“Brick Lane: its arts and its immigrants.”
The tide of Londoners sweeps us up in its cloying embrace and we are swept along together, two human bits of Flotsam and Jetsam which probably sums Dave and me up pretty well. We follow the crowd round as they move into Brick Lane. Brick Lane bears to the north and we follow it down past the Indian restaurants that smell so inviting, past the gaudy clothes shops that plead for custom. Above us, an aeroplane skirts the City headed almost certainly for London City Airport that nestles down near Silvertown.
Brick Lane is famous now and for all manner of reasons. It is the heart of what people call Bangla land, filled with the subculture of Asian residents. An Asian author, Monica Ali wrote a beautiful book, a great work of fiction that was then turned into a film, set here in Brick Lane. The book involved a Muslim woman and the breakdown of her marriage. She has an affair which of course is not the sort of thing a devout female follower of Islam should do. As a work of fiction, it worked well and I took it to be nothing more than that. I certainly didn’t see it as being some sort of mirror held up to the communal face of Brick Lane’s Muslim population nor did it seem to suggest that couples in the Asian community all behave in such a fashion. Sadly, many Muslims from the area objected to its portrayal and formed a protest group who campaigned against the film’s making. The film still went ahead and no one was hurt with just a few feathers being ruffled.
Brick Lane’s other, less contentious claim to fame, is its current status as a vibrant art community. The place literally is abuzz with creative energy. There are exciting little galleries creeping out of alleys and from behind narrow lanes. We went into one that was simply brimming with delightful art. Again, there is the striking street art that runs the walls of Brick Lane and brings to life a thriving community. Banksy has been here as has D*Face.
Originally Brick Lane was called Whitechapel Lane as it was the conduit through which one could pass from Whitechapel to Spitalfields. It gets its modern name from the brick and tile manufacturing that was prevalent in the fifteenth century. It was down this road that immigrants have always fled. Beginning with the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and now the Bangladeshis. People come, people go but the road remains the same whilst forever changing. One of its most famous residents has to have been Joseph Truman the brewer who is remembered as being here in sixteen eighty-three whilst it was his family, particularly Benjamin Truman who established the Black Eagle Brewery in Brick Lane.
As in Whitechapel High Street, there are the colourful arrangements of stalls that force people to form into a tight mass as they peruse the goods on sale. Like moving toothpaste they squeeze through, politely shuffling by the gazers and purchasers. A stall selling fruit displays its goods as though it were a painting by Van Gough in pallet shades of rich greens, purples, oranges, ochres and dark browns. The stall owner is a brawny man with thick forearms and yellowing teeth. His cries as raucous as a raven’s. He wraps and sells the fruit whilst still chanting his street cries. His accent is a bird-like trill in English but it might as well be foreign.
Another elderly man walks by, his beard a perfect white that matches his hair and his shirt and his trousers; on top of this a long black waistcoat hangs low. He should be hot under all the layers but appears comfortable. A string of curry restaurants lines the road behind the stalls. I imagine them lit up at night; they must make a dazzling display of garish neon.
We take a sudden turn and enter Fournier Street, famous now for having Gilbert and George live there. The house they live in typifies the houses in the street with its classic Georgian townhouse design. Of all the architecture I have seen these townhouses are among my favourite. Their style is so simple yet so elegant. They are the sort of house you imagine Sherlock Holmes residing in.
With Gilbert and George, Dave and I part company. Not that Dave dislikes them but they, as artists, simply don’t do it for him. For me, they are the epitome of modern art even more so than Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst. I love Gilbert and George’s absurd take on life and the way they both seem so synchronised for as one moves the other mirrors the other’s movement. Their paintings are superb and visually stimulating and they seem to me to strike a new mutation of art that merges Carolee Schneemann with Andy Warhol. But it is they themselves that create the difference for they are the art they make. And while on the subject of artists it should be noted that Tracey Emin also lives on this street and within spitting distance of Gilbert and George’s residence as does Stuart Brisley the noteworthy performance and conceptual artist. Brick Lane has all the hallmarks of Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century.
As we move toward the end of Fournier Street where the former meets with Commercial Street, we come across an old watering hole of mine. When I used to drink there, from nineteen seventy-seven until nineteen eighty-three it was called The Jack the Ripper, a name one suspects designed to draw the attention of both locals and tourists. Some five years later, in nineteen eighty-eight, the pub went back to its original name of The Ten Bells. I remember playing pool here with a lad called Simon Brown. For reasons that I cannot fathom let alone explain neither of us had much interest then in the Jack the Ripper murders as we both were far more interested in Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. Even now I know little of Jack the Ripper but I do know someone who does; the editor of these Wilful Walks, Paul Barton but as Paul now lives in Canada a long chat in the snug of some pub is sadly out of the question.
