Mal Gilliam Of Golden Lane Estate
Contributing Writer & Resident of Golden Lane Estate, Novelist Sarah Winman recently interviewed one of the first occupants of her estate, Mal Gilliam, who grew up there in the fifties …
Mal Gilliam in front of her childhood home
With council housing and long tenancies under severe threat, it was with a mixture of emotion that Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I set out with my choir chum Mal Gilliam across the Golden Lane Estate, one of London’s most successful post-war council estates, to see where Mal spent her childhood. It struck me – as we wandered around – how these estates have provided the bedrock of community and continuity in London, and how – without them – we are heading towards a city solely for the rich and transient.
“I was born in 1949, named after Marilyn Monroe, a favourite of my dad’s. When I was six, my parents and older sister, moved from the Wenlock Rd Estate, off City Rd, to Golden Lane. We were one of ten families who initially moved into ‘Cuthbert Harrowing,’ into a modern three bedroom flat with central heating.
As a child I loved it here. I loved the freedom of it. Roller-skating down around Bowater House, and playing on the railings. The Estate discouraged ball games and noise even then, so the Community Centre was provided for the children. There was a youth club, and I took ballet classes there. A man called Joe Mitchell, he lived in Bayer House, he created a children’s variety show called ‘Joe Mitchell’s Follies.’ I was nine, I think, when I took part in a show that comprised of a medley of Gigi songs – and then the swimming pool was built, and it was luxury.
Whitecross Street had an actual market every day, and there was a butcher, a fishmonger and two bakers there, before the supermarket forced them out. And on Bonfire Night, a large fire was lit on the concourse in front of Great Arthur House, and we all brought fireworks and set them off and there was baked potatoes and sausages for everyone. A rogue firework ending up in a girl’s wellington eventually put paid to that, however.
Looking across the Barbican Centre and the towers now, it is hard to imagine that it was just a bomb site, stretching out as far as the eye can see. I used to climb over the wall and spend hours over there looking for caterpillars or playing hide-and-seek. It was incredibly dangerous really, unexploded bombs, shifting rubble which could fall away into deep cavities, and yet I never knew of anyone ever getting hurt.
Years later, I looked out of my mother’s window across that same stretch of land and watched the Barbican being built. It was a fractious build, they had so many strikes. They all lined up in Fann St. If a chippie picked up a piece of piping, they walked out. Demarcation of work, it was called, and the unions were very strict, and it went on for years. Continual noise and dust.
Golden Lane was an extremely successful estate and I think they selected families to be at the centre of it. People were happy to be there, they were proud of it. It was post-war. It was colourful. State of the Art. My aunt lived in ‘Great Arthur.’ My sister moved away but wanted to come back after her husband died. My mother knew the Housing Officer, who came and visited us and said that, as soon as a flat was available, she could have it. Lots of people brought their families over and many children of the original tenants still live on the Estate.
For someone like me, who was shy and nervous as a child, it was as if there was a wall around me and I was protected.
As a teenager, though, there was nothing around. The area was dead. Even the Aldersgate tube did not open on Sundays, so me and my friends went into Soho. I must have been sixteen, seventeen – I had left Parliament Hill school around that time – and we went to a coffee bar called ‘Le Macabre.’ It had tables shaped like coffins and we thought it was great, and we bought a coffee and sat there all night. When we wanted to dance, we went to the St Moritz club – where I met my husband Bill.
Bill had a group of friends who formed a soul band – ‘I’m a Soul Man,’ ‘Stand by Me,’ those kind of songs. Well, Bill had saxophone lessons, but as soon as anyone else played with him he lost time, so he had to become the manager instead. He was down the St Moritz with the band one night, and we danced together. We got married when we were nineteen.
Bill worked for a booking agent in the music business and I went to gigs with him. I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Saville. And one of the groups they managed was called Curved Air, and they opened for David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust phase. I was pregnant in my Laura Ashley dress while he was beautiful and so thin and in make-up, and I was fascinated.
In 1968, everyone was protesting Civil Rights, but Bill and I were saving to buy a house to give our kids something different from the Estate. I was working for the Conran design group and Bill was still in the music business and he did early morning cleaning jobs too.
We saved up £1,500 for our first deposit in the seventies and Pink Floyd roadies helped us move. We had a farm workers’ cottage near Oxted. It was stockbroker belt, all fences and no public land. Imagine coming from the middle of London and being stuck there. I missed the community. I felt isolated. I did eventually make friends but, every couple of weeks, me and the children got into Bill’s van and he brought us back into London, and I would come over the bridge and see the Thames and my heart started beating again.
Years later we did move back to London, got a house on the borders of Highbury and Hackney, and I got a job and learnt to drive. But I am a Londoner through and through – that is me. I have a fantasy of having a dog in the country but that is all it is. I need a destination when I walk. And a coffee at the end of it. I survived those five and a half years but I was not alive.
When my mother died, we did come back to live on the Estate for twelve years. Bill is interested in architecture, especially Corbusier, an interest that took us to stay in the Corbusier building in Marseille, so he loved living here. Eventually, though, the noise from the pub downstairs became overwhelming and we moved out.
I believe everybody, however poor, should have a decent home. They should have space, somewhere they feel proud of. Council housing is essential. I prefer the word ‘council’ to ‘social’ because Councils have a responsibility for people. I meet people who have always lived here in London and now their kids are being forced to move away, and they cannot see their grandchildren as much. It is not right. The city is changing and we are all finding it difficult.”
Mal Gilliam at Golden Lane Estate
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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