Wonky Panels

Our regular contributor takes a sideways look at life in Spitalfields.

Wonky Panels II

Absent Friends

One measure of the strength and depth of relationship in any community is the impact made upon it by bereavement. I have been struck these past few weeks by the extraordinary outpouring of sadness and regret at the untimely loss of Rodney Archer. It is surprising and humbling, the extent to which this gentle, quiet man was loved and admired in Spitalfields, and the readiness of people to express their emotion at his passing. People have been meeting in the street and candidly unburdening themselves of troubled and complicated feelings. Voices have been unsteady. Eyes hint at tears. It is not, obviously, quite the same as some state occasion, like the loss of a royal or celebrity or famous politician, yet in our little, intense, overwrought corner of Spitalfields, it counts at the very least as a milestone in our lives.

There have been other such milestones. Eric Elstob was a colossus in our neighbourhood. His reputation as polymath, conservationist, writer, antiquarian and financier, as well as leading light in the restoration of Christ Church, was immense. In awed tones we first heard about him over a garden fence in Oxford, where we lived at the time, when we explained one day in the early ‘nineties that we were headed for Spitalfields. The donnish, grey-haired, little old lady spoke to us animatedly. She had worked with Eric in one of the colleges. We knew we were taking a chance by sinking everything into this rundown London neighbourhood. Family members recoiled at our plans. But to hear of such distinguished new neighbours lifted our spirits. Like Rodney he was one of the adventurous ones, an early pioneer in tumbledown, neglected Spitalfields. He owned and restored the best house in Fournier Street, but had his rich, full life cut short at just sixty.

Dennis Severs likewise was famous, almost passing for a rock star in our neighbourhood. If Spitalfields wasn’t Bohemian before, he certainly made it so. We had heard all the stories: the saturnalian Christmas parties, the coach and four comically obstructing traffic on Kensington streets, and of course the majestic curating and breathing life into the imaginary Jervis family, now permanently lodged in their splendid, Hogarthian, Folgate Street home. Dennis was an American, from the mid-West. He owned a petrol station out there, from which all his life he derived a small income. I loved the beautiful irony of this. I loved thinking of Dennis plundering London antique markets for stage props for his house while thousands of miles away some pump attendant in dusty jeans and cowboy shirt was refuelling a gas guzzler on the forecourt of the family business. There are many such contradictions here. Otherwise normal people set about their daily lives in gloomy houses lit by gaslight, cooking their supper on a wood-burning range. This could only happen in Spitalfields.

I didn’t know Dennis too well, though I do remember him very much approving of our coffee house idea, and I liked that. Of course his funeral was a great coup de théatre and I well remember the day. Everyone turned out for the slow procession behind a funeral cart, in true East End style, even stopping the traffic in Commercial Street. How to explain such no-holds-barred, out-and-out enthusiasm for old England? It sometimes seems that we ex-colonials are more keen on the past and preserving it at all costs than native Britons. This is no doubt because we have so little history of our own worth keeping.

Peter Lerwill, in Princelet Street, was one of those sweet-tempered, undemonstrative, older-generation Spitalfields people whose loss when it came struck as such a blow. He too succumbed to cancer. This gentle man was always kind to me, and encouraged my building restoration project. He admired craftsmanship and gave me his collection of original brass doorbells and spring mechanisms. He wanted me to distribute them after he was gone, and faithfully I carried out this wish. His beautiful house was left to the Landmark Trust.

I first met John Cornwell at a summer garden party in Whitechapel. We would bump into each other on numerous occasions and each time there would be some short, but courteous and friendly, exchange between us. He once gave me a brass fire fender, confiding sadly that it was not to his wife’s taste. I totally understood why he was good at his job - family law. He was such a superb listener. Meeting in the street one day he told me he had eaten with family in my restaurant the night before. I held my breath and waited. “It was magnificent!” he charmingly stated. Of course I knew about the encroaching illness, and friends kept saying how sick he seemed. Not long before the end I turned the corner in Puma Court one day and saw him approaching. I could have bolted - but of course I didn’t. He was so very gaunt and thin under his dashing, broad-brimmed black felt hat. “You’ve been unwell,” I told him. Then, after a pause: “You must be very brave.” “But I’m not brave at all,” he quickly gave back, with little forgiving smile, to excuse my awkwardness. Then he carried on past me, there being nothing else to say.

Christ Church was full, nave and galleries, on the day of his funeral.

There were always plenty of good pubs in Spitalfields, but no two quite like The Gun and The Golden Heart. How sad therefore to relate that the landlords of these two long-lived, characterful, family-run public houses, David Pollock and Dennis Esquilant, both succumbed so cruelly and suddenly to cancer within a year or so of each other in the recent past.

