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The Old Ladies Of Whitechapel

June 22, 2016
by the gentle author

East End Film Festival is hosting a screening of Phil Maxwell’s films this Sunday 26th June at 4pm at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Rd, E1 6LA. Click here for tickets

Phil Maxwell’s BRICK LANE photo exhibition opens at the new gallery at The Archers, 42 Osborne St, E1 6TD also this Sunday 26th June and runs until July 10th. You are all invited to the opening all day on Sunday 26th from 1pm onwards. Please RSVP to attend.

Photographing daily on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel for the last thirty years, Phil Maxwell has taken hundreds of pictures of old ladies, of which I publish a selection of favourites here today.

Some of these photos of old ladies were taken over twenty years ago and a couple were taken this spring, revealing both the continuity of their presence and the extraordinary tenacity for life demonstrated by these proud specimens of the female sex in the East End. Endlessly these old ladies trudge the streets with trolleys and bags, going about their business in all weathers, demonstrating an indomitable spirit as the world changes around them, and becoming beloved sentinels of the territory.

“As a street photographer, you cannot help but take photos of these ladies.” Phil admitted, speaking with heartfelt tenderness for his subjects, “In a strange kind of way, they embody the spirit of the street because they’ve been treading the same paths for decades and seen all the changes. They have an integrity that a youth or a skateboarder can’t have, which comes from their wealth of experience and, living longer than men, they become the guardians of the life of the street.”

“Some are so old that you have an immediate respect for them. These are women who have worked very hard all their lives and you can see it etched on their faces, but what some would dismiss as the marks of old age I would describe as the beauty of old age. The more lines they have, the more beautiful they are to me. You can just see that so many stories and secrets are contained by those well-worn features.”

“I remember my darkroom days with great affection, because there was nothing like the face of an old lady emerging from the negative in the darkroom developer – it was as if they were talking to me as their faces began to appear. There is a magnificence to them.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

See more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

Phil Maxwell on the Tube

Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

With The Druids At Midsummer

June 21, 2016
by the gentle author

In the grove of sacred hawthorn

At Midsummer, Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I joined the celebrants of the Loose Association of Druids on Primrose Hill for the solstice festival hosted by Jay the Tailor, Druid of Wormwood Scrubs. As the most prominent geological feature in the Lower Thames Valley, it seems likely that this elevated site has been a location for rituals since before history began.

Yet this particular event owes its origin to Edward Williams, a monumental mason and poet better known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg, who founded the Gorsedd community of Welsh bards here on Primrose Hill in June 1792. He claimed he was reviving an ancient rite, citing John Tollund who in 1716 summoned the surviving druids by trumpet to come together and form a Universal Bond.

Consequently, the Druids begin their observance by gathering to honour their predecessor at Morganwg’s memorial plaque on the viewing platform at the top of the hill, where they corral bewildered tourists and passing dog walkers into a circle to recite his Gorsedd prayer in an English translation. From here, Colin & I joined the Druids as they processed to the deep shade of the nearby sacred grove of hawthorn where biscuits and soft drinks were laid upon a tablecloth with a bunch of wild flowers and some curious wooden utensils.

Following at Jay the Tailor’s shoulder as we strode across the long grass, I could not resist asking about the origin of his staff of hawthorn intertwined with ivy. “It was before I became a Druid, when I was losing my Christian faith,” he confessed to me, “I was attending a County Fair and a stick maker who had Second Sight offered to make it for me for fifteen pounds.” Before I could ask more, we arrived in the grove and it was time to get the ritual organised. Everyone was as polite and good humoured as at a Sunday school picnic.

A photocopied order of service was distributed, we formed a circle, and it was necessary to select a Modron to stand in the west, a Mabon to stand in the north, a Thurifer to stand in the east and a Celebrant to stand in the South. Once we all had practised chanting our Greek vowels while processing clockwise, Jay the Tailor rapped his staff firmly on the ground and we were off. A narrow wooden branch – known as the knife that cannot cut – was passed around and we each introduced ourselves.

