Tuesday 16 June 2009

London, my London (Brick Lane)

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)

Copyright 2009


  1. Dear Cuban,
    I love this post! I really got a sense of the hustle and bustle of this neighborhood and appreciate learning about its offerings as well as its reputation. The bookstore sounds wonderful; there's nothing like a bookstore that has knowledgeable personnel who provides quality service. I hope they gave you some great discounts for having wonderful taste.

    I would like some paella and a dessert crepe please.

  2. Hi Mr Cuban

    I really enjoyed the book by this name, and saw the movie recently...

    As for Germaine Greer...an Australian we might at times rather forget...I side with Salman Rushdie on that one...Every novel or film is only ever the maker's version of life - his perceptions and all are valid...seeing the world through different eyes is the way we learn to be discriminatory and discerning...

    Thanks for the walk down Brick Lane

    Happy Days

  3. sounds interesting
    If I'm ever in London, I'll be sure to visit.
    and thanks for the comment on my blog

  4. Man, that post was what words like great, awesome and super were born to describe. I could see myself standing there, soaking it in and laughing at my good luck for experiencing it. Excellent photographs and verbal descriptions, CiL.

    My first stop would be at the Eastside Bookshop and, hopefully, I would not spend the entire day there. Then, again, there is always tomorrow for the rest of it. A bit of this and a bit of that, and close out the excursion at the "Bar Open Till Late." Sounds like my sort of place.

    Thank you, CiL, for planting another seed in my mind.

  5. Lo bueno de los blogs, son descubrir reportajes como estos donde viajamos constantemente a lugares agradables y además con las gente que mejor nos cae. ;)
    Buena crónica bro. Nos cuadraría muchísimo ir a hacerte la visita, pero
    MR. $ Washington está peleao con nosotros. jajaja.

  6. qué ganas de volver... cada uno tiene sus barrios... incluso en las grandes ciudades

  7. I thought I knew Brick Lane reasonably well, it being not far off my old stomping grounds, but I feel I know it much better after reading your thrillingly informative post. many, many thanks for that. Very much appreciated. Old times recaptured and all that.

  8. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Delwyn, I normally enjoy Germaine's Guardian column every fortnight on Mondays but I think she is way too opinionated on occasions and I felt that in this instance she was not right. I have heard the same comment you made from other Australian expats.

    Greetings from London.

  9. London, no he podido leer este post porque estoy trabajando pero solo para decirte que te deje un mensaje de respuesta en mi blog sobre lo de las fotos.

    saluditos, Liset

  10. I love London markets, I think you gain a much more vivid image than in the department stores. I'm a huge Brixton and Camden Market fan but that's because I never made it to Brick Lane. I read the novel but I appreciate your political insight on the neighborhood.

  11. I love the Brick Lane, and your post have brought all these nice memories of London - the city that I somehow love, even if I do not know it that well, even if I have never lived there.

    Hope things are good there. Please take care, and thank you,


  12. Now this was fun! I want you to be my tour guide if I ever return to London. Paella sounds good. In fact, the thought of it made me starving!

    Please post more of your neck of the woods!

  13. I do love Brick Lane!
    so lively and colorful...
    We visited the immigration museum, 3 years ago..next to it..an amazing old house which contains a synagogue inside. Waves of immigrants found refuge in this house. It is very old and needs restoration. I wonder if it's still opened.
    Great post, Sir Cuban!

  14. Hi there,

    We need your help.

    I am shamelessly promoting a project at my website for everyone to see.

    Just click on my name and then I will also ask if you will join me to shamelessly join in and promote it too. The more who join, the more shamelessness for us all. This should be fun for everyone and we are doing something good.

    God bless.

  15. Oh isn't it wonderful to live in a city like London and feel, despite it not being your place of birth, that it is yours. My uncle lives in London, and despite Bombay being his hometown, he considers London his true home, the true expression of himself.
    Here, the olde Cambridge of the 18 and 1900s is slowly merging into a world of modern shops, cars and traffic jams... they cut down all the trees outside the hospital. Can you imagine removing the only truly healing aspect a patient has access to? My father is a Consultant too, and he worked in a Bombay hospital which was built on the edge of the sea. The views inspired some of his most beautiful paintings..
    I love the part where you buy poetry for your wife :) Keats, Shakespeare and Blake! All in one day! Blissful.

