From Whitechapel to Walford, and from Jack the Ripper to the Mitchell brothers, the East End has long been shrouded in mythology. For centuries, novelists and social theorists, missionaries and TV scriptwriters have delighted in its extremes of glamour and deprivation, confusing chronicle with cliche to such an extent that the reality of the place has been lost in someone else's idea of what makes a good story.
In Gilda O'Neill's My East End, a mythology constructed largely by outsiders gives way to the recollections of those who have lived there. O'Neill could hardly be better placed to point us to the real East End, having been born into a traditional Bethnal Green family in 1951. Her grandmother kept a pie-and-mash shop, her grandfather was a tug skipper on the Thames, her great uncle was minder to the owner of a gambling den in Limehouse's Chinatown and she could probably write a fascinating book on her history alone. Perhaps that's what she should have done: the stories she has chosen to tell instead hardly characterise the East End of London but could, in fact, have taken place anywhere in the British Isles.
O'Neill's opening chapters on the makings of the East End show what an interesting book this could have been. She builds a picture of a community enriched by the arrival of Jews, Huguenots, Germans, Italians, Lithuanians and Latvians, who brought to the area so much of what we now associate with London. She looks beyond the Whitechapel crimes to the earliest murder committed on a British train and to the killing of an Italian beggar boy whose body was sold to a prominent medical school. She lists the first fruits to be sold by London street traders and describes markets that were filled with songbirds trapped in the Essex countryside. She tells us that roller-skating was an East End craze as early as 1870, and that Millwall Football Club started life as a works team from Morton's jam factory. This is not earth-shattering stuff, admittedly, but it is at least a colourful picture of a place that was not quite like anywhere else.
But this brief exercise in scene-setting is the most detailed section of the book. Instead of following it up with individual examples of how a very specific backdrop affected people's daily lives, O'Neill lapses into generalities. "Having something nice to go out in was an ambition for East Enders," she tells us, adding quickly that "drinking has always been an East End leisure activity". We know, deep down, that life in east London must have been different, but that difference surely doesn't lie in liking a drink or going on holiday, activities that O'Neill seems to think were peculiarly absent from the rest of the country. The interviews she includes to illustrate her insights paint a convincing picture of a world where community spirit was everything and where people made their own fun, but hers is the story of an age rather than a place, and it's a story that has been told many times before.
Not only does the East End sound just like everywhere else but, as their stories are fragmented and simplistically grouped by different themes, all the East Enders soon start to sound like one another. Occasionally, a voice stands out: there's a young seaman who has trouble believing that "a snotty nosed kid from the East End" could be off to Copacabana Beach and a moving tale of a woman whose husband survived the war only to be killed by a freak accident in the docks. But rarely are O'Neill's interviewees given enough space to come alive as individuals. Nor do we get a very rounded picture; among a lot of information about the Jewish community, very little comes from inside it; and, while there are many comments about prostitutes, including a wonderful story about a woman who plucked chickens as she waited for her clients, not once do we hear what it was like to be working the streets. An opportunity missed.