Many readers will know that the battle scenes for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket were shot not in war-torn Vietnam, but just down the road from Tower Hamlets, in Beckton.
But east London’s connection with Vietnam-inspired Hollywood movies does not end with Stanley Kubrick’s bloody epic.
For the greatest of them all, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, was born in the reminiscences and romance of an exiled Eastern European writer – as he gazed on the misty River Thames from his adopted East End home.
Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born on December 3, 1857, in Berdichev, in Russian-occupied Ukraine.
His parents, Apollo and Evelina, were fierce Polish patriots and were swiftly exiled by the autocratic Tsarist regime.
It was the first step in a journey that would take the young Jozef halfway round the world, before he settled in Whitechapel.
His parents died in exile, leaving the child Jozef an orphan. His uncle Thaddeus adopted the boy and, in 1874, conceded to his burning desire to go to sea. Jozef set off for Marseilles in search of a ship.
Journeys round the world followed until, in 1878, Jozef joined a British merchantman, winning his Master’s certificate.
He got on well with his shipmates, quickly rising through the ranks. But Jozef’s one problem was his name which, try as they might, the English-men just could not master.
In frustration at hearing their tortuous attempts, Jozef decided if you can’t beat them, join them, and changed his name to the more manageable Joseph Conrad.
Suitably Anglicised, he decided to make his home in England. The East End was already a second home to him – he made his first stay at the Sailors’ Home and Red Ensign Club in Whitechapel, while serving on the Duke of Sutherland.
While he was on his long voyages, Conrad would while away the time by writing stories and, in 1885, he had his first success, when The Black Mate was published in Titbits magazine.
In 1894, Conrad left the service, deciding to concentrate on writing. But his passion for the sea permeates his books.
His journeys in and out of the Pool of London inspired the memorable opening scenes of Heart of Darkness which, almost a century later, Coppola would update and transform into Apocalypse Now.
The book evokes a lost East End of bustling docks, sailors’ flophouses and schooners waiting for the next high tide and fair wind. And the story unfolds from the cold, misty and lonely Thames Estuary to the final horror in the heart of Africa.
Many more novels followed – ironically, Conrad came to be one of the greatest novelists in the English language, some achievement as it was his third tongue, after Russian and Polish.
His was a colourful life but also one touched by tragedy. In 1878, in one of his sporadic bouts of depression, Conrad shot himself but survived. In 1904, his wife became an invalid and his son Borys, often sick in childhood, was gassed in the trenches in France.
But by the early 1920s, Conrad was a celebrated English- man of letters. So English in fact that in 1924 he was offered a knighthood – the naturalised Briton declined the honour.
In the same year Jacob Epstein, one of the most celebrated sculptors of the 20th century completed Conrad’s bust. It was to be the final memento of the Polish East Ender. On 3 August that year, he died of a heart attack.