Friday, 20 May 2011

Our Street: East End Life In The Second World War (Gilda O'Neill)

--The blurb--
"Our Street is the perfect companion to Gilda O'Neill's bestselling My East End. This book focuses on the lives of Londoners in the East End during the Second World War. Showing the concerns, hopes and fears of these so-called 'ordinary people' Our Street illustrates these times by looking at the every day rituals which marked the patterns of daily life during WWII. It is an important book and also an affectionate record of an often fondly remembered, more communal, way of life that has all but disappeared."

--The review--
As a 1990s kid, it's understandable that I and some of my academic interests should be a product of the restrictions of the UK education system at this time. One of these interests stems from my study of history; in spite of many years of study, the Second World War is one of only a few periods that I know much about and which continues to hold my interest, as well as that of a significant proportion of the British public. Thanks to the ageing combattant and non-combattant survivors of the war, and the younger generation who have had the war's history thrust upon them, WWII-related books and products continue to thrive in today's market.

The aforementioned survivors naturally want to tell the stories of their experiences, and Gilda O'Neill is one of these people, having inhabited the East End of London during the war period. However, Our Street tells relatively little about her own experiences, consisting of a patchwork of testimonials from others, which are of readable lengths and captivate the reader immediately with tidbits of tales which make our jaws drop due to the complete improbability of their occurrence today. This awareness of incidents that are totally outside our span of experience as younger readers also triggers the sobering thought of how different the world will be when we are of pensionable age to the 1990s world we inhabited as children.

For the older generation, in spite of the horrifying experiences that some of the interviewees have gone through, a sense of nostalgia and feeling of the 'Dunkirk spirit' is reawakened, and this aspect of community and strength and familial ties is equally palpable to younger readers. O'Neill ties together the testimonies reasonably successfully, although at times it feels a little forced. The flavour of the East End is equally alive, distributed with vigour through the use of dialect and descriptions of the cityscape and housing estates, and readability is enhanced by the splitting of the book into themed chapters such as evacuation and food. This also enables a 'pick and mix' approach, as it is therefore unnecessary to read the book in chronological order.

To assume the dual role of author and editor, as Gilda O'Neill has done in this book, is surely no easy task, and while she arguably does not completely succeed, the result is still an accessible tome that appeals to those that were there just as much as to those who were not. Her passion for her own personal past and for the history of her past in general is clear, and incites the reader to seek out more of her books - fictional as well as non-fictional.

Other works by Gilda O'Neill
The Cockney Girl (1993)
Whitechapel Girl (1994)
Dream On (1998)
The Lights of London (1999)
The Bells of Bow (1999)
My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (2000)
Playing Around (2000)
Just Around The Corner (2001)
Getting There (2002)
The Sins of their Fathers (2003)
Make Us Traitors (2004)
Of Woman Born (2005)
Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (2006)
The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (2006)
East End Tales (2008)
Rough Justice (2008)
Secrets of the Heart (2008)

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