“For me writing is the outcome of an unquiet mind.”
Last year, Simon from St Jude’s asked if I would like to contribute to the first edition of Random Spectacular – a new occasional journal that would set out to explore the visual arts, writing, nature, travel and much more. I quickly fell on the idea of interviewing a very special writer – The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life. Despite the popularity of the Spitalfields Life blog, the GA had remained a shadowy figure and no-one had yet interviewed her, or him. That intrigued me.
The interview was published in the first edition of Random Spectacular, which sold out in less than 48 hours. I’ve written a few words on why this new, irregular journal is such a welcome addition to the world, over here. Simon asked Justin Knopp of Typoretum to design a unique piece to accompany the interview. Justin created a lovely typographic page using hand-typeset antique wooden and metal typefaces, which you can see below.
My conversation with the GA covered terrain that may interest those working at the intersection of writing and technology, or readers with a taste for urban reportage. Or you might simply enjoy it as a portrait of someone for whom writing and life are one. Here’s the article.
From Random Spectacular, issue 1
‘In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London.’ With these words the Spitalfields Life blog was born, back in August 2009. Today, thousands of people from around the world come to read each daily posting by its eloquent but enigmatic creator – the Gentle Author.
The spirit that pervades the blog is best captured in the Gentle Author’s extraordinary promise to readers: ‘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. Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months… Like Good Deeds and Everyman in the old play, let us travel together.’
I wanted to find out more about the writer whose words transport me each day; whose stories take me through previously unseen doorways in my own neighbourhood in the East End. But that also required a promise from me – that I wouldn’t reveal the identity or gender of the Gentle Author. I feared that this guarding of the person behind the pen might go hand in hand with a reticence to talk. What I encountered was something else entirely. Here are some of the words we exchanged over a pot of tea in east London.
TR: ‘I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane’; what led up to that awakening? Where had life taken you?
GA: I did have quite a big career as a writer, with a play due to open on Broadway in September 2001. For obvious reasons, it didn’t open, and then my father died quite unexpectedly a week later. My mother had dementia, and the only thing she knew was that she didn’t ever want to leave her home, in Devon. So I decided to give up my career and go to be her full-time nurse, which I did for five years. During that time I couldn’t really leave the house. It changed my view of the world and I decided I didn’t want to go back to the work I had done before. Being the only child, I inherited the house. I sold it and tried to buy a place in Lisson Grove. That fell through. I tried to buy another in King’s Cross and that fell through. And then a house in Spitalfields came up. I was reluctant to live in Spitalfields, but the house was so wonderful, and I was desperate by then, so I took it. The only person I knew in Spitalfields was Sandra Esqulant, landlady of The Golden Heart.
TR: Why did you choose to blog?
GA: I was attracted to the notion that you could write something and it would be published immediately, and that you could assume an intimacy with the reader comparable to the relationship I feel when I read novels, especially those from the nineteenth century. I also calculated that from then until I reached the age at which my parents died was around ten thousand days, and I found I could respect the idea of doing a story every single day through that time. It was the best possible life I could imagine for myself.
TR: Your promise to readers includes a picture of a sundial on Fournier Street that features the words ‘Umbra Sumus’ – ‘We are shadows’. Reading your writing for the first time, I had the immediate feeling that you were either pursuing or escaping something.
GA: Well, there’s a wonderful notion that Kierkegaard described – that being a writer is like being in the continual state of running through a burning house, trying to decide what to rescue. I do feel that sensation a lot of the time. Also, that people’s stories go unrecorded is a matter of grief to me. I think that arose after the death of my parents. I grew up in Devon around old people, and I used to knock on their doors and ask to spend a day with them. I suppose I have a vertiginous sense of all the stories in the world, and accompanying that is a sense of the loss of all the stories. So I have a compulsion to collect as many as I can, for as long as I can.
TR: Your stories became longer after a couple of months of the blog, and that coincided with you writing more pen portraits.
