Tag Archives: East End

The Rum Factory Opens!

The wonderful Bow Arts held the opening of the Rum Factory today, studios filling an old warehouse that has held many lives over its 200 years. They are all present here, I will show them to you. But it was no small feat to open 90 affordable studio spaces in London this close to the city, and we also celebrated their 20 year anniversary, so it was a happy occasion. Prosecco in the middle of the day, delicious nibbles.

And oh the bite-size brownies topped with cream.

But above all was the building.

We arrived, were directed upstairs to join the rest, find the drinks

Rum Factory Opening

Marcel kicked it off with many thank yous and much happiness

Rum Factory Opening

Above the mic, you could hear — and these are the notes I made on my phone, I like their abbreviated poetry and I am finishing my damn novel agonizingly but surely so you get the notes:

Amazing noises hammering, sounds of waves — Long Good Friday showed such foresight we will be the capital of Europe, Olympics, but development in Wapping creating challenges, one is to artists and creativity residential land values pushing out other uses St George developers good in that studios not left to the margins but part of development

Sound of wheels metal rain draining dragging of materials of weight itself in construction forms across a metal roof. Rebeccas Brooks’ office as was down the end and behind me the times office with glass and blinds remaining and a white board full of figures and print schedules, Michael called it a ghost of what was. This space is two floors so you can look down, feel the expanse, we stand in the middle at the top a mix of people in suits people in beards Mark in his collar beside me some plaid shirts some diversity

Cuts coming still going we have to be more creative

I don’t think they intended irony there, but I was sad that funding for the arts should be left to third sector and intensive fundraising and enlightened developers. God knows I don’t believe in them.

Few remaining buildings of London docks still to be redeveloped did once hold rum and spirits

I am tempted to drop things on people.

Speeches are over and I am free to wander.

This was indeed the former offices and distribution centre for News of the World. Here are the ghosts of what were:

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

Rum Factory Opening

This is what it has become:

Rum Factory Opening

Beautiful and massive wooden beams, old brick with its curious arches and niches — I try and imagine their purpose, fail.

Rum Factory Opening

I confess I prefer these as empty spaces, or in the process of becoming:

Rum Factory Opening

There was an artist who made birds of beautiful shape.

Coming down Pennington Street to the entrance this is what you see, a great solid mass of brick that has an odd weight and beauty to it, these old warehouses make my heart quake and I don’t quite know what it is about them.

London Dock

But wandering along the first floor in the still unoccupied spaces you find the curiously medieval windows, and the view behind towards destruction:

Rum Factory Opening

This survived the blitz, but not regeneration. Or maybe that’s just the new build that needs to come down to build some luxury flats that are even newer.

I wonder what this tunnel once did, why it is here. It is like an organic thing caterpillaring up in that great curve to swallow rubble. I hope it survives:

Rum Factory Opening

This dock once provided jobs for thousands of people — first the dock workers, then the newspaper printers (those printers’ strikes in the 80s, picking up leftist campaign literature, Sean and Helen’s stories about early mornings in the darkness and fascists and beatings and the heart pounding fiercely and idealism surging high — one of the later panel speakers was supporting the strikes too, but a bit deprecating of the part he played. Fighting for jobs seemed a little passe). I am glad this place now houses artists, otherwise there are only temporary employment opportunities here. Dude with a broom on a break:

Rum Factory Opening

There was a panel after and it was interesting, but I am a little too angry about rents and bankers and austerity to have enjoyed it much. I did love something the moderator said as part of the invitation for responses from the panel — my quixotic notes again:

on London as the centre of the world, this place the concrete tangible memory of goods flowing through…News of the World and media now become the goods? the flows? … Art now as tangible as rum?

I couldn’t help but think this ironic as well, as I made the leap to art become commodity and imperialist lacky. Not what he meant, not what is happening here, but undoubtedly worth some thought.

A few other thoughts from the woman from the GLA stayed with me, made me a bit sad:

Desire for immersive and authentic experience from tourists

Creating a cultural vision for the royal docks, how you grow a new development a new space before homes going in, bold ideas creating a different way about creating space

How do you create authenticity for tourists? How does a bureaucratic organisation, however well meaning, create a cultural vision? These things can only increase the ways that London is destroying upswellings of life and creativity through high costs and poverty where you earn simply to live, through the prescriptive stifling of culture as it is spontaneously created and lived by and through a vibrant community. Only a certain kind of people need their culture packaged and handed to them.

Sadness.

I found this picture of this warehouse’s former days, or as it came to the end of them.

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You leave the warehouse — once dockers would have been searched as they left the building — and walked up past plywood to the welcome site of St-George-in-the-East, and I remembered again the WWII story of Father John re-burying corpses thrown up by a bomb as Rev. Denys Giddey read the Commital by search-lights and explosions.

St-George-in-the-East

And then on the corner, a more eloquent reminder of how the community once here has been whittled away.

The Old Rose, Wapping

Things do change I know, it is nice to be able to celebrate something good that is happening amidst all the rest.

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Father John Groser, Rebel Priest of the East End

groserbookThis book uncovers for me some of the contributions of certain priests of the Church of England to the struggle for a better world here and now. It is a tradition I knew very little of, being more familiar with Liberation Theology such as that written by Gustavo Gutierrez and Camilo Torres, learned through the words and practice of some of the people I respect most in the world like Leonardo Vilchis and Don Toñito.  So I was happy to find this, a booklet Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade in the early 1920s by Father Conrad Noël:

if you would destroy the kept Press and fight for freedom of expression; if you would destroy the Capitalist Parliament and build a People’s Republic; if you would abolish classes, artificial distinctions, snobbery; if, while you know the most deadly tyrants are not kings but financiers, speculators, captains of industry, you would also, with St Thomas of Canterbury, destroy that nest of flunkeys, the Court; if, while you measure swords with the New Plutocracy, you are ashamed of that ancient fraud which calls itself the old Aristocracy…We offer you nothing–nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades and the peace of God which passeth understanding.’ (15 – William Purcell ‘Birth of a Rebel’)

Father John Groser gave it to William Purcell telling him it was ‘a bit unbalanced, but still pretty splendid, don’t you think?’ (14). Father John was himself entirely splendid I think — how else could such a volume as this exist, written in sections by various colleagues and friends and a few pages from his son to keep alive his history and legacy and the vitality of his praxis? No activist could ask for a better tribute to their life’s work.

