The East End: One Pair of Eyes and a Hundred Names

A psychogeographic wander through the history of Shoreditch and the East End, drawing on Victorian maps and sixties singers.

As with most other London transport hubs or Underground stations, it is remarkably easy to take the wrong exit from Liverpool Street. It’s curious that a mood to be meaningfully observant often leads to a lack of practical observation, so the observer can be forgiven for missing signs to Spitalfields and exiting, instead, onto Old Broad Street. There’s history here, to tell the observer where they are, but that history is hard to see, because it is often grey or beige and the chains of desperate shops, closing-down banks and miniature cafés, either mononymous in nature, or with bastardised continental names which mean nothing in their original language, are often bright and overbearing. Before long, the observer meets with a piece of that history at the A1211, known to the left as Wormwood Street and to the right as London Wall.

Here, in the centre of urban London, is the limit of Roman and early medieval London, which as the name and course of the A1211 suggests, was walled and therefore passable only at gates. The nearest is about 150 yards to the observer’s left, where Wormwood Street meets the A10. Unfortunately for the observer, in addition to eyes for the purpose of observing, they will also possess a nose, and the stench of early medieval London flowing through the Bishop’s Gate is nauseating at best. Fortunately for the observer, the correction to their previous geographical mistake takes them away from the gate and from the City. Here, there is a familiar sight on the observer’s left, assuming they have been previously acquainted with similar City gates. The church of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, rebuilt between 1725 and 1729 to the designs of James Gould, has existed as a site of Christian worship since Saxon and possibly even Roman times and is dedicated to the patron of wayfarers, appropriate to those leaving the safety and stench of London’s walls.

So, the observer nods to the saint and continues past the correct exit from Liverpool Street Station. The observer nods also to Dirty Dick’s, originally and piously called The Old Jerusalem, but transformed by William Barker in the mid-19th century into Dirty Dick’s, reputedly named for Richard Bentley who, following the death of his fiancée, stopped cleaning himself or his lodgings and, according to both local legend and the pub’s marketing team, provided Dickens with inspiration for Miss Havisham.

Beyond Townsend’s late Victorian Bishopsgate Institute, the observer takes a right onto Brushfield Street, past Pizza Express and Monsieur le Duck, which incidentally and quite famously is not the French word for duck. Standing proud at the opposite end of Brushfield Street is the monolithic spire of Hawksmore’s Christ Church, opened the same year as the rebuilt St. Botolph’s. The structure is impressive, despite the occasional odd feature, and the spire’s shadow, at this time of day, lies across Spitalfields Garden, as it did when Jack London saw it. The garden, although smaller today than it was then, is still decidedly large, and yet even then was smaller than Jack London’s own rose garden (London, 1903), which itself suggests little to the observer other than that Jack London’s rose garden must have been obscenely large.

At this juncture it seems prudent for the observer to sit briefly upon the steps of Christ Church. Across Fournier Street, facing the church, a group of people, identifiable as a group due to their identical backpacks, come to a stop in front of The Ten Bells. Originally the Eight Bells Alehouse, named for the bells in Christ Church’s peal, the changed at some point before 1794 to reflect additions to the peal, the pub was briefly renamed The Jack the Ripper. The group with their backpacks are ostensibly here to learn about the Ripper’s victims, but it’s hard to believe they aren’t more romantically enraptured by the immortal mystery of their murderer. The Reclaim the Night movement campaigned to have the pub’s name changed to avoid commemorating a killer who preyed on women in the night, so now it’s up to the guide to explain the Ripper’s link to The Ten Bells, then to wait down Fournier Street until each backpack has filed into the pub so that the proprietor can sneak out and slip them a tenner.

