Wonky Panels

Our occasional contributor takes a sideways look at life in Spitalfields.


Wonky Panels IV

23rd May 2017

A Yankee at the Stables

Under a high, red, rubbed-brick arch that quietly looms over the wide, trendy, Tribeca-esque city street whose bleakly literal name, simply and persuasively bestowed, is “Commercial”, a few doors down from modern fashion house All Saints but light years away in style, is the narrow, tardis-like entrance to an astonishing survivor from another age. Inside, a towering courtyard opens out in a way that puts you in mind of an Italian opera house, with galleries and offices on three levels ascending under the wide span of a pitched slate and framed glass roof. Here was the old stable block that served Spitalfields Market and surrounding streets going back two hundred years or more, before the age of the modern motor vehicle, when goods were transported in and out of the wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower markets all by horse-drawn cart, and when I saw this great edifice some ten or so years ago now (though I do not know exactly what has become of it since), it was scarcely altered since those times.

My guide to this forgotten antiquity and its warehouseful of treasures was my friend Keir Helberg, or, as all Spitalfields knows him, and London too for that matter at one time, ever since Fay Maschler once championed him in one of her big-splash Evening Standard restaurant review features, ‘your favourite American’, the former chef-owner of renowned Arkansas pit-barbecue restaurant in the market: Bubba. Keir specialises in knowledge of secret and out of the way places. He seems to know everyone and everything about Spitalfields, and has a story for each. To say that Keir is a ‘character’ doesn’t even get close. Keir holds the patent in eccentricity in our neighbourhood. There never was a more exotic and original American-in-London. Stories come tumbling from this source like a whitewater rapid ride. I have known Keir for twenty-three years and not yet exhausted his stock of them. Norms and conventions are tossed aside. Political correctness was never one of his strong points. Recounting red-letter tales of brushes with restaurant diners, I always found myself wondering exactly how vegans and vegetarians found their way to the Arkansas pit-barbecue restaurant in the first place. Keir’s spoken English has a wonderful ripeness. Americans can excel at this. No sentence ever left his lips without a swear word (this is of course an exaggeration). Though sometimes his stories seem altogether too baroque, too fantastically lurid to be believed (and that is the clearly-expressed opinion of many), experience has taught me they are more than just the fruit of a fertile mind, an unstoppable outpouring of natural exuberance and joie de vivre. They usually turn out to be true.

I first met Keir back in 1994. We had just bought the big old wreck of a building on the edge of Spitalfields Market which would soon become our home and one day our restaurant. I had heard about this crazy American in the market and in no time at all he was targeting me, new owner of a crumbling old building with lots of history needing fixing up, as potential customer for some of his architectural salvage. He marched across Brushfield Street and came straight up to greet me, kicking off his opening gambit with some funny, gossipy, insider tale about the building my wife and I had just bought. He then pressed me to buy a range of dado panelling squirrelled away in an upstairs room over his restaurant. It had been trawled from a ruin in the Soulard bars district of old St Louis, a pretty wild place from all accounts, where Keir once traded and collected some of his most ribald and colourful tales. There always seemed to be a weapon involved in these stories - a gun or a bowie knife - never in Keir’s hands of course. There was always high drama, a skirmish, then Keir narrowly escapes disaster. But his pitch for me on this occasion fell on stony ground. I had lead roofs and crumbling brickwork and rotten timbers to stress over and repair, as well as a home for my family to make, before I ever started to think about buying dado panelling and the like for my future restaurant.

Keir was enrolled in Medicine at Johns Hopkins University when he first started to trade in antiques and collectables. He needed to supplement his meagre student income. He somehow got hold of a derelict colonial mansion with banqueting hall and colonnaded entrance and stuffed it with students to pay the rent. The roof was leaking and the floorboards had woodworm. Keir taught himself plumbing to fix the leaky pipes. He began to acquire antiques and objets to furnish the empty rooms. He became a familiar figure in the auction houses and salerooms. With his formidable memory and high intelligence, he began to build up an encyclopaedic knowledge of the trade, then haggled and hawked and hustled his way out of penury.

