Bethnal Green is my old stomping ground, my manor, my endz.
Yes, of course, like most people who live in and around London, I’m not a true Londoner. I would never claim to be “from the East End”. I don’t even affect a Mockney accent.
I was never a proper Eastender. I never had pie, mash and liquor. I never worked up the courage to try jellied eels. I did try to go to E. Pellicci for breakfast once, but the queue was out of the door and I was too hungry to wait. I – whisper it – never even tried a beigel from the Brick Lane beigel shops.
But I did live in the East End for over ten years. And I think that earns me the right to say that Bethnal Green is my manor.
I moved there mainly because I wanted to be walking distance to work at Liverpool Street (and my office was promptly moved to Chancery Lane), because I wanted to be near a tube station, and because I could afford it. The day I moved into my flat, I saw two police arrests, including someone being physically tackled to the ground. The arches under the railway line – a shortcut to my rented flat which I fervently promised my parents (with my fingers firmly crossed behind my back) that I’d never, ever take, stank of tramp piss. Eventually I became on nodding terms with the pissing tramp.
I had my car radio stolen. Twice.
When I first moved to Bethnal Green I had a job that meant I had to travel by taxi a fair amount. Whenever the taxi driver picked me up from Bethnal Green, they would always delight in telling me that they couldn’t believe how much this area had changed, that they remembered when this all used to be fields.
Opposite my flat was a small park. Not the illustrious Victoria Park, but a small patch of land with some grass. I moved to Bethnal Green in 2003, in that hot, hot summer, and I remember neglecting unpacking my boxes and boxes of toot (see – toot – a proper London word right there, effortlessly dropped into a paragraph). Instead of unpacking, I crossed the road to the park, and sat in the sun, reading the new Harry Potter book. I don’t regret my procrastination one little bit.
Colleagues who lived mostly in areas like Wimbledon, Clapham, Fulham and Islington, jokingly mocked me. One mentioned how he’d driven through Bethnal Green that week, had realised it was a total dump, and had decided that the team was having a collection for me.
Later on, I bought my own flat, still in Bethnal Green, though closer to Victoria Park. Victoria Park was a beautiful place for a weekend walk, a summer disposable barbecue with friends, a book and an ice cream – plus someone else was in charge of cutting the grass. The walk to work, now I was working back at Liverpool Street, was a summer delight. A thirty-minute stroll in the sunshine, and I was at my desk, having saved 80p on the bus fare. The walk usually left me hungry enough that I immediately spunked £2.50 on a bacon sandwich from the staff canteen, so retrospectively, it may not have been that economical, either financially or in terms of calories burned.
Bethnal Green was always a bit rough around the edges – scruffy, no chain stores other than supermarkets and bookies. A market, pitched in front of McDonalds and KFC sold knock-off Oral-B toothbrush heads, scouring pads and saris.
It’s probably about five years since I last properly visited Bethnal Green.
But last week, I was meeting friends at Shoreditch House (total brag), so thought rather than take the train to Marylebone and spend an hour crossing London by public transport, I’d drive to Bethnal Green, park the car and have a wander down Bethnal Green Road.
It was astonishing.
I felt like Marty from Back to the Future as I spun round and around trying to take in how much had changed. A Starbucks! Right by the tube station! Further down the high street, there was a plethora of shops that were so trendy I had no idea what they sold. One had a tree, a pair of scissors and a deck chair in the window. I couldn’t work out if it was a florist, a barber or an art gallery.
Further down again, ASOS were sponsoring a young fashion designer competition. Bouncers (bouncers! In Bethnal Green!) were stood outside of a roped-off area whilst young people wearing truly ridiculous clothes – cow-patterned cut-off dungarees anyone? – vaped on the pavement.
A row of shipping containers had been converted into ice-cream parlours, trendy bars, tapas joints.
Gone were most of the sari shops, the Asian majority seemed to have been replaced by young, white, tall men and women, all in their early twenties, all in their primes. Despite wearing one of my three socially acceptable (no visible stains, tears or child snot) outfits and even having bothered with make-up, I still felt like a bag lady.
It was the weirdest feeling.
My manor, my endz, my stomping ground is no more. I feel that I need to spread the news and explain to everyone what Bethnal Green used to be like. When it was rough, when you used to buy ten knock-off Oral-B heads for a fiver, when you used to pop to Columbia Road Flower market as it was closing and stock up on more cyclamen than you could ever need – especially as nobody had a garden. I overheard a lady talking about a pub called Brewdog, saying, “I remember years back, when this was a Mexican restaurant called Red and Green, and it used to serve churros.”
Well, I remember when that fricking restaurant opened. I even went on a date there, before the days of TheBloke (TM).
I feel I need to remind people of Bethnal Green’s – admittedly recent – history. To tell unwilling victims about what the upmarket bars and restaurants used to be. To remind them of the scruffy jewellers and crappy veneer furniture shop.
So the only thing left is for me to become a taxi driver.