Monday, January 14, 2013

Spitalfields, London

This final London post is mostly devoted to a singular book and a singular site, with a few short comments at the very end.  It's long, but I think you'll find it rewarding!

If you read an earlier post, you know that I spent a fantastic Sunday in the East End.  When I was in the really neat store, Labour & Wait, I bought a copy of Spitalfields Life, by "The Gentle Author" (Saltyard Books, 2012).  [And as an aside, I can't resist telling you what a wonderful publisher Saltyard Books is! This is what they say about themselves: "Kick off your shoes.  Pour yourself a drink.  The weekend has only just begun.  Here at the Saltyard we believe in doing things right.  We believe that life is full of goodness.  All you need to really enjoy it is a little time...We believe in travel and time away.  What better than waking up somewhere new on a Saturday morning, as the sun creeps slowly across the floor?...At the Saltyard we believe that the weekend can be longer, that food can taste better, and that the sunset on Sunday will take a lifetime to dip below the horizon."]  Anyway, the book just looked irresistible, really unusual, and I had to have it.  It didn't disappoint: this is the kind of book I wish existed for lots of other neighborhoods around the world.  As "Your Loyal Servant, The Gentle Author" notes in the Introduction, "a new life began for me when I came to live here in a corner of London I had visited for many years."  The author (female or male, I don't know) explains that a thousand years after the Romans were in London, a man named Walter Brunus opened St. Mary's Hospital for the poor, and over time St. Mary's Hospital Fields became known as Spitalfields (and still today older folks refer to it as 'the fields').

The East End has historically been the immigrant neighborhood of London.  Beginning in the 12th century, Jews started a market here, and they were followed by Huguenot silk weavers from France and Belgium; migrant workers from Kent and East Anglia; Irish refugees; Sikhs, Pakistanis, and Bengalis; and more recently Afro-Caribbeans, Maltese, Germans, Scandinavians, Italians, Somalis, Thais, Filipinos, Latin Americans, Nigerians, Ghanians, and more.  It's a fact that there has occasionally been conflict in the East End, but, as the author notes, "this has always been counterbalanced by a strong egalitarian spirit, nurtured in a society where, of necessity, people learn to live alongside each other and thereby come to understand each other."

The Gentle Author recognized that a lifetime's interest in this neighborhood meant the subject was too large for any writer to create a definitive account.  So writing one story a day, each about a different person in Spitalfields, was the only way to go, and thus a recording of life in Spitalfields began.  The stories in this book originally appeared on the Author's blog, from the first eighteen months of its existence.  (Just a few comments about the blog are "Spitalfields Life is a barricade against the tide of cultural amnesia"; "A beautiful blog, the gentle author is a joy to read"; "Really loving Spitalfields Life, a blog about life in the heart of London"; and "Every neighborhood in the world should have a chronicler like @thegentleauthor") 

Spitalfields Life introduces you to the site of Shakespeare's first theater in Shoreditch, Alan Hughes the master bell-founder (whose business began in 1570), the Columbia Road Flower Market, Sandra Esqulant (owner of The Golden Heart pub and "uncrowned monarch of Spitalfields"), the curry chefs of Brick Lane, 4th-generation paper bag seller Paul Gardner, street artist Ben Eine, and Rob Ryan, who single handedly reinvented the lost art of paper cutting -- one of his paper cut designs adorns the last page of every story in the book.  Ryan has worked on projects with Paul Smith, Liberty of London, Vogue, and Fortnum & Mason.  His website is really appealing (and some of his work is available on, and happily, the shop at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York carries a boxed set of four ceramic plates featuring a different Ryan design (in blue) on each one!  ('Four Trees, Four Seasons' is the official name of the set.)

Many people have told The Gentle Author that "Spitalfields has changed," but she/he has found that "there are plenty of people in the neighborhood who still carry the culture and stories of this place stretching back over centuries."  I would consider it an honor to meet The Gentle Author; perhaps one happy day I will.  But until then, there is this wonderful book and blog. (There is also the great Spitalfields Life map/guide -- produced by Herb Lester Associates -- that I recommended in a previous post.)

