Linda Wilkin­son

My Lon­don

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

Linda Wilkin­son is a nov­el­ist, play­wright and mem­oirist. Her pas­sion is Lon­don. This is the twenty-sixth ar­ti­cle in our reg­u­lar “My Lon­don” se­ries.

‘Why do you keep writ­ing about Columbia Road?’ the pre­sen­ter Robert Elms asked me re­cently dur­ing an in­ter­view on his pro­gramme on BBC Ra­dio Lon­don. I was go­ing to ri­poste by ask­ing him why he spent so much time there him­self, but the mo­ment passed and the ques­tion re­mained unan­swered.

In fact, I have writ­ten two books and one mem­oir in­volv­ing the road, plus a mu­si­cal and a play in which it fea­tures as an oblique, but cer­tain, pres­ence. So why in­deed?

His­tory is ever with you in Lon­don, par­tic­u­larly in the old gnarled streets of the East End, streets which are rapidly be­ing gen­tri­fied, streets on which lit­tle patina of the past re­mains. Truth­fully it is a du­bi­ous sen­ti­men­tal­ity that mourns the loss of grey and de­cay­ing build­ings and nar­row, dark and ill-lit al­ley­ways, yet many do.

To­day, the over-de­signed and bloated ‘lux­ury’ apart­ments which are pop­ping up do lit­tle to en­hance the area. Lon­don has no holis­tic ap­proach to its ap­pear­ance, noth­ing of uni­form beauty, just a mon­e­tarised mêlée driven by profit, and in the East End it is no dif­fer­ent.

Columbia Road has not es­caped this. Once the glo­ri­ously Gothic Columbia Mar­ket Square and flats graced the street. De­signed in the 1860s by Henry Dar­byshire for the ‘de­serv­ing’ poor it was flat­tened in the early 1960s to be re­placed by an es­tate in the Con­struc­tivist style of Lu­betkin et al dom­i­nated by the tower of Sivill House. At least the de­mo­li­tion on the Ital­ianate Raven­scroft Build­ings fur­ther along the road has been re­placed by a park.

Some­times a glint of cre­ativ­ity trans­forms the old into some­thing of in­ter­est. I went to school in Spi­tal­fields, the fruit and veg­etable mar­ket still resided there. Our sum­mers were en­livened by the smell of rot­ting cab­bages as we laboured in our nine­teenth-cen­tury three-sto­ried pile. The school was aban­doned in the 1970s and all but de­mol­ished, apart from the school chapel, which had dou­bled as the gym. This sat aban­doned un­til 2009 when phoenix-like it was re­vived as La Chapelle, a Miche­lin starred restau­rant in which for­mer pupils can dine recol­lect­ing, in my case, their in­glo­ri­ous at­tempts at gym­nas­tics.

I used to walk to school as for the first 24 years of my life I lived on Columbia Road, in one of the houses which run be­tween the Royal Oak Pub and what is now Lax­eiro, a Span­ish restau­rant. This is run by the in­domitable Is­abel from Gali­cia, who is as much a part of the street as any of us. Un­til the 1980s her place was a dairy run by the Welsh Davis fam­ily, where cheese sat on a mar­ble slab cov­ered by a glass dome and eggs could be bought in­di­vid­u­ally. Just, but only just, by then milk was no longer gar­nered from cows which were kept in small yards dot­ted about the es­tate of cot­tages nearby. Some houses still have the large an­gled nail by the front door from which the filled milk can was hung in the morn­ing. I have a hazy me­mory of the cows be­ing walked through the streets for their morn­ing ex­er­cise, but I must have been very young when this took place.

My in­volve­ment with the street is not purely per­sonal. My fa­ther’s fam­ily, whom I have traced back to Wap­ping in the 1600s, had slowly mi­grated north­wards to live in Bax­en­dale Street just around the cor­ner from the Flower Mar­ket, and my par­ents, on be­ing bombed out of their home there in the 1940s took up res­i­dence on Columbia Road.

My Lon­don is com­prised of in­ter­mesh­ing tec­tonic plates of the past and present. I have no wish to re­visit the era of out­side toi­lets and no heat­ing, but I do rel­ish liv­ing where I was raised. The places that I visit in the ‘other’ Lon­don are few and far be­tween, be­cause these days I sel­dom have the need. When I re­turned in 1986 af­ter an ab­sence of a decade or so, Columbia Road was all but derelict. Shops were boarded up and taxis would only

drop you off on the near­est main road.

