On Sunday our road held its annual street party and we did something new – a story tent which I was lucky enough to put together, with help from some other lovely neighbours, most notably Dorothy Newton.
You can hear the recordings here:
There were several strands behind the story tent, but I think the seed was planted several years ago, when my daughter had to do a school project on the Second World War and we thought it would be interesting to interview all her grandparents about their memories, which she recorded on the tape recorder I used at that time for my interviews for my own journalism. My mum came from war-time Yugoslavia as an eight year old girl after the war with her mother with just a suitcase, which I wrote about in the recent anthology, A Country of Refuge. She remembered the Allies bombing Belgrade, where she and her family lived during the war. My dad grew up in Yorkshire, and had vivid memories too. Her other grandmother lived in Brazil during the war, and grandpa Gordon in London. We also interviewed Amy and Dave, our neighbours, who had excellent recall of the war in London, and of the railings in our road being taken away for the war effort, and of the bombing in the area.
That led me, years later, to think of howe we could tell an intimate history of our area, perhaps through the memories of older people. But there were other threads too. One was the sense of separation after the Brexit vote. Nicolette Jones, another neighbour, wanted to bring people together again, and asked in our local newsletter, which she edits, how many nationalities lived on our road (she’s just published the results and there are 43 countries represented). We live pretty harmoniously together here. Then there’s the present-day of Islington people, celebrated through the Islington Faces Blog, written by Nicola Baird – an amazing archive of over 200 interviews.
I worked with my neighbour, Dorothy Newton, to find people who would be willing to share their stories of where they came from, why they left and what it was like to arrive here. Many of them take tea on Thursdays at St Thomas’s Church, just around the corner, and we chatted about their stories before the street party. Many contributors said that there was nothing particularly interesting about their story – but there was.
Sunday came, and we put up the gazebo, with sides, and set up the recording equipment – all the contributors have agreed to be recorded, as we would like the recordings to be available for local school-children for school projects in the future. I have uploaded them via Soundcloud on this website (see above).
There was Dorothy herself, who talked about the early history of Plimsoll Road, which was once just a cornfield, without a name. She gave a fluent explanation of how this area was urbanised and talked about the main owner or developer of the land, Mr Rock. She thinks that the houses in this area were then built on by a great number of different builders – small firms who maybe did at the most one terrace at a time. In just 25 years, between 1864 and 1895 this area went from being fields to the inner city. The pace of change must have been dizzying.
Then came Nicolette, talking about our own local hero, Samuel Plimsoll, after whom our road was renamed – he saved the life of thousands of sailors, after inventing the Plimsoll Line on ships, so that they were not overloaded.
Malcolm then talked about a local World War One sailor, a man of 45, who enlisted and died after just a few weeks service after being torpedoed. He lived in the neighbouring road.
Then we heard some stories from further afield – John talked movingly of his mother, who was born in what was then Prussia, and who had just given birth at the end of the Second World War. Her German husband was missing in action, presumed dead. The Russians were advancing and were raping and killing. Her father, a local dignitary, tried to reason with the troops as they entered the place they were staying. They beat him to death. She survived, and fled with her newborn, in terrible circumstances, and eventually got to Hamburg, to the relative safety of an Allied area controlled by the British. She met a British Army major, who fell in love with her. After a period of time, and after her German husband was declared dead, they married. John, the baby, as he was, came to England at the age of about four. Life was not easy for a German woman, who was spat at in the street, and he was not allowed to play with other children at first. A spell-binding story (and a true Plimsoll-roader – he has lived in the same house twice over).
Then Uli spoke of growing up in Vienna, around the same time, and her life in very difficult circumstances during the Second World, complicated yet further as her family was partly Jewish. Uli also gave a vivid account of living in Barnsbury in the ’60’s as a young married woman. ‘We were the only ones without lace curtains’ and therefore they got knocks at the door. Uli moved to Plimsoll Road in the ’70’s and has lived here happily ever since – she decided to move here because of the nice long gardens, chosen with the help of Ordnance Survey maps.
Then came Mickey, who described coming over from Trinidad, in the ’50’s, and gave a vivid description of the ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ signs outside boardings house. But, for Mickey, it stiffened his resolve to make the best of his life, and he joined the British army and did well for himself, later joining BT and also doing well in that company too, and buying and selling houses so that he did not have to abide by the rules of racist landlords.
Lastly, Nicola, from the Islington Faces Blog, gave a great description of some of the characters she had interviewed over the many years she has spent, writing the blog – over 200 interviews and counting. It is a great resource for local people – and well worth a look. There is a huge amount of content there.
I summed up the very moving story tent session, with a thank you to all the wonderful participants. Oral histories are a very special way of sharing memories with the community, and we are lucky to have a really great community on Plimsoll Road. This is a way of looking at history at the micro level. People have come and gone from this area – the builder himself, Mr Rock, may have had Hugenot, (refugee) roots, with a name anglicised from Roche. This is one of those areas that welcomes people from different races and communities – it’s one of its strengths. This mini-project, I hope, will start to build up an archive of voices of those communities.