Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Undiscovered East End Tour

I managed to squeeze in one last tour for 2013 and once again it was a tour of London's East End. I should admit I was even tempted to turn New Year's Eve into a tour using one of the self-guided architecture tours as a starting point but the weather had other ideas.

And indeed it also had other plans for this tour; it was, quite simply not a guided tour sort of day. Unphased, Luke our guide waited at the statue opposite McDonalds sporting an orange umbrella, exactly as I was told to recognise him. Since Easyjet don't bother with East London (an oversight I feel) there was no confusion of corporate colours. Having found him I ducked back under cover, the station's ultrasonic 'Mosquitos' were preferable to the rain. 

We were a small but hardy group made up of South Londoners, friends from Cologne who had reassembled for a London visit, two Australians and I. The tour was from a company called Undiscovered London and yes, while the name is a bit of an oxymoron for a company giving guided tours, the East End is off the main tourist piste so it can be thought of more as meaning undiscovered by you. This is a daily tour that starts at 11AM so it is probably fair to say that it is one that is geared principally at visitors to the capital.

This tour was in a certain respect refreshingly traditional in that it did not try to tell a single story or focus upon one theme exclusively, but rather, made its way through the East End stopping at one point of interest after another. In this sense it was in the best way generalist: one moment the evacuation of jewish children, the next 16th Century hospitals then a bit of street art. In the crowded market place of London tours there is a tendency for tours to carve out a niche for themselves by having a unique angle to mark them out and while this can result in excellent tours there remains a need to simply show people around an area and talk about the various things that can be interesting to different sorts of visitor. When done well this sort of generalist tour becomes a collage of places and stories that can give a taste of how complicated and open-ended the place itself is. Here for instance we were told about the medieval psychiatric hospital that stood on what became Liverpool Street Station. What's more, we heard how Bedlam, as it became known, offered visitors self-guided tours of the wards where visitors could witness inmates in distress and so on. The health service has been looking for additional profit making activities for a while then. 

For the first time I was taken to the Charnel House on a tour. The story here was of the hospital fields (Spitalfields) and how the dead were temporarily buried then exhumed and the bones placed here to save space. This is probably the more interesting story from the visitor's perspective yet from the point of view of someone who knows East London the more present narrative is that of The City's aggressive expansion eastwards in the form of Norman Foster's 1 Bishops Square. Incredibly, this won London Planning Award's best new public space. It is important to take stock of just how conflicted various interest groups (stakeholders in today's corporate parlance) can be: local residents, city investors, tourists, hospital authorities, the dead. 

We passed the public toilets in Spitalfields Market which were recommended for being both clean, publicly accessible and free to use, a rare thing today following the wholesale closure of public toilets by local authorities. There is an unusual London tour that caught my eye which comprises of a tour of toilets led by Lootours. Unfortunately they don't stray this far East, they focus on the West End's commodes so I won't have occasion to be reviewing that tour anytime soon.

Where a fortnight ago there stood Santas quaffing mulled wine following their city running tour we now sat and listened to a summary of the Jack the Ripper story. I suspect we stopped here not because it was on the ripper route but because it offered us a moment of reprieve from the elements. With the essentials of the murdering spree covered we were told that we had saved ourselves the three hours of going on a ripper tour. This was a nice little gag that got me thinking about how much time going on a tour of tours would save you. "Take this tour and save yourself two and a half days" might make a good tag line. This reference to the ripper tours also made me realise that I was getting a bit of a tour of tours having already heard about the Bedlam tour and now getting a potted ripper tour. I now see that many tours are developed from recycling existing tours, adding some new details or combining some previously separate information and putting a new spin on them. Completely original tour research is more unusual and almost inevitably gets sucked into other tours, unless it is too geeky. This leaves a tour of tours in the paradoxical space of being both a properly original focus and at the same time an ultimately parasitic form of tour.

