Friday, 15 April 2011


Brick Lane

There is today a very large Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane, who are fiercely protective of their way of life, and of course their religion, so when a book with the title, "Brick Lane" was written by Monica Ali, a few years ago, it was eagerly poured over by the community leaders in case there was anything derogatory or wrong in its contents portrayal of the Bangladeshi way of life.

The book tracks the life of Nazneen, a young Asian girl, entrapped in an arranged marriage with a man, twenty years her elder. Nazneen speaks no English and has to rely on her husband for everything. They live in a cramped flat in a high-rise block close to Brick Lane in London's East End. Through a friend, Nazneen starts to learn and understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. She also finds her a job, sewing clothes at home. This is where she meets Karim, who works for the clothing firm, and in a background mixture of racial conflict and tension, Nazneen and Karim embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen to finally take control of her own fate, after her husband goes back to Bangladesh.

The book of course, is fiction, but that didn't stop a significant portion of the Bangladeshi community from demonstrating about it. It was wrong, they said, showing a woman acting like this towards her husband, it would not be tolerated within their community. Things got worse however, when a film, based upon the book was announced, much of which, said the film-makers, would be shot on location in Brick Lane. Up to 120 members of the Bangladeshi community from London and beyond marched in protest against the then, forthcoming film. Chants began, and slogans such as "Community, community, Bangladeshi community" and "Monica's book, full of lies" repeatedly rang out. It was too late by then to ban the book, but the protests went on about the then forthcoming film. Dr Hasanat Husain, one of the organisers of the protest, delivered a short speech at one meeting, in which he explained how the Bangladeshi community felt about Ms Ali's novel, and the forthcoming film. "A book has been written, that has greatly offended the hardworking, industrious Bangladeshi community," he said. "This hardworking community has been offended by lies, slander and cynicism. There should be a limit to what you can write or say, you can write fiction, but you cannot use names that are reality".

The film went ahead, but the filmmakers had to eventually abandon their plans to shoot many of the scenes in Brick Lane, and eventually shot them elsewhere, or on built sets, which is a shame, because at the end of the day Brick Lane is the reality, it was there before such groups arrived, and it will be there, long after they are gone.

Another group who were prominent in Brick Lane for many years were the Jews, but although they dominated the area to an effect with their trades and professions, and even their own Synagogue, which is now the Brick Lane Mosque, they never tried to dominate the way other people acted or thought towards them. One must bear in mind that most of the Jewish immigrants in the east end at that time, had arrived there to flee Nazi persecution in their homelands of Europe, such as Germany and Poland. The people doing the protesting during the 1930s, was Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt Movement. Mosley used to hold meetings on the corner of Sclater Street and Brick Lane, where the railway bridge crosses the Lane. Some of the Jews living in Brick Lane and the surrounding area at this time, included Bernard Delfont, Lew Grade, Steven Berkoff, Jack Cohen, and Lionel Bart, to name but a few. Mosley's Blackshirts would do their best to stir up anti Semitic feelings in the area, and paint anti Jewish slogans on the walls. These meetings often ended with Jewish owned shops having their windows smashed, and violence breaking out.

On October 4th 1936, Mosley organized his biggest east end rally to date, but he didn't allow for the fighting resistance of the Jews, who decided to take up the Spanish Civil War slogan, 'They shall not pass' and stopped him at every turn. This culminated in what became known as 'The Battle of Cable Street', where not just the Jews, but Communists and local people all joined forces against him, and with the help of another Jewish man named Jack Comer, they defeated Mosley. Jack Comer was also known as Jack Spot, a local gangster, who went onto to rule Soho, and to be known as King of the London Underworld.

Brick lane is split roughly into two halves. From the northern end, starting with Bethnal Green Road, heading south along the Lane until you reach the railway arch, one can still get a brief glimpse of what it used to be like some fifty years ago. There are still two shops that sell the traditional Jewish Beigel, just yards from each other, The Beigel Bake, and The Beigel Shop. This part of the Lane, also hosts a regular Sunday market, selling everything from second hand furniture and bicycles, to clothing, electrical goods, and everything else you can think of.

After passing the railway bridge, the huge building on your right is what used to be the Old Truman Brewery. The site's first associations with brewing can be traced back to 1666 when a Joseph Truman is recorded as joining William Bucknall's Brewhouse in Brick Lane. Truman subsequently became manager in 1697, and through his family's efforts - not least those of Sir Benjamin Truman (who joined the firm in 1722) - the business expanded rapidly over the following 200 years. The Black Eagle Brewery was constructed in 1724, and eventually employed over 1000 people, becoming the largest brewery in London and the second biggest in Britain. It eventually closed in 1988.

Considering that Brick Lane is barely a mile long, you could be forgiven for thinking that the two ends were a whole world apart. The northern end with its private clubs, such as 'Shoreditch House', which has a spa, bowling alley and rooftop swimming pool, and is frequented by such luminaries as Victoria Beckham and Sienna Miller, and 'Lounge Lover', a cocktail lounge where Madonna hosted her 48th birthday party. Just across the road from the northern end, is the restaurant, 'Les Trois Garçons' whose customers include Jade Jagger, Nicole Kidman, and Yoko Ono.

