We're currently preparing for our next St Jude's In The City exhibition in London - an intimate show in the heart of Spitalfields featuring Angie Lewin's limited edition prints and Alex Malcolmson's boxworks and birds.
Soon after we'll be publishing the second issue of Random Spectacular - so it seemed like a good time to revisit this article that was originally published in Random Spectacular No. 1 in 2011.
Here's writer Tim Rich's interview with Spitalfields Life founder The Gentle Author...
‘In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London.’ With these words the Spitalfields Life blog was born, back in August 2009. Today, thousands of people from around the world come to read each daily posting by its eloquent but enigmatic creator – the Gentle Author.
The spirit that pervades the blog is best captured in the Gentle Author’s extraordinary promise to readers: ‘How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and my delight. Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months… Like Good Deeds and Everyman in the old play, let us travel together.’
I wanted to find out more about the writer whose words transport me each day; whose stories take me through previously unseen doorways in my own neighbourhood in the East End. But that also required a promise from me – that I wouldn’t reveal the identity or gender of the Gentle Author. I feared that this guarding of the person behind the pen might go hand in hand with a reticence to talk. What I encountered was something else entirely. Here are some of the words we exchanged over a pot of tea in east London.
TR: ‘I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane’; what led up to that awakening? Where had life taken you?
GA: I did have quite a big career as a writer, with a play due to open on Broadway in September 2001. For obvious reasons, it didn’t open, and then my father died quite unexpectedly a week later. My mother had dementia, and the only thing she knew was that she didn’t ever want to leave her home, in Devon. So I decided to give up my career and go to be her full-time nurse, which I did for five years. During that time I couldn’t really leave the house. It changed my view of the world and I decided I didn’t want to go back to the work I had done before. Being the only child, I inherited the house. I sold it and tried to buy a place in Lisson Grove. That fell through. I tried to buy another in King’s Cross and that fell through. And then a house in Spitalfields came up. I was reluctant to live in Spitalfields, but the house was so wonderful, and I was desperate by then, so I took it. The only person I knew in Spitalfields was Sandra Esqulant, landlady of The Golden Heart.
TR: Why did you choose to blog?
GA: I was attracted to the notion that you could write something and it would be published immediately, and that you could assume an intimacy with the reader comparable to the relationship I feel when I read novels, especially those from the nineteenth century. I also calculated that from then until I reached the age at which my parents died was around ten thousand days, and I found I could respect the idea of doing a story every single day through that time. It was the best possible life I could imagine for myself.
TR: Your promise to readers includes a picture of a sundial on Fournier Street that features the words ‘Umbra Sumus’ – ‘We are shadows’. Reading your writing for the first time, I had the immediate feeling that you were either pursuing or escaping something.
GA: Well, there’s a wonderful notion that Kierkegaard described – that being a writer is like being in the continual state of running through a burning house, trying to decide what to rescue. I do feel that sensation a lot of the time. Also, that people’s stories go unrecorded is a matter of grief to me. I think that arose after the death of my parents. I grew up in Devon around old people, and I used to knock on their doors and ask to spend a day with them. I suppose I have a vertiginous sense of all the stories in the world, and accompanying that is a sense of the loss of all the stories. So I have a compulsion to collect as many as I can, for as long as I can.
TR: Your stories started to grow in length after the first two or three months of the blog, and that coincided with you writing more pen portraits.
GA: I have a personal sense of responsibility to people that I’ve met to do them justice. The idea of trying to sum someone up in a thousand words is terrifying. That was why the stories got longer and longer. The other thing that happened in the first year – unexpectedly – was that a lot of readers came along. It gave me a different responsibility; to not disappoint the reader. You want to give them something wonderful. So I became more ambitious.
TR: That is a terrific counterblast to the common, pessimistic notion that people don’t read much any more, and that writing for the Web should always be short. You show that the Web can be a place for a longer and more personal form of writing.
GA: I respect the discipline of writing; that things should be well structured and a story well told. But I also aspire to write in an unmediated way, and to not withhold an emotionalism if that’s how I react to a subject. I am also attracted to use vocabulary in a way that it is not used in journalism, but is perhaps more common in fiction. I chose to be this voice speaking from the darkness, because I want to be in private with the reader. I want the reader to understand that the writer’s intention is benign, and that we can trust each other. And I hope the readers create their own sense of who they are listening to and take ownership of what they read. In this sense, the Gentle Author is a conceit to bring readers closer to the subject, and I want the subject to be the people I’m writing about, not me.