This form means this book is full of not only of struggle and theology, Marxism and Christianity, but also delightful glimpses into the character of the man, as well as the East End’s past and its life during two world wars. This is one of my favourite stories, of a church I hope to know better soon, and comes from Rev. Denys Giddey, Groser’s last curate at St George’s:

One evening in the blitz a small bomb dropped in the Rectory garden, which had at one time been part of the churchyard. We found that the explosion had disturbed some human remains. Father John went off to get a spade and told me to fetch a prayer book. I was then required, in the light of search-lights and various explosions, to read the Committal as he re-interred the remains. (56 – Kenneth Brill ‘Of Lawful Authority’)

I love the note that Groser takes it as understood that senior police officers see their duty as protection of property above all else. Then there are these splendid words — Charles Dalmon’s hymn for St George’s Day:

God is the only landlord
To whom our rents are due,
He made the Earth for all men
And not for just a few.
The four parts of Creation,
Earth, Water, Air and Fire,
God made and blessed and stationed
For every man’s desire. (79 – ‘Parish Priest’ – Kenneth Brill)

He was only ever parish priest in Stepney — Christ Church on Watney Street to be exact, though it no longer stands. It was destroyed early on by German bombs in WWII — I think it is hard for us now to imagine lives touched by not just one but two such great catastrophes — Father John was a chaplain on the front lines in WWI and this is part of what radicalised him and brought him to the East End in the first place.

This sentence is so reminiscent of Arthur Morrison’s opening to Mean Streets, but here these streets are transformed — the power of struggle certainly but I will allow religion as well:

Few, however, can take part in the Eucharist without a pang of regret for the ugly building, in an ugly street, in an ugly society, within which Groser ensured for them a vision of transcendent spiritual and material beauty which they are unlikely to enjoy again in its full glory this side of the grave. (96 – Brill, Parish Priest)

All of these things are grand, like his friendship with George Lansbury, his support for the docker’s strike, multiple arrests and police beatings. I’ll probably write more about those. It still surprised me to find him president of the Stepney Tenants Defense League. It began in 1938 when he gave space in vicarage for young solicitors and law students to interview & advise tenants, and clearly just snowballed from there as these things do. In May 1939 the League issued a broadsheet titled:

PERSONAL APPEAL FROM FATHER GROSER

In the nine months of our development we are able to say that we have beaten back the Landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney. Your organisation has not only given the lead to the people of Stepney but also to the whole country. Our aim is to continue to wage the war against high rents and bad housing conditions. As well as your demand from the organisation the protection it offers, your organisation demands from you an understanding of the enormous problems that face it in it its fight.

There are 4 points on what tenants should do:

(i) Persuade neighbours to join the League and attend Meetings.
(ii) Set up committees in your streets and blocks of Buildings.
(iii) Bring in loans and donations for a thousand pounds to fight back against the powerful Landlords’organisation and to retain what has already been won.
(iv) Remember the struggles of the tenants in Brady Street and Langdale Mansions and the other strike centres are the struggles of every one of us. (101 – The World His Parish – Brill)

The League announced Tenants’ Week, gave a public showing of the film Tenants in Revolt (need to find that), and did a charabanc (charabanc!) outing to Hastings.

What did they do that we didn’t do in LA so many decades later? And we thought we were inventing it all (I know already how silly that sounds, but we didn’t really know what we were doing — I guess there aren’t so many ways to do it). I look back on my years of doing this same work and I am both thrilled to be part of this movement that stretches back over years and simultaneously dismayed that it fucking stretches back over so many years. The League even organised a fund tenants could pay rent into while on strike. Groser held thousands of pounds in this capacity. We are still doing this same thing and it makes me both happy and sad. It does emphasise to me, however, that until housing ceases to be a commodity that people profit from and instead becomes homes to be lived in and treasured, there will be tenant organisers just like us another hundred years from now.

Still, I am proud reading the events of Tuesday, 20th June 1939, when tenants of Alexandra Buildings on Commercial Street (45-55) ‘built barricades of tables, doors and sofas at each entrance and a “drawbridge” to resist the bailiffs. Six were arrested for obstructing and assaulting the police.’ They held pickets at the landlord’s offices while both the Mayor & Bishop of Stepney, Rabbi Brodie and Father Groser argued the tenant’s case inside with landlord 2 hours. Bringing politicians, priests, rabbis together to pressure slumlords to do the right thing? Shit, we did that too — but no such barricades sadly, and no drawbridge. That was a stroke of genius. The article in the next day’s Daily Herald stated Landlord Tarnspolsk agreed to stop evictions and negotiate. The barricades came down again.

Then war came, changing everything for a few years. Slowly Groser moved away from the League. But not from his politics.

Another favourite story is of the time Groser recited the following poem of G.D.H. Cole when preaching evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral. The verger conducted him to the steps of pulpit carrying a staff and bowed to him, Groser surprised him by bowing back, then said:

For I tell you one thing success cannot stomach the sight of,
And that’s failure, the sort that you can’t get away from or write off.
But that shabbily, shamblingly, haunts you and cringes for pence,
Am I wrong thus far, though I cause you offence?

Headlines in the Daily Herald the following day: ‘Means Test Denounced in St. Paul’s Pulpit’ (105 – The World his Parish)

In 1951, Groser helped to found the Stepney Colored People’s Association. In the article he wrote for their first newsletter in 1952 talking about how Stepney has ‘always been one of the most cosmopolitan areas of London, perhaps that is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting place to live in.’ and that it had ‘always provided a haven for foreigners and seamen…’ (107)

groserbecket1949you thought he couldn’t get much better, and then you find out he performed as Archbishop Becket in the 1949 film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by George Hoellering. I have to hunt that down. So he knew T.S. Eliot, John dos Passos, a few others.

He understood faith, and how Marxists have their share:

‘I believe that God has made the world for that sort of life in the world [a free and equal society], and man will not rest till he attains to it. But it is to me an act of faith which is in accord with my philosophy. It is equally an act of faith on the part of the Community Party. (From ‘Methods of Change.’ A lecture to Watford Deanery School of Religious Study, October 1934, quoted in ‘Socialist Because Christian’ – David Platt)

I enjoyed the point of view of his colleagues writing in the 1960s as though the battle is almost over, as though Keynes solved it all and we were well on our way to utopia. They look back on Father John’s more fiery days as a period over and done. Still, if only all Christians felt this way:

This incarnational doctrine leads to the necessity of the Christian’s identification of himself with human beings in need. In the 1920s and 1930s this led inevitably to participation in the class struggle. (167 – Platt)

There are more wonderful quotes, like these from the 1932 Manifesto of the Christ Church Campaign for Socialism:

“We believe that the principal duty of the Church is to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, a Kingdom of perfection, a Kingdom of love, justice, comradeship, beauty, and all that we know as good.”

The first stage in the programme is the establishment of a classless and democratic Socialist State in this country. The second step is ‘the establishment of a World Cooperative Commonwealth of ‘Socialist States’.(176 – Platt)

Can you imagine? Yet this is written as though we are on our way to achieving this, as though it is nothing very radical. This chapter on Father John’s Socialism by his son-in-law David Platt is almost as eye-opening as Angela Davis’s first autobiography where she knows the revolution is just around the corner. What I wouldn’t give to feel that just once, just a little touch of it.