Keir came to England in search of adventure. In due course he paid his adoptive home the highest compliment a man can make: he married an English girl. And not just any girl. Sarah Thellusson, daughter of a baron and partner in their early antiques business in New York and London, is an English aristocrat polished and poised and charming. She is the perfect foil to his volatility. Their front room in Stamford Hill (which he calls “kosher kamikazi-land”, alluding to the standard of driving skill there), was dominated when I visited by a pair of old wind-up gramophones with horns reaching up toward the ceiling. The chassis of a priceless pre-War racing car was somehow shoehorned in the loft. The kitchen was bare wood American colonial. Out back was a conservatory with an ingenious underfloor heating system of ducting and tiny electric fans. I liked the place. It was different.

The two of them set about making the restaurant that showcased their creativity and personality. Under the glass canopy of Spitalfields Market, Bubba dressed in bib and brace overalls, red check shirt and straw topper: the perfect stage American. A cast iron smoker, shipped from Texas, totally looked the part. Pork ribs dripped on the roaster with sweet and spicey Southern barbeque sauce. A dining room like a slangy Southern diner was festooned with beer posters. This was old Spitalfields, random and quirky, fast ebbing away in the corporate environment we have now. There have been troubles, travails, sticky situations. I have been present at some of these. He famously ranted at St John Bread and Wine, across the road, when they first opened, but later became an ally and friend. When decanted from the market by some new owner eager to sterilise and sanitize Spitalfields, Keir opened a new restaurant to much fanfare in the basement of the American embassy in Grosvenor Square. Keir seemed to have struck up a friendship with the ambassador, but things turned sour when a kitchen fire threatened the building. I once saw Keir, watching from an upstairs window, in the grip of one of his mood swings, propelling his little supercharged Citroen 2CV van on packed ice round and round my block, tyres spinning, car drifting (on empty roads thankfully, at that hour) but ignoring every one of the one-way road signs. He calmly told me it was perfectly safe when I challenged him. He told me he had complete control. He learnt how to drive on ice in upstate New York, where the snows were as high as telegraph poles. He made me believe him, such is his charm. He once bought two pallets of South African pinotage in auction and offered me the wine for the restaurant at a favourable price. The wine was good, and he paid very little for it. There was just one problem. For some years the bottles had been stored upside down in their boxes. These natural wines generate sediment. This collected in the neck and formed a plug. You pulled out the cork only to find the wine wouldn’t pour. That could be more than a little awkward in a restaurant context. Sometimes life’s pressures take their toll. I once answered the buzzer in my upstairs flat to a voice muffled and disguised but somehow familiar. I opened the door to Keir wearing a WWII gas mask. He told me that London pollution had become intolerable. This is life lived as a kind of performance art. I am happy to join the ovation.

Aesthetic taste has been, as far as I can judge, at the back of everything for Keir, that and unceasing good humour. I detect kindness, consideration for people and delicacy of feeling. I like these qualities when I find them. They seem sometimes strangely in short supply. This is just one more reason for me to know and like him. He introduced me to the best meat wholesalers in the half-dark of dawn in Smithfield Market. “Bubba!” the guys all called out affectionately, as we passed. He found me the George III mahogany table for sixteen settings which is the centrepiece of our panelled private dining room. A seventeenth century brazier for real (smokeless) coal fires was one of Keir’s genius finds. Our customers can’t quite believe that such things are still possible in a Central London restaurant. To be sure I borrowed freely from his taste in furniture and fittings. An eighteenth century wine cabinet stretches across a wall in an upstairs room. Scrubbed pine tables with pretty pad feet are dotted about and seem favourably received. I often learnt from him, as I did from other Spitalfields luminaries. I once or twice helped him out of a spot, but this seems small thanks for his many insights and suggestions.

I stood with Keir that day at the stables, waiting to get through the narrow opening that pierced the two heavy wood gates. Workmen were pottering about as we entered the cavernous courtyard within. I passed a couple of dusty classic cars on my way. I remember one, a red Marcos 1800GT, sans engine. Keir’s wares were piled high on three levels. There seemed no end to them. We went up to a mezzanine which was all furniture and architectural salvage. I picked out a heavy wrought iron lamp which, since being restored, now hangs over the stairwell in my restaurant. Another great bracket lamp, with Brick Lane origins it would seem, is mounted on the corner brickwork, missing its shade after a lorry clipped it. Various tables and chairs were gathered up, and now are fixtures. We descended great open solid wooden horse stairs: long, shallow steps like the ones that take you down to a bay or beach, steps that wrongfoot you and nearly trip you up, to the dark rows of stalls beneath. Lined up in the gloom were half a dozen pallets of black bin liners, many thousands it must have been, another of Keir’s “speculations” with a colourful story attached. Keir asked: was I interested? I demurred on this occasion.

