‘There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover…’Henrietta sings passionately into her toy microphone wrapped up with silver gaffa tape. ‘My grandson sat on it’ she laughs. This was the beginnings of a good old fashioned East End knees up last Friday to celebrate the launch of Kate Thompson’s new novel, The Wedding Girls. We didn’t have a ‘Joanna’ (piano) but we tapped our feet, clapped our hands and tried to keep up with 90 plus year old Henrietta as she crooned into the mic and cocked her leg up in a finale dance. We all clapped enthusiastically and settled back down to hear more stories of the East End in days gone by.
Brick Lane Book shop isn’t the most obvious place for an old fashioned knees up but it is central to where many of the women gathered here had spent their youth during World War II. It is the perfect setting for a book reading and lets face it, Cockneys can create a party atmosphere where ever they are. This is Kate’s third novel set in the East End and she has spent many hours interviewing people in their 80s and 90s who remember surviving through the hard times of WWII. The story centres around a wedding photographer’s studio and the glamour that these places depicted in contrast to the harsh world outside its doors. It isn’t all white silk and tulle, the women in the story also get caught up in the Battle of Cable Street during the 1936 clash with Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and residents of this now infamous East End street. The story is fiction but the events are true life and some of the women gathered in the small book shop on Friday evening can still remember the events on that extraordinary day.
‘It all started with a question’ Kate tells the audience when she can get a word in edgeways. ‘How did women cope with weddings in between wars’. Kate had seen photos in the Tower Hamlets archive from East End studio photographers Boris Bennett and William Whiffin and admired how the brides looked like stars from the silver screen, not the machinists, waitresses and shop girls that they were. Kate started researching her novel at a library but her journalist background made her question this method and she says ‘visiting an archive is not the same as speaking to real women’. The animated stories these women narrate bring the events to life for Kate. ‘I start with the events, such as the Battle of Cable Street and I go away and think about the characters, I weave in the women’s real life stories around the events, bringing in as much social history as possible. I spend many hours listening to these incredible women . The book is fiction but I want the stories to be authentic and representative of their East End.’ Chatting to the women who lived through these challenging times helped Kate understand the disparity of hardship and glamour. ‘A wedding was a way of escapism for the day and a wedding portrait was a symbol of hope for a brighter future’.
Not only did Kate interview these engaging women, she was also lucky enough to visit the archives of the Museum of London who hold over 100 wedding dresses in the basement of the museum’s Barbican home. Fashion curator Beatrice Behlen explained to Kate the importance of the social histories of the dresses that have been donated to them. It isn’t only about the style of the dress that is symbolic of the era and Beatrice spends many hours researching the history of the women who wore the dress and their families.
As this is Kate’s third book about the East End of London I wonder what draws her to the area. ‘I’m not from the east end, it is my spiritual home. You meet one person then another, everyone knows everyone else, all the great stories are like gold dust to a writer, I can’t let these stories go untold. I hope I put as much of these into the book as possible. The residents always make me feel so welcome, people open up and tell me their tails. Over the years I’ve made so many amazing friends. I come away on a high and full of admiration’.
In life imitating art, actress Anita Dobson is in the audience. She started life in Stepney to a machinist mother and cutter father. Anita starts chatting to our singing entertainer, Henrietta and they discover that they lived in the same street. Anita kindly offers to give a reading of the prologue to Kate’s book. The party atmosphere changes and everyone listens intently to the experienced actress narrate the story and simultaneously change into her infamous cockney accent straight from the Queen Vic as she enters into the dialogue on the pages. Everyone is engaged in the story and as she finishes, we all clap loudly but with heavy hearts as it symbols the end of the evening.
I’m giving away a signed copy of Kate’s book, The Wedding Girls. To be in with a chance of winning, like the Olive Road Facebook page and comment below the post pinned to the top of the Facebook page. Alternatively, sign up for our newsletter and you will be entered into the competition. Closing date is 31st May, only one entry per person.