The sudden death of Gilda O’Neill at 59 has robbed the East End of a unique figure. Social historian, novelist and advocate for change, Gilda didn’t just write about the East End, she lived it.
O’Neill first hit the bookshelves in 1990 with a social history about hop picking, drawing on the memories of her mother and her own as a child of the 1950s, taken down to Kent in the dying days of the annual hopping expeditions. Pull No More Bines is a terrific book – there is no risk of a dry history here. O’Neill realised early, and never forgot, that whether you’re writing memoirs or fiction, it’s all about people and their stories. And the subtitle of that first book set the benchmark. ‘Memories of a Vanished Way of Life’ recognised that the East End these people loved had all but gone, with East Enders dispersed to Dagenham, to Basildon and beyond.
Gilda Griffiths was born and raised in Bethnal Green and Bow, leaving school at 15. Her family read like East Enders straight from central casting: one grandmother had a pie and mash shop, her grandfather was a tug skipper on the Thames, her great-uncle was the minder for a gambling den. Gilda did what lots of young East Enders did in the 1960s, she headed into the City for a succession of bar and office jobs. Then, like lots of young East Enders, she married young – to John O’Neill in 1971 after the pair had only been going out together a week . A son and daughter soon followed and hers might have been the story of a thousand other young women from the East End.
Except there was always an intelligence, a questioning and a demand for more. She enrolled at East London Poly and then the Open University. Her ‘Educating Rita’ experience made her realise a couple of things. First that she wanted to write. Second that she didn’t need to look anywhere for her material but back at home. Her parents Tom and Dolly had moved out of the East End to Dagenham by now, and Gilda became fascinated by the way the East End was being steadily pulled to pieces by policy makers. The East End wasn’t a collection of streets and buildings after all – it was a huge network of communities.
Pull No More Bines was a personal story as well as a social history. A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time followed in 1993, then My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999). The comment by one happy reader about Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003), says it all. ‘Real history about real people – not a load of dates and politics but first hand accounts of how people actually lived/survived through the second world war.’ The ironically titled Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London came in 2006 and East End Tales in 2008.
Gilda’s workrate was formidable, as alongside the histories she began writing novels. The material was the same – an East End that was just out of sight, just about to be lost forever. They became hugely popular, with the writer turning out a book a year. A growing readership would devour The Lights of London, Playing Around or Getting There and impatiently wait for the next. The critics weren’t always kind. With shamelessly heart tugging cover photos of 1950s East End urchins – all basin cuts, bobs and cheeky smiles – and with the author’s name gold, embossed and larger than the title, O’Neill was never going to be a darling of the London Review of Books or the Booker Judges.
But, as her commissioning editor, Lorraine Gamman, wrote in an obituary this week, those people didn’t get it. Those who did were ‘the women who read Gilda in big print, or listened to her on audio books and wrote five-star reviews on Amazon, or the taxi drivers who heard and loved her contributions to the Danny Baker or Robert Elms radio shows.’
Those who dismissed the books as simply historical soap opera were missing the truth behind them. The Flanagans, Lovells and Tanners of ‘Rough Justice’ may be fictional families, but the men are casual dock workers, the Spanish Civil War and the threat of fascism in the East End is the backdrop. The historical details – large and small – are beautifully observed, as O’Neill drew on her background as a writer of East End histories, and of her own life. This may be fiction, but it’s no less true.
By now she had moved back to the East End, to a Limehouse much changed and gentrified since the 1950s and was doing her best to encourage others to stretch their wings. She spoke movingly at the Skills for Life Conference in 2008 on how her confidence had been crushed by teachers and career advisers. She became involved in the National Year of Reading with her message that ‘everybody has a story’ and that the policy makers should be listening to learners, not lecturing them. ‘Everyone has a story to tell,’ said Gilda.
And in her story, the personal and the general are never really separated. One of O’Neill’s most popular histories is an immaculately researched trawl through centuries of history, from the Romans, to the ‘stink industries’, through the Huguenots to the Bengalis of today. But its title ‘My East End’ makes it clear – it’s about the people who live here now. And so we get Gilda’s interviews with local pensioners, precious snippets of social history gathered before they are lost.
The East End of the early 1900s through to the 1950s (when an infant Gilda enters the story) was a time of poverty, when luck, juggling and mutual aid could just about get families from one payday to the next. People seemed to live in each others’ houses, especially the kids. It’s not a rose-tinted world. If there is happiness, laughter and a lot of love, there is also crime, drunkeness, violence, unemployment and early death. Throughout, O’Neill turns a sympathetic eye, seeming to say that people are good, but they often do bad things. Perhaps the element that the critics dismissed as sentiment and sugar was something else entirely – affection and kindness.
• Gilda O’Neill, writer, born 25 May 1951; died 24 September 2010
[boxout, can lose if too many words]
Gilda O’Neill’s books
Pull No More Bines: Hop-Picking: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (1990)
A Night Out with the Girls: Women Having a Good Time (1993)
My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (1999)
Our Street: East End Life in the Second World War (2003)
The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (2006)
East End Tales (2008)
The Cockney Girl (1992)
Whitechapel Girl (1993)
The Bells of Bow (1994)
Just Around the Corner (1995)
Cissie Flowers (1996)
Dream On (1997)
The Lights of London (1998)
Playing Around (2000)
Getting There (2001)
The Belts and Bow (2001)
The Sins of Their Fathers (2002)
Make Us Traitors (2003)
Of Woman Born (2005)
Rough Justice (2007)
Secrets of the Heart (2008)