A Londoner’s Sunday
Piers Gladstone abandons the tourist trails and the glitzy West End to take us off the beaten track in London. It is 8:15 am on a Sunday morning. A smartly dressed lady is holding a large potted plant she has just bought. “How should I look after it?” she asks the flower trader. “Every morning, give it egg and bacon darling,” he replies with a cheeky grin on his face.
Photos by Sveva Costa Sanseverino
Columbia Road Flower Market, which is in the heart of the East End of London, is a small and narrow street in a residential area that bursts into life every Sunday morning when flower traders set up their stalls on either side of a fifty-metre stretch. Historically, the City (London’s financial district) and the western suburbs of London have seen different classes living side by side, but not in the East End, which has always been inhabited by the working classes and the poor since the 1600’s. This has now started to change, as artists, designers, new media companies and, more recently, young professionals have been moving into the area since the 1990’s. The East End has, however, been able to keep its unique atmosphere.
From all directions the cockney traders are hawking their wares at the top of their voices. “Eight pounds an orchid – that’s silly money!” “Four pots of daffodils for a fiver!” “Any three shrubs for a tenner! Pick whichever ones you like.” In a riot of colour; flowers, shrubs and boxes of bulbs cascade from the sidewalk into the middle of the road.
We head straight for the pub, The Royal Oak, which opens at 8 am every Sunday so that traders and customers can have a beer and an English breakfast. The doors are locked and there are no lights on inside. “Closed for refurbishment, mate,” says the nearest flower trader. He tells us where we can find some breakfast as three young and fashionably dressed men stagger towards the pub, still enjoying their night out. They try the doors before weaving off down the pavement.
We sit in a courtyard of a small industrial building, the brickwork worn by the centuries, drinking coffee and eating sausage sandwiches. Friends are gathering and chatting. An old gentleman in a tweed jacket stands with a bacon sandwich in his right hand and his Sunday newspapers tucked under his left arm. By his feet sits a large bunch of flowers. A couple sip their cappuccinos and discuss what size of potted shrubs they should buy to go on either side of their front door.
More early morning Londoners arrive at the market as the spring sun starts to peek over the tops of the houses. It is not too crowded and people take their time, slowly making their way from stall to stall. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed as traders and strangers say good-morning to each other. In the distance people can be seen walking off down the streets clutching armfuls of flowers and shrubs.
The small old-fashioned shops that line Columbia Road are a mix of the new and the old, reflecting the tastes of those who come here each week. “Mad Fashion Bitch” stands opposite “Lee’s Sea Foods,” whose sign looks at least thirty years old. There are old-fashioned workingmen’s cafes next door to shops displaying designer clothes, antiques and perfume. There is a traditional bakery as well as a new stylish tapas bar. The past and the present effortlessly mix and co-exist here.
The adjacent streets are entirely residential and would look poor and run down in any other part of London. Here, they are awash with colour; shrubs and palm trees in the flowerbeds, hanging gardens and window boxes on each of the balconies. It seems that locals as well as people from other parts of London are keen for their flowers.
We cross Bethnal Green and make our way towards Whitechapel. In the middle of the green stands a four meter high metal sculpture of four football players. Two CCTV cameras pointing in opposite directions have been added to the top of the sculpture. This is inner city London reflecting its view of the world through art.
Whitechapel Road, made famous by Jack the Ripper, is still quiet at this hour. Two old Indian men smile and wish us good morning. One has his white beard dyed orange to signify he has made the journey to Mecca. One hundred years ago this road had more than forty-five pubs and beer houses on it. Now, there are virtually none. What was once the heartland of the London working class is now a predominantly Muslim district. One of London’s largest mosques sits on the same stretch of road as the nation’s oldest industrial enterprises: The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, founded in 1420. The bells for Big Ben and St Paul’s Cathedral were cast here, and they are still making bells to this day. In the window of the foundry’s shop there is an advertisement for personalised bells which the ad says would make an ideal and unique gift. Sitting on the wall is a man rolling a cigarette, two beer cans to his left, one open, the other closed. He looks up and pauses, smiling, as a girl in a blue blazer with large gold buttons and matching gold shoes walks past.
The Whitechapel Gallery was established in 1901 “to bring the best of world art to the people of East London” evidently as a spiritual remedy for the poverty and squalor of the area. It has been hugely popular with the local population ever since, presenting the likes of Hockney, Rothko and Pollock in their first solo UK shows. Today’s exhibition, “Whitechapel Laboratory – Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla” is in keeping with this little-known gallery’s history of showcasing contemporary art. Three short films musing on the political, social and environmental impact of globalisation are being shown. One of them, ‘Amphibious’, was shot on the Pearl River Delta in China, where large-scale investment in manufacturing has transformed the area into one of China’s leading economic engines. Against a backdrop of boats and container ships, six turtles float quietly downstream on a single log. “They stare and stare,” the artists inform us, “seemingly prehistoric witnesses to our post-colonial patterns of production and consumption.”
Since the 1680’s, immigration has shaped and influenced the area of Spitalfields, which borders Whitechapel. The first immigrants were Huguenots: French Protestants who fleeing the persecution of Louis XIV brought with them their skills as silk weavers. The Huguenots transformed Spitalfields into the largest textile area in London and a major European producer, with up to 50,000 people working in the trade. In the 1890’s, Jewish refugees arrived from Poland and Russia, taking over the remaining textile factories, watchmakers and clock shops. In the post-war boom of the 1950’s and 60’s, the now prosperous Jewish community left for the northern suburbs of Golders Green and Hampstead, and were replaced by Bengali immigrants from India and Bangladesh. Again, the newest arrivals took over the cheap clothing businesses left by their predecessors. All of these immigrants have left their historical fingerprints. The old Huguenot chapel in Fournier Street became a synagogue and is now a mosque.
