18 July 2013

As I walked up the road to Leila’s Café in Shoreditch – a familiar place where I’ve had many a delicious breakfast, almost sharing a table with Keira Knightley once, but I digress  – I mused on the fact that very soon I was going to have dinner with a bunch of people I’d never met before and then, at the end of it, hand over a cheque for a £1,000 to a total stranger. Madness, right?

Weirder still was that, upon meeting the assembled guests – around 20 of us – I realised that we had all agreed to do this crazy thing within moments of being asked. The call went out, and we responded with a resounding ‘Yes’.

But I certainly don’t have £1,000 lying around in an old biscuit tin. And my dinner companions seemed quite ordinary folk too. So what possessed us? Were we under a spell? Mass hypnotism? Perhaps I had been slightly bewitched as, rather more romantically, I felt I’d been asked for help by one of the kindest people I’d never met.

I’ve been reading the Gentle Author’s blog from the start (back in 2009). It’s the only post I subscribe to simply because I know that it will never fail to inform, amuse, sometimes move, and always entertain me with wit, wisdom and a huge dose of humanity. The GA writes about people, first and foremost, though there is a healthy smattering of local history in the mix too.

Every day my inbox holds another fascinating life-story – it might be about the bag man of Spitalfields, the ballet pointe shoemakers of Hackney, and once, while reading a blog about Brick Lane, a market tradeswoman I realised I’d worked with almost 35 years ago when I had a Sunday morning job in a bag shop on Petticoat Lane. The GA writes about spoon-makers, strippers, able seamen, anti-fascists, tattooed ladies, trannies, cats, dogs, Samuel Pepys, Kevin the Milkman… the one thing I can be sure of is that I’ll be fascinated by the subject, and glad that the GA exists in the world.

But the GA isn’t simply about a good story, beautifully written. Care for the people written about means that lives are changed. Take the day the GA met Paul Gardner, the paper bag seller on Commercial Street. Paul’s great grandfather started the business back in 1870. The business was carried on through the generations and, after his dad died unexpectedly when Paul was 13, his mum held the reins until Paul could take over aged 17. He hasn’t had a day off since 1972. He doesn’t make much money but he likes people, and they like him, which is why a Nigerian woman travels from Brixton to buy her bags from him and another customer, who’s owed him money for a while, can phone him up excitedly to say that he can finally pay a long-overdue bill. He may not have been fussed about the money, but his landlord was and, after a rent hike too far, it looked as though Paul and the business were finished. Then something magical happened…

A story was written, a noise was made, a movement was started and, happily, a human tragedy averted. In November 2012, Paul, along with almost 200 proprietor-owned and -run businesses, set up the East End Trades Guild. Today they work together in the interests of all the small independent traders of the East End. These are the folk who provide us with a smile and a chat when we buy their goods and services; they offer us places to meet each other and make our streets a community.

The GA’s stories motivate people, they invite comment, and an enormous worldwide following, so it was inevitable that a book would be on the cards. I missed the launch of  ‘Spitalfields Life’ held at Hawksmoor’s Christchurch in Spitalfields, but I understand that around 3,000 people showed up, much to the GA’s surprise. Following on the heels of such success, the GA decided to set up Spitalfields Life Books, an independent publishing company, with the first print-run in July this year. I attended this one – Colin O’Brien’s evocative pictures of travellers’ children that were taken in and around London Fields in the ’80s. It was held at the rather marvellous E5 Bakehouse, which also happens to be a member of the East End Trades Guild.

And now the GA wants to publish another… this time of some of the exquisite photos that have accompanied the blog over the years, and the GA kindly, as with everything, requested some financial help with the task. So there we all were last night, a motley crew of ages, sex and nationalities, happy to hand over a couple of monkeys (five hundred quid to you, mate) at the end of the evening. It’s an interest-free loan, of course, and, though there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see our money again, we’re pretty confident that this will be another success and we’re glad to have helped. We also got to meet the GA – a stranger only because we’ve never met before, but someone I feel I’ve known for years – and, thanks to Leila and her team, share a great meal.

And a meal that was really a feast. Fine prosecco (or elderflower cordial or a craft beer) accompanied salami, cornichons, a nutty cheese and delicious crunchy radishes, followed by wonderful plates of beetroot with goat’s curd, fresh borlotti bean salad, and a courgette salad, fresh bread, more prosecco, more great cheeses – a camembert and another little vine-leaf wrapped number – perfumed peaches and sweet cherries, chocolate brownies and finally, for me at least, a really good espresso.

We’ll all be getting together again, but not as strangers this time, a week before the book launch in October. I can’t wait…