diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 03, 2010

Random borough (27): Newham (part 1)

Newham's not your typical London borough. It has an extremely diverse population, most of whom aren't white and 40% of whom were born overseas. It's packed with young people. It's significantly economically deprived. It used to be the bottom left corner of Essex, although it looks irrevocably urban today. And it's hosting the Olympics in two years time. Don't worry, I gave the stadium a wide berth on my Newham day out.

Somewhere both retail and sporty: Green Street, Upton Park
If there's one street in Newham which sums up the borough's diversity, it's the street down the middle. That's Green Street, and on Saturday afternoons a few steps is all it takes to cross continents. [Walk Green Street - audio tour]

Green StreetThere's no hint of what's to come at the northern end of Green Street, this could be any residential Newham street lined by Victorian terraces. And then the shops start. These shops cater very specifically to the Asian community, and they ramp up in importance the further south you walk. Tailors and sweet shops and restaurants to begin with, then more luxurious boutiques catering especially for loaded ladies. The window displays are dazzling - the store contents even more so [photo]. An entire wall of golden necklaces, perhaps, or a glittering parade of sparkly handbags. As for the high-heeled shoes, these are some of the gaudiest totteriest I've ever seen. Many of the shops stretch back quite some distance, giving space for women, couples, even entire families to stand around and select some object of innate gorgeousness for that next special occasion. I suspect a lot of bridal jewellery is peddled here, although the ladies wandering home with bulging carrier bags are more likely to have bought a special sari for that big night out. Not a single UK chainstore intrudes for a good half-mile, and the street clearly caters well for the everyday and not-so-everyday needs of its local population. Outside Southall, I've seen nothing else quite like it in London.

Queen's MarketQueen's Market: Pass south of Upton Park tube station and Green Street has shopping of a very different kind. Queen's Market is a traditional East London market with a hundred years of history, although it hasn't always been housed in a concrete bunker beneath a first floor car park. It opens four days a week, including Saturdays, selling a wide variety of 'stuff' to an appreciative clientèle. Many of its 80 stalls sell fruit and veg, some in those ubiquitous plastic bowls, others more lovingly arranged. Spelling isn't always the stallholders' speciality ("corrianda", anyone?), but whether it's British, Caribbean or specialist Asian you want you'll find it here. There's not quite such a focus on meat or fish, but the longest queue I saw in the place was for the (non-halal) butchers. Blouses for two quid, hi-vis jackets for five, and well below salon prices for a restyle and blowdry. As markets go it's unpretentious and friendly, without ever feeling like it's stacked full of cheap nasty tat.

Unthinkable, then, that there were long-term plans to knock Queen's Market down and replace it with an 18-storey apartment block with an Asda supermarket underneath. Don't worry, the developers said, we'll make available some first floor market space which the displaced stallholders can move into, but not until three years of building work are complete. Normally these stories have an unhappy ending (for the public at least), but in this case the public protested very loudly indeed and were heard. The project was kicked into touch by the Mayor last year, which then led to the developers falling out with the council and the entire scheme being scuppered. Hurrah! Some other change will surely come along - the existing facilities aren't perfect enough to survive untampered. But in credit crunch times, in a community that's permanently credit crunched anyway, Queen's Market is an essential survivor.

Upton ParkUpton Park: Half past two on a Saturday afternoon, and the southern end of Green Street is a completely different country. Here the demographic is most definitely white, and very distinctly male, as West Ham's latest home match against Fulham approaches. Crowds of blokes pour out of the tube station and throng the pavements, many (but by no means all) dressed in telltale claret and blue [photo]. The Boleyn pub, across the road from the famous Bobby Moore statue [photo], has been rammed since noon and is slowly starting to empty. Other supporters have been downing pints at pubs in the surrounding neighbourhood, from Plaistow to East Ham, and now make their beery way through the backstreets to join the others. A chant of "Irons, Irons" goes up, but only from a few. Far more popular are the burger stalls lined up at the roadside facing the stadium, because it helps to be full of processed meat and ketchup before a good roar on the terraces. The Boleyn Ground's two fairytale castle turrets are calling the faithful to worship, and still they come.

Anyone for a West Ham garden gnome? There are plenty for sale in the stadium megastore, along with eggcups, shower gel and some "only a fan would want one" nodding dogs. For those who'd arrived much earlier, there was an opportunity to get members of the first team to sign their merchandise. The players' car park is alongside, and they're well accustomed to fans calling them over to scrawl their signatures on whatever's thrust their way. I spotted Portuguese defender Manuel da Costa exiting from his Bentley, shortly after tens of excited children yelled his name through the fence, then watched as he politely signed banners, programmes, even a rather grotty looking football [photo]. This exemplary behaviour alas didn't stop him elbowing Fulham's striker in the head later that afternoon, as a lively one-all draw played out.

Should West Ham succeed in taking ownership of the Olympic Stadium after 2012, this matchday hubbub will shift two miles west to the concrete piazzas of Stratford City. It's hard to imagine the Westfield shopping centre permitting a line of burger vans along the walk from the station, and I can't believe there'll be sufficient pubs in the locality either. The new stadium might be cutting edge, but it'll tear the heart out of a traditional Saturday afternoon in Upton Park.

See also (just round the corner, in Barking Road)
The Who Shop museumThe Who Shop:
There's only one Doctor Who shop in the world, and it's in Upton Park. These are fairly new premises, which means more space to display books and CDs and Dalek miniatures and Torchwood 2011 calendars and all the other essential ephemera the true Who geek demands. Even better, they have a museum round the back, accessed through a plywood Tardis in the corner of the store. It's bigger on the inside than on the outside, naturally, but the single room isn't exactly huge given the £3 entrance fee. What makes it worth a visit, if you're so minded, is that the staff member who shows you round is a true enthusiast. She'll know where that Cyberman costume was last used, and why her husband was wearing it. She'll be able to identify the silky black dress as Jean Marsh's sorceress costume from Battlefield (Sept 1989) and the cheap wooden tube as a Drahvin gun from Galaxy 4 (Sept 1965), and know the story behind each. Me, I was most excited to come face to face with the actual blue crystal from Metebelis 3 that finally despatched Jon Pertwee, and to see the genuine mask of Sutekh that scared the willies out of me in Tom Baker's Pyramids of Mars. But then I'm sad like that. If you're sad like that too, then Who's for a visit?
Newham Bookshop: There are too few proper independent bookshops left in the UK, especially on the eastern side of London. So three cheers for the proper independent Newham Bookshop, which survives an thrives in an area where it economically shouldn't. New books are crammed into every available space, often piled horizontally to get more titles in. And they're interesting books too - this isn't a Richard & Judy or Katie Price's memoirs kind of place. History, politics and sociology get a good look in, as well as a whole room of children's and teenagers' books in a separate room nextdoor. I bought the most relevant book I could find, given that I was on a random borough tour, and snapped up a light tome on psychogeography. [list of upcoming events and signings]

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