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All there is in life is in Spitalfields, says East End’s Gentle Author

19:07 01 March 2012

Bag seller Paul Gardner runs oldest business in Spitafields (picture: Jeremy Freeedman)

Bag seller Paul Gardner runs oldest business in Spitafields (picture: Jeremy Freeedman)

Jeremy Freedman

The story of everyday folk of Spitalfields in London’s East End is published today (Thurs) in a unique book by a secret author who has been collecting nearly 1,000 individual stories so far. The Gentle Author, as the writer is known in East End circles, made a pledge to blog one story every day until 10,000 have been written.

‘Spitalfields Life’ with 300 pictures and the first 150 stories, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20, is about its street art, markets, diverse food, culture, pageants, rituals, customs, traditional trades and old family businesses—but above all about the ordinary men and women who make it all happen.

Meeting The Gentle Author to find out what ticks, however, is real cloak-and-dagger stuff. I was lured to the backroom bar of the Golden Heart in Commercial Street, where it all started three years ago, and found a copy of the book placed on the mantelpiece next to a half-drunk pint of Guinness—then a tap on the shoulder and the interview begins:

WHY SO PASSIONATE ABOUT SPITALFIELDS?

“I’m passionate that people recognise that it’s more than just shopping mall. It’s about the people here and all their stories—it’s the people that make the place.”

WHY ALL THE CLOAK-AND-DAGGER STUFF ABOUT YOUR IDENTITY?

“Blogs can be vain, with the blogger’s name and picture at the top. It becomes all about them. But my purpose is to tell the story of the people who live around me with humility and respect—the best way to do that is take me out of the equation. People create their own sense of who it is writing about them.”

WHO ARE THE FOLK YOU WRITE ABOUT?

“There’s a ninth-generation weaver whose ancestors began in Spitalfields in 1720 and several fourth-generation craftsmen and traders like the bell-founder, the poulterer and a tailor. A fourth-generation bag seller runs the oldest business in Spitalfields that still occupies the same building for 140 years. He sells the cheapest paper bags in London because he doesn’t want to make a big profit, just an income, which supports the lowest-level of businesses, small shops and market traders. But the first character I met we call the ‘queen of Spitalfields,’ Sandra Esqulant–it’s an old Huguenot name. She spent all her life here. Sandra and husband Dennis who past way two years ago have run the Golden Heart more than 30 years and used to open at dawn for the porters when the Old Spitalfields market was still trading before the redevelopment. They stayed on when the market left and everything emptied, but stuck it out. Now it’s the centre of the world.”

WHERE DO YOU FIND THESE PEOPLE?

“I started by interviewing Sandra at the pub, then asked her who else I could speak to and it spread from that. Everyone I meet suggests others. I’ve got this long list and as quickly as I go through it, more names get added. I’ve done 900 stories in two years—by the summer it’ll be 1,000.”

WHY HAVE YOU PLEDGED TO WRITE 10,000 STORIES?

“I realised I had 10,000 days left before reaching the age when both my parents died and just thought what I could do in those 10,000 days. I decided to tell the story of people no-one else was writing about and to witness their lives with dignity. I made a promise to write one every day. That will take me 27 years and four months, till the spring of 2037.”

DO YOU MAKE A LIVING OUT OF IT?

“It’s a labour of love, but I call it a ‘catastrophic success’ because I’ve turned down paid work to do it. I sell a few ads and make a little money. It’s a living that keeps me modestly. I have no dependants and don’t run a car or anything like that.”

WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO THE EAST END?

“I’m from Exeter, a market town. My first job was at the Bishopsgate Institute library. I remember one lunchtime coming across the market—it was just like Exeter and made me feel at home. It really has a sense of a close-kit community, one I recognise coming from Devon.”

IS THERE REALLY A ‘SPITALFIELDS’ IDENTITY, BEING ON THE DOORSTEP OF THE CITY?

“Yes, of course. It’s the place where all the riches of the City meet what were once the hamlets of The Tower, what we now call Tower Hamlets. It’s like two currents in water meeting, creating turbulence. There’s always been turbulence and opportunity in Spitalfields. The Jews who weren’t allowed to trade in the City in the 12th century started a market in Petticoat Lane outside the City gates, and it’s just gone on and on since then. It’s a whirlpool that draws people in. You can’t ever spoil it because of that. All there is in life is in Spitalfields.”

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Spitalfields Life,’ published by Hodder & Stoughton at £20. Check out today’s blog: http://spitalfieldslife.com/

Photos by: The Gentle Author, Jeremy Freedman, Mark Jackson, Huw Davies and Mike Brooke. Drawing by: Lucinda Rogers.

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