Icons of England
  • Introduction
  • The Icons
  • Nominations
  • News
  • Learn & Play
  • Your Comments

Brick Lane

Interview: author Tarquin Hall

ICONS met journalist Tarquin Hall, author of "Salaam Brick Lane: A Year in the New East End", to ask about his experiences of living on Brick Lane and what Banglatown had taught him about “Englishness”.

Click on a question to hear Tarquin's answer:

What makes Brick lane unique in multi-cultural Britain?

What's extraordinary about Brick Lane is that it's seen these waves and waves of immigrants who have come and settled ever since it was founded really and that goes for the East End in general.
I don't think you've really got a street in London that has had quite so many different kinds of people from so many different cultures and countries coming. You've had French Huguenots, Irish escaping from the potato famine who built the docks, tens and tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the pogroms and, most recently of course, you've had 60,000 Bangladeshis settling on and around brick lane and now you've got new waves of Afghans, Iraqis, Kurds…

The whole world, you know, has always come to Brick Lane, as well as dissidents, writers like William Shakespeare, anarchists and misfits like me.

How would you describe Brick lane to someone who had never been there ?

Brick Lane's a very narrow one-way street lined with lots of Victorian houses and, of course, the Truman Brewery which stands in the middle. What's amazing about Brick Lane is you've got these different parts to the main street, and you sort of have a cultural tour of the whole of London as you go down it.

In one part it's all indian restaurants run by Bangladeshis, you've got big neon signs advertising curry and balti and touts outside trying to lure you into the Indian restaurants and the smell of spices and Bangladeshi shops selling frozen fish from the Brahmaputra river and the Brahmaputra.

And then you go a little bit further and you pass the old Truman brewery, which is one of the oldest breweries in London - no longer a brewery it's been completely taken over by very trendy young Londoners and Europeans who congregate there in trendy cafés and, you know, play their MP3 players and talk about dot.com start-ups and go to shops with names like Eat My Handbag Bitch.

And then you go further north and you are into the old rag trade part of Brick Lane, where the Bangladeshi leather jacket shops can all still be found. That goes back to the old Jewish rag trade which was very prevalent in that part of the East End and then of course you've got the old bagel shops and people just sort of hanging out on street corners and it gets progressively rougher as you go along.

What was your quitessential Brick Lane moment?

The first night I can never forget - I was terrified and amazed being there on the street looking out the window and seeing all this activity in the middle of the night, with drunks and prostitutes and drug peddlers and people coming from nightclubs, and all of them coming to eat bagels and drink coffee and tea and go back to the nightclubs or some of them were going off to start their nightshifts cleaning offices in the City of London.

There were punch-ups, there were bikes stolen… this obviously wasn't all going on on the first night but I guess I sort of put it all together in my mind.
I think my quintessential Brick Lane moment was standing in the window of the kitchen that I had just watching in the light cast by the street lights and the traffic lights blinking watching the tramps and the prostitutes and all the people from the nightclubs and taxi drivers kind off milling around the Beigel Bake and just all the faces and feeling quite scared and alone and I think I had an idea of what it must be like to be an immigrant to London and to have just arrived and be on your own in this strange, sometimes dangerous, hostile and extraordinarily busy place.

Has Brick Lane changed your idea of "Englishness"?

Brick Lane changed for me the way I look at Englishness because I suddenly realised that it's a huge mix of all sorts of things, it's a huge recipe of all kinds of ingredients that have been boiled together over centuries and I think we kind of formulate this idea at any particular time and our English forefathers, whatever, have done this as well - we sort of decide what Englishness means but it then actually changes and I think this is happening all the time.

But being English is a state of mind and that's what I really began to realise in the East End. It's not a genetic thing, it changes, and this became really really clear when I was helping this Bangladeshi establish what a Cockney is.

Why has Brick Lane always been a magnet for immigrants?

Mostly that has to do with the fact that the docks were there so people would come off ships down on the Thames and the East End was very close by.
I think there are a couple of things: firstly it was very poor, so you could find accommodation there, and so it was a cheap place to stay, but secondly it was such a hodge-podge and it has this history of tolerance because it was always a place outside the walls of the city where anybody could really go and make a future for themselves.
It was very hard to do that say in the West End of London on the other side of London or in London itself because of the guilds and the monopolies that existed and the fact it was walled - you could keep people out.

