Tales of Wanstead shopkeepers


Wanstead author Mike Edwards, who launches his new book Shelf Life E11:E4:E18 this weekend, writes:

Mike EdwardsWhile I was studying photography at City Lit college over five years ago, we were sent out to our High Streets to capture images of shopkeepers at their work in a particular style of photography called Environmental Portraiture. My tutor encouraged me to gather more images as he saw a good relationship between me and my ʻsubjectsʼ.

But as I did so, I became more interested in the stories that I was being told, and decided to record them alongside the photo. An idea for a book was forming in my mind, and I sought out people who had been in their jobs for many years as they seemed to have the stories I wanted – interesting backgrounds, and an unspoken pride and fortitude in the work to which they were devoted. I was also concerned about the numbers of shops that were changing hands and wanted to preserve these stories and images.

I was learning a lot about peopleʼs lives, but I was also learning a lot about myself as well.

In the past I was uncomfortable going into a new environment, and at the beginning of this project I felt nervous about making requests, as I felt I was intruding into their space, but the more approaches I made, the more my confidence grew, and I allowed myself to hear the positive responses to my project.

I risked asking more personal questions about their lives, with the proviso of course that they had the final say about the story to be published, and most people surprisingly opened up and a two way trust developed. It was as if they hadnʼt really been asked properly about themselves, nor been listened to effectively. So they told of the lives they had made for themselves following sometimes very difficult upbringings, experiences before and during the 2nd World War, fascinating facts about their ancestorsʼ routes to this country, going back three or four generations, but also the sociological changes to this area during their lives. I was amazed when occasionally they thought they had nothing interesting to say. I was hooked.

These interviews were conducted over a coffee, or a beer, but the hours spent talking would fly by, and I came home with pages and pages of notes to be condensed into a cohesive story. I ʻvoice recordedʼ one story on a milk float, and have the iconic whine, the clink of the bottles, and the milkmanʼs banter with his customers to remind me of my childhood.

Iʼve learned that it pays to be bold and not be scared to ask. That everyone has something of interest to say, that all it takes is the right question, and then the most important part, spending the time to listen. I hope the resultant book, Shelf Life E11:E4:E18 reflects all that I have learned about listening – oh, as well as the origins of the wine trade in New Zealand.

Shelf Life E11:E4:E18 will be launched at the Eightyfour gallery, 84 Nightingale Lane, Wanstead, on Sunday 8 December between 2pm and 5pm.

3 thoughts on “Tales of Wanstead shopkeepers”

  1. Not lucky enough to be born in
    WANSTEAD, but in North Woolwich, a birth above my Dad’s Business of a
    Master Butcher’s Shop? E16.
    Best part of being born there in 1951, was Steam Locos & being told I was carried down from Heaven by an
    Next best was having real coal fires, which was my daily job to set, light & enjoy!
    When 5, I asked where my Mum was?
    Dad’s reply was “She’s gone for a Soldier” Odd, as I didn’t understand & we lived next door to the Docks, now
    City Airport.

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