My New Year ramble has become an annual custom - this time (new camera in hand) there was a touch less serendipity about the route. I wanted to walk along Jubilee Street in Stepney, and visit one of the last surviving Jewish institutions in the old East End.
The walk began at Aldgate tube station and took me along Commercial Road, the distinctly shabby main road heading east towards Canary Wharf. There are a few old mansion blocks still lining the street, but most of the businesses are given over to wholesale garment shops - and the cheap end of the business. Almost all are South Asian-run, but it's a continuation of what was the defining industry of the Jewish East End. Coincidence perhaps, but a curious and heartwarming one.
There's still a synagogue on Commercial Road - one of, I think, only three surviving in the East End where once were were 150 or more. The Congregation of Jacob dates back to 1903 though this building was consecrated only in 1921. It has an imposing frontage and by all accounts the interior is even more splendid - but this morning it was firmly shut.
Jubilee Street runs from Commercial Road several hundred yards north to Whitechapel Road, and at the northern end is Rinkoff Bakeries. I'd never been there before. I'll certainly be going again. I had a coffee and a smoked salmon and cream cheese beigel. Excellent! And I brought back pastries for the family.
The place does good business. There are a few tables - both inside and out (and even on a nippy January morning most of the outside tables were taken) - and a steady stream of customers ... tourists, 'pilgrims', but mainly locals who want a take away cake, beigel or coffee.
That's Ray above, with a model of himself in his days as a master baker. He trades a lot on tradition, but there's quality in the mix too. I had never heard of Rinkoffs until I started thinking about this walk - if you haven't been, do go!
Jubilee Street has been knocked around a lot. There's only a short stretch towards the north end that looks a little as it would have done a century ago, when this area was overwhelmingly Jewish.
The street has a special place in the history of the East End - it was the epicentre of of the once formidable anarchist movement in this part of London.
The Jubilee Street Club was established in 1906 and for eight years was both a social and educational centre. Rudolf Rocker was closely associated with the club, and such anarchist luminaries as Kropotkin and Malatesta spoke here. I once interviewed Nellie Dick (born Naomi Ploschansky) who as a young woman was active in the Jubilee Street Club and helped to organise a 'Modern School' here.
There's a wonderful account of this and other London anarchist clubs, including a rather grainy photograph, in this research paper by the historian Jonathan Moses. It's worth a read. The old club building was demolished many decades ago and Jarman House, with its distinctive sky blue balconies, now stands on the site.
A little to the east lies Stepney Green, a wonderfully peaceful and historic spot. Rudolf Rocker and his family - including his younger son Fermin, an artist - once lived in a top floor flat here. By chance a few year ago, I had the opportunity to visit that same flat in Dunstan House when my friend Bill Schwarz was putting up here. Fermin's drawing of the building graced the cover of his memoir of his East End childhood, and you can see how little it has changed.
Just to the south is the church of St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney - one of the few London churches which is genuinely medieval. In origin it is Anglo-Saxon and houses a tenth century rood, a representation of the crucifixion (the photo is from the church's website), which is believed to be a remnant of the church that St Dunstan himself may have founded here.
And as so often with old London churches, its memorials are testament to the human cost of Britain's Imperial ambitions.
Just east of the church and its grounds, there's the sort of street that I just love - Durham Row, tiny post-war bungalows on one side, and (at a guess) mid-nineteenth century buildings on the other, several of which seem once to have been shops. And above one of these one-time shop windows, it's just possible to make out an inscription: E, Andrews, FLORIST.
Another couple of hundred yards, and I reached the Regent's Canal - the end of my walk. Thanks for making the journey with me.
And as I looked back, there was the City looming over the East End, looking almost enticing ... from a distance.
Another of the tenuous links with the days when the End End was a Jewish enclave is about to be lost. S. Reiss (it's pronounced Rees) is just about the last Jewish-run business left at the heart of what was once the Jewish East End. It's an old-fashioned men's outfitters on Whitechapel High Street, near the junction with Goulston Street where - until not all that long ago - another old East End institution, Tubby Isaacs' seafood stall, had its pitch.
I got a shock when I saw the 'closing down' posters today as I passed by. I popped in and had a brief chat with Stuart behind the counter. Yes, he said, it's still a Jewish-run concern. No, it's not moving. It's shutting down altogether at the end of September.
I'm tempted to buy a memento - not sure what. Perhaps a trilby, which somehow seems to be a suitable purchase from the last Jewish menswear shop in this part of the city. The trilby I discover got its name from George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby - which featured a heroine so named. In the initial stage production, a narrow brimmed hat of this sort was worn - and the term stuck.
If I get one, I'll be sure to post a photo!
Bill Fishman, foremost historian and champion of the Jewish East End, was remembered at a warm and well attended memorial meeting in London's East End this afternoon. Bill knew he was part of a vanishing tribe, those who grew up in the Jewish East End as well as chronicled it - he described himself with his customary mischief, recalled colleague Nadia Valman, as "the last of the Mohicans".
Bill's great work was East End Jewish Radicals - retrieving the world just before the First World War when many poor Jewish immigrants in Whitechapel, Stepney and Spitalfields looked to anarchism as an ideology of self-respect and hope.There was a bit of the anarchist about Bill - and he was certainly in some ways anarchic. But Lord Trevor Smith, speaking this afternoon, caught the ambiguity about Bill when he described him as "an anarcho-conformist".