Keir had rented this ample storage from Offa Zeloof, owner, with his siblings, of the whole of the Truman Brewery site in Brick Lane, and sundry other deserted commercial buildings around Spitalfields - including the stables. I don’t suppose Keir paid much in rent to him, but that won’t be why he had notice to quit. The law had changed and rates became payable on empty property. Offa needed to find some profitable use for the space. I have never met this gentleman, but I like the sound of him. Apparently he lives in Israel on a kibbutz with his ex-model wife. My friend Sasha Morgan knows him. She told me recently the story of how they met. Sasha was renting in Wilkes Street but had been given notice when the owner wanted to sell. Next door was Offa’s warehouse which housed Lee and Anne Story’s beautiful design studio. A fire escape bridged the two buildings and Offa kindly offered Sasha and her housemates access to his roof terrace. Late one day Sasha found herself up on that roof contemplating her future. Offa appeared, also it may be in a pensive mood. Sasha mentioned her predicament, and Offa told her at once about the stable block in Commercial Street which is now her home. In like fashion, with a kind of easy openness, he administers all his properties. He works with the grain of Spitalfields, not against it, enabling little businesses to flourish and grow, and that has been the story all across the Brewery site. He is on Spitalfields’ creative side. He wants to let a thousand flowers bloom. Some of these corporate types could take a page from his book. (They never will.)

But he may have misjudged the temper of our close little quarter this time. Time Out Markets recently made a pitch for the stables, and it seems Offa acquiesced. A planning application was made but local people objected, fearing noise disturbance and booze-fuelled antisocial behaviour. People felt their intelligence insulted by talk of “Michelin-starred restaurants” and the like. They saw the proposed “restaurant complex” as no better than a Trojan Horse to swell the never-ending tide of drinkers to Spitalfields. Tower Hamlets agreed, and the application was refused. Only time will tell whether the developer can succeed in some legal arm wrestling in the future.

One afternoon Keir was in my restaurant holding a small worn leather briefcase, something I had seen him with from time to time. I asked him what was inside. One of his more implausible riffs had been how his father had worked for the government during the war. The Manhattan Project he said. I knew about this of course. German Jewish refugees and some of the most brilliant scientists in the world had come together to invent the bomb that would stop the war. Keir opened the suitcase and out fell a recent clipping from the obituaries page of the New York Times. I picked it up and read it. It was for Keir’s father: nuclear physicist and founder member of the Manhattan Project, it said.


Wonky Panels III

5th May 2016

Fancy a drink?

If, like me, you are fond of a drink once in a while, especially a companionable one, enjoyed in good company, in a nice setting, then I think you will be no stranger to Spitalfields. Of course the West End also has its plethora of watering holes and drinking dens, its pubs, bars, restaurants and nightclubs, in vaulted, glitzy, venerable spaces, in ancient, characterful, oak-panelled public houses and cramped, ill-lit cellars, and very nice they are too. But increasingly people are heading East looking for divertissements, new excitements - something fresh, out of the ordinary. And who can blame them? People come to Spitalfields looking for experience that is authentic and true, and Spitalfields seldom disappoints. If West is jaded, East is energized. Isn’t this why, after all, we came here in the first place?

I hail from Australia. Don’t think too badly of me for this. In my day we mostly thought very fondly of the “old country”; as a child growing up in the Sydney suburbs we all stood up loyally in the darkened cinema to sing “God save the queen” in the expectant pause after Mickey and Minnie and the Pathé newsreel but before the magical drumroll that heralded the main feature. Australians now are more republican-minded of course, inclined to express rebellious feelings toward their ancestral parent, as a raw, inexperienced teenager might when he first gets his own ideas. But back then we loved Britain without reserve.