This was also true of the Broad­way Mar­ket, where I had spent a fair part of my youth. My grand­mother, Is­abella had lived there for many years and she still lived nearby. On Satur­day morn­ings dur­ing the 1960s we would progress down the mar­ket where she lib­er­ally par­took of the fruit on of­fer be­fore buying any. She was a leg­end for many rea­sons, not least of all be­cause she gave me lau­danum for toothache. I was heart­bro­ken that the fish­mon­gers and smok­ery, Tal­lets, had gone, along with nu­mer­ous other shops and the mar­ket was non-ex­is­tent.

I won­dered if the area would fi­nally be bull­dozed as had been mooted in the 1970s, that the Broad­way and parts of Columbia Road would be­come a mo­tor­way ex­ten­sion from Vic­to­ria Park into the City. It didn’t hap­pen, the area be­came the haunt of a new set of res­i­dents. The Broad­way mar­ket was saved by the fore­thought and ef­fort of a group of lo­cals who re­launched it as a food mar­ket.

Peo­ple of­ten ask me if I don’t re­sent the in­com­ers? The arty, farty group of peo­ple who moved in and pushed up the house prices. The bearded men of Shored­itch and their ce­real shop in Brick Lane, where you can pay a ridicu­lous amount for a plate of or­ganic some­thing or other with ve­gan milk. I don’t. I may find some things faintly ridicu­lous, but then I am not a young per­son start­ing out in life and good luck to them for their in­ge­nu­ity. The anger some peo­ple do ex­press though is com­pletely un­der­stand­able. Along­side the af­flu­ence, fun and self-in­dul­gence, re­mains an in­grained poverty and lack of ex­pec­ta­tion. The work­ing classes both here and else­where have been side­lined into so­ci­etal obliv­ion. We are scroungers, stupid and a bur­den to so­ci­ety. I say ‘we’ be­cause in spite of my ed­u­ca­tion and a life eased by the so­cial mo­bil­ity that many of my gen­er­a­tion were able to take ad­van­tage of, I re­main work­ing class. My at­ti­tudes are very much that of my par­ents and the peo­ple whom I grew up around and those at­ti­tudes are not those ped­dled by the me­dia.

The East End of my past was pre­dom­i­nantly white, the ma­jor di­as­po­ras

from Bangladesh and So­ma­lia had not yet taken place and along­side the in­flux of mid­dle classes that is the one great dif­fer­ence and some­thing which adds a com­plex­ity to life. I love liv­ing in my Lon­don, but I am aware that whereas years ago there seem­ingly was one over­ar­ch­ing com­mu­nity, we now have a place sep­a­rated along racial, cul­tural and class lines. The points of in­ter­sec­tion be­tween the groups are not great and the pol­i­tics of the Lon­don Bor­ough of Tower Ham­lets is some­thing no­body has been proud of.

I have been in­volved with a suf­fi­cient amount of com­mu­nity work to some­times de­spair. The young from the Bangladeshi and So­mali fam­i­lies are caught be­tween a rock and a hard place. Where do they be­long? Some of the elders dream of even­tu­ally go­ing ‘home’ with their fam­i­lies, but the young of both groups are most dis­tinctly East En­ders. A fair pro­por­tion of women and girls are iso­lated from the main­stream by their cul­tures and of­ten by lack of English. The Bor­ough is try­ing to get to grips with this, but it’s a hard slog when pa­tri­archy is so cul­tur­ally em­bed­ded. That said, the suc­cess rate in schools for girls is ap­proach­ing ex­cel­lent, so the fu­ture is not bleak.

At the other end of the spec­trum in the Bor­ough sits the glit­ter­ing jewel of cap­i­tal­ism that is Ca­nary Wharf. I doubt that there is an area in the coun­try where poverty and wealth co-ex­ist within such a short dis­tance of one an­other. The area is full of para­doxes. On the Dorset Es­tate the old li­brary has a mosque on the ground floor and an East End Com­mu­nity Club (aka drink­ing den) on the first. Ev­ery­one seems to rub along nicely.

Nowa­days, my Lon­don is an in­tense mix­ture of the tra­di­tional and the new. My re­turn in 1986 was based on my hav­ing missed my home. My par­ents had moved out to Es­sex, so that wasn’t the driver for my home­com­ing. I had lived in north Lon­don for some years, Bar­net to be pre­cise, and had never been lone­lier. For six years I had tried to use the same check-out at Waitrose, never once did my warm ‘Hello’ elicit any­thing more than a tight­en­ing of the lips from the server. There was noth­ing of a rolling con­ver­sa­tion which be­gan with the weather, mi­grated via health and hol­i­days and ended, af­ter

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