Having just celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and been amazed by Her Majesty’s strong constitution, sense of humour and resilience, I have been reflecting on all that her generation have lived through.
This led me to a book, beautifully written by Gwen Southgate, called Coin Street Chronicles, which was recommended to me by an American friend. Gwen was born in 1929 into a very poor but caring family, and grew up in the Waterloo District of London. By the time she was 10 the World War had started and Gwen, along with all her classmates was evacuated to the Dorset countryside. Gwen moved six times over the next few years and grew in maturity with a very positive attitude to life, despite its hardships. Gwen was a very intelligent girl and devoured books. Her teachers were amazed that, although she spoke with a strong cockney accent, she wrote in beautiful prose.
Eventually Gwen managed to get to London University where she studied Science, and met her future husband! She taught Science in high schools for many years. She married and had 2 children before moving to Chicago. She had two more children before moving finally to Princeton, USA.
When Gwen retired from teaching she started writing her memoir as a legacy for her children. It took her 15 years. Her remarkable memory and the ability to recall every detail from a child’s perspective enabled her to write vividly and with humour and sensitivity. She published her book herself in America through iUniverse and gave readings for friends and book groups. Her book was passed from friend to friend and grew very popular through personal recommendation. In fact it became so popular that it was an Editor’s Choice book from the beginning and won a Star award! On the American Amazon site there are 23 wonderful reviews and everyone gives Coin Street Chronicles a 5 star rating. It has been read by academics, editors, reviewers and has twice been likened to the writing of George Orwell.
My review of Coin Street Chronicles
Coin Street Chronicles was recommended to me by a friend who lives in London. We both thoroughly enjoy wandering the streets of London and finding out about the buildings, streets and boroughs, and what life was like for the residents in years gone by.
The houses in Coin Street are long gone and the area is now part of the very glamorous South Bank with its wonderful riverside walk. But reading the book transports us back to how it was before, during and after the Second World War. The book also covers parts of Wales, Sussex and Dorset where Gwen and her little brothers spent years as evacuees. It is a snapshot of a 20 year period when life was so different from today.
But having read the book, devouring it would be more accurate, I can’t stop thinking about it. This book is so much more than a memoir, although as a memoir it is brilliant. All of life is here in its pages. There is history, humour, pathos, tragedy, wisdom and truth revealed, which is almost Shakespearean. The book is simply written, in a conversational style, but it deals with issues that are relevant to us all whatever our age or personal situation.
There are complex family relationships, childhood confusion and misunderstanding, education problems, teenage angst, marital difficulties and the problems of living with family members with a range of physical, emotional or mental difficulties.
It is fascinating to read a firsthand account of coping with air raids, bombings, food rationing, evacuation, homelessness and poverty. Beneath all that there is the gradual revelation of how misinterpretations or misunderstandings between family members can lead to alienation and lifelong estrangements. My heart breaks for Bertie and Derek and I think Gwen should write another book just about them!
But the part of the book that will stay with me is the complexity of the parent/child relationship. For a variety of reasons Gwen and her mother had a difficult relationship and it was only when writing the book that she felt she truly understood what a wonderful woman she had been.
I think everyone would gain from reading Coin Street Chronicles: the elderly for the memories of a time gone by, the middle aged to truly appreciate what their parents lived through and the young to help them understand themselves and their parents.
I think it would make a wonderful radio play or TV programme and it should be required reading in schools as part of History lessons.
It is available in the UK to order from various bookstores, or to buy or download online.
- Queen’s diamond jubilee: pageants, parties and more – live (guardian.co.uk)