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Gilda O'Neill

Gilda O'Neill

Gilda O'Neill grew up in the East End of London. Having left school aged fifteen, she later returned to education as a mature student and went on to take three university degrees. Since 1990 she has been writing full-time and has published seven novels and two non-fiction works as well as many short stories, articles and reviews.

She is a founder member of Material Girls, a network of women writers across the whole spectrum of the industry. She is married with two grown-up children and divides her time between Essex and Spitalfields. Books published by Penguin include My East End, Our Street and The Good Old Days.

Gilda O'Neill is the author of The Good Old Days, which brings to life the real working class London of Victoria’s reign. Here Gilda talks about being the world's worst barmaid, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and the writer's common love of stationery...

1. Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
Seeing my husband, John, and my children, Jo and Jem - also watching reruns of Seinfeld.

2. What are you reading at the moment?
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka - a real pleasure; am also picking my [way] through the new edition of Pevsner's London 5: East from the Buildings of England series.

3. Which author do you most admire?
Angela Carter - she showed how inspired imagination and beautiful writing doesn't have to preclude page turning narrative.

4. What's your earliest memory?
It seems unbelievable but I can remember the pattern of light coming through the canopy of my Lloyd Loom crib.

5. What is your greatest fear?
Losing those I love.

6. How would you like to be remembered?
Kindly, with a smile, a bit of weeping and wailing, and maybe to the tune of 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead'.

7. Have you ever done something you've really regretted?
My regrets are more to do with things I've not done.

8. How do you spoil yourself?
Good food, good wine and good company, and buying ever more books and shoes.

9. What's your favourite word / book?
With reference to answer three above - Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.

10. Who do you turn to in a crisis?
I'd say it would be John, although if it was a hair or make-up related crisis then maybe not.

11. What makes you angry?
Bullying of all kinds - from the playground variety to what is happening in Lebanon, and all its other manifestations in between.

12. Have you ever had any other jobs apart from writing?
Where to begin? Among my many jobs I have been the world's worst barmaid for a day; I worked in the most old-fashioned office in the City, where I felt
like Bob Cratchit; I did light shows for rock concerts; managed employment bureaux; I've taught - loved working with the students, but was eventually worn down by some of my colleagues' lack of enthusiasm; occasional broadcasting, which I love. I could go on. I like to think that my rather unorthodox career plan has enabled me to experience life...

13. Are you in love?

14. What's your worst vice?
Being sedentary - with this job I know I should exercise, but knowing is very different from doing.

15. What are you proudest of?
That my parents lived to see me published and enjoyed it so much.

16. Where do you write?
Anywhere, including in my head.

17. Where's your favourite city?

18. When was the last time you cried?
I have to admit to being a real weeper - I could probably help solve the drought problem - but my last real bout was a few days ago. I found a very distressed lost child in a busy shopping complex in the centre of Dublin. I took her over to a shop assistant but the little girl wouldn't let me leave her. When she and her mother were finally reunited, the three of us burst in to tears - a combination of fear and relief.

19. One wish; what would it be?
Joy, peace and happiness for all, of course.

20. Did you enjoy school?
I loved school until I passed my 11+ and encountered the careers person, who asked me to select two cards [pre-computer days] to find out which options I should go for. I chose concert pianist and poet. She asked to what standard I played. I said I didn't but she'd asked me what I'd like to be. She tossed the card to one side, looked at the other I'd chosen and said 'Let's face it, a girl like you is never going to become a writer.' I dropped out of school at 15, and still resent that woman's attitude - nobody should discourage a child. But I did and still do love learning, and went on to take three university degrees as a mature student, and was delighted to be awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of East London for my writing about the area.

Quickfire questions:

1. Will the printed word endure?
I hope so, but the rapidity of technological change makes me wonder.

2. Which newspaper do you read?
I read bits from a variety of British papers on the net - it's important to see different perspectives. I used to read the Guardian every day, but it seems to have become rather obsessed with youth and young people's music. John usually brings the Evening Standard, London's weekday paper, home with him.

