Return to Whitechapel
It is my great delight to welcome Rosie Dastgir as guest writer for the next seven days, celebrating the paperback edition of her wonderful novel A Small Fortune by Quercus. Rosie is a resident of Whitechapel who has recently returned after a seven year sojourn in Brooklyn where she wrote her book and has embraced this opportunity to take a fresh look at her familiar territory. I leave you in her safe hands and I hope readers will enjoy the change of scene delivered by a shift in focus to Spitalfields’ easterly neighbour for the first week of 2013 until I return on 14th January.
Take the tube to Whitechapel and cross over the bridge into the station, and you join a flowing crowd from all corners of London and beyond. There is a magnetic force to the area that draws all manner of people towards it: the teeming street market, the East London Mosque, the supersized new Sainsburys, the Royal London Hospital. Crossrail is coming. Excavation and construction proceed apace, and in a few years, vast numbers will be able to zip from east to west in a matter of minutes. In the Whitechapel Idea Store, Crossrail have set up an exhibition of photographs and exquisite scale models designed to inform us what it is all about. Transformation is certain and yet nobody can say for sure what that might bode for the area, especially for the people who live and work here. What will sink and what will survive?
I lived in Whitechapel for a decade, before moving to Brooklyn, New York, for seven years where I wrote a novel set partly in the East End of London. So it was with a mix of excitement, apprehension and nostalgia that I returned to live here once again last summer. Once the second cheapest property card on the Monopoly board, a deep brown shade with a measly two figure price tag, Whitechapel seems to have morphed and boomed almost beyond recognition. Is it on the cusp of forging a new identity or is it becoming entrenched in its old one?
Whitechapel has come to embody a neighbourhood of two manors: the East London Mosque, which attracts thousands of worshippers, and the newly built Royal London Hospital, a blue and silver edifice with a helipad on top. Both struggle for dominance in the narrow streets that run up and down behind the Whitechapel Road. Both are hubs for huge numbers of people who pour through their doors every day. The mosque’s presence has solidified unabashedly in the last decade, opening up its doors to the public, standing firm in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 7/7. It has withstood media scrutiny while simultaneously growing and nurturing the business of spirituality; a business which seems to be booming in Whitechapel. No longer simply a place of worship, the mosque provides space for a range of amenities – academic study, women’s services, cafes, lectures, housing, playgroups and keep fit classes. It constitutes a way of life.
The Royal London Hospital continues to expand its reach, consolidating its territory. Eight or so years ago, the projected building plans for the hospital were fiercely opposed by many of our old neighbours in Whitechapel, whose homes crouched beneath its projected shadow. Their protests went largely ignored. Now the building is a part of the landscape. Viewed from the Commercial Rd, it looms flatly behind nursing school buildings and council flats, as if it has been photoshopped onto the backdrop. Yet it is real, up and running, fully functional; layers of unending corridors, stacking up into the sky. Its presence on the ground is felt in the plethora of patients who pour into A & E everyday; the thousands of employees who work there day and night; the students who come here from all over Britain and the world to enter the medical profession – they are everywhere, dashing between entrances, smoking fags and chatting between lectures, downing pints at the Good Samaritan pub. Student accommodation has mushroomed opposite the East London Mosque. Blank flats in regulation grey brick sit atop the latest Tesco Metro to colonise a corner of the area where another business has sunk.
The new Royal London Hospital building hums, says the artist, Giorgio Sadotti who lives nearby. It is not alone. Opposite the house where I live on Walden St, there are reports from my neighbours of mysterious nocturnal noises leaking out from the Blizard building, which is part of the Queen Mary Institute of Cell and Molecular Science. Designed by Will Allsop for the Queen Mary School of Medicine and Dentistry, it was named after William Blizard, one of the first teaching surgeons, who founded the London Hospital Medical college in 1785. Inside the glass sructure are four huge pods, known as Mushroom, Cloud, Centre of the Cell and Spikey. Their jaunty names belie serious purpose: they are functioning conference and meeting spaces, and one is used as a classroom for visiting school children to learn about the science of medicine. A translucent pink and red walkway stretches between two buildings, so that you can cross from one to the other without going through the subterranean laboratory beneath; in the annals of the building, up to four hundred scientists have space to work, illuminated in part by natural light that is refracted through glass lenses set in the concourse above. It is a stunning visual statement upon the landscape of Whitechapel, sandwiched between streets of Georgian buildings, a cheery pop of light and glass and colour that rears out of the grey.
One night in autumn, I awoke to hear a searing mechanical scream emanating from inside, and rose to investigate. Peering out of my window into the building, I could see nothing beyond the pods looming in penumbral splendour within. I listened and watched for a while, unable to connect the unworldly sounds with any discernible activity. Retreating to my bed once more, I lay awake in the small hours, fretting that this might be a regular feature of my new life in Whitechapel; a nightly experiment designed to disturb sleep. Months later, I have grown used to the sounds of the street at night; the occasional hums and whines from the Blizard, the grinding noise of the rubbish trucks, loud conversations of unknown provenance.
Occasionally, there is even complete silence.
Whitechapel photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien