1 April 2012

The Gentle Author: Spitalfields Life: In the Midst of Life I Woke to Find Myself Living in an Old House beside Brick Lane in the East End of London (2012)

In a blog post below I briefly mentioned the recent publication of The Gentle Author's book Spitalfields Life, but I've now had time to read a great number of its many features, and can say that this is a whopping Christmas cake of a book that deals with an area largely left out of the guide books to London. This isn't a guide book as such, but a celebration of the diversity of the Spitalfields community which covers many different aspects of life there. Mercifully, Jack the Ripper is left to the tourists to find out about elsewhere, but then that's in Whitechapel, and anyway this is a very long way from the done-to-death conventional features of guide books – almost all of this is new material culled from people living in Spitalfields, and is about those people.

And The Gentle Author doesn't adhere strictly to geographical boundaries, as his (or her) Spitalfields includes parts of Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, the City, Shoreditch, and I was also pleased to learn of the grave of William Shakespeare's brother Edmund in Southwark Cathedral.*

These are some of the articles I really enjoyed in the book:

– Brazilian Robson Cezar, who collects bottle tops from local pubs to make artistic creations with, a very notable one being the fascia of the Bell pub on the corner of Middlesex Street and New Goulston Street.

– 16-year-old rapper Yasin Ahmed, also known as King Sour DA MC.

– Sandra Esqulant, landlady of the Golden Heart on Commercial Street, who was caught one night hoolahooping in the road and captured by (sometimes candid) photographer Phil Maxwell.

– Carrom Paul, who is introducing many people to the joys of the board game carrom.

– Belgian artist Roa, who has huge paintings on street walls, such as a squirrel at the corner of Club Row and Redchurch Street, and a crane on the corner of Hanbury Street and Brick Lane. A link to a number of his animal paintings elsewhere: ROA, l'homme et l'animal.

– The delightful Mr Pussy, The Gentle Author's cat.

– Stanley Rondeau, a volunteer at Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, who has traced his Huguenot family tree and written a booklet about it.

– London's Next Top Tranny contest, consisting of drag performances held at Bethnal Green Men's Social Club. (Interesting to learn that Hessel Street is named after Phoebe Hessel, who dressed as a man in order to join the army and be with her partner.)

– Aldgate pump on the corner of Fenchurch Street and Leadenham Street, which once caused hundreds of deaths through people drinking water polluted by human remains in cemeteries. The Gentle Author notes that Dickens gave a passing mention to it in The Uncommercial Traveller.

– The lovingly kept and still-functioning 1899 toilets under John Wesley's Chapel on City Road.

– Paper bag seller Paul Gardner, whose family has had a business in the same building since 1870. The Gentle Author claims you can't say you've been to Spitalfields without shaking his hand.

– Dennis Severs' House at 18 Folgate Street. The American Severs moved in here in 1979 and created a time capsule in each of the ten rooms, which have been furnished in styles of the 18th and 19th centuries, complete with smells. This is now a museum.

I think my only criticism is that there's not an Index – there are a few pages entitled 'Index', but in reality this merely amounts to another Table of Contents, this time divided into subject areas as in The Gentle Author's 'Spitalfields Life' blog.

The attractiveness of the book is enhanced by the illustrations of Mark Hearld, Lucinda Rogers, and Rob Ryan. Included at the back are two suggested routes for tours around Spitalfields.

*The Gentle Author's latest blog post (1 April) is about Charles Dickens in Shadwell and Limehouse.


'Spitalfields Life' blog.

66,000 Miles Per Hour: The Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life.

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