GA: I have a personal sense of responsibility to people that I’ve met to do them justice. The idea of trying to sum someone up in a thousand words is terrifying. That was why the stories got longer and longer. The other thing that happened in the first year – unexpectedly – was that a lot of readers came along. It gave me a different responsibility; to not disappoint the reader. You want to give them something wonderful. So I became more ambitious.
TR: That is a terrific counterblast to the common, pessimistic notion that people don’t read much any more, and that writing for the Web should always be short. You show that the Web can be a place for a longer and more personal form of writing.
GA: I respect the discipline of writing; that things should be well structured and a story well told. But I also aspire to write in an unmediated way, and to not withhold an emotionalism if that’s how I react to a subject. I am also attracted to use vocabulary in a way that it is not used in journalism, but is perhaps more common in fiction. I chose to be this voice speaking from the darkness, because I want to be in private with the reader. I want the reader to understand that the writer’s intention is benign, and that we can trust each other. And I hope the readers create their own sense of who they are listening to and take ownership of what they read. In this sense, the Gentle Author is a conceit to bring readers closer to the subject, and I want the subject to be the people I’m writing about, not me.
TR: Do you have to get into the character of the Gentle Author when you write?
GA: Graham Greene said that reading Charles Dickens was like listening to the mind talking to itself. It is the internal voice that I aspire to in my writing – what I hear inside my mind.
TR: Tell me a little more about the ‘hare-brained’ task you have set for yourself.
GA: I wanted readers to know they could rely on something new every day. And I felt that if I created this cage for myself, then I could have no escape. I have written more than 700,000 words in the last two years, so it has worked to that degree. It’s a miracle. I spend most of the day running around the streets after people and doing interviews. In the evening, I sit down to supper, and then I write. The golden rule is that I can’t go to sleep until it’s done. People sometimes think that I knock off six stories in advance and press a button each day, but it isn’t like that at all. I may write interviews up a few days later, but it appeals to me that the Gentle Author has no choice but to write a story every day. I’m aware that it’s an excessive way to live but I think life is excessive.
TR: Your interviewees tell you remarkable things about their lives. How do you earn their trust?
GA: You have to be open-hearted and honest, and you hope people see that it is just you, and that there’s no ulterior motive. That no one’s paying you to do it. That you are doing it for love. People are wisely suspicious of writers, so I commonly send someone a piece I have already written and they can see what the outcome of being interviewed will be like.
TR: Your neighbours in the City of London seem to be a difficult subject for you. You have written that you wander ‘like a ghost among the men in suits hurrying with such inexplicable purpose between the glittering palaces.’
GA: The City is an incredible repository of stories and tradition and myth. You go to speak to the Vintners Company and they have been there since 1546. Or you go to speak to John Keohane, the Chief Yeoman Warder, and he talks you through the ritual they have been performing at the Tower of London since the thirteenth century. But equally you are aware of it as a violent, corporate world, and it is hard to reconcile those things. One of the rules of what I do is that there are no bad people in this equation. The challenge is to try to understand what individuals are doing and why. With the City, that’s a challenge that lies ahead for me.
TR: Back in Spitalfields, you write about the tension between tradition and change, such as the spiraling rents that have threatened to push out merchants like Paul Gardner.
GA: It’s very difficult to trace what’s a right or wrong way for change to happen, but it’s vital that good things don’t get destroyed. For me, Paul Gardner, the Market Sundriesman, incarnates the essence of Spitalfields. Unless you have gone and shaken hands with Paul Gardner you can’t really say you have been to Spitalfields. His shop is where all the small traders in East London go to get their bags. What happened in Paul’s case was that the landlords showed themselves to be enlightened and recognised he is a special case. I hope people appreciate that the things that make this place distinctive are worth holding on to. One of the lessons revealed by the crash in the City was that the short-term profit motive is destructive and people need to take a longer-term view.
