03 Marketa Luskacova Spitalfields Catalogue Whitechapel Gallery London
The thoroughfare from Whitechapel down Brick Lane forms a corridor that once seemed to be an immovable line between the encroaching advances of the city. The traffic passes through Whitechapel and down the long route of Eastern Avenue and Gants Hill, out east beyond Romford, Chelmsford and the Malden estuary, the freight depots for the Channel ports and the distant horizons of the east coast, which once lay on the far reaches of a Londoner's map. A blanket of suburban uniformity now sprawls from the city to the sea. It is a route that follows the aspirations of many who sought a better life beyond the city. But looking back, Brick Lane and Spitalfields seem like a vital hub where trading and human cries are louder than malls and musak.
Trade has fuelled the city from its Roman origins to its grandeur and Empire with a tradition of exotically named wharves and riverside streets. Disembarking from Odessa or beyond, Jewish immigrants once walked from the coast until they reached White chapel High Street, the first outpost of the city, bringing with them the sounds, language and memory of Central Europe. That route is now marked by the dome and crescents of a mosque. It was here that the immigrants converged like the Poles, Russians and Italians arriving from Ellis Island into the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is here that Sikh, Moslem and Jew, gypsy, cockney and skinhead walk on common ground. The language of this wide humanity is evident in the names of the traders, the stonemasons, the tailors, the torn posters of Asian cinema and in the slogans of the graffiti. The smells of the street, like the colours of the cloth, are exotic. The dyes and spices offer a new spectrum. The merchant's legacy is overt in these streets in contrast to the invisibility of the international commodity markets of the adjacent City.
The market thoroughfare has always offered the possibility of drama from the Boulevard du Crime in Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis to Eastenders. Amidst the trading of Brick Lane and in the neighbouring bars legends were enacted, murders once plotted and lovers jilted. Associations with the exotic and dramatic are countered by the frequent reality of destitution beside the pride of a thriving and vital community. The chimney of the brewery cast the shadow of booze down the street. Once the streets represented to the outsider a view of London that was Dickensian in the twentieth century. Now the outcasts of the city are confronted even in the very heart of the capital. Those who have slipped through every net congregate throughout the city. These particular streets and their inhabitants are characterised by social pride and industry as much as by their poverty. On Whitechapel High Street there are figures slumped in doorways, freezing, beside a showroom stocked with Porsches, as the whole city is now. a realm of extremes.
On her arrival in London in 1975, it was understandable that Markéta Luskačová, an immigrant from Prague, should find herself gravitating to the street markets of the city, especially to Brick Lane. The market was a means of survival, and still is, where she could buy food and clothing and then much more; the market sold everything from lion cubs to computer parts. The population of the surrounding streets were mostly immigrants like herself. They existed outside the closed world of English society. Extraordinary as it may seem, she had never known a market, since the socialist state of her native country owned all the national produce. Goods were allocated to the supermarket shelf. The market was a link with a culture as remote as the medieval past of the peasant culture which had been displaced or transformed by the Communist parties of Central Europe. To such an immigrant the London street markets may have appeared as exotic as an African medina to a western traveller. Markéta Luskačová was also an observer; she had been photographing for about ten years. The street markets were to become her stalking ground. For more than ten years she visited Brick Lane every week.
Her interest in photography followed her discovery of a medieval world within her native Czechoslovakia, where she witnessed a culture that existed outside the State and in spite of the momentum of its political leaders. In the summer of 1965:when she was still a sociology student in Prague, she was travelling near the town of Levoča in Eastern Slovakia, several hundred miles from the city and she passed a line of pilgrims, 'I saw a tired-looking group of people walking along the dusty road ... That meeting changed my life'. Over a number of years she became engaged by the pilgrimages and entered the remote world of village life. Her response was to photograph. In Prague she sought the advice of a friend, Josef Koudelka. She needed to learn photographic technique, but Koudelka's advice was blunt, 'You either see or you don't see', he told her. She was also a friend of the great Czech photographer, Josef Sudek. Between 1967 and 1974 she established the series of photographs, Pilgrimages and The Village, and by 1968 she had completed her thesis on religion in Slovakia.