No other street in London can boast such diversity as Brick Lane, from the ultra rich of the northern end, to the extreme poverty of 'Banglatown' at the southern end in Tower Hamlets, with its grim council estates, and is home to 70,000 Bangladeshis, who suffer some of the highest rates of child poverty, unemployment and deprivation in Britain.

The 11-acre site of the old Truman's Brewery still exists today, approximately in the centre of the Lane, and has become a creative hub of London's East End. Today more than 200 small, creative businesses are housed there. Fashion designers, artists and DJ's work alongside graphic designers, architects and recording and photographic studios. Together they make the Brewery a self-contained creative resource that is unique in Britain.

Many artists have moved into the area, although today, they have to be relatively famous and successful, to be able to afford the property prices, which have risen sharply over the past few years. Artists such as Gilbert and George moved into Fournier Street, which is just around the corner, when the monthly rent was just £16, and the landlords didn't mind whether people slept in the building or used it as a studio. In a magazine interview with the artists, they described the area when they moved in, as run-down, but totally magic, and romantic, where front doors remained open all day, and where people would call across the street to each other, and hold conversations from their wide-open windows.
We are only talking about 1974, yet it sounds like a different world, when Fournier Street was occupied by button makers, furriers and hat-makers, and the area was totally Jewish.

Tracey Emin is another artist, who has moved in and decided to stay. "I could afford to live anywhere in London", says Tracy, "Notting Hill, Kensington, Richmond. I could up sticks and go and live in a mansion in the countryside. But I have chosen to make my home in the East End because it's the most brilliant, vibrant place in the world. I don't want somewhere all leafy, I want to know I'm living in the heart of London".

Once past the old brewery, you enter in what could almost be described as a different world, or at least a different country. This is real Banglatown, with its textile shops, travel agencies, banks, food shops, and halal butchers, and of course, literally hundred of restaurants serving not just the local thriving community of Bangladeshi immigrants, but also the many tourists and visitors, who swarm to the area. This vibrant and bustling street could well have been transplanted from the Indian subcontinent.

Outside almost every restaurant, are "pullers", employed to get you into their restaurant, telling you it's the best and the cheapest, and it usually is, they all are! But not everyone on the streets, work in the restaurant trade, it is also an area of politics, and strong beliefs, with various politicians, vying for the Bangladeshi vote.

Brick Lane to many people, is more than just this one street, for on a Sunday morning it becomes a sprawling street market, which takes over not just a part of Brick Lane itself, but also a number of the surrounding streets, including Cheshire Street, Cygnet Street, and Sclater Street. You can buy almost anything in Brick Lane market, from fruit and vegetables, to clothing, second-hand furniture and bicycles, tools, household goods, and even counterfeit DVDs and cigarettes.

Before the law in the UK changed some time in the 1960s, anyone could sell animals or birds of all types, and Sclater Street was famous for its bird market. The street was lined with small shops, displaying cages lining the walls outside, with every type of bird one could possibly wish for, and this wasn't just on the one day Sunday market, this was full time.

On Sundays of course, it wasn't just birds that were sold, it was dogs, cats, chickens, baby chicks, ducks, goats, geese, monkeys, almost any animal you could care to mention. For local children, it was a wonderful market to visit, almost better than going to a zoo, because here, they could see and touch many of the animals. Today's children of the east end, have to rely mainly on television for their images of animals.

At the turn of the century of course, things were so different, bird fanciers would gather and compare notes with fellow fanciers, and acquaintances, and to show off their birds. Canaries were a popular favourite, and there were allegedly some 'dodgy dealing' going on, when certain dealers would paint, or dye a common bird yellow, and pass it off as a canary.

On Sundays, the little shops were inundated with trade in birds, but it was during the week, when their real trade took over, and people would travel from all over the country to visit the yards and stables at the back of these shops, where the most exotic animals imaginable could be purchased, from African lions, Indian elephants, various apes, boa-constrictors, giraffes, zebras, even Polar bears. Sclater Street is still a part of the Brick Lane Sunday market, but the only exotic wild animals you might find there now, would be on DVDs.

The area in which Brick Lane lies is within the area still known as Spitalfields. A hospital for the returning Crusaders, known as the 'Priory of St Mary's Spital', was founded in 1197 in fields there, which is how 'Spital' and 'Fields' originated. Before that, the area was a Roman cemetery. The name Brick Lane derived from the early use of the land, which being clay based, was perfect for brick making. The quality of the bricks from this area were so good, that as early as Roman times, they were made here.

The Lane started out as nothing more than a rough track, through the earth fields, ploughed up most of the time by the heavy carts, which brought the bricks from the brickworks at the northern end of the lane. After the Great Fire of London, in 1666, the brickworks were in full production, as new laws prevented the building of wooden houses, which went up like tinder in the great fire.

