Mary Gibson was born and brought up in Bermondsey, south east London. In 2009, after a thirty-year career in publishing, she took the opportunity of early retirement to write a book of her own! The result was her début novel, Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts, which was inspired by the lives and times of her grandparents in World War One Bermondsey. The novel went on to become a top ten Kindle best seller and has been selected as one of twenty titles for World Book Night 2015.
Her second novel, Jam and Roses, about three sisters living in the Dockhead area of Bermondsey during the 1920s, was published in paperback in May 2015, having been a Nielsen Top 20 hardback bestseller. Her third novel Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys which is set in Bermondsey during World War Two, was published in November 2015.
Over 250, 000 copies of Mary’s books have been sold to date and she is delighted to have signed a new two book contract with Head of Zeus
Mary’s fourth novel, Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams, was published in January 2017 and is set in Bermondsey during the 1930s.Mary now lives in Kent and is writing her fifth Bermondsey novel.
Frank Rossi promised Matty the world. The Cockney Canary would become a world famous movie star. As his wife, she would be one half of a power couple, feted and adored by all. But the Wall Street crash puts paid to that and as Frank becomes more violent and unstable, Matty knows she must escape and so she flees at dead of night.
Once home in Bermondsey, she goes into hiding and starts desperately looking for work. But only the hated biscuit factory, Peek Frean’s, is hiring. Then, as a secret from her past comes back to hurt her, Matty learns that Frank is on the move, determined to find her and get her back.
Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams. The new novel by Mary Gibson
Order Kindle Edition Today | Available from 1st November 2016
Parmenion Books Blog guest post By Mary Gibson
Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams is the fourth in my series of novels set in Bermondsey, the village-like, working class, riverside area in south east London where I was born and grew up during the nineteen fifties. The story takes place during the nineteen thirties depression era when life was particularly tough in Bermondsey, an area already blighted by poverty. The heroine is Matty Gilbie, a character who first appeared in Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts and who we left on the brink of music hall stardom, debating whether she should leave Bermondsey and go to America to pursue a career in the ‘talkies’. Matty is unusual in being able to escape the life of a factory girl, as for most in Bermondsey at that time there was little other choice.
But if there was little choice, there was certainly variety. Crammed within Bermondsey’s densely packed 1300 acres, factories abounded: Crosse & Blackwell’s pickles, Southwell’s and Hartley’s jam, Lipton’s tea, but there was also Pearce Duffs custard and blancmange; Peek Frean’s and Jacobs biscuits; as well as Shuttleworth’s chocolate factory . No wonder the place was called London’s Larder! There were also numerous smelly industries. Breweries, heavy with malty aromas – Courage’s beer; Sarson’s vinegar; vile smelling tanneries such as Garner’s and Bevington’s; the Alaska fur factory. The bone yard stench of Young’s glue factory vied with sweet California Poppy from Atkinson’s cosmetic factory next door and the grammar school I attended was situated between the two. We always prayed that the wind would be in the right direction!
But my heroine Matty’s escape is short lived, and after some success on Broadway and in the talkies, she is forced to flee her mobster boyfriend, returning to Bermondsey with her dreams of screen stardom in tatters. There she finds herself exchanging tinsel town for biscuit town! For the only place Matty can find work is in Peek Frean’s biscuit factory, which occupied such a vast tract of land along the railway viaduct in Bermondsey that it became known as ‘biscuit town’.
As with all my novels, much has been inspired by my own family history and the personal anecdotes of many elderly relatives and friends. I first decided to write about Bermondsey when I realized that the once tight knit community I grew up in had vanished forever. ‘You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone’; so goes the saying, but I think that sometimes you can know what you’ve got just at the point of losing it. During the nineteen eighties my parents were part of a reminiscence group called ‘Bermondsey Memories’. A group of academics conducting a study about building ‘communities’ in the modern world came to interview my parents. The academics were looking for answers in the history of Bermondsey, but all my parents could tell them was that times were hard in those days, growing up between the wars, and people naturally helped each other. Ironically, the very things that had potentially caused most misery in the lives of Bermondsey people: the poverty, poor housing, lack of health care, had proved to be the source of their community spirit. But when your birthplace becomes the subject of an academic study, you know it is fast fading into history and I wanted to capture that lost world before it was totally forgotten.
Each of my novels focusses on a different Bermondsey factory and a different decade during the first half of the twentieth century. The first, Custard Tarts and Broken Hearts, begins in 1911and was inspired by my paternal grandmother’s early life. She worked as a powder packer in Pearce Duffs custard factory at the time of the famous Bermondsey women’s strike of 1911 when thousands of women walked out of the factories, dressed in their Sunday best, one sweltering day during what became known as the ‘Summer of Unrest’. I also drew on many of my grandfather’s experiences in the Royal Field Artillery during World War I driving a six horse gun team. He was, like most returning soldiers, reticent about the war, but he did share how deeply affected he was by the plight of his horses, and I included this in the novel.
My parents left me a rich archive of written and oral memories as well as video diaries and photographs and this was the starting point for much of my writing. But my own historical research took me deep into the fascinating story of how Bermondsey changed from being one of the most notorious slums in London to a virtual socialist utopia by the end of the nineteen thirties. This was due largely to the pioneering work of its Independent Labour Council under the leadership of Bermondsey’s visionary MP, Dr Salter and his wife Ada. I have woven much of their municipal pioneering into my second novel Jam and Roses, in which I drew on my maternal grandmother’s life, working in Southwell’s jam factory in the Dockhead area and struggling with extreme poverty through the twenties.
In Bourbon Creams and Tattered Dreams the Salter’s vision of new housing estates replacing old Victorian slums and a health care system which would become the envy of every borough in Britain was becoming a reality. And my heroine, Matty Gilbie, eventually plays her part by joining the work of the Bermondsey Borough Council film department, which produced their own health education films and screened them in the streets from a mobile cinema, which had been converted from an old disinfectant van! But already there were dark clouds of economic depression and the prospect of war looming.
In 1927, when the armaments race in Europe was already beginning, Dr Salter made a chilling prophecy. He declared that when the next war inevitably came ‘Bermondsey will be an area of smashed buildings, wrecked factories, devastated houses, mangled corpses, and bodies of helpless men, women and children…’ Fourteen years later during the Blitz he was proved tragically right. This was the Bermondsey I chose to explore in my third novel Gunner Girls and Fighter Boys, where I drew heavily on my father’s own war diaries of his time in the RAF in the far east and on his letters home to my mother, who was a gunner girl in the ATS.
When World War Two ended, Bermondsey was a scene of devastation. Of its 19,500 dwellings only 730 escaped bomb damage and 50% of its population was gone – lost to bombs and battles or evacuated, never to return. It was a common saying when I was growing up, that what Bermondsey Borough Council’s slum clearance programme had begun, the Luftwaffe had finished.
As a child my playgrounds were the numerous bomb sites littering the riverside borough. Shells of wrecked houses made for dangerous ‘camps’ and the deep, concrete tanning pits of ruined leather factories made for deadly hiding places. It is this chilling territory I am now exploring as I write my fifth, as yet untitled, Bermondsey novel.
The closure of the docks in the late sixties sounded the death knell for Bermondsey factories and within a decade most of them had either closed or moved out of London. The docks had fed the industries and the industries had fostered a community, unchanged for hundreds of years. Only as it disappeared did I realize its worth, the close knit, supportive way of life, based upon shared work, shared hardships and extended families all concentrated in a small area at the heart of London was gone forever. This was the vanished way of life which I hope I have managed to capture in my novels