• North London tales

An appetite for local history

The success of Call the Midwife has been meteoric. It is part of a new trend on television but an old one in books and memoirs. There are more and more women who want to show how real women lived. And women in London led such hard lives. The tone of Call the Midwife can be sickly sweet at times but here is a little gem of a book that may quench your thirst for knowledge. Its style is less dramatic, its tone subtle and honest, the voice intelligent and measured.

Grace Foakes' Four Meals for FourPence in its current title.

This account was written by a Cockney girl who lived in the East End. To me, it should be a prerequisite on any English curriculum in the UK for it is just has important to read in a history class as in an English literature class. The Docks and the East End have completely disappeared nowadays but the people's souls are still lingering.

My Part of The River was written by Grace Foakes. She was born at the beginning of the XXth century and grew up in Edwardian London. Some of her stories reminded me of my grandmother's childhood recollections although my own grandmother was French and was born later, in 1925. For instance, for Grace as well as my grand-mother "Monday was always a wash day."

It is the same background that is depicted in this book. Most women lost their beauty too early because of multiple pregnancies and back breaking chores. They had to keep a family fed, cleaned and warm in a 2 room tenement and hand-wash the linen, clothes, floors and curtains weekly.

We are so lucky in the modern world with our electrical appliances and warmer houses.

Women are still a long way until they get equal pay but they do not have to be enslaved in their own homes any longer.

Grace Foakes' account is a genuine and honest childhood tale. It is set in London but as I said earlier, it was not much different from any other working class European child at the time. She has a warmth and a tenderness for the smallest animals, the most pitiful creatures that highlight her empathy. She could also be cruel at times because those were crueller times and the people did not know better.

Anyone who is interested in the way humans inhabit and transform the space they live in will benefit from reading this book. The cities are made by people and somehow, the walls keep a faint trace of the lives spent under their shadows.

This blog is about writing, about London and its history, its local people so I am quoting Grace below as she describes the poverty in Spitasfields:

"Spitasfields with its beautiful old church, to whose crypt and churchyard came the downs-and-out" _she means the poorest of the poorest, the homeless. "In the day-time they occupied all the seats or sat on the grass while at night, having nowhere else to go. East-Enders knew this churchyard as 'Itchy Park' and considered it a place to be avoided for, although we were poor, we at least had our pride and none had sunk so low as they who daily gathered there."

I can hear a resonance between Grace Foakes' description and the pictures of homeless people sleeping under the Finsbury Park bridge up until March 2019 when they got evicted by the Council.

Times are different yet poverty is still the same. It stinks just the same way.

Another anecdote reveals how xenophobia shapes the spaces we inhabit.

Grace recalls that there was a German baker and his family living in Wapping High Street. "they had a family of four children. They were making their way back (...) when they saw a parcel in a doorway (...) It was a tiny baby girl. They took her home (...)and kept her for their own."

These charitable German people had a big heart yet when the first world war came, "They were cast out because of their nationality. (...) Former customers stoned their shop windows and raided their home. I do not know where they went but life was made so unbearable for them that they left the district."

In these current troubled times with Brexit and the surge of extreme right-wing ideology in Europe, this Edwardian tale of racism echoes into the comfortable silence of our daily lives. We try our best to ignore that the sound of black boots is coming back.

Some passages in this short book are quite lyrical and it is a remarkable piece of historical writing. I strongly advise women writers who are interested in London and the living condition of women to read My Part of the River.

I will finish this review with Gracie's own description of the area that she grew up in and that modernity and progress have completely altered in less than one generation:

"And wherever you look you will see even higher buildings replacing the high walls in whose shadows I spent my childhood."

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