You can tell that he worked with people, knew people. He argued strongly for the need for a transformation of rank and file through struggle and religion:

Sacrifice and cooperation are required when men are no longer driven by fear of unemployment and insecurity and not likely to suffer from their own sins and mistakes as before. Those who fear the development of too much centralisation of power need to be reminded that decentralisation is only possible if there is a sufficient number of people who are able and willing to accept responsibility below. A voluntary and peaceful transition from one order of society to another demands the active participation of all or at least of a sufficient number of people in every area of life to carry conviction and a following. It demands a readiness to surrender voluntarily rights which stand in the way, and a voluntary acceptance of sacrifice and responsibility by people willing a common objective. (‘The Vision of the Church’s Work’. Lecture to C.E.Y.C. Conference in Oxford, September 1950. 181 – Platt)

I shall end this with his denunciation of capitalists, a position I’d like to see more from the church as we still tighten our belts and continue dealing with their crisis: Father John could not be more clear that

their economic position so binds them that they are unable to do that which is necessary to make the Kingdom of God possible for them as for other men…It is these people who are in the position of control in international affairs, and it is the same interest that dictates there…when their economic position is threatened, their loyalty to the Kingdom of God becomes secondary, because to their consciousness the economic factor is the one most important thing in their lives. (‘The Vicar’s Letter’ in Christ church Monthly, December 1935, quoted Platt 185).

There is so much more left unsaid, and a few things to follow up as well, as always: Look up Ethel Upton, social science student from LSE working in Stepney and at St Katharine’s. Find Father John’s own book Politics and Persons. Find Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a novel that examines the horrors of the Means Test Father John spent his life campaigning against. More about the Stepney Colored People’s Association. So much.

If you want more right away, look at the wonderful page from St-George-in-the-East, packed as usual with facts and links.

And more on London’s East End from myself…

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Ratcliffe as was (in the eyes of Walter Besant)

I work now in Ratcliffe, the hamlet that has disappeared really…sitting between Limehouse and Shadwell it was bombed heavily in the war, and then the building of Commercial Street and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the new railway line and its thick arches destroyed most of the rest. I work now in the remains of an old mansion belonging to a sugar merchant, on the site where the church and school once stood before their remnants were torn down. There is not much else left.

It’s very different now, so it’s fascinating to read old descriptions of what was once there. These are from Walter Besant’s East London. I don’t much care for his view of the working  (or even lower) classes, but these are fascinating as glimpses of this part of the East End (and a bit of casual racism really…though perhaps more directed at sailors in general?):

The Church of St. George’s-in-the-East stands…beside the once infamous street called the Ratcliffe Highway….Portugal Jack and Italy Jack and Lascar Jack have always been very handy with their knives, while no one interfered and the police could only walk about in little companies of three and four. Within these houses, these windows, these doors, their fronts stained and discolored like a drunkard’s face, there lay men stark and dead… (72)

More on Ratcliffe:

It consists of mean and dirty streets–there is not a single street which is not mean and dirty; none of the houses are old; none are picturesque in the least; they are rickety, dirty, shabby, without one redeeming feature; there is a church but it is not stately…it is unlovely; there are “stairs” to the river and that are rickety, there are warehouses which contain nothing and are tumbling down; there are public houses which do not pretend to be bright and attractive–low-browed, dirty dens, which reek of bad beer and bad gin. Yet the place, when you linger in it and talk about it to the clergy and the ladies who work for it, it is full of interest. For it is a quarter entirely occupied by the hand-to-mouth laborer; the people live in tenements; it is thought luxury to have two rooms; there are eight thousand of them, three quarters being Irish; in the whole parish there is not a single person of what we call respectability, except two or three clergymen and half a dozen ladies; there are no good shops, there are no doctors or lawyers, there is not even a news vender, for nobody in Ratcliffe reads a newspaper. But the place swarms with humanity; the children play by thousands in the gutters; and on the door-steps the wives and mothers sit all day long and in all weathers, carrying on a perpetual parliament of grievance. (81-82)

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There is still a Ratcliffe-Cross Street but it ends at Cable Street rather than stretching down to the river. It’s almost hard to believe now that enough people lived here to muster a side in the massive fights between Cable Street and Brook St residents — a street that used to be the center and heart of Ratcliffe and is no longer even on the map.

There is also a mention of the old heritage of the Dissenters in Ratcliffe in the physical form of Medland Hall, formerly a Dissenting Chapel and become what Besant called a free lodging house on the riverside at Ratcliffe. To be explored in a future post…

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Morrison’s Child of the Jago

I am not sure why I loved Child of the Jago so much more than Tales of Mean Streets. That had artistry and skill and eschewed the spectacular and violent — I was worried that this novel focusing on the violence of the true slums (actually a rarity in East London contrary to popular legend) would edge us more into sensationalist territory which rarely fails to piss me off (especially after reading Burke). But it didn’t. A Child of the Jago

The novel itself works well, almost proto-noir of the kind with a heart like Crumley or Chandler. It is based on intensive research — while Morrison came from the working-class East End, it was very different from the streets and courts of the Old Nichol described here under a different name. He turned to Father Jay Sturt, who had established a parish there and figures large in the narrative (and some of his paternalism got a little annoying to be honest). Sturt himself had written about the place in Life in Darkest London (1881), The Social Problem and Its Solution (1893), and A Story of Shoreditch (1896). Hard to find, sadly. He helped Morrison meet the residents, and he visited homes, drank in pubs, listened to stories, learned to make match matchboxes, Morrison invited people to his home in Loughton and made recordings of how they spoke (at least I think I read that right — it is just possible given the date, so are those lying around somewhere? Can you imagine the treasure that would be?). Morrison himself notes that he set ‘traps’ of particularly bad incidents that he thought reviewers would call out as impossible — and made sure all of them were things that he could document actually happened.

jagoA square of two hundred and fifty yards or less–that was all there was of the Jago. But in that square the human population swarmed in thousands. Old Jago Street, New Jago Street, Half Jago street lay parallel, east and west: Jago Row at one end and Edge Lane at the other lay parallel also, stretching north and south, foul ways all. What was too vile for Kate Street, Seven Dials and Ratcliff Highway in its worst day, what was too useless, incapable and corrupt–all that teemed in the Old Jago. (45)

And he gives us a map! Along with descriptions of this place, you can only be glad it was torn down to become the London County Council’s Boundary Street Scheme:

Front doors were merely used as firewood in the Old Jago, and most had been burnt there many years ago. If perchance one could have been found still on its hinges, it stood ever open and probably would not shut. Thus at night the Jago doorways were a row of black holes, foul and forbidding.

Dicky Perrott entered his hole with caution, for anywhere in the passage and on the stairs, somebody might be lying drunk against whom it would be unsafe to stumble. (48)

It’s treads are missing, the rails gone from the sides, the interior cold and damp, grim and soul destroying. Morrison describes a world run by two families, the Ranns and the Learys, where no one is in work, where women pick up wealthy drunks and bring them home to the ‘cosh’ from their husband. Everyone else lives on various levels of hustle. At the top — the high mobsmen. There is much left unsaid, but a surprising amount actually said. You navigate this place alongside a tiny little boy named Dicky Perrot who questions none of it, dreams only of a piece of cake and knows well that to get it he must steal it. I was snared by this longing because of my own immense love of cake. I remember a time when I too wanted nothing more in the world than a piece of cake though I know it can’t compare. I have eaten today, and well. I ate yesterday and the day before. I can buy cake whenever I want. I am blessed.