TR: You seem to revel in those lively nights out with the Bunny Girls and the transvestites and the boys’ club reunions, but how do you feel about Spitalfields on a Saturday night – the drinkers and clubbers?
GA: I think it’s a very beautiful phenomenon. I often go out and walk the streets just to see the crowds on a Saturday night. Nothing has changed much there. In the 1860s The Eagle Tavern on the City Road was getting 12,000 people turning up a night and there were complaints about the crowds then. I think the young people who dress up and come to show off their outfits on Brick Lane embody a wonderful flowering of culture. So many people compete for ownership of this place, but the truth is that it belongs to everybody and nobody. There is a magic in Spitalfields, but if you love the area you must also be generous to others who love it too.
TR: Will there be enough space in your life to do other types of writing, as well as your daily report?
GA: Well, Dickens wrote six or seven stories a week for Household Words, but he wrote the novels of Dickens as well. My background is in fiction, and originally I envisaged that there would be a chapter of a novel by me on the first of the month through the year. That has been sidelined, but as I get more confident and more in control of what I’m doing it could resurface. I’m attracted to the idea that the Gentle Author might have fictional adventures.
TR: What about visits to other places far from Spitalfields?
GA: I am a favoured person in that I have had so many experiences and lived so many lifetimes in my life already. I remember, I went to Los Angeles for the Millennium and I was with a friend in a car on New Year’s Eve, and we turned left onto the freeway into oncoming traffic. She said: “We’re going to die.” And I said: “I don’t mind because I’ve done so much stuff, but what about your son?” There are lots of places I would like to go back to – Beijing, Cuba – but what I do now forces me to live in the day. My mind is so crowded I don’t have much space to think about anything else.
TR: Of course, I must ask about Mr. Pussy. How is he?
GA: Yes, I should explain about the cat. My father died and my mother was inconsolable, so I bought a cat to give to her and that was Mr. Pussy. He was alone with her for the first year and he acquired this very calm personality from her. Now he carries all that emotional history with him. His age marks the time since my father died and his peaceful nature stems from my mother. For these reasons he means a great deal to me, and he is always a presence. Most of the Spitalfields Life stories are written in bed late at night, with him sitting there.
TR: You said something curious in a story on Dennis Severs’ house, which was: ‘Much as I love a good chat, I have many times wished that I never had to speak again.’
GA: I think talking is hard. We take people’s words to be the expression of who they are. But I have always felt, with me, that was a contradiction because I didn’t feel that in speech I could represent who I was. That was why I began to write, because by writing down I could wrestle with words and become more truthful to who I am. So yes, I think it would be wonderful if I could get through the rest of my life without talking. I once lived on an island in the Outer Hebrides. I was the only inhabitant and I had to row 45 minutes to the shore to get my mail. I would not see people for months on end and I did so much writing then. Your internal monologue becomes much more apparent when all the interference of external conversations is gone. Walking is very important in that respect too. I long for the release of the mind.
TR: So, writing is a release from the deluge of thoughts in your head.
GA: Yes. For me, the act of writing is writing it down. So I write it out first time and that is it. There are no drafts. Writing is the act of recording an internal monologue. Coming back to the notion of the mind talking to itself – for me writing is the outcome of an unquiet mind, I suppose.
TR: How has Spitalfields Life changed your life?
GA: I walk down the street and sometimes people lean out of windows to wave and come out and shake my hand. It is a beautiful thing, yet for that to happen in the middle of this huge city is bizarre. Generally, I don’t understand why people don’t talk to each other more. I think this is a political construct, this situation where we are all alienated from one another. A book that was important to me as a student was Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society. I think one of the outcomes of mass distribution through the printing press in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that it made everybody strangers to each other. We see all those people out there as ‘the masses’. It’s rubbish. It’s a lie. The hope of the internet is that it allows everyone to talk to each other again, and not be strangers.
The Gentle Author’s stories can be found at spitalfieldslife.com.
You can buy a limited edition Typoretum poster here.