“Could you tell me where Spitalfields is?” a lady from Australia asked me in London’s East End the other day. “Ah, Spitalfields—a magic, mythical place,” I said. “Created by novelists and historians and architects and performance artists. Very hard to find.” (Actually, what I said was, “I’m not sure.”) Then we both noticed that we were staring at a street sign saying “Spital Street.” We could be forgiven for missing it: it was covered with graffiti.
It is hard to get across to a non-Londoner what time has done to the East End of Dickens and Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Docklands, of course, brashly built where cargoes were unloaded before containerization, is Yuppie City. The Isle of Dogs is home to a faltering neo-Nazi party, manned by thuggish boys stupefied by the changes around them; their great-grandfathers would have been Mayhew’s rat catchers or sewer cleaners. Hackney is almost gentrified, and Hoxton of unsavory memory is already awash with art galleries and coffee bars. Whitechapel, which more or less encircles Spitalfields, is a special case. Imagine, perhaps, the Bronx: bomb it a bit during the war, rebuild a bit in ugly blocks of social housing, neglect it a bit again, take in some 150,000 Bangladeshi immigrants, attract the interest of social historians in its fine seventeenth-century church and a handful of Georgian streets, bring an artists’ colony into its derelict storerooms, and finally, in the current crazy property boom, put tiny apartments on the market for å£200,000 each. And this is to leave out its most famous feature, the Jewish ghetto, which flourished until the 1950s.
It is still poor, and jumbled, and, even for London, horribly rubbish-strewn. It owes its special history to its being a magnet for successive waves of refugees who brought their poverty with them: Huguenot weavers fleeing persecution, Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, Bengalis fleeing grinding poverty in their home villages. The central synagogue is now a mosque. There is still, in Brick Lane, a beautiful little nineteenth-century Church of England school; on the wall of the Whitechapel art gallery there is a plaque in memory of Isaac Rosenberg, the poet killed in World War I; but the shopfronts are all Iqbal and Sayeed, and street signs are in English and Bengali. A thoroughly Cockney-looking pub turns out, on close inspection, to be supported by some kind of heritage fund—Muslims, I suppose, being non-drinkers.
Already by the time of World War II many of Whitechapel’s Jews had prospered and moved out into northern and eastern suburbs. Perhaps an author will come who can chronicle the Muslim “ghetto” as Israel Zangwill did the Jewish one in the nineteenth century. In spite of its squalor, it was, he wrote, “a world which hides beneath its stony and unlovely surface an inner world of dreams, fantastic and poetic as the mirage of the Orient where they were woven, of superstitions grotesque as the cathedrals …