Dennis and David were proper East End: how often can we truthfully say this when we speak of personalities of Spitalfields? They did not come down in the last shower. Dennis was from an old local family still active in the area. His nephew runs a recycling business - I take my waste cardboard to his depot in Greenwich every week. David’s mum and dad had his pub before him, just as Mark took over from David. There was a photo portrait of them affectionately fixed over the bar. David told me how he used to attend Sandys Row synagogue as a boy every Saturday, and the Repton Club on weekday evenings. He once took chase after a man who tried to steal our A-board. His son-in-law is a local fireman. These two took the place pretty much as they found it: there was no desire to cast it in a new image. This is perhaps what most makes the newcomers different. I loved how I used to see David stood at the public bar with a pint in The Golden Heart on Christmas Eve - a confraternity of publicans!

I once met Dennis by chance at the counter of the beigel shop at the top of Brick Lane. I was collecting beigels for the coffee house every day back then, and carting them back home again in the basket of my butcher’s bike. Dennis had by then taken a less prominent role in the running of his and Sandra’s beautiful pub. “How’s is it all going, Dennis?” asked the redhead behind the counter, sonorous in her thick Irish brogue. “Brilliant.... That’s what worries me,” Dennis replied. “How so?” she asked, confused. “Because it makes you wonder what’s round the corner.” I never forgot that day - I was haunted by this flash of wisdom.

I can’t remember when I first met Rodney Archer. It must have been near twenty years back. I remember saying that there was no risk of my forgetting his name, since he shared it with my father. This seemed to amuse him. He told me he was writing some magnum opus, a sort of modern-day Pepys or something, that everyone in Spitalfields is in it, and that we will all have to wait till it is published. This seemed slightly threatening, but I probably thought he was teasing. More recently, ever the thesp, he used to ask me if I was Donald Sinden’s son, and perhaps was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t. I never knew till the funeral that he wrote poems. I feel sad about this because he said kind things about mine.

I never saw inside his house, but from the video one can see that it is ravishing. It must be one of the very last Spitalfields houses not tampered with and “themed”, which seems to be the new fashion here. As Spitalfields continues to reinvent itself, we can only speculate on what will be the final outcome. One day last summer he came with two old Spitalfields friends to visit us on the coast. We made a tour of the house, during which Rodney was mostly silent. But he lit up upon seeing a bow front Regency chest with a glove drawer I had bought from Roy in the market. Everyone smiled when he cheekily asked what I gave for it. We had lunch in a nearby restaurant then toured the harbour and town. Rodney came back with a fetching seaside straw hat to add to his collection.

What I especially liked about Rodney was his not joining in with the narrow, “feudy” side of Spitalfields. Perhaps he has something to teach us here. This place is a village - an urban village - but has something myopic about it too, despite its supposed sophistication. Maybe we need to look further sometimes, past these streets, to things beyond, to the horizon. I pictured Rodney on the day of his funeral peering down from heaven on his bed of puffy white clouds, smiling at the assembled mourners (many of whom, as the eulogist hinted, are not actually on speaking terms), and cheerfully lapping up the spectacle.

He would have loved the theatre.

Wonky Panels I

Nature Notes

Those of you with a sharp ear might have heard long-term Fournier Street resident and newly elected SNP member John Nicolson speaking up at PMQs recently. His question about a possible Channel 4 sell-off was batted off well enough by Cameron, but nevertheless made the news schedules that evening. John was there as anchorman right at the start of BBC Breakfast TV back in the early eighties (he interviewed Mrs Thatcher among others), and more recently helped restore derelict historic properties in the neighbourhood of London Hospital, where Tim Whittaker and other Spitalfields emigres did such fine conservation work for a decade or so.

Meanwhile John’s Princelet Street neighbour and fellow MP, Julian Smith, has a busy time ahead in the Whips office, where he was promoted from the Treasury after the May election. Given the Tories paper-thin Commons majority, and minority in the Lords, it looks like Julian has his work cut out.

Has anyone contemplated writing nature notes - field notes - to our neighbourhood I wonder? There is perhaps an unexpected rich vein of nature running here in Spitalfields, and I don’t just mean what is disgorged by Liverpool Street tube station on the weekends. Consider the foxs’ lair just yards from Carluccio’s, and directly under the noses of the estate management security. How cocky and unfazed are these beautiful creatures, as they insolently inspect the passers-by. Their eyes shine like diamonds in the shadowy places at the edge of the market.

