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Don’t be fooled by the cover – this isn’t just a book for your nan.
It’s the story of my great-grandparents Harry and Nellie Greenwood (who also part-inspired Attention All Shipping) and the remarkable street on which they lived between the wars: Constance Street in Silvertown at the heart of London’s royal docks. The story begins with the Silvertown Explosion of 1917 and ends with the first day of the Blitz.
Most of us grow up hearing family stories from elderly relatives. When we’re kids we don’t really understand them, when we’re teenagers we’re not interested in them and in our twenties we’re too busy trying to sort our own lives out to take any notice of them.
Then, just as we’re developing the time an inclination to hear those stories and put them in the context of our own lives, the elderly relatives start dying. It’s too late, they’re gone and the oral source material of generations has vanished forever.
Coming from a close-knit family I was blessed to have a grandmother and a bunch of great aunts who were all tough, independent, working class cockney women who’d lived through arguably the most eventful and exciting period in history, all of them naturally gifted storytellers with impeccable comic timing. I wish they were still around but, with the death of my great-aunt Joan just a month before this book was published, they’re all gone now.
I try not to think of how many of their stories I’ve forgotten over the years but the common thread through most of them was Silvertown. Silvertown was the little east London island – docks to the north, Thames to the south – on which they were born and raised until everything they knew was destroyed during the first day of the Blitz on September 7, 1940.
In Constance Street I string some of those stories together and put them in their social and historical context, hearing the echoes of those voices from the past with all their wit and panache and setting down what little oral history remains in attempt to preserve it for the future.
We all have stories like these in our family histories. If you can, get them down now before they’re gone forever.
This passage didn’t make it into the final version of the book, but as I revisit Silvertown earlier this year it might give you an idea of what the book’s about.
I’m writing these words in a notebook while waiting for a sausage and egg sandwich in Buster’s Café. It’s March 2015. There’s a steaming mug of tea in front of me, salt and pepper cellars and a bottle of ketchup on the formica table. I look around the room, its high ceiling, its plastic chocolate box painted landscape high up on the wall, beneath it the luminous stars with extra menu options written in black marker.
The windows are steaming up at the top; at the bottom they’re stickered with labelled photographs of dishes – ‘lamb’s liver’, ‘Bolognese’, ‘breakfast’, ‘on toast’, ‘toasted BLT’, ‘rolls’ – designed to tempt passers-by inside. Two Polish builders sit at a table by the wall in grubby hi-vis jackets and work helmets, arms folded on the table, talking in low voices.
There’s a Daily Mirror on the next table, fattened and wrinkled by its erstwhile readers. Buster’s is a typical London greasy spoon like any other. For me, though, this caff is not like any other at all. Buster’s is unique and it’s special. Just the act of being in this room is special, in fact.
Buster’s Café sits on the corner of Constance Street and Albert Road and it’s all that’s left now, the last building of the old Constance Street and the only thing the aunts would recognise today. Buster’s is on the ground floor of a sturdy, functional, three-storey Victorian corner building with round-arched windows on the first floor and rectangular ones on the second, one that is in itself, like the café it houses, typical and unremarkable. Highly agreeable though Buster’s sausage and egg sandwich is when it arrives, I’m probably the only person who ever comes here for sentimental reasons; the only person who makes a special journey from my home on the other side of the Thames.
That’s because the room in which I’m scribbling these words used to be the Post Office. These walls that now echo with tinny Radio 1 and the sizzle and hiss of frying bacon used to resonate with the sound and chatter of the people of Constance Street as they’d buy their stamps and send their parcels. And it’s all that’s left.
I’d like to say that as I sit here sipping my tea I can feel something of the old Silvertown, that I can almost see the ghosts of Constance Street passing by the window between the extractor fan and the pictures of lamb’s liver and Bolognese, but I can’t. Too much has changed and everything is different, even in here, in Constance Street’s last stand.
If Harry and Nellie Greenwood stood outside the door of Buster’s Café today and looked around them, other than perhaps the pillar box in front of them, the one that had its top painted with special gas-sensitive paint at the start of the war, they wouldn’t recognise a thing. Across the road Silvertown station is no more: the line closed in the mid-2000s and the station and tracks are all gone. There’s no trace now of the place where Harry and Nell bumped into each other after Harry’s inadvertent eight-month maritime adventure.
Tate and Lyle is still there on the other side of the old railway line, but it’s an enormous modern complex now that dominates Silvertown, cased in a blue corrugated exterior and topped by two thin, grey, black-tipped chimneys that are now the main Silvertown landmark in place of Silver & Co’s long-demolished single, giant, smoking sentinel.
Cundy’s pub has gone now, too. It outlasted every other pub in Silvertown and survived until as recently as 2010. When I first visited it a decade or more ago (as documented in Attention All Shipping) it was tatty, uninviting and run-down, accessed by ducking under a half-closed roller shutter, and with no identifying sign anywhere to tell you where you were (the man behind the bar confirmed to me that I was in, “the Railway Hotel, but everyone knows it as Cundy’s”).