And how we loved our deeply unglamorous, toilet-tile pubs. We were famous for these, and the slightly pathetic, infantile male drinking culture they enshrined. The first time my wife and I ever stepped into a Sydney pub (in the Rocks, near Circular Quay), a brawl erupted right in front of us within seconds of our arriving. I had wanted to give my young English wife the authentic Australian experience. I hadn’t bargained on this. Four or five men scrummaged on the floor at our feet. Fists flew and shirts were torn. The air turned blue. Other drinkers appeared indifferent, sipping at their Tooheys. The landlord turned his back. Then the whole thing ended as speedily as it had begun. Who knows what trivial remark had sparked the fracas. The combatants promptly returned to their drinks at the bar, quite as if nothing had happened.

I flew away to England, a young man restless for new experience, longing among other things to see a real English pub. Imagine my displeasure, then, when I fetched up in London and found digs in a quarter which, in accordance with its strict Quaker past, was totally devoid of any pubs or bars: Muswell Hill. The place was as dry as the Simpson Desert. I soon found my way downhill to explore less salubrious, but more energetic, characterful, thirst-slaking neighbourhoods, finally ending up in Spitalfields. What a relief!

Back then in the early nineties all Spitalfields pubs, with perhaps just two or three honourable exceptions, were strip joints. Customers were loutish City boys wanting something extra with their lunchtime pint. Bouncers with bulldog faces and non-existent necks, in pressed white shirts, narrow ties and barely fitting dark suits, stood guard at the door. Leaded lights and decorous, ornate windows were blacked out and boarded to thwart prurient and prying eyes. Pole-dancing beauties and blokes in bars peppered a neighbourhood incongruously undergoing gentrification. It was a strange era of transition and jarring contradictions. Needless to say, I never visited such establishments myself, not even out of a natural spirit of curiosity. I didn’t like the beer.

Spitalfields is a thirsty place. If you were to compile a gazetteer of its drinking establishments, I think the document would run to several pages. There are times when all London seems to pounce on our streets and, locust-like, sweep through our bars and watering holes, leaving no pint glass undrained, no Champagne flute unbroken. I shall take just a cursory look at a few of these - since alcohol should be enjoyed, as you must already know, as government and everyone keeps saying, only in moderation.

I shall begin with the oldest first.

If you were to chance upon The Pride of Spitalfields in some quiet corner of the English countryside, in some forgotten village or rural idyll, then I shouldn’t think you’d find it in any way surprising or out of place. This charming little pub in a narrow turning eastwards off Brick Lane, opposite the police station and leaving behind the curry houses, is pure rus in urbe. There is a tiny bar and a snug to one side. There are swirly carpets on the floor and wainscot panels on the walls. The barmaids in their cramped quarters behind the optics, pulling pints and tugging at the fridge handles, give every appearance of having been confined there for decades. You even have to stoop to get through the front door, though I might just be imagining that.

This pub was always rammed, or is so now in my memory. On warm summer evenings, under iridescent star-flecked skies, drinkers spilled out nightly across the pavement and cobbled road in front, only two steps from Polly Hope’s warehouse conversion on one side and Richard McCormack’s architects’ studio on the other. I hope they weren’t troubled by the noise. Twenty years ago The Pride was one of the famous lock-in pubs of Spitalfields which prospered in the days before Tony Blair’s government liberalized the licensing laws and ushered in the so-called “cafe society”. Provided you were in before 11, the drinking continued till early morning on certain nights. Anyone who left heard the dull thud of the door bolt thrown behind them. I always thought this private club scene glamorous and interesting. Am I alone in feeling nostalgic for this lost era?

The Duke of Wellington, tucked away in a side street off Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields Market, is one of those splendid, old-fashioned, unreconstructed London pubs that time slipped gently past and might have escaped everyone’s notice but for its extraordinary valuation in today’s febrile London property market. It recently changed hands for an eye-watering figure I would blush to confide. I can’t think how this old pub might command such a giddy price. The Duke has its followers I know, though I confess I never was one of them. I don’t think I ever set foot inside. I walk past often enough. It always reminded me of one of those typical suburban pubs you see over and over again until some day when you walk past and suddenly they are closed down, boarded up, sold. But this would be a huge shame. The Duke is part of the fabric of old Spitalfields. Some of my friends go there I know for a darts match, or a solitary pint. It is unpretentious, and that is always a virtue. This is an attribute increasingly scarce in Spitalfields. But The Duke, stout and trustworthy as it is, with good cellar and trusted ales, and a happy band of regulars, may nevertheless not be the first choice for someone seeking sparkling conversation and a lively atmosphere.

