The ways in which the East End is not like an airport

I wrote this piece in 2014. Trying to find it online recently, I realised that the domain it was hosted on had expired — but was delighted to find it included in a leaflet about community regeneration in Wapping. Needless to say, I came back to the East End a few months after this was published.


I moved to the East End in August of one year and left it in August of the next. One turn of the seasons: catcalls in summer and snow glittering on our glass-topped garden wall in winter.

I left on a hot, wet day. I knew nothing of it at all.

Marc Auge coined the term ‘non-place’ in 1995. The non-place is a strange entity: it is the place outside of our everyday understanding of the term, a transitory, rootless location. Perhaps it is best to explain by example. Airports and train stations are both non-places — so are hypermarkets. Non-places are removed from their geographical specificity, formed in relation not to their location but to ‘certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure)’. They are engaged in ‘mediating a whole mass of relations […] only indirectly connected with their purposes’. In the non-place we find ourselves in motion towards goals: purchasing, arriving, relaxing (a commercial enterprise). Our relationship to these places is formed through signs, in both the structuralist and more everyday meanings of the term. We know which stop to get off the Tube because of the map. We move into the right customs queue by choosing the phrase which best describes our point of origin.

To walk down almost any street in Spitalfields is to encounter the opposite. If an airport is a non-place, the East End is a superplace. It has an excess of the qualities which non-places lack. It is a place which one is forced to occupy deeply and intently; we are more aware of our surroundings when we are in it. Yes, there are signs here — sometimes an excess of them. Many parts of the East End are commercially oriented, and there is no absence of advertisements. But one’s focus is inevitably elsewhere. Architecture in the East End draws the mind to matters of historical, not commercial, material. Today’s street signs are posted in English and Bengali, a state of polyglossia which we interpret more readily than the words. You can see, as better pens have noted, the points where the bombs dropped: rows of houses stop suddenly at abrupt angles to post-war roads. The campus at Queen Mary has a Jewish graveyard outside the Arts buildings. Near Brick Lane, the houses have small attic windows that were once looked out of by Huguenot weavers. The environment is arresting.

If there is something troubling about this transformation, the changing of the binary lieu and non-lieu to a scale of place-ness, then I only write simpatico with lived experience. Clearly, some places make themselves more keenly felt than others. We become less readily transitory when in them; our goals become less defined, or at the very least less textually mediated; we cannot psychically navigate them, use them, with ease. Quantitatively there are no more distractions in the East End of London than in an airport terminal, but something in its nature encourages engagement on its own terms. Even now, in the advanced stages of gentrification — the stages from which there is no return — that something exerts its grip.

It’s not surprising, then, that art created about and displayed in the East End is often art focused on such spatial qualities. The East End galleries (and there are lots of them) are where we go to see ourselves in the act of situating. We can’t help it, us artists and writers. The different ways of representing place each offer up a reflection, a reflection that shows both the brick-lined streets and, at the edge of the frame, at the back of the image: us. There we are, caught red-handed.

During my master’s degree I wrote an essay on James Joyce and the East End. It’s relatively common knowledge — or at least, it’s in both Richard Ellman and John Bowker’s biographies — that Joyce visited London with his father in 1900. As it happens, he went to the East End. He did, by all accounts, the usual London things: he went to dinner, he went to shows. Joyce was so taken, however, with the vivacity of this quotidian London that he wrote to his brother Stanislaus, informing him that ‘music hall, not poetry, is the criticism of life’. Sitting in my own Stepney room over a century later I began my research, waiting for the references to mount up. I was pleased to find a letter to Joyce’s relatives in the East End, held in the Cornell archives; the address on it, however, was cryptic. Where on the Mile End Road was ‘The Mount’? A reasonable quantity of digging revealed that Joyce had got the address wrong: The Mount was the site of a parade of shops, past the point where the Mile End Road changes to the Whitechapel. The houses that line that stretch were almost entirely Jewish, but the East Enders in Joyce’s novels aren’t. They’re stage Cockneys; the East End portrayed by reflecting its own exaggerated self-mimicry.

Music hall, not poetry, is the criticism of life.

It seems fairly evident to me that the East End doesn’t give a shit about its literature. That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t good literature written about the East End (trust me: I’ve read Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire close to a dozen times. Does it show?). Nor is it to say that there aren’t people there interested in such things. One early morning when I didn’t want to find a night bus I was driven home by a cab driver, a proper Bow-Bells Cockney, who talked about Jack London all the way from Islington. But the place itself doesn’t care: There are no plaques telling tourists that this is where all those literary opium dens used to sit. This is not Joyce’s Dublin or even Lawrence’s Nottinghamshire. Do people go to Brick Lane because of Monica Ali? I suspect few. If forced to name the writer most associated with the area odds-on most people will go with Dickens, and nobody wants to traipse around his East End co-ordinates: far too many musicals, far too much mawkish middle-class sentimentalism. You can’t do a walking tour of someone’s writing after the Muppets have made a film of it. If the visitor to London wants a walking tour, they go to Bloomsbury.