Her photographs of the pilgrims in procession, crossing the fields, sleeping or huddled by a fire, reveal the language of gesture. The hand movements are signals of devotion. In prayer or asleep the subjects are implied fragments of a larger picture, an epic story, set against the backdrop of the village and the landscape of Slovakia. They are also pieces of a world that both we, the viewers, and the photographer knoW is passing — a world that is untenable in our time.
The pilgrimage photographs form a resistance to the erosion of culture. The photographs of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, though not intended as a document, inevitably constitute historical evidence in a city subject to massive change. One hundred and fifty years after the invention of photography the line between photography as art and photography as document is unclear. In 1920, over two and a half thousand negatives by Atget who had been photographing Paris, a city also subject to great transformation, were acquired by the French government for the Service Photographique des Monuments Historiques. Atget himself described these particular negatives as 'artistic documents'. Atget's documentary legacy now constitutes one of the great pillars of photographic art.
It is often recorded how Bill Brandt first saw Atget's work at the studio of Man Ray in Paris in 1929. Atget had already entered the canon of surrealism. Brandt then photographed in Britain and published The English at Home in 1936, the same year as Moholy-Nagy published his book, The Street Markets of London. Brandt's book was an explicit document of social extremes, but tinged with allusion and surreal effect, like his famous portrait of the Billingsgate porter standing in the market with a huge fish on his head. The porter is reproduced in the book opposite a blind beggar outside a cake shop in Whitechapel.
In contrast to the raw photographic docu ments of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis in America, which had' a social mission, the surreality of Atget and Brandt was derived in part from the theatricality of the streets, as if the city presented a stage traversed by a cast of humanity. Atget's peopleless views are imbued with drama or a sense of a stage set, and Atget even lectured on theatre. When Brandt photographed the Gorbals in Glasgow for Picture Post in 1948, the bleak streets looked like scenes from de Chirico. Brandt's English types — tic-tac men, bookmakers, nannies, miners and rag ladies in the Caledonian market — are his cast that constitute his fictional England. However direct his social glare, Brandt's English are part of a 'theatre'. They stare back as spectators on the jacket of The English at Home.
Don McCullin, whose anger and compassion pervades his war photography in the Sixties and Seventies, had photographed in Whitechapel, Aldgate and Spitalfields as °if he were photographing a battlefield. Such photographs appeared both in his first book, The Destruction Business (1971) and in a story in The Sunday Times Magazine in 1973. Markéta Luskačová, on the contrary, came to photograph the area for its vitality. She is consciously avoiding a catalogue of victims. It is the spirit of her subjects, many of whom she has known for years, which she wishes to record. She is anxious to avoid their representation as a harrowing, social comment. Whatever 'theatre' this work cumulatively depicts, there is a poignancy and epic quality in these pictures, which is heightened by the vulnerability of the subjects to social changes which will overwhelm them. These people are not divorced from the social forces that surround them, but their vitality exists despite such forces.
There is a subliminal soundtrack to the pictures. Her musicians are key figures — the accordion player, the sound of a whistle, someone lets loose on a piano in the middle of a crowd, the sad harmonica on a street corner and a vibraphone made from acricket bat. The vibraphone player is concentrating as if he were engaged in a cello concerto. The music suggests the rhythm or pulse of the market itself. You notice figures who have suddenly burst into dance, especially children. From this dance emerges a sense of gesture and touching. There are frequent embraces and enormous tenderness — a pigeon in either pocket and big hands clutching a puppy. Birds are lined up on a rooftop as if they were listening to the king of the market criers in full voice below.
The Jewish tailors and the kosher poultry shop, the men who handle the wristwatches and the vegetable sellers are mixed with the faces and wares of the stallholders with their assemblies of discarded goods and household objects. Their contents are like lost autobiographies, strayed fragments of people's homes — magazines and coats, battered records, umbrellas, old calendars, irons and adding machines, hairdryers and kitchen scales and a clock that's stuck at five to ten.
You can pass along the photographs as if you were proceeding down the street itself. A woman stands, baby in one arm and selling with the other hand, there are figures by open fires in Spitalfields and a sequence of faces, weathered yet reminiscent of faded movie stars. The tragedies in this 'theatre' are real, but there is another predominant current. At first glance I thought I was looking at a crazy man shouting at the sky, in some kind of howl at the elements, but in fact he has been caught in full voice singing opera. It is a sign of exuberance.
