The “other London”—gritty, graffitied, but with a rising cool index—gets ready for its close-up as the venue of
the Summer Olympics.
By Cathy Newman
Photograph by Alex Webb
After the last customers had wiped the stray crumbs of meat pie from their faces. After the last jellied eel had slid down throats. After the last cup of tea had been swallowed, Fred Cooke, owner of F.Cooke’s pie and mash shop at 41 Kingsland High Street, London E8 2JS, flipped the hand-printed cardboard sign on the front door of the establishment his grandfather had founded when George V assumed the throne from OPEN to CLOSED.
“You bet there were tears,” Cooke said of that day, February 11, 1997. Cooke, a thick-bodied man with thinning hair on top that gathered momentum to crest in a lush whitewave at the back, stared wistfully at a case in the Hackney Museum. The display featured the net he had used to scoop eels out of the tank, pots for boiling potatoes for the mash, steel pie pans, and paper bags with F. Cooke printed on them for carryout. The kitchenware of a three-generation-old family enterprise had become a museum artifact.
“We were the Buckingham Palace of pie and mashshops,” he said. The diamond stud in his right ear and a gold bracelet, thick as a handcuff, testified to the rewards. The pie and mash shop on Kingsland High Street, one of six owned by the Cooke family, had been the flagship of the fleet, but the ship had been scuttled in response to the changing social landscape of East London.
Pie and mashed potato drenched in neon green parsley sauce, a bowl of eelsin a gelatinous matrix, is a vanishing emblem of East End’s white working class, which has been replaced by a tide of emigrants from the Indian subcontinent—the legacy of the London docks that were once the gateway out to the rest of the British Empire and the gateway in for immigrants. The Huguenots arrived in the 17th century seeking freedom from religious persecution. In the 18th and 19thcenturies the Irish fled famine. Eastern European Jews escaping the pogroms of Russia were next. Now the predominant ethnic group is Bengali; most are Muslim. They began immigrating in large numbers in the 1960s for economic reasons and now make up a third of the population—but there are also Africans, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, Turks, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans.
On Cambridge Heath Roadin Bethnal Green, the Al-Rahman Supermarket, with itsHALAL MEAT sign, rubs shoulders with the Polski Sklep Mini-Kłos Polish grocery, across from the Somali Mayfield House Day Centre, down the block from the luxury Town Hall Hotel, with a BMW or two parked in front and its £2,500 ($4,000)-a-night De Montfort suite (triple-height ceiling, stained glass windows, room for 16 to dine). Around the corneris York Hall, venue for Saturday night boxing (“Bad Boy Promotions presents: a night of white collar boxing with José ‘KO’ Corrodus and Lee ‘the Bomber’ Banks”), and steps away, the Gallery Cafe, where mothers with children in prams drink lattes and young professionals hunch over laptops. There is the crackle of energy, the jazz of diversity; it’s a bazaar to pick and choose from according toyour taste, mood, and wallet.
The number of East End pie and mash shops—Cooke remembered 14 or 15—could almost be counted on one hand now. “East London became cosmopolitan,” Cooke explained. It was unclear if he meant this as a compliment. “They want their peas and rice, mon, and their kabobs.” It was said lightly, with an undertow of edge but mostly with resignation.
Things go missing. We drop aglove. Lose a watch. Misplace our glasses. Sometimes they reappear, are appropriated by others, or stay lost. East London is like that. A landscape of disappearances; streets scribbled with traces of the past, a tangle of bits and bobs that alternately vanish, then show up again in different form. A turn-of-the-century Jewish soup kitchen for the poor on Brune Street is reborn as luxury...