I live in Bethnal Green in London, England. When I was born it was a place nobody went to, except the locals who lived there. Even the police gave it a wide berth and we pretty much managed on our own without them. The occasional murder elicited their attention, but that was all. I didn’t think of it as rough, you don’t as a child, you simply accept what is around you.
What I did know, was that I wanted another life, other than that which the women around me had. Almost universally, they worked in the “rag trade” in factories with no heating and leaking roofs, making garments, often for up-market shops, for which they were paid a pittance.
Mum ran a small clothing factory for someone and I spent much of my childhood with the women who formed the workforce. Their lives were far from joyous, but they taught me a lot about survival. The other person who taught me a lot was my grandmother, Isabella. A mountain of a woman who weighed 18 stone and was known locally as Bella the Basher; not a soubriquet for the genteel. Born in 1880 into a London of a level of squalor I find hard to imagine, she was my rock and anchor and, although illiterate, nobody could steal a chase on her.
When I went to a grammar school she was aghast, having a great antipathy to the rich and the upper-classes with whom she was sure I would mix.
Even then I wanted to be a writer, but my parents didn’t view that as a proper job, it was something they felt which would see me impecunious and miserable. Mother put her foot down, I needed something which would allow me to earn a wage.
Rather than follow the family trade and become an apprentice machinist I bucked the trend and studied science.
Back in the 1970’s a working-class woman could pursue a career, get on the housing ladder and survive, even flourish, which to all intents and purposes I did.
A nagging edge of my brain though kept reminding me about writing. I wrote some poetry, it was published, it wasn’t much good I feel, but I’d done something.
The years passed, I progressed up the ladder of life, but something was always missing.
I ran a Haemophilia Centre when AIDS hit and that was truly traumatic and left me in pieces as, one by one, my patients contracted the virus.
By my mid-thirties, things were unravelling as there was one secret I had attempted to hide from myself, I fancied women. It wasn’t that my culture was against it, there simply were no role models around and one truly did feel alone.
After some more travails I met someone, fell in love and, guess what? I came home. Not as simple as it sounds, but it was something I had to do. Sometime later I began writing, a novel, not good, not bad, but I finished it working at night after work.
I have spent much of the last 20 years though as a playwright. It’s a form in which I am comfortable and have had some success. Not major, mum was right about the lack of money.
Nevertheless, the joy of hearing and seeing your words interpreted for an audience by actors, whom I feel are amazing human beings, is a humbling experience.
As a form it requires you to seek out and define the motivations of every character. Signal, but not too much, points which will make the ending believable. Hear different voices and lay them on paper. There’s little chance for descriptive prose, it’s all in your words and the acting.
So, the memoir I have now written. How did that compare?
I decided on an arc, the action to happen in a timeframe, that was a bit of a playwrighting device. A memoir isn’t a biography, it’s a slice of your life in which a theme is played out. I was tempted to write the whole thing as a monologue, my comfort zone, but I didn’t. Then there was the fact that I was writing about real people, my family, me, and past lovers and there was to be no acts 1-3 and very definitely sometimes no happy ending. It seemed like a mountain range that had to be climbed. I found myself so grateful when I could recall the conversations I’d had with people and could use dialogue to move the action along.
The publisher was brutal in that I had to be honest, so there was no hiding place. Nowhere to tuck a piece of emotion that was difficult under a carpet and glide seamlessly on.
Plays are collaborative affairs, but nothing compared to this. It had been my choice to write the book because I wanted to honour a way of life that has gone, and to be honest about the difficulties, and joys, of certain aspects of my life.
There were times when fear made me want to hide away, to return the advance and go back to the familiar world of the black box. As tempting as that was, I didn’t.
Once you had to be famous to have a memoir published. Those days thankfully have gone, and publishers see the worth in telling the stories of ordinary lives, a trend which hopefully enriches us all.
About Columbia Road
‘Where I am going has little beauty. No landscape to take the breath away, no cultural highlights of note, just a street of Victorian shops and houses to which I now know I undoubtedly belong.’
A compelling memoir of family secrets and personal discovery; characterful, rich and visceral as the East End itself.
Linda Wilkinson’s childhood was spent on the dusty, pungent workaday streets of Columbia Road. Sundays brought the flower market and visits to the pub with her flamboyant, ancient grandmother, who would seat Linda on the bar while she sang. Surrounded by poverty and love, eccentricity and endurance – in a borough of refugees, craftsmen, working men and the odd crook – Linda watched carefully and absorbed the secrets and frailties of the adults around her.
A career spent in haematology, specialising in the diagnosis of blood disorders, brought Linda hard against the limits of both science and her watchful self. She would have to come back home before she could begin again.
An extraordinary tale of belonging and awakening.
Category: On Writing