[Editor’s note: I recently received an email from Ivy, asking if I would review her book as she thought it might interest our site visitors. Nothing unusual in that, but then I noticed that the subject of the book was her formative years. 1924-1946! It’s not every day I get an email like this so I agreed immediately.]
Born in 1924, Ivy Alexander was the third of six children. She grew up in Old Canning Town. Like much of the East End of London, it was economically, culturally, and environmentally damaged.
Her father, a former professional boxer, had suffered brain damage, which gave rise to unsociable behaviour and violent outbursts. In the book Ivy describes her home life, attendance at school, and subsequently her work at the West Ham TB Clinic and later as a teacher of educationally deprived children.
There was much to set one back, such as the constraints of poverty and the hazards of war, with evacuation and fragmentation of families, the blitz and the destruction of her home and loss of her friends and neighbours. In spite of this, there was a determination to live life to the full, “as if there was no tomorrow”.
The account is both an historical record based on archival research, letters and diaries, and also personal recollections. Finally, she reflects on the competing influences of genes, circumstances and individual effort.
The only time I could find to read this book was whilst on holiday in Thailand. I confess that at first I’d thought it a bit of a chore just to be kind to Ivy who had sent me such an interesting email, followed up by a copy of her book.
Well, the bus journey from Bangkok to Pattaya is boring anyway, so I figured that reading a stuffy old book about the war would pass the time as well as anything.
How wrong I was! By the time I had read a few paragraphs, I was already interrupting Dave’s reading to tell him snippets from the book. Ivy didn’t pull any punches, telling the story the way it was. Exactly. From the adulterous affairs of her forebears (and haven’t we all got skeletons in the cupboard?) to her father’s abusive behaviour. There was more action in here than in Coronation Street and it was certainly much better than that TV show’s unmentionable rival.
The book is very lively, the writing provoking laughter, anger and perhaps a few tears. It’s not just an autobiography, it’s an excellent story. And it’s an amazing piece of social history, well written and well researched. I recommend this book to anyone.
In fact, I did just that and passed it on to Dave:
I really can’t agree more with Kay’s opinion of this book. Too often I find local history books are written in a “soft focus”, mawkish style. This is certainly not true of Maid in West Ham. Ivy Alexander gives us a very personal, vivid and honest – sometimes brutally honest – account of the sufferings and occasional joys which she, her family and her neighbours lived through. At the same time, she manages with keen observation to place her own everyday life in the context of the political, economic and social attitudes held by those who lived in those times, and to relate it to the attitudes of our own day. A fascinating read – I only wish that Ivy could be persuaded to tell us more of what happened next!
Kay has been an expat for 25 years. She set up the British Expat website more than 15 years ago, whilst living in London and missing the expat life. These days she spends much of her time lugging computers and cameras around the world. (Dave gets to deal with all the really heavy stuff.)