As if the cake weren’t enough, when in trouble Dicky pours his troubles into the ears of Jerry Gullen’s donkey, his beloved Canary. He can’t trust anyone else with pain and tears and weakness. That too is something I know, though I know it can’t compare. I was never beaten by my father. I had places to be alone and cry.

So you cheer him on through his life of crime, celebrate his exploits, mourn his shreds of innocence and exploitation by the horrible Mr Weech, who later destroys any chance of honest work. You feel superior when the good Father has no idea at all what is going on and is confirmed in his prejudices. I like that this book takes him down a bit.  Too quickly you jump ahead in time and it ceases to be quite as good a story, but still an important one. It has memorable fight scenes of all descriptions and more evil and poverty and death and despair and occasional kindnesses than you could ever ask for.

All that, and in addition he makes fun of liberals and ‘missionaries’ who come slumming down to the East End:

Other young men, more fortunately circumstanced, with the educational varnish fresh and raw upon them, came from afar, equipped with a foreign mode of thought and a foreign ignorance of the world and the proportions of things, as Missionaries. Not without some anxiety to their parents, they plunged into the perilous depths of the East End , to struggle–for a fortnight–with its suffering and its brutishness. So they went among the tradesmen’s sons and the shopmen, who endured them as they endured the nominal subscription; and they came away with a certain relief, and with some misgiving as to what impression they had made, and what they had done to make it. But is was with knowledge and authority that they went back among tose who had doubted their personal safety in the dark region. The East End, they reported, was nothing like what it was said to be. you could see much worse places up West. The people were quite a decent sort, in their way: shocking Bounders, of course, but quite clean and quiet, and very comfortably dressed, with ties and collars and watches. (54)

A fortnight. Ha. I am only sad this shit still happens all the time, but people call it something else and go to Guatemala or Burkina Faso instead. There is none of that attitude here, which is why it is so good, and why it rings true the way many another story does not. I can’t really understand why Morrison has not won wider acclaim, perhaps I’ll read some London and refresh my memory as to whether this really is so much better. Because I think it probably is.

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Olympic Park Apocalypse

Stratford station spits you out, once you find how you get out, into the mall. You strive to get out of that too. To find grass.
You are ordered to be in charge. You do not look like any of the people inhabiting these artistic depictions of their ideal person.

Olympic Park, Stratford

You find a theme park after the plague has destroyed humanity.

Olympic Park, Stratford

The architecture of overpriced (at any price) ‘luxury’ feels as apocalyptic, though this one is vaguely authochthonous.

Olympic Park, Stratford

You feel unreal. A two-dimensional drawing in architectural renderings. It is not pleasant.

Olympic Park, Stratford

Architectural renderings, however, would hold more life than the real Olympic Park on a warm and sunny bank holiday in Spring.

Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

You cannot slide down this monumental absurdity charging extortionately for access to its top. Ah, public art.

I came here seeking public space. So what did work?

The cafe far away down the other side of the stadium. Made of containers (which I do quite love and have written about before), containing potential art and potential performance space — yet another of those pianos you can just walk up to and play, but these facilitate performance rather than opportunities for learning and practice which I might prefer seeing given how few kids have access to a piano at home.

No one was playing the piano, no one was in these ‘art’ spaces.

Olympic Park, Stratford

The bike shop seemed to be doing well however.

Olympic Park, Stratford

It was decently busy, but not what I expected for this kind of day. You have to search it out, if I hadn’t known it was there and wanted to visit, I don’t think we ever would have made it this far. The food and coffee were good, the cake quite nice, the feel of it comfortable if small. What I loved most was the space round the back, raised beds full of plants, the feeling of being in a garden and a little piece of breathing green in the middle of the city:

Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

I loved these places for sitting and eating — the railroad ties were quite comfortable, the concrete somewhere to rest cups and plates and bags and books, also extra seating. I love good design.

Olympic Park, Stratford

After lunch we walked back, tried to get to the train station taking a direct route and avoiding the mall — it was not signed and it was not easy, at one point we realised we were on the wrong sidewalk curving down beneath the road we wished to travel and they didn’t bother creating a place where pedestrians could cross from one to the other. We followed two builders as they dodged round the car barriers and nimbly leaped the narrow depressing ditch full of rubbish between the two. Pedestrians enjoying a sunny day are not really the user group this park planned for somehow. Or else they decided all paths must go through the mall.

In no scenario there is the planner a winner.

This road was clearly not really meant for much pedestrian traffic, yet provided the best view of the owl-like aquatics centre and this look out into the wastelands of Stratford.

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Olympic Park, Stratford

Olympic Park, Stratford

I rather liked the empty and open nature of it, but they could do so much more with this green space. Instead I imagine they will build more terrible buildings.

I thought I liked this bridge once, but from this view it felt uncomfortably like watching ants…

Olympic Park, Stratford

All in all this entire space makes you feel small, two-dimensional, shallow. I am not surprised it sat almost empty for the most part. Where they have done well is along the canal banks, which were beautiful and where possible it did invite people to sit and enjoy…though mostly on the grass. There were also some fabulous large wooden seats big enough to stretch out your legs and sit two to a seat. But not enough. Some of these small details were delightful, but not enough to make this space work as somewhere you would much like to just be.

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St Anne’s, Limehouse

You can see the tower of St Anne’s, Limehouse from afar — it was built to be seen from the Thames with its great clock, as shown in Walter Besant’s East End:

St Anne's, Limehouse

but now you mostly see it as a wayfarer along the DLR:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Me, working here now, walking these streets to know them, I have seen it from many other angles because I know to look, always it comes into view between buildings. Here looking to the north from Ropemaker’s Fields alongside the basin, a rare open view:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Here looking to the west:

St Anne's, Limehouse

But reading the writings of its former Rector in Limehouse Through Five Centuries, it was extraordinary to see how it once stood tall above everything:

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It is this grandeur that it has lost, that makes more sense of its occult status granted it by Iain Sinclair in Lud Heat:

The old maps present a skyline dominated by church towers; those horizons were differently punctured, so that the subservience of the grounded eye, and the division of the city by parish, was not disguised. Moving now on an eastern arc the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor soon invade the consciousness, the charting instinct. Eight churches give us the enclosure, the shape of the fear; – built for early century optimism, erected over a fen of undisclosed horrors, white stones laid upon the mud and dust. In this air certain hungers were activated that have yet to be pacified; no turning back, as Yeats claims: “the stones once set up traffic with the enemy.”

In turn Peter Ackroyd used this as his inspiration for Hawksmoor, possibly my favourite of his books:

I make no Mencion that in each of my Churches I put a Signe so that he who sees the Fabrick may see also the Shaddowe of the Reality of which it is the Pattern or Figure. Thus, in the church of Lime-house, the nineteen Pillars in the Aisles will represent the Names of Baal-Berith, the seven Pillars of the Chappell will signify the Chapters of his Covenant. All those who wish to know more of this may take up Clavis Salomonis… (45)

Willing as I am to step into a world of dark imagination, St Anne’s eclipses these words really. I have been inside after an interview with the Rector, explored the wonderful crypt and its treasures. I love this church:

St Anne's, Limehouse

I find the tower most beautiful from below, with angles and corners and symmetry outlined against sky:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of all I think, I love the approach from Newell Street, when you feel you have truly escaped into the past. These are the seventeen steps the old Rector thought would discourage those in shabby dress, but I find them lovely.