That place might just be the Golden Heart, Sandra Esquilant’s iconic and achingly trendy pub perched on a bend in the restlessly flowing fleuve that is Commercial Street. I once heard this spirited Spitalfields matriarch interviewed for a Radio 4 arts programme - she had just been nominated in a list of Britain’s most influential figures in the contemporary art scene. That gives you the flavour. I remember the times when this pub too was a lock-in. People would tentatively tap on the door after hours and Sandra would exercise her autocratic veto on who should be granted admittance. Many young people failed to make the grade. But those others seemed very pleased with their endorsement. Sandra’s genius was always to express her personality, open and brave and undiminished, through her pub. And what a pretty pub it is, with its fresh flowers in ample vases on sills with glass casements, its laboriously polished brass fittings, its bare narrow floorboards, its fireplaces and stone hearths and classic Twenties pale oak joinery that surely hasn’t been disturbed since the day it was first fitted. It is a glamorous place, a resource and an asset, where you might easily, unless you are careful, bump into a celebrity, and where it is surely almost impossible to leave without having had an enjoyable and interesting conversation.

Many years ago, I cannot recall exactly when, as I was working to create our restaurant business, I met a charming and personable young man who was new to the area, who it pleased me to see seemed to admire my old place, and was anxious to seek my advice. He was considering taking the lease on a local pub and wondered which of the several on offer I preferred. At that time Spitalfields looked tired and a bit sad. It was not the trendy, busy destination it is now. Pub leases could be snapped up. I’m pretty sure I was not much use to him. His name was Peter Dunne, and he is the landlord of the phenomenally successful Water Poet in Folgate Street.

If George Orwell’s imaginary ideal London pub, The Moon Under Water, has a modern parallel, then I think that pub may be the Water Poet. Looking at it, and admiring it as I do, I can only conclude that Peter Dunne is a business genius. He once told me hired a public relations consultant, and after a seemingly interminable wait his investment eventually bore fruit. His trick is to capture exactly the right tone and match it to his customers. And the customers are many. A courtyard garden is thronged with drinkers. At each of its several bars, banks of people queue for pints. Private rooms host cheery, well-oiled gatherings. The place has a joyous, friendly air, and is a marvelous antidote to some of its dull and sober rivals. If “atmosphere” can be bottled, then this is where to find it.

Peter is so good at the job, he did it all again in Norton Folgate with the Crown and Shuttle. As much as we do for the people who made the Vibe Bar, and other famous bars of Spitalfields, we applaud such creativity and inventiveness. Crucially, all of these places I have described are not corporate. There is no wall of money behind them from banks and investors. There are no men in suits with clipboards. Each bears the mark of the hand of its creator, not some wretched “design consultancy”. Entrepreneurs have simply relied on their natural instincts. That is why the outcomes are so pleasing.

And I shouldn’t wonder if there is a skip in the back to hold all the takings.

Wonky Panels II

29 December 2015

Absent Friends

One measure of the strength and depth of relationship in any community is the impact made upon it by bereavement. I have been struck these past few weeks by the extraordinary outpouring of sadness and regret at the untimely loss of Rodney Archer. It is surprising and humbling, the extent to which this gentle, quiet man was loved and admired in Spitalfields, and the readiness of people to express their emotion at his passing. People have been meeting in the street and candidly unburdening themselves of troubled and complicated feelings. Voices have been unsteady. Eyes hint at tears. It is not, obviously, quite the same as some state occasion, like the loss of a royal or celebrity or famous politician, yet in our little, intense, overwrought corner of Spitalfields, it counts at the very least as a milestone in our lives.

There have been other such milestones. Eric Elstob was a colossus in our neighbourhood. His reputation as polymath, conservationist, writer, antiquarian and financier, as well as leading light in the restoration of Christ Church, was immense. In awed tones we first heard about him over a garden fence in Oxford, where we lived at the time, when we explained one day in the early ‘nineties that we were headed for Spitalfields. The donnish, grey-haired, little old lady spoke to us animatedly. She had worked with Eric in one of the colleges. We knew we were taking a chance by sinking everything into this rundown London neighbourhood. Family members recoiled at our plans. But to hear of such distinguished new neighbours lifted our spirits. Like Rodney he was one of the adventurous ones, an early pioneer in tumbledown, neglected Spitalfields. He owned and restored the best house in Fournier Street, but had his rich, full life cut short at just sixty.

