We had our feet on the ground at the second class. If I may say it, it felt unbelievable to me, as a past student at an Italian university. The assumption that writing needs a combination of walking around, talking and reading should be proven. And that’s what we did, hanging around the East End.
Liverpool Street is the heart of the City. People from all over England arrive here and spend the day in London. The trains, the tube, the people bustling, screaming, smoking, drinking a coffee and checking the time. There is something magical about this place, something you could just watch the whole day – but this was not the case, because we were heading to Catherine Wheel Alley.
We were the only ones there. There were some guys smoking cigarettes and taking a break behind some restaurants, and that’s all. You could see, smell and hear a sudden change between the main street and this small alley, so narrow and quiet. The smoke and the steam from the back of the restaurants made the atmosphere even more hushed and ethereal. It was the dark part of the glittering and glamorous shops on Liverpool Street, but it wasn’t dark in a bad way. It was only dark.
It reminded me of the little roads in the Italian medieval cities like Florence and Lucca. They’re narrow and quiet just as much, but they are not exactly right behind the chaos of Liverpool Street. And that makes a lot of difference.
Middlesex Street was something else. On Sunday there is a big market and people run and cry all over the place, but we went there on Tuesday, so everything was quiet and we could only smell the food of the different restaurants. That was another lesson. It’s important to come back to a place in different times to know it deeply.
During the whole trip around East End, we stopped in meaningful places to read some pieces of literature written about the places themselves. Literature always tells a lot about history. In Middlesex Street, we read an article from the Victorian Age which was really descriptive about smells. I really couldn’t smell anything, except from the delicious odour of the different cuisines of the restaurants. This may say a lot about my priorities.
Jack London was an adventurer and an American sailor. He came to the London East End and wrote about it after an interesting experience: he lived as a tramp for weeks and then wrote a book about it. We read a piece about Frying Pan Alley, which described the desperate poverty of the area (with sentences like abomination called a house). Professor Lichtenstein asked us to try to think about any traces of it.
The East End is made by layers of people, generations and stories. Some of the Victorian buildings were night refuges, and, traditionally, this part of London was a place for immigrants. There are some Jewish places and some bengali posts saying no balls game. Jewish immigration is an important part of the story of the place.
We walked along these little streets until we arrived at the Christ Church of Spitalfields, which was a Huguenots building. The Huguenots were some of the earliest immigrants to London. They were political refugees from France and wealthy merchants who established this beautiful church. When the silk industry declined, this area became poor, and that was when Jews arrived.
Iain Sinclair wrote a poetry book about this building, telling the mystical, strange stories about the church. It was built from 1714 to 1729 and designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor , in a typical English Baroque style. The maintenance works were very expensive and The Times defined the church “a Covent Garden opera box”, so it was altered in 1866.
When Jews arrived, this area was very poor, and it was one of the most slums areas in London. We walked across the Georgian buildings. There were so many things to see and to hear and to smell. Brick Lane is very much alive and bustling with any kind of restaurant, shop and atmosphere. The typically British pubs on the corners, the Spitalfields market, the thai diners and all the different people.
I stopped to take a picture of two workmen who were watching the square they were working on. I don’t know why, but it felt like a great moment, like the layers of the different generations and people were changing again, and I was curious to see the shape of how they were and how they would become.
London is the city that changes constantly and always remains the same. There is the old, traditional, historical London, and then the innovative, sparkling London. It was nice to be there and see it changing again.
When I saw the sign of Princelet Street, I was excited. Professor Lichtenstein showed us number 19, where the little Rodinsky’s room was. It was a beautiful building, exactly the building where you could expect to find mystery. Or, better, where not to find what you need to solve a mystery.
After the deep contrast between Liverpool Street and the small alley, we passed from Brick Lane to another silent, quiet place. We entered into Sandys Row Synagogue. It was founded in 1854 and it was a Huguenots chapel before being a synagogue. As the chapel was on the entrance, the Jews changed it in order to make it on the East, heading to Jerusalem. This Synagogue is one of the few still-functioning ones of the area.
Women must still be on the balcony. There are no pictures and the whole building is decorated in orange and golden colours. The contrast with all we had been seen before – the bustling area of Brick Lane, the workmen using their tools and screaming their orders and the thai restaurants smells were not there any more. The place was completely silent. The acoustic was perfect.
That was when Professor Lichtenstein asked us to find a quiet place in the Synagogue and start writing anything that came up to our mind about the place. It could be fiction, poetry or non-fiction: we had to try to imagine something that could have happened there, or just make up a whole story. She called it immersive writing.
Immersive writing is all about being incredibly nosy and trying to understand a place through any kind of resource we could have. Myth, oral history, not being afraid to ask for help. Imagine, visiting places, reading, trying to create and produce something original while you’re exactly in the place you want to write about. That was the whole meaning of our visit and our trip to the East End.
Professor Lichtenstein suggested to involve people in our research. We should ask questions, invite people, track them down. The worst that they could say is no. She said that it is important to be humble, to act appropriately every time we investigate. There are some rules that are to be observed in every place you investigate on and write about.
We took our sit and started writing. In the next post, I will write what I imagined.