Brick by brick
Today it’s known as Banglatown but this London precinct has a multi-layered past, writes Patricia Moore
SARIS and salwars blend with hip urban wear. An urgent techno beat underscores the plaintive sound of Bollywood music. Loud graffiti spills across a scarred brick wall. Skeletal stalls straggle along a stretch of footpath, their feet in the debris of the day’s market. A chic boutique, its window dressed in yesterday’s glamour, shoulders a convenience store.
Scaffolding shrouds a Georgian terrace. Curry houses crowd around it. There’s a tang of turmeric in the fumy city air. Sylheti voices, as mysterious as the Brahmaputra, mingle with English, as fast and unfathomable as the Thames.
This is Brick Lane, in the borough of Tower Hamlets in London’s East End, the curry capital of Britain and the hub of cutting-edge London fashion, art, retail and nightlife. It is a place of sharp contrasts, with a vibrant, dynamic present and a long, endlessly shifting past.
Brick Lane’s story turns on bricks, brewing and migration. The Romans built 8th-century Londinium with local clay. In the 15th century, when the brickworks were established on rustic Whitechapel Lane, which linked the hamlets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, it became Brick Lane. In the 17th century, the first brewery was built and fighters of the Great Fire of London slaked their thirst with Brick Lane beer. The city was rebuilt with Brick Lane bricks.
In 1724, Benjamin Truman founded the Black Eagle Brewery. It was the lifeblood of the lane until 1988. For centuries the dispossessed and the hopeful poured across from the London docks and settled in this enclave between the sea and the old city walls. The first great migrant wave, in the 17th century, brought Huguenot silk weavers, refugees from religious persecution in France. By the end of the 18th century, the area was a thriving centre of weaving and textiles and the lane was lined with brick townhouses with widewindowed, upper-storey workrooms.
In the 19th century, mechanised looms and printed fabrics gave the kiss of death to the old craft. Brick Lane slumped. Into the abandoned houses and workrooms of the Huguenots poured Ashkenazi Jews, fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe. Most were craftsmen, tailors and leather workers. Of cruel conditions and punishing hours, London’s rag trade was born.
In the 1920s, the first Bangladeshis, mostly single men from Sylhet in the north, arrived. Packed into tiny Brick Lane bedsits and rented rooms, they laboured on the docks, in sweatshops and clothing factories. The first curry houses opened and the great tradition of AngloSouthern Indian cuisine began. Within 50 years, Brick Lane was Little Bangladesh. The Jewish community slowly sold up and moved away. In the 80s a new migration began. These were not dispossessed refugees but pioneers of a new inner-urban lifestyle. Innovators and artists set up studios in former factories and warehouses. Developers, entrepreneurs and cashed-up trendsetters followed.
Now, the south end of Brick Lane is Banglatown, the heartland and the symbol of British Bangladesh. Here Monica Ali set her controversial novel Brick Lane and here outraged Bangladeshis took to the streets to protest against the film of the book. Here the call to prayer brings out old and orthodox Islam, shuffling patriarchs, matriarchs in hijabs and fervent, bearded young men. Signs in Sylheti and English point the way to the mosque.
Bangladeshi businesses line the streets: money exchanges, travel agents, barbers, Islamic goods, leatherware, music and book shops. There are food stores stacked with fragrant, brightly packaged produce and piled with exotic fruits and vegetables. One is Taj, which flies in halal meat and fresh fish daily from the Bay of Bengal. There are fabric houses such as Epra, crammed with bales of sumptuous sari silk, gorgeous brocades and cottons of amazing colour and design, all at giveaway prices. There are 70 Indian restaurants, the highest concentration outside India.
Curry is now a staple of the English diet and heading down to Brick Lane for a tikka is almost as much a London tradition as stepping out to the pub for a pint. Choosing a restaurant is a ritual; there are menus to browse, celebrity endorsements to check and curry touts’ deals to consider.
Monsoon, the self-proclaimed best of Brick Lane’’ is endorsed by the Beckhams. Housed in a narrow Huguenot terrace with a wide, dark curving staircase, its style is old Raj: layered tablecloths, heavy silver and fine china edged with Indian filigree. Indian art festoons the walls. The house specialty is chicken tikka masala, best teamed with smoky naan, samosas, coconut rice and Kingfisher beer. (Monsoon, unlike many establishments
BrickLane, here, has a bar.) A picturesque dessert menu shows pages of fluoro-coloured, fruit-flavoured ice-cream extravanzas with fanciful names such as Royal Cup.
In the background, family life plays out: a bored schoolboy polishes glasses behind the bar, a teenage girl in a hijab takes a break at a back table, a grandmother watches from the kitchen door, a suave maitre d’ patronises the punters and lords it over the longsuffering and endlessly obliging young waiters.
The Truman brewery’s towering brick chimney, at the halfway point, on the corner of Hanbury Street, is both symbol of born-again Brick Lane and a marker of the beginning of new territory. Since 1998 it has been a creative centre for designers, architects, artists, musicians and artisans. New couturiers present their creations at weekly fashion markets.