  16. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Liset, en cuanto tenga un tiempito por alli te caigo.

    Fly Girl, I love Brixton market, even though I have only been there once. What I remember the best is that I bought some mangoes that tasted like real mangoes :-)!

    Willow, believe me, I still had paella the day after. Also, the Spanish guy gave me an extra ration. The advantages of being Cuban! :-)

    My Castle, for a really good walk off the beaten tourist path, come out of Bethnal Green station and stroll down Bethnal Green Road all the way to Shoreditch. Brick Lane should be on your right. On the way there you will come across that old sinagogue (yes, I have seen it), the Museum of Childhood and some other surprises that will make you wonder if you are in London, in Nigeria, in Brazil or in India.

    Shaista, pity to read about the trees being cut down. I've been to Cambridge only once (I went to visit a friend at her college in uni) but have been in the area a few times. I loved the landscape and the drive there was very easy and picturesque, although I was not behind the wheel. My wife is reading the Blake collection and I am very satisfied that she liked it. She had 'Songs of Innocence' many years ago and somehow we cannot find it now. So it was a way of compensating her/our loss.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  17. Wow, looks so fun and festive. I want to go! :)

  18. Cuban, I'm back! Qué placer volver a leerte. Me ha encantado lo que cuentas de este sitio. A ver cuando me toca caer por allí. Un abrazo desde Montreal.

    lo stile, la moda sempre sportivo classica, la musica, tutto insomma.
    Mi piace sempre leggere qualcosa su questa cittá unica nel suo stile. Specie da uno che ci abita e la vive giornalmente!!

    Un saluto da Colonia Cuban,

  20. OH! What a superb post...I was whisked from my bucolic patch of Hampshire straight into the hubbub and colour of wonderful Brick Lane. Our younger daughter - who lives in a lovely old, high ceilinged apartment just off the Edgeware road (much to my intial horror - love it now) which she chose over Clapham/Battersea because, she said, it felt more like Africa/Middle East than London proper - is a habitué of Brick Lane and its environs on Saturday mornings.

    I wonder if you've read Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane? It’s a delightful, unpretentious account of his time on Brick Lane – he rented a small flat in the area - and the plethora of richly diverse characters who live and work there. I think you’d enjoy it immensely, Mr Cuban.

  21. I haven't visited Brick Lane, but when I get back to London I definitely will.

    London is the most international city I've ever been in. Every neighborhood is so different from all the rest. Though all London neighborhoods have one thing in common: great bookstores.

    Lovely tour! Thank you.

  22. I saw the film,"Brick Lane" a few months ago, never read the book. Didn't know anything about the controversy, glad it got done, even though it moved locations. I agree with Rushdie, freedom of expression. I liked the movie,was surprised at how fond I became of the husband, and how little I cared for the dishy guy!

  23. Many thanks for your kind comments. Tessa, your daughter lives very near another area in London I would like to know some day, Southhall. It has the largest Hindu community in the capital. I haven't read that book and now that you mention it I will be looking it up.

    Salva, es mi placer, tambien, molto grazie.

    Reya, according to current figures, in London there're roughly a hundred languages more than in New York, I think that says it all.

    Lyn, my disappointment with the movie did not come from a comparison between book and flick but because the picture was too formulaic,in my opinion. And slow, very, very slow.

    Isabella, que bueno tenerte de vuelta.

    Wendy, welcome to my blog.

    Greetings from London.

  24. I do miss London markets...so thanks for the reminder...I also really like Columbia Rd, greenwich mkt and Southall Broadway for wonderful curries...will soon be home in summer for my London fix...can't wait. Greetings from Mexico...

  25. Great post! Having lived in London for nearly nine years I have only recently come to discover Brick Lane. I'm not a fan a hustle and bustle of hip market areas, Camden Town is not my kind of town, but I do love Brick Lane. I have my favourite eatery there and I always sit by the window watching the world go past.

    I've never been to the market, I must say, I will though, and soon.

  26. aahhh..william blake. i enjoyed the poems of his we studied in an english course a few semesters ago.

    your reviews are always thorough and much appreciated! this is one worthy of printing out prior to my trip there (whenever it may be!)

  27. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  28. Oh, I did love going on this tour with you. Your descriptions took me right there. Sigh. Now if I could only tour with you in person.

  29. Thanks for your kind comment, Relyn, much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...