3. Who / What is your biggest influence?
This was a difficult question - I think that people and things inspire me rather than influence me. Perhaps I'm arrogantly saying I hope I'm an individual who can admire others without being overly influenced by them.

4. What books did you read as a child?
We didn't have books at home, so when I went to school I couldn't read. We were taught with the Janet and John series, and when those marks on the page suddenly made sense and began forming words, there was no stopping me. I joined the local library and read everything I could lay my hands on - quite indiscriminately - and also started writing my own stories and poems, which had quite a lot to do with a love of stationery that seems to be shared by quite a lot of writers.

5. Which literary character would you most like to meet?
Fevvers, the Cockney, aerial artiste, and star of Nights at the Circus - a glorious creation.

6. Which authors do you most admire?
See 3 in main list, but also any authors who have something to say and are dedicated - or daft - enough to spend time saying it as well as they can.

Everyone needs a holiday and our authors are no different. Some have had scorching holidays and some quite frankly were too unsavoury to let you into. From dream holiday destinations and holiday horror stories to top holiday survival tips and summertime memories we’ve got the low-down and we’re willing to share…

What's your favourite summer memory?
As readers of My East End will know, I went hop-picking as a child - making the annual trip to Kent for the September hop harvest. Like lots of other Londoners, my family fell in love with the Kent countryside, and, in the summer Dad would take us on day trips to Yalding. We'd travel there on the back of his old Bedford truck, complete with Susie the dog for company. We'd spend the day swimming, paddling and fishing for tiddlers in the river, feeling the mud squidging between our toes; and we'd fly kites on the leas, the grassy water meadows edging the river, and eat what I remember as huge ice creams from the little cafe that also provided the endless cups of tea for Mum. Of course, the sun was always shining back then...

And your dream holiday destination?
I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to have travelled quite a bit as I've got older, and a little sandy cove that my husband John and I came across in Tobago would take some beating as a dream destination for me.

Any top holiday survival tips you can pass onto our readers?
Stay away from John while he's packing - for some reason my usually kind and gentle husband can turn ferocious when confronted with a suitcase.

What do you always pack for summer hols?
I used to be a real over-packer, taking everything I thought I might possibly need, but have - slowly and painfully - come to realise that if you forget something you can usually buy it at your destination or do without it. The one exception being the supply of books I have to have with me - my security blanket.

Do you have any favourite places you like to go in the summer months?
I do have favourite places, but I also love the adventure of going somewhere different, and not necessarily that far from home. I think sometimes we forget what a beautiful island we live on, and fail to see the beauty around us, both in nature and in the built environment.

What place in the world do you think everyone should visit at least once?
I am very wary of recommending places to visit - one person's backpacking dream trip to the High Andes might make a five star hotel stayer have nightmares. But, as I said before, I would recommend that you look around you. There was the most beautiful sunset last night, which took my breath away. And where was I? Driving along the A13!

Had any holiday horror stories you can let us into?
We made the mistake of going on a family holiday to a little fishing village in Spain that we hadn't visited for fifteen years. It had been transformed into the worst kind of Costa resort, losing all of its charm and identity and gaining the sorts of bars and hotels that have nothing to do with the heart and true beauty of that wonderful country.

What books will you be packing in your suitcase this summer?
An old favourite, a novel, and a first-time non-fiction about an East End murder case from the 1830s. Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. Douglas Coupland's Hey Nostradamus! Sarah Wise's The Italian Boy. Then I will be buying armfuls of books from every bookshop I come across.

Any events/festivals you are looking forward to this summer?
Where I live - in East London - we are spoilt for choice as far as galleries are concerned, and as many of the exhibitions are free, there are great opportunities to see exciting [and sometimes baffling] new art. A summer event that will not be happening this year - which is very sad - is the totally beguiling Gifford's Circus, which played last year in Hoxton Square. It is difficult to describe other than to say it is what is now known as 'retro' and you feel you are experiencing some other-worldly event, watching spirited performances - in every sense - from the past.

