I read Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane with interest, not least because it’s a book about my neighbourhood. I don’t live on Brick Lane obviously – this book is set nine years before I moved to London and by the time I got to the East End, Brick Lane was already arty enough as to be too expensive for me. But I live in the surrounding area, which itself has changed a huge amount over the last decade that I’ve been here – particularly in the years since Crossrail was announced.
I remember (this couldn’t have been much more than a few years ago, I don’t think) when Whitechapel market, a stronghold for fruit and veg, meat and fish, household sundries, pashminas and cheap jewellery and makeup, saw its first coffee stall open. Urban Café, it was called, and me and Mr Literary Kitty laughed when we saw it. Then came a Costa on a high street which has never had anything brand name since we’ve been there, except for a JD Sports and a Budgens, which is run by an insanely hardworking 24-hour staff and sells hot samosas at 4am, and is open even on Christmas Day. Someone was stabbed in there one year around the festive period – but that was extremely unusual. This is an overwhelmingly safe area, especially given the poverty (with 44-66% of people living in income poverty depending on which side of the area you’re in).
I can imagine it was grimmer in 1999. I know some people still consider it a bit grim now. I’ve never much considered West London – I know it’s expensive and apparently prettier, but I recently started working in Fulham and, coming home at the end of the day it makes me realise how different the East really is. It’s full of high rise blocks, the streets are floating with carrier bags and empty, greasy chicken boxes (for every school in Tower Hamlets there are 42 fast food outlets), the market stinks of fish-water and it’s crammed tight with people. That much hasn’t changed since Tarquin Hall lived in the vicinity. It’s still full of Sylheti Bangladeshis (Bangladeshis are the largest ethnic group in the area at 38%), street signs are still in Bengali, and people still live packed into council flats with not enough bedrooms. I’ve moved around a lot since I’ve lived in the area and consequently viewed a lot of properties, including plenty where there are four generations of a family living there and every square foot seems filled with humans.
In the block I live in now, the flats are max of three bedrooms, but when I come down the stairs and see my neighbour’s front door is open, I can see in the bathroom at least ten used toothbrushes crammed into the mug on the sink. My neighbours work incredibly hard – you can nip down to the cornershop at midnight on a Sunday and it still might be open. You can buy an amazing array of food, spices, exotic vegetables, all parts of the animal you could ever want, and huge, HUGE pots and pans to cook all that in, for reasonable prices.
People are pleasant, friendly and relaxed and not nosy. I know my little old lady Jewish neighbours and the young Asian families well enough to exchange pleasantries in the lift or in the hallways. We smile and wave and talk about that inevitable British thing, the weather. There are always gangs of boys and men loitering around at night – the result, in some cases, of having too many people crammed into a small space at home, I suppose – but though I’ve had a few minor unpleasant incidents over the years I’ve walked the streets here at night, these have been rare, and nothing horrible has ever happened to me.
Sometimes, people’s politeness is surprising, when you consider what an unfriendly place London is supposed to be. A group of hooded teens crowded round the entrance to the flats stand smoking a spliff, only to open the door for you as you pass – an unusual kind of neighbourhood concierge. It’s nice and I didn’t want to hear Tarquin Hall say bad things about it. And he didn’t really. Or at least he gave a balance. He got to know his neighbours, despite his initial misgivings that the place was a shithole. There’s the irrepressible, friendly slum landlord Mr Ali, who against his brow-beating wife’s wishes supports his teenage daughter studying at Cambridge. There’s the feisty old Sadie Cohen who hates ‘poofters’, loves her cat, the sticky-eyed Mr Beigleter, and carries a sad secret beneath her tough-as-leather exterior. There are the proud, hard-working Albanian refugees and their Afghan friend who solve the problem of Christmas dinner by nonchalantly killing a Canada goose in Victoria Park and bringing it home, and unassuming Cockney wheeler-dealer Chalky. There’s library enthusiast Naziz with his emotionally abusive father and a treasure he keeps hidden under the floorboards for the day he and his mother make their escape. And there are more.
Salaam Brick Lane is a colourful collection of life stories that intersect with Hall’s during his year in Brick Lane and it’s a rich tapestry, especially interesting if you’re familiar with the general area, as there’s quite a bit of local history woven in there too. It’s interesting that the hipster influx was already beginning in 1999 and it’s interesting, too, that Whitechapel at least has hung on so long to being Banglatown. It’s still very much recognisable from Hall’s book, although I wouldn’t have called the area I moved into in 2008 dangerous by any stretch.
After his year there, Hall is keen to leave, even if he never actually makes if further than Dalston. I have no such plans, I love it here, but I suppose ten years is a long time in the East End. Maybe it’s more different now than it seemed to me when reading this book. When I look back, it’s changed quite a lot in the time even I’ve lived here. With the Costa came an independent coffee shop with black wood frontage and a chalkboard with cheeky slogans that change daily. It sells expensive juices and eye-wateringly expensive cakes. At the moment it’s still nestled in with the Indian sweet shops and pound shops but it won’t always be.
Next to the mission where the morning drinkers congregate there’s now a Coffee Republic (just on the other side of the road from the other two coffee shops in case you’re too desperate for caffeine to cross the road). Towards Aldgate next to the halfway house the gleaming skyscrapers full of multi-million-pound flats, which languished so long as dusty building sites, are filling up with a new and different kind of tenant. The cosy, run-down pubs where you could still get a £2.99 pint and buy meat and socks from a man coming round the tables close and close. Then, six months later, they’re back with loud music and funky lighting and everything costs three times as much and you can’t get a seat. (I know, I know how I sound.)
Now the Crossrail’s coming to ferry people in and out of Whitechapel, big chains will muscle in. Rents are edging up and up. I wasn’t born round here so am I part of the problem? I’m under no illusions that some people will think so. But I know I want the market and the pound shops and the cheap beer and I’m not interested in paying the best part of a fiver for a slice of cake. I won’t be forced to move out as the prices go up but I don’t want to lose my neighbours either. “But it’s progress!” some people say. “Living standards are going up.” But they’re not, are they? My neighbours, most of them, who rent, aren’t getting rich, they’re being forced out to make way for people who are already rich. They don’t want fish-water or stalls selling £1 lipstick and dresses for a tenner and that for me is part of the problem. Moving somewhere is one thing, changing the place beyond all recognition is another. When Tarquin Hall moved in, the Sylhetis were the latest in a long line of immigrant communities who’d moved into the East End, when the previous occupants seemingly moved on up and out, but it seems like this time it’s just going to be out, much, much further out. To conclude this rant, in which I’ve admittedly not told you much about Tarquin Hall’s book, I just want to say that if you ask me, the place was fine the way it was. I’m not saying it’s great that people are poor, just that poor people shouldn’t get forced out of an area just so richer people feel comfortable living there, and if red-trousered hipsters and suited professionals want to live here, why can’t they just enjoy it for what it is? Yes, it’s slightly worn, slightly grubby, but it’s also fun and charming and full of life. Fulham already exists, and if you can’t afford to live there, tough shit, but we don’t need another one in the East End.