Having continually written a daily story about life in Spitalfields and publishing a book which has been embraced by Londoners the city over, we think it’s fair to say you won’t find another person so immersed in the culture of this little corner of the city’s East End. As a dedicated resident of the area, The Gentle Author has taken it upon himself to strip back Spitalfields’ rich history and document his findings for the rest of London to soak up.
Firstly, tell us a little bit about Spitalfields Life; how did it evolve and become the cultural East London hub that we know today?
Spitalfields exists at the boundary with the City of London and historically it is where the rich of the City met the poor people living outside the walls, which has given the neighbourhood a long-standing identity as a refuge and as a meeting place, creating the culture of markets and small businesses that continues today. It takes its very name from the fields of the hospital established for poor people in the eleventh century and over time ‘hospital fields’ became “spitalfields.” In over a thousand interviews, the one thing that everyone has said to me is that Spitalfields has changed, but given its nature at the meeting of these two worlds, you might say that this endless reinvention is its constant quality.
Obviously Spitalfields has seen enormous change through the decades and has long been famous for its rich cultural history and heritage. How do you see the area today? Is it still the central hub of East London or is that status now shifting elsewhere?
The topography of Spitalfields means that it will always be a volatile, lively place where people of different incomes and different ethnicities meet, but at the moment the big question is how the independent shops and family business, as well as the vibrant markets that define this area can survive alongside the chain stores pushing up rents. So now the small traders have grouped together to form the East End Trades Guild to fight for their survival. There is an indomitable spirit here and even after all the changes and movement of people, there are still plenty who carry the history of the place, like Mavis Bullwinkle who has lived here eighty years or Molly the Swagman whose grandfather was a Swagman in Petticoat Lane and lived to be 99.
Amidst the throngs of tourists in and around Brick Lane, it’s sometimes hard to discover the best that the area has to offer; for reluctant Londoners planning a day out there, what would your ideal Spitalfields itinerary contain?
Nicholas Hawksmoor’s epic baroque masterpiece of Christ Church (Commercial Street, E1 6LY, 020 7377 2440 ccspitalfields.org) towers over Spitalfields, dwarfing all human endeavour and I recommend this as the ideal point to begin your exploration of this ancient neighbourhood at the boundary of the City of London.
No-one can really say they have been to Spitalfields unless they have shaken the hand of the legendary Paul Gardner, fourth-generation paper bag seller at Spitalfields’ oldest family business Gardners’ Market Sundriesmen (149 Commercial Street) where they have been trading since 1870. You had better go in and say “hello” to Paul.
For a vision of the East End a century ago, pop over to the Bishopsgate Institute (230 Bishopsgate), a Victorian temple of culture where the magnificent Dioramas of Spitalfields, models recreating the famous Petticoat Lane Market, have recently been restored and installed in the library, available to be viewed free of charge during opening hours.
Mister City Sandwich Bar (7 Artillery Lane) run by Roberto & Mirella Fiori is a popular institution in Spitalfields where every order is made up freshly, offering keener prices and is higher quality than the take-away sandwich chains that surround it. Perfect for a coffee and a sandwich on the run.
My top shopping destination in Spitalfields is Des & Lorraine’s junk shop (14 Bacon St), a genuine unreconstructed unapologetic East End junk shop where true wonders are still to be found. Ask Des to show you his mermaid brought back from the South Seas by a sailor in the nineteenth century. I also recommend a trip to Andrew Coram (86 Commercial Street) and Townhouse Antiques (5 Fournier Street) among the gracious tottering eighteenth century mansions of Spitalfields – both are old school dealers, where you may rely upon discovering charismatic curiosities. The Townhouse even sells cakes from historic recipes.
Brick Lane is famous for its curry houses, yet the array of possibilities and the enthusiasm of the touts can be be disarming, so I suggest you go to Sweet & Spicy (40 Brick Lane). This is an unpretentious cafe-style operation that originally opened in 1969 to serve workers in local garment factories and I am proud to count myself among the locals who eat here regularly. Two can dine for under £20 and proprietor Omar Butt, an ex-wrestler, is always present to ensure everything is tip-top.
Continually managing to write a daily story about life in Spitalfields must be a challenge! If you could draw together some special highlights from days gone by, what have been your favourite stories and experiences to date?
My favourite story is that of Maurice Franklin, the 93 year old wood turner who has been working at his lathe in the Hackney Rd since 1933, but I have to confess I had a great night out at the Bunny Girls Reunion in Limehouse. Also, walking through London all night on Christmas Eve when it was deserted city was an unforgettable experience, and opening Tower Bridge was the most terrifying thing I have ever done!
We loved reading your recently published book, Spitalfields Life. How did you find the experience and process of writing your own book?
It was hard to do the book because I worked each night writing the next day’s story until midnight and then I had to work on the book until five in the morning – and this went on for months! But now that I have recovered, I am very proud of it and the reception has exceeded my wildest expectations. Also, it was a great delight to work with such wonderful artists, Mark Hearld, Lucinda Rogers and Rob Ryan to make a beautiful book. Ultimately it was a great privilege to be able to tell the stories of all those people. I suppose I used to live in denial, just imaging only a few friends read what I wrote, but since 3000 readers turned up at Christ Church for my book launch I can no longer do that!