A walk with Mike Myers
This distinguished gentleman is Mike Myers, known as the Spitalfields Crooner, whom I wrote about earlier this year. You may recall that I republished his 1986 pub profile of The Golden Heart from “Spitalfields News”, which Mike edited during the nineteen eighties.
Last week, Mike and I took a walk together through Spitalfields. Undaunted by the cold weather, he was waiting for me eagerly, sheltering from the rain under the market canopy – just outside the front door that leads to his flat above the shops in the old market building. In spite of the dismay weather, Mike looked cheery with his colourful golfing umbrella in one hand and his file of photos in the other. We were going to undertake an epic journey through time and emotion to the other side of Spitalfields, where Mike grew up in the nineteen thirties. For Mike, Spitalfields is a rich mythical landscape of the imagination filled with colourful images and legendary characters from his long life in these streets surrounding Christ Church.
Mike hummed show tunes under his breath to raise our spirits as we made our way across Brushfield St, down Frying Pan Alley and up Middlesex St to The Bell at the corner of New Goulston St, where he spent the first forty years of his life. We took shelter under another canopy to survey the empty street in silence, while Mike opened his file of photographs. “At one time it used to be a thriving street and now look at it!” declared Mike, shaking his head in wonder at the transformations time can wreak. Pointing to the closed shops that now only deal wholesale, he indicated the former locations of the draper, the boot & shoe repair, the sweet shop, the shoe shop on the corner, the laundry and the synagogue. “It was a self-contained area, everything you needed you could get in the butchers, fishmongers and delis,” Mike recalled proudly,“People came from all over London to shop here when it was the Jewish quarter.”
Opposite us once stood Brunswick Buildings, one tenement among many, that stretched from here to Aldgate. It was the dwelling where Mike spent his early life and a crowded residence for many hundreds living in overcrowded conditions, with one family to a room, and shared toilets, washing and cooking facilities on stairwells. “There’s been two books written about it,” added Mike, to emphasise the drama of the life that he knew. Yet in spite of the poor housing, Mike has very positive memories of his time in New Goulston St, “Everybody coped with the small amount of space. What you haven’t got you don’t know about, so you don’t grieve for it. I had a great childhood, safe to go out and play. You made your own amusements. We used to play football and cricket in the streets, because you never saw a car – nobody could afford one.”
“We enjoyed the radio at home, but the cinema was the place to go out for entertainment,” continued Mike with enthusiasm, introducing the opening of the Mayfair Cinema in Brick Lane in 1936 where he saw William Powell in “Escapade” in the first week. Thanks to the presence of the Mayfair Cinema, now long gone, Mike became a film buff and was the only one in the audience when Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” and “Hamlet” were shown, years later. Looking West towards the City of London, Mike indicated the street where he had one of his first jobs, “During the war, I was working across the road, loading dresses into a van and the next thing I knew I was on the floor of the van, because a V2 rocket had dropped just round the corner.”, he revealed, still grateful for his lucky escape.
As Mike and I walked slowly back through Wentworth St in the gentle rain, he admitted that – although the once vibrant market was a wonderful playground for a child – he is not sentimental for the world that is gone. After the war, most of the Jewish people left these streets to seek a better life in the suburbs. “In the seventies, everything started to go down.” he explained dispassionately, “The tenements housed people at cheap rents. They served their time just after the war. But people wanted change. People wanted better homes – especially if you are bringing up five kids in two rooms.”
In 1974, when Brunswick Buildings was compulsorily purchased and demolished by the GLC, Mike was moved to the flat in the 1886 Horner Building where he still lives today, in rooms adorned with movie posters and lined with shelves of DVDs. When we arrived back from our short sentimental journey of less than a mile, I was curious to learn more. But I had to content myself, for now, with photographing Mike there in his home above the Spitalfields Market, his point of arrival, surrounded by the evidence of his passion for cinema that began at the Mayfair Cinema in 1936.
Witnessing the changes in Spitalfields over a lifetime has given Mike a generous philosophical outlook and you will see him most days in the streets about the market, a benign presence – commonly absorbed in thought, yet ever curious about the life of the street – humming show tunes to himself, expressive of his characteristic levity and lightness of touch which have carried him through life with such grace.
As part of the Spitalfields Festival, Mike Myers has recorded an audiotour, enabling you to hear more of his stories of the neighbourhood and follow in Mike’s footsteps along his life’s journey from one side of Spitalfields to the other. You can download it by clicking here.
Mike Myers in Wentworth St, “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Brunswick Buildings, New Goulston St, where Mike grew up.
The explosion of the V2 rocket at the top of Middlesex St in 1944 that gave Mike a close call.