This is a return visit, as I do have a fascination with Spitalfields and Whitechapel. It’s a place, not only rich in its layer upon layer of history, but, rich in its ever-changing present. Paul has discovered that in his Jewish past, he has strong links with Brick Lane. So, we decide to meet up to ‘walk the walk’ together. I’m travelling north from my hotel in Portsmouth, and he, south, from his home in Manchester, to meet in Altab Ali Park. The appointed time comes and goes. I wait 35 minutes. There must have been a hitch. This is magnified by the fact that my ‘phone is on the ‘blink’. There is a hitch. Massively disappointed, I decide to crash on, hoping that I’ll see Paul on Brick Lane. This, unfortunately, does not occur.
The park, in itself, fits in with the ideas of ‘walking round ruins’ propounded by Geoff Nicholson in his book, ‘Walking around Ruins’. The footprint of the church which, originally stood there, the white chapel, finally destroyed by the Luftwaffe, has been developed as a feature. There are scattered old tombs. The old gate remains to remind you of its past. But, there, in the corner, stands the Shaheed Minar, a copy of the Martyrs’ Memorial, in Bangladesh, a mother protecting her children, to remind you of the future. The park is named after Altab Ali, a Bengali, clothing worker, murdered in a racist attack, in 1978. What has been created in his memory is a wonderful, urban, cross-cultural, space. It’s only 100m wide and 100m long, with the busy Whitechapel High Street, on one side, and bisected by a path bearing letters, spelling out words from Rabindrinath Tagore;
‘The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly’.
The park is thronging with lunchtime life. There are office workers finishing their lunch sitting on the grass, girls wandering through, with the, inevitable, mobile ‘phone clamped to their ears. There are groups of Asian men just ‘hanging out’ together, talking animatedly. There is a body reclining on a bench, ‘sleeping it off’. Everything is harmonious. This is a park for local people. Every available seating space, from the benches, to the random boulders of Portland stone, to the grass, to the churches’ low footprint, is being used. This is what a park is for. The only jarring note is struck by a group of lager-clutching, shaven-headed, guys. They have a couple of Bull Terriers with them. They are exercising them by throwing sticks, and balls, onto the grass, without any apparent concern for where they land. But no-one seems to be bothered. The dogs hurtle, to and fro, snarling and chasing, but life goes on, oblivious to these ‘dangerous dogs’. Altab Ali Park is one living, joyous, ruin. I wonder what the legacy of Alan Henning, the beheaded Salford taxi driver, will be? Will someone erect a park for him, in Eccles? I hope so.
The stretch onto Brick Lane was, at one time, a muddy, dirt track, Osborne St. The street is now the preliminary for entering that ‘cut’ of pleasure, Brick Lane.
But my way lies to the left of ‘The Archers’ pub, by the side of the old ‘Frying Pan’ pub, both Victorian, down Wentworth Street.
In front of me, on the corner of Old Montague Street, before I turn, is the site of the old Bloom’s Kosher Restaurant, before it moved onto Whitechapel High St., then Golders Green and, then, onto oblivion. I ate there, on the High Street, with Mike Endlar, in the ’70s, amazed at the size, then at the price, of a ‘salt beef sandwich’! Bloom’s took the same route as its Eastern and Central European, Yiddish-speaking culture, bombed out in the Blitz. There’s no point in looking for gefilte fish, potato latkes or Lockshen soup on Brick Lane anymore. Giles Coren, the newspaper columnist, wrote “I’m furious with myself for not going one last time. There ought to be a shivah for Bloom’s. We should put a plate of salt beef on a low chair. It’s going to be replaced by some God-awful, kosher Chinese or a Indian place.” Worse, I’m afraid, Giles, it’s a fast food, burger, joint. Maureen Lipman hit the nail on the head, “Bloom’s was past its sell-by date!” But, unlike other buildings with a past, it has not become ‘something else’, something to celebrate the past, along with the Spitalfield’s Yiddish culture, it has been obliterated
On the right, 100m down this ordinary street, Wentworth St. stands an impressive arch. Like many arches of antiquity, this is not on its original site, it was re-erected here, as an entrance to a modern housing development.