But, number 59 Brick Lane, reflects the most recent changes, by which I mean, over the past two hundred and sixty five years. For number 59, is one of London's largest mosques, standing on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street. It is a somewhat plain, but classically designed building, with tall arched windows, and steps leading up to the main door. Set high up on the wall is a vertical sundial with a Latin inscription, Umbra Sumus, which translates to "we are shadows".

The building hasn't always been a mosque. When it started its life in 1743, it was known as 'La Neuve Eglise', built by the French Huguenots as a Protestant Church along with a small nearby school. The Huguenots came to England, fleeing religious persecution by the Catholics at home. They brought with them their silk weaving skills, and brought a great deal of prosperity to the area. Their legacy can still be seen today in the elegant rows of Georgian town houses they built, and in the nearby French sounding street names. But with the arrival of the Huguenots, there was also a great deal of protest. The existing residents complained that the newly built-up area was used solely to house the Huguenots, and that they were being ignored.

The Irish were the next big wave of immigrants to Spitalfields. Lord George Gordon stoked up Protestant panic about the influence of Rome, which triggered the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many Irish immigrants had moved into the eastern edges of the City, looking for work and escaping persecution back in Ireland, as well as starvation and poverty.

Number 59 Brick Lane was taken over in 1809, by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews. The Society failed however, to have much impact on the inhabitants of Brick Lane, and after 10 years of trial and failure, they moved elsewhere and the building was taken over once again, this time by the Methodists in 1819. The Methodists already had very strong connections with the area. In fact John Wesley preached his first sermon at the Black Eagle Street Chapel, which was just off Brick Lane.

In 1897, it changed hands once again, this time becoming the Machzike Adass, or Spitalfields Great Synagogue. There had been a large influx of Jews to the East End after the assassination of the Tsar of Russia in 1881, which had resulted in pogroms, organised against the Jews across northern Europe.

During this period in time, Spitalfields held the rather dubious distinction of being the worst criminal area in London, with prostitutes and their pimps, taking over many of the houses in Brick Lane. Robberies, of the type we would today call 'muggings' happened on a daily occurrence, although burglaries were almost non existent, due mainly to the fact that most of Brick Lane's inhabitants were so poor, it was not worth the burglar's time and effort to break into such homes. Brick Lane's reputation suffered even more during the reign of Jack the Ripper, when a series of prostitutes were murdered in the area.

The Great Synagogue survived happily here for many years, until the 1960s, when the Jewish community started to dwindle, with many moving to what was then classed as more upmarket areas of north London such as Golders Green, Tottenham, and Hendon. The building laid empty for a number of years, before becoming the London Jamme Masjid, in 1976.

Today, the London Jamme Masjid is one of the largest mosques in the capital, with space for 4,000 worshippers in the huge prayer hall. The mosque serves the extensive Bengali community, which is growing all the time. The local council even renamed the area a few years ago, to Banglatown.

Life in the East End continually changes; the Huguenots have long since gone. The apartments and shops that once held Kosher butchers and bookstores are now occupied by Somalis and expats from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Will it change yet again? Who knows, but one thing is for certain, and that is the history of these various peoples has left its mark on Brick Lane and the immediate area, as can be seen by walking down this lane with an educated eye.

The Jewish community has dispersed once more, leaving just a few remnants such as Tubby Isaacs shellfish and jellied eel stall, and the world-famous Brick Lane Beigel Shop. On Brick Lane today you will notice that the mosque carries the Star of David above the door: a synagogue converted to new use.

In April 1999, Brick Lane was the second target in a bomb campaign targeting minorities in London. A week earlier Brixton, with a large black community had been targeted. A week after that, a bomb was set off in the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub in Soho's Old Compton Street. Dozens were injured and three died. When the culprit, David Copeland, was arrested and brought before court, he admitted having a grudge against minority groups, but fortunately for everyone else, he turned out to have been working alone, and his campaign ended there and then.

The biggest problem in Brick Lane today is drug misuse; it is alleged to be a major problem among younger Bangladeshis. The vast majority of Muslims treat alcohol and non-halal meat as strictly taboo, but unfortunately that taboo does not extend to drugs, and many Bangladeshi families are ignorant of the dangers. Because so many of them live in small, overcrowded flats, their sons spend a great deal of their time on the streets, and it is here that they are tempted by the drug pushers, who are not only eager to sell their drugs, but also to seek new pushers. With the lure of easy money, with relatively little risk, and so many potential clients flocking into their area daily, it is no wonder that so many young and ill educated boys succumb to this evil market.

One thing is a certainty, and that is that Brick Lane will never again attract a new line of first wave immigrants to London, as it has done in the past, for today this once poor and cheap area of London, is fast becoming the haunt of the rich and famous, with properties changing hands for millions of pounds. The Huguenots have long gone, along with the Irish and the Jews. How much longer can the Bangladeshis hold out, and who, if anyone, will be rich enough to succeed them?

No comments: