On Brick Lane
by Rachel Lichtenstein
Brick Lane, a long and ancient street in London’s East End, casts a spell of fascination on all who go there. To walk down Brick Lane is to take a voyage through the past, where Huguenot weavers of the 18th century meet fellow ghosts of Jewish anarchists, and their history is everywhere you look. My own family history touches lightly on the Lane, for my grandfather owned a workshop there in the 1920s, and my stepfather discovered an anarchist printing press hidden in a ruined house there in the 1950s.
Whitechapel Library, next door to the Art Gallery, is not strictly speaking in the Lane, but Rachel Lichtenstein includes it in this book of tape-recorded interviews. It is, or rather was, just round the corner to the Whitechapel end. Truman’s brewery, also deceased, stood at the Bethnal Green end. When they were both in their prime, 30 years ago, their vigour and enterprise in two different causes (books and beer) added greatly to the vitality of Brick Lane.
After the Huguenots and the Russian Jews came the Bengalis, whose presence has been ‘made official’ by the council. A huge sign, ‘Bangla Town’, now greets the tourist and embarrasses everyone else. Imagine a ‘Jamaicatown’ sign in Brixton, or a ‘Paddytown’ in County Kilburn! Such signs would probably be declared ‘racist’, but the Bengalis have never complained. They have their own council estate, Flower and Dean, just behind the Shiraz Hotel in Brick Lane.
The City, with its banal architecture, has now reached the westward fringes of the Lane, and it’s become a well-known eating place for smart young things. Artists, who preserve old architecture but fill it with dreadful art, have also invaded. This is more serious, as they live there and open galleries, little islands of spite and selfishness among decent Bengali and Jewish businesses. The artists scorn the City types, which I think most unfair. With their ‘sharp schmutter’ and youthful air of naive optimism, the City types resemble older versions of the cheerful 1960s Jewish teenagers observed by writer Colin MacInnes from his eyrie in Hanbury Street.
Rachel Lichtenstein is herself an artist. She rightly mourns the passing of Whitechapel Library. This venerable institution, with its erudite music library and stable-like spiral staircases, has been more productive of Jewish talent than the British Museum Reading Room ever was. When I first discovered the library, it had a large selection of books in Hebrew and Yiddish. Later, Bengali books appeared, largely unread, since literate Bengalis seem to prefer English. The children’s library was a fairyland of Bengali-child-delight, the walls covered with bright pictures by local schoolchildren. After school, many of these small children would visit the library of their own accord, engaging in precocious chit-chat with the librarian. Now, as Rachel Lichtenstein records, the library has closed, taken over by the notoriously progressive Art Gallery next door. Further down the Whitechapel Road, an ‘Ideas Store’ has taken its place, a glass nightmare full of computers. (Similar sacrilege has taken place at Brighton, and no doubt in all places where greybeards try in vain to defy the Spirit of Youth by preferring old books to new.)
I was perturbed to see that Rachel Lichtenstein has found a place in the enemy camp, working for the Art Gallery to produce a study of the very library the gallery has now destroyed! When the other link to Brick Lane greatness, Truman’s Brewery, closed and was made into artists’ studios, Rachel Lichtenstein again found herself a niche.
And so to the book itself. Lichtenstein interviews a wide selection of charlatans, idiots, madmen and decent people, giving the same voice to all and never questioning the many lies they tell. This is a bleak book, inducing depression. When you close it, you can never find your place again, for all its grey sameness. Admittedly, I have led a sheltered life, but I am certain that this is the most badly written book I’ve ever seen.
Brick Lane remains, and you should go and see it for yourself.