Thirteen million tourists visited London last year. The British Tourist Authority says that they were attracted by the city's stylish and lively image. Last month Roy Kerridge packed his plastic bag and set out to inspect three hotels in the East End. He found few tourists but plenty of lifeby Roy Kerridge / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
For many years cheap hotels in London existed only near main railway stations and along the Cromwell Road. Now every neighbourhood seems to have its local hotel, and the more run down the district, the more hotels or guest houses there are likely to be. Council housing is on the decline, but housing benefit is on the up-and-up. Whether you arrive in town as a penniless vagrant, immigrant or refugee, the social services can find a hotel for you. Some landlords take nobody in at the front step, but have all their guests supplied by the welfare. Others mix long term housing benefit guests with salesmen, occasional tourists and other private two or three nighters. Last month I decided to see for myself what these places are like and visited three unfashionable hotels in east London.
i had long admired the Shuttleworth Hotel, near Mare Street in Hackney, a smart, attractive building with cheerful sympathetic staff. A friend of mine had lived there for over a year, and heartily recommended it. Moreover, as a boy, I was once introduced to a Lady Shuttleworth, who gave me a book she had written about a rabbit. None of this cut any ice with the West Indian lady at the door who said that guests were admitted only by orders of the welfare.
So I crossed London Fields park and made for Ridley Road market, where Hackney and Stoke Newington collide, and where the evening air is rich with the smell of Turkish kebabs, Jamaican patties, Nigerian foo foo and the awful green parsley sauce that Cockneys pour over jellied eels. How romantic to stay in Ridley Road itself and walk straight out into the closely packed stalls of a flourishing street market.
Thanks to an unobtrusive little lodging house, Ridley Villas Ltd, Ridley living is a possibility, but only if you are a man. Women guests are not admitted, and nearly everyone at the Villas has been sent there by the social services. Half hidden by stalls, it is a solid-looking white building with small square windows. At street level, the outer door is left open, giving shoppers a view of a long bleak corridor. One or two vagrant-looking men can usually be seen, shuffling in and out.
Nobody was about when I arrived. My knocks unanswered, I was about to go, when I noticed another door on my right. Inside, I found a tall, pleasant-faced young West Indian man, lounging in front of a closed-circuit television. “I’d like to stay here privately, for two nights,” I told him, to his surprise.
“It’s ten pounds a night, with breakfast,” he said, looking me up and down. “I’m security. Wait here, I’ll ask the manager to find out where to put you.”
As I waited, other guests came and went. “It’s all right here, if you keep yourself to yourself,” a quietly spoken guest told me. A silver-haired man with a long face and a high-pitched Irish accent finally arrived.
“What’s the breakfast here like?” I asked.
“I can’t possibly indulge a thing like that,” he said. “The very idea! As if I could indulge that kind of information!”
“Do you mean ‘divulge?'” I asked, but just then, Mr Security came back, and the Irishman turned on him excitedly, pointing at me and whispering about indulgencies. Security took no notice but took my money and handed me a key.
I remembered being taken to the West End by my grandfather in 1950 when I was small. “See that hotel?” he had pointed. “It’s the Savoy, the grandest hotel in the West End. Guess how much it costs to stay there? Ten pounds a night!”
At the time, I had reeled at the thought of anyone wasting so much money on a hotel. And here I was, staying in Ridley Road at one-time Savoy prices. Security gave me a secret number, which I promised I would not reveal to a soul, and he showed me how to punch it out on a panel, which then opened the inner door. Another security man, in a blue shirt, greeted us. In fact, there were so many security men that I felt quite secure. A legend on one door read “Chief Superintendent.”
“That’s where you get breakfast,” Mr Security told me. He then led me straight up some very steep stairs. A large sign painted on the wall read “zone eight.” More zigzags of narrow white painted corridors and incidental staircases led me to zone seven. Doors lined every passage, only a foot apart. Radios and televisions blared, but there was little human traffic in the passages. Here and there were doors marked “shower,” “toilet” and “bath.” There were also communal kitchens, but no lounge where the guests could mingle. Everything was cubicle-size, but very clean and, well, very secure.
My own room was not too bad. Long but thin, it contained a dresser, washbasin, bed and chair. A fox-hunting print hung on one wall, a picture of a country church (“Peaceful Valley”) on the other. I liked the view from the window, between the ornamental turrets. There was Ridley Road market, a row of steel-shuttered doors that by day would open out into fish shops, butchers and reggae stores. On my left, far away beyond a misty sea of rooftops, Canary Wharf tower flashed on and off like a lighthouse.
