Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Catching up...

It has been a long time, has it not?

Looking back at this rather short blog and seeing the nice comments, I realised it was time to get back to it. A lot has happened in Ripperland since 2008 - the construction of 100 Middlesex Street, the demolition of old buildings around Aldgate East Tube (to make way for something that hasn't appeared yet), new traffic systems and of course the new Overground line.

The latter has greatly changed the area around Allen Gardens, most notably Pedley Street. For those who aren't au fais with this rather obscure part of E1, it is home to the wonderfully evocative railway arch that leads, via some rather grubby stairs, to Cheshire Street. The arch used to be one of many, but it was the only one pedestrians could walk through; now it stands alone, but its most prominent characteristic - menacing atmosphere - still survives.

It's a very foreboding place, particularly after dark. One evening last year, I went at night to find that the one light available wasn't working. It was pitch black. On this occasion I was not alone, but safety in numbers is a concept I embrace when visiting this place in the dark hours. One would imagine that it is the regular haunt of nere-do-wells, but I have to say there never seems to be anybody around. Perhaps the drug dealers are too scared too?
I often take people here, especially those interested in photography. Often, they wonder "why the interest?" but in spite if their initial lack of enthusiasm, they always go home with some great photographs.

The bridge over the railway has been used in photoshoots for such writers as Iain Sinclair and Emmanuel Litvinoff, and the stairs appeared in 'Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'. In fact the arch area has been a location shoot for many movies, usually of the brit-gangster genre. 'Gangster No.1' is another film which used the desolate atmosphere of this place to good effect.

The area around the arch is almost unrecognisable from 3 years ago, as the new Overground cuts right through it, creating even more secluded walkways. One feels that the entire district is cut off from the nearby bustle of Brick Lane - even during the day, the area feels isolated.

Any psychogeographers out there?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Time to plug my book...

And as we were talking about people who've written books about the East End, here's mine!
'E1 - A Journey Through Whitechapel and Spitalfields' is due for publication by Five Leaves in November. It's A4 format, full of photographs and already on Amazon and the like. I've tried a different tack in exploring the East End here - the book almost takes on the form of a continuous walk through the area, but as well as the obvious stuff such as the Salvation Army, Immigration, Jack the Ripper, Bell Foundry etc, I've also taken a peek into the less well-known aspects.
I am rather excited about this as it has been an ongoing thing for many years. I basically started it in 1991 on an old typewriter and then had lots of distractions such as real life, blah blah. But when I returned to it in 2006, it soon became an entirely different animal - some of it was out of date for a start, bits had to be chopped out and new stuff put in. I was pleased to get opinions and comments from a number of people who know or live in the area and the whole package is now up to date. That said, the East End changes rapidly, so who knows, if it does OK a revised edition may be necessary!
Anyway, just so you know, it does mention the Kray Twins and as they would say, "buy E1... or we'll send the boys round".

Talk at the Museum in Docklands

Well I said I'd have to say something about the talk involving Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein and Bill Fishman, so here it comes.

This was the second event I had been to at the Jack the Ripper exhibition and the second one to feature a trio of awe-inspiring speakers. The first was a Ripper-based talk featuring Stewart P Evans, Robin Odell and Paul Begg, a veritable holy trinity of Ripperologists. Evans is outspoken as ever, Begg's presentations are laced with his dry wit and Odell is quite simply a gentleman of the old school. It was nice to spend time with them in the pub afterwards, although when you're in the company of Messrs Evans and Begg, a relative newbie like me is quite happy to let them chat away.

The 'Jewish East End' talk (June 22nd) was also a cracker. Presided over by Jerry White, the speakers gave their own individual perspectives on the history, events and development of the East End. If you can boil it down to basics, it goes something like this:

Bill Fishman provides an academic and political angle, particularly when it comes to Jewish issues, but in no way is he dry. A fascinating storyteller, he described the Battle of Cable Street and made it come alive in the lecture theatre. After all, he was there and there probably aren't that many people alive today who remember it.

