As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. […] Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value [Hawksmoor’s churches] is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.
From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962. Penguin Books.
Spitalfields used to be cited by ‘psychogeographers’ as one of those London locales where the sad history of the city was engraved upon its streets and buildings: a place that was permanently wrong. The district’s association with poverty, with Jack the Ripper, the waves of the dispossessed that have settled over the centuries – this stuff was meat and drink to the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Back in 1900, the great American writer Jack London came here to discover the East End. He posed as an American seaman down on his luck, resorting to this subterfuge after Thomas Cook & Co. refused to give him a tour of the district. The resulting book, People of the Abyss, documented in depressing detail the squalor of Spitalfields, and included photos of down and outs sleeping against the walls of Christ Church. The pictures taken by Jack London have an eerie echo in Bill Brandt’s photos of east enders sheltering in the church’s crypt during the Blitz; his picture of a Sikh family among the tombs is a pointer to the future, as the local Jewish population declined and immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. The 1960s saw moves to demolish the entire area – including Hawksmoor’s church – and the time-locked deprivation of the Georgian district was eloquently captured by photographers Don McCullin, Paul Trevor and (later) Marketa Luskacova. McCullin’s portraits of local meths drinkers are terrifying and poignant: when they aren’t screaming at some unseen object, they defy the abyss by retaining a certain dignity. And Marketa Luskacova’s magnificent portrait of a man singing operatic arias for pennies on Brick Lane is the visual equivalent of Gavin Bryars’ post-modernist tone poem Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, wherein a field recording of a London tramp singing a hymn is accompanied by a limpid orchestral texture. (Although it is worth noting that Bryars made the point that the tramp on the tape, recorded circa 1970, was not a drinker; this also applies to the woman in David Secombe’s photo, and to Marketa’s singer.)
But Christ Church was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s London churches have experienced a revival in general, and I’ve already written about how they have become talismans for those who seek a hidden or mystical history of the city; so we get Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor, and Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. It’s all balls, really; but mention of From Hell gives me the opportunity to link this clip from the film derived from it, in which Johnny Depp pours himself a very inauthentic absinthe (this particular recipe inspired, methinks, by Aleister Crowley’s ‘Kubla Khan No. 2′ cocktail) …
The picture at the top dates from a moment just before the wealth and bombast of commercial London annexed the neglected East End. Spitalfields’ perceived desirability perked up considerably around this time; long-term residents like Gilbert and George, Dan Cruikshank (who had been one of the original squatters who had helped save the area from destruction in the 1970s) and the American artist Dennis Severs, whose house is now a museum, acted as beacons of gentility amidst the inner-city gloom. And, as the 1990s rolled on, the East End went from being the Dark Heart of Old London to Shiny Retail Zone with bewildering speed. I remember laughing at my first sighting of Japanese tourists apparently lost in Shoreditch circa 1997 – but that was, I think, the same year that a Holiday Inn opened on Old Street. A visit to Spitalfields Market today is a trip to Covent Garden East: Covid-19 notwithstanding, visitors are safe to purchase their branded goods and speciality coffees in a shopping environment free of disquiet. It gives the lie to the theories of Ackroyd and Sinclair: with enough commercial pressure, any area, no matter how dark its history, can be transformed into a playground for contented shoppers. The poor and neglected get moved on and even Jack the Ripper is transformed into a token of area branding. Nostalgia, eh?