St Anne's, Limehouse

The beautiful grounds stand as a oasis along Commercial Road, along with the pyramid of moss green, the center of Ackroyd and Sinclairs occult murmurings:

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Rumours say it was meant to sit on one of St Anne’s corners, one of four pyramids to have been crafted and placed there. There is no way now that you can see the church as a whole as in this print:

St Anne's, Limehouse

Though perhaps it was never properly seen like this at all beyond the artists’s imagination. Nowadays, with Canary Wharf just along down the road, I have to really stretch to see this as a corner of evil, feel that perhaps the only ‘horrors’ were the lives of the exploited working classes. It now stands as escape, as retreat — perhaps more seductive now than ever.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

Most of the gravestones have been picked up, moved to skirt the edges and surround the living with memories of the dead to make of this an open green space of the kind that now fill London. And London is most grateful for them in Fall.

St Anne's, Limehouse

St Anne's, Limehouse

And then again in Spring, when they fill with flowers:

Snowdrops, St Anne's

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Tales of Mean Streets

Tales of Mean StreetsTales of Mean Streets  (1894) describes the contents exactly — the meanness not only of city and streets but also of characters and the poverty that confines them. These, I think, are stories written by a man who escaped such poverty and looks back on it only with relief that he managed to get out, and perhaps with a fear of falling back that erases generosity. There is none of the lurid and titillating violence and detail of Thomas Burke, nor yet any of the humour, pride and everyday mutual support seen in W. Pett Ridge. Just poverty, meanness, narrowness and desperation. In such depths of poverty these things exist, of course, in abundance. I hate when they are not balanced by the small things that still make lives bearable, humour above all, but I know that fear of poverty not just lying behind you but also lying in ahead and how it can shape your view of the world. These are tales of the working class by one of their own like those of Pett Ridge, and on the same subjects from Edwin Pugh, Somerset Maugham (whose work mostly infuriated me), and Richard Whiteing. All of whom together came to be seen as a new school of English fiction as stated by the introduction on Morrison’s life and work. I found another list of Victorian ‘slum fiction‘, which includes all of these titles and many more.

For a taste of daily life, a sense of the streets, Tales of Mean Streets is very good. The stories, too, are beautifully crafted. Always a hidden ugly little twist to make them stand out as far more than just descriptions of everyday life and struggle for survival. This is not surprising given the company Arthur Morrison kept — though that company was surprising. He worked for W.E. Henley, editor of the National Observer… who was on the crack team of writers forming his team? In addition to Morrison there was Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Charles Whibley, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and H.D. Lowry.I can’t imagine them all just sitting in the pub after work, but I am enjoying the effort.

Morrison worked under Walter Besant on the newspaper at the People’s Palace in Mile End, which endears him to me immensely. He left to become a writer and journalist, wrote detective tales starring Martin Hewitt also published some tales of the supernatural in Cunning Murrrell (1900), and his more famous works, A Child of the Jago (1896), To London Town (1899), and Hole in the Wall (1902).

A street

This street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous in its way as any the hand of man has made. But who knows the East End? It is down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump, one will say: a shocking place, where he once went with a curate; an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair. The East End is a place, says another, which is given over to the Unemployed. And the Unemployed is a race who token is a clay pipe, and whose enemy is soap: now and again it migrates bodily to Hyde Park with banners, and furnishes adjacent police courts with disorderly drunks. Still another knows the East End only as the place whence begging letters come; there are coal and blanket funds there, all perennially insolvent, and everybody always wants a day in the country (19).

Of this street there are about one hundred and fifty yards–on the same pattern all. It is not pretty to look at. A dingy little brick house house twenty feet high, with three square holes to carry the windows, and an oblong hole to carry the door, is not a pleasing object; and each side of this street is formed by two or three score of such houses in a row, with one front wall in common. And the effect is as of stables (20).

There follows a categorisation of who lives on such a street, not noisy, loud troublemakers marching to Hyde Park or factory girls living a little further out of the city, instead on this street are the people too proud to ask for charity, the men work in the docks or the gasworks, maybe the shipbuilding yards. Two families live in each house, possibly a lodger.

In a time before clocks and alarms for the common man, there is this (reminds me of EP Thompson writing about clocks and time):

Every morning at half-past five there is a curious demonstration. The street resounds with thunderous knockings, repeated on door after door, and acknowledged ever by a muffled shout from within. These signals are the work of the night-watchman or the early policeman or both… (21)

And then a description of the mayhem, the waves of male workers, school children, children carrying their fathers lunches down to the docks or gasworks, their return, the return of the men. Every day except Sunday.

Nobody laughs here–life is too serious a thing; nobody sings. There was once a woman who sang–a young wife from the country. But she bore children and her voice cracked. Then her man died, and she sang no more. (24)

And this:

Yet there are aspirations. There has lately come into the street a young man lodger who belongs to a Mutual Improvement Society. Membership in this society is regarded as a sort of learned degree, and at its meetings debates are held and papers smugly read by lamentably self-satisfied young men lodgers, whose only preparation for debating and writing is a fathomless ignorance. For ignorance is the inevitable portion of dwellers here: seeing nothing, reading nothing, and considering nothing.

Where in the East End lies this street? Everywhere. The hundred and fifty yards is only a link in a long and a mightily tangled chain–is only a turn in a tortuous maze. This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long. That it is planned in short lengths is true, but there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sordid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight. (28)

From this street all of the stories grow, as much as anything can grow in the environment so described. Everything stunted, petty, brutal mean. For many there is some compassion from the author — distinctly in contrast with lack of compassion and the hatred of anyone getting above themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood, which often hastens their brutal end.

The exception is the fallen woman — there are these terrible descriptions from a story of a streetcar to Bow Bridge (otherwise a fascinating little glimpse into early public transportation):

In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman’s children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two. (62)

This is also noteworthy for use of one of my favourite words ‘stramash’, meaning fight. I always thought it was scottish, but perhaps was once as common down South?

‘The Red Cow Group’ describes an eager young anarchist (I am fairly certain police provocateur along the lines of The Secret Agent) willing to teach men how to make bombs and tell them where to put them but loathe to do anything himself —  he is demolished in the most satisfying way by a group of working class boozers.

There are the Nappers, who come into a little wealth and of course it goes to their heads and inspires a discourse on fashion and the East End’s class geographies:

Mrs. Napper went that very evening to the Grove at Stratford to buy silk and satin, green, red, and yellow–cutting her neighbors dead, right and left. And by the next morning tradesmen had sent circulars and samples of goods. Mrs. Napper was for taking a proper position in society, and a house in a fashionable part–Barking Road, for instance, or even East India Road, Poplar; but Bill would none of such foolishness. He wasn’t proud, and Canning Town was quite good enough for him. This much, though, he conceded: that the family should take a whole house of five rooms in the next street, instead of the two rooms and a cellule upstairs now rented (131).

