'Towards An Image Of Myself' is an autobiography which is at the heart of my multi-media installation 'Family Album' both tell the story of my childhood growing up in the East End of London. It shares the death of my uncle from leukemia at the age of 27 when I was 8, the strength of my grandmother who had raised children during the Blitz* as a single mother, and my mothers teenage pregnancy with me at the age of 16.
The multi-media book has blown-out photocopied family album photographs used as collage, some pages with lace, buttons, and pins and needles. The typed text pages of the autobiography were typed using an original early 1960's typewriter. The autobiography won the Julian Sullivan prize in London.
"Chalk and cheese.
Chalk and cheese was a phrase often used to describe the differences between Jacky and I, through neither of us was aware of who may be cheese and who was chalk.
Jacky was full of energy and life, and I was described as timid.
Both of us went to Bonner street primary school, and then on to Morpeth school."
......and I was born in 1964, in I suppose at that time a typical working class east-end family. I never met and till this day have never met or seen or heard from my paternal father. Though at one point my mother had married him, but pretty soon after got divorced. My mother had another girl - my sister Jacky- by the same man, 18 months after I was born.
I was nearly adopted, not through pressure from my family, through pressure from the Salvation Army, the connection being I was born in the 'Mothers Hospital' in Hackney. A hospital for young mothers, my mother’s age; just one month into her fifteenth year.
My mother fought and refused to allow them to take me from her. They’d told her many horror stories about if she didn’t give me up. One being she would have to go into a Work House to try and support me, and the hours she would do would mean she would never get to see me.
Their idea during that period was to frighten young mothers by giving them no hope of looking after their babies once they were born. Through pressure and instilling fear for their future they tried to get young mothers to give up their babies for adoption to childless rich families. I respect my mother for the fight she went through at such an early stage in her life.
After I was born, my mother moved back into my grandmothers flat. At that moment in time the flat was overcrowded, with two of my nan’s sons who were then married and living there with their wives and children. There was also anther brother living there, and at that time was dying of leukemia. There was also another sister, younger than my mother who was going to Morpeth school.
My grandfather never lived with us, not through want of trying. He later died of cirrhosis of the liver. He was a professional wrestler, and also a professional drinker.
As my sister and I were growing up, gradually the flat became less and less cramped with the married children eventually moving out. The eldest to Canvey Island, a place by the sea. He was briefly a professional footballer for West Ham. The second eldest son moving to Lee High Road in Lewisham. Now the flat was occupied by the youngest son Alan, my mother, sister and me, my nan and her youngest daughter Sheila.
"The wedding photo.
This is the only picture I have
ever seen of my father.
I have never yet seen him in the flesh.
The wedding took place
in Stepney Green, I was being
baby sat by my nan."
"My mothers school photo
Chalk and cheese
the two of us,
"Chickie. Granddad at work. Maureen.
Nan in the pre-fab.
Charlton Square, Stepney Green
before moving to Portelet Road.
Nan. Mum. Sheila."
Then a major thing happened to all of us, the youngest son Alan, began to become sicker with the leukemia. Alan had been a great influence on our lives, and had known since he was seventeen he was dying. He had been to various art schools, John Cass, Hornsey and Ruskins School of Fine Art and to us was a brilliant artist. So dedicated, he used the upstairs room to paint and sleep and the house always smelled of turpentine and oil paint. Often I would sit in his room and watch him paint, he was the first person to give me a canvas and oil paint and encourage me to paint something that seemed to come naturally.
Whenever he sold a painting it was almost definite he would take us to the toy shop opposite the market square in Roman Road market. I remember once him buying a Scaletrex car racing set with two little Mini’s.
Alan towards the end of his life had been working on the ‘Decent from the Cross’ by Rubens, the painting at this point had been moved into the living room downstairs. He had painted Christ and filled in roughly the figures around, I suppose he had known he would never finish the whole painting and settled into the act of finishing Christ.
I still remember him there, 27 almost bald and sickly white intensely painting Christ. I now understand that Christ was in actual fact Alan’s death himself.
Very soon after, he was admitted to hospital and that was the very last time my sister and I was to see him.
It was a terrible loss, not only to our family but to people he had known and the people who bought his paintings. He was a much loved man.
Alan’s death was the greatest loss of all to my sister and me, I suppose two young children found death an incomprehensible thing. I at this time was nine and my sister seven, and we both in our own ways did not accept his death as being final.
"Alan, Jacky and me".
at City of London cemetery.
At the entrance
there's a sculpture
Decent from the Cross."