A bi-product of the demolitions of disused buildings is the loss of habitat to birds and animals. “Black redstart”, the young birder called out to us one morning from the street, pointing and looking up to the roof of the old night shelter building on Crispin Street. This magnificent pile was about to come down at the time, apparently without any murmur or whisper of criticism or revolt in disputatious Spitalfields - how did that happen? Behind the retained facade, ready-made student rooms would be lowered by cranes and fitted together like toy blocks to house LSE postgrads. He well knew the bird’s lovely call - it quite stopped him in his tracks. We had watched the nesting pair - incredibly rare in England, they had crossed continents to get here - who apparently liked the craggy isolated nooks of this abandoned urban landscape. The male has an entrancing way of fanning out his filmy black wings and tawny tail and suspending, momentarily, all forward movement. He will never alight on his perch without first performing this little dance in the air. We identified a bit with those redstarts. We wondered how they would manage when everything was soon swept away.

“Spitalfields rocks” we used to say, of its trendiness. Now we mean something quite different. When a building comes down across the road from where you live you get an interesting new view, at least temporarily, of what lies behind. You may catch yourself staring at this for quite some time. Unaccustomed sunlight comes flooding into rooms normally cast in shadow. And how strange it is to see a section all the way through, a clean cut, with tiled walls, staircases, chimneys, sitting rooms and bedrooms all open. It is poignant to discover that many of the buildings we have cherished and admired year after year, some of them old and historic, may turn out to be more valuable to society - or at any rate to developers - as putative piles of dust to make way for the innovations of modernity. The owners of the Wellington Arms, in Brune Street, for example, must have felt like they’d won the euro lottery when their site was slated for yet another Spitalfields mega-development, complete with multi-story tower blocks vanishing up into the clouds. The payoff was eye-watering, and there have been others since. The temptation to sell up must be huge. It certainly beats pulling pints at the bar day after day and the monotonous routine of a desultory lunchtime trade.

The revolving door which is corporate Spitalfields has been spinning frenziedly ever since the old market changed hands and went into ownership from America. New investment is of course a very good thing but it has been a bumpy ride in the market. One recent disappearance is the upmarket Swedish sandwich place that replaced the traders’ favourite Daily Grind in Brushfield Street. How long did that new place last - about five minutes? Turn your head and it’s gone. The ‘Grind’ hung on for many a long year, and was the nearest thing Spitalfields had to an informal cafe, after the disappearance of Dino’s in Commercial Street and, before that, the Market Cafe in Fournier Street, Gilbert and George’s old breakfast haunt. I guess you have to eat out if you don’t have a kitchen. High rents presumably caused its demise, just as they did for Los Barriles, the famous Spanish tapas restaurant, over on the other side of the market. I still hear people talking fondly about that place. It was a highly successful long-established family business but when the new owners reviewed the rent they handed back the keys.

Noncorporate Spitalfields, or what remains of it, looks to be in better shape perhaps, and definitely needs to be celebrated and supported. A. Gold, in Brushfield Street, after all these years, is still faring well in Paulo’s tender care. You can’t get a better warm roast leg of lamb sandwich anywhere that I know. Everything is cooked fresh on the premises with great flare. Phil has stepped back a little there, but is still doing creative web design. Their business first got going about fifteen years earlier when Philip's old school chum Ian Thomas and wife Safia Shah created their English delicatessen - a wonderful cornucopia of British specialities in traditional food and drink culture, with evocative products like dandelion and burdock, English mead, Campbell's tea, Cumbrian fudge and London honey. To pause a moment among the groaning wood racks stacked high to the ceiling is to take a swoonmaking, sentimental tour of the British Isles - not to be missed.

Harvey’s shop just next door, Verde, equally looks fabulous and is pulling in great numbers of adherents to old Spitalfields. When, some twenty years ago, Merchant Ivory wanted it for a set for one of Henry James’s novels they hardly needed to dress it. It served as the curious little Bloomsbury antique shop which lured in Charlotte Stant and Amerigo in The Golden Bowl.

In the silk purses from sows’ ears category we need to congratulate Ottolenghi which finally opened recently after an interminable building refurbishment project and, it must be said, now looks stunning. This is in Artillery Passage, in place of the old Eat and Drink Restaurant. I don’t think many can mourn that old boozy city speakeasy. Surely there never was a more unauthentic Chinese restaurant. It was mainly noted for its karaoke parties, and for upsetting neighbours with noise nuisance late at night. Ottolenghi’s white temple to contemporary food style certainly rings the changes for Spitalfields. It is all refinement and glamour and seems to pull in a great many visitors from outside the neighbourhood.

A rumour doing the rounds that there are age checks to keep out the over twenty-fives we feel sure is exaggerated...