Broadway Market. Photo: © The Hackney Citizen Ltd

Here is a story about my father, one that I’ve not told you before.

When I studied at Glasgow, I lived in a tenement block on Maryhill Road, near St George’s Cross. We were driving from there up towards the University one Saturday morning (I can’t remember why), which meant turning onto Great Western Road. As we waited to turn at the junction, I was looking down at the River Kelvin on our right, alongside which I used to run (to feel the city air rush past my body). As we watched, a girl was struggling to carry her bicycle down the steps to the riverside. She had bright pink hair and a full complement of piercings on lips and brow, a not untypical sight in the studentland near the University.

So my father, a died-in-the-wool Conservative (he had a tea mug bearing this motto), someone who, at the same age as this girl (the same age as me) had to work through nightshifts and take day release in order to gain his qualifications, who had never in his life contemplated setting aside four years in order to live in subsidised housing and to study something for the sheer pleasure of it, who lived with my mum in an Ayrshire house of pleasing conformity, a Thatcherite of gut reactions – my father looked at this girl, enjoying her life of cycling freedom on the back of his taxes, and said: “It’s so great that this place exists; that there’s somewhere people can be just as they want to be.”

I remember that moment as I’m sat at the window of the Cat and Mutton, with its full view of the London Fields catwalk, down which progresses every form of skinny-jeaned asymmetrically-bobbed hipster. When I’m ready to join in the sneering, I remember my dad’s words, and I relax a bit. I’ll never be as naturally open-minded as a truly good person, but I can absorb the lesson of others. Good people cause the ether to vibrate, and you can capture their memory, shimmering in the air.

So I’m watching this progression of overtly arty, uniformly white and skinny students. A group of black schoolgirls walk past and three druggies start shouting at each other about access to their one mobile phone. Across the road the Turkish guy is having a cigarette outside his shop, while a man who probably ought to wear a badge (one of the last authentic white working class blokes in E8! Come hear his vahls before they’re gorn for ever!) starts pulling into position the stalls that tomorrow will carry the Saturday market wares, that will carry the rich-beyond-yourdreams real middle-class folks into the street to ooh and ahh over various forms of somewhat stodgy bread, and I think: “You can look at this in two ways; you have a choice.”

Either you can see a mess of social failure – how many centuries will drunks and addicts wander these streets before we do something to help them? Why do none of the white students even seem to be aware of the black kids’ existence? They dance around one another like the north pole of magnets – pushed apart seconds before contact. Why don’t I have any Turkish friends, despite being on friendly terms with about a dozen? What do those rich white people think, as they pick their way past the betting shops and kebab shops and step over the empty fried chicken boxes; have they trained their eyes to not see any of that, focusing only on that fabulous shop that sells the most amazing reworked wicker, darling? What does the guy putting the stalls together really think about what’s happened to his borough?

It’s the stall-constructor I think about the most, because it is he who has been here long enough to see the borough change. Does he lament the loss of the homogeneity, the passing of a shared culture – even a shared language – and wish all of the incomers – including me, of course – back to where we came from? My default feeling about East End life, you see, are the thoughts I’m projecting into his head. The man does exist, and I did watch him yesterday; but these are my thoughts, my sadness.

Or we could see something else. Given the number of different cultures, languages and ethnicities poured into an impoverished borough…maybe this is as good as it gets. Maybe Hackney is the future of Britain. We rub along together, the British/Turkish, the white/black, the working/middle-class, the hipster/drugster, the stall-holder/artisan bread purchaser; we manage this comfortably enough. Hackney is an example of how a borough can change, and just about hold itself together.

Related stories:

Your crime, not mine

Why I like the subsidised neighbours

Why do people hate hipsters?

Support us

The coronavirus outbreak meant that the Hackney Citizen was unable to print a monthly newspaper for three months.

We're grateful that we have since been able to resume printing. This would not have been possible without the generosity of our readers, whose donations kept the paper from disappearing completely at a distressing time for residents.

A huge thank you to everyone who gave their time and money to support us through the lockdown, and to those who continue to do so as we slowly recover from the dramatic fall in advertising revenues, on top of the existing challenges threatening the future of local journalism.

A one-off donation or a regular contribution from anyone who can afford it will help our small team keep the newspaper in print and the website running in the coming months and years.

Find out how you can donate.

Thank you for your support, and stay safe.

The Hackney Citizen team