As a child I thought it was wildly romantic that my mother’s family lived in Limehouse at the back end of the 19th century. They were proper Victorians, I thought, just like the ones off the telly!
I’d like to be able to say that a precocious appreciation of a Moroccan-bound, boxed set of the collected works of Dickens was the inspiration for my books set in the London of the 1880s, but I have to admit that it was probably the box balanced on a G-Plan cabinet in the corner of our orange and brown living room.
I blame the weather: it seemed to rain a lot during the late 1970s. During the summer holidays, as I basked in the flickering glow of the cathode ray tube while the garden turned to a swamp and moss grew on the Space Hopper, my idea of how my antecedents must have lived was formed, largely, by watching TV for hours on end.
In days of yore – that’s back in the day - the BBC stopped broadcasting after lunch, but over on ITV a selection of black and white period films filled the gap between Mavis Nicholson and Magpie. I watched them all, over and over again, a televisual diet of mild jingoism, casual racism, alarming sexism and eye-popping violence. All before teatime.
From my extensive viewing, it seemed to me that Victorian London was a city of swirling fogs, galloping horses, gas-lit alleys and cloaked criminal masterminds. It was a beautifully dressed, lavishly mounted and compulsively watchable stage where sweet-faced, angel-voiced ingénues met grisly fates at the hands of unspeakable, but nicely dressed, villains.
In short, it was a wonderfully theatrical, completely artificial world where right always triumphed and the shadow of the hangman’s noose dangled satisfyingly over the closing credits to show that the wicked got their just deserts.
I had a particular fondness for anything produced by Gainsborough Studios and starring James Mason – Fanny by Gaslight was particular favourite. In addition, Basil Rathbone’s monochrome Hollywood incarnation of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, was a regular post-lunch pleasure. When my father relented to pressure and rented a new TV, the multi-coloured, if not multi-cultural, London of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, brought thrillingly to the screen by Christopher Lee, cemented a newly vibrant and decadent image of Limehouse and the East End into my mind that was difficult to shift.
My mum came from a large, close-knit family and nearly every Sunday there was a raucous gathering of the clan. When I looked at my grandmother - a small and sturdily pragmatic woman only ever glimpsed out of her floral housecoat at weddings, christenings and funerals – I found myself thinking about her childhood. Born in 1898 and raised in St Anne Street, smack in the heart of Limehouse, I wondered if her early life had ever resembled the world I’d seen on screen – the glorious, gaudy confection of cobbled streets, rumbling hackney carriages, music halls, opium dens and fan tan gambling parlours?
The answer is a guarded yes, and, of course, no.
I often wish I’d asked nan (that’s we all called her) more about her own childhood – her real childhood, I mean, not the one I imagined. I never got the chance during all those Sunday lunches. There was something about the jut of her chin as she doggedly boiled those cabbages into a sludge of submission that suggested memory lane was the very last place she wanted to visit.
I’ve noticed that many people who have reached a mid point in life become interested in the history of their families. It’s especially true, I think, of those who are childless, perhaps because they know they are a sort of end point in a line. I don’t have children and I certainly recognise that impulse in myself.
When my mum died a decade ago, another link with the past was broken. I bitterly regretted that hadn’t asked her more about her own childhood and the stories passed down to her. It was a catalyst and I started to talk to much older cousins who are the current guardians of the family ‘archive’. In fact, I sought them out determined not to allow my personal history to slip even further from my grasp. Luckily they were happy to share their knowledge and research.
Any romantic illusions I ever harboured about my Limehouse roots were firmly dispelled when I was given a photograph of the residents of St Anne Street taken in about 1909. My youthful grandmother is there along with assorted siblings and my great grandmother. The smiling faces and bold postures presented to the camera cannot hide the fact that these people were poor.
Over to the right of the image the faded face of my great-grandmother is sad-eyed and exhausted. It’s not surprising she looks defeated. Even though she was probably in her mid-40s when the photograph was taken, her life had been almost unbearably hard. Widowed with several children to support she had to find a way to feed them and keep them together under a single roof.
In the closing days of Queen Victoria’s reign, my tiny great grandmother (women aren’t tall in my family, I’m only 4ft 10ins and she was even smaller!) queued at the docks for casual shift work every morning alongside men who were twice her size and half her age. No wonder she looks like a shadowy wraith in that photograph; she was literally wearing away.
More prompting revealed atmospheric family tales that echoed my fantasy: visits to the music halls to see favourites Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Albert Chevalier and Little Titch; the Chinese men with the pigtails who lived three houses down; my grandmother and her two sisters lying awake in a shared bed frightened by the eerie sound of the wind whistling through the ropes of the tall-masted ships moored on the Thames.
Nothing, however, could hide the fact that the Limehouse of my childhood imagination bore about as much resemblance to the streets where my family actually lived as a dish of lobster Thermidor to a mug of jellied eels.
I began the first book in the Kitty Peck series in 2013 as my entry to the Faber and Faber / Stylist Magazine crime fiction competition. Although I’d worked as a journalist for years and latterly in PR, I’d never written fiction before and I wanted to test myself. The only rule was that entries should feature ‘a strong female protagonist’.
I was certain I knew what the judges, who included Ruth Rendell, would be looking for – a woman in a tough contemporary setting, someone juggling an impossible life with a demanding job, probably in the police force. Something a little bit edgy, dark with a hint of Scandi maybe?
I sat down, opened my lap tap and stared at the screen.
Two hours later I had written a scene set in Limehouse towards the end of the 19th century. To be honest I was astounded, but I recognised the richly inventive cockney speech patterns of my mum’s family, the aching poverty, the squalor of the cobbled streets and the stench of human waste tumbling through those foggy passages. I also the recognised the heightened reality, melodrama, glamour and romance of those films that riveted me to the sofa through those rainy afternoons in the 1970s.
Kitty Peck’s world is my homage to my family and the almost Proustian power of the B-movie.
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