This is Flower and Dean Court, and stands, roughly where Flower and Dean St. used to stand. Being Whitechapel you can guess who, it is asserted, lived here. Got it in one. Jack the Ripper. How do we know WHERE he lived, when the speculation is endless as to WHO he was? Well, a Canadian ex-policeman produced a ‘geographic profile’, well, that’s a new Science on me. Using mathematical computer models, he discovered that all the victims lived in ‘doss houses’ less than 200m. from the street, and they all drank in ‘The Ten Bells’ at the end of Fournier St. So the killer PROBABLY lived there. Well that settles that little mystery then. But as the Blitz demolished the street, we’ll never know!
Back to the red brick arch, which originally stood in Thrawl St. The last ruin of the original development. The legend, on the lintel, tells us that the arch was erected in 1886, by the company, ‘Four Per Cent Industrial Dwellings Ltd.’. Surprisingly, the company still exists, and functions as the Industrial Dwellings Society (1885) Ltd., owning properties as far apart as Southwark and Barnet. But, the 128 year old links are firmer than that, as the current President is Sir Evelyn Rothschild, whose ancestor, Nathan Rothschild, founded the company. Flower and Dean St. was their first enterprise and their literature stated that;
‘It is estimated that if the rentals were based on a net return of four per cent, excellent accommodation, consisting of two rooms, a small scullery and WC could be supplied at a weekly rental of five shillings per tenement and it is considered that investors will be found willing , and even anxious, to contribute their capital towards a scheme which, while offering a moderate, and safe, return, will, largely, tend not only to improve the dwellings of the poor, but also reduce the high rates now paid for the minimum accommodation.’
The company was founded as a response to a report on ‘Spiritual Destitution’, published by the United Synagogue, in 1884. Other companies, such as the East End Dwellings Company, in Stepney, followed the same route. Report-1884. Company founded-1885. Construction started-1886. This was not a charity, investors were there to make a ‘moderate and safe’ profit. A ‘win-win’ situation. How shallow this ‘response to need’, makes twenty-first century greed look. “Moderate and safe? Sod that. Screw ’em! The bigger the profits the better.” But along these, now, deep-buried streets, the Ripper lurked. I wonder what he, and Nathan Rothschild, would have made of the fact that the average rent, for a two bedroom flat, on Wentworth St., today, is £2 000 per calendar month! I’m looking at the exterior of Cleggs Buildings, on the opposite side to Flower and Dean Court, they must be a sight more attractive on the inside than they are on the outside. Still good to see the Victorian, tiled, nameplate still visible.
As if to emphasise that cultures disappear faster than buildings, on the corner of a Brick Lane and Fournier St. stands the ‘London Jamme Mazjid’, a mosque holding
3 000 worshippers. It started life in 1743 as the ‘Neuve Eglise’, a chapel for the fleeing Protestant, French, Huguenots. It then became a Wesleyan Chapel, bought, in 1809, by the ‘London Society for promoting Christianity among the Jews’. In 1819 it became a Methodist Chapel, but, in 1897, the building bade farewell to Christianity, becoming the ‘Machzike Hadath Great Synagogue. By the 1970s the Jewish community had, largely, moved on, and the building became the thriving mosque that stands before me. The lane, here, is crowded, not with tourists, but men in Islamic religious dress, leaving prayers. It takes little imagination to translate the scene into black coated men wearing yarmulkes, tallis and tzitzis hurrying to celebrate shabbas, a century ago. The language may have changed from French to Yiddish to Bengali, but the sights and sounds of another culture are not foreign here. This is normality, and it still feels as normal, in 2014 as it did in 1714, 1814 and 1914. But the acceptance of another culture will be sorely tested in the immediate future, after the, cowardly, beheading of Alan Henning. There has been outrage, amongst British Muslims, as well as amongst the rest of the community. As I watch, a lot of the men are young men, they are a English by birth, but Muslim by culture. I pray that they are as outraged as I am, and that they don’t bear the brunt of the blame, which is not there’s to accept. To be a devout Muslim is good, to be an assassin is not. It is reminiscent of 1948 Manchester, when the news of the hanging of the British Army Sergeants, by Zionist murderers, resulted in innocent English Jews having their shops, homes and synagogues attacked. It’s strange how this cultural enigma rises in the most unlikely places. Back in Giles Coren’s article on Bloom’s, he says that he misses Jewish cuisine, as modern Kosher restaurants tend to serve Israeli cuisine, not traditional Jewish fare. Culture? Nationality? Religion? A hideous tangle.
