Wednesday 9 January – Aldgate, Aldgate East, All Saints
An easy day on Tube for LOLs: Aldgate, Aldgate East and All Saints – not too far away on the DLR. And, I suspect, a trip down memory lane for me. I make the day a little more difficult by forgetting to take my notebook and pen and have to rush back to Gingerbread Cottage. It takes another dashing half-hour to get from Forest Hill (Overground) to Aldgate. I change at Whitechapel on the Hammersmith & City, remain on the train at Aldgate East, catch a glimpse of the Aldgate platforms and change at Liverpool Street on to the Metropolitan. I get a backwards glimpse of the platforms at Aldgate East before we reach Aldgate: the eastern end of the Metropolitan line.
I meet my walking chums Andy and Harald, though we won’t be doing much walking on this trip. Andy tells me I have to buy The Guardian – they’ve a big feature on the Tube, it’s 150 years old. That had passed me by. Probably only passed by your conscious mind, muses The Wee Professor. Subliminally, you will have known.
And, perhaps, the Tube Masters will have made you, all unconsciously, do this … this. He searches for the right word. Stupidity, The Inner Curmudgon chips in helpfully. So, maybe I’m a zombie, I retort. Maybe we all are, replies the Wee Professor equably. If we don’t have free will, which is doubtful, maybe we are all zombies. Enough! I think.
We walk to Alie Street to see the site of the old Half Moon Theatre. Back in the early seventies this was the scrotty end of the back of beyond, the real East End: tenements, bomb-site carparks, crappy pubs with torn plastic seating, working men’s cafés, sweatshops for the local clothing industry, remnants of the East End and Jewish working class past jostling with the out-riders of the coming Bangladeshi future, people with incomprehesible accents, men in pubs best avoided … The Half Moon itself was squeezed into an old synagogue.
But now all is changed, changed utterly. A terrible ugliness has been born … The City sharp-elbowed its way in some time later – during the eighties you could see the banks’ little electric buggies stacked with cheques and cash nosing from bank to bank (in those days the cash wasn’t virtual and most people dealt mostly in cheques). Now there is brick-faced tower after glass-walled tower, offices of banks and shipping businesses, offices to let, offices being built, fancy glass-walled flats to rent, fancy flats being built. There’s a Pret a Manger and a pedestrianized area and … and is that some kind of shopping centre? The Inner Curmudgeon is appalled, is instantly up in arms. We turn into Alie Street.
It takes a little time to locate where the Half Moon actually was: Half Moon Passage is still there, but the space at the rear where the theatre stood, is now occupied by the backs of two more towers. Years ago, in the early seventies, 7:84 Theatre Company, which I helped to start, played at the Half Moon when we came to London. The Half Moon itself put on shows like George Davis is Innocent OK about an East End bank robber framed by the police for a crime he didn’t commit. It takes almost forty years but in 2011 George is acquitted. Back in the seventies few gave credence to leftist and punk polemics about the endemic corruption in the police force. Or, if they did, what did it matter if George Davis hadn’t committed that particular bank robbery? He was, after all, a well-known villain.
We are outside The White Swan which stands, I think, where the Half Moon entrance and box office stood. The bar tender rushes out, mistaking us for early customers. It’s a Shepherd Neame pub and we’d by happy to give it a try, but we have a date for later.
We walk to Leman Street. One building has survived the endless revolution of capitalism: The Eastern Dispensary. ‘Founded 1782, Erected 1853. Supported by Voluntary Donations,’ it proudly proclaims. Except, it’s only the façade that has survived: the building itself has been converted into a bar. We walk down Leman Street. I’m trying to spot where Leman Street Police Station is. There’s an up-and-coming tower which will mix ‘upscale’ penthouse suites with student accommodation with the strapline: Live – Study – Connect. What on earth does that mean? The Inner Curmudgeon is aghast. I can’t spot a Police Station anywhere. Has it gone? Or is it disguised as a terrace of flats? All of a sudden I feel bereft. Why? Shouldn’t I be shouting with joy that that lousy old police station has gone the way of The Eastern Dispensary?
We walk on under the DLR line past a Curry House with a notice stating that it’s the best curry house around. It has letters in its window from Buckingham Palace and Nick Clegg regretting that neither the Queen nor the Cleggmeister can take up the invitation from the Curry House Association to their annual awards dinner. We take a left at Cable Street, scene of the Battle of Cable Street seventy five years ago when the Metropolitan Police defended Mosley and his fascists from left-wing protesters.
At least one building has survived from the seventies: Wilton’s Music Hall, perhaps the oldest surviving music hall in the world and still going strong, though from the outside it looks like a film-set of some miserabilist adaptation of a Dickens novel. Back in the seventies it was threatened with demolition but was saved by its Grade 2* listing and a campaign which was an early test of the power of the ‘luvvies’. It’s currently undergoing work to its twirly columns, the decorated reliefs on its balcony and auditorium. Columns, balcony and auditorium look wonderful. ‘Conservation not restoration,’ says Michelle Card when she eventually gets off the phone after foxing the recalcitrant box office computer into taking a booking. Michelle is a Wilton person to her finger-nails: she even got married in the theatre. She asks what brings us here. I explain about my crazy project. ‘There’s a book in that,’ she exclaims. ‘There’s madness in it,’ I reply. ‘There’s madness inside every book,’ she counters. ‘You know you should register the idea. You should get an agent.’ She offers to help and prompts us to stay a few minutes when the bar will be opening. It looks wonderful, but we have a date and we’re late.
