I ordered Chelsea Child by Rose Gamble from Amazon and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised when it turned up. It had been recommended by a friend but I didn’t know anything about it. I do however live quite near to Chelsea, so I do know about that. But when this book rocked up I was stumped. The battered dust jacket spoke of a family of 7 living in 1 room and scraping a living on the wages of a char. I knew that Chelsea, now pad of choice to the super rich, had once been popular with artists. However, Chelsea’s history as a slum town was a complete revelation to me.
But that history is here, between the covers of an almost completely forgotten and certainly out of print memoir. Reading it has been like discovering an extra blanket on the bed during a cold night.
The Chelsea Child in question is Rose Naylor, or Rowie as she is know in her family. Rowie is one of 7 children who live with their parents in 1 room of a structurally unsound shack in circumstances of staggering privation. They eat scraps, sleep on tables and wash in the water used to prepare their dinner. As I read, I squirmed at the thought but also at the knowledge of my own softness.
Each child exhibits an iron loyalty to their Mother who slaves to feed cloth and care for them. She works all hours and runs home in her lunch break to cook dinner for her family. Their Father is a different kettle of fish altogether. He is a domestic monster. Frustrated by his own unemployment and emasculated by his wife’s industry and hard work, he lingers around the inadequate home, bubbling with rage. There is, in consequence domestic violence which is terrible to read. Almost worse however, is the constant threat of temper. His disposition sits in the corner of the room like a dirty bomb that may be set off at any time by some unwitting word or action, wholly innocent and unremarkable to any other living soul.
But if I have given the impression that this is some sort of misery memoir, then I have done it wrong. It is funny, well written and wholly without self pity. Rowie and her sisters are funny, clever and enterprising, sometimes in surprising ways. When the hospital in which they are each treated demands contributions, they stage a street version of “Little Women”, with the Naylors in the title roles. Rowie describes the production thus:
“We swept the yard and tried to board up the chickens. Geogie ad Lu humped the junk from the shed back to clear a space for the stage and hung the green curtain from Lu’s bed over a washing line in front of it. Ethel lent a couple of kitchen chairs in case there were any adults – everyone else would have to sit o the ground. Advertising was by word of mouth, with threatened bashings from Lu and Georgie if any of their own particular mates failed to turn up. But a concert was rare and our neighbours knew us, and they came. The yard was packed and some had to hang out of the scullery window. The play was unrecognisable and the audience totally baffled by the plot, but it was all made worthwhile by the deathbed scene”.
These children are literate and imaginative and industrious. In their own day they would have been known as “slum children” but they give the lie to the idea that the poor are or ever were, stupid. They survive on their wits, their humour and their hard work and they are a challenge to us all for it. Rowie is charming and confident and self-reliant and she gets that from her family. Her mother, her siblings and her neighbours are the source of her wonder. She values herself and so came to be valued by me, one of her readers.
In addition to being a touching family and individual story – the book is a disquisition on history and the little life. The family is plagued with illness. They suffer Diphtheria and Meningitis. They live on a diet which would shock a church mouse. But at the same time, they are fit as fiddles and would put my flabby frame to shame. They are of their age. History is the thing that sweeps them up and moves them on, and in a way, they don’t have much to do with it. Thus, they are transported around the city in the pre-war slum clearance and housed in a flat so spacious and luxurious that Rowie cannot sleep. After that the war comes and scatters them for good.
There is a constant tension to this memoir. The children speak cockney but the prose is perfect received English and there is no real explanation as to why that would be. Rowie is clever, and goes to a posh school, where she struggles in a good natured but very obvious way to adapt to a radically different society. She is a bright girl, but she doesn’t cover herself in glory academically and I find myself wondering desperately – what happened to her? I know that she wrote her memoir and that she read it on Radio 4 but other than that her destiny a delicious mystery.