I once walked through such a market on another continent' and came in fierce heat to a hilltop clearing by the city gates where I met a man wearing three overcoats, another carrying a bedstead, and a third with his wares displayed on the ground — a spanner and a broken alarm clock. Later I read the history of the district and found that for centuries it had been notorious for madmen, saints and thieves. I was caught between the physical beauty of their gestures, the quality of the light and the poverty they inhabited. The trading meant more than the exchange of goods or money, it was a fundamental act of engagement and its site over centuries was in itself a testament to survival. Progress can be profoundly ambivalent. It will destroy that hilltop market.
History takes on the qualities of loss, rather than the ideals of progress so prevalent at the beginning of the century. This climate changes the way we view photographs, just as it changes the music we choose to listen to or the buildings we wish to occupy. Photography has recently been addressing itself, just as debates on literatu're or painting have been self-referential. Photography was largely usurped in the Eighties by artists who owed no debt to any photographic legacy. It was a decade of artifice and a period of healthy rebellion. Significant architects looking for a discipline or structure for the future have returned, after the indulgences of postmodernism, to questions of modernism that were never realised. So too photography will return, despite extraordinary technological advances, to the problems of the image within a single rectangle. Markéta Luskačová's market photographs, together with her pictures of the children of Bethnal Green, exhibited at the Bethnal Green Museum in 1989, are counter to dominant fashion. They are direct observations, stripped of contrivance.
At this time one of the most valuable qualities is authenticity, especially in the age of reproduction or in the medium of photography. The most valuable voice is the voice of the witness; we hear so much, but know so little. The world has become too complicated, so we want photographs that address not themselves, but a wider world, full of resonance. We want the rhythm of a real drummer not a machine. There is a hunger for direct evidence of the real world, as if we had become exhausted by artifice. These photographs, in correspondence to their spirit, will survive, not just because of Markéta Luskačová's skill, but because of the level of her engagement, which is as obsessive as any artist in the territory of his or her art. That sense of loss, whether it be in the villages of Slovakia or on the streets of our own capital city, heightens the power of these photographs. Cumulatively they form a drama that strikes not with the cliches of polemic, but with signs of vitality and rhythm — survival tools in a cruel, monotone world.
One night in 1973 at somebody's flat in London I was introduced to this woman in a headscarf. I had just been looking at her pictures of pilgrims in Czechoslovakia; they were strong and beautiful. I was then told that she was alright. I had just seen her pictures. I didn't doubt it. Her English was strange and hesitant, she also looked so foreign. I was still staring at that headscarf when I was asked, would I look after her? She had this way of looking at you. It was wide-eyed and relentless, not frightening or intimidating, just serious, and probably judgemental. I wondered what sort of verdict this would turn out to be.
Those first feelings about Marketa were sort of correct, but we have lived together, on and off, and then very off, over the last fifteen years. She is the mother of my son. Her English, still strange; is now familiar, and I still assume wrongly that I understand what she thinks she is saying. Then I'm caught in a chain reaction of misunderstanding. The telephone is to her a form of torture, because she can't see your face, and this awkwardness over language affects how she is perceived. Ironically, I am told, 'her Czech is so very beautiful'.
When you speak English well people say that you are eloquent, no one says 'it is beautiful'. This lack of skill in speaking English has had a paradoxical effect as it seems to heighten her ability to see Englishness, as any eloquence for her in this country is through her photography.
Marketa came to photography because of the need to express more clearly what she had seen, and although she is versed in the history of photography, photogiaphers are not generally revered. She was also lucky that in those early days in Czechoslovakia the people around her did not try to confuse her with photography's ways and techniques, and in her friend Josef Koudelka, who has toldher one of the two 'secrets of photography'.
When I first met her in that flat in London she had just left Czechoslovakia. She was uncertain, not about photography, but about her life. She was on her way to Ireland to photograph pilgrims there. She has written briefly about that time in Granta magazine when they published her Irish pictures:
'In 1973 I left Czechoslovakia for the first time. I was so inexpressibly sad. I could not make sense of my life, so I tried to make some sense in my photographs. The summit of the holy mountain (Croag Patrick) was bitterly cold, the rain did not stop. My hands were so wet and cold that I could hardly use the camera. The bareness of the land was beyond anything I had imagined, but in the faces of these men, in their postures, in their prayers, there was something that felt very familiar to me.'