It’s back to Aldgate tube for me and a 10 minute journey to Aldgate East, this time via the Circle line to Tower Hill changing to the District line east. Andy and Harald duck the challenge and walk to Aldgate East. They are waiting for me there with another old friend, Sue. We walk round the corner to Toynbee Hall and have a boozy lunch at the Arts Bar and Café managed by Arts Admin. Gill Lloyd, one of the directors, passes. She tells us that The People Show, one of the seminal performance art groups from the 60s & 70s, has sold its base in Bethnal Green to Griff Rhys Jones for a packet – enough to buy another rehearsal space somewhere less trendy and use most of the proceeds to mount productions for the foreseeable future. (The People Show was one of many arts organisations summarily axed by Arts Council England in 2008.) I raise a glass to The People Show and another to Griff Rhys Jones.
Later we learn that another survivor from the seventies, the Oval House Theatre, is leaving its building opposite the Oval Cricket Ground for Brixton. It doesn’t seem right to Sue, who managed the Oval back in the seventies, but it’s sitting on a site that’s now worth a crazy four million. It doesn’t make sense for them to stay. (If I remember right, the Oval was also cut by Arts Council England back in 2008.)
Some time later we leave with the intention of popping into the Whitechapel Art Gallery but Harald lures me down a back alley to Freedom Books, an anarchist bookshop and publishing house. It’s like stepping back into the seventies! Later I’ll visit its website. Its Book of The Week is: ‘The Bad Days Will End’ by the late Larry Law. It “make[s] the situationist international’s heap of pretentious bollox make sense to normal folk – yours for only 90p, but a tenner to art loving hippies!” Fabulous!
Harald and I are hauled out of Freedom Books by Andy and Sue but we don’t quite make it to the Whitehcapel Art Gallery. Instead we are seduced by the window display of cakes, meringues and more cakes at the Exmouth Coffee Co. We are all suddenly smitten with the need for coffee after our lunch. Coffee and cakes. They are all absolutely scrumbumptious though I don’t seem to get much change from thirty pounds. Window display, interior design and clientele look like they come from some ditzy Hollywood comedy set in Boho New York. Even the barista, or whatever the people serving you are called these days, has a transatlantic accent which he maintains originates from Montreal. Whatever.
I don’t make it to the Whitechapel Art Gallery. It’s not that I’m not an art-loving hippy or that I can’t stand too much unreality, but that the Inner Curmudgeon has reared his cantankerous head (metaphorically speaking). His beef? I’m having too much of a good time (or, at least, all the other parts of me apart from the Inner Curmudgeon are having a good time) and that certainly is not the point of this exercise (which, anyway, is pointless). Plus: time is pressing and I have a schedule to meet. I leave Sue, Andy and Harald at the doors of the Gallery and leg it back to Aldgate East. Sue has provided me with the useful local knowledge that Bow Road (District and Hammersmith & City lines) and Bow Church (DLR), though linked on the Tube map are actually separate stations. Ttchh! The clue is in the different names! So I travel on to West Ham, take the DLR to Poplar, then change back on the other Northern Spur to All Saints.
The station is called after All Saints Church which is set back from the Commercial Road in Poplar. I make it up to street level as the sun is beginning to go down. It’s a winter sunset with blue skies and cats-tail clouds forecasting a change of weather. Canary Wharf and other associated capitalist power houses loom like alien invaders in the mid-distance beyond a row of low-rise council housing. To one side is a modern red and turquoise tower block with a winged roof. There is a traffic jam eastwards along the Commercial Road. At a bus-stop kids are larking around, scrapping and teasing each other, establishing bragging rights and who’s the alpha male. Behind them All Saints stands square-shouldered, doughty, columnated. Not ruins domino, but with rain streaks down its dressed stone. I am returned to reality.
On my way home I change at Canary Wharf. I check that I can get from the DLR to the Jubilee line without walking out onto the street. I can: I walk through Canary Wharf’s very own shopping mall. I buy a copy of The Guardian. I try to bargain the price down from £1.20. After all, it’s late in the day, who else is going to buy a morning paper? The shop assistant is mystified. He can’t get to grips with what I’m asking.
It’s busy on the Jubilee and Overground lines and I have to wait till I get back to Gingerbread Cottage to read about the 150 years of the Tube. The Guardian claims there are 270 stations on the London Underground. I count the number of stations in the alphabetic index of my December 2012 map. I make it 376 stations. I think The Guardian has missed out the Overground though that doesn’t account for all of the difference. Another puzzle, another challenge.