The crypt at Christ Church has been renovated and transformed into a café, imaginatively named The Crypt. Since the sun is out to provide East Enders with a globally warmed taste of false spring, figures are draped across the church’s steps and dotted among chairs and tables and on the grass of Spitalfields Garden, which is smaller than Jack London’s own rose garden. The man closest to the observer is laid out upon a fur coat, which is either animal, but vintage, or synthetically vegan. His hair is tied in a bun, his beard is carefully trimmed to look messy and his eyes, which are closed, are covered by expensive sunglasses. This man lives in Bow, or London Fields, or Stoke Newington. Perhaps he still lives in his family’s detached house bordering Victoria Park. He is either approaching or has just passed 30. He is only here for the day, as he can only afford to be here in the daytime, but he is nonetheless a new kind of immigrant to this spot just beyond the city gates, which has always welcomed new waves of immigration.

For our observer, whose eyes are regrettably only able to see within the confines of their own moment of existence, it is difficult to imagine these streets as among the poorest in the capital, or, to Booth’s mind, the darkest blue and the blackest. These new immigrants are predominantly young, predominantly white, predominantly wealthy in relative terms and hopelessly, often painfully cool. These streets were once walked by the French Huguenots, then by the Irish weavers, then the Jewish émigrés from Russia and Poland, then by Bangladeshi immigrants in the later 20th century.

In 1968, during the loosely defined era of Bangladeshi immigration to the East End, singer and actress Georgia Brown made a documentary, One Pair of Eyes, asking the central question: where are the Cockneys now? (One Pair of Eyes – Georgia Brown: Where are the Cockneys now?, 1968) Brown was born Lillian Klot to an Eastern European Jewish family towards the end of 1933. Her grandfather, she explains in the film, arrived at the docks in 1910, escaping the Tsar’s call to fight the Japanese, feeling instead that as a second-class citizen in Russia, he was under no obligation to fight their battles. His wife and son soon joined him and the family found themselves in an established community of Russian and Eastern European Jews who for some decades had settled in the East End, initially close to the docks, but soon moving north to Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, often due to the local tradition of working with fabrics, following the old dyeing factories and the French and Irish weavers. Brown, born and raised in Whitechapel, considered herself a Cockney. In fact, she travelled from the East to the West End to appear in the first staging of Oliver!, the 1960 adaptation of Dickens’ classic, with Cockney accents abound.

She auditioned for the part in front of Lionel Bart, the author and composer of the musical. Bart, who also appears in One Pair of Eyes, went to the Deal Street school with Brown in Whitechapel and recognised her immediately. Interestingly, in Dickens’ tale, Fagin’s gang operates out of Saffron Hill, beyond the western reaches of the old city walls, and at the time of publication, between 1837 and 1839, London had not yet experienced the mass Jewish immigration it would from the 1870s on. Furthermore, Dickens’ depiction of Fagin, more often called ‘The Jew’, is unfavourable at best. Despite these issues, Bart went home to the Jewish East End to cast a musical representing his authentic vision of the Victorian Cockney – a vision now shared by many worldwide. Fagin was originally intended for Sid James, who was Jewish, but when he turned it down in an effort to move away from roguish characters, it went to Ron Moody, born Ronald Moodnick to Eastern European Jews in Tottenham in 1924. Moody was eventually replaced by John Bluthal, a Polish-born, Jewish actor, who found greater fame later in his career with The Vicar of Dibley and the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!. Bart’s Nancy was originally written for Alma Cogan, a Jewish singer of Eastern European descent, born in Whitechapel, but the definitive Cockney-lass role ultimately went to Brown, although in the 1968 film, the role went to Shani Wallis. Filling out the cast were the boxer Danny Sewel in the role of Bill Sykes, beating Michael Caine to the role, who reputedly cried for a week after the rejection, Davy Jones (later of The Monkees), Steve Marriott (later of Small Faces) and Tony Robinson in juvenile roles and Barry Humphries as Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker. Bart’s impression, and therefore the impressions many subsequent generations, of these stock Cockney characters all come from East End Jewish immigrant families such as his own.

