Lunch with The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life

“In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London”

This is how The Gentle Author (“TGA”) begins the Blog “Spitalfields Life”. If the readers of The Foodie Bugle are unaware of this great work, then allow me to introduce you to it. It is a feat of unimaginable ambition: to write one story every day, for twenty seven years and four months, until 2037 when the 10 000 post is finished. The very last post will be the revelatory self-portrait, and TGA’s identity will be finally revealed.

Starting from 26th August 2009 this was the solemn promise to readers:

“Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and my delight.”

Over a dozen different categories that span the great themes of life, TGA set about walking the length and breadth of Spitalfields and the surrounding neighbourhoods, meeting the characters that reside in its beautiful Georgian houses, its dark alleys, colourful corners and spikily arriviste business heartland. From market traders, to shop keepers, butchers, bakers and florists TGA stopped to interview, photograph and listen to tales of hardship, joy, industry, grief, reinvention and love. From preachers to publicans and printers, we are privy to the lives, loves, luck and losses of the myriad of immigrants and natives that populate this London streetscape. The Blog is a narrative receptacle of a community in flux: its past, present and future.

I have long been intrigued by the great swathe of social, human and family history that is portrayed daily in a voyeuristic reportage style, with great empathy, respect and compassion. TGA writes in an avuncular tone: like an 18th Century diarist or scribe, who has come to research and catalogue the affairs of all those living within these boundaries, no judgement is passed. With the wonders of the digital age, these transcripts are now beamed out to the nether regions of cyberspace, replete with photography or illustrations, to immigrant communities all across the world, for whom a daily snippet of “Spitalfields Life” is now part of their diurnal reading fix.

We learn about Zulen Ahmed, the tandoori and curry chef at Saffron restaurant in Brick Lane; the courtship and marriage of Pam and Raj Chawla of the “Mama Thai” noodle bar are detailed with care; Leila McAlister’s vegetable box scheme is shown in technicolour photography; we can almost hear the din of Billingsgate Fish Market as fish merchant Albert Hafize inspects icy boxes filled with fresh, writhing seafood; we see plump bread loaves being baked in the middle of the night at St.John’s Bakery and young Flinty Chester, the youngest flower stall holder on Columbia Road market, demonstrates great courage and maturity for her age in her troubling story. From tea stalls to grocery markets, bakeries, butcheries and hummus makers, we are afforded privileged entry by proxy into the lives of people whose livelihoods are fast disappearing from the urban commercial landscapes. High rents, greedy landlords, big corporations and hungry developers have all eroded the already fragile security of these lives.

Guaranteeing that I would divulge no name, TGA agreed to meet me over lunch, at E.Pellicci Café on the Bethnal Green Road, one of the author’s very favourite dining haunts, so that I could learn more about how this extraordinary work came to be conceived and how it has unfolded. But first of all, I wanted to know, in an era when every Blogger I interview wants to be famous, why does the writer remain completely anonymous?

TGA: “I think it is important that the readers be brought into emotional possession of the Blog, and that the writer’s persona should be absent. The medium of blogging is a very immediate and personal literary form, with many antecedents, from the Decameron to the Canterbury Tales and Florentine sonnets. In order for the readers to be brought as close as possible to the characters and situations about which they are reading, my identity needs to remain anonymous.”

Despite this detachment, many thousands of readers from all over the world feel drawn to the intimate, personal narrative of this Blog, posting comments on how important the stories are to their lives and how the experiences of the characters resonate within their own day-to-day challenges. We are all, after all, immigrants from somewhere: just like the Jews, Huguenots, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis that have saught and found sanctuary here, everyone has come from somewhere else originally, and can identify directly with the flux and flurry of human existence here. “Umbra sumus” – we are shadows, says the sign on Fournier Street.

It is no coincidence that TGA chose E.Pellicci as our lunch venue: the author has written many times about the story of the Tuscan family that moved here in the early 20th Century, and through the generations has become one of the East End’s most popular and hospitable eateries. I myself am witness to the hustle and bustle of the traders, truckers, shoppers, mothers and visitors who sit eating Mamma Maria Pellici’s famous spaghetti and meat balls, delicious fish pies, crisp potato chips and spicy apple cake. Huddled in this small front room, my hands folded round a mug of steaming tea, it feels surreal that I am sitting with the secret writer who weaves a quiet way round this community, recording vicissitudes, celebrations, traditions and changes, chronicling the passing of events like a modern day Charles Dickens, Francis Kilvert or Samuel Pepys. No doubt, had they been alive today, they too would be Bloggers.