Dennis Severs likewise was famous, almost passing for a rock star in our neighbourhood. If Spitalfields wasn’t Bohemian before, he certainly made it so. We had heard all the stories: the saturnalian Christmas parties, the coach and four comically obstructing traffic on Kensington streets, and of course the majestic curating and breathing life into the imaginary Jervis family, now permanently lodged in their splendid, Hogarthian, Folgate Street home. Dennis was an American, from the mid-West. He owned a petrol station out there, from which all his life he derived a small income. I loved the beautiful irony of this. I loved thinking of Dennis plundering London antique markets for stage props for his house while thousands of miles away some pump attendant in dusty jeans and cowboy shirt was refuelling a gas guzzler on the forecourt of the family business. There are many such contradictions here. Otherwise normal people set about their daily lives in gloomy houses lit by gaslight, cooking their supper on a wood-burning range. This could only happen in Spitalfields.

I didn’t know Dennis too well, though I do remember him very much approving of our coffee house idea, and I liked that. Of course his funeral was a great coup de théatre and I well remember the day. Everyone turned out for the slow procession behind a funeral cart, in true East End style, even stopping the traffic in Commercial Street. How to explain such no-holds-barred, out-and-out enthusiasm for old England? It sometimes seems that we ex-colonials are more keen on the past and preserving it at all costs than native Britons. This is no doubt because we have so little history of our own worth keeping.

Peter Lerwill, in Princelet Street, was one of those sweet-tempered, undemonstrative, older-generation Spitalfields people whose loss when it came struck as such a blow. He too succumbed to cancer. This gentle man was always kind to me, and encouraged my building restoration project. He admired craftsmanship and gave me his collection of original brass doorbells and spring mechanisms. He wanted me to distribute them after he was gone, and faithfully I carried out this wish. His beautiful house was left to the Landmark Trust.

I first met John Cornwell at a summer garden party in Whitechapel. We would bump into each other on numerous occasions and each time there would be some short, but courteous and friendly, exchange between us. He once gave me a brass fire fender, confiding sadly that it was not to his wife’s taste. I totally understood why he was good at his job - family law. He was such a superb listener. Meeting in the street one day he told me he had eaten with family in my restaurant the night before. I held my breath and waited. “It was magnificent!” he charmingly stated. Of course I knew about the encroaching illness, and friends kept saying how sick he seemed. Not long before the end I turned the corner in Puma Court one day and saw him approaching. I could have bolted - but of course I didn’t. He was so very gaunt and thin under his dashing, broad-brimmed black felt hat. “You’ve been unwell,” I told him. Then, after a pause: “You must be very brave.” “But I’m not brave at all,” he quickly gave back, with little forgiving smile, to excuse my awkwardness. Then he carried on past me, there being nothing else to say.

Christ Church was full, nave and galleries, on the day of his funeral.

There were always plenty of good pubs in Spitalfields, but no two quite like The Gun and The Golden Heart. How sad therefore to relate that the landlords of these two long-lived, characterful, family-run public houses, David Pollock and Dennis Esquilant, both succumbed so cruelly and suddenly to cancer within a year or so of each other in the recent past.

Dennis and David were proper East End: how often can we truthfully say this when we speak of personalities of Spitalfields? They did not come down in the last shower. Dennis was from an old local family still active in the area. His nephew runs a recycling business - I take my waste cardboard to his depot in Greenwich every week. David’s mum and dad had his pub before him, just as Mark took over from David. There was a photo portrait of them affectionately fixed over the bar. David told me how he used to attend Sandys Row synagogue as a boy every Saturday, and the Repton Club on weekday evenings. He once took chase after a man who tried to steal our A-board. His son-in-law is a local fireman. These two took the place pretty much as they found it: there was no desire to cast it in a new image. This is perhaps what most makes the newcomers different. I loved how I used to see David stood at the public bar with a pint in The Golden Heart on Christmas Eve - a confraternity of publicans!

