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James Mason in Spitalfields, the London Nobody Knows

December 30, 2009
by the gentle author

One day in the early spring of 1967, when the first leaves were showing but snow was still piled up in yards, James Mason came knocking on the door of 29 Hanbury St (where the Upmarket building now stands) and in this picture you see him asking the householder if he can look in her back yard, which was the site of the second Ripper murder. I think she makes a fair show of being surprised at his request, when he can hardly have been the first Ripper tourist to knock on her door. It was all part of the filming of The London Nobody Knows based upon Geoffrey Fletcher’s book of the same title.

In a series of books and a regular column in the Telegraph that added up to a life’s work, Geoffrey Fletcher set out to make an affectionate record of all the corners of old London that were being neglected and devalued while the cultural focus was upon modernity at any cost. He wanted to record these precious fragments of the past before the wrecking ball destroyed them forever. Illustrated with his own delicate line drawings, copies of Geoffrey Fletcher’s books can still be found in public libraries and make fascinating guides today because – in spite of everything – most of the London nobody knows is still there. He doubted very much that the house I live in today here in Spitalfields would survive more than a few years – this was at least thirty years ago. Geoffrey Fletcher was an unashamed sentimentalist and I love him for seeking out the poetry in ordinary common things. In fact, reading his books was one of my inspirations to begin writing these posts to you every day.

Brandished an umbrella, with well-polished handmade brown shoes and a cloth cap to signify class solidarity, James Mason makes an amiable guide to Geoffrey Fletcher’s sixties London. He takes us from the old railway goods yard and a tragically abandoned music hall in Camden Town to the perky Kings Rd fashion parade, by way of a Salvation Army hostel and Kensal Green Cemetery, before ending up in Spitalfields. Here they filmed meths drinkers fighting on the steps of the synagogue in Brick Lane, old men collecting discarded cabbages at the Market, garment workers outside their workplaces in Fournier St, and tenement children playing raucous singing games and scrapping on the pavement.

Director Norman Cohen’s film is an unlikely charismatic amalgam of sixties whimsy and realist documentary footage of markets, street performers, hostel dwellers and drunks. These last two subjects are the most memorable, as candid yet humane testimonies of the hopeless and the dispossessed. It is in this rare footage that the film achieves its lasting value, tenderly witnessing the existence of these seemingly innocent lost refugees from an earlier world, who became casualties in the postwar years.

If you wonder what it was like here forty years ago. If you would like to be personally escorted around Spitalfields in the spring of 1967 by James Mason, it can be arranged this weekend. Make your way to the ICA Cinema in the Mall where there is a rare opportunity to see “The London Nobody Knows” on a big screen on 2nd and 3rd January.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. December 31, 2009

    In the picture of Spitalfields market the windows on the first floor 3rd and 4th from the right used to be my old studio in mid 90s

  2. January 1, 2010

    I’ve booked for Sunday on your recommendation. Looking forward.

    This blog is a gem. Thanks for writing it.
    Happy New Year.

    PS My haircut with Gavin in the morgue was great.

  3. October 2, 2014

    where/how can this film be seen again? just found this post!

  4. Peter permalink
    October 2, 2014

    You can find snippets of it on YouTube

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