Pushed down by Swanfield Street in the north and cushioned by Osborn Street in the south, Brick Lane is that kind of area that rarely makes it to tourist brochures, yet it's a must-go place for those interested in finding out what the real, contemporary London looks and feels like.
This street derives its current name from former brick and tile manufacture, using the local brick earth deposits, that began in the 15th century. After successive waves of immigration that included Huguenots, Irish and Ashkenazi Jews it is now a hotbed of Bangladeshi culture, hence its nickname is 'Banglatown'.
The first time I was on Brick Lane I was unaware of both this rich history and the significance of the place. Returning there recently on what was a very warm day gave me a better sense of the hustle and bustle that engulfs this part of east London.
The first sight that greets the visitor is the Brick Lane fruit and vegetable Market, developed in the 17th century. With produce coming from all over the world, it could easily compete with the Brixton market, another outdoor retail/wholesale venue in south London.
There's also a Sunday market which originated with the Jewish community. I would say that it is a far better option than the Camden market, another place about which I posted recently. For starters, there's less repetition and more creativity. The prices are lower and the quality of the products higher. I bought me a coat for fifteen quid. That would have normally set me back fifty pounds, but as the temperatures rise the price for winterwear plummets. I also purchased a second-hand jacket that cost me three quid. In Camden that would have probably been tenner. The shops have an air of uniqueness to them. And luckily for the visitor, most of the boutiques have emigrated to nearby renovated and regenerated Spitalfields, leaving Brick Lane with a true feeling of authenticity. On the pavements musicians play; blues, reggae or rock fill up the air with exuberant sounds.
Take Eastside Bookshop, for instance. I bought a few books in it: a collection of poems by William Blake as a present for my wife, an updated edition of Shakespeare's sonnets published by Cambridge University Press and a selection of poems by John Keats printed by Oxford University. But Eastside goes beyond that. It organises poetry readings and competitions, the staff is kind, friendly and helpful and they actually talk to you and ask you questions on what your literary tastes are. As someone who spends quite a lot of money buying books from amazon.co.uk, it was a pleasure to leave the store with those poetry collections under my arm. Unlike online shopping, where you cannot touch the merchandise, the physical contact with novels, essays and memoirs brings my inner child out in a jiff and I had to hold myself back from parting with yet more money for more books.
There's another place I strongly recommend, especially when you are hungry as my wife and I were. Avoid the overpriced restaurants on either side of Brick Lane and head for the Sunday Upmarket. It is located inside The Old Truman Brewery and it currently hosts hundreds of stalls offering you any product from fashion to food. Wander around the kiosks here and you'll come across charm vintage jewellery, handmade greeting cards, printed garments, hot Ethiopian coffee, Spanish tapas (I got me some paella, nice!) and luxurious, jewel-coloured eel skin bags.
Unfortunately, there's another reason why Brick Lane is (in)famous these days. In 2003, Monica Ali's novel of the same name saw the light. It depicted the tribulations of a Bangladeshi woman recently arrived in the country with no command of the English language and feeling isolated. She had been married off to a man many years her senior and had been separated from her sister whom she loved dearly. What came to be seen as a cultural war started when Monica sold the book rights to a film company and the latter decided to shoot the movie on site. A 'Campaign Against Monica Ali's Brick Lane' was formed by some of the elders of the Bangladeshi community and the area acquired a notoriety that I'm sure was not what most dwellers of this deprived part of London had in mind. Once more, two of the UK''s intellectual stalwarts, Germaine Greer and Salman Rushdie, locked horns. Greer defended the local community's decision to ban Ruby Films from shooting in situ since, according to her, the depiction of this disadvantaged community was a caricature that conformed to the stereotypes most British people had in regards to this ethnic minority. On the other hand Rushdie argued for freedom of expression, probably based on his own experience from a few years before, after his novel 'The Satanic Verses' was publicly condemned and burned by hysterical fanatics. In the end, the film was shot in another part of London. Having read both the book and watched the movie, I can honestly aver to the quality of the former whilst bemoaning the poor narrative of the latter.
Cultural differences apart, Brick Lane is one of those necessary stops for the visitor to London. Whether you are keen on antiques, or on flea markets, this is an area that will appeal to you. A sound system nearby blasting out dub and roots reggae, is also a strong reminder that when the sun comes down, it's time to dust off your dancing shoes and get with the rhythm.
All photos by the blog's author.
Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World' to be published on Thursday 18th June at 11:59pm (GMT)