I once met Dennis by chance at the counter of the beigel shop at the top of Brick Lane. I was collecting beigels for the coffee house every day back then, and carting them back home again in the basket of my butcher’s bike. Dennis had by then taken a less prominent role in the running of his and Sandra’s beautiful pub. “How’s is it all going, Dennis?” asked the redhead behind the counter, sonorous in her thick Irish brogue. “Brilliant.... That’s what worries me,” Dennis replied. “How so?” she asked, confused. “Because it makes you wonder what’s round the corner.” I never forgot that day - I was haunted by this flash of wisdom.

I can’t remember when I first met Rodney Archer. It must have been near twenty years back. I remember saying that there was no risk of my forgetting his name, since he shared it with my father. This seemed to amuse him. He told me he was writing some magnum opus, a sort of modern-day Pepys or something, that everyone in Spitalfields is in it, and that we will all have to wait till it is published. This seemed slightly threatening, but I probably thought he was teasing. More recently, ever the thesp, he used to ask me if I was Donald Sinden’s son, and perhaps was slightly disappointed that I wasn’t. I never knew till the funeral that he wrote poems. I feel sad about this because he said kind things about mine.

I never saw inside his house, but from the video one can see that it is ravishing. It must be one of the very last Spitalfields houses not tampered with and “themed”, which seems to be the new fashion here. As Spitalfields continues to reinvent itself, we can only speculate on what will be the final outcome. One day last summer he came with two old Spitalfields friends to visit us on the coast. We made a tour of the house, during which Rodney was mostly silent. But he lit up upon seeing a bow front Regency chest with a glove drawer I had bought from Roy in the market. Everyone smiled when he cheekily asked what I gave for it. We had lunch in a nearby restaurant then toured the harbour and town. Rodney came back with a fetching seaside straw hat to add to his collection.

What I especially liked about Rodney was his not joining in with the narrow, “feudy” side of Spitalfields. Perhaps he has something to teach us here. This place is a village - an urban village - but has something myopic about it too, despite its supposed sophistication. Maybe we need to look further sometimes, past these streets, to things beyond, to the horizon. I pictured Rodney on the day of his funeral peering down from heaven on his bed of puffy white clouds, smiling at the assembled mourners (many of whom, as the eulogist hinted, are not actually on speaking terms), and cheerfully lapping up the spectacle.

He would have loved the theatre.

Wonky Panels I - 13 November 2015

13 November 2015

Nature Notes

Those of you with a sharp ear might have heard long-term Fournier Street resident and newly elected SNP member John Nicolson speaking up at PMQs recently. His question about a possible Channel 4 sell-off was batted off well enough by Cameron, but nevertheless made the news schedules that evening. John was there as anchorman right at the start of BBC Breakfast TV back in the early eighties (he interviewed Mrs Thatcher among others), and more recently helped restore derelict historic properties in the neighbourhood of London Hospital, where Tim Whittaker and other Spitalfields emigres did such fine conservation work for a decade or so.

Meanwhile John’s Princelet Street neighbour and fellow MP, Julian Smith, has a busy time ahead in the Whips office, where he was promoted from the Treasury after the May election. Given the Tories paper-thin Commons majority, and minority in the Lords, it looks like Julian has his work cut out.

Has anyone contemplated writing nature notes - field notes - to our neighbourhood I wonder? There is perhaps an unexpected rich vein of nature running here in Spitalfields, and I don’t just mean what is disgorged by Liverpool Street tube station on the weekends. Consider the foxs’ lair just yards from Carluccio’s, and directly under the noses of the estate management security. How cocky and unfazed are these beautiful creatures, as they insolently inspect the passers-by. Their eyes shine like diamonds in the shadowy places at the edge of the market.

A bi-product of the demolitions of disused buildings is the loss of habitat to birds and animals. “Black redstart”, the young birder called out to us one morning from the street, pointing and looking up to the roof of the old night shelter building on Crispin Street. This magnificent pile was about to come down at the time, apparently without any murmur or whisper of criticism or revolt in disputatious Spitalfields - how did that happen? Behind the retained facade, ready-made student rooms would be lowered by cranes and fitted together like toy blocks to house LSE postgrads. He well knew the bird’s lovely call - it quite stopped him in his tracks. We had watched the nesting pair - incredibly rare in England, they had crossed continents to get here - who apparently liked the craggy isolated nooks of this abandoned urban landscape. The male has an entrancing way of fanning out his filmy black wings and tawny tail and suspending, momentarily, all forward movement. He will never alight on his perch without first performing this little dance in the air. We identified a bit with those redstarts. We wondered how they would manage when everything was soon swept away.

