Jemima Lewis: Ignore the squalor and savour the romance

Share

It is quite a thrill to find myself living in Britain's horridest hell-hole. The east London borough of Hackney came bottom of the league in Thursday night's Channel 4 programme The Best and Worst Places to Live in the UK: 2006. The programme's presenters, Phil Spencer and Sofie Allsopp, explained that by every measure of civilisation - education, lifestyle, employment, crime rates, health - Hackney stinks.

The accompanying footage cut between images of yellow crime scene notices, hoodies loitering in alleyways, high streets bristling with plastic-fronted pawn shops, and crumbling tower blocks coated in poo-brown pebble dash. To complete the feculent theme, the segment ended with a close-up of bluebottles feasting on a dog turd.

Needless to say, there have been squeals of protest from local worthies. Before it was even aired, Hackney's mayor, Jules Pipe, declared the programme "snobbery at its worst", and produced an alternative list of reasons to love the borough: crime down 22 per cent in two years; more green spaces than any other inner London area; one of the most ethnically diverse - and harmonious - populations in the country; massive regeneration promised by the Olympic development.

To this list, I could add a dozen more. Hackney has the highest preponderance of artists of any equivalent district in Europe, which means there are lots of people with asymmetrical haircuts and directional clothes. It has thriving markets to cater to every desire, from pink rayon nighties to organic wild beef. It has the largest Turkish community in London, which means it also has the best corner shops: the kind where you can pick up a shoulder of lamb and a sack of pine nuts with your copy of Hello!.

Most of all, though, Hackney - like the whole of the East End - is London for romantics. For a long time, it should be remembered, east London was the only London there was. The vast Victorian suburbs of west London, where the middle classes now huddle, were not even a twinkle in a planner's eye when Samuel Pepys was lusting after Hackney's schoolgirls. It is in the east that the ghosts of London's history can still be felt: the Huguenot weavers, the Jewish tailors, the villains, wide boys, merchants and suffragettes.

Admittedly, it can take a while to appreciate these splendours. I am a Hackney parvenue, having moved here a year ago when my boyfriend bribed me with a fold-up Brompton bicycle. Hackney's fearsome reputation had not escaped my notice, and for the first few months I hardly dared to leave the house lest my Brompton should be torn from under me by feral tots.

Naturally timorous at the best of times, I found the unpredictability of the east London streets hard on the nerves. In west London, where I used to live, it is easy to avoid the most deprived and dangerous areas. Broadly speaking, the rich live in the old terraced streets while the poor are confined to modernist tower-block estates, easy to identify and to skirt around.

But east London, because of its docklands, took a much worse pounding during the Blitz. The craters left by the bombs were then filled in with second-rate social housing. When you turn a corner in Hackney, you can never predict whether you're going to be confronted by a row of ravishing Georgian villas or a rust-streaked concrete slum. Usually you'll find a bit of both.

It was this that I hated when I first moved here: the aesthetic chaos; the evidence everywhere of penny-pinching and bad planning visited upon the poor. But just as one's eyes adjust to the dark, so they eventually learn to find beauty in the most unexpected places.

Yesterday, for instance, while stuck in a traffic jam, I found myself gazing absently at a row of derelict shops. Behind the tattered awnings, I noticed the decomposing corpse of a Georgian terrace. The blackened brickwork, crumbling away at the edges, reminded me of the ruined medieval abbeys that my parents used to drag me to see. The windows were hollow where the delicate glazing bars had rotted away - except for one window, on the second floor, from which sprouted the branches of a tree, bursting right out into the sunlight like an exploding firework.

It made me smile, the insubordination of this tree, putting down roots in a centuries-old bedroom. You don't see that kind of thing in the smarter parts of London, where an elegant, freshly painted homogeneity prevails.

Where once I could only see ugliness - the abandoned warehouses, the tattered palimpsests of fly-posters glued to every unguarded wall - now I see a place of Dickensian romance. My eyes no longer settle on the squalor, but on the Hawksmoor churches, Victorian tenements and dark, cobbled streets of the sort that Charlie Chaplin once roamed, plotting his siege of Hollywood.

The East End is an architectural palimpsest in itself: layer upon layer of history, some of it sublime and some dismal, written on the streets. It may be dirty, dangerous and unpredictable - but that's London for you. For those of us who love the capital, it isn't the worst place to live; it's the only place to live.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £40,000

£18000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Insurance Bro...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Support Technician

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior IT Support Technician ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior / Graduate Front End Developer

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides actionabl...

Guru Careers: Customer Support Advisor

Negotiable depending on experience, plus benefits: Guru Careers: We are seekin...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The Facebook 'legacy feature' for after your death is necessary - so let's not be squeamish about it

Joe Rivers
 

Here's what the Tories have promised to do, and what they're actually doing

Lee Williams
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food