“Whitechapel – Penny Gaffs and Pavement Stalls.”
We have visited Wapping, Limehouse, Shadwell and Bow and now it is Whitechapel; once the smog filled legend of Dickensian tales with its Penny Gaffs and idle street urchins. Poverty dripped from its lecherous walls, contempt for life strutted in dowdy feathers. Whitechapel has always been the home for immigrants. Once it was the Jews who dressed the streets with tenterhooks and who bequeathed us the phrase keep schtum. Tenter Ground, E1 sits near to Aldgate East tube station and remembers the Jews by virtue of its name. Now Whitechapel is the home of another set of immigrants, Bangladeshis, and ones who, just like the Jews before them have enriched our culture with bits of their own.
The well trod pavements of Whitechapel High Street lay cracked before us. It is down this street that market stalls line the thoroughfare with a banner display of coloured garments that flap a semaphore to accompany the cries of the stall holders. Red busses glide past in purpose-made lanes while black London cabs chase their tail lights like ravenous beetles. Traffic creates a symphony of sound as tyres squeal and horns display the built-up frustration of drivers who spit out obscenities in a variety of tongues. There are three hundred dialects spoken in London. It is by far the most cosmopolitan capital in the world. Bicycles trade places with pedestrians as they wheel and spin their geared cogs, riding the pavement as they pedal between the slow-footed before returning to the road with a variety of curses. A Muslim temple gilds the bored, lacklustre East End architecture with its gorgeous totems and symbols. A bulbous tower rises flower-like to the heavens and meets the blue sky with praise for Allah who is God by another name. There are those who resent this building suggesting it is supplanting another faith’s belief but those people have short memories and forget that the Pagans, who were here long before Christians, could also make such a claim. But this is London and its heart is cosmopolitan and generous even if some of its misguided denizens aren’t.
A clash of cultures creates a tide of humanity that rises as a wave upon the shore of Whitechapel High Street before drifting like a river down Commercial Street. A black woman shimmies by; her hips sway to a sultry, sexy rumba. It is a rhythm of natural black grace and defines her as much as her features do. Her face is sensual with broad nose and full lips; her skin is the colour of summer; rich and warm and beautiful. She wears an impossible turban on her head that flushes her sky with a challenge of colour while defying the laws of gravity. Her breasts swing a voodoo charm while the bag she carries slung over her shoulder nestles into the continent of her bottom.
A group of Asian men, Bangladeshis I guess, stand outside a shop that sells fruit and vegetable form distant, exotic shores. In the shop window a series of sweetmeats glisten they are Róshogolla, chômchôm and kalojam. A distinctive fragrant smell pervades. The men chatter away to each other in a language that sounds sweet as a cashew and bird-like with its clicks and rumbles. It is a language as old the Ganges and it flows on quicksilver syllables. One of the men is aged and has a wizened face that is walnut dark The lines around his cataract filled eyes run down his jaw to sit in the sunlight of his smile. Upon his head sits a kind of white fez while his fragile frame is covered by a lungi. Upon his feet is a pair of brown leather sandals. From the shop an Asian woman wanders out. She wears a sari over her plump body.
Two boys, possibly Greek, possibly Turks, fly past on scooters. Their teeth flash white against their swarthy skin. They laugh with a joy borne of mischievous hearts. A black man, tall and thin and dressed like a Rastafarian cycles up to us and addresses Dave with an ebony voice that conjures up a reggae rap that ripples from his throat with liquid charm. The man is a beggar. He asks Dave for money. Dave drops a pound coin into the black man’s palm. He asks for more but Dave says he has no more. The man turns to me and asks for cash but I ignore him and we walk on. The man calls out to us as we depart, remarking that it is good to see that there are still some with generous hearts. I still ignore him.
A girl, all parquets feathers with multi-coloured hair strides into view. She is the vibrant thrill of electric punk. Trapped in some age of my youth she is old enough to be my daughter. The irony is inescapable as is her message of individuality. Two gay men slip past her dressed in ankle-swinging checked trousers, sharp black and white brogues and collared shirts with ties. They are holding hands but no one, least of all them, cares. One gay replaces his shoulder bag with a jiggle of his wrist. This is the age of understanding and liberal latitude. This is London.