Turning into Fournier St. This was, until the 1890s, Church St., but was renamed after a Huguenot silk weaver. These elegant Georgian houses have seen wave after wave of immigrants, who arrived with little or nothing, but hope, and thus, couldn’t afford to drastically alter them. They have housed Huguenot weavers, Jewish garment firms and Bengali textile workers. Now they are worth about £2m each and are home to the artists Gilbert and George and Tracey Emin, the TV presenter Dan Cruikshank and the actor, Jonathan Pryce, lives round the corner in Princelet St. Big bucks these days. The stories of these immigrants flows through history. When I worked in North Manchester, in the 1970s, Idi Amin threw the Asians out of Uganda, with the clothes they stood up in. Many of them found their way into the poorer parts of the city, like, soon-to- be-demolished, Harpurhey. In Uganda, affluence. In Harpurhey, literally, nothing. The Protestant Huguenots were ejected from Roman Catholic France because they wouldn’t convert, and like the Ugandan Asians, applied themselves to making a new life. The Ashkenazi Jews and the Bangladeshis have followed the same pattern. The ‘ruins’ of the Huguenot civilisation can be seen here, on Fournier St., in the second floor ‘weavers’ windows’. But the growth of the London Docks and the rise, in availability of cheap imports, saw off the Huguenot weavers. The same fate lay in wait for Lancashire’s cotton trade. It isn’t surprising that it was in the 1840s that the currently overused, and misunderstood, term ‘nationalism’ began to be coined, as the trade in cheap foreign goods started to effect the home economy and labour market. How current is that? Nigel Farage’s little gang’s roots stretch back a long way into history! In such a small area, Spitalfields, you look into the past, to see the future.
The first house, Number Two, is the Rectory, built in 1726, and what a rectory! The building records survive, so we know that the house cost £1 300 to build, and that the bricklayer, Thomas Lucas was paid £239 9/4d between 1725-1731 and Thomas Dunn, the mason, was paid £297 4/2d. But it was the carpenters who were ‘quids in’ they were given the leases of the buildings, for 98 years. Numbers 4 and 6 were originally one house, given to Marmaduke Smith, who was the first occupant. The next occupant was Peter Camport, a ‘weaver of striped and plain lutestring, mantua and tabby’. In 1745 he undertook to provide 74 of his workmen to resist the ‘Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart. The Londoners were panicking. The Scot’s were coming! James Lardant, at Numbers 8 and 10, a ‘silk, mantua and tabby’ weaver promised 27 of his men. The Rector of the French Church, Rev. Du Bewlay lived at Number 12. It is interesting that the Huguenots of Spitalfields would provide so many men to defend London, but then, knowing how their Roman Catholic compatriots had treated them, ‘back home’, perhaps it isn’t so surprising. The street has a really elegant Huguenot feel to it, even today.
At the junction with Commercial St. stands the magnificent Christ Church, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1714 and 1729. An Act of Parliament was passed, in 1711, to demonstrate Anglican authority, which ordained that 50 new churches should be built. This is one of them. They were built to neutralise the Protestant/Dissenter areas, as the majority of people there, owed no allegiance to the Church of England, thus, none to the Crown either. Strange that the Protestant weavers were to raise so many men to defend London. In the end only twelve of the churches were built. Eight of these twelve bear Hawksmoor’s stamp. As two of the commissioners were Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, it does smack of ‘jobs for the boys’! But nothing changes. This is a sacred space of white and light. The spirit is here, in this huge, bright, basilica. I don’t feel the dark, oppressive weight of a cruciform, Gothic cathedral. No feeling that I am being awed into frightened obeisance, or crushed by the weight of darkness. I just sit, quietly, and feel the spirituality of the room. “‘Scuse me. Can you go and sit over there? We’re setting up for a concert.” An abrupt awakening. Two men are re-arranging the chairs. Everyone, and there are several others, sitting quietly in contemplation, must go and contemplate, ‘Over there’. I like this room, it seems to catch, and hold, light like a stone lens. Outside, on the steps, a small coffee stall has been set up, there are people congregating in the afternoon sun, some in animated conversation. All relaxed. It’s a different ‘relaxed’ to the feeling inside the building, but Hawksmoor would be happy that 300 years on, his design is a focal point.