Unsettled, but still determined to photograph, she decided to stay in England and we started to live together. In 1976 she became pregnant and Matthew's birth changed everything. England has officially been her home since then. She lives next to Portobello market, but I suspect that in London she believes that Brick Lane market is her real home. I write it this way because she is a Czech living in London.
Most good photographers have a degree of stubbornness and determination and Marketa certainly has these qualities, but they are tempered by something else. Something almost specific to her, I would call it, the integrity of her determination. She is always trying to get as close as she can to the essence of whatever she is doing. Her explorations can be unsettling, and she is not easily put off. Bruce Bernard was once wrily amused when he commissioned Marketa to make a portrait of Joanna Drew for a magazine. On the first sheet of contacts that she showed him she had photographed Joanna outside the house, but from the other end of the street. I imagined Bruce looking with quiet glee at those dots on a contact sheet. Marketa was exploring the possibilities and Bruce is, I think, very fond of her.
What is the secret about photography that Koudelka told her? Well maybe this is the moment, so I'll tell you. 'If you always have dry shoes, — you won't get wet feet.' The other secret (which Marketa has always known) is revealed by looking at the work, and it's love, because obviously love has everything to do with it.
My daughter is a Technical Cockney: one of the last to be born at St Barts in Smithfield from which you can, just, hear the bells of St Mary le Bow. Like a lot of East End school kids she sings about Anansi, the wily spider of West African and thence Caribbean folklore as naturally as 'Oranges and Lemons' with its litany of London steeples or 'Ring a Ring a Roses" grim echoes of the Black Death; "Tishu 'Tishu, We all fall down'. She also loves to venture inside Spitalfields Market, as have generations of East End children, darting between the heaps of fruit and the fork lifts under the mock-disapproval of the fruitiers, chattering to the tramps, looking at the different countries on the fruit labels and helping herself to the odd tanger ine. And if Anansi had come to Hackney on one of the huge Geest boats as part of the Imperial Trade, he would have been unloaded in the West India Dock where the Canary Wharf obelisk now towers, carted up Com mercial St and would have been set to ripen in the heated cellars beneath Spitalfields Market which East Enders used as bomb shelters during the Blitz.
But now there is no maternity unit left at Barts, no docks in Poplar. And from March 1991 no more Spitalfields Market. Going, going, gone. Harry Lackmaker, the last banana ripener, whose family came to London as part of the Portuguese Sephardic Jewish immigration will no longer work in Whitechapel and Fournier St will no more blow with the exotic litter of the world's fruit and veg. Anansi won't get to Hackney. Instead the corporate monoliths of business architecture, ugly by day, deserted at night, will continue their relentless obliteration of the ancient street patterns, of the East End as the City lays claim to what it once cast out.
Well perhaps not ancient. Brick Lane is first recorded in 1550. Brick because it was where earth was dug to make bricks and tiles, a 'noxious trade' like brewing, glue making and slaughtering which had to take place outside the walls of the City. There are archaeological traces of a Roman cemetry and a medieval priory and evidence of Elizabethan cart tracks, courtways and the Rag Fairs which were the original open air clothing marts. But it is in the mid-17th century that Spitalfields' built structure" was established as London's first industrial suburb at a time when the rest of the East End remained largely pastoral. Defoe, writing in the early 18th century, remembers that in his childhood 'the lanes were deep, dirty and unfrequented, the part now called Spitalfields Market was a field of grass with cows feeding on it. Brick Lane, which is now a long well-paved street, was a deep dirty road, frequented chiefly by carts fetching bricks that way into Whitechapel from brick kilns inthose fields'.
The expansion rested on the rapid growth of the London textile industry which spilled over into Bethnal Green and was associated with the Petticoat Lane Sunday clothing, fabric and second hand market, the perma nent traders in Wentworth Street and, until the 1920s, Aldgate Street Market. The weav ing tradition of the area had been consoli dated by the Huguenot silk and taffeta weavers and brocade makers who came as refugees to Spitalfields to continue to practice their austere productive Protestantism after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Contrary to the impression given by the decidedly unrepresentative selection of homes restored by the Gilbert and Georgians of the Spitalfields Trust which in fact belonged to mercers, master weavers and silk dealers, the weavers were mainly jour neymen: poor, often politically radical and living in conditions of extreme overcrowd ing. Much like the contemporary Bangladeshi rag trade workers.
