Brick by brick

To­day it’s known as Banglatown but this Lon­don precinct has a multi-lay­ered past, writes Pa­tri­cia Moore

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain -

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

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