From artistic Georgian elegance to prosaic Victorian utility. Over the road is Old Spitalfields Market, built in 1887. The iron-girdered hall stands on the ruins of markets held there since 1638, it could easily be a Victorian train shed, like Temple Meads or Paddington. Instead of steam, it was filled with wholesale fruit and veg., until 1991, when the business moved to Leyton. It reminds me of visits in the Sixties, with Reid Skipper, to Smithfield, in Manchester. Porters, shouting, jokes, trolleys, cases of oranges being dropped. Noisy and vibrant. This market has been revived. Where there was noise, there is now colour. Where there was bustle, there is now browsing. It’s Arty Farty handbags, jewelry and shoes. It’s street food, allegedly, from all corners of the globe. It’s stall holders who have spent ages, making their wares, setting up their stall, dressing the part, but don’t look like selling anything, busy themselves. This is not my sort of place, there are no books or music. Great that an old building has been saved, and is being used by ordinary people. But . . .
Over the crossing and there’s the ‘Ten Bells’, beloved of Ripper Tours, and Geographic profilers, one of his victims disappeared from here. It does have that Victorian ‘basic’ look, but I prefer my pubs, well, a bit more ‘pubby’. Turning right into Hanbury St. and . . . he’s here again. He ‘did’ one here. Thankfully the grizzly scene has now been covered by a 1960s extension of Truman’s Brewery. There’s just a ‘Flemish bond’ brick wall to look at, whilst voyeuristic imaginations try to run riot. As they stare they may not realise that behind them, is a blue plaque, Bud Flanagan, or Chaim Reuben Weintrop, as he was born, before changing it to Robert Winthrop, was born here in 1896. Who? Well, he was almost before my time, but he was a leading member of a national institution, around World War Two, The Crazy Gang. They were a comedy act in the heyday of variety. Somehow, this plaque seems apt, as a marker that many Jewish East Enders found their way out, via the theatre.
The junction of Wilkes St. and Hanbury St. is a choked mess of honking cars and, involuntarily, stationary vans, whilst two lorries negotiate for priority rights, in, and out, of the packed building site, where Truman’s Brewery stood. Lots of pointy fingers and “If you went theres…..” and dirty looks. This is a real Mexican stand-off, but the smiles, on the faces of the passing pedestrians, make it all worthwhile, unless you are one of the unlucky, static, motorists. Where’s the Congestion Charge when you need one? As I go down Wilkes St., there’s another amateur photographer, busy snapping away. He sees I’m on the same mission. Snap.”Wow! How brilliant is this?” Snap. “Look at that door!” Snap. “What a fantastic place!” Snap. “Yeah,” I drawl, feeling like an old hand,”Unspoiled Georgian is always good for a picture. Have you been down Fournier St. yet?” “Which one’s that?” All of sudden my three previous visits give me a, sort of, status. How sad is that? Here, 260 years ago lived the Bouilliers, M. Duthoit, who was a Captain in the ‘Trained Band’ and M. Deheul, who promised to provide the Band with 47 men. 1745 was ‘payback time’ as far as the French Protestants were concerned, I wonder if they actually wanted the Jacobites to reach London, to give them the opportunity to give the Roman Catholic, French sponsored, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ a bloody nose?
I turn down Princelet St., it used to be called Princes St. I wonder why the change? The Huguenot, Fournier St., is only round the corner, but the atmosphere here is, undoubtedly, more Jewish, although Huguenot families did live here, from the period 1705-1720 when the houses were built. French names such as L’Amy, Durade and Allard were among the early occupants. People still live here, in fact, Number 13 is a holiday let. The first house you notice, though, is Number 4, with its pink, peeling, paintwork. There’s a film on ‘You Tube’ which shows its almost unchanged interior, bare, dark, a little ruinous and wooden, consequently, much in demand as a film and TV set. Over the road, at Number 17, the door lintel still carries its Georgian, carved number.
