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Coin Street Chronicles: Memoirs of an Evacuee from London's Old South Bank Paperback – 7 Nov 2011
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About the Author
Gwen Southgate retired from childhood many years ago. Since then, she tended the needs of a husband, four children, ten grandchildren, innumerable pets, and droves of high school students. She now lives with her husband near Princeton, New Jersey, where she enjoys doing many things she never had time to do.
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There is no sign of the baths now. Gwen's world has almost completely disappeared, done for by the Luftwaffe and post-war slum clearance. The remnants of streets that she lived in and played in have become bijou dwellings, occupied by, mostly, well-off singles who want an easy walk into the City. That Coin Street Community Builders have managed to preserve something of the working-class nature of the area is a massive achievement. Waterloo is nothing if not premium development land. But here, brought to life in this gem of a book, are the grimy working-class communities of Aquinas Street, Coin Street, Commercial Road.
There is beautifully rich detail, not only of the trajectory of Gwen's early life and the members of her family - which is interesting enough - but in the pictures of life as a child in London in the Thirties and Forties. Gwen Redfern, as she was then, was brought up in extreme poverty. It's a kind of poverty we have largely forgotten. It means damp, cramped shared houses, with no electricity, no bathrooms, no indoor toilet. It means moving often, always trying to cut living costs. It means frequent unemployment and dole. It means going to the hospital by bus when you have a serious injury because you can't take a taxi. It means bad teeth and pain.
Sometimes it means early death. Gwen's father, a gentle, builder's labourer and First World War veteran, was in poor health and often out of work. When the family lived in Dagenham, he cycled twelve miles into London and back, in all weathers, looking for a day's work. He died when Gwen was eight but he left her a legacy - a love of books and words. And he made Gwen's no-nonsense mother promise to further their children's education. With one or two wobbles, she honoured that promise.
It is the astonishing detail that fascinates here. What an "airy" was, how children in Coin Street played on the street, the layout of the homes the Redferns lived in, how rooms were arranged. How, where and when you wash discreetly if you do not have access to a bath. How you deal with day-old bread. The qualifications required before you are allowed to take a neighbour's baby out in its pram.
All this is delivered in the context of the story of how clever, academically-inclined Gwen overcame her social disadvantage to claim her education and, ultimately, a way out of the slums. The support came from her widowed mother, but the turning point was the war. Gwen and her two brothers were evacuated to Dorset in 1939, and during a string of placements all over the country she acquired a grammar school education, new friends and experience of different worlds.
Gwen's sense of humour, humanity and astonishing powers of recall are what make this a truly enjoyable read.
Gwen's honesty about herself and self-questioning while trying to make sense of experiences and her reactions to them makes it an immensely insightful and at the same time wonderfully humorous read that recommends itself particularly to young audiences trying to make sense of their own world. The fact that 70-80 years lie between Gwen's youth and theirs makes it no less relevant, for family relationships are relived in a similar fashion within every generation.
I am particularly heartened that Gwen's mother, May Redfern, who struggled against extraordinary odds and sacrificed much to help Gwen achieve an education and professional prospects far beyond her circumstances, was able to enjoy much happiness in later life, and that Gwen, who at times had misunderstood and resented her mother's decisions, through writing this book came to deeply appreciate her for being "no ordinary woman".
Coin Street Chronicles was recommended to me by a friend who lives in London. We both thoroughly enjoy wandering the streets of London and finding out about the buildings, streets and boroughs, and what life was like for the residents in years gone by.
The houses in Coin Street are long gone and the area is now part of the very glamorous South Bank with its wonderful riverside walk. But reading the book transports us back to how it was before, during and after the Second World War. The book also covers parts of Wales, Sussex and Dorset where Gwen and her little brothers spent years as evacuees. It is a snapshot of a 20 year period when life was so different from today.
But having read the book, devouring it would be more accurate, I can't stop thinking about it. This book is so much more than a memoir, although as a memoir it is brilliant. All of life is here in its pages. There is history, humour, pathos, tragedy, wisdom and truth revealed, which is almost Shakespearean. The book is simply written, in a conversational style, but it deals with issues that are relevant to us all whatever our age or personal situation.
There are complex family relationships, childhood confusion and misunderstanding, education problems, teenage angst, marital difficulties and the problems of living with family members with a range of physical, emotional or mental difficulties.
It is fascinating to read a firsthand account of coping with air raids, bombings, food rationing, evacuation, homelessness and poverty. Beneath all that there is the gradual revelation of how misinterpretations or misunderstandings between family members can lead to alienation and lifelong estrangements. My heart breaks for Bertie and Derek and I think Gwen should write another book just about them!
But the part of the book that will stay with me is the complexity of the parent/child relationship. For a variety of reasons Gwen and her mother had a difficult relationship and it was only when writing the book that she felt she truly understood what a wonderful woman she had been.
I think everyone would gain from reading Coin Street Chronicles: the elderly for the memories of a time gone by, the middle aged to truly appreciate what their parents lived through and the young to help them understand themselves and their parents.
I think it would make a wonderful radio play or TV programme and it should be required reading in schools as part of History lessons.
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