In spite of the apparent exoticism of the event and the groups of passersby stopping in their tracks to gaze in disbelief, there was a certain innocent familiarity about the proceedings – which celebrated nature, the changing season and the spirit of the place. In the era of the French and the American Revolutions, Iolo Morganwr declared Freedom of Thought, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association. Notions that retain strong resonance to this day.

Once the ritual wound up, we had exchanged kisses of peace Druid-style and everyone ate a biscuit with a gulp of apple juice, I was able to ask Jay the Tailor more questions.“I lost my Christian faith because I studied Theology and I found it difficult to believe Jesus was anything other than a human being, even though I do feel he was a very important guide and I had a personal experience of Jesus when I met Him on the steps of Oxford Town Hall,” he admitted, leaving me searching for a response.

“When I was fourteen, I went up Cader Idris at Midsummer and spent all night and the next day there, and the next night I had a vision of Our Lady of Mists & Sheep,” he continued helpfully,“but that just added to my confusion.” I nodded sagely in response.“I came to Druids through geometry, through studying the heavens and recognising there is an order of things,” he explained to me, “mainly because I am a tailor and a pattern cutter, so I understand sacred geometry.” By now, the other Druids were packing up, disposing of the litter from the picnic in the park bins and heading eagerly towards the pub. It had been a intriguing day upon Primrose Hill.

“Do not tell the priest of our plight for he would call it a sin, but we have been out in the woods all night, a-conjuring the Summer in!” - Rudyard Kipling

Sun worshippers on Primrose Hill

Memorial to Iolo Morganwg who initiated the ritual on Primrose Hill in 1792

Peter Barker, Thurifer - “I felt I was a pagan for many years. I always liked gods and goddesses, and the annual festivals are part of my life and you meet a lot of good people.”

Maureen - “I’m a Druid, a member of O.B.O.D. (the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids), and I’ve done all three grades”

Sarah Louise Smith - “I’m training to be a druid with O.B.O.D. at present”

Simeon Posner, Astrologer - “It helps my soul to mature, seeing the life cycle and participating in it”

John Leopold - “I have pagan inclinations”

Jay the Tailor, Druid of Wormwood Scrubs

Iolo Morgamwg (Edward Williams) Poet & Monumental Mason, 1747-1826

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

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At The Pagan Parade

Evening At Brick Lane Mosque

June 20, 2016
by Delwar Hussain

Today, as part of the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival, we publish the second of the pair of stories by Contributing Photographer Bob Mazzer & Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain recording twenty-four hours at Brick Lane Mosque

Imam Yasin is the newest imam at the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid. He is just twenty-six years old and has a contagious laugh that is free and easy. I ask him how he ended up becoming an imam. He laughs and says he does not know the answer. He grew up in Poplar and attended school in Bethnal Green. He tells me he always wanted to be a teacher and worked in a primary school before being asked to join the mosque, where he was already involved in teaching children the Quran.

We are on the top floor outside the teachers’ staff room. The streets are getting dark and soon it will be time to break the fast. I asked Imam Yasin to take my collaborator Photographer Bob Mazzer & me to his favourite part of the building and this is where he brought us. In the early hours of the morning when the pair of us ventured up here previously, it was dark and very quiet. I spooked myself then by thinking about djinns but now, with Imam Yasin and his smile by our side, it could not feel more different.

“This entire building has such a wonderful history,” he tells us. “It is the only place outside of Jerusalem that has hosted the three Abrahamic faiths. That really is something. But up here, this floor is my favourite bit of it all, it means so much to me, it is where it all began when I was eighteen and started teaching.”

Imam Yasin explains that, alongside learning the classical Arabic script in which the Quran is written, children who come here are taught about Islamic identity, dress code and food. “But, by that age,” Bob enquires, “don’t children already know these things?” Imam Yasin laughs again.