TR: Do you have to get into the character of the Gentle Author when you write?
GA: Graham Greene said that reading Charles Dickens was like listening to the mind talking to itself. It is the internal voice that I aspire to in my writing – what I hear inside my mind.
TR: Tell me a little more about the ‘hare-brained’ task you have set for yourself.
GA: I wanted readers to know they could rely on something new every day. And I felt that if I created this cage for myself, then I could have no escape. I have written more than 700,000 words in the last two years, so it has worked to that degree. It’s a miracle. I spend most of the day running around the streets after people and doing interviews. In the evening, I sit down to supper, and then I write. The golden rule is that I can’t go to sleep until it’s done. People sometimes think that I knock off six stories in advance and press a button each day, but it isn’t like that at all. I may write interviews up a few days later, but it appeals to me that the Gentle Author has no choice but to write a story every day. I’m aware that it’s an excessive way to live but I think life is excessive.
TR: Your interviewees tell you remarkable things about their lives. How do you earn their trust?
GA: You have to be open-hearted and honest, and you hope people see that it is just you, and that there’s no ulterior motive. That no one’s paying you to do it. That you are doing it for love. People are wisely suspicious of writers, so I commonly send someone a piece I have already written and they can see what the outcome of being interviewed will be like.
TR: Your neighbours in the City of London seem to be a difficult subject for you. You have written that you wander ‘like a ghost among the men in suits hurrying with such inexplicable purpose between the glittering palaces.’
GA: The City is an incredible repository of stories and tradition and myth. You go to speak to the Vintners Company and they have been there since 1546. Or you go to speak to John Keohane, the Chief Yeoman Warder, and he talks you through the ritual they have been performing at the Tower of London since the thirteenth century. But equally you are aware of it as a violent, corporate world, and it is hard to reconcile those things. One of the rules of what I do is that there are no bad people in this equation. The challenge is to try to understand what individuals are doing and why. With the City, that’s a challenge that lies ahead for me.
TR: Back in Spitalfields, you write about the tension between tradition and change, such as the spiraling rents that have threatened to push out merchants like Paul Gardner.
GA: It’s very difficult to trace what’s a right or wrong way for change to happen, but it’s vital that good things don’t get destroyed. For me, Paul Gardner, the Market Sundriesman, incarnates the essence of Spitalfields. Unless you have gone and shaken hands with Paul Gardner you can’t really say you have been to Spitalfields. His shop is where all the small traders in East London go to get their bags. What happened in Paul’s case was that the landlords showed themselves to be enlightened and recognised he is a special case. I hope people appreciate that the things that make this place distinctive are worth holding on to. One of the lessons revealed by the crash in the City was that the short-term profit motive is destructive and people need to take a longer-term view.
TR: You seem to revel in those lively nights out with the Bunny Girls and the transvestites and the boys’ club reunions, but how do you feel about Spitalfields on a Saturday night – the drinkers and clubbers?
GA: I think it’s a very beautiful phenomenon. I often go out and walk the streets just to see the crowds on a Saturday night. Nothing has changed much there. In the 1860s The Eagle Tavern on the City Road was getting 12,000 people turning up a night and there were complaints about the crowds then. I think the young people who dress up and come to show off their outfits on Brick Lane embody a wonderful flowering of culture. So many people compete for ownership of this place, but the truth is that it belongs to everybody and nobody. There is a magic in Spitalfields, but if you love the area you must also be generous to others who love it too.
TR: Will there be enough space in your life to do other types of writing, as well as your daily report?
GA: Well, Dickens’ wrote six or seven stories a week for Household Words, but he wrote the novels of Dickens as well. My background is in fiction, and originally I envisaged that there would be a chapter of a novel by me on the first of the month through the year. That has been sidelined, but as I get more confident and more in control of what I’m doing it could resurface. I’m attracted to the idea that the Gentle Author might have fictional adventures.
TR: What about visits to other places far from Spitalfields?
