Down Memory Lane In London’s Olympic Village

“KNOWN for its cutting-edge bars, offbeat galleries and ethnic restaurants, East London is by far the city’s trendiest area.” So trumpeted The New York Times in April.

Gardiners Corner then

I was pleasantly amused when I read the story touting the delights of the East End on the eve of  the summer’s Olympics.

Was this the same very Jewish East End  (Hackney, Whitechapel, Stratford)  where I spent the  first 21 years of my life? Was this the trendy, glossy chic neighborhood and the place I spent two decades trying to escape from?

I was born in Whitechapel’s London Hospital July 27, l938 (July 27 happens to be the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies). During the London blitz, along with many of our neighbors, my parents and siblings spent many a night in our back garden Anderson bomb shelter or crowded into a three-room house not far from the very smelly River Lea.

Gardiners Corner today

After the war we were weaned on ration books, powdered eggs and cod liver oil, as the devastated nation pulled it self together after Werner Von Braun’s rockets had flattened chunks of London town.

My baker father Oscar used to walk five miles from Hackney to Brick Lane at 3 a.m. because there were no buses and we didn’t have a car, to make bread at Bernstein’s Bakery. So at least we didn’t starve. Does it sound too Dickensian to say we always had a crust on our table?

I wasn’t unhappy exactly.  It was just a struggle.  Everything was drab and dingy. Grey was the predominant color of the landscape and blinding fog coated everything. I went to Hackney Downs Grammar School (students included Harold Pinter and Michael Caine).  For occasional treats I was taken to the Palais Yiddish Theater on Commercial Road. 

TV then was the territory of the privileged. Radio was our showbiz diet, with a cheeky comic named Tommy Handley who it turned out was an unknowing  precursor of Twitter. “TTFN” he would tell his listeners: “Ta Ta For Now.”

I played weekly soccer on the primitive Hackney Marshes (freezing shed dressing rooms, no water, carry and erect your own goalposts) or for London’s well known Jewish team Wingate and represented first England and then the USA in the World Maccabiah Games. But in l960 (after two gallant years in the Royal Army Medical Corps stationed at the Queen Alexandra Medical Hospital in Millbank, next door to the Tate Gallery) it was my time.

After my 21st birthday I fled to Los Angeles seeking sun and a new life.

Meanwhile the cost of living in fashionable London was zooming and adventurous souls were moving first to Islington (like Tony Blair) and setting up home in places like Shoreditch, Hoxton or Dalston. Even (gulp) Hackney.

Now the prestigious New York Times  notes that Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightly and all manner of celebrities, writers and artists proudly call home a community now brimming with culture, food and maybe even paparazzi.

For us East Enders circa the fifties, the pinnacle of shopping wasn’t trendy clothing from Alexander McQueen (an East Ender by the way) or Stella McCartney, but a semiannual trip to the Gardiner’s Corner store for a new shirt.  In l936 Gardiners Corner was a notorious battleground as local Jews repelled Oswald Moseley, the pro-Hitler fascist.  The store is gone to make way for giant financial buildings.

Cuisine was a word not in our lexicon  If you wanted a food treat it meant a trip to Johnny Isaacs Fish and Chips opposite the Salvation Army in Whitechapel, or a journey to Bloom’s deli in Aldgate for their world famous kosher corned beef and their inevitably rude waiters.

A sophisticated and adventurous evening out was a drive from Hackney Boys Club to Heathrow Airport in the club leader’s car.  We cavalierly ordered a coffee as we watched the takeoffs and landings.

Or sometimes we hopped on the 38 bus to Piccadilly where you could dine in grander style in one of innumerable Italian holes in the wall—our idea of an ethnic restaurant.  An indifferent spaghetti bolognaise (now that was what you called cuisine!) and a glass of wine set you back all of 65 cents.

Times, of course, are obviously changing—dramatically.

Another of my stomping grounds—Stratford, the once seedy and neglected London suburb where I began my journalism journey in the late fifties as a reporter on the now defunct weekly Stratford Express—has been dramatically transformed as the magnificent centerpiece for the Olympics. Amazing what you can do with a mere $1.6 billion.

The nearest playing field was the odorous environs of the Beckton Gasworks, which reeked morning, noon and night of—well, gas. But never in anyone’s wildest dreams could you ever imagine Stratford with an Olympic Stadium and Village which will have restaurants serving food from around the world.

Olympic Stadium 2012

There was, however, one cultural gem amidst the mundane. We walked around the corner to the Theater Royal Stratford where producer Joan Littlewood ruled with a series of innovative plays. I wonder if Joan ever imagined that she would be the forerunner of an East End inhabited by “luvvies,” as the showbiz crowds were sometimes called.

I recall East End used to export its best talent west–to the posher theaters when they made it big. Now the traffic is going this way.

Pity the late Jewish lyricist-composer Lionel Bart is not around to see what time has wrought.

His first big hit was the musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. And Mr. Bart most certainly would have relished updating that piece of work.