Back to School

June 20, 2011

Since my last post on my own project for Slice I’ve been doing a lot more digging and discovered that not only did my grandfather grow up closer to where I now live than I had previously realised but his future mother-in-law started her childhood in the same area – in fact she was right on Brick Lane itself. My grandfather had three East End addresses (that we know of) as a child, and the last of these is just north of Cheshire Street – which many people now know as the street with the area’s most famous expensive second-hand clothes shop: ‘Beyond Retro’. (Coincidentally this is also just yards away from the home of Emanuel Litvinoff, about whom I posted previously). I’m very aware that there’s far, far more that I don’t know about my grandfather than I do, but I know that until he left school at 14 to work for his father in the furniture trade, he went to middle school in Myrdle Street, just south of Whitechapel Road (very close to the legendary Tayyabs Pakistani restaurant).  I’m still not sure where this is going artistically  (and I don’t know for sure whether my grandfather moved again before he started middle school) but I thought it’d be interesting to trace his hypothetical walking to since it clearly would have to intersect the slice at some point. Here’s my best guess, using a 1920s street map:

I also though it’d be interesting to see how the area had changed, focusing for practical purposes on the area where his route (hypothetically) intersects with the slice. So I started by imposing the 1920 map onto a contemporary one:

Quite a lot of streets have disappeared, I guess through the process of tenements being replaced with post-war estates. Many streets remain however. We have in the family a 1903 book about London which, in rather purple prose, paints a picture of the ‘ghetto’ as something deeply strange – I may well use some of the text for my final piece – but for all the extreme difference I have a feeling I wouldn’t be totally lost in the 1920s, nor would my grandfather be entirely lost now. Enough streets remain. That said, I wonder if he would share my sadness at the rather characterless blocks of maisonettes that now line his old street.

I do find all the faux ‘retro’ shops springing up in the area rather pleasing though. For all that their sham ‘authenticity’ belies their commercial purpose, they are unwitting testament to just how formative the old East End is to our (albeit fanciful) idea of the true London. I wonder if young Abe, walking down Vallance Road to school, ever had a feeling that he was part of something that would become one of history’s fixed points?

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