The annual Free Range Art Exhibition of Youth Art and Creativity, the world’s largest art happening’’, showcases the work of young art and design graduates. Here, days are easily lost amid the 4.5ha of galleries, showrooms, shops, cafes and restaurants. Nights are easily lost, too, in Truman’s clubs. Shabbily chic Vibe Bar has corners with tatty couches to collapse on and a cool courtyard to retreat to. At 93 Feet East, fantastic live music, which includes debutants along with big names such as White Stripes and Radiohead, entirely eclipses the decor.
North of the brewery, up to Bethnall Green, is the frontier of edgy art, fashion and retail. Artists, including the controversial Tracey Emin, have worked in the area since the 1980s. Galleries have grown around them. In this stretch of the street, establishments such as Brick Lane Gallery, Luna and Curious and NOG, champion contemporary and street art by newcomers. Walls and underpasses feature graffiti by masters such as Banksy, D*Face and Jet Aerosol. Up here, the old Rag Trade forges a bold path. The Laden Showroom, which supports innovative young designers and dresses the likes of Pete Doherty and Victoria Beckham, is London’s leading fashion showroom.
Vintage stores have new twists. Alongside Rokit’s racks of military regalia, cowboy boots and ball gowns are original T-shirts and crafted jewellery. Tatty Devine’s quirky accessories marry retro dreams to modern possibilities. Furniture stores and cafes take wood and coffee breaks in new directions. At Unto This Last, planks morph into unbelievable shapes as shelves, CD racks and fruit bowls, while at LCD Surf Shop, punters can surf the net, buy a T-shirt, take a board for a dry run, watch surf videos and drink fair trade organic coffee.
Also out here, on the cutting edge, at glaring odds with their avant-garde neighbours, are two of Brick Lane’s oldest businesses, survivors of its Jewish past. The Beigel Shop, London’s first and best beigel shop’’ was founded in 1855 and the Beigel Bake was one of the city’s first all-night eateries. Customers still come from all over London to queue for its traditional, crisp treats.
If curry and creativity break Brick Lane into territories, the Sunday market knits it together. In the 17th century it sold fruit and vegetables. In the 19th century it was a Jewish market, with a special dispensation to trade on Sunday. These days the Brick Lane market defies shape, territory and definition. From daybreak to 2pm, it sprawls along Brick Lane in a riot of colour and noise. It spills up Petticoat Lane to Spitalfields. Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Jewish, Polish, Russians, Chinese and cockney traders compete for custom. Food stalls, clothing, and fabric of every kind and ethnicity jostle for space with electrical appliances, household goods and nick-knacks, old and new. Garden supplies nudge works of art, flowers, crafts, trash and treasure, bargains and rip-offs.
The Brick Lane Festival, held every September, also binds Brick Lane. Established in 1996 as part of the East London city side regeneration project, it now attracts more than 60,000 people. Every September, Truman’s Dray walk becomes the Festival Food Village. Stalls and concerts showcase the diversity of community cultures. Fashion shows feature traditional Indian fabrics and clothing as well the latest British designs and textiles.
The Banglatown International Curry Festival takes place concurrently; menus are launched and celebrity chefs fly in from all over the subcontinent.
Today, Brick Lane still meanders along in the path of old Whitechapel Lane. Its Huguenot past reflects in street names such as Fournier and Weaver and in the last few Georgian townhouses. Fashion Street and Petticoat Lane recall Jewish tailors and seamstresses. Their sweatshops and factories live again as milliondollar apartments.
But nothing tells Brick Lane’s story more eloquently than the austere brick building on the corner of Fournier Street. In 1976 it became the Jamme Masjid, the Great London Mosque. Under the sundial on its plain facade a Latin inscription reads Umbra sumus or
we are shadows". Chase the shadows back across the centuries to 1898, when this was the Machzikei HaDath, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, to 1819 when it was a Methodist Chapel, to 1809 when it was the Jews’ Christian Chapel to its beginning in 1742 as the Protestant Huguenots’ Neuve Eglise. On the pavement in front of the mosque is a postscript, or perhaps a final chapter, to the tale. It’s a roundel, inset with a globe; here is the world of races, cultures and religions that over the years have built multicultural, creative and endlessly fascinating Brick Lane.
Courtesy of Madman Entertainment, we have five copies of the newly released DVD of BrickLane ($34.95) to give away to readers. Based on Monica Ali’s book of the same name, the movie stars Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen who at 17 is married off to an older man and must leave her Bangladeshi village for a block of flats in London’s East End. To enter, write your name and address on the back of an envelope and tell us in 25 words or less why you’d like to win a copy. Send to: Brick Lane Giveaway, PO Box 215, Eastern Suburbs MC, NSW 2004.
Date with destiny: Tannishtha Chatterjee as Bangladeshi bride Nazneen Ahmed in a scene from
based on Monica Ali’s bestseller