February 01, 2011

"Man is like a breath...

...his days are like a passing shadow." Psalm 144, v. 4.

I have a conflicting time with London’s East End.  I wander hidden paths and visit places in search of the interesting.  However, more than anywhere else, wandering here makes me feel separate - an outcast, albeit quite often in a sea of other temporary citizens.  Here, especially, authenticity is brought into sharp focus.  With so much written and spoken about the legends of the territory, from ancient plague-grounds to modern murder myths, its hard not to feel like a tourist. 
The area is far from out-of-bounds to the outsider, these boundary lands have been contested spaces and seen multitudes of populations that shared the streets and alleyways over centuries of change and redefinition.  My walk was an attempt to reclaim my student days of Spitalfields and Shoreditch and to walk shoulder to shoulder with everyone else that did not really belong but had gravitated here for sometimes-unfathomable reasons.

There is a boarded-up, closed-for-business feel here, almost an attempt to turn back the casual tourist - this is not what you thought it was.  Peering through the cracked hoardings into a deep excavation, the old foundations are revealed.  Ms. Edna you would call this "doubly enticing". 
On into ‘Banglatown’.  Scents assault the senses - diesel, curry, hot coffee, bad drains.  

Onward, passing the entrance to Flower and Dean Walk, sanitised, and erased except for the archway that gave entrance to the model dwellings, which replaced the seething rookery a century ago.  I try to get a haircut, but I'm refused in a case of embarrassed but good-humoured preference by the proprietor - and I respond with equal good humour and a handshake.  A little solidarity and a moment of awareness of how alien we both are here.

I press on to 59 Brick Lane the building has a tiny Star of David emblem hidden on a down pipe that betrays the last great wave to sweep the area - Church became Synagogue, and in turn a great Mosque, one of London's largest, a symbol of change and continuity.  Each successive community claimed it as its own, revealing the history of an area in one building.
Standing at the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, a plain but gracious rectangular brick property with tall arched windows that lets the light flood in.  Set high up on the wall is a vertical sundial with the above-mentioned Latin inscription, Umbra Sumus.
Originally intended as a reference not only to the workings of the sundial, but as a reminder that our life on earth is fleeting, the inscription has and added significance for this area, as waves of immigrants have arrived, thrived and then moved on.
The building has had many names as each community established its own place of worship here-

1743 - La Neuve Eglise

The French Huguenot community built this as a Protestant Church in 1743, along with a small school. The Huguenots were refugees (the term entered English at this time from the French word réfugié), fleeing religious persecution by the Catholics at home. They had been arriving in ever-greater numbers since the 1680s and they brought with them their silk weaving skills, bestowing great prosperity to the area.

William Hogarth, (The Four Times of the Day), ‘Noon’  (1738)

Their legacy is to be found not only in the French street names that abound in “Weaver Town”, as it was called, but also in the elegant rows of Georgian town houses they built. It only took two or three generations for the French-speaking community to be assimilated, mainly through inter-marriage, and the congregation dwindled. The Church was sold to a newly founded society looking for headquarters.

Spitalfields silk weavers winding and reeling thread, 1893 ©TopFoto.co.uk

1809 - The Jews’ Chapel

The London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews had four aims: to declare the Messiah ship of Jesus to Jews primarily but also to non-Jews; to endeavour to teach the Church its Jewish roots; to encourage the physical restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel; and to encourage the Hebrew Christian/Messianic Jewish movement.
The Society failed to have a dramatic impact on the inhabitants of Brick Lane so they moved elsewhere and the building was taken over by Methodists in 1819.

1819 - Methodist Chapel

The Methodists already had a strong connection with this area of London. John Wesley himself had lived not far away on City Road and preached his first covenant sermon at the Black Eagle Street Chapel, just off Brick Lane. The simplicity and plainness of the building would no doubt have suited them well.

1897 – Machzikei Adass or Spitalfields Great Synagogue

This was an Independent Orthodox, later Federation Synagogue which had schoolrooms on the roof. There had been an influx of Yiddish-speaking Jews to the East End after the assassination of the Tsar of Russia in 1881 that resulted in pogroms across northern Europe.

Brick Lane was the heart of the shtetl and this was the principal synagogue of the area, open from dawn ‘till dusk. From the 1960s, the Jewish community dwindled, many moving to areas of north London such as Golders Green and Hendon (known as the bagel belt). The building closed for a short while before its next incarnation.

1976 - London Jamme Masjid

This is one of the largest mosques in the capital and can accommodate 4,000 worshippers in the prayer hall. On Friday’s the shoes of the worshippers spill out down the stairs into the street. The mosque serves the needs of the large Bengali community - which grew up after the Second World War and once again, there is a school for religious instruction here, on the first floor.


1 comment:

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Thank you Charles. This post has brought back memories.