A few years ago, I was living in an attic above a Bangladeshi sweatshop on Brick Lane in London’s East End. To escape its mice-ridden confines (not to mention my landlord, Mr Ali, who was forever coming upstairs to help himself to my booze and watch cricket on my TV), I would escape to the Whitechapel Library around the corner.
I found myself in good company. Nearly everyone in the reference section was trying to escape something. The tramps sought refuge from the English weather; the OAPs from the tedium of retirement; young Bangladeshis studying GCSEs from the cramped confines of their council flats. In the middle of unruly Whitechapel, the library was a sanctuary. And just as the poet Isaac Rosenberg had once feasted on literature, philosophy and economic and political theory in the place the East End Jews called ‘The University of the Poor’, so young immigrants now studied for their Open University degrees, trying to earn a one-way ticket out of the ghetto.
I joined them, making use of the library to educate myself about the East End. I had never set foot in the area before; my childhood was spent in leafy SW13 and most of my adult life in places like Pakistan. But, returning to England unemployed and broke in the winter of 1999, I found myself washed up on Brick Lane. My first few weeks in the attic above the sweatshop had brought on feverish culture shock. But since then, I’d managed to recover and had begun to explore the neighbourhood – on foot and through the library’s stacks.
My favourite desk stood between tall shelves crammed with Bengali, Somali and Urdu classics, which had replaced the Yiddish collection. Here, I read my way through all the history books and memoirs on east London. These included an extensive collection of ‘Cor-Blimey-There’s-Nothing-Like-a-Knees-Up!’ autobiographies, and the ‘Dodgy Geezers that I ’ave Known’ genre, but thankfully, there were more thoughtful accounts on offer. Among them, I disco
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