I think that's why you always have this extraordinary mix of people all having to live side by side and often with completely different backgrounds, completely different views on the world, and that's been the case for a long, long time, and it's certainly the case today.

Tension between different ethnic groups is very much in the national and international news at the moment, is this reflected on Brick Lane?

I think people get very fixated on racial tension in Britain and I think if you look at it in that perspective, yes, of course it's relative, there is racial tension, there has been racial tension in the past, it exists today.

Is it a big, big problem? No, I really don't think it is. I don't know the last time we had anything like the kind of problems you've had in say the south of the United States where people have been dragged behind cars or hung from trees by lynch mobs. You may have had the Blackshirts, you may have the BNP coming in, but, generally speaking, I think it's an unbelievably tolerant place actually and I think that's always been the case.

What happens when a new community begins to establish itself on Brick Lane?

Generally what's happened with groups of people coming in is they stay within their own community until they've acclimatised. Language is the biggest barrier often but often religion and just habits and attitutes as well.

I think that's quite a healthy thing because it means you can get on with your own thing. Otherwise I think there would be a lot more trouble, if everyone was expected to immediately adopt all kinds of new attitudes and fit in exactly as the State wants you to fit in. It doesn't give you the chance to acclimatise and do it on your own terms.

How long does it take for integration to start happening?

But it does take time. I think the press, media, these days and politicians have decided that it's something that should happen very, very, very quickly, and they cry ,"Oh God, you know they're not British enough!" Well, I think in the past it's taken time, you know, certainly if you look at the history of the Jews in the East End, it took a good two or three generations for that community to find its feet, to sort of learn to fit in, and it's been a great success story.

But I think it is important that eventually groups of people coming in and living in a new culture do learn to fit in and acclimatise. I don't think they necessarily have to become British, if you want to to term Britishness as, "Hey you, you should be playing cricket and drinking tea and supporting Manchester United," or whatever.

As the anthropologist, Aktar asks in your book: "Are the Bangladeshi's becoming English...?"

I went recently to a reading by a Bangladeshi lady who was reading some of her poetry at a cultural centre in the East End of London. She was 100 per cent Bangladeshi in dress, in mind, in attitude. She was wearing a beautiful silk sari, she spoke in the most lovely Bangladeshi accent in English, she was reading her poetry in English.

And at this thing there were some Bangladeshi girls in hijabs who were there who wanted to be writers and they were listening to this lady. And they got up and read their poetry and it was all, "Yeah, s'right 'innit" and they had these really serious East End cockney accents, and the contrast between these ladies was so extreme and I think you were left in no doubt whatsoever that these East End Bangladeshi girls were 100 per cent British.

If you went up to them and said, "Hey you, what are you?" They might tell you they're Muslim first or "We're not British we don't like being called British" or "We're British Muslim". I don't think that when you ask people necessarily what  they are they necessarily know! It's very difficult to label people and it's difficult to ask them to label themselves.

So I am very suspicious of these survey's that say, "Oh dear, a lot of immigrants don't see themselves as British." Yes, they may not but actually they really are - if you talk to them, you listen to them, they are as British as Norman Tebbit.

"...Or are they becoming something else, something new?"

Whether the end result is how we see Englishness today and Britishness today, no, I don't think that's the case.
I think that this is a highly tribal culture. It's always been filled with people from all kinds of different tribes - you've had the Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish, the Angles, the Saxons all living side by side.

I think what is probably emerging is a new tribe of British, if you like, and they have different kind of customs, some of them have been brought from other places, some of them are adapting.
And at the same time the general fabric of the place, the English process, if you want to call it that, is slowly absorbing them into the fabric of this place.

What's the future for Brick Lane?

I think Brick Lane and the East End has always been an incredibly transient place and if you look at it now as far as things are concerned people just come and go all the time.

At the moment you've got this huge new trendy, young British phenomenon, these people who are quite middle class actually in their habits have suddenly moved in because it's cheap and it's cool and it's trendy and it's grungey - they'll all move on, there's just no question about it - they will have children and move to the suburbs.

I think the Bangladeshis are already starting to move on. A lot of young Bangladeshis who have university degrees or who have been really successful in business don't want to stick around. It's not the prettiest part of London or England, it's still pretty poor, it's still quite rough: 80% of the population are in council housing and I think that drives people to move on as soon as they can.