When a man is tired of London he should be glad he doesn’t live in Croydon. No, not the words of Samuel Johnson, but another man of letters, the BAFTA-winning animator and screenwriter Alan Gilbey, who in his spare time runs East End walks that aim to amuse, entertain and explain that “ordinary working-class people can be much more than the geezers and gangsters in all those myths”.
It’s a subject close to his heart. East End born and bred (and still here) Gilbey despairs at and mocks the received idea of cockneydom. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Gilbey reserves a special measure of loathing for the BBC’s EastEnders, and its cast bizarrely free of Bangladeshi or Black people, but overloaded with bald white psychopaths and which has “as much to do with life as it’s lived today as Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999”.
A decade ago, Gilbey and his pal Steve Wells decided to offer an alternative to the conventional Blue Badge guided tours. So were born the East End Backpassage tours, a mix of comedy, irreverence, mythbusting and an enormous amount of useful factual content. They began with the Backpassages of Spitalfields “a tale of two cities starring weavers, match girls and a notorious Jack (but not the one you’re thinking of). Spitalfields has risen from neglect to high fashion in the last 20 years, but the pair go much further back, uncovering numerous histories around Brick Lane. There’s a Sunday tour down Columbia Road and the flower market, an explorers’ guide to Whitchapel (enter the Krays, Stalin and Michael Jackson purloining the Elephant Man, as well as the site of London’s missing mountain).
The pair transport you down to Wapping, now London’s quietest urban village but once a frontier town: there are tales of pirates and escaped tigers, riots in churches and the Battle of Cable Street. And over to Shoreditch, London’s first Theatreland (and soon to get its original Shakespeare theatre back as reported just this week), its earliest council estate and its silliest haircut. This is Nathan Barley country, so alongside Little Hanoi and A Child of the Jago, you’ll find the birthplace of the Shoreditch Twat [note to sub: not sure we can say this in East End Life, so you might change to T***!]. These are walks like no other, boasts Alan. Indeed – one of them’s on a train. So if you’re not tired of life but simply tired of walking, join the trip on the DLR, a speedy trip through the remnants of the world’s largest port, London’s new financial district and the old Isle of Dogs. Newcomers, Alan suggests, might like to sit at the front and pretend to be the driver.
Now Gilbey has transformed the material for his walks into print form. Modestly he talks of his references as “some books Alan bought and copied stuff out of”. Actually of course, this is the Tommy Cooper approach: the jesting is underpinned by an enormous amount of meticulous hard work and research. It probably helps that Alan was born here and has “never managed to escape” but every joke conceals a truth. One of the best sections is Bollocks But True [sub: as above on profanity!], where we learn, inter alia, that oysters were once the food of the poor, being plentiful in the Thames estuary back in ye day. A century ago “their shells littered the streets of East London on Saturday night and Sunday mornings like the salad out of today’s kebabs”. Eels were delicious, and nutritious “and could double as a handy belt”. Pie and mash was originally eel pie and mash, as brown meat was too expensive. The East End once had the largest school in the world in Gun Street, Spitalfields. Among the alumni of the Jews Free School, established in 1732, were comic Bud Flanagan, band leader Joe Loss, and Morris ‘Two Gun’ Cohen, who served in the Chinese Army under Chiang Kai-Shek. At any time, the school had around 4230 pupils.
And among the odd facts are some deeper truths. Old cockneys will tell you that in the old East End nobody ever locked their front doors. According to Arthur Harding, who featured in these pages a few weeks back and knew a bit about thieving, that was true. But only because nobody had anything worth nicking. In fact, East End crime rates in the 1930s were far higher than today, but house breaking was a waste of time, so villains turned their eyes and fingers elsewhere. As for the number of boozers around the East End (140 in Wapping alone at one point) it wasn’t just that the East Enders liked their booze. After all, everybody likes their booze, whatever the postal district, though life may need a little more softening round the edges if work means hauling crates on the docks or working 12-hour shifts, six days a week in a factory. More to the point though, with your whole family living and sleeping in one room (and possibly another family at the other end of the room) people needed somewhere bigger and brighter to escape to. Small wonder that the pubs and gin palaces of the Victorian era became quite so elaborate. Palaces indeed with their intricate woodwork, flock wallpaper and glistening brasswork. These were possibly the flashest places a hardworking East Ender ever got to see.
Much of the old East End lives on only in the linguistic appendix that is the name. Houndsditch is no longer a part of the London Wall from which to fling your dead mutt (the ditch eventually filling up with hounds); that practice has been in abeyance since the Middle Ages, but the name lives on. Spitalfields was so called because these were once the fields attached to the hospital: no fields now. Bishopsgate was, of course, the gate through which the Bishop entered the City and Petticoat Lane was called thus because of the quantity of schmutter sold there. And to doubly confuse visitors it’s not even called Petticoat Lane, but Middlesex Street, so don’t go looking for it on a map. Gilbey notes that the Lane is “the only market I know where traders often pretend their goods are stolen in the hope you won’t notice they’re crap”.
Even Dirty Dick’s pub isn’t dirty anymore (health and safety you see). But here a marvellous confusion of East End facts possible and fanciful collide. Was this the inspiration for Charles Dickens, chronicler and patron of East End taverns. The great journalist and walker of East End streets would have known the Bishopsgate boozer, and also the story behind it. Nathaniel (Dick) Bentley was a City ironmonger so devastated by the death of his fiancee on the eve of their wedding that he left the nuptial feast on the table and never cleaned his house or shop again. He became so famously filthy that, when he died in 1809, an enterprising publican bought up the cobwebbed contents of his dead-cat-infested house and displayed them here, so creating the first Victorian theme pub. A far cry from the gleaming gin palaces of later years, but more pertinently, a spookily similar story to that of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Did Dickens cop the idea from here?
There is more – much much more. There are laughs on every page, but Gilbey is unsparing too. The myths of both left and right are demolished. No, Mosley “did not pass” down Cable Street that day in 1936. But he did march unopposed the following Saturday through Mile End. The British Union of Fascists or BUF, meanwhile, went the way of most movements of the far right, where splinter groups splinter once again, until the resulting movement can meet in a phone box. Brilliantly, the rump of the declining BUF called themselves the British Union Movement, or BUM – probably not a name with which to take on the world. And as he strolls around Shoreditch, so transformed these days from dowdiness to achingly fashionable, he notices the stickers posted by a street artist, pointing out that ‘Shoreditch’ is an anagram of ‘sod the rich’. There are “a lot more rich to sod round here these days”, muses Alan. And points out the shameful statistic that more children live below the poverty line in Tower Hamlets than anywhere else in Britain. No, he’s not Dr Johnson but a more successful writer in some ways. After all, Boswell’s pal never won a Bafta.
East End Backpassages, an explorer’s guide by Alan Gilbey. Published by Quartet Books. www.quartetbooks.co.uk. £10