Monday, March 18, 2013


Just finished Melanie McGrath's Silvertown (2003). It tells the story of a woman, Jenny Page (nee Fulcher) who lived in the East End of London. She was born two years after Queen Victoria died, grew up amongst grinding poverty, had all her teeth taken out on her 17th birthday to save on future dental costs, worked in a sweatshop as a seamstress, married unhappily, survived  the wartime bombing, ran a cafe in Silvertown and lived on, bitter and arthritic, to the ripe old age of 91. The type of person who would normally only make it into history books as a statistic. It so happens that Jenny was the author's grandmother and this is her quiet, affectionate homage to her.
I was drawn to the book partly because I loved her later The Long Exile (see post), but mainly because I spent a fair bit of the 80s exploring Silvertown and its docklands. I would catch a train to Woolwich, take the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames and emerge into a blighted but fascinating area, dominated by the massive Victoria & Albert Docks (for much of the 20th century, the largest in the world), Beckton Gas Works and Tate & Lyle sugar refinery. By the 70s, the first two had closed down and I would sneak in to wander around their vast, ghostly buildings taking pictures. It made fabulous sets for films: Jarman's The Last of England, Gilliam's Brazil, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, even 007's For Your Eyes Only were shot here; and on a rather more modest scale, the photos for the first Pump album were taken here. 
Amazingly, Tate & Lyle  is still there, making Golden Syrup and treacle etc. (There's a book, The Sugar Girls, about the women who worked there in the 1940s-60s). But otherwise the place has changed beyond recognition, courtesy of the Thames Barrier, London City Airport and Docklands Light Railway. I still remember walking into a pub on the Albert Road and if someone had been playing a piano it would have stopped as everyone checked out the stranger, but then settled back into local banter. But that's enough nostalgia for today.

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