East London is a dynamic, vibrant and diverse community, with youth and elders who embody a spirit of resistance and perseverance in the face of adversity, change, and struggle. EastLife, CityLife’s prototype, was a project that paired young writers with community elders in conversation about life, in monologue and in dialogue, about their experiences in the past and the present. EastLife ran from January to October of 2015, and helped us realise our goals for CityLife – a UK-wide project pairing young writers with community members in order to tell their stories of the cities they live in – the past, the future, and the collective memory of these spaces.
Life writing, both autobiographical and biographical, offers us insight into our culture. Rather than relying on cultural statistics and news features, life stories provide an intimate way of experiencing the cultural history of cities and nations. Life writing reveals the real lives of Londoners and their relationship to their communities. Comprised of several boroughs that are in the midst of huge shifts, East London is a microcosm of the key convergences of contemporary London: regeneration, the economic downturn, past and future immigration, and other issues arising from its cultural diversity.
EastLife was a research project developed by the Writing Centre in the School of Arts and Digital Industries at UEL, and inspired by the life writing of students in the Creative Writing programmes. The work the students produce each year is so moving, vivid and full of the insight into places and people we rarely hear about, that it became crucial for us to bring them to a wider audience. In deciding to uncover these voices for publication it became clear that they were not the only ones waiting to be heard, and indeed there was a parallel chorus of elders in the community whose stories needed a platform. Through the Civic Engagement initiative at the University of East London we were able to put students and community elders in touch, meeting to exchange stories. The students not only participated in the community by meeting and engaging with the elders’ stories, but they were offered the wonderful privilege of using their writing talent to tell those stories in original and evocative ways.
Culture is memory; memory is collective; and elders are a creative resource for cultural history. These concepts were at the centre of EastLife – and we feel that the project unearthed some of the cultural richness of East London that is embedded in personal experience. Community elders are not only key sources of memories and the cultural histories that enrich the local community, but, unfortunately, they are often isolated (in terms of access, mobility, and technology) from participation in cultural exchange. This project allowed youth and elders to learn a bit more about one another, and this anthology presents the fruits of their exchanges.