Rachel Lichtenstein seems to focus on the human story - her talk spoke of her quest for her roots, her involvement with Rodinsky's Room and she mentioned some of the colourful characters that still inhabit the area around Brick Lane. She has a talent for seeking out the real people of the East End (not the tourists) and getting them to open up.

Iain Sinclair was the only speaker to touch on the Whitechapel Murders, essential as it is to some of his works. Sinclair has gained a reputation as an exponent of psychogeography, in that he actively seeks out the hidden, mythical and coincidental in London's streets.

As somebody whose interest in the East End often overtakes his Ripper studies, this talk to me was heaven - once again, a holy trinity. And lest we forget Jerry White, whose own experiences of the crumbling tenements of Spitalfields pushed him into capturing the accounts of those who lived in them.

This was a rare opportunity to simultaneously witness 3, or should I say 4, legends in the field of 'East End-ology' (for want of a better word) in action. If you have any interest in this subject too, I'd recommend any (or all) of these books by them:

The Streets of East London (Bill Fishman)

East End 1888 (Bill Fishman)

Whitechappell:Scarlet Tracings (Iain Sinclair)

Rodinsky's Room (Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein)

On Brick Lane (Rachel Lichtenstein)

Rothschild Buildings (Jerry White)

I was dead chuffed as I managed to get several of my books signed by all three authors. It was a fine day indeed.

Friday, 30 May 2008

4 Princelet Street

I was recently fortunate enough to secure a bijou tour of No.4 Princelet Street, which many (after seeing the above photograph) may be aware of. It is truly a fascinating environment and its owner, Robert Shackleton, was a fascinating guy to talk to.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the house, you may well have seen it on TV. Only last week, it appeared on the talent show 'I'll Do Anything' when the contestants trying for the part of Nancy in a new version of Oliver! spent a night there. It was also part of a massive wind-up on a Friday Night show with David Tennant. Funnily enough, this entertaining piece was filmed the night before my arrival.

When I got there, Robert could only give me 30 minutes of his time as he was about to have a meeting and there was a guy from the BBC taking measurements. It is a successful media concern, hosting TV and movie filming as well as fashion shoots. It is an incredibly atmospheric place and I don't believe there is a single perpendicular angle in the entire house. It is all warped and creaking, void of furniture, save for the odd table and scruffy sofa - however, once the TV crews get there, anything extant is swiftly put into storage so that props can be added. It is in effect a blank canvas.

It was built in the early 1700's and is where the brewer Ben Truman was born. When Robert bought it in 1987 (with a business partner), it had been owned by two Jewish brothers since the 1930s and they had only lived in two rooms. It was pretty let go and apart from complete rewiring, the house has not been restored like other properties nearby.

Robert was very candid about his feelings on the area and how it had changed since the 1980s. It has always had an edge, he declared, but now that edge is derived from City slickers and clubbers pissing up against the doors on a friday night. The clubs and the drugs. He doesn't actually live there these days, but he had fond memories of some of the old Jewish characters that had survived in the area, including Mr Katz on Brick Lane, the old man who sold string and who only stopped operating in the 1990s. Rachel Lichtenstein's book 'On Brick Lane' has fascinating recollections of Mr Katz (she knew him after all).*

4 Princelet Street appears in BBC period dramas such as Bleak House and was even featured in Basic Instinct 2 (Ooh er). It is truly a fascinating house and I was so grateful to Mr Shackleton for giving up his time.

*The Museum in Docklands exhibition 'Jack the Ripper and the East End' features a talk on June 22nd with Lichtenstein, Iain Sinclair and Bill Fishman. I'll have to say something about that!

Friday, 18 January 2008

Safety first?

So, how safe is Ripperland?

Many people, usually those who have little experience of the area, will tell you that it is littered with hazards, from drug-dealing gangstas, predatory prostitutes and homeless mental patients. After 26 years of roaming the area both night and day, I can honestly say that all these hazards are indeed present - but more often than not, you wouldn't notice (at least I don't and even when I do, it doesn't bother me).

