The first time I heard the word “punk” I came out of my front door and somebody was shouting at me. I was puzzled. The man was young, and his derision was really quite friendly – he just wanted me to know that he thought I looked harmless. I remembered as a child with my mother and siblings in the early sixties we had been mocked in the street in the same way, although then we were called beatniks – we were unkempt children and she was at art school, had cut a fringe in her hair and liked to wear black ballet shoes and narrow jeans she bought for herself from a children’s shop. The man who shouted at me had identified me as a member of a species so new that even I had not heard of it.
That was 1976. I must have looked quite tough then in reality, because I was invited to join a girl gang in Hoxton – they had long hair, unlike me, and wore sun-dresses to show off the homemade tattoos that marked their bare arms and shoulders like bruises. They thought I might be useful because I could talk like somebody off of the telly if I wanted to. I was flattered but declined, otherwise this might have been a very different story.
I was at City and East London College at Old Street, the first year of my A levels, and had found a room nearby in Queen Mary’s Hostel, overlooking a street market, with a beautiful old-fashioned bathroom that contained four bathtubs, four curvaceous hand basins and four speckled mirrors. I took several baths a day, immersing myself every few hours in the cold water because that summer was so hot the tarmac in the streets softened and people swam in the canal. I had all four bathtubs to myself as I was the only girl on the third floor – the men had separate facilities, although I shared a kitchen with them. The main form of sustenance in that shared kitchen was cider and the local currency was rolling tobacco and tea-bags, with which most of the men were quite generous. Occasionally somebody would fry an egg.
On the windowsill of my room I grew geraniums in pots that pervaded the room with their metallic smell. From my window I was witness to the messy and archaic drama of the market unravelling below me. The actors from the music hall next door used the roofs of the hostel as a rehearsal space, and I used to sit up there on a towel on the hot whitened zinc in the shade of the roof buttresses while they sang or recited their lines and the local boys played cards. I was reading King Lear and trying to memorise my French verbs and bumming fags off anyone who might be persuaded to spare one. That was how I made friends.
At college I took photography as an option and set out to record the people I met and their families. I got invited to an engagement party to photograph the groom and his bride-to-be, but a fight broke out and I left quickly with my camera in a carrier bag, afraid it would get broken. I was asked to do a wedding. I got to know people. I felt honoured. Some of those friendships have endured.
I started writing How’s Your Father primarily to combat a sense of loss. And the relief that overcame me when I had completed the book was immense – I had been so worried that everything I knew and remembered from my time as a teenager in Hoxton was not only changing too quickly in reality but that it would all fade in my head and I would lose it forever. The effort to hang on to my memories was exhausting but once I reached the end of the book I could let go. I felt that nothing would be lost because I had captured everything that mattered to me before it all slipped through my fingers.
My father was still alive then, I had two small children as well as a teenager to look after, and spent much of my time pushing the two little ones up and down the Essex Road in the double buggy, working out stories in my head and trying to invent a voice in which I might be able to speak out. My own beloved brother was a drug addict (now happily returned to his senses) and as well as allowing myself to be tortured by his many wounds in my imagination, my attention was caught by his closeness to my mother – he seemed to live in her pocket.
The joke really was that when I lived in Hoxton I was drawn to the sense of family shared by my neighbours. People stayed together, and to me it seemed very special that my new friends went to the pub with their siblings, their own parents, aunts and uncles, even their grandparents. What spectacular camaraderie! And they wanted to share it with me. It was only later I began to think that perhaps we were all clinging together.
It was not an easy book to write. It took me a year to find the right voice. I wrote the first part again and again, looking for a convincing way forward. Then it just started to work. I was free from the worry of grammatical errors; the language that was evolving seemed to be making its own rules. For the first time in my life I felt able to say anything that needed to be said.
I set the book in the late nineties because that was the right time. Nobody round Hoxton or Haggerston had a mobile phone yet, even the dealers – people were still shouting from one block of flats to the next and I wanted to capture that sense of proximity. In 1976 there was almost no heroin and no crack to be found in that area, and the people I met had not even tried cannabis. The crime of choice was burglary, not mugging or selling drugs.
I am not saying that the family in the book is based on my own family or a version of it, but the themes run very deep in my own heart. After finishing it, I put the book aside for many years and only read it again after my father’s death, intending to edit it for publication. I cried over the multiple losses of my characters. I thought that it would be impossible to pick up the voice of the book again, but found myself able to work into the gaps between paragraphs, between sentences, between words, like picking up stitches in knitting. With hindsight I was able to make many adjustments and some big changes. The voice of the main character gained authority in the editing not by learning to berate the reader but by speaking directly at her with the confidence of my experience. In the earlier version she disappeared out of the story at the end and the book carried on without her but in the new version she gets the last word.
By Rose Boyt