to write things and publish them immediately, and have no intermediary, so I could have a very direct relationship with the readership.
I love the title of the blog – that it’s not a Spitalfields Record or Spitalfields History. It’s iterations of life and living.
Well, for me the word “Life” is as operative in the title as the word “Spitalfields”. When I was a carer, I could not leave the house. I had just two hours a week when I used to go out and mostly I spent that time running around, collecting prescriptions. After that whole experience was over, it became an extraordinary delight just to be able to walk down the street. Spitalfields Life grew out of that feeling and the sense that there are so many untold stories in the world. I find our current affairs media has spiralled down to a disappointingly narrow window of reality, so I set out to try and write the stories that no one else would write.
It’s a wonderful illustration of the importance of public life as well. Going outside and being in public space.
While I was caring for my mother, these remarkable women turned up. They were volunteers from the local doctor’s surgery. They were mostly senior women who had taken early retirement and spent all their time doing volunteer work. I could not have got through the whole thing without their support, yet I realised those women were invisible – publicly – even though our society couldn’t run without people like that.
There’s a school of thought that would say David Cameron runs the country but the truth is the country is run by millions of people doing all these things as volunteers most of which are not admitted or acknowledged.
I try to write about all aspects of society and all kinds of people and at the point you meet me now, I’ve done over two thousand stories — that’s one a day for nearly six years — and interviewed over 1,500 people.
There’s a responsibility. Most people I write about, it’s the first time anybody’s written about them. You have a duty to do them justice. And one of the phenomena – which I foolishly never anticipated – is that some people I have written about die. So then I republish my portrait as a tribute to them.
I’m fascinated by the idea of a blog as a distinctive literary form, as writing that’s happened in the moment and in a particular timeframe. And the passing of time, in a sense, is part of the subject.
It’s terrible when someone writes to you and tells you that this business that’s been going for one hundred years shut last week — and it’s too late. It scares me that an awful lot of stuff I’ve written about has vanished already.
That’s partly why I’ve do so many stories about old people. If someone writes and says, “My grandfather is one hundred and three years old and he was a fireman in the London Blitz and would you like to interview him?” you don’t think, “well, I’ll do it next year,” you do it now.
Recently, we did a picture story about the Holland Estate, a social housing estate that was handed over by the local authority to a housing association along with a lump sum to refurbish the buildings. And a few years down the line that housing association hasn’t done the refurbishment and is in partnership with a commercial developer, and they serve demolition notices on the eight hundred residents without any real consultation – because it’s now necessary to demolish it to create a new building of luxury flats, apparently. Next thing you know, the residents are told their flats are not fit for human habitation.
On the day before the residents took their petition to the council, to ask the local authority to support them, I went with Sarah Ainslie, one of the contributing photographers, into people’s flats and we did their portraits in their living rooms. They were very keen to show their flats were in good condition, and cherished — certainly fit for human habitation. I published the story on the day the residents presented their petition to the council and, thankfully, the councillors voted unanimously, cross party, to support them and hold the housing association to account. You get very excited about a project like that.
It’s just incredible – thinking back to the early twentieth century, where you have estates like Arnold Circus being built to provide social housing and a hundred years later, they’re trying to reverse that.
I find it alarming that in the East End there’s a venerable tradition of philanthropy and institutions created to lift up the lives of people here but this culture is now being trashed. A very good example is the Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital on the Hackney Road, which was created by two sisters who came here to nurse people during the cholera epidemic. It had sunflowers across the front to the original building because Oscar Wilde gave money to them. It was there for more than a century. Then it was taken to create Mettle & Poise, expensive flats to make profits for commercial developers. To me that’s a complete betrayal. They want to create Canary Wharf-style blocks full of luxury flats for the overseas market on the Bishopsgate Goodsyard while there’s 40,000 people on the housing list for Tower Hamlets and Hackney. It’s grim.
The thing I find hardest is seeing the place names of old buildings used to market the new development taking their place.
Yes, there was a nursing home called Mother Levy’s on the other side of Spitalfields run by a woman called Alice Model. She was a nurse who was very concerned about infant mortality levels in Spitalfields around 1900, when one in five didn’t reach it to adulthood. The idea was that mothers came and give birth at the hospital, then a nurse would visit the mother and baby regularly for the next six months to provide support and make sure the child survived. This building was demolished by a social housing association, by Peabody, working with a corporate developer to build mostly luxury flats. They destroyed the building and stuck a plaque on it saying,“This is where the building used to be where this woman did this remarkable thing.” That’s not really good enough, is it? The plaques tell you what was once there – it used to be a philanthropic hospital and now it’s a block of luxury flats.
In your National Portrait Gallery lecture about Horace Warner and the Spitalfields Nippers, you showed the photographs and told stories of the lives of the people in them. Do you feel a sense of identification with Warner?
There are certainly plenty of precedents for the work I do and I seek them out as examples to give me ideas. For example, I am very interested in sets of prints of the ‘Cries of London’ and I discovered Samuel Pepys was the first writer to start collecting them, but what fascinating to me was that Samuel Pepys didn’t just buy those that were being produced in his time, he also managed to get hold of ones that were a hundred years old, because he realised that they were social history.
Another writer who I think about is Henry Mayhew. He was the first to interview people in this country systematically and get them to describe their own lives in their own words. Obviously, the difference for me is that the person I’m writing about is going to read it. That makes for a particular kind of relationship in which they trust you and you have to respect that trust. I think a lot about Montaigne and his idea of Moral Comedy, that you try to present people but you never let yourself be wiser than the person you’re writing about.
