When I told my London friends that I was coming to visit they started scheduling lunches. When I told them I’d be staying in Tower Hamlets they asked that we meet in their neighborhood. Ok, I suppose that the East End is a bit notorious. I’d never been there before except by accident during an ill conceived touristic foray to the Tower. S’daingrus innit? Sigh.
I am one of those Americans who doesn’t stick out as a tourist. I don’t know why. It might be that I grew up in San Francisco, a tourist town, and therefore give off a pheromone that says ‘ask me for directions’. It might be that I generally have little interest in standard tourist attractions. It might be that I’m fairly well traveled. When friends took me around Paris a local told me that it was nice of me to give my friends a tour and asked how long I’d been living there. They’d been living there for ten years. Same thing in Munich. While on the High School German trip I was dragging drunken teens back to our hotel and the cops who stopped to help asked me how long I’d been living in Germany. “Um… three days.” Who knows, could be genetic, my family are career military. Maybe I give off a ‘been there seen that’ vibe. Whatever the reason people don’t seem to try to give me the wrong change, I’ve never had my pocket picked, and from Amman to DC people want to talk local politics with me. This backfired a bit when I was in Bethnal Green. Folks there shelved the ‘I will be understandable to the tourist’ patois and fell into solid Bow Bells mutter. More than one person asked what street my family was from, yeah ok American but clearly roots here. Nope. Native American and Polish. Hmmm. I learned some things. Not all are appropriate for this writing.
Every pub is a collection of stories. There is always a story about the pub’s name. Sometimes that story is easy to get to. Some pubs even have it explained in an informative paragraph on the back of the postcard of the pub sign. Don’t drink in a pub that sells postcards of its sign. I like a dive. I want cranky old men lurking in corners. I want food you wouldn’t eat except that you are enjoying the conversation and don’t want to go someplace else. This trip I discovered sausage rolls. Not sure how I’d missed them before. Lovely buttery things, probably the caloric intake of an underdeveloped country for a week. Probably more nutritious to eat the wrapper they come in. I ate mine with mustard and whenever possible.
On the way to Bethnal Green from Heathrow we kept passing pubs with interesting names. Up Whitechapel we passed The Grave Maurice. It was the ninth or tenth interesting pub sign we’d passed. I’m a poet, I want to know the stories, it’s how I know where I’ve been. It was also tickling a faint memory. Finally shaken from my airplane stupor I wrote that one down. My host was keeping up a fairly constant patter about the places we were passing, The Royal London Hospital where Joseph Merrick lived for a time, the metal works where the Liberty Bell was created… things he thought I’d want to know. I do. I always want to know. As I said, I’m a poet, the kind that is also a history junkie. Moreover I’d been trapped in a plane watching movies about to go to video for 12 plus hours. I was ravenous for good stories. Not famous stories per se, but good ones. I want to know about the church off the Old Ford Road that is repurposed as a catering supply store. That sort of thing just fascinates me.
Back at the house, caffeinated, hydrated, rinsed off and with time for internet investigation. I looked at my notes, The Grave Maurice. It turned out to have been the headquarters for particularly nasty twins who were both eventually convicted of murder. I had never heard of the Kray brothers before, most sites refer to them as East End gangsters. Digging farther, past Morrissey (I knew I’d heard that name somewhere) and Martha Grimes (never read that one) I found out that the name of the pub came from a Margrave who was related to William of Orange. The site I was in suggested I go to the Blind Beggar. I asked my host, he pointed and said, a few blocks that way. Ok, Blind Beggar.
Even better story with that pub name, the beggar was Henry de Montfort, son of Simon de Montfort. He was injured in the Battle of Evesham in 1265 and went blind. He appears in the coat of arms for Bethnal Green. Wonderful complex tale and I encourage you to look it up as well, but again you trip over gangsters and dead bodies. Ronnie Kray is said to have shot George Cornell there. My host muttered something about Jack “the Hat” McVittie. I looked him up. His death turned out to be another murderous Kray brothers production.
The Blind Beggar and The Grave Maurice are both on Whitechapel Road. You may have heard of Whitechapel Road even if you’ve never been to London. Jack the Ripper haunted Whitechapel. There are Ripper tours aplenty, although I’m not sure I’d bother, read a good book on the plane if you have to.
The Tower of London loans its name to Tower Hamlets. It crouches in the South Western corner and links the area to “the City”. I didn’t pay it a visit this trip, though we drove by. In keeping with my pub name focus I noticed that across from the tower is a pub called The Hung Drawn and Quartered. We didn’t go in, but I bet that they sell postcards. That pub hasn’t really been there for all that long, I’m told. The Tower is, as most know, the site of a number of famous murders, oh… excuse me- executions. These include two of Henry VIII’s wives and many others who didn’t agree with him. Actually his body count was better than old Jack’s and possibly even the Krays’ if one adds in the wars. On the subject of things for sale that should be a clue to avoid the venue: the Tower gift shop (which I should probably be spelling “Shoppe”) sells an assemble-it-yourself paper clockwork of a beheading… presumably, like the pub sign postcards, this item caters to an interested public.
I liked Bethnal Green, or more properly Beffnu Green. I liked the Museum of Childhood, also located there. Had a great walk in Victoria Park, set aside to provide green space in the “shambles of the East End”. My host and I had a good stroll along the canal. I liked the brick terraced houses, I liked every single person I met there and I liked the working class sensibility of it all. That last is on the wane, sad to say, as with all other inner cities anywhere I’ve been in the last ten years or so, there is an encroaching gentrification not unlike the one that invaded and took over Canary Wharf. Here’s a bit of advice from a person of Native American decent to a colonial force: hey, Yuppies, do yourselves a favor and don’t tease the blue-collar folk. If you want to live in Notting Hill or Islington (nothing against it) do that, but there are local things to be learned in Bethnal Green (as I assume there were in the other places) and like the foxes and magpies those things are persistent. Don’t just blunder in and start redecorating, it’s good to leave some indigenous stuff intact and it inspires less hostility.
It’s hardly surprising that people view the East End as a horrible den of murderers. Lots of folk make it their business to sell the murderer angle. From the tour guides walking customers down Brick Lane to the pub named after an historical form of torture the history of the area is absolutely focused on the horrible and the spectacular. My host took me around to the Prospect of Whitby pub. This is a very charming place despite the food being too good and the lime wedge in my cola. There has been an inn or pub on that site since Tudor times. Out the window one can see a gibbet, complete with noose (also a great view of the Thames). There are two stories as to why the gibbet, neither ends well. I personally was more interested in the number of slang terms that all Londoners seem to have for genitalia than I was with stories of gore and blood. Thing is, you can’t avoid the gore and blood (or the slang either, come to that). People are far more likely to remember Jack the Ripper than the great sweet shop on the corner. There is no question that folks get their pockets picked along Whitechapel during the outdoor market, so if you go don’t be an idiot and stay aware of your surroundings. There is no question that there are gangs along Cambridge Heath Road. Oh and if you are reading this: kid in the orange jacket, move two feet towards Sainsbury’s and you will maximize your sightlines. As I was saying, don’t carry extra junk with you and keep your wits. But don’t avoid the East End just because of the stories. Stories are what flavor the human condition. Like blackberries, some of the best ones are surrounded by sharp bits. I suppose that I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way.