“Spitalfields rocks” we used to say, of its trendiness. Now we mean something quite different. When a building comes down across the road from where you live you get an interesting new view, at least temporarily, of what lies behind. You may catch yourself staring at this for quite some time. Unaccustomed sunlight comes flooding into rooms normally cast in shadow. And how strange it is to see a section all the way through, a clean cut, with tiled walls, staircases, chimneys, sitting rooms and bedrooms all open. It is poignant to discover that many of the buildings we have cherished and admired year after year, some of them old and historic, may turn out to be more valuable to society - or at any rate to developers - as putative piles of dust to make way for the innovations of modernity. The owners of the Wellington Arms, in Brune Street, for example, must have felt like they’d won the euro lottery when their site was slated for yet another Spitalfields mega-development, complete with multi-story tower blocks vanishing up into the clouds. The payoff was eye-watering, and there have been others since. The temptation to sell up must be huge. It certainly beats pulling pints at the bar day after day and the monotonous routine of a desultory lunchtime trade.

The revolving door which is corporate Spitalfields has been spinning frenziedly ever since the old market changed hands and went into ownership from America. New investment is of course a very good thing but it has been a bumpy ride in the market. One recent disappearance is the upmarket Swedish sandwich place that replaced the traders’ favourite Daily Grind in Brushfield Street. How long did that new place last - about five minutes? Turn your head and it’s gone. The ‘Grind’ hung on for many a long year, and was the nearest thing Spitalfields had to an informal cafe, after the disappearance of Dino’s in Commercial Street and, before that, the Market Cafe in Fournier Street, Gilbert and George’s old breakfast haunt. I guess you have to eat out if you don’t have a kitchen. High rents presumably caused its demise, just as they did for Los Barriles, the famous Spanish tapas restaurant, over on the other side of the market. I still hear people talking fondly about that place. It was a highly successful long-established family business but when the new owners reviewed the rent they handed back the keys.

Noncorporate Spitalfields, or what remains of it, looks to be in better shape perhaps, and definitely needs to be celebrated and supported. A. Gold, in Brushfield Street, after all these years, is still faring well in Paulo’s tender care. You can’t get a better warm roast leg of lamb sandwich anywhere that I know. Everything is cooked fresh on the premises with great flare. Phil has stepped back a little there, but is still doing creative web design. Their business first got going about fifteen years earlier when Philip's old school chum Ian Thomas and wife Safia Shah created their English delicatessen - a wonderful cornucopia of British specialities in traditional food and drink culture, with evocative products like dandelion and burdock, English mead, Campbell's tea, Cumbrian fudge and London honey. To pause a moment among the groaning wood racks stacked high to the ceiling is to take a swoonmaking, sentimental tour of the British Isles - not to be missed.

Harvey’s shop just next door, Verde, equally looks fabulous and is pulling in great numbers of adherents to old Spitalfields. When, some twenty years ago, Merchant Ivory wanted it for a set for one of Henry James’s novels they hardly needed to dress it. It served as the curious little Bloomsbury antique shop which lured in Charlotte Stant and Amerigo in The Golden Bowl.

In the silk purses from sows’ ears category we need to congratulate Ottolenghi which finally opened recently after an interminable building refurbishment project and, it must be said, now looks stunning. This is in Artillery Passage, in place of the old Eat and Drink Restaurant. I don’t think many can mourn that old boozy city speakeasy. Surely there never was a more unauthentic Chinese restaurant. It was mainly noted for its karaoke parties, and for upsetting neighbours with noise nuisance late at night. Ottolenghi’s white temple to contemporary food style certainly rings the changes for Spitalfields. It is all refinement and glamour and seems to pull in a great many visitors from outside the neighbourhood.

A rumour doing the rounds that there are age checks to keep out the over twenty-fives we feel sure is exaggerated...