Thursday, February 19, 2009
On sunday we paid our first visit to Brick Lane Market for about 4 years. My goodness, it's changed. Until we moved to Glittering Leytonstone we lived in the environs of The Lane for the thick end of 12 years. My first visit to the market was with my then girlfriend (now Mrs TIW) and her dad, early one autumn morning in 1992 - a year or so before we moved to the area. The market to my companions was nothing new, they both grew up in the East End. To a wide-eyed boy who'd been in the capital for only two months it was almost like walking into a modern-day Dickens novel. The streets back then were swarming with geezers, chancers, wideboys, barrowboys, preachers, feral kids, mock-auctioneers and card sharps. If I'd seen a fakir doing the Indian rope trick I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. There were walnut-faced crones in headscarves, wheezing old men, blokes who looked like Mike Reid eating rollmops with their orange wives, circling pickpockets and a knot of big-eared skinheads selling neo-nazi hatezines. Alongside the official stalls flogging fruit, boiler suits, padlocks, damp books, live crabs, toys, hammers and brushes were the amateur pitches selling junk of every flavour. Betamax video recorders, bike parts pinched from the West End, headless Barbie dolls, musty curtains, 80s top shelf mags by the pile. There was one old boy selling bent, rusty nails and an oily towel. If you knew who to ask you could buy a monkey from a nervous Italian in a pub.
The whole area was dominated by the old Bishopsgate Goods Yard, a solid redbrick complex of switchyards and warehouses which was originally built in the 1840s. There's a massive redevelopment going on as the site is to become the new Shoreditch overground station. A new bowstring bridge has been placed over Shoreditch High Street, with a smaller one over Brick Lane which slices through the old arches on Grimsby Street. It has all the grace of a park bench dropped onto a model village. Hideous, and on sunday I wasn't prepared for it at all. To me, the railway arches were a large part of the areas unique appeal. It was also somewhat sad to find that some of of the old stalls had gone, replaced with empty spaces, a van selling pies and even a couple of blokes selling tourist tat. Health and safety legislation seems to have done for the 'fly' traders along Bethnal Green road, although you could still buy your stolen bike back on Sclater Street. The Coppermill plant, where bales of old cotton pyjamas were sorted on the first step to becoming banknotes had been part demolished with the site earmarked for - sigh - flats. You can't expect the past to be preserved in aspic, but some of the developments going on in the Brick Lane area seem to be killing off what made the area so appealing to me and many others in the first place - the effortless grimy charm of it all.
It was good to see that two old stalwarts remained - Blackman's (Buy Your Boots Where Your Dad Got His) is still shoeing the workers of the East End and the salt beef bagels from the Bagel Bake tasted as good as ever, even if the cabbies and elderly hardmen in the queue have been replaced by self-facilitating media nodes and their tiny Japanese girlfriends.