As part of our program of events celebrating International Women’s Day, author and journalist Cathryn Kemp tells us what it was like to write the memoir of her grandmother, an extraordinary woman who grew up struggling to survive against the odds in the slums of 1920s south-east London.
When my grandmother, Hilda Kemp, died in 2003, she left little money or possessions, despite a life spent working hard for her family. Instead, she left a wealth of memories and stories, which have become her true legacy.
Writing Hilda’s memoir ‘We Ain’t Got No Drink, Pa’ was a process of giving voice to the thousands of other Wonder Women who kept home and hearth together during the war years, enduring hardships and poverty , but who did so with enduring good humour and incredible resilience.
My Nan was a proper East London matriarch, the kind we most likely won’t see again. She grew up among the chaos of sights and exotic smells in the docklands of Bermondsey, South East London. Her father Ted Johnson was a wife-beater and a drunk, he worked as a casual docker and bare-knuckle fighter. Hilda’s life was poor, hard-working and hand-to-mouth as a result.
And yet, hers is a tale of thriving against all the odds, surviving the violence to build her own life with my grandfather, based on love and decency.
I was very lucky to draw on the memories of my father, Little Albie (in the book), my great aunty Val, who is Hilda’s sister by Ted’s second marriage, and Hilda’s brother Ron, though the memoir is an oral history of Nan’s words.
The great happiness of writing the book was reconnecting with Nan’s family, which of course, is my family too. It means a lot to me that my son Leon will grow up knowing them, and knowing his history through the book.
But writing my nan’s story was not an easy task. Many scenes where she was beaten by her father as a child, or stayed up late to make him his dinner when she had to be up early for school, reduced me to tears.
Hilda brought up her four siblings as her mother, Emily’s, right-hand woman. She cleaned, cooked, scrubbed floors and hung out washing from the age of seven, yet she never complained.
Her monstrous father Ted would lurch in from whichever drinking hole he’d spent their food money in, drunk and mean, demanding his dinner, whatever time of the night it was. And if he wasn’t satisfied, he’d throw the plate at the wall and reach for his belt, or throw his expert punches, battering Emily and Hilda.
Today we’d call it domestic violence, and we’d hope that there were authorities or services to help women escape the particular type of cowardly bullying that goes on behind closed doors. But in those days, there was nothing a poor, working class woman could do. There was nowhere to run to. No-one to help.
Despite that, Hilda considered hers a rich life, living by the docklands, running free as a pack of wolves around the barges and wharves of the thriving docks. Her playground was the dockside, and it was a spice-scented paradise with large ships arriving to unload their foreign cargo, hundreds of workers hauling sacks of grains and rice, catcalling the children in a cacophony of sights and sounds.
I hope I’ve done her justice. I had the slightly unnerving pleasure of hearing her voice in my head as I wrote our her verbal history, and I made sure I was as true to her as I could be. I realised how much I’ve missed her since she passed away, so this strange reconnection has been bitter-sweet. Ultimately, I knew I wanted her voice to be heard, her life to be recognized, and her triumphs and tragedies to be recorded, so that we never forget the extraordinary women who have shaped our lives today.