We were then treated to a colourful explanation of the etymology of the phrases "shit-faced" and "saved by the bell". These were new to me and the first in particular was based on something that could be seen in the street still: the ghost of a sewer running down the centre of the passage. We had earlier been introduced to cockney rhyming slang too and this interest in local language was very welcome as it really made the invisible visible. It even got me imaging that this topic was rich enough to deserve a specialist language tour of its own.

Moving on however we were next onto street art. I had the feeling that compared to The Alternative Tour which is a specialist street art tour, we were given a simpler snapshot of a number of works that covered who the artists were and was followed by some observations on the different styes.   

I noticed that this piece carried the signature not only of the artist but also a link to Global Street Art (top left) the company promoting and facilitating much of this work locally. Having run into Lee Bofkin from this company whilst on The Walk the Line Tour I start to see their hand more widely in the area.   

True to form we stopped, like practically every other tour, outside the the mosque and heard about its multi-faith history. I think the only tour I have taken than did not bother with the mosque was the Whitechapel Gallery First Thursday bus.

I enjoyed the way that many of the points we stopped at were quite unspectacular such as this wall. It was the small metal plaque up on the wall that was the point of interest here and which prompted a history of London's fire services following the Great Fire of 1666. Rather than this being a tour that showed us 'wow' sites, it typically used details such as these to tell stories. The balance of interest was then upon interpretation over spectacle.

We stopped at something I have passed before but never previously paid attention to: patriotic street art. I had sort of assumed that this type of art would be iconoclastic but was proved wrong here, unless of course there is a deeper irony that I am missing.

We came to the yard behind Truman's Brewery and were shown quite a number of larger pieces of street art. There was the inevitable Bansky, some other large sculptures and a piece by Space Invader. An interesting thing that our guide said about this last artist's work is that the placement of these mosaics around the city of Paris when viewed on a map creates a picture of a space invader in its own right.

This map details the pieces Space Invader left in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. I don't quite see a space invader here but I do like how the city map has been thoroughly reconfigured to suit its new purpose yet enough vestiges of conventional maps remain to remind you of official ones. In late 90s Paris I did somewhat similar but less refined work using stickers, texts, photos and maps, so this work evokes both nostalgia and respect seeing these concepts fully developed and given a consistent graphic style. What I also like is that this map proposes a tour of the various works, some of which will and some of which won't still remain in place. While guided tours of street art can be interesting and rewarding, when the artist his or herself creates tours of their own work, effectively curating their own solo show in the city/gallery space, a rather different sort of tour is offered.

Our guide stopped to tell us about The Krays and how the area we were walking through was formerly their territory, they being the senior London gangsters of the 60s. He said that the streets were in some ways safer back then, suggesting that they did a good job at keeping competing criminals off the street. It was striking that once again it was crime that made the neighbourhood famous, from Jack the Ripper to The Krays, the East End has been popularised as a, maybe even the, place of violent crime in the UK. Historically there may be something to this but how many parts of Central London haven't had a few grizzly events take place in them? Still, the idea has somehow stuck that these are dark and dangerous streets and visitors will often still come with this expectation when in fact the worst thing likely to happen is that they are harassed by over zealous waiters offering 25% discounts on meals, and even they seem to have calmed down somewhat. The Krays have only more recently been given the film treatment and maybe we'll see their status rise with time and distance from their actions. I will in fact be taking a Kray Twins tour to see what sort of story is spun, a tour that boasts a celebrity guide no less, too. Hooks a plenty. Meat hooks. 

We rounded off the tour at the bottom of Brick Lane. We were directed the various ways we were all heading, some back to Liverpool Street Station others back up Brick Lane in search of curry. Chillies was recommended and it looked like there would be a small post tour gathering of our guide and the young men from Cologne around a table for lunch. Finally we got onto the subject of Trip Advisor. We were all encouraged to rate the tour 5 stars if we enjoyed it. I'm fortunate writing here that I don't deal in stars. I find them superficial when it comes to arts reviews in the papers and don't want to reproduce a system I distrust. What I can say however is that this tour was engaging and varied, that Luke our guide was both personable and enjoyed his job and despite the lousy weather this was a fun way of introducing the area to visitors who knew nothing of it.

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