Wednesday, June 20, 2012

East End holds London's heart

Published 20.06.2012
Dominion Post  - New Zealand
By Amy Ridout and Stacey Knott
For years, a visit to London involved milling around Trafalgar Square, clogging up The Mall in the vain hope of seeing The Queen and standing on Westminster Bridge, tipping your head back at Big Ben.
But this is 2012, billions - 11 billion at the last guess - of pounds have been pumped into London's biggest event in decades, and eyes are turning to London's east.
The key to discovering the East End's rich history is easy: you just need $20 - and a decent pair of shoes.
There are a great many historical tours you can join but a Ripper tour has to be one of the creepiest ways to spend an afternoon. And of the many Jack the Ripper tours in the East End, only one is conducted by the greatest warlock in Europe.
The colourful Dr John Russell Pope-de-Locksley from Original London Horror Tours (londonhorrortours.co.uk) tells us he is also a psychic who is proficient in 31 martial arts, related to Robin Hood, Dracula and possibly to one of the Ripper suspects. The exploits of The Ripper, who killed and dismembered at least five prostitutes, pale in comparison to those of de Locksley, who claims he spent his teen years working for gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray and has a psychic link to Jack himself via an old piece of crockery.
However, the short, affably bespectacled Ripperologist in his bright blue mac has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the man who terrorised the East End in the late 19th century.
"Everyone's fascinated by the Ripper," de Locksley says. "It's one of the greatest unsolved mysteries. The murders were the most gruesome London had ever seen and every grisly detail  the dismemberment and mutilation  was reported in the papers at length."
He points underneath a railway arch where crisp packets and old newspapers are mouldering in the gloom. "See over there? Frances Coles had her throat cut there on a Friday night in 1891," he smiles happily.
The tour takes in dank railway arches and grey car parks, and on a grey London evening it's possible to get a sense of the horror that gripped East London's residents who feared Jack could be lurking around any corner, waiting to slash and disembowel any woman caught alone after dark.
A few twists and turns away from poor Frances Coles' resting place takes you to the infinitely cheerier locale of Brick Lane, or Banglatown, as it's affectionately known by the Bangladeshi community. Upper Brick Lane is lined with curry houses, all in cutthroat competition; each restaurant endeavouring to wheedle tourists in with offers of "two for one", "best deals" or "bring your own".

Before the Bangladeshi community moved in, the area was populated with Ashkenazi Jews, whose legacy you can see in one of Brick Lane's most famous shops: Brick Lane Beigel Bake. Its famous salt-beef bagels are sold 24 hours a day, but it's difficult to find a moment when the counter isn't jam-packed with customers clamouring for bread crammed with hot beef.Unfortunately the promises rarely live up to the boasts and the best curry is to be found off the main drag, in no-frills places like Needoo's on New Rd and Lahore Kebab House on Umberston St.
This is one store that has staunchly resisted gentrification, its Jewish legacy sitting comfortably alongside the trendy bars, cafes and vintage clothing stores that compete for any disposable income left after the hordes of local students, artists and trendsetters have paid their rents.
To woo this clientele, bars and clubs take precedence, ranging from classy joints like Callooh Callay where, if you are homesick for New Zealand, you can get a fabulous 42 Below cocktail. At the other end of the spectrum there's The Old Blue Last which has live music and DJs almost every night, and is best for those under 30 wanting to give their liver a good bashing.
It's hard to find a blank wall in East London, unless it's just been painted, as street artists from all over the world come to this area to leave their mark. Join one of Alternative London's street art tours (alternativeldn.co.uk) where passionate and knowledgeable guides will take you around the weaving streets and point out the incredible variety of tags, murals, portraits and stencils that adorn otherwise dreary buildings.
Owner-operator Gary Means tells us the ever-changing works of art are crucial to the East. "Street art is a massive part of East London  it really is one of the world epicentres of one of the most important cultural movements of this century."
He describes East London as "a place of huge cultural diversity, colour and creative freedom".
It was this artistic culture that attracted Wellington artist Gemma Syme to East London. But she often finds herself overwhelmed. "There is so much going on all the time that you don't know what the best thing to go to would be, or if it's worth the effort of finding out where it is."
On a sunny Sunday it's difficult to find anywhere more colourful than Columbia Road Market. The narrow street is crammed with verbose vendors selling bright flowers and potted plants.
"All right guv'nor? Them orchids are six quid in the shops," a flat-capped stallholder booms at a startled tourist.
The market began in the 19th century and originally sold songbirds as well as local and exotic flora. The birds have long flown their coops but their memory lingers in the popular market pub, The Birdcage. The best time to go to the market is after 3pm, when prices drop rapidly as vendors try to shift their wares.
Every London borough has its own version of an outdoor market, where goods are sold at a fraction of the cost they would be in a store. If you're after clothing, it'll be off the back of a truck, often with the labels removed.
If it's fruit or vege you crave, grab a plastic bowl of whatever you want for a pound. Vendors are either fabulously grumpy or loudly jovial, ribbing their customers and raising their voices in competition with the other stalls.
If you're new to East London you might think it's a strange Cockney version of a yodel as men hawk vegetables with cries of "Pound a bowl! Pound a bowl! Five a day, 'aven't you 'eard?" until the words warp into an unrecognisable incantation.
With gentrification moving resolutely through its shabby streets and Olympics fervour illuminating its private corners, East London is changing fast. So next time you're in London, forget Big Ben: grab a salt-beef bagel, don your largest pair of sunglasses and join the stream of hipsters slouching up Brick Lane in search of the Next Big Thing.
- The Dominion Post