The Ten Bells has been here on this very spot since seventeen fifty-two. The exterior has been renovated so that now it has a glossy fresh look to it but with a mock nod to the past. Inside the pub, although some bits such as tables and chairs have been shunted around, it is still exactly as Jack himself would have seen it. Jack the Ripper is a mystery and one destined to remain so for whom, after all, these years and with such diverse and differing data could ever hope to solve this case? So much of the legend has been turned into a dark folk tale, one that sells copy and gets the punters to buy more beer. I am not convinced that all the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper were even committed by the same man. Elizabeth Stride had her throat cut but was not, like some other victims, mutilated. Neither was Martha Tabram who, although stabbed thirty-nine times was not mutilated. There were also several more murders of a similar nature that occurred during the same time frame. These murders were collectively known and held on police records as The Whitechapel Murders.
A total of eleven murders took place between 3rd April eighteen eighty-eight and 13th February eighteen ninety-one. I include in this the torso found in Pinchin Street, Whitechapel and also the one found buried, ironically, in the cellar that was a part of the construction of the New Scotland Yard building. This later crime was referred to as The Whitehall Mystery and has been said not to be part of the serial killings of Jack Of these eleven murders only three appear to share a similar modus operandi.
All of the women were prostitutes, although with the two torsos there was no evidence whatsoever so suggest what profession the dead women had been engaged in. It has been assumed that they were women of loose virtue but no one knows for sure. Of the eleven victims, three did not have their throats cut whilst all the others did and by a right-handed man. This piece of evidence provides no link to the other killings as a great many people, probably the majority, are indeed right handed. Three women shared similar deaths in that they were all horribly butchered having had their throats slit but even with this link one of the victims, Mary Jane Kelly, lacked any incontrovertible evidence of having had her throat cut. She, like Catherine Eddowes and Annie Chapman, had been brutally mutilated. Organs had been removed and in Mary Jane’s case spread about her room along with her breasts. In the cases of Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, faces were disfigured but not that of Annie Chapman. With these three it seems almost churlish, if not downright foolhardy of me to deny that one individual committed all three crimes as they all share unnervingly similar methods but anyone, any number of people, may have killed the other girls. Gangs were known to have killed or rather been the cause of Emma Elizabeth Smith’s death why then might they not have punished other girls who they pimped for?
Whatever the truth it will remain dark to us now for too many years have passed and unless it is, as in the case of Alan Moore’s exceptional work of fiction From Hell that suggests it was all down to William Withy Gull, Queen Victoria’s personal Doctor who, Moore teasingly suggests, committed the murders which the good Queen Vic then covered them up to prevent a slur on her name, then we will never know.
The Ten Bells sits opposite Spitalfields market. They have faced each other through the years watching the slums throw out their victims as London’s fruit and vegetable market harboured the products of their country’s labours. Spitalfields is not what is once was, though. Gone are the stalls and barrows laden with tomatoes and carrots replaced now with yet another thriving marketplace filled with modern day restaurants and clothes shops. Before we enter Spitalfields and learn more about its past and its present, there is a church that stands to our right of staggering significance; it is another work of amazing architecture by that most splendid of Sir Christopher Wren’s apprentices, Nicholas Hawksmoor. The church in question is Christ Church and it is possibly the most beautiful piece of architecture in the East End. It was built somewhere between seventeen fourteen and seventeen twenty-nine. It faces toward Spitalfields and beyond to the City herself.
Like virtually all of Hawksmoor’s work it is of a robust, abrupt nature; square and angular but with generous windows that let in a large volume of light. There are nods to a time before Christianity as Romanesque columns support a broad tower that sits below a Gothic spire. We ascend the blunt steps and enter through a wondrous porch which reveals a broad door space. Inside, the ceiling swims away before us as it offers us a constellation of the grandest most richly decorated designs imaginable.
Light crosses the ceiling with dazzling shafts that dance and shimmer adding a celestial glow that flows to the floor in slow grades of shade until the floor darkens to register the light from above. Around the aisles, which are roofed within barrel-like vaults, are pews that kneel before the glory of the Venetian window which casts yet more light.
Dave and I are transfixed by the sight of this church. It is quite spectacular. It is hard to believe now but in eighteen fifty, Ewan Christian, the man behind the design of London’s Portrait Gallery, vandalised this beautiful church when he blocked in some windows while lowering the main windows. He also removed the splendid galleries that allow you to look down as if from on high to observe the church below. God alone knows why but then again God should as it is his church after all. I sincerely hope that if there is a heaven and that assuming Ewan Christian arrived at the pearly gates that Saint Peter had a quiet word with him about respecting the works of genius and not to go changing things that need no improvement.
By the arrival of the nineteen sixties the church had fallen into disrepair and was declared unfit and unsafe. It was no longer being used for the purpose it was made for so the congregation gathered together in the local Church Hall. Then in nineteen seventy-six, a gaggle of friends formed calling themselves The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields. It was they along with The Hawksmoor Committee who managed to beat off those that wanted to demolish the old church. It took a great many years and a whole fortune in money but by two thousand and four the work was complete and the old magnificence is fully restored and being enjoyed by all who delight in such breathtaking beauty.
The church organ is still the same one as inaugurated in seventeen thirty-five and was made by Richard Bridge. The organ has more than two thousand pipes and kicks up quite a sound. The church plays host to an annual music festival featuring the works of some of the greatest composers in history. I cannot think of a better place to have such an event for it makes the perfect venue.
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.