Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sunday Market Forces

As I was up early Sunday, I thought I'd roll down to Brick Lane, mooch about in the morning and perhaps collar a replacement bike, since mine fell victim to what appeared a minor fault but turned out to be terminal, as though a loved on had been carried off by a cold. Walking through Old Street I was struck, as often happens, by the fresh sheen of gentrification on the otherwise grimy and unprepossessing office blocks and warehouses. The rich are on the march around here, moving back into the city, recolonising what had been abandoned to the poor, and so pushing what community has endured off its moorings, out into the sub-suburbs. Community takes a long time to build up and a frighteningly short time to extinguish. For vast swathes of the city, both opulent and impecunious, community doesn't take much hold, people endure on for years without developing much attachment to their manor, or their neighbours, and are so used to this unrootedness that they think little of what community they do manage to partake in.

So the rich move in to areas that were once poor, and of course by stereotype we know that the rich engage in community far less, having more to occupy themselves that doesn't require neighbourly interaction. So the areas lose what local character has stayed on, beyond that conferred by the architecture or long-standing establishments.

And so to Brick Lane, the Sunday market along Sclater Street, a historical treasure trove where for hundreds of years immigrants were first sent to test themselves against the cold heart of London, before admission to the greater part of England. And there I find, against all the odds, a thriving stronghold of character, a tiny but strong pocket of undiminished east London, bulging with quite unselfconscious owsyerfather cockney accents, genuine, solid gold. And although they can't be unaware of the closing tide of the trendies - gentrification's outriders, who have more or less claimed Brick Lane for coffee and vintage clothes stalls - and although within a few hours the area will have turned from a flea market to a bohemian enclave, for the time being east London remembers itself as the hard-done-by cousin of the trendy north and west.

I'm in Sclater Street, where the stolen bikes are propped by malevolent looking 20-year-olds; a man with one leg sits on the kerb with his hand outstretched; stalls profer such meagre wares that they could not, even on a market day of fantastic good fortune, possibly provide enough income to pay rent on a nearby warehouse conversion; where all of a sudden a brief snatch of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues blares out from a CD stall, clear bass booming in the spring sun, the lyrics casting their own take on the ragamuffin environs; up the road is the real flea market, people sat on rugs on the pavement selling whatever they've mustered up, third world scenes still undisplaced by the new concrete bridges carrying the new railway that has suddenly cut through the area, regeneration carried by train, how much longer can this free space endure, so unfashionable and neglected and unprofitable.

Up in Hackney later, in Dalston, I sit at my mate's flat and look out the window on the sunny afternoon, drinking tea and enjoying the hope of spring. We chat and swap stories, a social visit. In the wide, tree-lined street young men jump out of a car, confront other young men on a motorbike, knives are drawn, big knives, the kind that would stab right through you, some of the youth chase others up the road, a motorbike helmet is left on the ground, a pair hurridly attempt to start the bike, others return shouting: 'are you mad? are you mad?', capture the bike, the car drives off, no-one is stabbed, no-one lies in their own blood, and all is quiet again on the sunny spring afternoon. What of gentrification? How many trendy blocks and tube stations can you build, or failing pubs can you convert to middle-class emporiums?

The swiftness of the incident, and the swift vanishing of it entirely, are profoundly unnerving, the street looks as pleasant as you could hope for, and the menace only remains in the mind. The next-door neighbour, well-to-do though down-to-earth, is shocked - 'what the fuck,' she says to me, 'what the fuck was that about?' - she's shocked, but both her and I know that this goes on, there's no surprises, but to know is another thing than to see.

The police arrive, too late for the party, drive up the road which now bears not a trace of its tumult. They have nothing to offer and nothing to do. They ask me questions, but I have nothing to tell them.

When I leave I see the car at the end of the road, I see four boys sitting inside, they have their butcher's knives with them no doubt, at the ready, ready to disturb the pastoral late afternoon once again; as the sun sets in glory over the city, they have them at the ready, at the flick of a switch they can bring them to bear.