My bed was comfortable, and although there were only two sheets for covering, the central heating was turned up high. Just before dawn, the market people arrived and began noisily to rig up their barrows for the day. Eventually I arose, to find Canary Wharf tower to be invisible by daylight.
At the door of the breakfast room, I received a shock. An open hatch revealed a small steamy kitchen, where a shirt-sleeved man bent over a sizzling pan. There were no tables and chairs, and no dining room either. Three unshaven men waited impatiently, each holding a mug and a plate. Each breakfast had to be carried upstairs to the room and zone where the breakfaster lived to be eaten alone.
“All right?” a tall shock-haired Irishman bellowed jovially, patting me on the back. Well, he was all right, as he had his own plate and cup. You had to supply your own. As I had none, I slipped out to a caf?, and then explored Ridley Road market. Deep in a basement shop, a stout Nigerian woman sold (and wore) clothes from her native land, to the accompaniment of a loud taperecorded reading of the New Testament. Now and again, she rang a handbell; whether this was to draw attention to her wares or to the word of God, I could not be sure. Elsewhere, Caribbean redfish stared bleakly from slabs constantly sluiced with water that ran over the pavements. The atmosphere was far more African and West Indian than that of the better known Brixton market.
An old acquaintance, John Gilbert from Dominica, still ran his tiny hardware stall, a box-like shanty that he had probably built himself with the help of the nails, screws and screwdrivers that he sold. John plays accordion and calypso guitar, and can improvise a song at a moment’s notice. This morning, however, he had left his guitar at home.
Butcher’s shops in Ridley Road, halal or otherwise, seemed to specialise in feet. Not only pig feet and goat feet, but large cloven-hoofed cow feet. Notices were in eccentric English: “Chicken gizzards. Shakey trip. Goat trip.” (Tripe?) Round the corner, just outside the market, I found a jellied eel restaurant, a shop called “Party Party” which could outfit a children’s party of any size, and a voodoo, plaster saint and folk craft emporium, “Dark and Light,” run by a languid Haitian named Bernie.
That night I sauntered down Stoke Newington High Street towards Kingsland and Ridley Road. It was a warm evening, and the pavements, open shops and doorways of basement clubs seemed alive with relaxed good-humoured Turks, Kurds and Nigerians. This was a man’s world, of clubs, barber shops and strong coffee, a heady Ottoman atmosphere. Ridley Road market, by comparison, seemed derelict when I returned, though delicious smells wafted from the We-Never-Close-Twenty-Four-Hour-Bagel-Bakery, and there was loud music from the West Indian pub.
Next morning, I handed in my keys to the breakfast cook and announced “I’m leaving!” to the queue of cup and plate holders. They looked surprised, and some seemed pleased for me. As no one knew anyone in the Villas, the breakfasters probably imagined I had lived there for 20 years. “Good luck!” a young man murmured, with a smile.
Ridley Villas should not be judged as a hotel, but as a hostel catering for social services who now put homeless men “out to tender” to the lowest bidder. As such, it is efficiently run, a business with few pretensions. Judged as a hotel, on the five-star plan, I can only award it two stars. Points have been lost for the lack of a lounge, dining room and female guests.
my next stop was the Sovereign House Hotel, in Walthamstow, E17. This is a big Victorian house set back from the road, with a paved front garden and an overgrown backyard. Sovereign House welcomes visitors, and a big board of room prices faces the Hoe Street entrance. Much knocking and ringing eventually produced a tall earnest young West African named Gerard. He too seemed surprised when I asked for a room, but took me into a back office and charged me ?32 for two nights.
“Tonight you can stay in room one, a double room, but tomorrow you must move to a smaller room upstairs,” he said. “This is the Pool Room.” He opened a door on to a large bare room with one long pool table in the middle, a television on a high ledge and a few small tables and chairs. So Sovereign House had a lounge. The hotel had a ramshackle air, but no worse than many seaside guest houses. Room one was spacious, a ground floor room with tall windows facing the shops of Hoe Street, a parade of take-aways, newsagents and video shops, open till late and run mostly by Indians. I unpacked and crossed the road to the Chinese restaurant.
When I returned, I could hear ball-bouncing noises in the Pool Room. Gerard emerged in shirt and shorts, holding a football. He now seemed second in command to a queenly woman in blue African robes and head-tie, Mona from the Gambia. She beamed a greeting and then busied herself with a night light. At first I thought she and Gerard were a couple. She laughed loud and long at this mistake as Gerard tiptoed to his bachelor quarters in room three. “Where I come from, parents arrange your marriage,” she added, before wishing me goodnight.
