East London has a literary history that’s denser than a pea souper fog. From the rich and expansive fields of the Elizabethan period to its poverty and overpopulation in the Victorian era; the area has always been a diverse hotbed for captivating the British spirit. The city wears its celebrities on its sleeve; walking up Stoke Newington Church Street you can pop in for a pint at the Daniel Defoe and if you walk just a little further, you can head down Barbauld Road, named after Anna Barbauld, the Romantic poet and war critic. Loved and loathed, living and long since deceased, here are 10 of the best writers from the East London.
Read: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Maria (or the Wrongs of a Woman)
Watch: BBC Biography
Born in 1759 Spitalfields, Bethnal Green, Mary Wollstonecraft is seen as one of the founding philosophers of Feminist criticism. In her seminal treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft attacked the notion of women as ‘ornamental property’ and creatures of strong emotion rather than intellect; arguing that both sexes should be entitled to the same level of education. This had a profound effect on many later authors such as George Eliot and Virginia Woolf but also on the suffrage movement, describing her as ‘foremother of the struggle for the vote.’
Often Wollstonecraft’s life overshadowed her work, which is easy to understand when she lived with such individual vitality and freedom for a time that was hugely difficult for unmarried women. She died at the age of 38 after a protracted childbirth to a daughter, Mary who would later become Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and mother of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the prominent Romantic poet.
Read: The Caretaker, The Dumb Waiter
Watch: The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter was one of the 20th Century’s fabled dramatists – an actor, playwright and director who managed to find drama in the humdrum of everyday life and use language that was imbued with a plain speaking poetry. Where other than the multicultural brew of Hackney could he have risen from?
It was this strong association to the Hackney theatre circuit that gave him his first experiences in screenwriting, producing for the Sunday Times Drama Festival The Room; a grim and ambiguous tale set in a working class boarding house. These words still follow Pinter’s work around with critics now using the term Pinteresque to describe scenes where an awkward silence gives rise to a sense of foreboding or menace.
Read: London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, London Orbital
A current resident of Haggerston in Hackney, Iain Sinclair is the kind of London tour guide you could only wish for. A renowned writer of poetry and fiction, it’s his nonfiction work that particularly shines, looking at London from a psychogeographic perspective, studying the hidden landscape of a place and looking at the histories, actions and characters which charge environments.
He has an uncanny knack for helping his readers to see London anew by pointing out the eventful history, literary or otherwise, of a commonplace or mundane area. His book Ghost Milk is an exciting and alternative take on the build up to the 2012 Olympics and regeneration of the Hackney Wick area.
Read: Propa Propaganda, Too Black Too Strong
Watch: ‘Rong Radio’
Sharply incisive with a five-star comedian’s wit, Zephaniah is one the UK’s most recognised living writers and poets. Moving from Birmingham to East London at the age of 22, he had his first book of poetry published entitled Pen Rhythm in the early 1980s. It is off the page in his performances that he’s reached a wider audience, finding a lyrical voice that’s radical and politicised with the strong rhythmic flow of dub and reggae music.
There’s a wonderful end to his poem ‘The London Breed’ that really sums up a summer in the city: ‘I love dis concrete jungle still / With all its sirens and its speed / The people here united will / Create a kind of London breed.’
Read: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year
Watch: Robinson Crusoe
When looking at the life of Daniel Defoe, it’s difficult to know where to start. One of the founding fathers of the novel, he was also a spy, political prisoner and trader with over 500 books to his name and a whopping 198 pen names. Moving between Newington Green and Stoke Newington, Defoe grew up in turbulent times and experienced some of the most unusual occurrences in London; both the Great Plague and the Great Fire as well the Dutch fleet’s raid on the Medway.
He’s most well-known for Moll Flanders and his literary epic, Robinson Crusoe, which tells the classic tale of a castaway who spends thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad, encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers before being rescued. Quite different from life in inner-city London. His stories have been brought to life countless times over the years, in editorial works, as well as stage and screen productions.
Read: Alfred Hitchcock’s London (by Gary Gablin), Alfred Hitchcock (by Peter Ackroyd)
Watch: Frenzy, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
In a corner of Leytonstone, next to a petrol station, sits a plaque that commemorates the birthplace of one of the greatest film directors of the 20th century. Nicknamed ‘The Master of Suspense,’ Hitchcock is renowned for his woeful tales of mystery and suspense and did more than any writer and director of the time in shaping modern Western cinema. While not necessarily an author, Hitchcock wrote the screenplays to some of his earlier films and guided his writers through the drafts of all of his films, insisting on a strict attention to detail and finding new ways of telling stories through visual rather than verbal means.