“You would be surprised how many of them are confused when they arrive. Some of the children think Christmas and, in particular Jesus, is bad or against Islamic beliefs. In fact, we teach them that Jesus is one of the most beloved of Allah’s prophets, mentioned more times in the Quran than Mohammed himself.”

We are standing below the plaque dedicated to the memory of Deborah Kay, written in English and Hebrew. I had been told that the Hebrew is a direct translation of the English but Imam Yasin disagrees. Hebrew speakers who came to the building as part of a Jewish tour of the East End had translated it for him. According to them, he says, part of it is also a prayer. Unfortunately, Bob cannot break our deadlock, having forgotten the Hebrew he learnt as a boy. “If it looks like an ‘L’ than it is an ‘L’,” he says unhelpfully, peering at the writing though his glasses.

Then, as we are standing in this building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier St – a mosque which was once a synagogue which was once a church – the sediment of history momentarily settles. Bob recalls that when he attended ‘chaider’ (pronounced khaider) at the Bernard Baron Settlement on Henriques St as a boy, he was taught Hebrew and history – essentially Jewish identity. A realisation dawned for me. Before learning the Quran, I was taught the ‘Qai’dah’ (pronounced khaider) which lays out the alphabet and rules of pronunciation. Do ‘Chaider’ and ‘Qai’dah’ share the same linguistic root – I wonder – reminding ourselves of our shared humanity?

At 9:23pm the sun sets and it is time to break fast. We have been at the mosque for nearly nineteen hours. Ravenous men with little energy and, by now, even less humour go down into the cellar. It looks as if it may have once been a bomb shelter, painted with white, lime and red stripes throughout. Lit by harsh fluorescent lighting, lines of blue plastic tarpaulin and white paper run the length of the floor, laden with white plates of kichuri (rice and dhal), chickpeas, sweets, dates and pineapple. Some of this is donated by local restaurants but, during Ramadan, families in the neighbourhood – my mother included – also send food every day.

A few of these hungry men have ‘Deliveroo’ marked on their t-shirts, others work as cabbies, some are widowers or foreign students. Once the azaan is called, everyone takes a swig of water – their very first since sunrise. The man in a plaid shirt sitting in front of me holds a pile of medication. He takes little white and pink pills methodically before biting his dates and tucking into the rest of the meal. The men eat quickly, in silence and without fuss.

My mother refuses to accept that, when the caretakers receive the Tupperware boxes she prepares lovingly, they simply put the food into one big communal pile. She thinks hers are eaten separately – maybe – by the head imam himself.

In this place, time does not operate as it does on the outside. This is a space that forces you to sit still, reflect and be at rest. Yet, paradoxically, the opposite is also true. Nothing stands motionless here for long either, there is constant activity and movement. After we eat, there is little chance to digest because we go back upstairs for Terrabi. It is the main Ramadan prayer, when the entire Quran is recited by heart over the course of a month. This is an endurance test and can be gruelling, because of the amount of time you must be prostrate or kneel while each prayer is completed. Even the plushness of the carpet does not help much at this point yet, like many religious experiences, this prayer series is designed to encourage meditation and can propel you into a higher state of being.

I sit on the mezzanine floor hoping to see friends I had gone to school with. As a teenager, I spent long, memorable evenings with them here. But I am disappointed, I do not see any of them. I look around and only see a guy who was at school with me in the year above. He looks much older from how I remember him, and he has a pony tail and a little rice belly. Other younger people, groups of teenage friends are creating new memories in this building, but what has happened to those I used to come here with? Why are none of them here?

This is when it all comes full circle – the denouement, the reveal. It is not difficult to guess and if you have not worked it out, then you have not been following the clues. Most of my friends and their families from school, including many neighbours, have followed the routes our Huguenot and Jewish forebears have already taken – further east into the suburbs. Seven Kings, Ilford, Chelmsford, Barking, Dagenham – names that I did not ever hear mentioned as a child are now in common parlance. The residents of these places have their own mosques and – needless to say – have little reason to come back to Brick Lane. My sister and her family moved to Essex last year. Long lines on the human map of Spitalfields, extending from this building on the corner, now include those spaces too, becoming ever more densely woven.

