The grubby street that runs through British life

Is London's history largely a West End story? Suzi Feay meets a novelist who went East in search of answers
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The Independent Culture

The Jack the Ripper walking tours still run every night at 7pm, according to the noticeboard in Whitechapel public library. Despite the restored 18th-century weavers' houses, the tarted-up Bangladeshi restaurants and the famous residents such as Tracey Emin, Dan Cruickshank and Jeanette Winterson, Spitalfields is still indelibly associated with slashed throats and excised wombs. Brick Lane, the district's eastern boundary, was where his final victim took her last drink before tottering to her doom. Though the area has undergone huge cappuccinification in recent years, with the arrival of city money and the dismantling of the fruit and vegetable market, it retains a spicy scent of outlawry, a sense of lives lived on the margin.

The Jack the Ripper walking tours still run every night at 7pm, according to the noticeboard in Whitechapel public library. Despite the restored 18th-century weavers' houses, the tarted-up Bangladeshi restaurants and the famous residents such as Tracey Emin, Dan Cruickshank and Jeanette Winterson, Spitalfields is still indelibly associated with slashed throats and excised wombs. Brick Lane, the district's eastern boundary, was where his final victim took her last drink before tottering to her doom. Though the area has undergone huge cappuccinification in recent years, with the arrival of city money and the dismantling of the fruit and vegetable market, it retains a spicy scent of outlawry, a sense of lives lived on the margin.

Literary figures stalk these streets, too. You can't move these days for psychogeographic scribblers. Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair were drawn here by the white, moonrock bulk of Hawksmoor's overbearing Christ Church. The young local vicar William Taylor wrote engagingly about his parish in This Bright Field. Monica Ali's Brick Lane was a surprisingly anaemic chronicle of the teeming Bangladeshi life of the council tower blocks beyond the Lane. In the thriller Going East, Matthew D'Ancona's little-rich-girl heroine found a new life here. In Salaam Brick Lane, just out, Tarquin Hall describes his year spent living above a sweatshop. Yes, the Tarquins have arrived.

If Jeremy Gavron is not, then, the area's first chronicler, he makes up for it by being one of the most original. An Acre of Barren Ground mixes fiction and fact, taking the reader up Brick Lane on a tour which spans and skips centuries. There's a taut and compelling chapter on the hunt for Jack; more playfully, Shakespeare and Boswell are relocated here. Gavron digs up a Regency brewing scandal, peeks into a medieval cottage standing in open fields, spies on a Saxon outlaw. There's a chapter composed of lists of data, and another where dry information begins its transformation into fiction in alternate paragraphs. There's even a brief incursion into comic strip. "Is it a novel?" he asks, half-rhetorically, then answers his own question: "I think so... there's a novel in there somewhere."

He's not keen on replicating the tour today though. "What do you want to see, then?" he sighs, as we turn into Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street. "Shall we look at some Ripper sites?" I ask. "Do we have to?" is the crisp response. I get the impression he's not keen on that section. "My least interesting bit was the Victorian chapter," he confesses. "I dunno, it's so written about. You have to fend off getting into adjectives."

We stop briefly outside the Jewish monumental masons' shopfront, one of the last remnants of the immigrant population that was once dominant here (the other is the famous bagel shop). Gavron has no personal links to the Lane, but "scratch a Jew and you'll find the East End," he says.

He uncovered "hundreds" of stories which never made it into the book (the rejected subtitle was "The history of everyone who ever lived on Brick Lane", a mind-boggling claim dreamt up by the marketing department). Waving back down the street, he points out a house inhabited by a man plotting a coup against Charles II, manufacturing home-made armour in readiness, while a few doors down lived one of the king's gardeners. "So within yards of each other lived a man who wanted to kill the king and a man who worked for him." This grubby, meandering street has run right through British history. But Gavron is much more interested in interrogating that history than merely reproducing it.

"The Boswell chapter is in there as a critique of biography and how much it excludes, and how it's always about the West End and never the East End. One of my themes is deconstruction, and juxtaposing fiction with what we think we know about the past." He plays his own games with truth, and sometimes opacity masquerades as transparency. Some of the "factual" quotations are from other works of fiction. "I wasn't always being honest," he says gleefully.

The book is rooted in research, mostly undertaken in Tower Hamlets local history library. "It's a great place, a cavern of treasures, and you never go to the indexes, you tell the guys who run it what you want and they just pull it out for you. They know every book in it, every unpublished manuscript, scrap of paper or photograph. You go in there and say, 'I've been looking at this building...' and they say, 'oh yeah, we've got these photos and this is the story.'"

Wave upon wave of immigrants have crashed on the Lane, and Gavron became interested in telling their stories after a stint as writer-in-residence in a prison. "The men in there were mostly young, they were Pakistanis, Colombians, Eastern Europeans, they were Bangladeshi, they were black. A lot of them had been arrested at airports and had never actually seen Britain. Most of them couldn't write, but I thought, this is such rich material. I'm looking forward over the next 10 to 15 years to reading novels by Kosovans and Albanians - the new Londoners. Firstly, their stories are always so interesting, and secondly, they see London with fresh eyes."

Gavron brought his own fresh perspective to his first job of foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. "I wasn't really a natural, though Max Hastings was lovely to me. He interviewed me when I was a young journalist who'd never done anything. He talked at me, going on excitedly about his experiences as a young journalist, and I nodded enthusiastically and smiled, and after an hour he said: 'I like you! Will you come and work for us?' and I said, 'Er... okay.' 'What would you like to do?' 'I'd like to go to... Africa...?' 'Good idea.' I had literally no idea what I was doing. Like the new kid at school I just followed the other journalists around, being down first at breakfast in the hope that maybe they'd take me in their taxis. But once I found my feet, I always wanted to go in the opposite direction. I'd follow some strange little story or wander into some hut somewhere and come out 12 hours later to find that someone had been assassinated. I really was a bit like Boot."

By this time we've wandered into a cafe, and there's just one thing more that I'm burning to ask. It's about the cover. It features a woman with googly eyes, wearing a bizarre straw headpiece, emerging from a manhole superimposed on a map. She bears no resemblance to any figure in the book that I can see. It's mystifying. What on earth was that trying to say?

Gavron groans alarmingly. "Don't ask me. Ask them," he mutters. "I suppose I should be very diplomatic. I get on well with the designer and I actually do like the image. He found it some photo library. It's Edwardian, I've no idea about that hat. I suppose in a way because the theme of the book is things blossoming out of barren ground..." This thought is clearly going nowhere, and he leans over and switches the machine off. The next words audible on the tape when he judges it safe to continue are "... it's caused a lot of heartbreak." The rest is off the record, slipped into the crack of the floorboards of history: just another of those stories that will never be told.

'An Acre of Barren Ground' by Jeremy Gavron is published by Scribner at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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