London is an old city, and no part of it is without a secret history. To me, there’s no better sport than walking for a couple of hours in a particular district, and trying to read the past, which usually means reading between the lines, and avoiding the shiny new narrative of progress.
August in London is a quiet time, and a good time to open the city like a book. I’d take with me Peter Ackroyd – London The Biography, for an exhilarating sense of the city moving slowly through its time-tunnels, like a mysterious and ancient animal, and I’d want both HV Morton’s, London, and London at Night. That these two volumes are wonderfully out of date doesn’t matter at all. London is a city where Falstaff still drinks buckets of sack in Cheapside, and where you can buy a lion-cub in Petticoat Lane market.
London began life on the Thames, a river wooded to its reaches, and home to Woolly Mammoths. When the Romans landed, they made camp in the district now known as Spitalfields, and when the old fruit and veg market was re-developed recently, the remains of a Roman woman of some riches and power, were excavated right opposite my little house and shop.
Spitalfields is a treasure-trove of time. It lies outside the original city walls, and has been a home to migrants, drifters, vagabonds, cut-purses, lepers, Jack the Ripper, Fagin, discharged military men, (Samuel Pepys writes about the artillery ground, now Artillery Passage), women of the night, and refugees of all kinds. The Huguenots fleeing persecution in France set up the silk industry here, and after them came the Jews, the Bengalis, the Muslims. It used to be so poor that even the rats that ran through the market wore signs round their necks saying ‘Please Help.’ Now city bankers buy shots of scotch at £200 a nip, and leave half full bottles of champagne in my doorway. It may be a message in a bottle just for me, but I think it is a sign of the times.
Brick Lane runs along the edge of Spitalfields like a red line of life-blood and warning. Artist Rachel Lichtenstein has written a quirky and selective history of the street and its environs, concentrating on its Jewish history and Muslim make-over. The old synagogue is now a mosque. The tailors, string and paperbag merchants, the pawnshops, are now leather shops and curry houses. Visiting Brick Lane is like climbing inside an alchemists’ jar; inside this vibrant, sometimes violent alembic, is the foment of modern Britain, change, ethnicity, multi-culturalism, faith on one side of the street, drug dealers on the other, families trying to live quietly, party animals out of their heads. The street runs all night, bright-coloured and risky, its mix is often uneasy, it is never dull. Lichtenstein is a Jew married to a Muslim, and she writes well about what it means for a place to shape-shift through faith and culture.
Some places are protean, and seem unable to fix in time. Spitalfields is such a place, the winds of the Elizabethan cart tracks visible under the Georgian symmetry, the ruins of the priory hospital – the spital in the fields, under the old market and built on top of Roman remains. The lawless feel of its past, outside the city walls, has not been cleaned away by new corporate development and fancy shops. I preferred the rats and the tramps to the drugged-out city brokers and drunk skunks, but nothing will tame this place – its DNA is wayward.
Iain Sinclair is a favourite writer of mine who has collaborated with Lichtenstein on an earlier book, Rodinsky’s Room, telling the story of a Jewish Cabbalist who disappeared from his room in the synagogue in the 196O’s, never to be found.
Sinclair understands the spirit of Spitalfields – a place where people disappear carrying nothing, and not just at the hands of the Krays or the Ripper, and where they appear with one bag, looking for a new life.
Sinclair has walked round London nearly as much as Dickens did, and his London Walks is a fine companion for the solo traveller. For me, the East End remains the strangest and most troubled part of the Capital, because it as though everything that ever was is only just compressed beneath the surface, ready to break out at any moment, colouring the eventful enough changes of the present with a darker dye from another time.
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