Young people are enticed by mosques that have better resources paid for through international funding and not merely supported by local donations. Mosques that are not characterised by the use of the Sylheti language or that practice a localised sufi Islam, where they have air conditioning, up-to-date facilities for women, and the roofs and windows do not leak. I notice a window on the mezzanine has been barred up since strong winds in April knocked out its fragile glass. Other windows facing Fournier St are filled with cardboard cut from boxes. I wonder whether Imam Nazrul Islam’s plea to the congregation earlier, at Jummah, will deliver the desired outcome.

Terrabi finishes just shy of 1:00am. In an hour or so, the day will start and, with it, the cycle of prayer and fasting. I look for Bob but cannot find him and I assume he has gone home. By now, we had been at the mosque for nearly twenty-four hours. We had seen so many faces, heard so many voices and been told so many memories by the people who love this building and have an intimate attachment to it. Except, the following morning, I discovered that Bob had stayed at the mosque after I left, lying on the carpet and talking with someone about the first man on the moon.

I follow a line of old men out. They put one foot in front of the other, walking in a line, leg, stick, pause, leg, stick. It has rained and the air is cool and crisp. I pass a group of Scandinavians with luggage trolleys who have just arrived at Liverpool St Station from a RyanAir flight and are looking for an address on google maps. The grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of those first Sylheti seamen who had settled in Spitalfields and who, forty years ago this year, established the mosque, were too on the move. At that moment, the motto Umbra Sumus (We are shadows), the Latin inscription on the sundial upon the building on the corner, could not have been more fitting.


































Photographs copyright © Bob Mazzer

You may like to take a look at the first part of this story

Morning At Brick Lane Mosque

Morning At Brick Lane Mosque

June 19, 2016
by Delwar Hussain

On the opening day of the Immigrants of Spitalfields Festival we publish the first of a pair of stories by Contributing Photographer Bob Mazzer & Contributing Writer Delwar Hussain recording twenty-four hours at Brick Lane Mosque

2:14am Friday 17th June

At 2:45 am, the muezzin walks up to the front of the prayer hall, places his hands besides his ears and makes the call to prayer, heralding the beginning of the new day.

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” he calls in classical Arabic. “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar.”

A dozen or so people sit on the floor. A dim light from a brass chandelier illuminates some but most are bathed in the darkness of night. Their silhouettes brush against one of the large pillars, besides an ornately panelled door, legs crossed in quiet thought and contemplation. Some have their heads down, others finger prayer beads or leaf through ancient pages of a Quran.

“As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm. Allāhu akbar. La ilaha illa-Allah.”

The muezzin’s voice is so clear it cuts through the shadows and rouses the assembled. Most look like they may be over the age of sixty, with long wispy tendrils of white beards, and shawls over suit jackets over jumpers and long worn hats. They hobble on walking sticks – some have two – slowly and methodically to the front, where they line up. A few, even less mobile, sit on metal fold-out chairs from which they will perform their prayer.

At 3:00am, the numbers increase with younger men in attendance. All follow the imam in kneeling, prostrating and standing. This is the first of the five obligatory prayers which punctuate the day. They are set pieces, each with their own routines and recitations, taught in childhood and practiced and performed over a lifetime.

Finally, the imam faces the congregation, brings his open hand to his chest and asks Allah for forgiveness of sins, to be spared from ill-health, and peace. The Fojor prayer draws to an end and the men leave the mosque, walking back out onto Brick Lane, drenched in amber streetlight and with a stray night clubber ambling back home. I ask my collaborator, photographer Bob Mazzer, how he finds his first experience of the place. Bob wears an embroidered hat, one that looks like he had bought it on a trip to India, and his camera dangles low from his neck.

“It was incredibly moving,” he whisperes.

