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.
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.
A very convivial lunch today at a friend's place - he's recently started renting a flat in Stepney Green. Dunstan Houses, to be precise. Top floor. In fact, the exact same flat where Rudolf Rocker - the leader of the influential Yiddish-speaking anarchist movement in the East End before the First World War - lived a century ago.
'Yes, this was the Rocker residence', he declared, with a distinct and entirely justifiable sense of pride. 'There used to be a portrait of Malatesta on that wall, and of Bakunin on that wall.'
Hang on a moment - entirely credible but how does he know? Well, because Rudolf Rocker's son, the artist Fermin Rocker, wrote a wonderful memoir of growing up in Dunstan Houses - graced by his own drawing of the building.
The family moved in in about 1910. 'Dunstan Houses', Fermin recalled, 'though hardly an abode for the affluent, nevertheless had its own class distinctions and offered a scale of accommodations for the poor, the poorer, and the poorest. ... No. 33 was in what might be termed the luxury wing of the building. We had such conveniences as a private kitchen and a private lavatory ...'
Fermin writes that he looked upon his father 'as a god' - a sentiment not entirely in spirit with the movement. Then again you could say that Rudolf Rocker's undoubted leadership of the Jewish anarchist movement (though he was himself a 'goy', a gentile) was also not entirely in step with the libertarian, 'no master, high or low', ethos.
Rocker's own memoir, The London Years, has a drawing of him by his son on its cover.
Heading back from Stepney Green, we drove along Jubilee Street - the site of the anarchist club, which thrived from 1906 for almost a decade and was the beating heart of the movement. Nice to have a sense of proximity to a culture, a movement, which has now so utterly gone.
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