117: once upon a time

A long time ago when the world was young, a girl moved to a new city and fell, most unexpectedly, in love. Not with a person, as you might expect, but with the place. There were a few ill-judged flings along the way, but we all make mistakes.

This was not the plan. I had a perfectly good plan, which was to get a few years teaching experience under my belt in the Smoke and then move back to Wales. I had a term’s supply teaching in a school in Newham, so I’d found a flat in Forest Gate only a few streets away from where my grandparents had lived when they were first married. My parents drove me to London with all my worldly possessions, and as we headed further and further round the M25 my dad got very a bit grumpy and decided to come off a couple of junctions too early which led us down through the admittedly terrifying streets of Edmonton and Tottenham. He was not happy. It was not a civilised bit of London, compared to where London sister was living in leafy Ealing.

Eventually we made it to the right bit of London, which – being on the edge of Wanstead Flats – was at least much leafier and my flat was lovely. Each day I would hop on a bus down Green Street to the enormous school I was working in, travelling past shops full of glorious sari fabrics, vegetables I’d never even heard of before, Caribbean takeaways, Indian sweet shops, the West Ham stadium, noisy markets, multiple languages in my ears and people everywhere. It was chaotic and colourful and completely new to me.

I next lived in Plaistow, near an African church full of chattering families in bright wax print outfits; then Kersti and I moved to Whitechapel. Whitechapel was noisy and scary at times: if the wind was in the right direction we’d be woken up by the muezzin calling the local Muslims to prayer at the East London Mosque and the walk from the station in the dark was not pleasant. The kitchen tiles were held on by blu-tack, the heaters were broken downstairs and the radiators upstairs were rusting away, we had the worst letting agents in the world but the balcony looked out over a disused Jewish cemetery which was spooky and atmospheric and magical. The walk through Bethnal Green to our favourite pub took us through every sort of housing: post-war flats, streets of ‘Improved Industrial Dwellings’ built around the same time as the museum, shabbier (but gentrifying) Georgian streets, past a listed Brutalist block which was being turned into luxury flats that none of the previous council tenants could ever have afforded, an early tower block, past workers’ dwellings and Peabody Buildings. I wrote a tour of the area a couple of years back, taking in a circle around the museum and exploring the phases of social building and philanthropy over the past century or so.

I worked in Wapping, surrounded by evidence of the past in the shape of warehouse buildings, Execution Dock, historic pubs, cobbled streets and peeks through tall buildings to the river. Three years working in Chelsea at the National Army Museum showed me another part of London which was much shinier and elegant, but I never fell in love with it the way I had with the East End.

Holding forth on the Limehouse Cut

By the time I moved across to work at the Museum of London Docklands in 2005, there was no hope. I immersed myself in the history of the East End (and got paid for it!). My specialist subject was migration and diversity, even writing a unit for the London Curriculum on the subject. The move to my current role means I don’t have a much of an excuse for social history any more, so this week I jumped at the chance to deliver a training session for our local teaching alliance on local history and using museums. Over an hour and a half we took in London’s oldest stretch of canal, a lost river, a school which was bombed the the First World War, London’s original Chinatown, a Hawksmoor church, a couple of old pubs, wharves, the beginnings of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the East India Company, Ian McKellen’s pub and Canary Wharf before a visit to the museum. Luckily the sun stayed out for us, and it was great to see the trainees again – they’d all just got their PGCE results, and many were looking forward to starting their first teaching jobs in September. ITT has always been one of my favourite bits of working in museums, as they’re my visitors of the future. I’m looking forward to next year already!

Making me happy this week:

  • working at the Digital Accountancy Show at the Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium for We are FTW. This year I got to be the voice of god and make all the announcements. I will also never run out of socks again.
  • The usual Sunday swim with J followed by the apres-swim hot choc and a bacon roll
  • Getting excellent feedback on the first part of my current course
  • Lunch with M, R and E with added babies
  • Saturday dog walks followed by coffee and enormous croissants
DAS 2022. Birds-eye view from the 4th floor, home to the NFL suite. Really I was scoping out the free notebooks.

This week I’m back in ‘proper’ work mode as we count down to the museum’s 150th birthday in a fortnight. I can tell you the history of it if you want!

Kirsty x

What I’ve been reading:

Villager – Tom Cox

Attack and Decay – Andrew Cartmel

The Vows of Silence – Susan Hill

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