I slept well. In the morning I was shown into the Pool Room by Gerard, for breakfast. As I entered, a man with a knee-hole in his jeans and a fixed angry expression on his face laid down his plate and walked out. The only other breakfaster was a stout but worried young man in a tee shirt, ponytail and beard. He looked like a Hell’s Angel who had lost his nerve, and seemed to be a permanent and helpful guest at Sovereign House, always doing odd jobs for Mona.
Mona herself, now in jeans and western garb, was frying bacon in the kitchen and shouting chatty remarks through the open door. The tee shirt and ponytail man watched a loud, horrendous television programme called Power Rangers. After a while, Mona appeared bearing yet another night light, which she placed on the middle of the pool table. She poured oil on the flame, then stood regarding it with great satisfaction as a plume of incense smoke arose.
“That smells good,” she remarked, then asked if I wanted breakfast. She seemed taken aback when I said I did, but she quickly made it and brought it in. My slab of toast was rather burnt.
Now I had to move all my things to the room upstairs. Mona hurried ahead of me to give the room its finishing touches, and soon I was settled in. “Do you own this place?” I asked Mona, giving her another reason to laugh. “No. I only work for The Management. The Management handle the money side of it, and come in once in a while.”
My room was clean and pleasant, but the bed was rather odd. Perhaps it had once been part of a tier of bunks, for its wooden sides were raised above mattress level. So you couldn’t sit on the edge of it and dangle your legs, but had to curl up in the middle like a cat or a dog in a sleeping basket.
I have friends all over Walthamstow (well, Susan, Dipak and Ricky the drummer) but I had not properly explored the place before. It may have been the fine weather, but Walthamstow seemed to me like an earthly paradise. At one end was Lloyd Park, with its mansion, lake and waterfowl, and at the other was the village of Old Walthamstow, with church, almshouses, tiny National School now used by spiritualists and the Vestry House Museum. Here also was the Ancient House, 500 years old, a big prosperous-looking half timbered place, privately owned and looking as if it belonged in a country village.
Central Walthamstow boasts a modern bus station and shopping centre, as well as a two mile street market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) that could put Ridley Road in its hip pocket and lose it.
On my last morning at Sovereign House, Mona padded about in bare feet, fussing over night lights, a big red hat on her head. Tee shirt hurried out to fetch “Tea, sugar, and the Sun,” then stayed in and worried about the postman. He kept rushing to the front door and back, muttering about the postman’s route and vagaries. I was reminded of Adrian Mole’s “Waiting for a Giro that Never Comes.”
Gerard came in and asked if he could borrow the bottle of incense oil, used for the night lights. “Maybe he wants to find a girlfriend,” Mona reflected. “That oil’s an aphrodisiac, you know.”
I liked Sovereign House very much and hope to spend a fortnight there one summer, and really see Walthamstow. (My bus back to Hackney passed an attractive corner of Epping Forest, a dry savannah-like oak scrubland. On the lake, a heron waded with bill poised to strike.) However, strict but fair, I am only awarding three stars to Sovereign House, because of the cigarette ash everywhere and the rickety chests of drawers in the rooms. Minor quibbles, I know. Still, three stars is good.
H H H
back at ridley road, I popped around the corner to a narrow street where five Nigerians spend much of the day sitting on the bonnets of their respective mini-cabs, talking and laughing. All five made a bee-line for me, and the winner drove me via various by-roads to Whitechapel, then to Brick Lane and the Sheraz Hotel with its reassuring neon sign.
The Sheraz is a smart restaurant downstairs, and a hotel upstairs. Mr Selim, manager of both, greeted me effusively, but like my previous hosts seemed puzzled at my desire to stay at the hotel. Although owned by another shadowy management, the Sheraz has no welfare link. Most of the guests are well-to-do visitors from the Indian subcontinent.
“Twenty-five pounds a night,” Mr Selim announced, and I paid the money. With the suave air of a jovial businessman, Mr Selim glided through the City banker diners and took me upstairs to my room. It was a standard, smart hotel room, complete with television. I would recommend it to any mid-west American couple without a qualm-handy for Petticoat Lane and the Tower. The only snag was breakfast.
“We don’t actually do a breakfast as such,” Mr Selim told me. “You have coffee and tea here in the room, and I’ll bring some digestive biscuits.”