GA: I am a favoured person in that I have had so many experiences and lived so many lifetimes in my life already. I remember, I went to Los Angeles for the Millennium and I was with a friend in a car on New Year’s Eve, and we turned left onto the freeway into oncoming traffic. She said: “We’re going to die.” And I said: “I don’t mind because I’ve done so much stuff, but what about your son?” There are lots of places I would like to go back to – Beijing, Cuba – but what I do now forces me to live in the day. My mind is so crowded I don’t have much space to think about anything else.
TR: Of course, I must ask about Mr. Pussy. How is he?
GA: Yes, I should explain about the cat. My father died and my mother was inconsolable, so I bought a cat to give to her and that was Mr. Pussy. He was alone with her for the first year and he acquired this very calm personality from her. Now he carries all that emotional history with him. His age marks the time since my father died and his peaceful nature stems from my mother. For these reasons he means a great deal to me, and he is always a presence. Most of the Spitalfields Life stories are written in bed late at night, with him sitting there.
TR: You said something curious in a story on Dennis Severs’ house, which was: ‘Much as I love a good chat, I have many times wished that I never had to speak again.’
GA: I think talking is hard. We take people’s words to be the expression of who they are. But I have always felt, with me, that was a contradiction because I didn’t feel that in speech I could represent who I was. That was why I began to write, because by writing down I could wrestle with words and become more truthful to who I am. So yes, I think it would be wonderful if I could get through the rest of my life without talking. I once lived on an island in the Outer Hebrides. I was the only inhabitant and I had to row 45 minutes to the shore to get my mail. I would not see people for months on end and I did so much writing then. Your internal monologue becomes much more apparent when all the interference of external conversations is gone. Walking is very important in that respect too. I long for the release of the mind.
TR: So, writing is a release from the deluge of thoughts in your head.
GA: Yes. For me, the act of writing is writing it down. So I write it out first time and that is it. There are no drafts. Writing is the act of recording an internal monologue. Coming back to the notion of the mind talking to itself – for me writing is the outcome of an unquiet mind, I suppose.
TR: How has Spitalfields Life changed your life?
GA: I walk down the street and sometimes people lean out of windows to wave and come out and shake my hand. It is a beautiful thing, yet for that to happen in the middle of this huge city is bizarre. Generally, I don’t understand why people don’t talk to each other more. I think this is a political construct, this situation where we are all alienated from one another. A book that was important to me as a student was Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society. I think one of the outcomes of mass distribution through the printing press in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was that it made everybody strangers to each other. We see all those people out there as ‘the masses’. It’s rubbish. It’s a lie. The hope of the internet is that it allows everyone to talk to each other again, and not be strangers.
The Gentle Author’s stories can be found at spitalfieldslife.com
Tim Rich lives in Bethnal Green and writes at 66000milesperhour.com
Letterpress poster designed and printed by Justin Knopp and Robert Pratley at Typoretum. www.typoretum.co.uk
Posted by Simon Lewin on April 25th, 2014
Available for pre-order and shipping from early December is this beautiful audio/print package from Water Of Life, limited to 300 copies.
Tommy Perman - artist and musician (formerly of FOUND) and Rob St. John - environmental writer and musician - began the Water of Life project in June 2013, aiming to use water as a divining rod for exploring ideas of 'naturalness' in Edinburgh’s urban environment. Water of Life is an alternative travelogue, where water is a conduit for exploring new geographies: field notes from a liquid city.
Recordings made with hydrophone, ambient and contact microphone recordings of rivers, spring houses, manhole covers, pub barrel rooms, pipelines and taps are mixed with the peals and drones of 1960s transistor organs, harmoniums, Swedish micro-synths, drum machines and iPads: a blend of the natural and unnatural; modern and antiquated; hi-fi and lo-fi. Drum beats were sampled from underwater recordings, and reverbs created using the convolution reverb technique to recreate the sonic space of different bodies of water.
The package comprises: a letterpressed folder on recycled card, a 7" record pressed on recycled vinyl and a set of essays by Rob and prints by Tommy exploring the themes of the project, riso printed using soy inks on recycled paper.
Pre-order one of the 300 limited edition packages online and find out more about the Water Of Life project.
Posted by Simon Lewin on November 11th, 2013
If you're visiting the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, illustrator and printmaker Jon McNaught will be holding a creating graphic novels workshop (on Saturday 24th August) and talking with fellow artist Glyn Dillon about the graphic novel (on Monday 26th August).