It has been a long time since I have been inside of the mosque and I surprise myself that I feel the same as Bob. I am reminded what an important role the mosque has played in the life of my family. It is considered an honour if an imam from the mosque attends your house for an event, whether social or spiritual. My siblings had Quran classes on the top floor of this building. When my brother had a traffic accident and ended up in a coma, prayers were said for him there. The very first time I saw my father cry was at the mosque. Much later, a funeral service was held there for him attended by many who had known him in the sixties, when he worked a machinist in a leather jacket factory opposite the beigel shop on Brick Lane itself.

There is nothing that quite symbolises the unique quality of Spitalfields and the communities that have forged a home here as much as this building which looms soberly and sombrely on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier St. It has been and continues to be a place of sanctuary but – more than that – it is both a witness and an agent in connecting and linking the roots and routes which span time, transition and imagination.

It was constructed as a church in 1743 by Huguenot refugees who fled to the East End of London escaping persecution in France. Naming it the Neuve Eglise (New Church), they worshipped here until the late nineteenth century when they prospered, assimilating into wider British society and moving out to the suburbs. With a dwindled population, the building changed too – from hosting Wesleyan Methodists to becoming headquarters of the Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews. By then, Yiddish, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian were the dominant languages spoken on the streets, as Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe escaping pogroms settled and made home in the gaps and spaces left by the Huguenots.

In 1891, the building changed hands again and the Machzike Hadath (Great Synagogue) opened which served the population for over seventy years. It survived the First World War intact, but a bomb destroyed the roof and it was gutted by fire in the Second World War. Although it was repaired and reconsecrated in 1951, by then the Jews of the East End were already following the trend and moving to the suburbs.

This was the time when Sylheti seamen from East Bengal, working on British merchant navy ships, arrived at the docks in Poplar. By the mid-twentieth century – following the turbulent break-up of the Indian sub-continent and later the creation of Bangladesh – their families and descendants, people such as my own family, came to live and work in the surrounding streets. In 1976, the building was bought by donations from the Sylheti community and the London Jamme Masjid (Great Mosque) was established (later renamed Brick Lane Jamme Masjid).

Bob & I walk up the wide rickety staircase that runs through the belly of the building to the mezzanine level above the main prayer hall. We stand in the pitch black unable to see anything. In the days it was a synagogue, this would have been the women’s gallery, where women and children sat and looked over the heads of men below. As a youngster, I came to the mosque with my father and brothers, and teenage boys and young men sat upstairs, with the older men downstairs. There is space for women in the mosque today, yet my mother has never set foot inside despite her intimate connection with the building. She is of the generation who could not attend, and carries on performing her religious duties and obligations at home.

The two of us continue our journey to the top floor. Tapping the wood panelling, Bob says it reminds him of the synagogue in the Bernard Baron Settlement down the road from the mosque which he attended as a boy and where he had his bar mitzvah.

“Where did you grow up?” I ask him.

“Henriques St,” he replies. “Do you know it?”

Earlier, I overheard Bob talking to one of the older parishioners downstairs who asked where he was born. It is always odd what strangers want to know about you so early in the morning when the light is still opaque. “At the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel,” Bob replied and the man walked off looking satisfied with what he was told. I too was born in the same hospital.

“Of course, I know Henriques St. I went to Harry Gosling School which is still on that street.”

We both start laughing, knowing what was to come, because Bob had gone to the same school as a child in the fifties. It was primarily a Jewish school then, in a poor Jewish neighbourhood. I went there in the eighties. By then, and like the mosque itself, it was transformed into a primarily Sylheti school, within a poor Sylheti neighbourhood.

Suddenly it no longer felt as if the story Bob & I had gone to tell about this building was just about bricks and mortar, or something located in the past, something distant and opaque. The things we were discovering were pieces, or fragments, of a living continuum that connected us.

