WriteIdea Fest 2013

20 November 2013

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Well, hello there! Sorry for going all quiet again but I’ve been working on the plan for what will be my SIXTH BOOK. I THINK I know what it’s going to be but there won’t be any announcements until I’ve made some meaningful progress with it!

Anyway, it hasn’t been all work here as I took a day off last Saturday to head back to Whitechapel again to give a talk at the Write Idea Festival at the Idea Store on Whitechapel Road. I was really pleased to be asked to do this as I love Whitechapel and it was really nice to get involved with the local community there.

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I had such an amazing time at this festival – they had an excellent selection of speakers and I was thrilled to get to meet The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life fame before giving my talk (we were speaking at the same time at rooms across the way from each other), which was just amazing as I have been a massive fan of Spitalfields Life for years now and the Gentle Author was just as lovely, charming and affable as I had imagined. There’s no photographic evidence of our meeting though for obvious reasons but it was so nice to have a chat about our shared love of the area.

As always I was very nervous before giving my talk but I think it went well, especially as I had such a brilliant and highly engaged audience who seemed to really enjoy what I was trying to do and who rounded the talk off with a really fun Q&A session, which had us all laughing and chatting like old friends.

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I had to shoot off straight after my talk but not before I’d met the comedian and writer Robin Ince, whom I’ve really liked for ages. He was such a great sport when I asked if he could look as if he is my biggest fan, while I look bored and a bit freaked out to meet him, in our photo together. It’s testimony to how awesome he is that I’m letting people see this photo as I look awful in it due to wearing a coat three sizes too big for me that day (you’d think that clothes that big would make you look smaller but no, I look like Poirot!) and having a puffy face thanks to a hideous cold and an ill timed allergic reaction to red peppers. I know. So sad. Ah well.

Thanks so much to the absolutely marvellous Karen Hart for all the hard work she put into the festival and also for asking me to talk. Speaking at Write Idea Fest was definitely one of the high points of what has been a really quite awesome year.

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Anyway, here is my talk for anyone who is interested – it starts with one of my grandmother’s short stories about growing up in the East End during the Second World War:

I sat in the classroom wishing that I could disappear. I could hear mum and Miss Rowe arguing outside – or rather, I could hear mum.

This trouble had been caused by a song, of all things. Not that Mum needed encouragement to come after Miss Rowe: of the other teacher had slapped me nothing would have happened. But Miss Rowe, to Mum, was like a red rag to a bull as she had a bit of a crush on Dad and had taken to ostentatiously writing letters to him at the front and even, the horror, knitting him socks and hats.

The day before, having finished our lesson early, my friend Anne and I had been sent to do some weeding in the small lettuce patch beside the school air raid shelter. While doing this chore we had started to sing the songs of the day. Songs like ‘praise the lord and pass the ammunition’. As I have mentioned before, both of us were quite convinced that we were Hollywood material so we were giving the songs all we had.

We were well into ‘Roll me over in the clover’ when we both received blows across the face. We hadn’t heard Miss Rowe coming: even if we had, we wouldn’t have stopped singing, because it was, after all, a song we heard every day on the wireless. We honestly couldn’t understand why we had been slapped and told that we were filthy and disgusting.

When I got home, I told mum what had happened, and she asked me to sing the words. When I had finished SHE promptly slapped me. I realised then that I had sung the ‘fireside version’. I had been in trouble over this before.

On the nights when everybody was at home, the grown ups would sit around the fire swapping jokes and singing songs. They thought that we children were asleep so they weren’t careful about what they were saying. We were in the room on the other side of the fire and I used to sit and listen to them.

I realised that everything they said was not to be repeated when Mum caught us singing a favourite song called ‘Auntie Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers’. We were told that on no account were we ever to sing that song again. We were not told why and if we had given the words any thought at all, we would have just thought that the song was about an eccentric woman who liked to go around with a little yellow bird up her knicker leg. And why not? Everything we considered valuable, from hankies to marbles, was shoved in the legs of our navy blue knickers.

We were very innocent when it came to sex, far more innocent than today’s young children. After all, we had no television and advertising was much more discreet. Even the films we drank in so avidly were not explicit. The lovers kissed passionately and then we saw waves beating on a shore or a thunder storm. So we knew what happened when you fell in love – you had a long kiss and then went for a swim or a walk in the rain.

We had a list of about half a dozen songs that we were not to sing, and ‘Roll me over’ was now to be added to it.

As I said, Mum was glad of any excuse to go after Miss Rowe. The argument outside the classroom went on for a while then all went quiet. Miss Rowe came back into the classroom: her face was very red, and I knew that she was fuming. I also knew that life at school would be awful for a couple of days and that, that night a letter (and probably a balaclava) would be on its way to Gunner S.W. Lee.

When I first read this story, I remember thinking ‘Crikey, how bad can the lyrics of Roll Me Over In The Clover’ could be and it only occurred to me to Google them last week as part of my preparation for this talk. Guys, I was SCANDALISED. Who knew that stuff like that was going on in the 1940s.

And I quote: ‘We’ve tried it once or twice and found it rather nice. Roll me over lay me down and do it again. Roll me over in the clover, roll me over lay me down and do it again. Oh this is number one and the fun has just begun. Oh this is number two, down in front, he’s coming through’ and er so on.

It’s unsurprising therefore that Roll Me Over In The Clover didn’t make it on to my grandmother’s extensive repertoire of songs that she used to sing to me when I was a child. I still have vague memories of being sung to sleep with a rousing versions of Pack Up My Troubles In An Old Kit Bag, My Old Man and Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend. In fact there was an incident recently when I was singing My Old Man to my own sons and ended up shouting ‘THIS IS THE SONG OF OUR PEOPLE. PAY IT SOME RESPECT’ at them when they started grumbling then begged me to shut up.