It's a massive summer for sport - will Euro 2004 make you euphoric, will you be following the England Rugby team on their tour to the southern hemisphere or is Wimbledon more you thing? Or, does the idea of sport make you want to run away and hide?
I can become very caught up with sporting events. Even if I know nothing about a sport, anything played with skill and passion brings out an enthusiasm in me that has me shouting encouragement, or, I'm ashamed to say, abuse, at the television or radio - often to the great amusement of my far more informed husband and children. And anyway, summer wouldn't be summer without Wimbledon in the rain.


Community, the wider world and the 'ordinary person'; in an exlusive piece, Gilda O'Neill talks about people and place in London's East End.

I'm proud to be have been born and raised in London's East End, in a traditional, extended family, in a supportive, close-knit community, and to have written a history of a place, which grew up not only outside the City walls but beyond its regulation.

When writing about any such community, however, it is not unusual to be accused of allowing sentimentality and nostalgia to blur the historical truth of what it was really like to live there. But by using traditional historical sources combined with extensive, original oral testimony, I have tried to show that there are many versions and many truths that can be told.

This is especially relevant to an area that has witnessed such rapidity of change: the docks have become Docklands; the post-war slum clearances have resulted in housing policies that seem more to do with the destruction of communities than with taking into account the needs and hopes of the people involved; and intimate corner shops are being replaced by impersonal, monopolistic supermarkets. People no longer recognise the place that was their home.

It is little wonder, when facing such social upheaval, that most of those who talked to me - the Cockneys of many an easy, often sloppy, journalistic stereotype - recalled a Golden Age, the so-called Good Old Days, with such fondness and with a genuine desire for life to return to the way it was Back Then.

It has to be admitted that, in the words of one of the contributors to the oral history section of the book: of course they were the good old days, I was young then, but it is more complex than that. What people long for isn't just their youth, it is community.

A concept hijacked politically by both the left and right, community is an issue that really mattered to the people I spoke to, and is a central theme in the book. The recent panic over children being at danger in their own neighbourhood is a pertinent example of how a lack of community can result in the emotional chaos and moral panic as witnessed in the spate of attacks on people suspected of being paedophiles. In the testimony of those who lived within settled communities in the East End, there was a general agreement that yes, of course, there were Ôfunny' people living there, individuals who you would certainly warn your children to avoid. But, before the geographical and social mobility that so many of us experience today, people actually knew one another. Claustrophobic, maybe in some ways, but when children are part of an extended family and an extended network of neighbours, they are also able to do the things they need to do to learn to be healthy, social creatures - playing outside, raking the streets, just being kids - and not having over-anxious parents fretting about Ôstranger danger' and turning them into pasty-faced little mouse-potatoes, too scared to go out in case they are attacked by the man along the street who nobody

If we could live in a place where it would be laughable not to speak to your neighbours, where it would be unthinkable for an elderly person to be found in their flat three months after they had died, where we didn't turn on our television sets to watch fictional communities because we longed for one of our own, I am sure that the majority of the people I spoke to would be far happier than they seem to be now.

A recently published survey showed that because of our now more fragmented society, as many as four out of five people - those who either do not come from publicly distinguished families or who have not traced their genealogical roots - do not know where their own grandparents were born. In East London, as in many working communities, it often used to be that they were born in the same neighbourhood, the same street, or even the same house.

Times have changed, but, until writers such as Sheila Rowbotham showed us that our history was important too, few of us would have considered that we had anything interesting to find out about our grandparents. Why would there be anything interesting? We were just ordinary people.

In fact, when I was gathering the oral testimony, most interviews would begin with: I don't know why you're talking to me, I've got nothing to say, I'm just an ordinary person.

Read My East End and see how wrong people can be about their significance within their own community and within the wider world, and just how ridiculous it is for anyone to think themselves just an ordinary person.

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