On the top floor, under the criss-crossing beams of the roof, two large, round windows flank both ends of the building. One looks out onto Brick Lane and the East, and the other onto the City and the West – the iconic mapping of Spitalfields. Up here, Quranic classes are held each day. It is where Torah (and I would like to think Bible) classes were also taught. The space is painted in primary school colours with drawings and stories of the life and times of the Prophet Mohammed written by children hanging on the walls. Bob photographs a pair of sandals abandoned in the corridor (making us speculate how the owner managed to get home). I wander around the deserted classrooms. Outside one of them is a plaque that is dedicated to the memory of Deborah Kay who died on 17 Tamuz 5683, or the 1st of July 1923, with Hebrew writing above the English text.

Just then a booming, rumbling noise echoes around and through the walls like the sound of a hungry mechanical stomach. Something that my mother once said comes back to me and I feel a cold shudder through me. Apparently, my youngest brother who attended classes here told her that there were djinns living up here. In Islam, djinns are spirits created by Allah to live on earth and, like humans, can be good or bad. If they are in the mosque, then they must be friendly ones – I console myself – but I cannot get the thought out of my head. Eventually Bob finishes photographing the sandals.

“What a creepy noise the old plumbing is making,” he says. “Let’s get back down.”

At midday, the prayer hall is flooded with light. Jummah is the most important congregational prayer of the week and it is also Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims from sunrise to sunset. Consequently, the mosque is busier than usual. There are piles of Qurans placed neatly on most available flat spaces, bottles of rose water and perfumed oils, wooden rawals (mini-lecterns where the Quran is placed) and hats. A notice tells people not to dry their wet socks on the radiators. Beautiful brass chandeliers, similar to the ones over the road at 19 Princelet St and the Bevis Marks Synagogue dangle from the ceiling. When I was younger, I was fascinated by these wondering what it would be like to swing from one to another, Tarzan-style.

Men in sharp, expensive suits and briefcases, who work in the city, enter and are joined by men in distinctly North African hats and long jelabas that skim the floor. Men from Afghanistan and Pakistan wear their ruby-jewelled hats and shirt-dresses, central Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Somalians, Nigerians, Malaysians – restaurant waiters, shopkeepers, accountants, doctors, physicists, cabbies, accountants. Ties, turbans and t-shirts. There are men with blond hair, black hair, brown, blue and ginger hair, grey and white hair. Men with hoodies and hats, shawls and handkerchiefs. One has a cap with SWAG written in gold lettering. Some come into the hall dripping in water having performed ablution, the ritual wash in the courtyard besides the hall. A blind man walks in touching the walls with one hand and holding a stick with the other. He stops exactly where he wanted to, hangs his coat on a hook and folds his stick, putting it under a bookshelf. He feels the ground with his feet and joins everyone else on the thick, peacock turquoise carpet.

Resplendent in a long black robe, the head Imam of the mosque, Nazrul Islam, delivers the Friday sermon in Sylheti, part-singing and part-talking. The subjects range from the importance of fasting during Ramadan, to forgiveness, the beauty and wonders of Paradise  - and also the windows of the Grade II listed building. It turns out that they need replacing and it will cost thousands of pounds, which he hopes parishioners will generously donate.

In the afternoon, a man with an electric blue jumper brings out a bucket and mop to swab the staircase, he cleans the wood panelling and wipes away dust that has no chance of settling. In the evening, there is a football match on the television, and shouts and yells of revellers outside intermingle with the snores from tired parishioners and the sounds of people reading the Quran – all now waiting until sunset when they can break their fast.

































Photographs copyright © Bob Mazzer

You may like to take a look at these profiles of Bob Mazzer & Delwar Hussain

Bob Mazzer, Photographer

Delwar Hussain, Writer & Anthropologist

East End Independents’ Day

June 18, 2016
by the gentle author

Click on Martin Usborne’s photograph to enlarge

I am delighted to announce that my friends at the East End Trades Guild are going forward with their campaign of advocacy for the small shops and independent business which define the personality of the East End – by launching their latest scheme, East End Independents’ Day …

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