Monday, 7 July 2008

A Stormy Sunday in Wapping

Far from Nablus, in Wapping watching the tide rise, on a stormy Sunday afternoon.
I have never seen the water so high and begin to imagine London flooded.
London is so wet, water everywhere, the opposite of Palestine in almost every way Palestine being dry and mountainous

There’s no place like home

“ She needs shoes. Go buy her some,” snarled Mum, at Dad, who had returned to celebrate my third birthday.

Then to me, from the corner of her mouth, “Don’t you dare get ankle straps, get shoes that will last”

“Shoes that will last.”

My worst nightmare, clumpy shoes, my goal of achieving fairytale princess status doomed by not having the right shoes! Oh the indignity of having to wear T-bar Clarks!

Out of the front door, aloft on my Dad, David’s, shoulders, we cross Cambridge Heath Road.

An icy January day, darkening sky lit by monster-eyed headlights lighting up our frosty breath, making winter dragons of us.

We sway a two-headed shadow, under the Victorian lanterns on Museum Passage, to the double-fronted Roman Road shoe shop.

Glittering in golden light, behind plate glass; shiny, shiny shoes, crimson shoes of patent leather, some embroidered with flowers others with ankle straps and bows, like Dorothy’s magic shoes in the Wizard of Oz. Heaven!

“What kind of shoes would you like?” David asks.

“Red ones, with ankle straps,” I say, breathless with desire, and defiance.

Shoes have to be red.

Each week at the mission Sunday school on Cambridge Heath Road, I thanked God that I was a girl who could wear red shoes, unlike boys, poor things, who only wear shoes of black or brown. I felt deep pity.

Shoeboxes racked up in towers of my desire all around the walls. From one such turret the man carefully retrieved a candy-striped box. Unwrapping tissue paper, he knelt slipping one ruby coloured shoe after another onto my feet.

“Stand up, walk around…how does that feel?”


Dizzy with happiness, unable to speak. I smiled in blissful silence all way home kicking my heels so the shoes caught the light, I did not care, though I knew Mum was going to be furious.

I rode my Dad’s shoulders home to my birthday tea, in 15 Queen Margaret Flats, St Jude’s road, London E2.

Home, situated behind the railway arch workshops off of Cambridge Heath Road, opposite the Toy Museum, now the Museum of Childhood.

Daily we visited the dolls houses there – I imagined playing with the tiny figures propped up inside the houses.

At Bethnal Green library, in the children’s room, my sister and I sat at large polished tables, looking at picture books, making up the stories we could not read, waiting until Mum returned from choosing her books in the grown-up library.

Bright as the picture books were the sparkling tropical fish that lived in tanks, in the children’s library, swimming colourfully, between pink coral and luminous water plants.

Mum always refused to read us Babes in the Wood.

“ A horrible book,” she would say, “the little children die and the birds cover them up with leaves Horrible.”

This had really traumatised her as a child.

I kept demanding that she read the “horrible book” until, at last, she conceded – but she changed the ending so that the children survived and took revenge on their relatives.

I went to two nursery schools in Bethnal Green; Columbia road and Rachel Keeling off of Roman Road.

The daily walk along Old Bethnal Green Road to Columbia road nursery school was long and scary.

We passed derelict-bombed houses, wrecked and overgrown with piles of what mum called “Debris”.

Smashed windowpanes grimaced after us as we hurried along; their blackened toothy maws gaping like the petrified screams of the bombed-out dead.

I was taken out of Columbia Nursery School and moved to Rachel Keeling, because of a number of incidents.

(i) My morbid fascination with a little girl who used to gulp down washing up liquid to make herself sick, or put fingers down her throat, so that her mother would come and take her home. “Guess what Chloe did today?” was my common refrain.

(ii) A dysentery scare.

One child had contracted dysentery on holiday; so all pupils were required to take a stool sample to Barts’ Hospital for tests.

I cheerfully informed everyone on the bus that we were travelling with a pot of my poo, because my nursery school had dangerous bugs; the bus conductor refused to collect fares from us.

