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 At least the demolition on the Italianate Ravenscroft Buildings further along the road has been replaced by a park.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