I had the pleasure of recently reading ‘Silvertown’ by Melanie McGrath. It is a book that gets under your skin and lingers in your consciousness. It is the story of a Jenny, based on the writers grandmother, who was born in the early 20th Century and grew up and lived in the East End of London.
“Mum, where’s the End in East End?..The Docks…the Docks is the End…But Mum, where’s the Beginning then?….But it’s harder to say where the Beginning is. Aint no east Beginning s’far as I know. There’s only an East End” (McGrath, pp11-12)
jenny lived through two world wars, experienced the flourish of the docks and witnessed their decline. It opens up an personal history of East London that is fascinating, brutal, absorbing and poignant. A history of many women’s struggle to survive on so little. It is a story that reminds us to be grateful for the prosperity we live in, a Christmas dinner consisting solely of boiled cabbage is far from our doorsteps, yet was a reality for many in this country only 70 years ago. Thankfully no woman has to now face the butchering of a back street ‘dentist’ pulling all her teeth out at the age of 17 to ensure that she is less of a financial burden to her future husband – no future dental bills.
Jenny is of my grandmother’s generation, a generation that witnessed fathers and uncles disappearing in the first world war, had the threat of illnesses like TB and pleurisy knocking at the doors, had their children evacuated and saw their cities flattened in the second world war. A generation of women that had their teeth removed. They were the survivors that paved the way for our comfort. How far removed are two generations.
East London intrigues as well as frustrates me. It holds a rich and multi layered history, one that has often fascinated me and caught my imagination. I remember many years back spending many hours researching the Chinese population of Limehouse at the end of the 19th Century.
The constantly changing populations in fluxing and exiting are as frequent as the tides. Much of the history has been buried under wars and redevelopment, the 1960’s post war estates, the 1980’s Docklands development around Canary Wharf, the stylish conversion of warehouses along the river fronts of Wapping and Limehouse, the A11 & A13, and more recently the Olympic development between Stratford, Hackney and Leyton. But when you look there are traces of earlier times in the remaining old buildings, pub and street names echoing the memories from previous inhabitants.
I read ‘Silvertown’ soon after reading ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd. Another book I loved every page of. A history of a man born at the beginning of the 20th Century into very different circumstances to Jenny. Logan Mountstuart has the privilege of education and travel behind his story. He, like Jenny, lived through the two world wars and the excruciating heartache of experiencing a home and city demolished. Something I hope I will never experience. This book is one that I know I will re-read many times, it is so rich that I am unable to know where to start to write about it. What has captured my attention and imagination is how both these novels have opened up a century rich of history on a deeply personal level. It is a history that was experienced by people and the contrasts of these experiences is widely different; one is a history of a woman with limited choices and opportunities and another is of a man with substantially more freedoms; and yet the echos of their stories are eerily similar in the way they witness the unfolding of the twentieth Century.