Correspondence

The End of the East End?

Late one night recently, after pub closing time, I walked through the back streets of Whitechapel again, something I had not done for several years. The sight of the familiar streets and the old smells and sounds reminded me of the six months when I had lodged there, during which time I had grown to know the area intimately. From my window, I could clearly see the dim outline of Hawksmoor's 1714 masterpiece, Christchurch, all Portland Masonic solidity, one architect's homage to another. As the sun set, I would see its reflection in my open bedroom window, as though another Christchurch had materialized a little to the east, floating, riding serenely above the buffeting, increasingly Islamic streets carrying its secret freight of Huguenot, Hellenist aspirations. When it was dark, I would still be able to see its lit clock dial and hear its sonorous bells.

I was always struck by the contrast between this calm vision and the days that I spent in the heaving, thrumming Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane markets nearby, looking for old Everyman editions, carefully avoiding the piles of old shoes, broken teapots, electrical extension leads, polyester ties, and the matted-hair street-dwellers and their cider cans.

Christchurch was not the only calm, attractive image in Stepney—there were other outposts, strange small survivals—like the toothless Cockney woman, who would sit in the ancient armchair, oblivious to...

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