Seven Seas: Brick Lane redux

When the LRB published this review of Brick Lane in 2003, Sukhdev Sandhu had no way of knowing the amount of brimstone and paan-spit the book, and subsequently the making of the film, would generate.

Like one of Bangladesh’s multitudinous rivers, Sukhdev’s review is long, broad and wonderfully meandering. As a review of Brick Lane, it may be one of the most generous Monica Ali has received, but we will come to that later. This article is so much more than a book review. It is also as a beautifully observed history of Brick Lane, charting Whitechapel’s role as a half-way house to successive waves of immigrants from the Huguenots, the Jews and then to the Bengalis from the early 20th century and, most latterly, the Somalians.

Monica Ali’s book never mentions the confrontation against the National Front which the Bangladeshis of Whitechapel found themselves plunged into in the 70s and 80s.

In 1970 there was also a huge rise in the number of attacks on Bangladeshis. Seventy years earlier, Arnold White, in whose book Reaney’s anti-semitic comments appeared, had teamed up with Major Evans Gordon, the MP for Stepney and founder of the British Brothers’ League, in a campaign to restrict Jewish immigration. Successfully so: in 1905 the Government passed the first Aliens Act. Forty years after Mosley’s efforts to stir up racial tension in the area, skinhead gangs began to stalk Brick Lane, smashing windows, spitting at children, carving up the faces and backs of bystanders. At the north end, near the traditionally less tolerant area of Bethnal Green, National Front members sold their papers on market days and congregated at a pub in Cheshire Street. Soon Bengali schoolchildren were being allowed out of school early, their mothers walking to work in numbers for fear of being ambushed or pelted, and parents imposing curfews on their kids. Tower Hamlets fitted council tenants with fire-proof letterboxes.

Sandhu packs his article with passages about the grim reality of families cramped into tenements whilst fighting a full scale race war on the streets but this existence never gets picked up by Monica Ali, in spite of being an integral part of the East End Bengali narrative. Sandhu points out this gaping hole at the heart of Brick Lane:

How strange then that this novel, part of it set in 1985, has so little to say about the campaign of violence and intimidation which marked the lives of almost every Bangladeshi, young and old, male or female, who lived in and around Brick Lane before the current era of gentrification. To write about this area today or make sense of its cuspy, transitional status, one has to write about what went on before.

What went on before is something that, the novel Brick Lane does not bother itself with overmuch. But Sandhu has an explanation for this omission. It was Ali’s publishing company who repackaged a story about non-Sylhety Bangladeshis, who happended to settle in Brick Lane, into a topical, punchy book that subsequently got “treated as a direct portal into the minds of Bangladeshi East Londoners” by the Sunday papers.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Brick Lane was originally called ‘Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers’, a title that alludes more generally to the distance between Sylhet and England; the decision to give it a snappier, more happening, less accurate title is the publisher’s.

The protesters against the Monica Ali film are regressive and reactionary, I thought so myself. But turns out they are right in one sense. The book is misrepresentation by error, but most probably an intentional error of the canny book marketing sort.

For me Sandhu has contextualised the grievances of the men who have protested against the Monica Ali book/film. It comes as a surprise to realise that these were the same men who, twenty years ago, fought another set of regressive and reactionary attitudes in the streets of Tower Hamlets.

They were the ones, together with their brothers and uncles, who took the full brunt of the assault from the 1970s to the 1990s; whose education suffered as a result of bullying classmates and unsympathetic teachers; who attended the vigils outside the Royal London Hospital waiting in vain for Quddus Ali to regain consciousness. Even the nail-bomb planted in Brick Lane by David Copeland in April 1999 didn’t check their will to reclaim the streets of Whitechapel.

Hat Tip: Zubaer

73 Responses to “Seven Seas: Brick Lane redux”

  1. terry fitzpatrick Says:

    I don’t know who has written this article but is another piece of drivel by people who, because they are Asian, seem to think that they are experts on Brick Lane. I was one of the people who organized the defence of the area in the 70’s as well being on the Benglai Housing Action Group which with a thousand members was the largest grass roots movement ever amongst Bangl;adeshis in East London. Ali’s book contains characters I recognise. It is worth remembering the reaction to the King of the Ghetto 20 years ago, the same small group of reactionaries denied that non Syhletis had been involved in leading the housing and anti fascist movements. And non of the book protesters were involved in those movements. I was. Terry Fitzpatrick

  2. Sharif Says:

    Terry

    The article is probably inaccurate - I don’t know, I wasn’t there.

    I am here now though and I think Monica Ali has written Catherine Cookson with exotica - shame we can’t short list Cookson for a booker prize, too.

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