They were, Hawksmoor's marvellously intimidating Anglican edifice of Christ Church notwithstanding, often Dissenters. As well as the Calvinist Huguenots, there were the Quakers including the Buxton brewing family, Methodists (Wesley's HQ was just up the City Road near Bunhill Fields, Blake's burial spot) and the Irish, habitual nonconformists, whose staunch Catholicism was the excuse for patriotic riot. Again contrary to those who for political expediency (that is to please the developers) claim the Market is somehow alien to the area and a nuisance to the residents, Spitalfields Market was established by the Royal Charter of Charles II as early as 1682, thirty years before Christ Church was built and two hundred years before the driving of Commercial St through the rookeries. It is thus an integral part of the area, in some ways its heart: open at all hours, incandescent with light, providing both casual labouring jobs and supporting local subsidiary industries like the basket makers of Crispin St and offering its own unofficial welfare to the poor of London. For a wholesale market it is remarkably open despite the gates which were erected in 1924 after the site was finally acquired after some secretive and skillful property speculation by the City Corporation (although it remains, to their frustration, outside their geographical jurisdiction). It grew in parallel with industrialisation of the borough but also sustained the East End's links with the countryside as it pulled in produce from North Kent, Essex and the onion fields of Hackney. And it really was an open market in which all the people of East London went to buy, to sell and to barter, a car boot sale spread over 20 acres. At least until Robert Homer took over the management of the Market in 1875 and turned it towards the wholesale trade, any one was entitled to trade by payment of a nominal rent to the Goldsrhith family who held the lease. The gypsies who still sell in Brick Lane will tell you that 'The King's Charter' guarantees their rights.
Until the clearances to build Commercial St, Brick Lane was East London's High Street. The 1772 Act on Spitalfields local government describes it as 'a great thoroughfare for carriages, and the only convenient one from the waterside, through White-Chapel to Spitalfields, Mile End New Town, Shoreditch and parts adjacent'. Already it was the major shopping and manufacturing centre of the East End: listen to the gentrifiers of the day demanding the removal of 'trees, signs, sign-posts, sign-irons, dyers' racks, dyers' scourers and barbers' poles, pdrches, penthouses, boards and encroaching spouts and gutters'. With the rapid growth of Victorian East London into a vast, self-contained, working class city the markets became even more important. There was Spitalfields Market and its spill overs, the animal fair at Club Row said to date back to the Huguenots' love of singing birds, the Wentworth St and Petticoat Lane clothing markets and the smaller specialist markets for cutlery in Cutler St, kosher poultry in Leyden St and the delicatessens of Brick Lane where the English were introduced to the delights of olives, Dutch herrings, smoked salmon and 'continental pastries', just as we now come for samosas and beigels at all hours. The area became in the words of the historian of Spitalfields Market, John Shaw, 'the most profound centre of marketing in London.
This was further enhanced by the opening of the graceful Italianate railway station at Broad St in 1865 (whose 1978 demolition was commenced by Mrs Thatcher Herself, radiant at the controls of a bulldozer). Then came the eighteen platforms and wondrous cast iron of Liverpool St Station, built underground at the insistence of the City Corporation. Although designed to link with the docks, it ended up bringing to Spitalfields shoppers from all over England. If markets shaped Brick Lane, immigrants shaped the markets: to get a pitch or a barrow was often the first step up into trade; East Enders have all heard of Fanny Marks who started with a barrel full of herrings and ended up a millionairess. London is one of the oldest ports in maritime history and its docklands are an encyclopaedia of nationalorigins.
Besides the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Scots, Vikings, Danes and their children, there were the Huguenots who left us their rooftop Workshops, the fine bow windows of Artillery St and the sundial above Eglise Neuve in Fournier St marked 'Umbra Sumus'. Then the Irish, starved from their native land to labour in London, who constructed the three remarkable East End Hawksmoor churches, Christ Church Spitalfields, St George's in the East and St Anne's Limehouse as well as the intricate indentations of the docks. And then the refugees from the pograms of 1882 which followed the anti-Semitic Tsarist ukases in Russia and Poland and were saved, in Whitechapel, from the worst Jewishmartyrdom until the Holocaust itself.