Some say the riskiest area is the Flower and Dean Estate which sits between Commercial Street and Brick Lane. Ripper tours tend to get a ribbing from the local youths around here and indeed one guide was beaten up a few years ago. More about the Flower and Dean Estate can be found on the original Ripperland blog

But is it as bad as they say? Personally, I don't think so. I have walked through it numerous times and was even reckless enough to do so with a camcorder only last week. Because of the change in the population around here in the last 10 years or so, the ever-present threat of being roughed up or harrassed has diminished. White middle-class media trendies and earnest proffessionals who live in restored Georgian houses do not tend to roam the streets of Whitechapel and Spitalfields brandishing bottles of Meths and dribbling over your shoulder in the hope that such endearing behaviour will encourage you to give them a cigarette. In fact, the homeless (and it is still a place of congregation for them) are altogether politer and certainly less threatening than their predecessors. This guy let me take a picture of him after I gave him a pound.

However, the following account happened to me and a friend after a pub crawl in Whitechapel Road in 1989:
The pubs are shut and we have a Kentucky Fried Chicken bargain box each. It has been a long evening and we are looking for somewhere secluded to tuck into our grub. Court Street (off the Whitechapel Road) seems suitably quiet and there are some market barrows to sit on. It is now midnight.
We sit chatting and eating, though it is becoming obvious that this tiny thoroughfare is maybe too secluded and that brings with it a creeping sense of unease. That feeling of apprehension is soon borne out when we are suddenly aware of movement from beneath on of the barrows parked in a yard nearby. Two figures uncoil themselves like HR GIger’s Alien, stand and walk unsteadily toward us. It is a man and a woman and in the dim light of the street lamps we can see their haggard, line-etched faces. Their physical condition makes it hard to tell how old they are, but they are incredibly drunk and look to all intents and purposes like chronic alcoholics.They see we are eating and ask us if they can have a bit of food. They are smiling, not aggressive in any way, but I am slowly becoming convinced that they are on drugs, big drugs, as well as being completely and utterly smashed. Before either of us can answer, I have unwittingly lost a piece of chicken which the woman is now slavering over. My friend voluntarily offers the man a piece of his, just to make sure there is no trouble. All the time they are talking to us, but we cannot really understand what they are saying, what with the booze, drugs and mouthfuls of food. We stick it out for as long as is bearable, which in fact is no time at all and after giving them what is left of our boxes of food, slowly walk off. They seem to be thanking us, beckoning us back, but we’re having none of it. Once back on the main road we head west and keep going until we get to the Strand

Prostitutes can still sometimes be seen plying their trade along Commercial Street at night, sometimes around the entrance to Lolesworth Close (once Flower & Dean Street), doing pretty much as their predecessors did during that autumn of terror in 1888, only with less horrific outcomes. Many of the pubs have lost their 'locals only' appeal and are much more inviting - there was a time when I felt that many places were no go, as if the piano would stop playing when I walked in, or that I would be approached by some bloke who enquired menacingly "you're not from 'rand 'ere are ya, boy?" Much of that has changed now that the East End is becoming more cosmopolitan.

It is said that looking confident when walking about is the trick; if you look like a confused tourist you are going to be vulnerable - if you stroll about like you own the place (or at least as though you know where you are going) you are going to display less of the demeanour which invites undesirable attention. But this could be said for many places.

For all its up-and-comingness and muticulturalism, the East End still has pockets of dyed-in-the-wool roughness which refuse to be swamped by change. Cannon Street Road has a particularly grim block of flats on it where gangs regularly hang around the unsecured entrances as if guarding their patch.
I might be numbed to the potential dangers of the (East) London environment, but personally, I wouldn't like to have to pass through them on my way home every night.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

New year, new blog.

Hello all.

After a few disastrous attempts to restart the original Ripperland blog following a lengthy lay-off, I have decided to create the 'Son of Ripperland' after some very positive comments from those who like this sort of thing.

Anyway, it should be business as usual, so watch this space for the next instalment.

Hope you like it, said Mr B.