Standard 2

October 9th, 2005

Can it be true that a Chinese Herbalist with a bubbling blue fish tank has opened its doors in Spitalfields market?

In the mornings I stand in my little rooms above our shop, drinking coffee and watching the ebb and flow of City workers. This tide of humanity is the only watery comparison we ever had, and the only fish we ever had were monsters the size of Moby Dick, arriving frozen in nameless vans. Any morning, you could see them slabbing these leviathans onto outside trestles and chain-sawing them into wedges for the curry houses.

Those days are gone, and the days of finding your drains blocked with chicken’s feet are gone, and the trips to the one and only shop, The Taj Stores in Brick Lane, are over. Now we have Tesco and Conran restaurants and the fancy swanky redeveloped market waiting to open – first arrival, the Chinese Herbalist.

In the days of the Taj Stores, when everyone in Spitalfields was an immigrant or an artist, we all met up over sacks of lemons the size of hand grenades, bought Jurassic amounts of parsley and coriander, leaves like lily pads, and three feet tall, and all together, were part of the life of the place, Jewish, Muslim, gay, black, white, it didn’t matter. No one was rich, property here cost nothing, the mix worked.

Since the money began to flow in, the mix is working less well.

Money brings with it visitors and tourists, and Spitalfields on Sunday is now like Camden Lock. Brick Lane has promoted itself as Banglatown, and seems to enjoy its ethnic identity and its apartness. Commercial Street, the Congestion charge boundary has become a boundary of a different kind – an invisible wall between the shiny new City Spitalfields, and the old immigrant Spitalfields, now itself transformed into shopping, nightlife, drugs, and a lot of anger.

I have always been happy to walk late at night, and in the old days, coming up Brick Lane was never a problem. Sometimes a car would slow down and ask ‘Are you in business?’, but all you had to do was shake your head and direct him to the lady in leather boots and a pelmet skirt on the corner. The curry house guys would always smile and chat, and the young kids knew that if you were here you belonged, just as they did.

Twice now, I have been jostled by gangs of youths as I have walked home. The other day, in the afternoon, I was leaning in the doorway of a friend’s house, when four Muslim boys came by, about twelve years old. ‘Hi boys’ I said. They did not reply, and as they walked past, one of them spat on the ground.

‘What was all that about?’ I asked my friend. ‘It’s getting really aggressive’ she said.
Why? Well, there are the obvious whys – the Iraq war, top-heavy unemployment among young Muslim men, but I know too, that just pumping money into an area doesn’t make it better.
Spitalfields is shearing off into separate worlds, and somehow, we need to bring everyone back together.

Meanwhile, at our shop, VERDES, Harvey is hoping that the Chinese Herbalist will be good for our sales of organic veg. ‘It’s colon-friendly’ he explains to a baffled pizza- for- life type, dubious about the health benefits, and unable to taste any flavours except salt and sugar.

‘He needs a good de-tox’ says Taffy, our Welsh sandwich supremo, ‘I’d put him on leeks for a week.’
’Do you think we’re doing good in the world?’ says Harvey, ‘selling pumpkin pasta and gorgeous tomatoes?’ At that moment, Usef the local plumber pops to fix the boiler and get a latte. Seconds later, it’s the Asian seamstress for her favourite bread, then Gilbert and George after Dolly Mixtures.

‘Yes’, says I, ‘because we’re part of Spitalfields.’