“But we haven’t paid” I protested as mum dragged me away in embarrassment.

There used to be a traveller site at the end of Columbia Road: caravans, trucks, and barking dogs behind wire fences.

One day the council closed the site and evicted the travellers. In protest at this treatment they covered the pitch in human excrement.

In the seventies, Bethnal Green was still full of temporary homes, the “pre-fabs” put up after the Blitz, Some people were reluctant to leave them, they preferred living in a hut with a tiny garden to the new high-rise flats.

Gradually the tenants in temporary homes were re-housed or they died. The neglected gardens were used as rubbish dumps. Mum once found a bin liner of abandoned kid’s clothes. I was mortified when she made me wear the ditched clothes.

“ Nothing wrong with them.” She said, “good as new.”

One cold November day my Nan and I went to watch a warehouse demolition.

Rats swarmed out of the rubble, an old lady stood by, while her Jack Russell seized each rat and with a quick, deft shake snapped their necks.

The old lady pounded across the piles of brick and smoking wood, smashing at the rats with her walking stick, shouting “garn, garn get ’em all boy, get em all!”

“Isn’t he clever” said Nan, “just one little shake and they’re dead, all deaded. Nasty rats!”

A tramp was kicked to death in the alleyway off of Cambridge Heath road at the back of our flats and Mum became afraid to stay in the area.

The stairs and walls of our building were crumbling; she struggled getting the pram up to the third floor, where exposed metal grids poked through the steps. We had no bathroom; our bath lived under a folding unit in the kitchen. It made a great cave to play in at bath time.

When I was six we were re-housed in Basildon, in a three-bedroom house, with gardens front and back.

On arrival in Essex I did not speak for three days, mourning summers spent in Victoria Park at the One o’clock Club project started by my mum, and at the separation from my school friends.

Most of all I missed Bethnal Green Market, where friendly stallholders would give me a complementary apple or carrot to munch and call me “Princess”.

My Nan had made me a red velvet cloak, which I wore with a flower-bedecked white straw hat, and my red shoes, of course.

Even at six years old, wearing a cloak in Basildon is a bad idea.

Living on the Nag’s Head estate these last few years has been exciting, nostalgic and healing, reviving a sense of who I am and where I am from.

My grandmother’s grandmother lived on Padbury Court; my Nan grew up on Austin Street, my Mum on Queensbridge Road and in Stamford Hill, my Dad around Wells Street Market.

The sad reality of gentrification makes living in here in Bethnal Green top dollar, unrealistic except for the highest earners. Even Peabody is flogging off London’s desperately needed social housing on the open market.

The Haig and Jellicoe blocks, including the units currently licensed to Phoenix, will be sold off to the highest bidders.

The area is full of booted and suited buyers roaming the Nag’s Heads’ courtyards and walkways, scrutinising the place, their pound-filled eyes glaring up at us as we come and go, as if to say, “Get going, scumbags, I stand to make a profit here, suckers!” Then cue villainous roars of mirthless laughter.

When I see such leeches and their hostile glances, I long to revive the ancient tradition of hurling dirty washing up water over the balcony, screeching “ Get out of it!”

E2 is going up in the world like a rocket on boom acceleration. Even the long-standing double fronted Roman road shoe shop closed in the summer of 07, its owners unable to cope with rent increases.

The City is coming for Bethnal Green, symbolised in the vast shard of glass construction, dominating East London horizons from all directions.

A property developers’ chess game, the battle for the East End, ordinary dwellers mated between the Olympics, the government bill for imposing “decent homes” standards, and the open market.

Phoenix as a co-op providing homes for single people on low incomes has to face facts: in such climates, short-life housing faces extinction.

Our only move to stay in our target area of Tower Hamlets and Hackney is to acquire permanent property for members, to put down roots – for, like the travellers on their site at Columbia road as short lifers, we are being moved on, and out.

©Pennie Quinton

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