When my paternal grandmother died back in the early 1970s my father and his siblings had to clear out her flat in east London quickly. The landlord wanted to get it renovated and rented out to someone else as soon as possible. And he had a lot of work to do. Grandma and Granddad hadn’t believed in the modern world and had refused all the landlord’s offers to electrify the flat. They’d stayed with the utilities they did understand: gas lamps and candles.
Although I was a child at the time, I remember that clearing out process and whenever I go past their old flat in Plaistow I often wonder if anything of my grandparents world remains inside. Did something of theirs maybe slip between the floorboards? What, if anything, lurks in the depths of the cellar? My granddad in particular had led a sad, strange and sometimes violent life and both of them had been very secretive and odd. Was anything of theirs still waiting to be discovered in that flat?
But short of knocking on the door and asking the current residents if I could lift up their floorboards and investigate their cellar, there was nothing I could do to slake my curiosity. So instead I wrote a book. I gave my Newham based PIs, Lee Arnold and Mumtaz Hakim an artefact from an old house in east London and let them find out what it meant. Of course this object is far from benign and carries within it the combined guilt and sorrow of people damaged by a cruel and violent past. Set against a background of a poor London borough struggling with the credit crunch, holding its breath before the Olympic Games of 2012 and riven by organised crime, ‘An Act of Kindness’ is my take on the notion that, in life, nothing ever really goes away.
This is partly based upon the old scientific tenet that matter can neither be created nor destroyed but it is also my belief that important events in life leave clues behind. It may take a lot of time and thought to work out what those clues are, but violent upheaval can rarely pass by unmarked however hard people may work to conceal it. That’s a bit airy fairy for a psychology graduate I know but then I wrote this book very much from my heart as opposed to in line with my academic qualifications.
‘An Act of Kindness’ goes to the hidden places of Newham away from the Olympic Stadia, amongst the often frightened poor who live on the edge of criminality. There are gangsters both young and old who are very much my own gangsters inasmuch as they don’t have hearts of gold and they are not handsome. Every one I have ever met has been a total shit. But mainly there is the house and the artefact and a mystery that for Hakim and Arnold is addictive and compelling.
An Act of Kindness by Barbara Nadel is published by Quercus