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Mean Streets

THERE IS A terrific moment in Paul Theroux’s The Family Arsenal, a novel of Conradian shadings set in the terror-stricken, IRA-haunted London of the early 1970s, in which a teenage tearaway called Murf stares bleakly over the River Thames at Greenwich to the northern side. “Isle of Dogs,” he murmurs, as the pallid lights of Millwall gleam up through the murk, “I wouldn’t live there for anything.” As an introduction to London’s East End, this fragment works on two levels. It has the advantage of geographical precision (plenty of East End novels get set in Hackney, in north-east London, which has its own particularity); and it gestures at the pile of quasi-mythological baggage that has always accompanied the East End’s journey into fiction, popular culture, and the wider world beyond.

John Marriott takes a tough territorial line, defining his locus classicus as the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets (which contain the areas of Whitechapel, Bethnal Green, Poplar and Bow) and Newham (east of the River Lea, and including Stratford, East Ham and Beckton.) Anywhere else—Dagenham, Redbridge, and the prosperous suburbs that extend as far as Epping Forest in the county of Essex—is overspill. At heart, though, this is less an exercise in spatial definition as psycho-geography than an investigation not only into what the East End “is” or may have been, but also what it means as a concept, both to the people who live within its boundaries and the Murfs of this world who look on apprehensively from the margins.

International comparisons are horribly unhelpful. Is there an equivalent to “East End” in urban American culture? The Lower East Side has something of its air of resonant menace, but “Downtown” is light years distant. No point in invoking the word “cockney” either, for while the traditional reading covers anyone born within earshot of the bells of Bow church, one of its early usages is simply “city dweller.” Thackeray, for example, talks about “Manchester cockneys”: they probably have them in Detroit.

Beyond the Tower, whose title refers to the Tower of London, approaches its subject from several angles—politics, religion, commerce, and health are all extensively surveyed—but one of its principal quarries is myth. As early as his second paragraph, Marriott has begun to explore a “distinct mythology,” bred up in the nineteenth century, “within which the East End was seen as a site of danger, depravity and destitution, and hence to be avoided by genteel and respectable persons.” These legends had many aspects, but their influence hangs over contemporary British culture like river-fog. Even now, any social historian who asked a non-Londoner over the age of forty what images were conveyed by the words East End would probably hear about a highly-coloured compound made up of Pearly Kings (a suit encrusted with thousands of tiny artificial pearls being the traditional dress of the Whitechapel costermonger), exotic rhyming slang (“Use your twopenny,” i.e. “twopenny loaf of bread” and thence “head”) and the Kray Twins, the late 1960s mobsters whose protection rackets were conducted on an almost transatlantic scale.

Marriott dates the first stirrings of the myth to the mid-eighteenth century, when wealthy manufacturers and professional men who had previously lived over the shop, so to speak, began to migrate to the fashionable squares of London’s West End, thus reshaping the social landscape. Even in the sixteenth century, though, Bethnal Green and Stepney were widely regarded as existing beyond the civilised pale. Outside the city’s official boundary, untouched by censorship and tax-gatherer alike, they were a hot-bed of radical politicking and religious dissent. Huguenots fleeing persecution in France brought a distinctive culture (“serious, intellectually vigorous and virtuous”) of mutual aid organisations and learned societies. Governments tried desperately to limit the number of people crammed into the ramshackle alleyways and fetid courts: not on humanitarian grounds, but because more inhabitants meant more deaths and more orphan children for whose upkeep local parishes became responsible.

Unregulated, and in certain notorious quadrants like the “Old Nichol” (the setting for Arthur Morrison’s late-Victorian shocker, A Child of the Jago) unpoliced, its proximity to the river making it a hotbed of lucrative and often corrupt economic activity, the East End was able to resist these primitive effects at social engineering. But the extremes of early capitalism were sharply in evidence. Huge fortunes were made by the merchants of the East India Company, which at one stage largely ran the area as its private fief.

Ultimately, the undermining of the old East End trades of weaving and haberdashery by foreign imports led to the “sweated labour” conditions investigated by so many Victorian journalists. Henry Mayhew’s monumental London Labour and the London Poor records a visit to a houseful of tailors who sat cross-legged in a room eight feet square, working a 96 hour week for which they were paid 13 shillings (approximately $1) from which their landlord deducted rent and the cost of the trimmings, leaving seven shillings.

Noting the work of Victorian anthropologists, who peddled racial theories of degradation and singled out the figure of the casual dockworker as the most degraded form of human existence, Marriott is quick to stress the high degree of social differentiation, and the abyss that separated the “skilled” and “unskilled” worker. As he points out, the unanimity promised by the advent of Socialist political movements in the early twentieth century was always liable to be compromised by craftsmen and superior working-class types keen to preserve the pay differentials that separated them from labourers lower down the economic scale.

Marriott’s fine book ends with a question mark. A “vital site of multiculturalism”—the university at which Marriott teaches has students of 120 different nationalities—long impoverished in the wake of dock closures and industrial retreat, the East End waits anxiously to see if the long-promised boost of the Olympic Games will actually occur, not to mention the eagerly awaited benefits of the ongoing “Thames Gateway” regeneration projects.

If this prodigiously researched and consistently astute study lacks anything, it is a sense of the imaginative literature which contributed so profoundly to the idea that the rest of England formed of this swarming cosmopolis festering away on its doorstep. There is no mention of George Gissing’s great slum novel The Nether World (1889), or Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894). Neither is there anything on such East End explorations as W.H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908) or Hugh Massingham’s I Took Off My Tie (1936). The same sketchiness applies to cinema and the popular song. It could be argued that a music-hall classic such as Marie Lloyd’s “My Old Man Said Follow The Van” says quite as much about the realities of East End life in the early twentieth century as any tableaux of Communists fighting Fascists at the Battle of Cable Street.

D.J. Taylor’s novel Derby Day, which was longlisted for the Man Booker, will be out in the U.S. in April.