There are stories that show the desperation of the great Dock Strike of 1889, the promise of boxing as one way of escape, the mix of the criminal and the decent, the explosiveness of violence and the pervasiveness of poverty. I wonder what it was exactly that brought Morrison back to to write these stories.

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Limehouse Nights

Limehouse NightsThat I should find this so utterly vile surprised me, I’m not sure if the surprise came more for its intrinsic vileness or for my own reaction. As a lover of noir I’ve been trying to figure what separates this from the books I love because it is not its subjects or its violence, or the pulp aspect. It is partly the intensity of its racism; but at the same time I don’t believe writers should shrink from exposing that in all of its ugliness.

I realised it come down to the author’s stand. I realised what I love about noir is that the authors tend to write as though they share the same ground as their characters — and many of them do. They do not consider themselves above or below, but as capable of the evil as well as the vaguely heroic acts that may be committed in the face of shared cynicism. This makes glimpses of integrity brighter as the world grinds on and grinds down and they explore the dark places, but if there is any judgment it is hard earned on people’s actions, not skin colour or class position or an outdated set of morals.

This to me is noir at its best, the further a book departs from this, the less I like it. The constant treachery of women is, sadly, usually the biggest departure, but racism runs sexism a close second.

I wouldn’t call Limehouse Nights noir, it is a prurient telling of tales of exoticised others, an exercise in orientalism. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems clear, and they are there for our amusement even though it is written with a false jocularity that seemingly takes their side. It surprised me, published in 1916, that it should contain such open references to drug-use, rape, interracial sex, pimping, child kidnapping and rape. It physically sickened me that all of it should be so obviously written to titillate, the racial lines drawn only to make their transgression amongst the lowest and criminal classes more exciting. Soft violent porn for the white, middle-class lads at the expense of Limehouse’s population.

No wonder D.W. Griffiths of Birth of a Nation fame used a couple of these stories for his movie-making efforts (Broken Blossoms and Dream Streets).

I started reading it for its geography — misled terribly by the blurb which you can find at the end of this post — got through it a story at a time with distance in between, because I hate not finishing what I start and decided maybe I should try to understand a mentality that I won’t be coming back to.

It constantly refers to place, names streets like Pennyfields, Poplar High Street and Blackwall over and over again, it circles around the Blue Lantern Pub. Yet despite this attempt at ‘realism’, these places still remains the exoticised docks of  white imagination, and could be anywhere:

You know, perhaps, the East India Dock, which lies a little north of its big brother, the West India Dock: a place of savagely masculine character, evoking the brassy mood. By daytime a cold, nauseous light hangs about it; at night a devilish darkness settles upon it.

You know, perhaps, the fried-fish shops that punctuate every corner in the surrounding maze of streets, the “general” shops with their assorted rags, their broken iron, and their glum-faced basins of kitchen waste; and the lurid-seeming creatures that glide from nowhere into nothing–Arab, Lascar, Pacific Islander, Chinky, Hindoo, and so on, each carrying his own perfume. You know, too, the streets of plunging hoof and horn that cross and re-cross the waterways, the gaunt chimneys that stick their derisive tongues to the skies. You know the cobbly courts, the bestrewn alleys, through which at night gas-jets asthmatically splutter; and the mephitic glooms and silences of the dock-side. You know these things, and I need not attempt to illuminate them for you.
— The Father of Yoto

There are minds to which the repulsive–such as Poplar High Street–is supremely beautiful, and to whom anything frankly human is indelicate, if not ugly. You need, however, to be a futurist to discover ecstatic beauty in the torn wastes of tiles, the groupings of iron and stone, and the nightmare of chimney-stacks and gas-works.
–The Father of Yoto

For all that he names the streets, ultimately you have no sense of place, only the sex and violence that takes place there:

Hardly the place to which one would turn as to the city of his dreams; yet there are those who do. Hearts are broken by Blackwall Gardens. The pity and terror and wonder of first love burn in the blood and limbs of those who serve behind the counters of East India Dock Road or load up cargo boats at the landing-stages. Love-mad hands have buried knives in little white bosoms in Commercial Road, and songs are written by the moon across many a happy garret-window in Cable Street.
–The Cue

From Pennyfields he drifted over West India Dock Road, passed a house where a window seemed deliberately to wink at him, and so swung into that Causeway where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West.
–Beryl, the Croucher and the Rest of England

Ah yes — where the cold fatalism of the Orient meets the wistful dubiety of the West. The people living in these generic dock streets are as typecast, as empty, as much evoked in our imaginations entirely for our amusement — this passage refers to a fourteen year old dance hall girl uncomfortably sexualised to the hilt:

From him she had inherited a love of all raw and simple things, all that was odorous of the flesh. She hated country solitudes, and she loved Poplar and the lights and the noise of people. She loved it for its blatant life. She loved the streets, the glamour, the diamond dusks, the dirt and the perfume…Every street was a sharp-flavoured adventure, and at night each had a little untranslatable message for her. Everywhere she built romances. She was a mandarin’s daughter in Pennyfields. She was a sailor’s wife in the Isle of Dogs. In the West India Dock Road she was a South Sea princess, decked with barbaric jewels and very terrible knives. She did not like western London: it wasn’t homey. She loved only the common joys of the flesh and the common joys of the heart; and these she found in Poplar.
–Gina of the Chinatown

She dies in childbirth at fifteen.

Not only are streets and people cut off (and happily so) from the rest of the city, but from the country and from nature itself, an island of unnatural connections and natural desires:

Beyond London, amid the spray of meadow and orchard, bird and bee were making carnival, but here one still gambled and waited to find a boat. Limehouse has no seasons. It has not even the divisions of day and night. Boats must sail at all hours at the will of the tide, and their swarthy crews are ever about. It has no means of marking the pomp of the year’s procession. Lusty spring may rustle in the hedgerows; golden-tasselled summer may move on the meadows. In Limehouse there are only more seamen or less seamen. Summer is a spell of stickiness, and winter a time of fog.
–The Paw

Over and over again it licks its lips at the thought of white women with Chinese and Indians and Africans — but mostly the Chinese because this is Chinatown after all. They are loose women because this class knows no better. He mocks their drudgery — more annoying because he has actually bothered to find out what it might consist of and this is one of the only places he describes it to the extent to which it is possible for him:

Pansy was in trouble, and wanted money, of which he had none, for he was a destitute Oriental. Often they had gone about together, and in his way he had loved her. The girls of this quarter have a penchant for coloured boys, based, perhaps, on the attraction of repulsion.

Pansy lived in Pekin Street. About her window the wires wove a network, and the beat of waters, as they slapped about the wharves, was day and night in her ears. At evenings there came to her the wail of the Pennyfields Orient, or the hysterical chortlings of an organ with music-hall ditties. She worked at Bennett’s Cocoa Rooms in East India Dock Road; and life for her, as for most of her class, was just a dark house in a dark street. From the morning’s flush to the subtle evening, she stood at steaming urns, breathing an air limp with the smell of food, and serving unhealthy eatables to cabmen, draymen, and, occasionally, a yellow or black or brown sailor.

