On the seventh day of the Winter Festival…

Spitalfields Music sent to me… A story from Alan Gilbey’s hit Summer Festival 2012 event I am a Stranger Here.

In honour of the last night of But who knows the East End?: An Exploration we are pleased to be able to share the story of Gladys McGee, the Bard of Stepney. Read on and enjoy!

The Bard Of Stepney
(bard from the pubs and all the betting offices.)

But who knows the East End?

But who knows the East End?

Gladys McGee is having a go at me. That’s not unusual. Gladys McGee often has a go at people, usually well-meaning middle-class ones who have just arrived in the East End to do some good but have pissed her off instead.

She’s not the best person to patronise. She’s seen too many passing persons, who mean well but don’t linger long, to consider patronising them back. But her own school of hard knocks education didn’t grant her their kind of social mobility, so she gets angry and effs and blinds instead.

But one day Gladys will be a star.

She doesn’t know that yet. She’s still having a go at me in the Basement Community Arts Project in 1978, where she was in the first paragraph, but the theatrical flair she brings to berating me and the workers at the community law centre will soon find a new home, on stage, on the newly establishing New Variety scene.

You see Gladys writes poems, on the back of betting slips, on tiny scraps of scrappy paper, and gave them to my old English teacher who invited her to our writers group. Here she performs them with energy and eccentricity and a twinkle in her eye that is very charismatic, and soon she will have bought a sparkly gold suit to perform in. When she does she will become funny and charming and alarmingly unpredictable and totally endearing to anyone with a bit of an open mind. Gladys will transcend the normal condescension’s of being a ‘pensioner poet’ and begin to get bookings at stand-up comedy gigs.

Once the comedy circuit wasn’t entirely young men called Russell observing things. There was space on the stage for Marxist jugglers and ranting poets and Gladys McGee. Seeing her supporting Mark Thomas and John Hegley, dropping all her poems in a bit of a kafuffle, claiming that if she didn’t keep up the payments on her glasses they would be boarded up, was a precarious and precious experience.

Please listen to my poetry
Don’t let me write in vain.
Because it’s only in the last few years
I’ve found I had a brain.

Gladys and I did gigs together and a film for Channel Four where we dressed her as Britannia and as Mary on a donkey to recite her poems. They were the best bits of the film. We sat her on a tricycle in the middle of Brick Lane for publicity pictures too. Gladys never complained (well, she did complain, but not about that.) Liberated from betting shops and the Claimants Union Gladys found a second life as a unique, eccentric, popular performer and people laughed with her and celebrated her spirit.

Of course times change and so do comedy circuits. Gladys got older and the clubs much more interested in comedians doing comedy as a way to get on TV panel shows. The idea that Channel Four once broadcast Gladys reading a poem sat on a donkey began to seem more and more surreal. The variety bookingsBut who knows the East End? stopped. She never lost her proto-punk anger but couldn’t get out so easily anymore. The last time I saw her was when someone brought her on one of my history walks in a wheelchair. She heckled.

Today there is no space on comedy club stages for people like Gladys and the new creatives of this ‘cultural quarter’ won’t know she was ever here, never mind have enjoyed the privilege of her having a go at them. It’s quieter in the East End without Gladys, but not in a good way.

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