Columbia Road: A Strange Kind of Paradise – review

Columbia Road

A detail from the front cover of Columbia Road: A Strange Kind of Paradise. Image: Gloria Lacey and Damian Jaques

Linda Wilkinson is an East Ender born and bred and a true Renaissance woman.

A human rights activist, she spent 30 years working full-time as a research scientist before penning a play about Diamond Lil (based on the true story of an East End drag queen whose real name was Harry Young) as well as several books.

‘Lil’ crops up in Columbia Road: A Strange Kind of Paradise. She is pictured showing some leg amid of a crowd of women celebrating VE Day in 1945.

“What did people make of it?” the author writes. “It seems nobody was much bothered. As a child I was eight before I learned Lil was a bloke and then only because one of the boys at school told me.”

Salt-of-the-earth inhabitants of the East End were, and probably still are, much more tolerant than they are given credit for. In Columbia Road this easy-going mindset helped foster the bohemian trappings the street displays today.

Part memoir, part quirky, unclichéd history, this self-published book is a cornucopia of historical anecdotes, containing photographs and reminiscences from the author’s fellow Columbia Road natives.

The roots of the street’s famous flower market are shrouded in mystery, though records show it was already in existence in the 1800s.

Precisely when and why it sprouted remains a matter of debate as poverty-stricken East Enders were not archetypal bloom-fanciers, though Wilkinson cites Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew’s observation that pretty plants are comforting to people who spend long hours labouring indoors.

What is clear is there is more to Columbia Road than flowers. Over the decades it has played host to silk weavers, body-snatchers, child murderers and Huguenot and Jewish refugees.

It was a focus of the efforts of social reformers and philanthropists like Angela Burdett-Coutts and was part of the route from Essex into London travelled by thousands of farm workers leading their livestock to the slaughter.

For much of its history Columbia Road hardly smelt of roses; close-by there was in Dickens’s time a vast and stinking ‘dung heap’.

But despite its flaws the area has always inspired great loyalty among its residents.

It is indeed a strange kind of paradise.

Columbia Road: A Strange Kind of Paradise is published by Linda Wilkinson. ISBN: 9780957329423. RRP: £12.99