* The Blitz
The Blitz refers to bombing by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) over Britain in 1940 and 1941, during the Second World War. The term was first used by the British press as an abbreviation of Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The Germans conducted a mass air offensive against industrial targets, towns and cities, which began with raids on London towards the end of the Battle of Britain, a battle for air superiority over the United Kingdom. By September 1940 the Luftwaffe had failed to gain air superiority and the German air fleets (Luftflotten) were ordered to attack London, to draw RAF Fighter Command into a battle of annihilation. Adolf Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered the new policy on 6 September 1940. From 7 September 1940, London was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. In a large daylight attack against London on 15 September, many German aircraft were shot down.
The Luftwaffe gradually decreased daylight operations in favour of night attacks, to evade attack by the RAF and the Blitz became a night bombing campaign after October 1940. The Luftwaffe attacked the main Atlantic sea port of Liverpool in the Liverpool Blitz and the North Sea port of Hull, a convenient and easily found target or secondary target for bombers unable to locate their primary targets, suffered the Hull Blitz. Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea were also bombed, as were the industrial cities of Birmingham, Belfast, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester and Sheffield. More than 40,000 civilians were killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war, almost half of them in the capital, where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged.
By May 1941, as Germany made ready for Operation Barbarossa, the threat of invasion receded. Bombing had failed to demoralise the British into surrender or do much damage to the war economy; eight months of bombing never seriously hampered British war production which continued to increase. The greatest effect was to force the British to disperse the production of aircraft and spare parts. British wartime studies concluded that cities generally took 10 to 15 days to recover when hit severely but exceptions like Birmingham took three months.
The German air offensive failed because the Luftwaffe High Command (Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, OKL) did not develop a methodical strategy for destroying British war industry. Poor intelligence on British industry and economic efficiency led to discussions in OKL about tactics rather than strategy. The bombing effort was diluted by attacks against several sets of industries instead of constant pressure on the most vital.[
The East End of London and the Blitz
The Blitz started almost by accident – the Germans did not intend to blanket-bomb the city to start with. German bombers on a raid flew off course in August 1940 and, instead of bombing RAF bases, accidentally bombed civilian homes in London. The British government retaliated with bombing raids on Berlin and the Germans started a concentrated attack on our cities after that. Attacks were no longer simply targeted at strategic areas, but now allowed bombers to hit civilian and populated areas. The East End of London suffered a great deal of damage in this period.
Why was the East End Vulnerable in the Blitz?
During the Second World War, the East End was the docklands centre of London. It was one of the areas that could also run supply chains to the rest of the country. If you disabled the docks, you seriously damaged the local and national economy and reduced the city’s capacity for war production. You would also do a lot to sap morale and to reduce the spirits of the civilian population.
The main areas of interest to the Germans in the East End were places that contained key industrial, storage or docklands industries. They targeted the gas works at Beckton and all of the docklands areas that ran along the East End. It is thought that around a third of all of Britain’s overseas industry passed through the London docks at this time, making it a logical target for the Germans who wanted to close down our war efforts and supply chains.
Historically, the East End has also been densely populated. The area attracted people who wanted to work in the docks and in local industries, and many lived close to their places of work. Many lived in closely packed tenement buildings, within striking distance of the docks, factories and warehouses. A bomb on a factory might do more damage than simply put the factory out of action. It could also potentially damage or destroy a lot of housing and smaller local businesses. It also led to high civilian casualties.
It is thought that the first deliberate bombing raids during the Blitz were targeted at the Port of London and docklands East End. Operation Loge, as the Germans called it, started on the 7th September 1940 and lasted for over 50 nights. It is estimated that over 107,000 tonnes of shipping was damaged in the Thames, 400 people were killed and 1,600 were injured in these attacks alone. By the end of the raid, nine miles of the city’s docklands areas, including the large stretch that runs along the East End were burning.
To Londoners, Operation Loge became known as “Black Saturday”. The initial attack started on the 7th September and lasted for around twelve hours. It is estimated that German bombers dropped 625 tons of bombs and thousands of incendiary devices during this day alone.
Incendiary devices could cause a particular amount of damage, especially to older buildings. One German bomber could carry up to 700 devices, which were contained in canisters. The canisters opened when they were released, dropping dozens of small individual bombs that went off on impact. Many would lodge on roofs, making it hard for fire-fighters to get to them before they caused significant damage. This led many Eastenders to clear out their roof spaces to try and contain potential fires.
East London WW2 Devastation
The devastation across the East End, to both civilians and military targets was so great that Winston Churchill made a visit to the area to assess the damage for himself on September 8th. When Buckingham Palace was bombed on September 13th, Queen Elizabeth commented that she was glad they had been bombed as she felt that she could now look the East End in the face.
Although the East End was damaged by other raids outside of the Blitz, this period was responsible for much of the damage in the area during the war. By the time the war was over, parts of the area had been razed to the ground; other parts suffered from significant damage to housing and business premises. It is thought that tens of thousands of East End homes were destroyed or so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable. It took many years to regenerate the area and to rebuild its housing and infrastructure.
© Denise Evans. 2017