Brick Lane, at the heart of Spitalfields, winds its way up from Whitechapel Road to Shoreditch which was recently put on the map by ‘Brit Artists’ such as Tracy Emin. As its name suggests, this originally used to be a brick making area. It is now almost exclusively Bangladeshi and one of the most popular places for Londoners to visit on a Sunday. The streets flood the senses with the sounds and smells of unique market stalls, and with people of all nationalities and ages strolling about, making this is one of the most vibrant and diverse parts of London.
The street signs here are in both English and Bengali. A bank has a sign in its window: “Hajj Drafts”, and graffiti fights for space with shop signs. Traditional Asian music and drum and bass compete with two blues buskers; one on double bass and the other on an old slide guitar. A five yearold Bengali boy stands in a barber’s chair having his hair cut while his mother stands by, watching anxiously. Behind him, four older boys wait for their turn in the chair.
Brick Lane is most famous for its curry restaurants. There are more curry restaurants in London than in Bombay and Delhi combined. The first half of Brick Lane consists of curry restaurants sitting side by side, occasionally interspersed with sari shops and wholesale textile shops. Many of the restaurants display their press cuttings and awards in the windows. Standing outside are waiters enticing and hustling people, saying “Take a look guys. Special menu, £5.99.”
We make our way along Brick Lane to “The Beigal Shop”, passing market stalls of seafood, clothes and bric-a-brac. The smell of roast chestnuts infuses the air. Four young men stand in the road selling smuggled tobacco: packets of Marlboro Lights clutched in both hands, a slightly desperate glint in their eyes as they keep looking around for police.
The queue for bagels stretches out of the shop onto the pavement. It is forty deep and snakes up the left side of the shop and then back down the counter on the right side. At the far end of the shop customers are treated to the spectacle of the bagels being made. A man hauls out fifty bagels from a boiling vat, dumps them on the surface next to it, sprays them down with a pressure hose, places them on a baking tray before another man puts the tray in one of the ovens. A freshly baked tray’s contents are brought out and are tipped into a basket behind the counter. The smell of bagels baking makes for an agonising wait.
I sit on a bench opposite the bagel shop, eating my smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, watching the people in the queue. Sitting on the ground to the left of the shop’s entrance is a homeless man, profiting from the no-smoking policy. In ten minutes he smokes three discarded halfsmoked cigarettes. By my feet is a manhole cover with four scissors embossed on it – a reminder of the history of this area. To the left of the shop is an internet café. Above its windows the faded hand painted lettering of the previous establishment is faintly legible, “The Jolly Butchers”.
An old lady sits down on the bench next to me. “It’s not like it used to be in my day,” she says, pointing at the bagel shop. “There used to be an old lady in the bagel shop who would put her hand into a bucket for a smoked herring or a pickled gherkin for your bagel. My family came over from Poland, and my husband’s family came from Russia. Seven of us lived in a small house with a parrot. We left in the 1950’s. I hardly recognise the place now.”
Five minutes walk from Brick Lane is Spitalfields Market, recently voted by Londoners as London’s best. It is over three hundred years old, flanked by old redbrick walls and covered by a glass roof. One half of the market is for organic food, while the other half is occupied by young clothes designers, photographers and quirky stalls selling everything from original designer vintage sunglasses to funky and bizarre cameras. Gucci and Prada clad shoppers from Essex mix with the retro-chic Londoners as they make their way around the stalls. A Lenny Kravitz look-alike checks his look in a pair of 1970’s Ray Bans while a young girl plays with curtains made from photographs, dancing to the Brazilian sounds coming from a nearby music stall.
Another five minutes walk west and we are in the City, the financial capital of Europe. The streets are deserted, abandoned by the bankers and traders, suspended in time and left to themselves for the weekend. Huge modern monolithic office blocks dwarf their ancient counterparts, vying for space with each other. Some are reflected in the coloured glass of the newer buildings. It is a peculiarly soulful place, soon to be transformed back to the heartbeat of the country on Monday.
We follow the Jewish migration north by tube to Hampstead Heath, stopping for a cup of tea at “El Parko,” which is filled with young families and friends. The hubbub of children’s excited voices fills the air. Refreshed, we climb the hill as the late afternoon sun angles down. A father is teaching his daughter to fly her kite, shouting instructions she cannot hear. He ducks as the kite swoops low and then runs for cover as it dive bombs him, thudding to the ground. In the branches of the trees behind hang the remains of old kites, a multicoloured art installation of loss. A kestrel hovers over its prey, buffeted by the wind, untroubled by the kites swooping around it. A lady throws a stick for her grinning dog. Couples walk arm in arm and mothers push babies in pushchairs.
London, bathed in soft light, fans out in front of the hill: the towers of Canary Wharf, the dome of St Paul’s, the totem pole of the Telecom Tower, the bicycle wheel of the London Eye, all mixed in with the jigsaw puzzle of the city. On the brow of Hampstead Heath, a smart young man sits alone on a bench, engrossed in his contemplation of the view. As if in a movie scene, a beautiful girl strides from the path and walks across the grass to the bench. He turns to her, she sits. They kiss and begin to talk.
Windswept and uplifted I am reminded of what the English writer Samuel Johnson once said over three hundred years ago; “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”