- White Chappell: Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair
Goldmark, 210 pp, £12.50, October 1987, ISBN 1 870507 00 2
In 1975 Colin Ward described Spitalfields as a classic inner-city ‘zone of transition’. Bordering on the City of London, the place had traditionally been a densely-populated ‘service centre for the metropolis’ where wave after wave of immigrants struggled to gain a foothold on the urban economy: Huguenot silk weavers, the Irish who were set to work undercutting them, Jewish refugees from late 19th-century pogroms in East Europe, and the Bengalis who have settled in the area since the 1950s. Since 1975, Spitalfields has achieved a national reputation as a reclaimable area of beautiful houses and exotic contrasts which has survived the levelling embrace of the welfare state.
I made my first encounter with the contemporary perspectives of the place a few years ago when visiting Christ Church to attend a concert in the Spitalfields Festival. Just getting into the building proved interesting enough, not least because the approaching concertgoer could hardly avoid the attentions of a more regular group of supplicants also gathering in the evening shadows of Hawksmoor’s massive church. This is the derelict congregation of the crypt. Its members attend a soup-kitchen famous from the days when the churchyard was known as Itchy Park, and now providing the only regular service offered here. Ignoring the ancient injunction bidding them from the wall to ‘Commit no nuisance,’ these time-honoured figures stage a performance of their own. They hurl insults at the concertgoers, begging money from them obscenely, and urinating over their smart cars. My sleeve was taken by a man who dragged me into the hellish narrative of 22 years spent in jail. Shuddering with horror at the deteriorated company into which he had been released, this fellow declared his own outlaw ethic in words that for me will always be cut into the stone of Hawksmoor’s building: ‘I’ve never raped. I’ve never mugged. I’ve never robbed a working-class home.’ As he sank away towards the underworld of the crypt, we ascended the hierarchical steps to hear music by Messiaen and Hans Werner Henze. The frisson was undeniable.
Earlier this year I went back to visit the disused synagogue at 19 Princelet Street – a rather dilapidated building now owned by the Spitalfields Trust and leased out as a ‘heritage centre’ concerned with the local history of immigration. Above the tiny synagogue is the room of David Rodinsky, a Polish Jew of increasingly mysterious reputation. Latterly described as a translator and philosopher, he is said to have lived here in some sort of caretaking capacity. One day in the Sixties Rodinsky stepped out into Princelet Street and disappeared for ever. His room has since become fabled: a secret chamber still floating above the street just as it was left. Caught in a time-warp of the kind that property-developers are quick to straighten out, it has become the new Spitalfields version of the Marie-Celeste.
Rodinsky’s room is certainly there to be seen by the insistent visitor: ragged clothes still hanging in the wardrobe, a fur dangling down through the collapsing ceiling, a pile of 78’s, lamps and odd bits of candle, an old gas mask, scattered and prophetic-looking books in Hebrew, Russian, Hindustani. Among junk heaped up on the table lies a Letts pocket diary designed for schoolchildren and dating from 1961: a little memento to life as it was before the Filofax arrived. Rescheduled in pencil according to the Julian Calendar, it has been marked in cuneiform and adjusted to commemorate such remote dates as the Armenian New Year. The back pages (left to be filled in under printed headings like ‘pocket money’ or ‘films seen during the year’) are covered with scribbled commentaries on texts from the Ancient Near-East. They talk about Hittite Kings and the Citizens of Ur. From the window one can see broad-roofed Huguenot weaving-lofts outlined against Hawksmoor’s church. A mile or so beyond looms a larger sight that Rodinsky was spared: the 52 floors of Richard Seifert’s Natwest Tower, double-decker lifts, automatic window-washing facilities and all.
Here again was the characteristic frisson of the zone of transition, where different worlds rub up against one another, languages intersect on every corner and psychotics jabber in the street. Street lighting may have been improved after the Ripper killings of 1888, but Spitalfields remains a place of unpredictable encounters – full of intriguing little surprises as one unlikely appearance gives way to the next. The story of Rodinsky’s disappearance becomes a post-hoc fable of the gentrifying immigrant quarter. The Huguenots have gone, leaving only these delightful houses. The Bengalis will need stronger magic if they are to pull off the same disappearing trick. As for Rodinsky, did he evaporate romantically into thin air, or was he struck down in the street: a dishevelled victim of attack or sudden illness, a body found in the vicinity of Itchy Park and dealt with by the appropriate authorities?
The aesthetic, or rather the ‘life-style’ focus, which has brought Spitalifields into the Sunday magazines in recent years concentrates on the newest arrivals. Occasional television films from the Sixties show the indigenous white population leaving for Essex with relief, but the more profuse coverage of the last few years tells the different story of rundown Huguenot buildings being lovingly restored and re-established as private homes. Established in 1977, the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust held its tenth-anniversary meeting on 26 September. A hundred and fifty people (and not one black face among them) gathered at Truman’s Brick Lane brewery to celebrate the organisation which had, in the words of its current chairman (Francis Carnwarth, the personable banker who took over from Mark Girouard), ‘saved 18th-century Spitalfields’. There were warm memories from the early days of art-historical activism: the squats and sit-ins which the Trust’s members undertook as they confronted the vandalism of private developer and municipal authority. From these beginnings the Trust went on to bring credit facilities into an area which had been ‘red-lined’ by banks and building societies. It emerged as a campaigning property company, able to buy buildings, refurbish them with a care for the minutest period detail, and resell them under covenant.
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[*] The New Georgian Handbook, by Alexandra Artley and John Martin Robinson. Ebury Press, 1985.