A Toast to May Day
The London of May Day is as much about flavours as specific locations, and yet the book captures local characteristics that linger to this day. The story has its roots in working class east London, but it also shows the bosses in and around Hyde Park before dipping back into the humble streets of west London. One of the joys of fiction is that the reader gets to create their own imagery, so for a version of the Carbon Works I would take a stroll around Silvertown and end up spending some time looking at the Tate and Lyle factory. Relatives of mine lived across the road long before May Day was published, their descendants then shifting into Canning Town and East Ham, and it is from these areas that the author created the factory and its workers.
There is no better place to connect with that tougher, magical London of the past than in a pub, but it has to be one that hasn’t been turned into a EuroBar and stuffed full of cloned trendies. For a taste of the old East End why not try the Salmon and Ball in Bethnal Green, across from the library and Barmy Park. This pub is friendly and down-to-earth, while many years ago it was a meeting place for Mosley’s Blackshirts, around about the time May Day was first published. John Sommerfield may well have known about the place. Another decent choice is the Pride Of Spitalfields, just off Brick Lane.
The march in May Day heads for Marble Arch, but why not stop off for a rest on the way? The Fitzroy Tavern, just north of Oxford Street, was one of John Sommerfield’s favourites, as mentioned above. With Martin Knight, I met John’s son Peter here following the London Books publication of May Day. We arranged it for midday when the pub is quiet and after a while it felt as if John was there with us – which in a way I suppose he was.
Following the First World War there seems to have been a big shift of people from east London into the new houses being built in west London. I found this in the stories of older people I knew growing up, who were born in Hounslow in the 1920s, their parents coming from Hackney, Poplar, East Ham.
So maybe east and west London aren’t as far apart as they have seemed in my lifetime, and this is reflected in the fact that one of the main characters in May Day, John Seton, lives near the Harrow Road but works at the Carbon Works. It is only really the power of the West End that divides these two sides of London.
West London comes alive on the Portobello Road, where Martine is out shopping with her son. I first went here with my father in the late 1960s as a boy, and the book’s description feels exactly as I remember the place then, even if it was written more than thirty years earlier. We watched Dave Brock – who went on to form Hawkwind and who played with and knew my dad - busking in the street. Sommerfield grew up here and the Earl of Lonsdale and the Portobello Gold are two spots where it would be worth toasting the man. After a while you might cut through time and see Martine and her son outside, and when you come back inside perhaps you will recognise the lad in the old man sitting nearby, smiling at his own memories, nursing a pint of London Pride.
JOHN KING, 2013