In its daily blogposts, Spitalfields Life aims to portray the full colour of life in London's East End. But who is the mysterious 'Gentle Author' behind this extraordinary work of social history? Patrick Barkham in The Guardian investigates.
Every day for the past-two-and-a-half years, an anonymous author has written a story about a place or a person in the East End of London. In 900,000 words, and pictures that tell at least another 900,000, are lovingly drawn portraits of remarkable, ordinary folk, from Maurice Franklin, a 93-year-old wood-turner, to Myra Love, who lives in a one-bedroom flat in Bethnal Green but also happens to be a Maori princess. There is a chestnut seller, a jewel thief, a pigeon flyer, curry chefs, trendsetters, oddballs, artists, umbrella makers and Sandra Esquilant, the landlady of the Golden Heart, who is in many locals' eyes the de facto Queen of Spitalfields.
The author of this fascinating and herculean social history, which forms an ongoing blog, Spitalfields Life, now turned into a book, is known only as "the Gentle Author". I have been summoned to meet him or her at E Pellicci, an Italian cafe run by Maria Pellicci, who features in the book. Maria's son Nevio is a fan of the Gentle Author (or GA), despite having his eyebrows likened to Groucho Marx's. "S/he writes so nicely about people," says Nevio.
When GA arrives, they are pathologically reluctant to discuss their age, family, working life or whether they live with anybody at all (apart from, as readers of the blog will know, Mr Pussy). "All readers need to know is that the writer's intention is benign," they say. To make a readable story, I assumed I would identify GA's gender but s/he looks so mortified when I mention this that I relent. Plenty of blogs have thrived on the frisson of anonymity, most notably Belle de Jour, but this does not feel like a publicity stunt. GA stresses their sincere commitment to placing their subjects, not their self, in the spotlight. Besides, some readers have such a firm conception of GA as female or male that unmasking their gender would be like ripping the false beard off Father Christmas in front of a small child.
"I'm not being mean. I think it's not part of this story," says the Gentle Author about their identity and background. But GA, who I feel obliged to record is a fragile-looking middle-aged bohemian with pale blue eyes and a terrible cough that is the remnant of pneumonia, eventually reveals some of the motivations behind what is a deeply personal project. An only child, after GA's father died, s/he moved back to their childhood home in Devon to care for their mother. She had dementia and her only child cared for her for five years. She was paralysed for the final two years; GA fed her with a spoon. "I lived in the presence of death for two years," s/he says. "I made a promise to my mother that she would be able to die at home. Then I made a new promise, which was to write about the people around me and record their stories."Paul the Urban Shepherd in Spitalfields Market, Spitalfields, London. Photograph: Jeremy Freedman/Spitalfields Life
GA calculated there were 10,000 days until they were the same age as when their parents died. Rather crazily, s/he vowed to write a story for every day left. After GA's parents died, s/he sold their house and with the proceeds bought a tiny cottage in Spitalfields. Finding people with tales to tell has not proved difficult. Dining in E Pellicci quickly illustrates how the East End is rich in stories. As we eat steak-and-kidney pudding, another diner, Henrietta Keeper, stands up and clears her throat. She is tiny, in her 80s and she sings A Beautiful Night for Love. The cafe claps and cheers. You couldn't make it up. The Gentle Author rushes over, notepad in hand, and requests an interview.
"I believe in microcosm, that everything in the world is here," says GA. Everything in the world might be in the East End but could such fascinating stories really be found in more insular, monochrome communities? "There is something extra here," admits GA, who nevertheless argues it could be replicated anywhere because people are infinitely fascinating. "I don't understand why everybody isn't doing what I'm doing. I don't understand why this isn't everywhere. It's free to do. It just takes time."
However, GA admits to being in a privileged position, without dependants or mortgage, devoting all hours to the blog and leading an ascetic life based on the sale of a few online adverts and on charity – receiving a veg box from a local grocer and a weekly chicken from another friend. "Only someone as privileged as me could be as poor as me." Spitalfields Life, they say dryly, has been "a catastrophic success".
The East End may be crowded with interesting characters but writing 900,000 well-crafted words in less than three years is a towering achievement. GA seems extraordinarily driven and has barely left the East End, except to interview a 90-year-old former sea cadet in Dover and Crayfish Bob on the Thames. They are now assisted by a younger writer who sets up interviews (a time-consuming process) and local photographers happy to publish their work online. Last year GA took two weeks off to work on the book; two other writers took over chronicling duties.
Reminiscent of other projects giving voice to ordinary people, such as Ronald Blythe's Akenfield, the story of a Suffolk village in the 1960s, and Craig Taylor's updating of the format in last year's Londoners, Spitalfields Life is undoubtedly a significant work of social history. The blog is being archived in both digital and printed form by the British Library and the Bishopsgate Institute. Rather than a stereotypical portrayal of East End poverty, GA calls it "a history of resourcefulness", of "people inventing their own ways to live in an extraordinary and infinite variety".Sammy Minzly serving beigels at his Beigel Bake shop in Spitalfields, east London. Photograph: The Gentle Author/Spitalfields Life
It is also a riposte to the conventions of the arts, history and media. GA insists they would never accept, for instance, Arts Council funding, believing that government grants compromise an artist's freedom of choice. The internet has created a "great liberation", GA believes, in which "the means of printing and distribution has been given to writers to write what they choose". But most writers in mainstream publishing tend to focus on celebrities. "There's this sense, which I reject, that famous people are more interesting than non-famous people," says GA.
The Gentle Author's gentle style is rapturously received by a loyal band of readers around the world. "There is a great appetite for people who have led self-respecting lives," GA thinks. It might seem churlish to criticise such a heartfelt exercise but Spitalfields Life does not dwell on dissent in the community. The author admits they were "too frightened" to leave their house and bear witness to last summer's riots. What about the dark side? GA says s/he avoids featuring anyone they "can't feel sympathy for" and so Spitalfields Life does not feature any crooks or bankers. The whole approach is to "not be wiser" than the person they are interviewing; does this mean no critical scrutiny?
"I'm not presuming to be objective. My subjectivity is very apparent," says GA. "You always allow people to say what they want to say and sometimes people say contentious things." There is some shade amid all this light – Spitalfields Life records one local's battle with horrific racism and another who was tortured by Reggie Kray – and GA harbours strong critical feelings about, for instance, the "pretty iniquitous" displacement of local businesses by the Olympics. "Nobody I know in the East End has managed to get a ticket." The Olympics' impact on the East End has been interrogated through some blogposts, with GA thundering about the "autocratic caprices" of the Olympic Delivery Authority in one about the Eton Mission, a historic rowing club not permitted to use the River Lea for weeks around the games because of a supposed security risk.
A sense of documenting the last of things pervades Spitalfields Life. GA says they don't intend it to be elegiac but tries to catch things before they disappear. Older interviewees also have more stories. GA does not, however, fear the East End itself is coming to an end. The area is constantly changing but doesn't gentrification threaten a more permanent kind of change, tidying up the chaos and throttling the creativity? "That's what I thought before I started but the strength of culture is such that people who come here tend to go native. I have complete faith in the tenacity of people here to overcome the tyranny of any circumstances. All the people who have moved around, and all the buildings that have gone, you would think this place should have been wiped out culturally and it hasn't."
And so the Gentle Author slips into the East End beyond E Pellicci's, a slightly stooped, rather shy figure, in search of a mere 9,100 more stories. "Without me wanting to sound like a sentimentalist, I write about the things that delight me," s/he says. "It's given me a beautiful life."