TGA sees it as a responsibility to be as truthful and as empathetic with the characters that are interviewed, to show people at their best, highlighting those artisans whose livelihoods are under threat and to raise awareness of how the modern world has encroached on the boundaries of this, one of London’s most beautiful and yet, in parts, socially deprived areas. The soaring ziggurats of mammon arise from the fringes of genteel Georgian streets, laid out in runs of classical harmony, where every door, brick and lintel reminds us we are but transient visitors. Spitalfields and its stories are bigger than all of us: despite the multi-million pound refurbishments and renovations, it still retains the sweaty grittiness and hurried sense of industrial purpose from which its prosperity was born.

TGA “Spitalfields is a gift for a writer. It is an area in continual and dynamic change. I think that there is a great appetite for the authentic, human stories of old London. Spitalfields is my village. I am embedded at the very centre of its life, and it is a privilege to tell its stories. I just wonder why every town and city in Britain does not have its very own Blog.”

TGA’s background has always been in writing: a very successful career in scriptwriting for the theatre came to an early end as the author had to look after an elderly, ill mother after the death of the author’s father. In 2007 TGA’s mother also died and with the proceeds of the sale of the family home in Devon, a small house in one of the lanes that branch out of Brick Lane was purchased. The author lives there with a beloved and adventurous black cat, called Mr. Pussy, who features in several Blog posts.

The Nobel Prize winning writer Orhan Pamuk, author of “The Museum of Innocence”, has been a great inspiration for TGA:

TGA “Too often emotion is excluded from prose in English literature. I want to write in an openly emotional way, I want to connect with people. I am continually reading, and I take great care to try to improve my writing every day.”

It is by reading Spitalfields Life that I too am constantly trying to achieve higher standards as a blogger: it informs my thinking and my

TGA derives no income now from the writing, other than a small revenue from the unusually beautiful advertisements that run on the right hand side of the website. The whole Blog is designed with an aesthetic of old-world elegance and refinement – you are led through Spitalfields with sepia photographs, oil paintings and illustrations by a number of successful artists, among them Lucinda Rogers. Several photographers have also contributed and there are a couple of friends who help the author arrange interviews and schedule meetings. They are called “the fixers”.

Despite the great success of the Blog, TGA confesses that the complex process of writing, which is done very slowly, has caused many sleepless nights. The sense of responsibility is tangible: the readers await their diurnal e-mail Newsletter missive that the new Post is now online. Yet, there is no end of stories to be found, the hunting fields of Shoreditch, Mile End, Hackney, Bow, the Isle of Dogs and Clerkenwell are fertile, infinite, polyglot grounds. TGA cannot afford public transport so walks to each interview. A vegetable box arrives every week from Leila McAlister’s Calvert Avenue greengrocer shop and the author is the beneficiary of a free chicken a week from a kind butcher, as well as financial assistance from a loyal patron.

My overwhelming sense during the interview is one of duty and continuity: when the author signs e-mails with the words “Your humble servant” it is a sign of an underlying sense of service to the community and readers alike. As we walk out of Pellicci, many of the regulars recognise TGA and stop to chat to the heroic figure that has transcribed sections of their everyday lives.

We walk together to the paper bag shop of Paul Gardner on Commercial Street, whom the author describes as being one of the most important people who have influenced the Blog:

TGA “Paul is far more important to this community than the multi-national bank across the road: he has employed people and supported so many small businesses over the years. He is a fourth generation trader and so many market tradesmen rely on his kindness: one client settled his bill after seven years. He is the future of Spitalfields and we all need to do what we can to support him.”

The very last post, number 10 000, in 2037, will be the revelatory self-portrait, but I do find it hard to believe that TGA will ever stop writing about Spitalfields. By then, in old age, the author that narrated the full and kaleidoscopic story of this fascinating area will be a core part of the woven, intricate, timeless fabric of this photo-story tapestry. We, the author’s loyal readers, will always hanker for more.

Further reading:

The Gentle Author:

Follow the author on Twitter: @thegentleauthor

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