Jewish Whitechapel gives a lingering flavour to the Lane but only a throwback to a once powerful presence. Some traders and shopkeepers, especially in textiles, resist the NW Passage. A few devout still worship at the old Synagogue, there are older Jewish inhabitants of the tenements becalmed and sometimes revanchist. The window display in Mr Weinburg's Brick Lane printing shop used to tell a typographical history of migration, adaption and assimilation in the notepaper printed for Minsky (Furs), Whitechapel, Manchester and Bradford; Elegante Fashions, Berwick St; the London Chess Conference (Chairman S. Reuben); the business cards of Labovitch the Glazier who becomes David Glassman; and the change of address cards sent out for the move from Hackney to Woodford. And the Jewish people left their places of worship, their shops, even their slaughterhouses to be used in turn by the Bengalis who have saved the street from the march of grey City concrete and kept alive itshumanity, vitality and youth.
The 1986 House of Commons Select Committee, inquiring into the lives of the recently arrived in just the way their predecessors did a century ago, calculated that a fifth of all British Bengalis lived in 'heavy concentration' in Tower Hamlets. And, of course, docklands has a very historical connection to Bengal through the East India Company who financed the building of the first enclosed docks in 1802. Although Brick Lane is no longer the sole centre of Asian culture in East LondOn, it remains, most notably in the successful campaign against the National Front in the late Seventies, symbolic. At the height of the racist agitation on Sunday iith June 1978 a iso-strong Fascist window-smashing squadron, bussed in from as far as Dagenham, Putney and South Ockenden, attempted a Kristallnacht on the Lane. An eyewitness wrote, 'They thought that the Asians were cowed and it would only be a few minutes before they could wave their union jacks down Brick Lane. THEY WERE WRONG. Asian youths know well how to defend themselves. Faced with this strength and courage the racists had no option but to run back to where they had come from'. We do not yet know the identity of the Bengali Gertler, the Sikh Bronowski or theVietnamese Piratin but they will come.
So what is the Lane nowdays? Still a long, busy squeal of a street which commences in a modern council estate full of noisy kids on mountain bikes in Bethnal Green and ends mile later at the wrought iron gates of Altab Ali Park, re-named in 1990 after a 25 year-old clothing worker who was stabbed to death by racists in 1978. Walking down it you pass a brewery, a mosque, an ultramodern health centre, numerous fine restaurants, food shops, travel agents, sari centres, leather clothes outlets, scrap dealers and several shipping agents. Charlie Forman rightly calls it 'an extraordinary paradox — an area in constant change and yet unchanging'. You will see the rooms where the first ever Jewish Socialist Manifesto was drawn up, the street where Arnold Wesker's Auntie Sara lived and agitated and the place wheiv Jack the Ripper's last victim was found in 1888. In those days of Jack (and Jack London) the southern part of the Lane consisted mainly of cheap lodging houses, thieves' kitchens and the 'doubles' used by prostitutes. These were demolished by the markets' westward expansion under Homer who rebuilt and re-roofed it and converted it from a free market to the restricted wholesale exchange it is today. The mirror fronted Trumans brewery is still manufacturing its Budweiser and Fosters. And as ever in the small workshops and homes, the East End rag trade, through the same old system of sub-contracting and piece-work, manages to outprice the new world centres of clothing manufacture. And while the fur trade, so important for the East European settlers, is largely gone, Brick Lane now leads in leatherwear both in price and quality. So the heavy sweetness of hops and the whirr of sewing machines from the upper rooms still hang over the Lane's intimate mix of manufacture, dwelling and leisure. And the markets draw all London to their great public recycling of goods by gargoyle-faced traders;the quintessence of an East End Sunday.