But, I am interested in Number 19. Originally it was a Huguenot house, owned by a Peter Ogier, but, in 1869, it became a synagogue, and remained a synagogue until the Jewish community had gone, in the mid-Seventies, and is now a, rarely opened, museum. My particular interest is the attic, because this is the site of Rodinsky’s Room. David Rodinsky was the subject of a fascinating book by Rachel Lichtenstein. He was a shadowy, Hassidic, figure who disappeared suddenly. He lived in the attic room of the synagogue, forgotten, until the room was ‘found’ and, inside, was a terrestrial ‘Marie Celeste’. Food on the table, tea in the pot, paper waiting to be read, but no sign of David. In the book, ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, the mystery is solved by Rachel, who, along the way makes some startling discoveries about her own family’s background. The door to the house is locked. Thwarted for the third time! The street is not all beautifully reconstructed, indeed it looks, outwardly, rather shabby. On the wall at the end there is some colourful graffiti, not really graffiti, a political noticeboard, history which will be eventually layered over or stripped off. On a door a life-size, stickwoman, in a black burqa holds the hand of a white stickman. No caption required. A poster of George Bush, and Osama Bin Laden, which states, ‘Greed for oil causes war’. Two posters proclaiming ‘Debt dependence is addictive, don’t start.’ and ‘Consumerism causes child labour’. Finally, a circular motif, of a child, on a seesaw, trying to balance with a bomb, in a twilit ruined scenario. All pertinent to our age, signs of the times, which time, itself, or the Council, will eventually erase. What will ‘Time Team’ find, in 800 years time, to give clues of how we, the ordinary New Elizabethans, thought or lived?
Once more down the ‘Curry Pleasure Canyon’, in search of a coffee. I turn right down Hanbury St., a street that is rich in street art, I hesitate to call it graffiti. Mysterious winged figures, underwater scenes, staring-eyed zombies, all temporary, appealing female heads, all marvellous. All will disappear, hopefully to be replaced by the next generation’s creativity and voice. At the bottom of the street is a coffee emporium. All things coffee are on sale. The smell of the roasting beans draws me like a magnet. It’s that smell that’s supposed to sell houses. Inside there are a myriad of coffees for sale, not in ‘grab-your-eye shiny bags’, not proclaiming that they are ‘Free Trade’, but in plain, brown, paper, bags. ‘Smokey flavour. Medium strenght (sic)’. ‘Arabica. Light body. Sweet flavour.’ What more do you need to know? And each coffee is clearly described, for a coffee-loving, non-expert coffee drinker, this is perfect, I know just what I am buying, this isn’t the usual lottery. In the back room is a bewildering array of coffee making technology, from the cheap(ish) lump of plastic to the convoluted piece of engineering that Billy Bean would have had, on ‘Children’s Hour’, all those years ago. It’s a gadgeteer’s dream. I can now disclose that the coffees that I chose were an absolute delight. I shall return to the end of Hanbury St., to this Aladdin’s Cave.
Back onto ‘The Strip’, and on to the site of Truman’s Brewery. The rear is a hive of building activity and the resultant traffic chaos is still evident, on Hanbury St. One lorry is discharging its load and is being serviced by a small group of Chinese workers and their, female, foreman/forewoman/foreperson(?). It seems strange that the whole crew are Chinese. It will be interesting to see what transpires here. This is about to become a ‘destination’. It is a destination for books and music now, at ‘Rough Trade’ and an art gallery is being prepared for an exhibition of, wait for it, Lego-built sculptures. Art knows no bounds. At the end of the Yard is an alfresco, coffee stall, with its own ‘Door Supervisor’. Besuited, muscly and huge, he, actually, has no door to supervise, but he still does look suitably threatening to the sole customers, an extremely safe looking, teenage, couple. Still, you never can tell! ‘Mr. T’ does not look overly concerned by their threat, though, as he is in a deep, meaningful, conversation, on his mobile ‘phone, for a good five minutes.
My next destination is the former Bishopsgate Goods Depot, by the viaduct. En route I pass Quaker St. Just a workaday street which at one time did have a Quaker Meeting House. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews and the Muslims, the Quaker footprint is very light. Anti-Quaker feeling ran high, at the end of the seventeenth, and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. They were a bit different, I suppose, and a smattering of religious difference, mixed with a soupçon of ignorance, generally leads to persecution. No change today either. The Meeting House was, consequently, attacked. As the law stated that places of worship could not be defended, the Quaker community installed a tenant, so now this dwelling house could be defended. To no avail, the Meeting House fell down, of its own accord, in 1745. Now all that remains is the name of the street.