My window looked out on a newly paved alleyway leading to a modern council estate where Bengali children played. The bathroom window had a more exciting view out over the busy Bengali shops of Brick Lane. Now quite sophisticated in places, Brick Lane seems a cosmopolitan place, where young City types in suits and literary bohemians move among a throng of Bengali Muslims without meeting them. The City types work nearby and use the local wine bars and curry houses, while the bohemians potter about renovating the 18th century merchants’ houses in which they live. As in Ridley Road, there is an all-night Jewish eating place which serves delicious hot salt beef sandwiches.
I roamed around the East End, meeting a Jack the Ripper tour led by murder enthusiast Alan Abiline, and discovering for the first time that Spitalfields market had tried, and failed, to turn itself into a Covent Garden. Within its vast melancholy depths, I discovered faded metal figures of comic trains and railwaymen made by cartoonist Roland Emmett. Were these the same figures I had seen at the Festival of Britain in 1951?
Back at the Sheraz, I enjoyed a tall mango ice-cream, eaten under the benevolent gaze of a row of Bengali businessmen. The City types had all gone.
In the morning, a milkman had placed a pint bottle outside every hotel room door. A young man in a dressing-gown and Sikh-style hairnet padded past me to the bathroom. Through his half-open bedroom door, I could see a large family moving around. (Most Sheraz guests came as families.) Later, I saw the family emerge, well dressed and confident, making their way to a shiny car outside.
When I stepped out of the side door, I almost bumped into an elderly scrawny Cockney lady with bleached hair and jeans. She stared from me to the Sheraz sign and back again. Some of the aged Cockneys seemed to resent coloured people, but I saw no skinheads or white hooligans. Most young English people were intellectuals, such as the flower-shirted youth I saw riding a uni-cycle through the ranks of stout, middle-aged Bengalis on their way to the mosque. It was a Friday. Through the open door of the former Huguenot church I could see rows of men in white caps kneeling to Allah.
Then who should I see but Mr Selim himself, the courteous manager, on his way to prayer. “You must come to my house, meet my family,” he said.
Later, I met a different sort of Muslim, a fiery young man, born in London, sharply dressed and vociferously anti-Christian. He stuck a poster on the wall: “O Muslims, guard your faith! You are under attack! Christian missionaries are everywhere!” Then he turned to a gentle Rastafarian Trotskyite who was trying to sell his “Fight Racism” paper.
“Yes, you will fight racists today, but how do I know that tomorrow you won’t fight Muslims?” He stalked off without waiting for a reply.
With difficulty, I found my way to Mr Selim’s “house,” a flat in a dreary maze of tower blocks. Here, as everywhere in Whitechapel, the streets, alleys and courtyards were full of brown, bright-eyed children playing energetically. Each group of children waved me on, until at last I was sitting in Mr Selim’s elegant front room. His wife spoke little English, but smiled at me timidly. All the children busied themselves with homework, helping one another anxiously. Mr Selim was soon drawn in because a teacher, probably as a casual afterthought, had set Mr Selim’s 12-year-old daughter the task of finding out how many seconds had passed since she was born. “We can’t remember the hour of birth,” he grimaced. “Is it on her birth certificate?” A clever brother solved the problem by adding “estimated” to the girl’s answer.
Urbane and self-absorbed, Mr Selim strolled out of his flat with me, leaving his house-bound wife and serious children still discussing homework. At Whitechapel tube station our ways parted. I went back to Brick Lane; he made his way to his West End club.
Prince Charles’s visit, some years ago, helped to make Brick Lane the smart-in-patches place it is today. Half of Cheshire Street, off Brick Lane, has been taken over by opulent Prince’s Trust offices. One of the aims of the Trust is to turn young criminals into businessmen, as if there are not enough crooked businessmen already. Nearby I found a field with horses and Shetland ponies. This would be more to the taste of Princess Anne.
By now it was dark, with pools of lamplight here and there. In one of these, a tall muscular young man leaned against a wall looking alert. “Want business?” a blonde girl in silver boots and hot pants asked from the shadows. I shook my head, suddenly aware of the young man’s bully-boy profession.
Still later, I saw the same girl, looking quite jaunty, elbow aside the taxi drivers at the Spitalfield coffee stall, where the silver floodlit ghost of Christchurch spire stands dark against the sky. It was my last night at the Sheraz Hotel, and time to decide how many stars to award. Sorry, Mr Selim, I can award four stars only, for with a restaurant downstairs, the guests surely deserve a Bengali breakfast. Somewhere in the East End there must be a five star hotel on my scale-if there is, it’s more than I have ever found in the West End. n
H H H H