She was not pretty. The curse of labour was on her face, and she carried no delicacies wherewith to veil her maidenhood. From dawn to dusk, from spring to spring, she had trodden the golden hours in this routine, and knew, yet scarcely felt, the slow sucking of her ripening powers. Twenty-one she was; yet life had never sung to her. Toil, and again toil, was all she knew–toil on a weakened body, improperly fed; for your work-girl of the East seldom knows how to nourish herself. Pansy lived, for the most part, on tea and sweets.
–Tai Fu and Pansy Greers

This gives too, one of his explanations for miscegenation I think — girls that can get no one else can, by virtue of their skin colour, snare a foreign sailor.

Written always from a comfortable point of superiority, Burke manages to deride many a remarkable achievement — in this case stripping everything away but the fact of a woman who speaks four languages to a greater or lesser extent, I wonder just how much in reality this interracial intercultural exchange took place? But this is not Burke’s point, instead these passages give you a sense of the slime crawling across his pages:

Poppy was fair in the eyes of a Chinaman; she was an anaemic slip of a girl, with coarse skin and mean mouth, a frightened manner and a defiant glance. She had scarce any friends, for she was known to be a copper’s nark; thus came the fear in her step and the challenge in her eyes. Often she had blown the gaff on the secret games of Chinatown, for she spoke Cantonese and a little Swahili and some Hindustani, and could rustle it with the best of them; and it was her skill and shrewdness in directing the law to useful enterprises, such as the raiding of wicked houses, that caused her to be known in all local stations and courts as the Chinese Poppy.

She lived in the tactfully narrow Poplar High Street, that curls its nasty length from Limehouse to Blackwall, and directly opposite her cottage was the loathly lodging of Sway Lim–one room, black and smelly with dirt–next the home of the sailors of Japan.

She was a bad girl, mean and treacherous; everybody knew that; but she was young and very pale; so that Sway Lim, wet-lipped, would gloat upon her from his window.
— The Sign of the Lamp

Of everything — and apparently people have some appreciation of his craft — I really liked only one sentence, and you cannot separate it from the vileness that comes before (or after):

And suddenly, on a bright Sunday, he lost her for all. She went from him to a yellow man in Pennyfields, leaving a derisive note of final farewell. The brutality of the blow got him like a knife on a wound. Something fouled within him, and for an hour or so he was stupid–a mere flabby Thing in a cotton suit.
–The Paw

Nor can he claim ignorance for the casual insulting racism of his language:

“Here–steady on, Chinky!” she cried, using the name which she knew would sting him to the soul. She was disconcerted and inclined to be cross, while half laughing. “Don’t take liberties, my son. Specially with me. You’re only a yellow rat, y’know.”
–The Cue

Nor can he be forgiven for the terrible end of the boy described below — betrayed by his own failings — and Burke’s inability to find a trace of empathy for his characters:

Now while the Captain remained drunk in his cabin, he kept with him for company the miserable, half-starved Chinky boy whom he had brought aboard. And it would make others sick if the full dark tale were told here of what the master of the Peacock did to that boy.
–The Bird

Nor does this phrase make any sense in describing that bright fourteen year old music hall singer that everyone loved until you start to vaguely think through the conflation of race and class and gender within others out there to amuse ‘us’:

She was as distinctive as a nigger in a snowstorm…
–Gina of the Chinatown

There is one curious tale that is also used to bring the aristocratic socialist and female reformer down a notch or two. A collection of  sentences from this story ‘The Kinght-Errant’:

Wherefore it was stupid, stupid, with that ostrich-like stupidity that distinguishes the descendants of noble families who have intermarried with their kind; I say it was stupid for Lady Dorothy Grandolin to choose this, of all places, for her first excursion into slum-land, in order to gather material for her great work: Why I am a Socialist: a Confession of Faith; Together with some Proposals for Ameliorating the Condition of the Very Poor; with Copious Appendices by the Fabian Society. Far better might she have fared in the Dials; in Lambeth; even in Hoxton. But no; it must be Limehouse–and at night. Really, one feels that she deserved all she got.

However, she was determined to do a book on the Very Poor; nothing would stop her. Her little soul blazed in a riot of fine fire for the cause. Yesterday, it was Auction; the day before it was Settlements; to-day, the Very Poor. And in papa’s drawing-room there was no doubt that the Very Poor was a toy to be played with very prettily; for it is the one success of these people that they can do things with an air.

For he was Ho Ling, fat and steamy; and he sidled to her out of the mist, threatening and shrinking, with that queer mixture of self-conceit and self-contempt which is the Chinese character…She had heard that the Chinese quarter offered splendid material for studies in squalor, as well as an atmosphere of the awful and romantic. Her first glances did not encourage her in this idea; for these streets and people are only awful and romantic to those who have awful and romantic minds. Lady Dorothy hadn’t. She had only awful manners.

She is robbed of her watch and a kiss by a pair of dim thieving brothers, one of whom falls in love with her and helps her escape by calling the cops on the other.

As this is a voyeuristic view of Chinatown, drugs are always part of the backdrop. This is from back in the day when cocaine was used medically — here poor little Gina is dying, and you couldn’t ask for a more cloying end:

“Mumdear… ask them for some more of that cocaine… cos… it… it hurts… so.”
–Gina of the Chinatown

It is opium that is used for pleasure, and Burke is clearly describing something he has seen (you are not sure about any of the rest):

Presently Lois swung herself from the lounge and began to “cook” for her boy. On a small table she spread the lay-out; lit the lamp; dug out the treacly hop from the toey and held it against the flame. It bubbled furiously, and the air was charged with a loathsome sweetness. Then, holding the bamboo pipe in one hand, she scraped the bowl with a yen-shi-gow, and kneaded the brown clot with the yen-hok. Slowly it changed colour as the poison gases escaped. Then she broke a piece in her finger, and dropped it into the bowl, and handed the stem to Batty. He puffed languorously, and thick blue smoke rolled from him.
–The Gorilla and the Girl

In this story she cooks it up in the Blue Lantern Pub for her boyfriend while her father looks on.

