Rarely has a few square miles of earth generated such notoriety, and spawned so many myths, as London's East End.
From Jack the Ripper to the Kray twins, from the Blitz spirit to the curry houses of Brick Lane, everyone has a fixed image of what Jewish writer Ed Glinert describes as "the Awful East".
Today the area has been swallowed in rising gentrification, a home to artists and entrepreneurs, yuppies and bohemians. But on the trail of its well-documented miseries have traipsed some of the world's finest writers and their creations: from Charles Dicken's Fagin (based on an infamous Jewish 'fence') to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu; from Oscar Wilde's opium smoking Dorian Gray to Monica Ali's Nazneen in Brick Lane.
It was here, too, that campaigning author Arthur Morrison wrote of turn-of-the-century prostitutes, thieves and villains in the now-demolished Jago (in the heart of today's Banglatown). Where just a few months before he penned his classic, Call of the Wild, young American novelist Jack London wandered through the "Abyss", as he called it, at the height of Edwardian England. And George Orwell recorded his days homeless "on the spike" in his seminal Down and Out in Paris and London.
Into this maelstrom of misery comes Ed Glinert's fascinating account of "three hundred years of mystery and mayhem". Glinert, a walking guide and journalist, and author of both The Literary Guide to London and The London Compendium, is a master digger. Months in dusty archives have clearly paid off, for East End Chronicles unearths the often horrifying, bizarre, cruel and occasionally just plain odd events that have taken place within the boundaries of the City, the Thames, the Lea and Hackney borders.
Mediaeval plague victims throw themselves – alive – into burial pits. The Kabbalah and Masonic themes resonate strongly in Christopher Wren's attempts to physically reshape the capital (a 'New Jerusalem') after the Great Fire. The growth of the docks and seafarers is recorded, their drinking exploits and fight for daily work a reminder of the brutality of life until recent days. Numerous immigrant groups pass through its boundaries and Glinert points out, not ironically, that no-one in the East End today can trace their family further back than the 18th century. The Huguenot Protestants melted into the London fabric but the Irish Catholics were hated – indeed there were race riots – whilst the arrival of thousands of Jews fleeing persecution between 1880 until the First World War prompted the signing of the Aliens Act 1905, the country's first halt to immigration.
Glinert's East End also includes the stories of religious fanatics and mystics, such as the Ba'al Shem (master of the secret names of God) Chaim Jacob Samuel Falk, noted alchemist who indulged in esoteric sexual experiments. Fleeing a death sentence in Germany (for sorcery), he arrived in the East End in 1742. It was rumoured Falk had mastered the powers to create a fabled 'golem' in his laboratories. Among the many who came to seek his teachings was Giacoma Casanova.
Of course, there are murders here, too. Not just the Ripper, but the brutal double slayings on the Ratcliff Highway (now the soulless Highway which carves through the top end of the post-war docks) in 1811, which shocked London to its core.
In the years leading up to the First World War there are Jewish pimps, such as Ikey Bogard, who liked dressing as a cowboy and toting a real gun. And there are Jewish gangs, such as the Bessarabians (from Romania), dressed in wide Panama hats sporting huge peacock feathers, who ran protection rackets and specialised in blackmailing prospective brides.
There are even Jewish anarchists pelting ultra-Orthodox worshippers outside the Spitalfields Great Synagogue (now the Brick Lane Mosque, the only building outside the Holy Land to have hosted all three religions) with bacon on the Day of Atonement.
"The worshippers fought back and Brick Lane soon became a battleground, with fists and lumps of bacon sandwich flying amid the cashmere coats, shtreimel hats and ringlets."
There are fascists and terrorists, anarchists and revolutionaries, suffragettes and preachers. Even a Communist MP, a tacit reminder that George Galloway is not the first, or perhaps last, radical to don an East End mantle.
To historians the themes may be familiar, and little of Glinert's own views emerge until his outbursts on post-war reconstruction. But to anyone a little bored with the slew of 'Brick Lane'-type books appearing recently, East End Chronicles is a welcome return to that nasty Abyss which lives and breathes beneath the new City glitter.
This story was commissioned for The Express © 2005
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