All history tends towards the picturesque. Where was once a tyrant’s hated castle is now a romantic ruin. Where was once the poor and violent East End of London is now the hipster heart of the city, full of bike shops and artisan bakers. But the old East End survives within living memory, and the mission of Spitalfields Life is to collect those memories before they disappear for ever.
Spitalfields Life has published more than 2,600 posts and 31,000 photographs since it was founded in 2009, almost all of them the work of The Gentle Author, a figure who guards her anonymity so closely that even her gender is not a matter of public record. (I am going to guess at a feminine gender because that is the voice I hear when I read.)
We know tantalising scraps of the Gentle Author’s life from interviews. She grew up in Devon, built a successful career as a writer for stage and screen, then gave it all up to nurse her widowed mother through dementia.
When her mother died, she moved to London. In the motto which adorns her blog: “In the midst of life I woke to find myself living in an old house beside Brick Lane in the East End of London”.
In the evening she writes up the conversation and posts it to Spitalfields Life. The result is a glorious patchwork quilt of characters and folklore spanning every trade, every street, every disposition. Here is the voice of George Parrin, Ice Cream Seller:
“I bought a pair of crocodiles in the Club Row animal market once. They’re docile as long as you keep them in the water but when they’re out of it they feel vulnerable and they’re dangerous. I can’t remember what I did with mine when they got large. I sell watches sometimes. If anybody wants a watch, I can go and get it for them. In winter, I make jewellery with shells from the beach in Spain, matching earrings with ‘Hello’ and ‘Hola’ carved into them. I’m thinking of opening a pie and mash shop in Spain.”
All human life is here in Spitalfields — and some death too, as when the Gentle Author talks to Billy Frost, chauffeur to the Kray Brothers:
“The day that Ronnie shot Georgie I had a day off. It was about a week later, when Ronnie and Scotch Jack were driving round to the widow’s pub in Bethnal Green, Ronnie saw Georgie Cornell’s car parked outside The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel High St. And he told Scotch Jack to turn round and go to the Green Dragon where someone was keeping a gun for him. Then Ronnie walked into The Blind Beggar and shot Georgie Cornell in the head.”
There is a dream-like quality to Spitalfields Life. As you are drawn into it, you feel as though you are leaving behind the brightly-coloured East End of the present, and stepping into the black-and-white East End that we know from photographs of a hundred years ago — an East End full of bakers and cheesemakers, publicans and market traders, street cries and cabbies’ shelters.
It is wonderful that the East End has such a history, and wonderful that so many traces of it can still be found. But would one have wanted to live there? In my case, probably not. And certainly not on Columbia Road, popular with bodysnatchers in the 1830s and with the Kray Brothers in the 1960s :
“All told, in eighty hundred and fifty yards, there have been ten murders, not counting the fifty-three bomb deaths, at least four suicides and five people hung as a consequence of local crime. Of the murders, three remain unsolved.”
Nowadays, Columbia Road is best-known for its Sunday flower market. The gangsters have made way for coffee shops and bakeries. My advice is to sit in a coffee shop, read Spitalfields Life, and get the best of both worlds.
Robert Cottrell is editor of The Browser, which recommends five or six pieces of exceptional writing available online each day. He was previously a staff writer for The Economist and the Financial Times.