Last Thursday I was lucky enough to attend the launch event for the brilliant Lydia Syson’s A WORLD BETWEEN US. In classic Lydia/Hot Key fashion, the night was an amazing mix of enormous fun, fascinating historical facts and delicious food and drinks. This was literally my idea of a perfect event – for those of you who don’t know, I LOVE HISTORY. I love history and A WORLD BETWEEN US so much that after reading the book I felt compelled to buy a 1940′s nurse’s cape – which I of course wore that evening.
The launch started with everyone gathering outside of Whitechapel station to meet the marvellous David Rosenberg, who would be taking us on a specially-customised A WORLD BETWEEN US walking tour. If you haven’t read the book yet (if not WHY NOT), I won’t spoil anything for you, but it opens with a young nurse (Felix) finding herself caught up in The Battle of Cable Street. Whilst there, she meets a dashing young fellow called Nat, who is determined to go to Spain and fight against Franco’s fascist forces.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t meet any dashing young fellows to pick me and spin me around, thus causing my cape to swirl delightfully and flash its red underlining like Felix did. However, I did learn a huge amount, as although I studied the Spanish Civil War at uni, I had no idea that the inspiration for so many young men and women to go and fight was due to their experiences of fascism back home. The East End was a primarily Jewish neighborhood in the 1930′s, and (as David told us on the tour) by the time the International Brigades were recruiting many people had already begun to feel threatened by the anti-semitic and fascist actions of Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts. The Battle of Cable Street was all about people standing up to fascism and letting people know that they would not let the Black Shirts pass - ¡No pasarán!
The tour was fascinating and it was so wonderful to see the streets of A WORLD BETWEEN US come alive – Cable Street is very different now to how it was then (there is definitely irony in seeing well-to-do yuppies living in buildings which were once part of an extremely poor slum) but it’s easy enough to find yourself slipping down the narrow and rambling streets of Whitechapel and imagining Felix and Nat whispering together just ahead of you.
This feeling of falling back in time was only made stronger as we finished the tour at Wilton’s Music Hall – I’d never heard of this place before last Thursday but I will definitely be going back! It’s a wonderful still-somewhat-semi-derelict Victorian building which used to be (unsurprisingly) a music hall. It’s run as a music venue and bar, but the building still needs a lot of work doing to it. Luckily they’ve just been given a grant by the National Lottery which means they can return the hall to its former glory – which I can’t wait for, as I’m sure it will be stunning and a fantastic music venue once more. Most excitingly, we found out that Wilton’s had acted as a make-shift hospital during the battle!
We all gathered in a room to the side of the bar (which, appropriately enough, seemed to be hosting a Spanish music night) and enjoyed a wonderful end to the evening listening to speeches, mingling with Lydia’s fascinating guests – and singing International Brigade songs around a piano! I was so pleased that everyone really got into the spirit of things and sang along – all the more impressive considering I don’t think many people had heard the songs before.
So now you’ve heard me waxing lyrical about the evening I can only hope you feel like finding out more and doing some exploring of the area yourself – David regularly runs excellent tours on political activism in the East End, and I can’t recommend popping into Wilton’s for a drink enough! And most importantly of all, I hope you feel compelled to pick up Lydia’s fascinating A WORLD BETWEEN US – I can think of no better introduction to the Spanish Civil War or The Battle of Cable Street, and it’s got a jolly good dash of heroism and romance thrown in too.