What was it like, researching the lives of the Spitalfields Nippers?
I worked with a team of six people on those and they spent months on it. For a quite small amount of material, there was a massive amount of going through records. What happened was it became very personal and we felt we knew these people. When we found only a fragment of someone’s life and then we didn’t know what happened in the rest of their time, we all felt a sense of loss. And when new information turned up it was a great source of joy.
For example, there’s a photo of Adelaide Springett that Horace Warner captioned “Adelaide Springett in all her best clothes,” and she’s got no shoes on. We found out as much as we could about her life. We found out that her father died when she was a child and the last record we had of her was with her mother, living in a Salvation Army hostel in Hanbury Street in 1905, when she would’ve been about twelve. And that was it until we found she died in Fulham at the age of 86.
It was appalling to realise how many died young. Some of those children died months after those photos were taken, but what we also found was that the children that did survive were very tough. They lived to be really old. There’s one photo of two little girls that Horace Warner titled “Sisters Wakefield” and I think they’re nine and ten years old, sitting together on a doorstep. To me, it feels like they’re on the threshold of life and it gives the photo incredible poignancy to know that they lived to 86 and 96. They made it through.
What I like about Spitalfields Nippers as social history is that you can’t make any generalisations about them, there are as many outcomes as there were children.
It shows, as well, that life is always going to assert itself. You can’t confine things to history or simplify them.
I believe that profoundly. And in that sense, I’m an optimist – I believe in the resilience of people and of the human spirit. What history tells us is that you get these constantly recurring vast political structures which oppress people but it’s in the nature of humanity to overcome them and that’s what’s always happened.
My parents are from Irish immigrant families — this was the first time I’d seen a collection of photographs of people who look like my family.
The Irish are the lost wave of immigrants in Spitalfields because they left the least trace. If you walk around Spitalfields, you can see some of the houses where the wealthy Huguenots lived and you can go to the synagogue that’s still there in Sandys Row, and you can visit the Bengali curry houses. But there’s almost nothing to remind you of the Irish except for the sign-writing on Donovan’s paper bag shop in Crispin Street.
When James Joyce came here, he wrote to his brother and said, “music hall, not poetry, is the criticism of life”.
It brings us back to the culture of East End. There’s still this widespread myth that the East End of London is somehow the antithesis of culture. When Building Design did a feature about the proposed Bishopsgate Goods Yard towers, most of the comments were by architects and builders and developers and they were all saying, “Bring on this development! There’s never been anything else there, it’s just a rubbish heap, it’s a dung heap. Those people have never had anything good. The best thing that could happen is that it all gets flattened and we put up these towers”.
The sophistication of the innate culture here – not whether it’s here or not – but the quality of it is completely undervalued. That takes us to Music Hall. Marie Lloyd owned a pub on the corner of Hanbury Street and Wilkes Street. The lyrics of My Old Man Said Follow the Van, which she is particularly identified with, are about about the culture of ‘flitting.’ Looking at the stories of the Spitalfields Nippers, all those children moved around constantly, their families lived in rented rooms. When a job was lost or the rent couldn’t be raised, they had to move. My Old Man is an observation of that social reality.
Speaking about the waves of immigration and just how visible it is…
It’s overwhelming here, because we’re sitting in a cemetery. When they rebuilt the Spitalfields Market, they removed tens of thousands of bodies. This was a Roman cemetery and Bishopsgate was once like the Via Appia in Rome – the cemetery outside the city walls. Spitalfields is built upon a cemetery, and then after the Fire of London they put all the rubble here. So really, you’re just walking on the bones of the dead and the rubble of old London. I don’t think there’s anywhere in London where you’re more aware of all the people that have gone before you than you are here.
How do you feel about the election?
It feels like the whole country has been hijacked. People need homes they can afford and shopkeepers need to be able to keep their shops and not pay rent that bleeds them dry. It’s up to government which has the power to regulate the situation in the interests of the populace. I don’t understand why nobody stood up and said, “If we get elected, we’ll stop corporate tax evasion, we’ll build social housing, and we’ll protect small businesses”. To me, those are fundamentals.
I’ve written about the residents of the New Era Estate in Hoxton and the single mothers evicted from the hostel in Newham. You’ve got a completely new breed of politician emerging there. These are young women with an extraordinary sense of moral force and authority. That’s where there’s hope now. Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, said to Jasmine Stone of Focus E15 Mums, “If you can’t afford to live in Newham, then you can’t afford to live in Newham”. Yet the borough has four hundred empty council houses that they want to sell off to a developer. It’s not acceptable.
I don’t understand why people aren’t more angry and why politicians aren’t paying more attention to the groundswell of emotion that you sense in London now.
The majority of Londoners don’t want any of these terrible developments that are coming and the big questions are, “How is it happening against the wishes of the majority? And how can it be redressed? How can these two hundred and thirty tower proposed blocks – most of which are for the international luxury market – be stopped and how can we instead build social housing? How is this mess ever going to be untangled?”
It’s the same with the closure of public buildings.
Across the East End there were these wonderful libraries, opened at the end of the nineteenth century. John Passmore Edwards, the philanthropist, gave this money to open them and they’re all being shut now.
You find yourself doing conspiracy thinking. You go, “If my aim was to have nobody oppose me, the first thing I’d do is to shut down the libraries”.
It’s disempowerment of people and taking away the dignity of people. So in that sense we’ve come full circle and it has to be challenged, and I suppose that’s why I do what I do.