Skip to content

Julie Begum On Brick Lane

May 12, 2014
by the gentle author

When Julie Begum came to the launch for Phil Maxwell’s BRICK LANE recently, she was astonished to open the book and confront this photograph of herself, taken twenty years ago, which she had never seen before. “It was strange to see myself,” she admitted to me, “I was pleased but also sad, because I’m not that person anymore.”

The picture appears as part of sequence taken by Phil during the Anti-Fascist protests of the eighties and nineties, and I was struck by the dramatic tension in the photograph between Julie’s relaxed, generous smile and the approaching figure of the mounted policeman coming up behind in riot gear.

I know Julie from her current work with the Boundary Estate Women’s Group at St Hilda’s Community Centre, so I paid her a visit recently at her home just off Brick Lane to learn more about the background to this curious picture.

“It was at the time when Derek Beackon of the British National Party was elected as councillor in Millwall by just eight votes in 1993. I was one of a number who formed ‘Women Unite Against Racism.’ We realised we needed to do something, so we staged a conference at Tower Hamlets College and more than one hundred women from different backgrounds came along and we decided upon a plan.

Our aim was to create a women’s presence in the male-dominated protest movement and we made sure there was no cult of the leader in our group, and that many different people spoke at our meetings. We went door to door and encourage women to vote, because we wanted to give support to women who were too frightened to go out and vote.

The photo was taken on the day of a protest again the BNP in Bethnal Green, the police were there in huge numbers. It was important to have a mix of people, men and women, and young and old – because police can behave very differently if it is just young men they are dealing with. There was a lot of solidarity and it was nice.

The police had dogs and officers on horseback, and I remember the police wanted to set the dogs on the young men.  So we women got in front to protect them and the police had to stop because we were women. I think it’s important not to give in to the sense of tension and excitement in these situations – we tried to keep everyone calm and peaceful.

It was a good time, even though we had sleepless nights. It was a year of madness but people came together from all walks of life and we felt we were part of the heritage of protest against fascism in the East End.”

Julie Begum at home

Julie Begum cooking with members of  St Hilda’s women’s group

Julie Begum in her kitchen

Julie Begum (top right) with members of her women’s group at Geffrye Museum

Brick Lane photo copyright © Phil Maxwell

Recent photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read about

The Apotheosis Of Phil Maxwell

Rob Wells, The Boy On The Bicycle

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Pete permalink
    May 12, 2014

    That looks like a lovely meal Julie’s preparing there…any chance of an invite ! 🙂

  2. Greg Tingey permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Can we have some of her recipies?

  3. the gentle author permalink*
    May 12, 2014

    The recipes are here Boundary Estate Cooking Portraits

  4. julie begum permalink
    May 12, 2014

    dear gentle author,

    many thanks for the write-up, it was nice reminiscing with you about the photograph that phil maxwell took and the days that men and women organisied together to keep our community safe from racists and fascists that were plaguing our streets in tower hamlets in 1990’s.


  5. armier permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Another fine post and another reason to be thinking to myself (for the umpteenth time), ”If I read only one online thang, whether ‘newspaper’, bbc, or blog (other than SL) well, the others are so full of drivel, surface treatment and worse…”

    SL lifts my spirit everyday, so many thanks.

  6. Ros permalink
    May 12, 2014

    I love these current-day link-ups from Phil’s book and hope there will be more. I remember the pieces you wrote on Julie very well. What a gorgeous picture of her in the book and what a contribution to the community she’s still making.

  7. Sue McAlpine permalink
    May 12, 2014

    Julie looks so calm amidst the chaos that is obviously going on around her. It shows that being like this is a powerful force for change. Keep up your great work Julie.

  8. May 12, 2014

    I love the way you employ photography on your blog. We live in a time when often photographs are treated so cheaply and shovelled onto a page without any thought. But here there’s a feeling that every image contributes and has been handpicked.

  9. Bricklanemafia permalink
    May 16, 2014

    amazing picture. inspirational woman!

  10. gabriel permalink
    May 16, 2014

    great pics and strong memories of that time in tower hamlets and at the college

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS