Spitalfields Life, by The Gentle Author
In January 2011 I subscribed to a blog which I’d come across and found rather intriguing, so intriguing indeed that I wanted to read more. Every morning, waiting for me in my inbox, is an email from The Gentle Author containing a new blogpost from the Spitalfields Life series. Each day I open The Gentle Author’s email with a sense of anticipation as part of the charm of these blogs is that I never know what they will contain. One day it might be a detailed look at a historical document on London street traders, a behind-the-scenes insight into the restoration work on an 18th century Spitalfields house, an intimate portrait of an East End market trader . . . whatever the subject, the writing is engaging, drawing me in to the world described.
Saltyard Books, recognising quality when they see it, have put together a collection of The Gentle Author’s blogs in a published volume: Spitalfields Life. Rightly so for an author who writes so often, and so well, of craft and art, this is a handsome volume – elegantly typeset by David Pearson and with illustrations by artists Mark Hearld, Lucinda Rogers and Rob Ryan alongside photographs by various photographers from the original blogposts. A pleasure in making, from umbrellas to typeset posters to buildings themselves, is one of the themes that runs through this collection and holding a well-made book in which to enjoy this crafted prose is an appropriate treat.
Reading through this book, I was struck afresh by the range and variety of human life contained in the writing, all the more remarkable given the Spitalfields starting point. Artists, unknown and celebrated, Nigerian fabric sellers, political activists, Tom the sailor, a nursery nurse, a window cleaner – the list could go on and on – are all here – each portrayed with respect and affection. In this chronicling of London and portrayal of trades, how people make a living, The Gentle Author evokes Henry Mayhew and his collection of articles London Labour and the London Poor. The Gentle Author is obviously an empathetic interviewer. The portraits of people, using their own spoken words framed within The Gentle Author’s writing, offer a glimpse into someone’s life, often taking them through from childhood to old age.
The strength of this work, however, is that these are not simply documentary recordings of people lives, these are carefully-chosen, well-written, edited portraits. The identity of The Gentle Author is a mystery in the sense that we don’t know his or her name or gender. One of the pleasures of reading Spitalfields Life, however, is getting to know The Gentle Author too – this is a person who owns, and loves, a black cat Mr Pussy, who relishes St John’s Eccles cakes, a person campaigning to save the historic fabric of London – who through this writing emerges as vividly as those being recorded. That intimate sense of connecting to a real person is, I think, at the heart of Spitalfields Life.
As a Londoner myself, it is a real pleasure to see the complexities of life in this large, diverse, historic city written about so characterfully and so well. A fascination with both the past – the history which informs the buildings, a delight in tracing repeated patterns - and the living, lively, thriving present which peoples his book, gives this book a wonderful range of reference. The Gentle Author finds fascination in the nooks and crevices of city life and, through quietly eloquent writing illuminates it, not with a bright, harsh light, however, but with the atmospheric, flickering light of a candle, sensitive to the beauty in the shadows.