To my disappointment there is no way into the Goods Yard. So, it’s underneath the arches onto the less exotic end of Brick Lane. The two remaining Bagel shops are up there, sitting amongst normal shops, almost hidden, not ‘shouting’ that they’re there. Then, I notice, it crosses Bethnal Green Rd. and now I’m out of E1, into E2, on the boundary between Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. Here is just low cost, modern, terraced housing. I’m out of THE Brick Lane and onto the bit of Brick Lane where people live, it’s only 200m. long but it is still Brick Lane.
Time to retrace my steps, because I want to go to the second of my parks, Allen Gardens. This is so different to Altab Ali. It’s a huge expanse of grass. It’s not near a main road, although the London Overground runs alongside it. It isn’t crowded and there are all sorts of activities going on. But I know where I am, there is a strong smell of curry, the ‘pleasure zone’ is just behind me. People are, with the exception of a group of Jamaicans, in the corner, either alone or in pairs, and that changes the atmosphere immediately. Couples lounge on the grass, it’s still warm. A Dad walks his, uniformed, son back from school. Another Dad is playing with his children, on the swing park. Why aren’t they in school? The bench that I’m sitting on has a more recreational purpose, later in the evening, as the area behind me is littered with beer cans. Here the dogs are of the more amenable variety. No terriers here, there’s a Labrador, walking quietly on a lead. There’s a Border Collie, chasing a shop-bought projectile, hurled by his owner, for quite a distance, as well, but the collie is up for it. In fact, the owner ‘draws stumps’ before the dog is ready to finish. It’s hard work this throwing! A young woman takes her little . . . ‘what is it, past me. Curious, I ask her what breed it is. No reply. She has her throbbing ear plugs firmly wedged in, she’s oblivious to my question. . . or isn’t sure whether she wants to answer the suspicious-looking guy asking it anyway. A jogger. He must be 75, if he’s a day. He’s wearing a bright yellow Adidas top, light blue, brief, shorts and black trainers. How can he go out with so little jogfashion sense? He should be told. Mind, he does look as if he’s struggling a bit. Nevertheless I always feel a pang of regret that my running days are over, made even worse when the runner is, palpably, older than me. What is he doing in the centre of the park? There’s a half-naked man doing his yoga exercises and, I’ve got to say, making a bit of a spectacle of himself, every passer-by turns to look. But unabashed, he carries on, or, perhaps, he enjoys being abashed! This is not the Spitalfields of the Ripper, this is a modern place of relaxation, a place of repose. It has a calm atmosphere everything here is ‘cool’. There isn’t even the usual collapsed drunk, ‘sleeping it off’. This a park is in any town in the country.
My final destination awaits. The last of my parks. I plunge back into the ‘Brash Slash’. Down Princelet St. and into Puma Court, once Red Lion Court, which joins Wilkes St. to Commercial St. There are two, two-storey, yellow brick buildings, standing behind railings on the right and there is a stone inlaid; ‘These almshouses were erected in the year 1860 for poor inhabitants of the liberty of North Folgate in place of those built in the year 1728 lately taken down for the new street.’
The ‘new street’ was a widening of Commercial St., due to the increase of traffic into London Docks. This was an endeavour to alleviate some of the abject poverty, in mid-century Spitalfields, unlike Flower and Dean St. this was not a ‘for (reasonable) profit’ venture. Each of the inhabitants, lodged in the 16 rooms, received 2/6d per month, a ticket for a loaf of bread each week, 6cwt. (Hundredweight, for the under 30s! 20cwt. made one ton) each December 21st. (officially the first day of Winter) and materials for a Christmas Dinner. They were a place for those who were struggling to earn a living, and were in extreme poverty. Unlike today, the poor, whoever they are, were not reviled, efforts were made to ease their burden, witness the developments in other parts of the East End. The 21st.century has so much to learn from the 19th. That is not to say everything was perfect, it was certainly not, but the well-to-do did seem to have an awareness of what went on, beyond their gilded doors.
