Questions and Answers with Kay

Tell us about the real Campbell Road?

The construction of Campbell Road, Islington, began in 1865, on land known as the St Pancras' Seven Sisters Road Estate. The initial properties that appeared were intended for sale or rent to prospective tenants, but unfortunately, building along the street was done piecemeal and took a long time. Over a period of years, the demand fell for houses like those in Campbell Road and poor people, unable to afford to buy or rent a whole house, started taking rooms in the properties. As more undesirables arrived, the rents fell even lower and the clerks and artisans fled to better areas. In 1880 a lodging house was opened at 47 Campbell Road, licensed for 90 men. It was the first of many such establishments in the road and by 1890 Campbell Road had the largest number of doss house beds for any Islington street. The poorest of the poor continued to colonize the area, and Campbell Road gained the reputation as being the worst street in North London. The Bunk, as the slum came to be nicknamed, had been born, and during its heyday, it flourished as a magnet for rogues, prostitutes and vagabonds.  In 1937 the name of the road was changed to Whadcoat Street in a vain attempt to dilute its bad reputation.  Slum clearance started in 1952 finally putting an end to the street, and in its place was built a council estate.  All that now remains of the notorious Bunk is the name Whadcoat Street on a brick wall.

What inspired you to write about it?

My grandmother was born in 1901 and remembered moving into Campbell Road when still an infant.  Her family lived there in cramped rooms in various dilapidated tenement houses until she was a grown woman.  She finally escaped in 1922, on marriage, but oddly came back to her mother’s house in the Bunk to give birth to my mum.  My great-grandmother, Matilda, remained in the street for many more years, until her death in a rather mysterious accident during World War II. I, and my siblings, grew up in Tottenham, North London. We always knew that our maternal grandmother had had a ‘hard’ life. It was some while before we fully realized, from a book published about Campbell Bunk, how dreadful had been her upbringing in an Islington slum. In the 1970s/80s an historian began researching the social history of Campbell Road. He contacted ex-residents of the street and my grandmother was interviewed and her recollections incorporated into his study. On the book’s publication, my nan was presented with a copy. When my beloved mum died we discovered amongst her belongings the Campbell Road book, and some pages of a novel she’d started to write that had been inspired by her mother’s wretched early life. My dad wondered whether it would be possible to finish the novel as a tribute to her and my grandmother. I considered it a privilege to take on the task, and The Street was published in 2011, the first in the Campbell Road series.

The characters are so vivid – are any of them based on real people?

I never knew my great-grandparents, Matilda and Jack, as they had died before I was born.  Jack perished in the Great War, still a young man. However I had heard about Matilda from my mum and nan.  I knew she was a hard drinking bruiser of a woman who earned her living in the Bunk as a rent-collector and as a bookie’s runner, amongst other things.  I based the character of Matilda Keiver on her, and hope my great-gran would approve of her alter ego.  In The Street, and in some of the sequels, the character of Alice is based on my nan, who provided us all with a wonderful insight to her pluck and resilience in the interviews she gave for Jerry White’s study on Campbell Bunk.

Where do you get your inspiration for all of the gritty dialogue?

Dare I say it…from my roots in Tottenham, and from my husband who harks back to the East End.  His mother’s family came from the Brick Lane area, and his father’s from Bethnal Green.  I’ve overheard relatives use some very colourful language and slang! That apart, I tend to be an observer and store away memorable jargon to recycle in my books.

When did you start to write?

When my sons were in infant school I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. My writing career took off to a good start in the early 1980s when a North American publishing house accepted my first work.  The book was a Regency romance and I continued writing in the genre for twenty-five years, both for the American market and for a British publisher, before turning my hand to sagas.  I started work on The Street in 2009 and was delighted when HarperCollins took it on and it became a success two years later.

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