Spitalfields is a small neighborhood bordering the City of London. In my mind it is a group of exquisite Georgian Houses settled around a few streets which run alongside Brick Lane, a predominantly Bengali owned area full of restaurants and local stores which can provide Londoners a brief holiday from their normal lives; a sudden visit to South Asia with its characteristic sense of disorder, noise, fiery food and where a visit to the supermarket takes you not just to another continent but to another time.
The City of London has been the epicenter of British life for centuries, providing the engine for colonialism and prosperity, but has also had to deal with the associated dramas of fire, de-colonization, globalization, recession and presumably de-globalization at some point. It has changed dramatically over the years, not least during the Second World War where bomb’s fell and set it alight once again, but also in recent times with ugly and bland new building developments and skyscrapers running right up to the borders. While Spitalfields remains attached to it like a barnacle to a rock, allowing the briny waters to wash over it, feel the waves rushing and receding and occasionally having brief intense days of warmth; but most of the time it will settle for the heavy rain loaded clouds that allows just a whisper of sun to pass through. There is a contradictory feeling of both dampness and chalkiness to these streets. I have known these houses for well over 30 years and at the beginning only a handful were gentrified the remaining were tantalizingly boarded up, semi ruins and in those days you had an insight into the age of the place through all your senses; the sounds of detached shutters and doors slapping in the wind, the feel of moss and loose rough flagstones under your feet and after days of rain, the ancient scent of mold, earth, stucco and wet limestone would be in the air leaving you with the feeling that these buildings had somehow never fully dried out.
It was also a schizophrenic place, so different by day and night. During the grey damp days these houses would be idle and dark and I would peer through the windows at the small rooms with large fireplaces rarely showing signs of life. While Brick Lane would wake suddenly with the raw violence of metallic shutters slamming and car alarms screaming. At night this pocket would take on the conceit of Vegas, flashing neon and shrieks of laughter and the loud cries of the hawkers. And the Georgian houses too would wake up, but in a more subtle way, hushed lights would warm up the wallpapered interiors, wing chairs and a real fire might be seen if searched through the glass panes.
These houses are a liberals dream, encapsulating a rare sliver of history, the moment the clock started for some, a time when England still had influence and where on the outside there is a potent mix of formality and classical restraint combined with interiors which could be rich in ornamental detail. But they also literally have foundations in racism as they were built as close as possible outside of the walls of the city and to not fall out of favor with the powerful guilds ruling the city. They were lived in first by a group of religious refugee’s, the Huguenots and then by Jews, the Irish and Bengali’s. These xenophobic origins have now largely been well painted over, fan lights have been replaced, carriage lamps added from reclamation yards and local craftspeople have replaced pillars and pediments.
A typical refrain would be see how the place has changed! But other than the obvious work going on with the improvement of the houses and the art galleries and boutiques moving in there is not much evidence of social progress. It was a place of industry for three hundred years, but now suffers the inevitable fate of inner cities the world over, of being a place to eat, shop and play; but it is still the raincoat to the City’s sharp striped suit, the violence, poverty and the inevitable prostitution was still very much in evidence while I lived there. The latter provided many wild and entertaining anecdotes to friends, the street life paralleled in our imagination the intra-war years in Berlin. I was mainly shocked, but also moved and sometimes frightened by these characters that walked in the shadows and stacked a claim to, and occasionally fought over, a corner or patch of ground. One evening, returning late in the evening from a dinner, I was stopped by a large and scantily dressed women who used the typical question “Any Business?” in an rough East End accent. Declining this, her follow up question “could you lend me ten pounds?” was delivered in a very different quieter voice, the accent of middle class England and she calculated correctly the unexpected shyness and vulnerability stopped me in my tracks. We English, for better or worse, have sensitive antennae when it comes to accents and I am no different, entire lives, aspirations and prejudices can be assumed by listening to a few minutes of a conversation. I looked back at her, extraordinary heels, a leather mini skirt which barely covered her upper legs and over which a white fat stomach fell and absurdly large breasts. A cartoon prostitute, her blond wig covered most of her face, which was round and centered on rouged cheeks and violently red lipstick. A figure from the past, from the streets of this neighborhood, she could have been here at any time over the last three hundred years. And of course the unsaid, unkind question that urgently required an answer; how did you arrive here, to this point? hung over us both like a cloud, but some level of dignity had to be preserved. Reaching inside my pocket for a charitable pound coin the doors of a restaurant opened and three young women came out laughing, carrying bags and portfolio’s, their conversation stopped instantly as all three looked up and saw the scene of a man searching in his pocket for money while a grotesque parody of a woman looked on. Walking in silence past us it was clear they were suppressing laughter, which came out in the most predictable manner the moment they past, a cannonball of hysteria which ricochet off the dark surrounding walls and seemed to slap us both. I saw her wince at the cruel laughter and under the painted face a hint of the younger person, still human, and I felt much more in common with this species than the three well-heeled girls heading to West London.
I lived in a small apartment above and Indian restaurant and it was in that corridor where I once passed by a young woman, with a mess of brown hair, olive skin and dark Mediterranean eye’s wearing a tightly belted motorcycle jacket. Indifferent to my outstretched hand or name offered I realized Oh that’s her, she was the one I had heard about, throwing raucous dinner parties with artists and other students, the American girl, and the one I met properly for the first time on the night of the riot.
This had started not by noise but by silence. A stretch of time when the cars stopped and the sounds of the street went quiet and I was alerted that its character had changed. Brick Lane was suddenly fearful for what was about to happen. Then at once the noise started, the shouting and the volume escalated. I rushed to the window and saw the large opposing tribes meeting directly in front of me on the street below. Then I witnessed the most primal human interaction, one man striking another with an iron bar and the victim falling in a grotesque dance. The other stepping back with the certitude that the life he knows is also over. There was something of the theatrical to this act, and that might be why the horror of the moment didn’t sink in at first. But I noticed that the energy of the mob also wilted with that single blow, some ran, others stayed as witnesses to the deed but now most were standing in near silence and a few had the wit to look up and see me, Caesar at the Amphitheater looking down. I went outside and stepped out into the street, not that I could do anything to help, but more because it felt amoral not to, and I saw that already an ambulance had arrived, suspiciously so, as had the Police. I circulated without purpose for a few moments as if I was in a hostile party where I knew none of the other guests before going back upstairs. Later I joked that I had been finding my inner colonialist and there was a little truth in this, it did seem wrong to witness this takeover of an English Street, and I felt a sense of indignation despite the fact they had more right to it than I.
After returning I heard above me the urgent pacing of footsteps and thought again of the girl upstairs, in truth I was no Mr Darcy, and my motives were not entirely chivalrous when I picked up the phone and suggested a cup of tea to calm our nerves, and that’s how we met. And if it seems like she has a small role in this text, that Mary is being purposefully hidden through a Speilbergian device to allow the occasional swell of the water, a sighting of a dorsal fin to build suspense for the arrival of the main protagonist then it’s not intentional. In an area that is already dense with history, we have our own minor roles too and the neighborhood and the events are part of our collective myth and memory. To be continued……