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‘We ain’t got no drink, Pa.’ I trembled as I spoke. Then somewhere inside me I found the anger, the courage to answer him back. ‘We don’t have no grog cos you drank it all!’ I knew he was going for me tonight, so I reckoned I might as well go down fighting after all.
Growing up in the slums of 1920s and 30s Bermondsey, Hilda Kemp’s childhood was one of chaos and fear. Every day was battleground, a fight to survive and a fight to be safe.
For Hilda knew what it was to grow up in desperate poverty: to have to scratch around for a penny to buy bread; to feel the seeping cold of a foggy docklands night with only a thin blanket to cover her; to share her filthy mattress with her brothers and sisters, fighting for space while huddling to keep warm. She knew what it was to feel hunger – not the impatient growl of a tummy that has missed a meal; proper hunger, the type that aches in your soul as much as your belly.
The eldest of five children, Hilda was the daughter of a hard drinker and hard hitter as well. A casual dockworker by day, a bare-knuckle fighter by night and a lousy drunk to boot, her pa honed his fists down the Old Kent Road and Blackfriars, and it was Hilda or her ma who bore the brunt of them at home.
This is the powerful and moving memoir of Hilda’s childhood growing up in dark, filthy, crime-ridden Bermondsey; a place where you knew your neighbours, where you kept your eyes down and your ears shut as defence against the gangs at war in the streets. It’s a time when days were spent running wild down the docklands, jumping onto barges and stealing coal, racing through the dank back-streets of east London like water rats, dodging the milk cart or the rag-and-bone man.
And out of this bleak landscape emerges a brave, resilient young girl whose life is a testament to the power of love and good humour. Moving, dazzling and sombre by turns, once opened this brilliant, seductive book will not let you rest.
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