The overwhelming message our observer’s one pair of eyes can gather from Brown’s One Pair of Eyes, however, is her way of understanding the East End, its purpose and its fluctuating history. She says of the East End, that “the ambition of most people who lived here was to improve themselves and move out.” Alongside the growing Jewish immigration in the late 19th century, many existing East Enders moved out to find opportunities in the new suburbs, servicing the docks and industries established around West and East Ham. Brown mentions in the film that she struggles to recognise some of the East End now as many of the Jewish families who defined the area for her as a child had improved themselves and moved out to wealthier parts of London, to be replaced by predominantly Bangladeshi Muslims, following the inauguration of the East London Mosque in 1941.

So as our observer alights the steps of Christ Church and takes a stroll down Fournier Street to the end, where it meets Brick Lane, they can see this history of immigration in the Brick Lane Mosque. The Mosque was built in 1743 as a French Protestant Church for the local Huguenots, refugees from religious persecution in their own country. In 1898 it became a Synagogue for East London Jews, escaping persecution from across Eastern Europe. Today it exists as a mosque for the local Islamic population.

The next phase of immigration is well and truly underway, however, and it doesn’t wait for the previous residents to improve themselves and move out. With the integration of the Overground line into London’s transport network, interest in the East End has grown substantially, particularly among the young white men with buns, fur coats and expensive sunglasses. Interest has also grown for regular denizens of the City, as office blocks seep out into the previously cheap real estate of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. As interest grows from these new immigrants who have money, so too does interest from developers grow. Real estate and rental prices skyrocket and the previous immigrants, rather than choosing to move, are simply priced out of the area.

So, perhaps this is a new style of aggressive immigration based on an extreme capitalist economy, which may have the power to disband the East End’s tradition of immigration through the financial power of mostly young, mostly white gentrification. Perhaps it is simply the pattern of rapid 21st century urban growth into already urbanised, but previously working class areas. Or perhaps it is just another wave of change. In her film, Brown visits an East End museum and takes issue with an exhibit on Petticoat Lane. She points out that Petticoat Lane Market can’t live in a museum, because it is forever changing by its nature. It is the nature of the East End’s very spirit to change.

Georgia Brown died just shy of five months before our observer was born. Our observer never knew the East End she knew. Our observer never knew the East End she visited later. Our observer knows only the clean, grey version of Spitalfields market, with stalls for tourists surrounded by the same restaurant and café chains which surround Liverpool Street. They only know the affected artistic influences of Brick Lane and the corporate-funded graffiti opposite Boxpark on the approach to Shoreditch High Street. But on Brick Lane, opposite the Mosque, is a window they saw once in a nostalgic book by Rachel Lichtenstein. Behind, the building is an art gallery now, but the wording above the window remains: Ch N. Katz. The string and paper bag supplier, and the old man who ran the business, were forced out by rising rents in the late 1990s.

There is a term described by the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: Anemoia – n. nostalgia for a time you’ve never known (Anon., 2013). Our observer never knew Ch N. Katz before it masked an art gallery, but anemoia is an appropriate word for the feeling those words evoke.

References

Anon., 2013. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. [Online]
Available at: http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/post/105778238455/anemoia-n-nostalgia-for-a-time-youve-never
[Accessed 24 February 2019].

Booth, C., 1898. Maps Descriptive of London Poverty (digitised by LSE Library). [Online]
Available at: https://booth.lse.ac.uk/map
[Accessed 24 February 2019].

London, J., 1903. People of the Abyss. London: Macmillan.

One Pair of Eyes – Georgia Brown: Where are the Cockneys now?. 1968. [Film] Directed by Anthony Searle. London: s.n.

2 thoughts on “The East End: One Pair of Eyes and a Hundred Names

  1. Godric Rochlen says:

    Very well written Dale! If you ever come to California I’ll show you Jack London’s estate, it’s a state park and very well preserved. Although he didn’t live there until a few years after he wrote about the rose garden.

    Like

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