Indulge me! After 28 years I’m leaving Stoke Newington (North London). My house has been sold, the papers signed, keys ready to hand over and I’m off – tomorrow! What follows are my reflections on my literary time here.
Stoke Newington has always attracted dissenters. The non-conformists of the 1790s lived around Newington Green. I think of them every time I catch the 73 bus (no tubes in Hackney). Focused on the Unitarian chapel, which is still here, a group of radical thinkers met and talked and wrote their views on the repression instituted by the government following the French Revolution. They included Tom Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She lived and taught here. There is a wall painting of her on the side of the Unitarian chapel.
I made a special study of Mary Wollstonecraft as part of my undergraduate degree, studying with another dissenter, EP Thompson, at Warwick University. Unaffiliated and pursued for a definition of his ideas, he famously announced in one lecture that he was a Marxist Muggletonian.
On Stoke Newington Church Street one of the houses is called Defoe House. Here lived the first novelist, Daniel Defoe. Perhaps he spent the plague years here, for Stoke Newington was a village outside London in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The young Samuel Pepys was sent here as a child, for his health. Defoe was sentenced to the pillory for his writing, but, according to legend and Wikipedia ‘the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health’. My kind of dissenter, one who turns the tables.
When I came here in the early 1980s houses were cheap (in London terms) and attracted public sector workers, especially teachers and social workers. We were mostly in our 30s. The women of this tribe were called drabbies. Mary Wollstonecraft was the original drabby perhaps. Nowadays it’s renown as a good place to bring up children, and is choked by those up-cycling chops and three wheel drive buggies. Where are the drabbies and dissenters of yesteryear?
They reassemble at the Stoke Newington literary festival, established a few years ago. Unlike other literary festivals, it does not rely on Radio 4-type audiences hanging on the words of (mainly male) news presenters, politicians including members of the House of Lords and tv gardeners turned novelists. Rather the buzz comes from radicals and outspoken thinkers in fiction, poetry, journalism, humour and other cultural areas. Lindsey Hilsum talking about her experiences in Libya, for example. Jacky Kay reading from her short stories. And lots of other original women and men.
And there have been other delights to feed the literary soul: there has been an independent bookshop here for as long as I have walked up the High Street. Independent bookshops are treasures. Stoke Newington Bookshop seems to be thriving. And the library – no praise is too much for the service from London libraries, the on-line ordering service, the ability to reserve books from anywhere in Greater London, the pleasure of seeing the library used day in and day out by Hackney residents. And I have had access to a very wide range of writing classes: two at the Faber Academy in Bloomsbury and several at City Lit. Spread the Word run great workshops and other events.
Moving house is making me nostalgic in another way. Packing up and decluttering my stuff means discovering items from 28 and more years ago. I have come across a collection of juvenilia. But here is my earliest extant writing:
Yesterday I went to the fair. I liked the swing-Boats. Mummy could not come. She had to fech granny. I liked it very muech.
Six days later, the second entry shows more grasp of narrative.
Yesterday I had an apple. When I was counting how many bettle holes, on the last one a bettle came out. I went and told mummy. Fuzz [my aunt] came to get it, but when we got there it was gone.
A flurry of misspelling occurred on 25th September:
Yesterday I went to the ceinama. I liked it verey much. I saw a buffaloa. I[t] was lovley.
The first entry was illustrated with a swing-boat and the second with an apple and a bettle making off. It is clear why I stuck with writing (despite my spelling) rather than developing my drawing skills.
The collection also includes several school exercise books of novels – the start of three or four novels, with my favoured nom de plume. There is a playscript or two and copies of the school magazine to which I contributed.
In this house I have written all my published books (on education and on retiring), drafted my novel, edited my short stories, written my assignments, dissertation and thesis for my higher degrees.
The bulk of my books are here, despite considerable de-cluttering. Every morning I sit at my writing table and look out of the window at the cherry tree, the apple tree (both planted since I arrived) and the people in the windows of the houses next door. (I’ll miss you, naked man, getting up every morning at 6.50!) I’m writing my Morning Pages.
I’m giving all this up – Mary Wollstonecraft, the library, my peaceful writing room, but not my books, volumes of morning pages, juvenilia or writing amibitions.
I’m going to a village in Devon – a cottage in a village in Devon. I’ll have a writing room with a view of Dartmoor. It’s a new adventure for an ageing drabby. Normal blogging will resume shortly.
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