In Geoffrey Fletcher's footsteps
Hidden away behind the Genesis Cinema and Wickham’s lopsided department store is Bellevue Place. To get there, you walk up a side street from the Mile End Rd where you discover a bright green door in an old wall hung with ivy. Push this door and enter another world just as writer and artist, Geoffrey Fletcher, did when he walked through the same doorway in 1964.
In The London Nobody Knows he wrote,“A green gate opening in the wall leads to a totally unexpectedly corner of London, one that may well disappear if Charrington’s, who own the property, ever decide to expand. Bellevue Place is well named. It is a cul-de-sac with a paved pathway leading to the far end, under a creeper-covered wall. The cottages are early nineteenth century, and have true cottage gardens fenced with wooden rails, pointed at the top. Here are unbelievably rural gardens, full of lilac, lupins and delphiniums – all a minute’s walk from the Mile End Road.”
Geoffrey would be gratified to see my picture and learn that Bellevue Place remains today, its cottage gardens still fenced with wooden rails, pointed at the top. The irony is that Charrington’s has gone and the large brewery complex, of which the creeper-covered wall once formed part of its perimeter, has been replaced by a housing estate. Geoffrey Fletcher’s project was to record the quaint old corners of London before they were destroyed in the name of progress, but the popularity of his work marked a change in public opinion towards the preservation of buildings. As a result, many of those he recorded in elegiac tones in “The London Nobody Knows” are preserved today as characterful landmarks of the London everybody knows.
Bellevue Place, unseen from the street and surrounded on four sides by high walls, is a magical place where it truly does feel as if time has stood still. The walls form a wind break, creating an atmosphere of warm still air in the gardens and, each of the half-dozen times I have been there, I have never seen any of the residents. There is an innate quiet in this corner. As I searched to find the exact spot where Geoffrey Fletcher did his drawing, framed by lush foliage all those years ago, I should not have been surprised if he had appeared through the green gate or, equally, if I had walked out of the gate to discover I was in London in 1964.
Over in Spitalfields, Geoffrey deliberated over what to draw because even then people were catching on to the London nobody knows. “One of the finest eighteenth-century shops in the whole of London is here, in Artillery Lane. However, as this is well-known, I have chosen to illustrate a curiousity instead – the Moorish bazar in Fashion Street, given an odd realism by the turbaned figures of Indians who have drifted into the area. It was once a Jews’ market, a place for the sale of cheap textiles, penny notebooks, and fifty-blade penknives. Buildings with a Turkish, or Moorish touch invariably appeal to me, by their utter disregard of architectural qualities. I have a liking for the tawdry, extravagant and eccentric.”
The eighteenth century shop in Artillery Lane (which James Mason stood outside in the film of The London Nobody Knows) is now the Raven Row gallery and the Moorish bazar, after being derelict for many years, has been reconstructed, preserving most of the facade, as an office building occupied by media businesses. The integration of the facade of the bazar into the new building means it is more corporate than tawdry today. This is no longer the place for penny notebooks and fifty-blade penknives, though if Geoffrey came back he would not have to look far in the surrounding streets to find them.
You have to ask yourself who the “Nobody” of ‘The London Nobody Knows” refers to, because all the places he describes have inhabitants. How could the population of the East End rank as nobody? Given that Geoffrey Fletcher was a Daily Telegraph columnist, I choose to assume that by “Nobody,” he means “Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph.” The implied title being, “The London Nobody who reads the Daily Telegraph Knows.” If you can forgive me being so disingenuous, let me quote the following extract from his introduction of 1962 – which regrettably sounds comically antiquated now – as evidence of my assumption, and leave you to your own conclusions, “There are parts of London never penetrated, except by those who like myself, are driven on by the mania for exploration: Hoxton, Shoreditch, Stepney for instance, all of which are full of interest for the perceptive eye, the eye of the connoisseur of well-proportioned though seedy terraces, of enamel advertisements and cast-iron lavatories.”
Even if he was capable of being a curmudgeon, we owe Geoffrey Fletcher a debt of gratitude for recording his fond appreciation of once neglected aspects of our city so conscientiously and with such lyricism. In fact, I cannot deny a twinge of jealousy that I was not around to visit these places as he described them, though I am lucky enough to have Bellevue Place nearby whenever I need a glimpse of his London.
By 1989, Geoffrey had become aware that “The London Nobody Knows” was a relative concept, an horizon that retreated endlessly and, in acknowledgement of this, he added a new preface including the words, ” Tomorrow, scorning the London everybody knows, we may take the road, like Mr Pickwick, eager for character and flavour, expecting only the unexpected. We may search for bankrupt tandooris in the uplands of North London. We may even set out for the Seven Sisters Rd…”