And I do feel like it’s the song of our people. Although an ill timed relocation to the Scottish Highlands a year before my birth means that I wasn’t born in the East End unlike the rest of my family, I still feel like this is my home and, as you might expect, this has had a profound influence on my writing – especially more recently when I tackled the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 for my most recently completed novel, From Whitechapel.

While my family have been living in the East End for centuries now and have managed to involve themselves in all manner of dramas from the battle of Cable Street to working in the local businesses to losing their homes in the Blitz, it is the involvement of my great great great grandfather in the Whitechapel Murders that most captured my imagination. Okay, ‘involvement’ is perhaps a rather grandiose way of putting it but he was a Sergeant in H Division and was based at the police station on Commercial Street at the time of the murders. He may not have discovered any bodies or made much of a splash in the police reports of that dark time but he was there and plodding the same dark streets as his fellow officers. My book, therefore, was inspired by him or more particularly his family as after becoming a widower in the mid 1880s, he moved into the section house behind the Commercial Street station with his young family, presumably so that they could be close by so that he could carry on working. I was intrigued by this idea of his adolescent daughters living so very much on the spot during the autumn of 1888 and this formed the basis of what was to become From Whitechapel, which follows the story of one of the girls, my great great great aunt Clara, who was in her teens in 1888.

Of course the real Clara wasn’t, to my knowledge at least, involved in the Jack the Ripper case but this would make for a very dull book indeed so I had to elaborate enormously and create a plot that allowed me to explore both what it must have been like for a young girl living in the police station in Whitechapel at that time and also my love for this area and its history. In fact, I would say that Whitechapel itself is as much of a character in my book as the trio of heroines – perhaps it is THE star as it is never less than centre stage and is at all times much more than just the stage upon which my characters dwell but rather the impetus of why they act as they do. It is after all to Whitechapel that they are all drawn either by the desire to evade danger, the need to be close to family or the wish to help others less fortunate than themselves. It is the beating heart of the book and I never for one second allowed myself to forget this as I wrote.

The idea of coming home to Whitechapel as at least one of my characters does, was a powerful and evocative one for me as I’ve always felt more at home here than anywhere else. I’ve been coming to the East End since I was a baby, initially to visit my terrifying grandmother who had lived here all her life and then later for my own nefarious reasons. I’ve seen this area change over the decades since the seventies to the point that I think now my grandmother, now sadly long dead, would barely recognise it but I still like to think that she would love it just as much now as she always did, responding as she always used to to its essential vibrancy, the history that still lingers in these streets, the warmth and humour of the locals.

That’s what I remember about my childhood visits to the East End and it certainly made a definite contrast to the boring Scottish Highlands town that I grew up in, where the people seemed cold and unfriendly, the houses grey, the air flat and stifling. It was to Whitechapel that I longed to escape, just as some of my characters do – it was there that I felt most at home after all and I sensed even then that it was the sort of place where people go to hide away from the world or to find themselves. It’s as if, even as a child growing up in the Highlands of Scotland in the late seventies and early eighties, I’d already sensed the artistic energy that was to course through these streets in latter decades, making it a natural home for writers, illustrators, poets, designers and artists as well as actors and musicians. However, I suspect that my grandmother would have scoffed into her tea (drunk out of the saucer of course and heavily laced with whatever strong spirit came first to hand) had anyone back then told her what Whitechapel would be like now.

I love to remember those childhood visits to the East End, which ALWAYS involved a visit to at least one of the local cemeteries to pay my respects to long dead relatives, a sneaky night out at the bingo, plenty of pie and mash and eels for everyone but just the mash for me as I’ve been a vegetarian since I was six and trips to the markets. Even back then the street names called to me like a strange sort of poetry – Chicksand Street, Fashion Street, Fournier Street, Commercial Road – forming a litany that even now makes me feel warm inside and connected to my roots. Cable Street, of course, always brings to mind my great grandfather who took part in the battle against the police on the day that Moseley’s Black Shirts attempted to march through Tower Hamlets – as does every single time I see Truman’s written on the front of a pub or on the side of the former brewery as it was there that he worked.

Hanbury Street too has its strange connection to my life – when I was eleven we finally left Scotland and moved to England, eventually settling in Coggeshall in Essex, where we lived in a house that was originally built by and lived in by the same Hanbury who gave his name to Hanbury Street not all that far away in Whitechapel.

Of course, although my memories start with the East End of the seventies, what I wrote about in From Whitechapel was the area in the 1880s and as we are often reminded, the past is like another country so although the street names may well remain, the streets themselves are nothing like those that my characters would have known in Victorian times. While doing my research and writing the book, I spent a lot of time looking at period photographs and old maps, including the always splendid Booth’s Poverty Map of the 1880s, which by dint of a colour code shows very clearly the distinct differences in economic background in different parts of the city – I find it interesting though that although much of the Whitechapel and Spitalfields area are coloured in with the black that denotes the very deepest poverty and criminality, most of it appears to be relatively prosperous, which gives an automatic lie to the assumption that this area seethed with iniquity and vice during the latter half of the nineteenth century – okay, it wasn’t best by any means but it wasn’t as entirely dreadful as people might be led to believe.

As well as all the poring over books and maps and photographs, I also spent a lot of time tramping these streets myself and looking at them with the eyes of not just someone who had known them all their life but also those of a writer, committing them to memory and looking for ways to authentically evoke them through my writing. Yes, the past is a different country but people themselves haven’t really changed all that much over time, have they? So while I walked down Brick Lane, taking photos and eavesdropping to conversations, I was doing crucial research for my book – putting the words of the modern day residents into the mouths of their Victorian forebears to make yet another link with the past and breathe life into those long gone streets.

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