There’s a tale that at the age of five, he was sent by his father to the Leytonstone local police station with a note asking the officer to lock him away for five minutes as punishment for behaving badly suggesting ‘this is what we do with naughty boys’. This obviously left a strong imprint on the young Hitchcock and the theme later became part of his oeuvre in the harsh treatment and wrongful accusation of the innocent victim.
After the death of his father in 1919, Hitchcock left Leytonstone to work as a draftsman for a cable company, never to return. Other than the blue plaque, there’s not much in the way of remembering Hitchcock; all his old haunts have been knocked down or changed into commercial properties long ago. However, a hotel in Leytonstone is named after him, which thankfully isn’t modelled on the Bates Motel from Psycho.
Read: A Child of the Jago, Chronicles of Martin Hewitt
Arthur Morrison was a born and bred ‘East-Ender’ and spent most of his adult life writing social commentaries and fictionalising London’s East End. With keen observational skills and insightful descriptions, he came to the forefront of ‘slum fiction,’ which uses literature as a method of reform in exposing the many abuses suffered by a forgotten, working class. Set in the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, he describes the abject poverty and squalor as the distinguishing aspects of London’s East End.
What sets Morrison apart from the other genre writers of the time is his reluctance to romanticise his characters and the strong use of restraint. He creates stories that are reminiscent of a Hogarth painting; portraying the cruelty and filthiness of the overpopulated streets without falling into cliché descriptions. His most recognised novel, A Child of the Jago is certainly worth a read on a day out in Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. While a fictionalised locale, it’s like an Eyewitness Guide to the imprint of a by-gone London. Indeed, A Child of the Jago is now the shop name for a trendy alternative clothing boutique in Shoreditch.
Read: The Secret Agent, A Heart of Darkness
Despite speaking with a thick Polish accent and English being his third language, Conrad did wonders for English literature, creating a reel of psychologically deep novels such as Nostromo, The Secret Agent and his masterpiece, A Heart of Darkness.
Between his naval voyages in 1880, Conrad was a resident of Stoke Newington and had a brief stay in a hospital in Dalston to recuperate from his travels to the Congo. If his descriptions of London are anything to go by, he wasn’t a huge fan of the city, finding it a land of ‘utter savagery’ with the East End being ‘unadorned by grace or splendour.’ We wonder if his opinion of the area would have changed in more recent years with Stoke Newington’s tea houses, Sunday markets and mini Hay-on-Wye style literary festivals.
Read: News From Nowhere, The Wood Beyond the World
Watch: William Morris Biography (in four parts)
Another polymath of his time, William Morris was a trained architect, textile designer, writer and social activist.
Morris profoundly influenced the decoration of houses into the early 20th century with his swirling floral textile designs, many of which remain in high demand today. He was also one of the founders of the SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), now a statutory element in the preservation of historic buildings in the UK.
Less known is Morris’s fiction which paved the way for later fantasy writers such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien seems to tip his hat to Morris in Lord of the Rings, lifting several of the names from his work, such as ‘Gandalf,’ an evil wizard and antagonist to the main character in Well at the World’s End.
In the spirit of the man, Water House in Walthamstow (Morris’s ancestral home) has recently been renovated into a museum and gallery. If you wished to learn more about Morris’s and his ethics, this is certainly worth a trip as it contains many of his finest textile designs as well as ephemera from his daily life, such as his favourite coffee cup and the beaten-up satchel in which he carried his socialist pamphlets and messages.
To Read: Down and Out in Paris and London, 1984
To Watch: George Orwell: A Life in Pictures (BBC Documentary)
To See: Orwell’s London Tour
George Orwell (pen name for Eric Arthur Blair) was a political and literary powerhouse of the mid-20th Century. His work has become so ingrained into our culture that his language, such as ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’ from 1984, can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (though we’re unsure of what he would think about Channel 4 and 5’s Big Brother television series).
Despite being born in India and growing up in Oxfordshire, Orwell was a Londoner by adoption, spending much of his time amongst the East End’s poor; sharing and observing the lives of the overcrowded slums. This helped sharpen his critical opinion of London and provided penetrating material for his writing.
In one of his short stories, ‘Clink’ we see an excellent insight into Orwell’s style of immersive journalism. In order to get a taste of London’s criminal underbelly and ‘slum life,’ Orwell decided to get himself arrested. He considered starting a bonfire in Trafalgar Square but instead, went to Mile End Road and drank five pints followed by a quarter bottle of whiskey and he got his wish, spending the night in a police cell.
In London’s west end, there’s an insightful and entertaining walking tour that follows in his footsteps through some of his central haunts and favourite watering holes. Places on the tours are quickly reserved in the summer so it’s worth booking in advance.