Obituary: Peter Bowling

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HARRY BOWLING, "King of the Cockney Sagas", was 57 before he wrote his first novel, Conner Street's War, set in the London docklands at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was the first of 18 bestselling cockney sagas that, like Ironmonger's Daughter, Tuppence To Tooley Street or his last, The Whispering Years (to be published in June), told poignant, nostalgic - but not romanticised - stories of good-hearted ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances in close-knit south London communities.

His books - almost a million copies sold by the time of his death - both fed into and helped redefine the popular stereotype of the 'cor blimey Cockney whose sense of humour would help him or her win through. Bowling drew on his own experiences of growing up during the Blitz and on the Bowling family history - in particular the stories told him by his first mother-in-law, Edie, who was a Ber-mondsey barmaid until she was 70.

Bowling was a genuine Cockney, which is to say that he was born not in the East End but in Bermondsey, south east London, within the sound of the bells of Mary-le-Bow on Eastcheap. Born in poverty in 1931, he was the eldest of two surviving children - one of his earliest memories was sleeping three in a bed whilst next door his 18-month old sister lay dying in the next room of their tiny back-to-back.

His father had been crippled on the Somme and was subsequently unemployed during the Depression. The family existed with help from friends and neighbours and with the few shillings his father made selling matches and shoelaces in the street markets. His mother used to whiten the steps and hang up white lace curtains in their home whilst indoors the family battled to keep out the mice and rats that came in from the piles of hay outside the carter's next door.

When the Second World War broke out, Bowling's school was closed but he was not evacuated. He and his younger brother ran wild in the streets until they began to attend a local boys' club run by Methodists. Bowling retained a vivid memory of a bright, sunny day in September 1940 when he watched from the bank of the Thames as bombs rained down on the Surrey Docks, setting them and the oil spill on the river alight.

His father helped with his early education and both Bowling sons passed scholarships to Bermondsey Central School. Bowling left school at 14 to supplement the family income by working at a riverside provision merchant as an office boy. When he was 17 he learned to drive and got a job delivering wines and spirits to West End hotels and private houses - including the home of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. (Olivier tipped him 6d. "He was a real gentleman," Bowling recalled.)

He was called up for National Service in 1950 and served in Austria as a driver with the Royal Signals. After demob he returned to lorry driving. He married Shirley in 1957. Their first home was a slum tenement block in Bermondsey where their two eldest children were born. Bowling, beginning a lifelong interest in community affairs, successfully led a campaign by the tenants' group to get the block condemned.

He moved his family to a high-rise flat in New Cross, where his youngest child was born. For several years he worked as a milkman, meat cutter, carpenter and decorator but went back to lorry driving - for a brewery - in 1966. In 1970 the family moved to Deptford. He took early retirement in 1981 and in 1983 became a community worker for Lewisham Social Services.

His father had encouraged a love of literature, making him aware that "good books were second only in importance to bread on the table". He had written articles for local community magazines and (unpublished) short stories but his ambition was to write a novel set in the Second World War "telling it like it was".

He showed the first draft of what was to become Conner Street's War to his son, Stephen, who had just got his English degree at Cambridge. Bowling later recalled: "After a couple of days Steve said; `Do you really want to know what I think? It's rubbish.' So I tore it up, sat down and started again." He spent five years writing Conner Street's War. It was two more years before, in 1987, the newly formed Headline Book Publishing bought it for an advance of pounds 1,500. The book became first a local then a national bestseller. Other bestsellers followed in quick succession.

Bowling's wife, Shirley, died at the end of the 1980s. Later he married again and he and his second wife, Edna, divided their time between Deptford and Chorley, Lancashire.

Bowling always took his research seriously because of his commitment to "tell things as they really were". He regularly visited clubs and old people's homes, to gather stories of times gone by. "There is still so much to be told, so much that nobody knows," he once said. "When these old people die, it would be awful if their stories died with them." Harry Bowling did his bit to ensure that at least some of their stories will live on.

Henry John Bowling, writer: born London 30 September 1931; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Chorley, Lancashire 5 February 1999.