He found romance and valour in the tales of East End anarchists - and it was wonderful that among those present today was the grandson of Rudolf Rocker, the German goy who was the key figure in the Yiddish-speaking movement in the East End in the twenty years before twin events, World War and then the Russian Revolution, utterly changed the political landscape.
Bill also relished his army service during the Second World War, serving in India and Burma and picking up a smattering of Urdu which he used to theatrical effect in later life. And while of working class roots, the life his family led - as one of his sons pointed out - was determinedly middle-class, not in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green but first in North Kensington and later in the suburbs of Kenton.
I remember going on one of Bill Fishman's flamboyant guided walks round the East End back in 1981. A few years later, he was a key part of two radio documentaries I made - one for Radio 4 about Arthur Morrison's 'Jago' and the other for the World Service about Rudolf Rocker (the audio of both is here). He was warm and enthusiastic, and incredibly generous - he gave me two rare old socialist pamphlets, an act of great kindness ... though I found it disconcerting to be addressed in my late twenties as "boy", meant kindly of course but also putting me in my place.
The last time I saw Bill was at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Cable Street - an event he witnessed on 4th October 1936. He was very frail, but proud to be present to mark a defining political moment in the East End, when left-wing opponents of fascism made common cause to stop Oswald Mosley and his followers marching through the Jewish East End.
The venue for today's memorial meeting was so appropriate - Queen Mary in the East End, the academic institution with which Bill was most closely linked .... and surely the only university anywhere which is built around a Jewish cemetery, where today the harebells put on a marvellous display.
I first met Sanchita Islam quite a few years back in the lobby of what was then the Whitechapel Library. Arnold Wesker was there too. For a radio programme, I was taking them through the streets just to the north, their East Ends, and looking at the different meanings and memories tied up with the buildings on and around Brick Lane. I wasn't sure they were going to get on. But after a tricky moment early on, they hit it off just fine, and it was one of the more memorable pieces of radio I've pulled off.
Sanchita's style of art is eclectic. This is an oil painting entitled 'Dadu' - the Bengali word for paternal grandmother. I find it wonderfully evocative and affectionate. Sanchita is British of Bangaldeshi heritage, and has taken an unconventional route to being a well known and regarded artist, writer and film-maker. Don't take my word, here's her own account:
'Her path towards becoming an artist has been an unconventional one.
A former model, a former Miss Bengali beauty queen, a double graduate from the
London School of Economics, the recipient of a Channel 4 bursary to attend Film
School, and a Chelsea School of art school drop out, her education has been eclectic
to say the least. She has always been somewhat of a maverick, eschewing the gallery
system, Sanchita set up her own Pigment Explosion Gallery, off Brick Lane, in 1999,
engaging in international art projects and showing her work in both galleries and
unconventional spaces in London and abroad.'
You can find out more here about pigmentexplosion - and in March, she's going to have a mid-career retrospective entitled 'The Rebel Within'. It will be at Rich Mix on Bethnal Green Road. Thanks to Sanchita for allowing me to post these images of her art - and see you there!
LATER- Sanchita Islam comments: The painting of Dadu is based on a very poor quality digital photo I took of my step-grandmother in Barisal Bangladesh. The bed on which she sits, where we see her absorbed in the Koran, was as hard as wood, but she didn't seem to mind. The house is over one hundred years old - relatively untouched with its crumbling, cracked walls - and very charming. I am a great admirer of Vermeer, his use of light and the elevation of the ordinary folk into something monumental. I was trying to create a modern day Vermeer in a Bangladeshi setting, a subject we see rarely in contemporary modern art. I'm not saying I am anyway near Vermeer, but that was my point of reference and inspiration.
The other piece is the beginning of a 30-foot scroll of the panoramic view of East London executed from the top of Shoreditch House, which I completed during my residency there. I've been drawing the East End of London from rooftops for many years and am constantly fascinated by the rapid state of change of urban landscapes. The view was quite dramatically different by the time of completion with the fat concrete arm of the new train line brutally obscuring everything in its path. The landscape has altered irrevocably as a result.
What a remarkable film clip! This is Max Bacon - a radio and music hall comedian - performing 'Cohen the Crooner, the Crosby from Mile End' in a 1936 movie: 'Soft Lights and Sweet Music'. Part of it was filmed on location at Mile End market.
I owe this to Alan Dein. He's just bought a 78 rpm copy of this number at his local charity shop. And scouring around the internet to find out more, he came across the wonderful YouTube clip posted above.
As you can see, the sleeve of the disc Alan bought (thanks Alan for screening it and sending the image on) shows that it originally came from a shop in - yes - Mile End!
_There's a brief biography of Max Bacon here. He was a drummer with the renowned Ambrose orchestra, and did occasional comedy songs, before later going into variety and making radio appearances.
He is on the left on the accompanying photo of two Jewish comedians - an image I came across on a site I warmly recommend, run by Phil Walker and devoted to the Jewish East End http://www.jewisheastend.com/london.html
_Doing my own digging about the song and the singer, I found another YouTube clip - which said it was Adele performing 'Cohen the Crooner'. Really?!!! Well, yes and no - not that Adele, but worth watching all the same:
And the lyrics of the song, courtesy of mudcat ... all together now!
As I push my barrow along
You'll hear me sing the latest song
I'm Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
I sell peanuts penny a bag
To the tune of Tiger Rag
I'm Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
I sing jazz or [h]opera
My customers to suit,
But I don't give a hoot
So long I sell my fruit.
Radio singers may be swell
But they can't sell you fruits as well
Like Cohen the crooner
The Crosby from Mile End.
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