Thursday, 7 October 2010

Gilda O'Neill

I'm shocked to learn of the sudden death of Gilda O'Neill at the age of just 59. I first came across her work because of an interest in hop-picking. Her oral history of East London women hop-pickers, Pull No More Bines: Hop-Picking: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (London: Women's Press, 1990) was a brilliant study. It combined a sympathetic ear with an acute eye. She successfully achieved the balance of writing in an informed and objective way about something she also remembered experiencing. (It's still in print, now published under the much less evocative title Lost Voices).
She tried to bring serious thought about history to an audience that might not have had much opportunity for serious study. Her books were accessibly written, and focused on the East End working class life she had grown up with. They are rich with the minutiae of folklore and history. Her book about women's socialising A Night Out with the Girls (London: Women's Press, 1993) seems less well known than her big histories, but I remember being struck by its sheer pleasure at the social events it was examining, and the thoughtful points it made about them along the way. I haven't read any of her novels, but everything I've heard about them suggests she brought the same determined combination of accuracy and accessibility to that genre too.
Having benefited from a return to education as a mature student, she worked hard to inspire people from the same background as her to consider its possibilities. The photo shows her (right) talking with Maggie Semple at a National Reading Week event in 2008. Given this government's likely curtailment of adult education opportunities, her enthusiastic contribution on this front deserves mention.
Her accounts of working class life in the East End sought to celebrate the lives of ordinary people, and to use their history as a prism through which to view current events. She leaves a valuable body of work that remains a pleasure to explore.

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