Christ Church Gardens is where I intend to sit and take stock of today’s walk. The small garden sits adjoining Hawksmoor’s church. 40m x 20m? An intimate space, surrounded by shrubs, with a tree at its centre. A totally different experience to both Altab Ali and Allen Gardens. I sit on a bench under the tree, in isolation, and look at my notes, and photographs, writing down my final, on site, thoughts on what I’d seen. But I was not alone. Concentrating on what I was doing, I didn’t notice the man who came and sat next to me on the bench. I had seen a sleeping bag under the shrubs at the back of the park. I presumed it was abandoned. It wasn’t.
“I’m not going to ask you for money, I just want to talk to someone.” He’d left his sleeping bag under the bushes.
“I saw you were writing, and thought you looked like a person who would give me a conversation.” His English was eloquent, but clumsy, and delivered in what seemed like an Eastern European accent.
“I’m not going to ask you for money. Nobody usually speaks to me. I think that they are frightened.” I agreed with him, they probably were, in fact , I was nervous, but I had no need to be. He wasn’t scruffy. He didn’t smell of drink. He wasn’t aggressive.
“Where are you from? You aren’t from London.” He was questioning me! I explained that, although I was English, I lived in France, and asked him where he was from?
“Poland. But I came here with my parents, in 1950. They did not like the new Poland. I have been back much times, but I prefer it much here in England. I still prefer it here in England. I don’t like the new new Poland.”
“Whereabouts in Poland?”
I knew that my Great Uncle Moreton was buried there, he had died in a POW camp in 1944. He was one of the survivors of Dunkirk, who was not picked up off the beach by ‘the small boats’. There were many of those, who were to perish in captivity. I asked him if he knew of the cemetery, where Moreton could be buried, but he didn’t. I asked him where he lived now, but he didn’t seem to want to tell me.
“Have you got a home?” I persisted.
“No. I’m a alcoholic. There is no trust.”
I had moved on, from talking to someone sleeping rough, to talking to a guy in a park. A normal conversation. In fact, not a normal conversation because we talked about his Roman Catholic beliefs and my own beliefs. We talked about philosophy. We talked about why he felt that the English people were so welcoming, and how guilty he felt that he couldn’t hold down a job. He even talked about the differences between London and Cracow. He was an educated man. We talked for nearly half an hour. I had to go, and stood up to leave. I was the foreigner and he was the local. I know he had said that he wasn’t asking for money, and he didn’t, but I felt that I’d like to give him a tenner, for whatever he needed it. I offered him a note.
“I didn’t want your money. I wanted to talk.That’s all.” He turned and went back towards the bench. No further words. I left. This was a man that I would have avoided, perhaps been a little afraid of. There must be so many people out there, in the same boat, all they need is a chance, a chance to show that they are normally functioning people, not shuffling threats to be avoided. It was an experience humbling, and illuminating, at the same time. I’m so glad I met him, and I never even asked him his name! Throughout the ensuing hours, and days, I was asking myself whether I should have done more. He left and I felt that my response had been inadequate. I did feel, though, that the encounter had given me a deeper understanding of the cultural story of Spitalfields.
I had decided to finish my day with a meal. But it wasn’t going to be a curry.
On Hanbury St. there is a cracking little Fish and Chip shop. Haddock, chips and mushy peas. Bliss. The meal was delicious and the batter on the fish perfect.
“Who made the batter?”
The voice came from behind the range, in a non-London accent.
“Marvellous. Really crisp and tasty. But you’re not English are you? Where did you learn to make batter as good as that?”
“It’s easy when you know how. Just practice.”
No batter secrets were going to be divulged here. It bore all the secrecy of the Northumberland leek growers fertiliser!
“And we’re Kurdish.”
He returned to the range, he had more important fish to fry, than talking to me, much as I would have enjoyed it.
The traditions of Whitechapel, with its cultural ebb and flow, which has gone on for centuries, continue. Tide after tide of immigration has washed over, and enriched, the area. Spitalfields has been the starting point for numberless stories of assimilation, an assimilation which has given more than it has taken. The descendants of each wave have spread, and thrived throughout the country. No longer are they immigrants from Asia or Europe, they are members of our society. And walking through the East End, today, this life-enriching process continues.