These past couple of weeks we’ve been enjoying Mile End, or rather, I have been. To accommodate two house sits which overlapped by eight days, Tim stayed back in Orpington to look after our furry friend Gizmo, while I went ahead to care for Tui and Pipi, eight- and four-year-old rescue cats who’ve proved to be sweet and cheeky and fun company.
The East End of London has been a rare treat for us, as most of our house sits tend to alternate North/South, with occasional forays southwest into Surrey. And despite East London’s sometimes-unfair reputation for being a bit dodgy, we’ve had a brilliant time. It’s an area is rife with history and rich with culture, but which is also undergoing tremendous change. Gentrification and hipster cafes exist cheek-by-jowl with chicken shops, bustling markets, and a bit of the edge of the area’s repute. We have the sprawling Victoria Park on our doorstep, and Regent’s Canal runs very nearby. All of this is welcome especially as the sun makes its springtime debut.
During this time I have been on a job hunt anew. The proximity of Mile End to the central city – indeed, a mile from the old City of London’s Aldgate – makes it easy and inexpensive to hop on a bus, in theory to interviews, but in fact to interesting cultural destinations. Inside of 40 minutes we can find ourselves at the eastern end of Oxford Street and top of Covent Garden at Tottenham Court Road, passing through Bethnal Green and Shoreditch en route. Alternately, a bus through Hackney brings me to Angel Station, making lunch with Tim on a work day an easy option. Access to so much of London’s great art, architecture and culture has been vital during a time when this extrovert could have felt very lonely.
I rather enjoyed, for instance, visiting the ‘home’ of Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, or at least the building that served as his home on the namesake TV show.
Florin Court is a magnificent Art Deco building in Finsbury, and enjoys a resplendent and surprisingly private square in what should be the busy and bustle of the city. Having walked from Angel, I first passed the famed Barbican Centre, a Brutalist masterpiece (and although I struggle to understand Brutalism and find it not to my aesthetic tastes, the Barbican is exceptionally well designed including brilliant performing arts spaces). From there I took an accidental but welcome detour through the historic Smithfield Market, and doubled back on myself to Charterhouse Square.
Okay, there was a pile of construction all across the square and it wasn’t the most sightly presentation. Florin Court itself, completed in 1936, was under renovation in the late 1980s when the Poirot series was searching for locations. Thus the series enjoyed the use of an iconic but empty building in the middle of London, and Whitehaven Mansions, as Poirot’s home is known, was subsequently listed with a heritage designation. This is the first time I can think of having actually sought out a filming location, but I have always loved the novels and was delighted to be introduced to the series during our Chiddingfold house sit.
Mile End, we learned quite by accident while walking up Roman Road toward the Tube station one day, was the site of the first V-1 flying bomb in World War Two. A tiny blue plaque commemorates this alongside a railway overpass, but the legacy of the doodlebug is much wider. Post-war estate developments line the main road on one side, unsightly in their modernist design, especially in comparison to the old Victorian terraces that remain in pockets. It’s a stark visual that denotes how wide the bomb damage must have been. And while that must have been a devastating event, the lovely and well-manicured park flanking the western roadside provides a kinder legacy, beautifully-landscaped greenery and space softening the hustle and heavy traffic of the thoroughfare.
It was timely, then to visit the Imperial War Museum, taking in the ‘People Power: Fighting for Peace‘ exhibit. This well-presented history illustrated the power of pacifism and peace-making in Britain, starting with the conscientious objectors of the first and second World Wars, through the mid-century rise of the nuclear disarmament movement, and to relevant movements and occupations today. I didn’t realise that that hippie symbol I grew up calling the ‘peace sign’ was in fact a symbol for the nuclear disarmament movement, designed by the artist Gerald Holtom for a march from London’s Trafalgar Square to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. The clean, sleek, universally-adaptable logo took a life of its own and continues today.
Notable in the exhibit is the prominent role of women in much of the organising and awareness-raising of these movements, in early days moving perhaps in tandem with suffragette movement. As a Canadian reared on peacekeeping and humanitarian ideals, and at at a time when peaceful and diplomatic solutions are as relevant and needed as ever, I find all this most intriguing. I find I was also rather taken by the effective and provocative protest art, especially that of David Gentleman.
Perhaps the highlight of our cultural meanderings was a Friday evening performance of Tom Stoppard’s classic play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Staged at the Old Vic Theatre where it made its professional debut 50 years ago, the play is as fresh and clever as it ever has been. It’s verbose and quick and brilliant, and I never tire of it.
Harry Potter fans will note that Daniel Radcliffe – the boy wizard himself – stars as Rosencrantz (or possibly Guildenstern. But probably Rosencrantz). As expected, the performance was a madcap whirlwind through wordplay and existentialist angst. And, despite how many times I have read the play or watched the movie, I still make connections and realisations that I hadn’t grasped before. The play is a masterwork, and seeing it on stage is definitely a check off the bucket list.
We’re in our last few shared days in Mile End, with Tim going ahead to look after Nala in Southgate on Wednesday. I’ll stay on with Tui and Pipi until Saturday morning, when we both become North Londoners again. In the meantime, the sun is out, most things are likely closed for the holiday weekend, and we delight in the opportunity to get out and explore more of the surrounds.
To those celebrating on this day, Happy Easter and Христос Воскрес!