I was astonished to see how much an area that was familiar to me from a toddler to a teenager had changed.
My grandfather was born in Catherine Wheel Alley, just off Bishopsgate, and his father worked in Spitalfields Market. My father was born in Bethnal Green, himself starting out on his working life as a barrow boy at 14.
As a small child dad would take me to Brick Lane on a Sunday morning before we had lunch at my Grandparents in Leytonstone, sometimes visiting his aunt Bec and cousin Derek in Bethnal Green – like my gran, she was a real old-time East-Ender. This continued until I was about 15, after my grandma & Aunt Bec died. When I was 17 I spent a year at the London College of Furniture along Commercial Road. I went to Victoria Park Hackney for the first Rock against Racism concert organised by the Anti Nazi League, where I saw bands like the Clash.
The last time I’d visited Spitalfields market was when my friend Derek (a friend from Uni days) was development officer in charge of the regeneration there nearly 20 years ago; we met for lunch in an a pub, then he showed me around the empty shell that used to be the market. I had helped Derek in a community development project before he was seconded to the Home Office.
The last time I’d visited Bethnal Green was when I worked at a law firm near Liverpool Street and the team I worked with went for curry one evening after work. Not long after that, I located where the house my grandfather had been born would have stood in Bishopsgate.
I was stunned at the change in Spitalfields and Brick Lane – which once had the reputation of being the worst place in London. This was where my father, amongst people like the Krays twins (who he admired), grew up. Brick Lane was unrecognisable, with so many people, and stalls that I remember as selling old bits of crap, bits of furniture, textiles, and knock-offs (my dad used to joke about watching Shaw Taylor’s ‘Police 5’ to see what would be on sale on Brick Lane the following Sunday). Instead it was vibrant, packed with people from so many cultures, with food and produce from around the world. Exhilarating.
I would never have believed the place could change so much – too busy for me, but with the variety of food and people and stalls in the area, I will definitely be going back again next time I visit London.
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