My good friend Wendy has been to London many times, and she usually visits friends who have been in the habit of picking one unusual thing to do during her stay.  Not long ago the friends made reservations at the Dennis Severs House.  Wendy told me it was on her short list of most unique places she's ever been, so I was eager to borrow her copy of 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields (Chatto & Windus, 2001; pictured above).  The final lines in the book read: "And, dear visitor, take this as the motto of the house: AUT VISUM AUT NON!  (Oh, for God's sake!)  You either see it or you don't."  So of course after I read that it I was filled with enthusiasm to visit the house, but unfortunately I wasn't going to be in London for the evening, candlelight tour, which I understand is the one you want to do (as opposed to daytime tours).  So I can't tell you about it; but that's not stopping me from recommending it, and in fact I recommended it to my friend Amy, who went to London last month with her husband and two daughters.  Amy reserved for the candlelight tour, and here's what she reports:

Visiting the Dennis Severs House is a magical experience that transports you back to the early 18thcentury.  The house is the creation of artist Dennis Severs, who lived in the house much the same way as its original occupants might have done.  He did this for his personal enjoyment and for the atmosphere, which he then employed to create an extraordinary experience for visitors.  To enter its door is to pass through the frame of a painting, with a time and life of its own.  Upon entering, it's as if you have interrupted a family of Huguenot silk weavers named Jervis who, though they can still be heard, seem just out of sight.  The journey takes you through 10 rooms, each lit by fire and candlelight (there is no electric light), and in each you are filled with an array of stimulants to the senses. Visitors are encouraged to do what they would if looking at a painting, use what they see and sense to piece together the scene they have just missed, thus this is Mr. Severs’ intention, and what you imagine is his art.

After 30 years the experience ranks as one of the rarest in the world.  British artist David Hockney once rated its effect as standing amongst those of the world’s great opera experiences.  The visit, about 45 minutes, is conducted in silence, and there's smoky light, creaking footsteps, whispers, closing doors, ticking clocks, pleasing aromas and the mysterious presence of a black cat.   When I went the house was particularly lovely decorated for the Christmas holiday.  Four tours are offered -- see the website for more details.

Amy has been among my traveling companions, so I can tell you without hesitation that if she enthuses about something, she is sincere.  She's also a travel consultant, and may be reached via her website -- if you're way too busy to plan a trip, or need some help in putting together a unique itinerary, Amy will create a customized plan for you (including one with kids) at favorable rates.  

*A good article to read about the East End is 'London Goes Electric', Kate Maxwell, photographs by Lisa Limer, illustrations by Peter Oumanski, Conde Nast Traveler, May 2012)

*Two other great reads I neglected to mention previously: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me  About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz (Penguin, 2011).  I loved this book, and it prompted me to begin on an Austen reading fest (sad confession: I'd only read Pride and Prejudice) -- so I read Emma, loved it, and now have Persuasion on my nightstand.  Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer by Chuck Culpepper (Broadway 2008).  Though this is a personal experience of English soccer, it's also great for a fairly in-depth view of the sport in Britain.  Full disclosure:  Chuck is an old friend, and he's a very good writer and very funny.  But even if I'd never met him, I'd recommend his book to anyone going to England, to any soccer fan, and to any sports fan.

*There is a wonderful etching in the collection of the British Museum called London: 'The Long View' by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77).  I bought a postcard of it in the museum bookstore and wish I could scan it for inclusion in my blog but the image is copyrighted and I don't want to violate copyright law.  Hollar was born in Prague and was a draftsman and etcher before coming to London, where he worked on book illustration and cartography.  In 1666 he was named 'Scenographus regius' by the king, but the Great Fire of that same year put an abrupt halt to Hollar's project, which was to capture the entire city (he completed six sheets of drawings before the Fire) -- look for the postcard, and the print suitable for framing, in the museum shop.

*Readers of my previous posts know that I recommended The Golden Hind [73 Marylebone Lane, W1] for fish and chips.  I'd meant to share a little of the background behind this quintessential British specialty, which I gleaned from The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London by Eugenia Bell (Little Bookroom).  Bell informs us that the fish evolved separately from the chips: fried wedges of potato ("almost certainly a French invention") was a staple in the north of England in the 19th century.  Fried fish came from Jewish kitchens of the East End, and one of the earliest recorded fish-and-chip shops in London was Joseph Malin's in Whitechapel, dating from about 1860.  Bell notes that fish-and-chips as a meal first caught on in England's northern cities and then spread to holiday resort towns along the coasts.  It became so essential that "during the Second World War, the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, decreed that it would not be rationed.  Today there is even a professional body, the National Federation of Fish Friers, which publishes a magazine, the Fish Friers Review."  In London, different types of fish can be found on a "chippie" menu -- cod, hake, haddock, and plaice are traditional, but most of the fish today comes frozen, sadly, from Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Russia.  The oldest fish-and-chips shop in London is Rock & Sole Plaice [47 Endell Street, WC2]. 

*Finally, kudos to British Airways for great flights and great service (and even, believe it or not, meals that were actually pretty good).  BA also offers one of the few morning flights from New York, which means that you arrive in London in the evening, avoiding the worst effects of jet lag.  My first choice is always to fly the airline of the country I'm visiting, and I'm so happy that my first BA flight has insured it won't be my last.  

Next: The Cotswolds

1 comment:

  1. Dennis Severs House...a must see...candlelight or not. The book is wonderful but the house..incredible. Take it slowly and quietly and then go back and do it again. Great post~