And here a change still more ugly than the triumphalism of the City, although not unconnected to it, is noticeable amid the delightful clamour. That is the relative impoverishment of the people of the East End over the last decade, the rise of homelessness, its most extreme form, and the return of the scourges of malnutrition, tuberculosis, alcoholism and psychotic illness. One can sadly perform an alfresco ward round on the corner of Cheshire St any Sunday, noting the distinctive gait of the depot-medicated schizophrenic, the manneristic grimaces of the manic-depressive, the shuddering cough and luminous facies of pulmonary tuberculosis and the neglected child trying, as ever, to haul its dad out of the pub. Tower Hamlets has the highest indexes of homelessness in Britain but has built little new Housing Association stock and continues to sell off its existing council houses. Unemployment, despite all the promises from the Dockland direction, is higher than ever. Having missed out on the Eighties boom, we are being hit hardest and earliest by the recession. And the health and welfare services set up to deal with these problems have been mutilated: no fewer than seven East End hospitals have been boarded up over the last ten years 'as surplus to requirements' while the waiting lists at the two which remain get longer and longer. The East End has always been London's Skid Row and had high levels of mental illness, much of it in-coming as the mentally ill person remorselessly slides down the social ladder to the East End's asylum without walls. The original Bethlem Hospital where the 'sane' bought tickets to jeer at the antics of the lunatic poor was on the present site ofLiverpool St Station.
But with the forced closure of the large asylums which traditionally provided residential care and protection for East London's mentally ill, I estimate there are more people openly dementing on our streets today than at any other point in London's history. And the gleam of the Special Brew or Tennants Extra being hoist aloft to start the day after a night in a doorway or skip is a familiar and forlorn Brick Lane sight. There are face lifts of course, something that the present administration of the borough have turned into a politiCal art form. But if the itchy park outside Christ Church Spitalfields has been turned into a children's playground, the Sisters of Mercy at Providence Row over the road, now augmented by a specialist team of GPs formed to tackle the crisis, are busier than ever. A few car phonies drinking rose with quail curry in the Shampan hasn't changed thepolitical economy of the East End.
But just look at the pitiful wares spread on the pavement by the railings of Commercial St, the flea market section which, in the era of the enterprise culture, so signally extended itself. And try and remind yourself you are in spitting distance of some of the richest institutions that now master the universe. Look, look properly into the face of a young alcoholic sleeping rough and see how old he has become. It's not 'Hogarthian' or even 'Pinteresque'. It's a bloody disgrace. In the 188os, Flora Tristan wrote in her 'London Journal"Oh, the sight of the thousands of old worn-out shoes, the rags and the rubbish and all of it making up such an important branch of commerce gives a truer idea of the destitution of the monster city than all the findings and reports that could be published.It makes one shudder'. It still does.
Even the pubs are being boarded up now, unthinkable that the traditional East End social centre has become unaffordable except as a Saturday night disco. And the last cinema left in a borough which once had dozens, the Coronet in Mile End Rd, was vandalised a few months ago and has never re-opened. I know of only two proper bookshops for a population of 156,000. Instead people sit at home with the video, the lager and the alsatian. Indeed it is because the East End as a whole is going through such a grim period that the continued vivacity of the Lane is all the more remarkable and rewarding. It is the mother of all the London markets and there is no other thoroughfare so rich in metaphors of history and memories of struggle, bravery and desperation as Brick Lane. It is the original lorry that something fell off: anarchic, disinhibited, stoic and clamourous. And nowadays heartrendingly poor. 'And it's a crap hole when it's raining' says the boy in search of his stolenmountain bike.
If there is a modern equivalent of Israel Zangwill, the great witness of the classic Jewish ghetto, it is in writers like lain Sinclair and Farrouk Dhondy who understand the unscrupulous anarchic mix that makes the Lane work. Or Dan Jones whose paintings epitomise it with such care. It is, of course, hopelessly overphotographed, sometimes by people who are the modern equivalents of the 1.8th century on-lookers at Bedlam. But at last it has the photographic chronicler it deserves. The Czech word for to photograph is zveCnit. It means to immortalise. That is what Marketa LuskaCova has now done with suchgrace, intimacy and affection.
'Spitalfields, a battle for Land'
Charlie Forman. Hilary Shipman, London, 1989.
'East End and Docklands'
William J. Fishman, Nicholas Breach, John M. Hall
Duckworth, London, 1990.
'The Saving of Spitalfields'
Mark Girouard, Dan Cruickshank and Raphael Samuel.
The Spitalfields Historical Buildings Trust, London, 1989.
'White Chappell, "Scarlet Tracings"
lain Sinclair. Goldmark, Rutland, 1987.
'Beating Time; Riot 'n' Race 'n' Rock 'n' Roll'
David Widgery. Chatto, London, 1986.