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A Walk With Rodney Archer

May 9, 2012
by the gentle author

Rodney with the birch tree he planted in Fournier St in 1985.

Rodney Archer is one of Spitalfields’ most popular long-term residents, and over the years he has seen many come and go as part of the transformation that has overcome the place since he came to live here in 1980. Among the the few occupants that is not a millionaire in Fournier St today, Rodney delights in the patina of ages’ past that dignifies his ramshackle old house, enhanced by all the glorious paraphernalia he has accumulated over the last thirty years, including – most famously – Oscar Wilde’s fireplace which is installed in his living room.

Yesterday, taking advantage of a brief respite of sunshine on a cloudy April afternoon, I asked Rodney to take me on a tour of his personal landmarks in Spitalfields yet, to my surprise, his modest realm did not extend beyond Fournier St. We commenced in Rodney’s shady back garden beneath the majestic silver birch which has become a well-known feature as the largest tree in this hidden space enclosed between the houses of Fournier St, Brick Lane, Princelet St and Wilkes St. “My mother and I planted this in 1985. We got it from the council for £15 when they were encouraging people to plant trees.” he said, slipping an arm round the trunk affectionately,I was born in London, but it reminds me of the woods where I used to go camping in Ontario where I grew up.”

Across the street from his front door, Rodney showed me the former home of his friends Eric & Ricardo. “I came to Club Row in 1970 to buy kittens, but the first time I was invited over was in the mid-seventies when I came here for lunch. I asked Eric & Ricardo to let me know if a house came up in the street and the first one they called me about was the one I live in now. ” he recalled, “It changed my life. It was the beginning of being happy, and it was Spitalfields that did it. I had never felt comfortable where I lived before.” Rodney came to Spitalfields after his mother broke her hip and the doctor told her she had to live with her son, and so they shared the house in Fournier St. “All the basements were workshops for leather goods then, and there was Mr Lustig the tailor, and Solly at Gale Furs who’d been there since the thirties,” Rodney said, casting his eyes up and down street as he thought back over the years.

A few doors down, we came to another magnificent house where, remarkably, Rodney once mixed the plaster for the walls. “I worked as an unskilled labourer here for fifty hours a week for £67 in 1980, I was a plasterer’s mate and my boss was twenty years old. It was my venture into the working class,” he admitted, raising his eyebrows significantly with a shy smile, “Michael & Donald the couple who lived here were very polite and they never acknowledged me as a neighbour while I was working on site. The Times later described them as ‘a celibate couple’ in Donald’s obituary.” Yet there was another resident in this house who made the biggest impression on Rodney.“Nelly Foreman was a Jewish woman from the nineteen thirties, a sitting tenant who had survived into the nineteen eighties. She’d look out the top window at everybody and always called my mother ‘Violet’ rather than Phyllis. She was moved to the ground floor but she didn’t like looking out the window as much from there and she was very particular about disturbance during the building work, so she and I had a feisty relationship.” he confided to me fondly, “She was the last Jewish woman on Fournier St and she saw everything change.”

Across the street, we stood outside another grand eighteenth century house. “My friend Julian lived here,” Rodney explained gesturing towards the unyielding door with a smile, “He used to give elaborate dinner parties in the eighteenth century style with footmen. There were no lights and the place was painted in the original colours, so it was very dark and atmospheric. At one point, Dennis Severs, Julian and I spent a day scumbling the front room together – we were pretty close.” Today, Julian lives in a castle in Ireland, Rodney informed me.

Passing Wilkes St, as we walked westward, Rodney sat on the steps that previously led to the famous Market Cafe which operated here from 1947 until 1997, run by the brother and sister team of Phylis & Clyde (widely known as Clive). “They arrived around five in the morning, and began serving amazing puddings and roast beef meals from seven o’clock,” Rodney said, rolling his eyes hungrily, “Phylis was a colourful character, always fully made up at five in the  morning. If she didn’t like someone, she threw them out. Clyde worked down in the kitchen and, if you were one of the favoured few, you were able to walk past her and order directly from him.”

At the end of Fournier St, we reached The Ten Bells or “Jack the Ripper,” as Rodney knew it in the eighties when it was a strip pub. “I once spent a New Year’s Eve here with the strippers, prostitutes and taxi drivers, when I was feeling sorry for myself. There was part of me, in my loneliness, that identified with them.,” he confessed as we sat in the large tiled bar room, “There was always a certain bleakness here in Spitalfields and it hasn’t shaken it off entirely, even today.”

“In the eighties, property developers realised that, when gay people moved in here, it would go up in value and then straight people would come afterwards. ” he continued, “Yet I don’t understand why people who are drawn to a place for what it is then feel compelled to change it. They complained about the vegetables from the market in the street and they were looking forward to the gentrification, but there were those of us who came here because of the roughness and authenticity of the people and the place. “

As we returned up Fournier St, I was concerned that our walk had been a tour of things which had gone, so I asked Rodney what he had found here and his answer was immediate.“I found myself in Spitalfields,” he assured me, stopping in his tracks, “Until I came here I wasn’t happy in myself, but this place has become part of my being.”

Rodney outside the former home of his friends Eric & Ricardo.

Rodney outside the house where he mixed all the plaster for the walls.

Rodney outside the former home of his friend Julian.

Rodney outside the former Market Cafe, run by brother and sister Phylis & Clyde between 1947 and 1997.

Rodney at The Ten Bells where he once spent New Year’s Eve.

Rodney in his living room with Oscar Wilde’s fireplace.

You may also like to read my original profile

Rodney Archer, Aesthete

6 Responses leave one →
  1. andrea permalink
    May 9, 2012

    I wonder if Rodney camped in Algonquin Park. Fun to imagine that.

    Also, I’m not sure about that being a silver birch, which has papery white bark. But without being able to see the canopy, I’m not sure what it is.

  2. Vicky permalink
    May 11, 2012

    What an interesting man, and having read your original profile can see how loved and respected he is by his former students.

    I think the tree may be ash.

  3. May 11, 2012

    Love these magnificent front doors/entrances.

  4. May 13, 2012

    How camp!

  5. Michael Robinson permalink
    December 17, 2012

    A voice from your Canadian Past.
    Just saw 31 Founier in “Great Houses of London”. I remember visiting Phyllis there shortly just after she bought it. There were renos in progress-kitchen I recall-and a bathroom had replaced the back yard privy.
    Glad to see your face smiling out from this interesting site. You look well and happy. How is sister Elaine?
    I am retired from law practice but teach interantional business law (after 46 years of doing it) to keep the aged brain from turning wholly to mush. Spouse Andrea Geddes Poole is a history prof. specializing in English 19th C. social/cultural. Her first book was on London’s four public art galleries and the handover of “stewardship” by the aristocrats. Second is about the two women who founded the Old Vic as a “cultural coffee house”, and Morley College for the working poor of the “wrong side” (then) of the river. Three daughters, 3 gandkids.
    Must visit next time in London. Often promised myself but never properly organized myself to do so when there.
    My email is mrobinson@fasken.com. Address 87 Tranmer Ave, Toronto M5P 1E3 .
    Best regards, Michael Robinson

  6. Susan permalink
    May 4, 2015

    What a wonderful profile – thanks to both of you for sharing it!

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