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Painting the urban palimpsest


Beyond the Tower: a history of east


London John Marriott


YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 384PP, £25 ■Tablet bookshop price £22.50 Tel 01420 592974


B


ad things often come from the east, starting with the Wicked Witch of the


East in The Wizard of Oz – not to mention Bolshevism. The east always seems to be the direction from which an ill wind blows. That certainly applies to London. From the moment when it made its appearance, at some point in the Tudor era, as London spilled out beyond its ancient walls, the “East End” was an object of fear: the squalid nest of “dangerous classes”. The royals wanted to get as far away as possible. Deserting their old Norman fortress in the Tower, they shifted at various points to Westminster, Richmond,


NOVEL OF THE WEEK


Past caring The Sense of an Ending Julian Barnes


JONATHAN CAPE, 150PP, £12.99 ■Tablet bookshop price £11.70


blokey, lightweight sort in his early sixties. No one does the affably disappointed voice of the captain of the Second XV better than Julian Barnes. From the start of his story, Tony confesses that the best he can offer us is “my reading now of my memory then of what was happening at the time”. In the first half of the book, he introduces us to his three closest friends at school, each, like him, a cleverish adolescent nihilist, except for a much smarter, more solemn and serious-minded boy, Adrian Finn. After school, Tony and Adrian start to drift apart. En route to his 2:1 from Bristol Tony acquires his first proper girlfriend, Veronica Ford. There is a lot of “near-sex” (it is the Sixties, but not for Tony and Veronica) before things fizzle out awkwardly. The following year, Tony receives a letter from Adrian, on track for a first at Cambridge, explaining that he and Veronica were now going out together. Tony replies with an insouciant postcard and a sulkier letter. After returning from a postgraduate roam around America, Tony learns that Adrian had died a few months earlier. He had bled to death in the bath, after opening a vein with a neat diagonal cut. In the second half, the story becomes


T 22 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011 Tel 01420 592974


he narrator, Tony Webster, is a stock Barnes character, a straightforward,


Hampton Court and Kensington. Anywhere west would do, and where they went, the “quality” followed. According to the seventeenth-century philosopher Sir William Petty, this east-west migration was literally a healthy development. “If great cities are naturally apt to move their seats,” he wrote, “it must be Westwards, because … the dwellings of the west end are so much more free from the fumes, steams and stinks of the whole Easterly Pyle.” Not much has changed since then in terms of popular attitudes, in spite of the countless regeneration schemes from the eighteenth century onwards, the latest being the London Olympics. Fear of the East End always centred on the same interlinked factors: immigration, crime, squalor and disease. In the eighteenth century the unpopular immigrants were the Irish, in the nineteenth they were the Russian Jews. Today it’s Bangladeshis. But, as John Marriott explains, fears about the East End were not so much misplaced as exaggerated. Poverty has been a constant. But even at its very worst in the early


pacy and thrillerish. We hurry forward 40 years. In a few paragraphs, we learn that Tony is now retired after an underpowered career in arts administration; he has dinner occasionally with an amiable ex-wife, he is in friendly email contact with a daughter, and he enjoys meetings of the local history society (Barnes can ladle on the mediocrity a little too generously). Then, a letter from a solicitor arrives in the post. Tony has been left £500 in a will by Veronica’s mother, a woman he had only met once, over the weekend he had been taken home to Chislehurst “to meet the parents”. And Mrs Ford has left Tony something else – Adrian Finn’s diary. But the diary is being held by her daughter, whom Tony has barely thought of since hearing of Adrian’s suicide. Tony’s hunt to recover the diary leads to disturbing discoveries, increasingly strange meetings with Veronica, and a final shocking twist. It’s a terrific yarn, and as soon as you


finish it you want to go back to the start to read it again, this time alert to the anguish and humiliation buried under Tony’s matey candour. You recognise what Tony has neither the wit nor the courage to grasp, that memory has a comforting but deluding way of leaving us only with the story of our life that we are able to bear. One of Tony’s memories is of Adrian telling him, “I hate the way the English have of not being serious about being serious.” However irritating the habit might be, Barnes is one Englishman who has never tried to shake it off. In all his novels, flip and shallow talk hides anxiety and pain. And he combines weight and lightness again in The Sense of an Ending, a disturbing meditation on memory, remorse and regret, masked as an intriguing entertainment. Brendan Walsh


nineteenth century, following the collapse of the old weaving industry, the East End was never the seamy slum of West End legend. A good third of the community was in regular, decent work and no more than a third of the population, even then, was truly indigent. Marriott suggests that well-meaning


Victorians developed a sort of fetish about the East End, which informed the obsessive fascination with the world of Jack the Ripper. Reading some of the accounts from this period, it’s hard not to think that some Victorian writers got a bit of a buzz about the East End, competing with one another in search of new, lurid adjectives for the place. According to The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, the East End was “a sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country flow. Entire courts are filled with thieves, prostitutes and liberated convicts”. Another excited contemporary wrote of its “mighty mob of famished, diseased and filthy helots”, who were “about to sally forth and give us a taste of the lesson the mob had tried to teach now and again in Paris”. Today’s talk of “feral youths” seems tepid and restrained by comparison. For many Victorians, the East End was not so much a real place as a metaphor. The alleged horrors of the urban workshops became a particular idée fixe. Reality, Marriott says, was more mundane. Conditions in these workshops were no better and no worse than in a host of other industries. The bosses of these workshops, often portrayed as filthy-smelling, hook-nosed slave-drivers – Jews, of course – were as often as not almost as badly off as their employees. On the other hand, Marriott questions


the way that the East End was dramatically rehabilitated in the Second World War, the old Artful Dodgers and Fagin types popping up as poster boys and girls for plucky England – all cheerfully sharing cuppers in shelters in the Underground while Hitler rained bombs overhead. Not quite the whole of the story, Marriott says. Along with singalongs in shelters there was plenty of pushing, shoving and stealing, not to mention a high incidence of mental breakdown. The Blitz drove many people mad from loss of sleep. Marriott’s book deals mainly with the


nineteenth century, the East End’s glory days in terms of its shocking reputation. The massive ethnic changes of the late twentieth century and the redevelopment of the Docklands under Thatcher are dealt with only briefly. The last several decades do indeed seem a bit of a let-down. The new East End appears neatly divided between puritanical Muslims on the one hand and business types in gated, riverside developments on the other. Not much of the old dark glamour there. But then, as this perceptive book makes clear, the East End’s reputation as a thrilling den of iniquity was a bit of a caricature to begin with. Marcus Tanner


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