Jon McNaught's latest book, Dockwood, weaves together the everyday lives of three locals against an evocative backdrop of autumnal transitions. Bittersweet and contemplative, Dockwood is for anyone who believes the stories that take place within life’s small moments can often be the most meaningful of all.
Posted by Simon Lewin on August 17th, 2013
Several years ago, a chance meeting at our former Norfolk gallery with Paul Hammond of Ultramarine - a band I'd followed since their first album Folk - led to discoveries of shared interests/inspirations.
Now writing and recording again, 2013 will see the release of the band's 6th album This Time Last Year.
We're delighted that Ultramarine will feature in the second issue of our journal Random Spectacular - with an interview by James Nice of LTM Recordings, illustrated by Heretic. A specially written audio piece will accompany.
Ultramarine's This Time Last Year will be released 30th September 2013 on Real Soon.
Posted by Simon Lewin on July 15th, 2013
Another Barbara Jones post! Our friends at Little Toller have just republished The Unsophisticated Arts in which Barbara Jones records the art of everyday life. She travelled throughout Britain visiting fairgrounds, tattoo parlours, taxidermists, houseboats, high street shops, seaside piers and amusement arcades.
The book was first published in 1951, the same year that Barbara Jones curated the ‘Black Eyes and Lemonade’ exhibition for the Festival of Britain. These two events were definitive in the history of popular art, creating a vibrant snapshot of culture in postwar Britain which has influenced generations of artists and designers ever since.
This new edition includes previously unpublished ephemera and art from Barbara Jones’s studio including watercolour, ink and pencil studies from her sketchbooks which reveal her lifelong fascination with vernacular art.
Posted by Simon Lewin on April 30th, 2013
I'm really looking forward to seeing James Russell's new book, published by the Mainstone Press, about Eric Ravilious' Submarine series of lithographs. Created during the winter of 1940-41, these prints capture the cramped conditions inside a naval submarine during wartime.
Above all this series of ten prints are brilliant examples of how auto-lithography faithfully reproduces - and even enhances - the qualities of drawn line and texture. They're not mere reproductions of watercolour drawings. Ravilious' skill as a printmaker is evident - especially in the images with the striking use of bright yellow and blue with graphite grey.
So far I've only seen these images - I can't wait to see the book in the flesh. Will report back soon.
Posted by Angie Lewin on February 13th, 2013
Jonny Hannah's 'Burns Miscellany' landed on our doormat today with spontaneous drawings printed onto vibrant coloured pages. Timorous Sassanachs that we are, we didn't indulge in traditional the haggis fare last night but are big fans of Tunnocks of all varieties - including Mark Hearld's collage, exhibited at Godfrey & Watt in 2011 (see last image).
You can see more of Jonny's printmaking over at St. Jude's Prints.
Posted by Angie Lewin on January 26th, 2013
Featuring a beautiful brand new cover painting by James Lewis, a rejigged design inside and a new introduction by Charles Rangeley-Wilson, all orders taken before 15th May 2012 will be despatched ahead of publication date and signed by the editors and as many of the contributors they can get their hands on.
Order your copy online today.
Posted by Simon Lewin on May 1st, 2012
Opening on Tuesday 1st May at The Foyles Gallery (on the third floor of Foyles Bookshop, London) is an exhibition of the original artwork spreads for A First Book of Nature by Nicola Davies and Mark Hearld.
In this exhibition Mark brings nature's changing seasons and its rich cast of creatures to life - spring hares mid-leap, the buzz of insects in summer, worms by moonlight, starlings in flight and a fox padding through a winter snow-covered garden - in this delightful exhibition.
All of the original artworks will be available to purchase.
The exhibition runs from 1st May 2012 until 13th May 2012. Open Monday-Saturday 9.30am until 5pm and Sunday 11.30am until 6pm. Admission is free of charge.
The Foyles Gallery, Third Floor, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0EB.
Posted by Simon Lewin on April 30th, 2012
And this week sees the launch of David Gentleman's London, You're Beautiful. David Gentleman has been drawing London all his adult life, and for the past year has spent his days focused on looking afresh at the city. The resulting book of sketches, drawings and watercolours, arranged month by month, shows a year in the life of London and reveals the city that is hidden in plain view.
An associated exhibition of David Gentleman's work opens at The Fine Art Society on New Bond Street on the 4th May 2012.
Posted by Simon Lewin on April 29th, 2012