I’ll end with a passage that collects all of the ‘characters’ from these stories into the Blue Lantern:

All those who were well seen in Limehouse and Poplar were here, and the informed observer could recognise many memorable faces. Chuck Lightfoot and Battling Burrows were engaged in a comparatively peaceable game of fan-tan with Sway Lim and Quong Tart; at any rate the noise they were making could not have been heard beyond Custom House. Tai Ling and his Marigold were there, very merry, and Pansy Greers, with an escort from the Pool, attracted much attention in a dress which finished where it ought to have begun. Ding-Dong was there: Perce Sleep; Paris Pete; Polly the Pug; Jenny Jackson’s Provence Boys, so called because they frequented that café; the Chatwood Kid, from whom no safe could withhold its secrets; and, in fact, all the golden boys and naughty girls of the district were snatching their moment of solace. Old Foo Ah lolloped on a chair, slumbering in the heavy content of a kangaroo. That masculine lady, Tidal Basin Sal, sprawled on a shabby private-bar lounge with a little girl, whom she would alternately kiss and slap proprietorially. A nigger from the Polynesians made himself a nuisance to the air and the company; and on a table at the extreme end stood little Gina of the Chinatown, slightly drunk, and with clothing disarranged, singing that most thrilling and provocative of rag-times:

“You’re here and I’m here, So what do we care?”
–The Gorilla and the Girl

I believe that shall be the end of my forays into this kind of ‘literature’. But before I end, this is the blurb found on goodreads:

One of the most frankly and brutally realistic books that has appeared in our tongue in a long time. But Burke has cast a glamour over his pages that prevents his stories from being merely studies in the sordid and the morbid. Somehow he makes you feel that he has viewed life with pity and tenderness and loving comprehension.
— Bookman.

One of the worst blurbs I’ve read really, as though naming some streets were realism, or patting someone on the head for their appetites and watching with barely-if-at-all-repressed excitement at their descent into sexualised violence and death were tenderness and compassion.

thomas-burke-1-sizedAnd who was Thomas Burke? Someone cared enough to change wikipedia to reflect his complexities and his own falsified autobiographies, citing an article I shall have to go find (Witchard, Anne. “Thomas Burke, the ‘Laureate of Limehouse,”):

These romanticised tales of Burke’s early life were often accepted by the literary critics of the day and went largely unchallenged by his contemporaries. Although Burke’s later writing, including the book Son of London more accurately describes his youth in the suburbs, the majority of his autobiographies attest to his supposedly intimate knowledge of lower-class life.[15] These fabricated autobiographies enabled Burke to establish his authority as an expert on the Chinese in London, allowing him to create a persona that he used to market his fictional works on Limehouse. As Witchard notes, Burke, through his writing, positioned himself as a “seer” in an “occult process” of representing London’s sub-cultural ‘Others.’

I am rather fascinated at this mythological remaking of self and author, this forging of credentials. It is almost enough to make me want to read Son of London but life is short, and there are plenty of authors who have something worthwhile to say.

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Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:

Poplar

The view to the south:

Poplar

It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.

Poplar

Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).

Poplar

But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:

Poplar

I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.

Poplar

It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:

Poplar

Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.

Poplar

In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.

Poplar

I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:

Poplar

Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.

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Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.

Poplar

Their estates that are being decanted.

Poplar

Their churches and community centres:

Poplar

I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:

Poplar

Soon there will be daffodils.

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Arriving in Poplar

I’m slowly getting to know Poplar. I love the fact that Tower Hamlets captures in its name the way it is a burrough of small villages, but even so it surprises you just how different each one feels. This despite the fact that they now run together, with no separation in the urban fabric, unless you perhaps count the enormous roads that break up the east end cruelly with snarling lines of traffic. Planners always put roads, interchanges, major arteries right down through the poorer neighbourhoods and here you can only imagine what used to be when you come across the small pockets of emptiness dead-ending into these thoroughfares.

But back to Poplar…exiting the DLR you can see The City in the distance, the original centre of banking might:

Poplar

But its new cluster at Canary Wharf looms high above you to your left

Poplar

Part of me responds to this landscape — my love of trains and altitude and contrasts between new buildings and old are all at work here. But it is only this little section that I find appealing, the rest is an uninspired towering of metal and glass with no distinction. I was once, after a long day spent on coaches and trains that were all severely delayed, trapped in Canary Wharf in the rain. If you don’t know it, it is almost impossible to escape on foot, and one of the most alienating landscapes I could imagine. But I will look at that later.

Poplar

I failed to take a picture of the community centre and football fields — only later in the day did I learn how hard the community had to fight to get them and keep them. There is a long passage bringing you to Poplar High Street, full of the young students from Tower Hamlets College. I really like this high street:

Poplar

But the church — St Matthias Old Church, was an even more wonderful surprise. You can see its spire from all of Poplar, walking down the high street you come to a turn off that carries you to the church itself, removes you from the city

Poplar

It is beautiful here, you enter this green space and automatically take a great breath, relax your shoulders, smile:
Poplar

Poplar

Looking up the church itself I found its lovely website with a long and detailed history, just an excerpt:

St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.

Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.

Poplar

I love old churchyards, and it is nice that this one retains its gravestones where they lie. I found the one above curious, because it is all women, a grandmother and two little girls and no clear relationship between the first two and the last. There is a story here, of women’s lives in the mid 1800s, but no other hints.

More of the church, I may hate the East India Company, but I love what they have built:

Poplar

Poplar

Turning away from the church, however, you understand the psychological impact of Canary Wharf as it stares down at Poplar, inescapable in its looming over a landscape both more human and more natural.

Poplar

I was more than happy to find that this was actually my destination, the church now known as St Matthias Community Centre, to talk to Sister Christine Frost who is even more of a treasure to Poplar than this place. She is part of South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and knows everything there is to know, I think, about Poplar and the challenges it is facing.

Leaving St Matthias after a lovely discussion of struggle and future possibilities I went for a bit of a wander — after reading Ann Stafford’s book on the dock strike I wanted to find Shirbutt Street where Will Crooks was born. It was just around the corner, the new estate bearing his name sitting right on Poplar High Street:

Poplar

Community garden plots fill much of the space around the estate’s edges, I cannot tell you how happy they made me…

Poplar

On Will Crooks, a pivotal figure in the docker’s strike of 1889, and his talks at the gates of the East India Company:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Poplar

Poplar

Hale street remembers another key radical figure from Poplar, George Lansbury:

Poplar

More about him in later posts, but I love this mural.

Poplar

And a little further down you get a full sense of St Matthias and the open space here — and did I mention the public bowling green on the corner? I don’t think I did, but it made me happy too.

Poplar

It’s a good comparison to this, the oldest drawing of the church

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I continued down to East India Dock Road

Poplar

To find the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest, another place I had heard a great deal about:

Poplar

It’s history:

QVSR started life as the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843. Known originally as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission, the aim was to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and morale welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London.

Over time a need arose for a meeting place of some kind in the new sailor town that had sprung up at Poplar. Right opposite the ‘seamen’s entrance’ of the local Board of Trade Office on the East India Dock Road in Jeremiah Street stood a small public house called The Magnet. In 1887, the license of The Magnet was withdrawn, providing the Mission an opportunity to rent the public house and it was transformed into a Seamen’s Rest.

What it once looked like:

And what it looks like now, expanded far beyond it’s humble beginnings though I am so glad they’ve kept the original lovely facade:

Poplar

Continuing West you come to the Manor Arms:

Poplar

I am almost certain that this was mentioned as one of the pubs where striking dockers were able to get breakfast, the Irish woman who owned it supporting the strike.

I turned left here, with only time for a quick circle. Again you feel Canary Wharf looking over you, on the right is a Catholic school dwarfed by corporate wealth (they have managed to make even the Catholic church look small).

Poplar

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