Nevertheless, walking is the preferred method of East End transport. One walks along the Whitechapel Road, past hookah pipes and an ice-cream bar, and then turns into Columbia Road, where the road cuts like an artery North. If you keep going you get to restaurants — good places for breakfast, cafés serving Monmouth roast. If the sun is out there will be teens laid out in the park by Bethnal Green tube, revising for their A-level exams in bikinis while the used furniture shop under the arches diligently puts out, then later takes back in, its wares.

On a comparably sunny day in Shoreditch musicians spill out onto the street. Walter Benjamin once wrote, in a fit of (perhaps justified) pique, that the whole of Paris jumps to the sound of Offenbach. Shoreditch churns to Blood Orange. Cyclists stand damply at the traffic lights, looking up at drinkers on the roof of the three-year-old ‘pop up’ Boxpark. The artists came for cheap rent and stayed for the microbrew. It is, even today, undeniably cool. This is the East End that young people moved to just as they moved to Brooklyn or Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Nobody wants to live in Metroland, which is Betjeman and stagnation and a faint air of wife-swapping. Better the East End.

I took a ‘graffiti tour’ of the area just after I moved there. Run on a ‘donations only’ basis, young graffiti artists take you around Brick Lane, telling you who does the foetus sculptures and the giant mushrooms which are notoriously hard to remove from roofs (one sat on the Shoreditch Grind, at Old Street roundabout, for months). Walking back towards Liverpool Street our group came across Olek, putting up huge sheets of her crochet work on a wall. On another street, an old military surplus dummy dressed as Michael Jackson waved from a rooftop. The tour guide told us he knew which house Gilbert and George lived in but he wasn’t going to tell us. There is, I thought, no history as distant as the recent past.

Not far away from Boxpark, at 18 Folgate Street, stands a rather different attraction. Dennis Severs’ House is a ‘still life drama’ — an old property done up in gaudy historical dress. Tour guides recreating the vision of the eponymous man welcome you into a dark hallway, leading to a variety of period-specific rooms. Scenes.

The house both permits and subverts the immersive historicity you can’t help but seek. There’s elegant mouldings on the atrium ceiling but they include anachronistic plaster bananas; in one ‘scene’, Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ hangs on the wall showing an incident you, walking in on overturned chairs and spilled glasses, just missed. In every room you can hear voices from the next, but — at least in the basement — you can also hear the rumble of the underground lines, and occasionally church bells. It knows it’s not convincing. Californian-born Severs called it a ‘collection of atmospheres’; if one fails to let the atmosphere take over they are chided with small notes that read ‘you are still seeing things!’. I was chided a lot.

David Hockney dubbed the house one of the world’s greatest operas. I’ll admit I was, upon first entering, forcibly reminded of a less complimentary theatrical reference: the Junk Lady from the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth, who leads the main character Sarah into a replica of her bedroom before bombarding her with armfuls of unwanted gifts. Here I was, in my own neighbourhood, being plied into history with trinkets! But the house is much more than that: more ambiguous, more honest and complicated all at once. Its motto is Aut Visum Aut Non, which translates as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ — yet it seems more truthful to say that you both see it and don’t, often at the same time. The mediation of the notes, which some claim take them away from the experience of being in the rooms, are also part of the point; screaming at you to look away, they anticipate every gesture until you are forced to give up and submit to the house. Items of the deceased Severs’ own clothing hang among the other items now (you are still seeing things!) but you leave perversely vivified. If everything here is trinkets, perhaps in the end it only attunes you to better see the trinkets elsewhere. The whole of the E1 postcode is crammed with them, after all.

And yet there is a way in which the East End is like an airport. It is, despite what I said above, a place that people have always moved through; albeit on a longer time scale. It is an area where families stay for a generation or two, before moving west or out. For hundreds of years it has been like the stateless corridor between two countries’ border controls. Immigrants enter the East End and, after a period of time, leave — to begin again with new lives in clean air. Now the East End is increasingly in regular motion. Gentrification has brought up rent prices and one can easily imagine five generations following one another through the same front door in a Mile End square: daughters with flute cases and sons in rugby shirts. The East End is becoming normal; soon it will be just a place.

In many ways it will be nice. Everyone likes artisan bread, everyone wants nice coffee shops to work in, and good schools. Before the Second World War, when they cleared the slums, things were lost but also gained: some residents felt the destruction of a community and others, or perhaps the same, appreciated the running water. The East End is losing and gaining again. Somebody will change all the street signs one day, to uniform sans-serif English. And new plaques will surely follow. It will have to tell people about itself, once it’s gone.



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