The Whitechapel Gallery smiles at us, the joy in its tiled frontage is impossible to resist. It has a distinctive look to it with its lopsided entrance and curved doorframe. We enter as pilgrims. The smells inside are distinctly different from those outside where paprika mixes with petrol and stale sweat, the smells inside are no less aromatic but the chief one is coffee. We drift around the small book shop finding our fingers turning the pages with an almost involuntary curiosity. I love books. I love the crisp way new books open. I love the smell of fresh ink on the pretty pages. Had I money enough I would buy half a dozen books but sadly not today. We pass into the gallery itself where a collection of art awaits. Some good, some bad but nothing that really takes my interest or excites me. A set of straw bails becomes a talking point whether it is art or not but the fact we discuss such a thing proves that it is.
The Whitechapel Gallery has existed since nineteen hundred and one and is recognised as one of the East End’s leading lights in the art world. Once, like the area itself, it was the province of the poor but as Whitechapel has progressively moved up market so the notoriety associated with the gallery has grown. It is now an acclaimed centre for creative works both in Great Britain and abroad. In two thousand and five the gallery underwent some serious expansion getting support from the Heritage Lottery Fund which granted it some three plus million pounds. The newly expanded facility opened the same year to much acclaim.
We head into the café where we buy cakes and coffee before sitting at a window table. The view from a window depicts a narrow alley that features, directly opposite us, an anarchist’s shop displaying a profusion of unlikely posters filled with dreamy ideology. The shop is called Freedom Press. We eat our cakes and drink our coffees then depart. Outside a stampede of children hurry by proceeded by an adult who leads them down toward the Whitechapel tube station. Facing the station but on the other side of the road is The Royal London Hospital which bears witness to the colourful spectacle of Whitechapel’s market. I know the hospital well having spent much of my childhood inside where nurses both big and small, both black, white and possibly some shades in between took care of me. They were odd, lonely times but they gave birth to my love of books and comics so a negative became a positive.
The hospital was built in seventeen forty as The London Infirmary It changed its name to The London Hospital, still the name by which my mother knows it, until recently when it was given the additional Royal. One of its most famous patients was Joseph Carey Merrick, the infamous ‘Elephant Man.’ who spent the last days of his tragic life there.
The road we walk has a number attached to it as do all the roads of Britain. This road is the A11 but long before roads were recognised by numeric’s rather than names, this road, this A11, this Whitechapel High Street was the route used by the Romans to link Londinium to Camulodunum, London to Colchester. Hard to think of Britain having a capital but once it did and it wasn’t London but Colchester, but no more. Britain doesn’t have a capital but England does and it is London. It is an uncommonly long road, as one suspects it might be, as most roads built by the Romans usually are. More graffiti accompanies us in the alley ways we pass and on shop fronts. It is that street art I spoke of previously that comes and goes within days of being created.
A grey dust hardly visible floats in the air causing me to sneeze, it is the dust created from having so many cars fill the atmosphere with their toxic fumes; it is the dust created by having so many living souls trundle down the streets and byways; it is the dust from city life that clogs the lungs. It is said that living in London is the equivalent of smoking twenty cigarettes a day. I still love the place though for with all its faults it is a remarkable place.
Distinguished by twin crosses carved into stone door lintels is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry that was built in the fifteen hundreds. It wasn’t always here though and may date back to the previous century when it probably stood in Aldgate. The pitted masonry of the small building strikes me as apt and I cannot wonder, as one does whenever confronted by such aged architecture, how many hands have touched these stones? The foundry is noted for having produced many London church bells including Westminster Abbey and the world renowned Big Ben but is more famous for, in seventeen fifty two, casting America’s Liberty Bell.
Whitechapel has always been an interesting neighbourhood filled with dark tales and warped legends. From its earliest days it has been an area where the poorest have gathered even if the blight of poverty grew worse not less as the years passed. There have always been thieves, dippers, welshers and cutthroats here for isn’t that the way of things? When you have nothing you have nothing to lose and to steal when hungry is not an option but a necessity. St. Mary is a church that originally was nothing more than a chapel of Stepney. Its first rector, in thirteen twenty nine, was Hugh de Fulbourne. A legend has it that a French or Breton born man murdered in her bed a kindly widow who had given him succour. The local women were so incensed by this that as the man was brought to justice and then transported to London for trial, they leapt upon the villain like a murder of crows and tore him apart bit by bloody bit. The church was then renamed as St. Mary Mattfellon. It wasn’t for many years later, as St. Mary’s interior walls were painted a pristine white that the name White Chapel came into being.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.