Since the beginning of last year I’ve been walking frequently along Green Street in East London and around the streets which form its hinterland, looking at the shop displays and also at the houses in the surrounding area, the blocks of flats, the vehicles and street furniture. (The other place I go to a lot is the South Asian Collection at the V&A, but that’s for a later post).
Various populations originating from South Asia (often Gujerat via East Africa) have settled in this area of London bringing their food, music, films and clothing traditions with them. Last week I was in Green Street and the shops were crowded, noisy, bustling. There were groups of young women looking for new outfits, part of the run-up to the many local weddings: whole families were out looking for new outfits for the festival of Eid: friends were shopping together to match this or that item of clothing for a family gathering or social engagement. The cash tills were ringing. The many carrier bags of purchases were being borne out of the shop, an occasional corner of peacock blue, burning fuschia pink or deep turquoise silk peeping out. Of course the textiles speak of different origins and are aimed at different clienteles: they contain all kinds of nuances.
(With grateful thanks to ‘Bindia’ of Green Street, Newham, E.13, where these photos were taken, for their generous help).
What happens to all these purchases? I keep imagining gloriously coloured silken paths blazing along the grey London streets to different nearby destinations. It may be that some jewelled colours in their carrier bags go into blocks of flats built in the nineteen seventies or eighties.
But these modest houses, mainly built in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the height of the British Empire, also tell of a way of life, now vanished. Their doorways and windows are ornamented with mass-produced swags of leaves and flowers. Sometimes a moulding of a medieval king’s head will appear, sometimes a cherub. This ‘Victorian Gothic’ is a product of the nineteenth century British fantasy of a lost ‘middle ages’. These streets were mass-built for an already industrialised, city dwelling people, for people caught up in the turmoil of their own time (steam power, mass production, railways, the electric telegraph), a turmoil which was carrying them – who knew where?
In their house building they seem to be looking backwards to a figment of a rural , monarchical ‘England’, a somehow stabilising notion, reassuring in an un-reassuring world.
To walk here is to discover a rich set of legacies in ornament: uttering all sorts of narratives, endlessly fascinating. These legacies can be seen in any of Britain’s cosmopolitan cities.
Below are some images of the Green Street houses and details of their ornament as they appear today.