I have a confession to make. I’m a 42-year-old mum, journalist and Sunday Times-bestselling author, but I have the grand total of one GCSE!
Whenever I tell people this, they’re shocked. ‘But you’re a writer!’ they say, as if becoming an author is an exclusive club accessible only to the academically gifted.
I like to think I’m not a total dunce, but somewhere along the way school and I did not click. I can’t blame my teachers, or my parents. I had all the support in the world. In truth, I think teenage hormones played a strong part in turning my head towards boys, not books.
Today, I’m a Pan Macmillan author specialising in historical fiction and I find myself constantly comparing my work to my peers. Would my prose be as rich and refined had I done a degree in English literature? Would I be a more successful writer, or indeed a better person, if I had a whole clutch of qualifications under my belt?
This is a rhetoric that I try to challenge constantly through my work and I have to come to the conclusion that instinct is a more powerful force than academia.
Here’s an example. My new novel, The Wedding Girls, features the Battle of Cable Street. For those that don’t know about this event, it was a defining moment in British history. The tremendous turn out of ordinary men and women who prevented fascist leader, Oswald Mosley and his goose-stepping blackshirts from marching through their neighbourhoods was celebrated as a great victory for anti-fascism.
It was a sunny Sunday in 1936 when a crowd of up to 300,000 turned up to Gardiner’s Corner in London’s East End to defend their streets with fierce chants of ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ The sights were extraordinary. Huge crowds singing and cheering, fierce fighting on the blockades, police on horseback charging at the crowds and the sight which intrigued me the most – women rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck in! All along narrow Cable Street, housewives hurled the contents of their chamber pots down onto policemen’s heads and helped to man the barricades. For that day only, men and women were on an equal footing.
When I decided to feature the event in my book I knew I could only bring that day to life by speaking to the women who turned out to protest.
When I asked around, I was met with a lot of head shaking.
‘You won’t find anyone alive who can still remember that day,’ remarked a historian.
The ugly voice of self-doubt raised its head. He’s an educated historian. He knows better than you. But instinct told me to try. So I did a lot of digging and eventually, I struck gold. For when I visited a Jewish community centre in Stepney I stumbled into a treasure trove of memories. The place was filled with indomitable women who were not only there on the day, but marched shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the men.
‘My name’s Marie,’ grinned a woman with jet-black hair and bone white teeth. ‘I’m can tell you a few stories about the East End. There’s Beattie and Millie, they’re 98, I’m 94…the young one,’ she added with a playful wink, revealing a tenacious spirit. ‘I work here, volunteering twice a week and I still get up at half past six for my Saturday job.’
‘Do you think you’ll ever give up work?’ I ventured.
‘Give up work?’ she scoffed. ‘Why? I’m still young.’
With that, the nonagenarian bustled off and I scurried after her in hot pursuit. On our way to the ‘memory room’ a beautifully soothing room entirely furnished in 1930s style, we passed a dartboard with a photograph of Justin Bieber’s face skewered to it. I stopped and stared in disbelief. ‘What, you think we sit around playing bridge all day?’ said Marie with a gleeful cackle.
They told me the most remarkable, sad, funny and heart wrenching stories, not just about the battle against fascism, but also of the grinding poverty of the Depression years.
‘As a young woman living in the East End in the 1930s, politics was real and raw to me,’ Beattie told me. ‘At nineteen years of age I wasn’t allowed to vote, but I still had to defend myself against the fascist blackshirts.
“Go home, Jew,” they would shout. “I am home,” I’d yell back. Then they would chase me, try and lash me with their big belt buckles. They never caught me mind. I could run faster. When the call came to stop Mosley and his blackshirts marching through the East End, did I turn out? Course I did. I’ll never forget the roar of the crowds or the celebration songs that went on long into the night when we learnt that we had forced Mosley and his thugs to turn back.’
I came away from that visit on a high because for me, history had just burst into life. These women recently shared their stories on the BBC and Chanel 4 news, in a spread of national newspapers and also in an event, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle, the very same women, who a prominent historian denied the existence of.
I am painfully aware of the lack of letters after my name, and I’ll be honest, I grieve for the educational opportunities I squandered, but I try to tell myself that education is only a part of the picture.
Of course working hard to get a degree is important and empowering, but it’s experience, instinct and hard work which shape us.
It’s International Women’s Day on March 8th, which highlights the achievements of some remarkable women. I hope we can also remember the women of Cable Street, who fought to rid their neighbourhood of racism, hatred and division. All these women left school at fourteen and went straight into the sweatshops of the East End. They didn’t let their lack of education hold them back or define them, and from now on, I’m determined to do the same.
Kate will be discussing her book on a panel event at the Museum of London on Friday 31st March 6pm.
‘We only bleedin’ well did it, we stopped ’em marching,’ gibbered a young lad, grabbing Stella and planting an impulsive kiss on her lips, before lifting her clean up off the cobbles.
‘Oi, mind yourself,’ she giggled as her cap flew off.
The street spun out of focus as he whirled her round and round before plonking her back down and running off up the street to join his pals.
Stella stared open-mouthed after him and started to laugh as all around her perfect strangers rejoiced and embraced.
It was now 5pm. The fierce fighting had gone on down Cable Street for hours before word had finally reached the barricades that the Commissioner of the Police had ordered Mosley to turn back and march the other way, through the deserted streets of the Embankment. The roads into the heart of the East End were now barred to him and Stella knew the defeat would be a bitter and humiliating one.
‘Now he’s got his marching orders!’ shouted a wag. ‘Yeah, all dressed up and no place to go!’ shouted another.
In a stroke the tension lifted. A fear-haunted East End had beaten the bullies. The usually peaceable citizens had reclaimed their beloved streets from the fascists and, as the crowds dispersed, was it her imagination or were chests puffed out and heads held higher? Stella knew it hadn’t been a case of politics at work that day, but working class solidarity coming together to right a wrong. Mosley had set out to breed hatred, but had been defeated by ordinary folk coming together as one: men and women who believed in tolerance, respect and peace.
Shaking her head at the extraordinary turn of events, Stella reached down to pick her cap up. When she stood back up she caught a glimpse of herself in the window of a pawnshop, lit up by a column of gauzy sunshine. She looked a fright! Her blouse was sticky with perspiration and her hair a dusty dishevelled mess, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, Stella had never looked, or felt, so alive.
As the sun set over Cable Street, drenching the barricades in a fiery glow, the East End basked in its finest hour. She breathed in the jubilation that seemed to bounce off the cobbles, aware that she could never go back to the narrow life now.