Inside, the place was equally run-down but one could tell that it had been quite something in its day: the sturdy marble-clad columns and the beautiful, custom-made, floor-to-ceiling shelving behind the bar would have been just as Harry would remember them. The first decade of the new millennium saw a downward slide, however: marketing initiatives such as introducing strippers on weekday afternoons failed to pull in the necessary crowds and, amid rumours of five-figure housing benefit fraud, the old place finally closed forever a century and a half after it first opened for business.
Standing in its place is a revolting, wishy-washy green, aluminium-faced apartment block above an empty retail unit with large sightless white-smeared windows. The building is constructed on exactly the same footprint as Cundy’s making it resemble a grotesque, snot-coloured pastiche of the famous old pub that was the heart of a community. A plaque by a side door suggests that it’s called William Owston House, Owston being listed as the first landlord of the Railway Hotel in the 1850s. A nice nod to local history, in principle, but they chose completely the wrong landlord to commemorate.
All the old houses have gone too, replaced by low-rise sixties council blocks that don’t follow the old street pattern. By my estimation 15 Constance Street, where the Greenwoods lived for a quarter of a century, where my grandmother was born and my mother spent her first few months, is now the end of a row of parking spaces opposite a parade of shops and a branch of the British Legion, all of them dingy under a low protruding roof separating them from the flats above and all of them firmly steel-shuttered but for the Mace grocery shop.
The docks, of course, are no more. Where once they were an important, if not the most important global hub of international trade providing employment for my family members for decades, and where my uncle Phil as a little boy once met an elephant destined for London Zoo and got his picture in the newspapers, the waters are still and the quaysides are home to the London City Airport. Where Silvertown once resonated to the clank and rattle of the working docks, now the air is rent only by the occasional commercial jet taking off and landing.
Gentrification will no doubt come to central Silvertown. There are flats going up on the riverfront to the west and it looks as if the actual site of the Silvertown explosion will be built on for the first time since that chilly January night in 1917 (it’s been a car park for most of the intervening years). When I passed it earlier after descending from the Docklands Light Railway station at West Silvertown tipper trucks were roaring in and out, thundering past the padlocked blue wooden box construction that conceals and protects the explosion memorial. Opposite, the modern, box-like construction of Silvertown fire station, on the site of the one destroyed in 1917, stands empty and locked, closed by cuts in 2014.
There’s no dressing it up: Silvertown today is not an attractive place to visit. If I’d had no connection to the place and visited now I probably wouldn’t be able to get out quick enough, to be honest. But even though I can’t glean any sense of the hardworking, hardbitten community that lived, breathed, ate, slept, worked, played, celebrated and commiserated there, and even though it’s unlovely, run-down and neglected, I still find Silvertown a very special place. Inexplicably so.
Back in Buster’s I sip my tea, close my eyes and think about my grandmother and her sisters, all of them gone now, and suddenly I can see and hear them all, their different voices, their smiles and their stories. Most of all I can hear them laughing.
The Greenwoods could consider themselves lucky in many ways, they were all safe and well after 7th September 1940, ‘Black Saturday’. But that day changed everything, and the reverberations can still be felt today. They were torn from their roots, torn from everything they knew. In the space of barely an hour their ordinary lives with all their routines, hopes, dreams, comforts and possessions were burning to the ground as the collected joys, despairs, laughter and memories of more than a quarter of a century were ripped open and scattered by the hot winds of a hellish firestorm.
Three quarters of a century have passed since the Greenwoods were bombed out of Silvertown, so what is the secret of its strange and undimming pull? There are two reasons, I think. First there are Nellie and Harry Greenwood themselves, two unforgettable people who fought all their lives against hardship and tragedy with unfailing kindness, hospitality and generosity and whose relationship is a magnificent, poignant love story. The power of those two unconquerable personalities was such that it still thrums through my generation today and will keep going into the next. Nellie died before I was born, in 1967 at the age of 89, yet her influence persists nearly half a century on through the sheer force of her personality.
Secondly there was the violent wrenching away of everything the Greenwoods knew by the Luftwaffe in the late summer of 1940. So sudden and so traumatic was the destruction of Constance Street that I don’t think the aunts ever truly got over it. It remained a fracture in the narrative of each of their lives, a shared displacement beyond any of their control. The way they dealt with it was to reminisce, immersing the heartbreak and loss in damp-eyed nostalgia. There were no talking therapies back then, you just had to get on with it, and the strong bonds of community that the Greenwoods learned from Constance Street, where your family and neighbours were an instant support network, meant the aunts turned to each other.
That’s why, I think, there were so many parties when I was younger – in those old songs, the turns, the tables laden with food, the dimpled half-pint glasses, the kids running around and the brimming glasses of sherry they could recapture and experience a little of Constance Street again, of the way things used to be, the way things should have been. As the number of aunts dwindled over the years, the parties have ceased and there are countless memories and stories that have faded or been lost forever. Even the street itself has all but disappeared.
I finish my tea, put on my jacket and make my way out of Buster’s. Outside I look up at the street sign. Once upon a time it would have been bold black lettering against a white background but these days the sign is badly faded, to the extent that even from directly below you can barely make out the name.