Exclusive London night walk by Sukhdev Sandhu
’Night Haunts‘ by Sukhdev Sandhu was a lyrical unveiling of London life under cover of darkness. On the eve of his talk at the Museum in Docklands, the author presents a night walk, or ’noctambulation‘ exclusively for Time Out readers
Slummers, sexual adventurers, Christian missionaries: people have always come to the East End of London at night time. They want fun, kicks, a bit of the other. Or, in the case of bootboys and gang members from across town, a bit off the other. As early as the 1880s, it was common to find buses transporting tourists, not just Londoners but men and women from New York and Boston, to Whitechapel, Shadwell, Stepney Green: they were blood-sniffers, ghoul-hounds eager to retrace the footsteps of Jack the Ripper.
Limehouse too: drawn by exotic tales of cleaver-wielding, opium-smoking Orientals, bohos, Harley Street specialists, American bishops, Egyptian princes, Covent Garden opera singers, actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Dolores del Rio – many of them dressing down for the occasion – headed for the back streets of Pennyfields hoping for spectacle and dastardly drama. ‘We sought rapine and murder,’ one of them told a newspaper in 1929, ‘but they gave us chop suey and tea.’
At the start of the 1970s, a period when racial attacks and Paki-bashings were common in parts of the East End, an Observer journalist wrote: ‘Any Asian careless enough to be walking the streets alone at night is a fool.’ Things have improved a little since then; and many of the gangs are themselves Asian. Still, noctambulation is fraught with risks, not least because a lot of places are shut and because gentrification has transformed the streetscapes; it’s an anti-spectacle that requires the imagination as much as the eyes.
A case in point is ‘Itchy Park’ (1), the graveyard of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church in Spitalfields. For most of the twentieth century, it was an outdoor dorm for the area’s homeless population. A miniature shanty town strewn with cardboard boxes and car tyres, it was soundtracked at night by snoring or squabbling meths drinkers, and illuminated by small bonfires whose smoke swept across neighbouring streets. Christ Church (1), until recently a leaking, ratty shell of its formerly grandiose self, has been renovated at great cost; fires are no longer lit next to it, and the howling, sorrowful dwellers of east London’s Skid Row replaced by out-on-the-lash clubbers.
Walk down Commercial Road, across Whitechapel High Street, and towards Cable Street (2) where it meets Ensign Street. These days the area is synonymous with the 1936 popular uprising against Mosley’s Blackshirts. After the war though, when many of the streets and houses were turned into bomb sites – great for local kids, less so for their parents – this was a notorious ‘coloured quarter’, damned as a hotbed of vice ruled by Maltese gangsters and West African stowaways. New jazz and R&B tunes could be heard at clubs such as the Blue Café; prostitutes could also be hired and illegal gambling games played.
Time to shift north again: this time to 41 Fieldgate Street, site of the Great Synagogue (3). It was founded in 1899, damaged during Word War II, and has stood ever since as one of the last remaining temples of worship in an area once so full of Jewish immigrants that it was nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’. Beside it, for the last couple of decades, has been the gleaming East London Mosque (3) from which emerge the different religious melodies that can be heard through its walls. But the synagogue’s membership has long been dwindling. Last September it closed its doors forever.
A couple of hundred yards further down Fieldgate Street, on the left-hand side before one hits New Tayyabs restaurant, there stands a rather imposing block of bijou flats. Tower House (4), dubbed a ‘monster doss house’ by Jack London in 1902, has, like much of east London, a notable radical lineage. Stalin stayed here in 1907, as did Maxim Litvinoff, later a Soviet ambassador. Orwell wrote about the place in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. In recent years, it’s been an informal shelter for homeless people, a place for junkies to shoot up, and a magnet for twentysomething ‘space invaders’ who like breaking into ‘edgy’ buildings. Now a three-bedroom flat will set you back 600 quid a week.
A modern landmark, albeit one that exists only as an imaginative space, is inside Liverpool Street (5), standing above the late-night commotion of frazzled ravers and commuters catching the last train to their suburban homes. This is the end point of Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Missing Voice (Case Study B)’, a brilliant soundwalk, part history and part film-noir stream-of-consciousness, that started off at Whitechapel Library next door to Aldgate East tube station. The library no longer exists, either. It has migrated into the realm of dreams.
‘Night Haunts’ (Verso £10.99) is out now.
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