Whitechapel Sunday morning

This morning ought to have been spent with a friend in Whitechapel. It was another day of upset plans in what has so far been a year of changes, upheavals, and last-minute interventions of the oh-my-gods-isn’t-that-Godzilla-on-the-horizon? kind.

But you know what? It turned out OK.

We had plans to meet at Aldgate East at around ten and hit Brick Lane. I got there a little early and hung around the Brick Lane exit, because whichever of the four my friend emerged from, this is the one you have to pass to get to Brick Lane. It was one of those sunny, warm spring days that London sometimes gives you for no reason. I shuttled between the street and the ticket barrier, about a fifteen-second journey up two flights of one of London Transport’s early, beautifully tiled staircases. At street level there was the sun and the people and a masterclass in inept panhandling from a beggar who positioned himself by the entrance. Halfway down the staircase was a masterclass in very effective panhandling by a beggar who sat crosslegged and serene, smiling benignly at the world and murmuring thanks to everyone who dropped some coins in his plastic cup. On the platform was a constant parade of passengers. Life as theatre, all around me.

About ten-thirty I realised that I didn’t have my friend’s number in my phone. (My dumbest of dumbphones has a conniption fit in January and lost a pile of numbers then. I never thought to check which ones…) I tried texting a mutual friend to get it, but no luck. I hung out till just after eleven, in case I’d got the times wrong. Then I accepted this wasn’t going to be our morning for hanging out and set out to solo the duet we’d sketched.

I walked down Osborn Street and Brick Lane and took time to really see the texture of the brick itself, how beautifully it was used, how powerfully it has weathered. I saw the layers of history laid over the buildings – how a Georgian house on the corner of Fashion Street has a plate in flowing Indian script below the plate in ornate Roman letters and a trendy hairdressers at street level below the restrained and lovely symmetry of the upper windows; how the proportions of a shopfront from three centuries past are preserved under modern plastic and glass; how brick kilns and breweries have given way to restaurants and small stores; and how civic buildings still serve the community, whether continuing as a school, repurposed from French Protestant to Methodist chapel to synagogue to mosque, or new-built as a health centre.

Everywhere the old sits alongside or just underneath the new, sometimes modernised or graffiti’d over, but always with its calm, considered proportions and solid materials demanding remembrance and respect for the craftsmen-builders who created these streets and alleys. Glimpsing the Gherkin and the Cheesgrater in the distance through the bars of an iron gate, I feel they’ve been reduced to their proper status, their bombast and swagger put in its place by the quiet rebuke of buildings like those they replaced, but cannot outclass.

I ogled two-thousand-calorie cakes in bakery windows and bright scarves hanging from storefronts. I didn’t eat beigels, as planned – I’ll save those till I can get together with my friend – but on the ground floor of the old Truman Brewery I found the Sunday UpMarket‘s food stands with goodies from Mexico, Malaysia, China, India, Lithuania – a whole world of greed and gorgeousness. Sushi and canoli vied for attention with spring rolls and bhajis. And oh, the cake! I finally succumbed to fudgy, dense-textured vegan chocolate brownies and gloriously chewy gluten-free vegan peanut butter cookies from The Friendliest Flour bakery, but the choice took some time.

The Renegade Craft Fair upstairs and the Vintage Market just around the corner enticed me to explore. After a happy couple of hours wandering and shopping, I headed home by way of the Whitechapel Gallery, not only a good place to remember the work of Isaac Rosenberg, a fine painter and truly remarkable poet who studied there, but also a  beautiful space to rebalance yourself and find your centre after the rush and bustle of the streets.

This morning taught me a lot – quite apart from checking the contacts in my phone. So many things this year have been unexpected, rushing on me or spinning out of my control. I was looking forward to seeing my friend and sorry not to do it, but Whitechapel gave me a gift today – the gift of remembering that whatever we lose or mess up, everyday life is full of beauty and substance, just waiting for us to notice and enjoy.

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