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Book Reviews

On Brick Lane

Judy Batalion  |  Autumn 2007  -  Number 207


Rachel Lichtenstein, On Brick Lane (Hamish Hamilton, 2007, £20)

‘On the left is THE MOST SYMBOLIC BUILDING IN THE EAST END. This simple Grade-II listed structure with its large windows really has been all things to all people; a place where each successive Spitalfields community has worshipped their version of God. Just look at the dates:

1743 – Huguenot Chapel

1809 – Methodist Church

1897 – Jewish Synagogue

1975 – Muslim Mosque

2010 – Conran Restaurant’

(Gilbey’s and Wells’ comedic tour, The Back Passages of Spitalfields, 2005)

A London tour guide recently told me that Whitechapel, my home, has always been the cesspool of London. With a sinister smile, she informed me that, for hundreds of years, it’s been a place of immigrants, poverty and crime. ‘Hey,’ she added, ‘it’s even where they buried victims of the plague!’ I nodded, thinking about my, then, current mice scenario and what those guys may have been dragging into my kitchen. But aside from this constant shambolic backdrop, the area is one of continual change, which I have definitely seen even in the past five years: increased racial tensions, more homelessness and drugs and a new Starbucks.

I was pleased to see that it is this change that Rachel Lichtenstein takes up in her new book On Brick Lane, which neatly focuses on that mythologized street in particular. Lichtenstein, co-author of Rodinsky’s Room, which traced the life of a disappeared Jewish Brick Laner, is a local archivist-writer-curator-artist and tour-guide whose grandparents owned a jewellery shop on Brick Lane in the 1930s. Impassioned by the diversity of the area and her own links to it, Lichtenstein’s new book is both a compassionate look into the history and current cultures of the street with its markets, restaurants, shops, art sites, worship sites and now-defunct brewery, as well as an unabashed cry against the area’s gentrification and the influx of ‘media types,’ which she repeatedly refers to. Fearing the imminent physical and cultural demolition of this unique and hybrid zone, Lichtenstein sets out to record details — of the good and the bad — and to reveal complex and authentic narratives, ‘the quieter but no less remarkable stories of the people who have lived and worked in Brick Lane’, instead of simply Jack the Ripper tales and other grim stories which, she claims, help boost the property value.

Unlike Rodinsky’s Room, driven by a mystery story, this new offering has no overall narrative; it is, instead, more of a scrapbook. As the author explains: ‘Different threads combine to create a multilayered portrait of a place, which can be read in a thousand different ways depending on your point of reference.’ On Brick Lane is a collage of media — poems, photos, snippets of tours (like above) and quotations. But, as well, it is a collage of voices. Like an articulated oral history project, nearly each chapter is based around a conversation that Lichtenstein has had with someone related to Brick Lane — an old Jewish man who used to worship at the local synagogue, a group of teenage Bengali boys, the curator of the Christ Church crypt, Tracey Emin, an ex-worker from the Truman brewery, a transgendered poet and a local social worker are just a few examples. Every conversation is rendered in a heartfelt way, the speakers all interested in preserving the rich cultural life of the neighbourhood. Lichtenstein recreates these conversations in a such a way that she appears not to be interpreting their words but giving them voice. They speak openly to her, relaying enthusiasms and tensions. For instance, when she asks three Bengali teenage boys about their homes, they tease her with a reply: ‘Six of us live together in a tiny one-bedroom flat…’ But Lichtenstein reports both the joking and the boys’ response straight-on — ‘falling on the floor in hysterics … it took quite a while for them to compose themselves’. She respects and takes them seriously, leading into the next question as if she hadn’t intervened, conveying their animated conversation and energy.

Some of the interviewees tell stories of Brick Lane’s distant past, while others reflect upon its current and future states.The book is filled with anecdotes and deft descriptions about Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities then and now: the Shabbos ‘monkey’s parade’ on Whitechapel High Street where Jewish youths looked for mates, the mosque which was once a synagogue and still displays the old architecture of the women’s section, National Front attacks (first on Jews, later on Muslims), the Muslim men who are offended by the drunkenness from the hipster bars, Somali and Bangladeshi mixing, Hugenot heritage, the Israeli family that owns the ex-brewery site and resists selling space to chain stores, the Muslim woman at the Heba Women’s Institute who let Lichtenstein photograph only her hands and the infamous Jewish pickpocketer, Moishe the Gonoff. These psychogeographical tales evoke the strange sense of belonging experienced by people who all feel like outsiders together.

In writing a book that is essentially a collection of conversations, Lichtenstein mixes her own personal tale with historical finds, writing herself into it. This strategy allows her to narrate history through a present lens showing contemporary concerns and opening questions about the collision between past and present, as Lichtenstein puts it. Further, by narrating her research in a self-conscious way, Lichtenstein shows us not just history, but elucidates how history itself is made, taking us on a journey of unexpected interviews, emails, research trips and book buying on e-bay. But despite this first-person narration, Lichtenstein’s actual voice remains strangely subdued. It is kept at bay in order to allow the interviewees’ voices and descriptions to emerge. At times, the balance is awkward.My curiosity about Lichtenstein’s life was piqued and I felt she’d left me hanging; she mentions several times that she married a Muslim man and has children with unusual, hyphenated names ... this, I wanted to hear more about!

I started this review with a funny quotation, but the book itself is not a comedy. The stories are personal, sensitive and subtle, the writing is earnest and the prose is straightforward. This is certainly a nostalgic piece against the current gentrification, but is, also a compassionate consideration of a place, an uplifting attempt at inter-racial dialogue, and a tactile and tasty mélange of media, cultures, religions and people. The book also provides valuable information about Brick Lane’s exterior and interior scenes — it even includes a one hour walking tour. After reading this book, I better understood the current sentiment of the Bengali community, who is moving away in large parts, and the effect that the London July bombings has had on the area. When I took my daily walk down Brick Lane, I looked twice.

Judy Batalion is a writer, lecturer, curator and performer based in London. She recently co-curated and co-authored Home and Garden, a series of exhibitions and books about paintings of British living rooms since 1700 for the Geffrye Museum of Domestic Interiors. She is currently writer-in-residence at the Women’s Art Library as well as associate lecturer in Criticism, Communication and Curation at Central Saint Martins School of Art. Judy is compiling a collection of writing about comedy audiences to be published in 2008 and her first one-woman show, Totally Chana Senesh, will preview at the Edinburgh Fringe and Toronto Hysteria festivals later this year.  

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