Fings ain't what they used to be around Olympic Village

By Ivor Davis, July 20, 2012
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'Known for its cutting-edge bars, off-beat galleries and ethnic restaurants, East London is by far the city's trendiest area…" so trumpeted the New York Times in April.

Was this chic neighbourhood - now the site of the Olympic village - the one in which I spent the first 21 years of my life?

I was born in Whitechapel on July 27 1938. During the Blitz, along with many of our neighbours, we slept in our back-garden bomb shelter or crowded into a three-room house opposite a noisy laundry on Leaside Road, 100 yards from the then very smelly River Lea.

After the war, we were weaned on ration books, powdered eggs and cod-liver oil, as the bomb-devastated city pulled itself together. Every day, my baker father walked four miles from Hackney to Brick Lane in the early hours to make bread at Bernstein's Bakery. Does it sound too Dickensian to say we always had a crust on our table?

'Cuisine' was not a word in our East End lexicon

Life was a struggle. Grey was the main colour of the landscape and choking fog coated everything. I went to Grocers school and, for occasional entertainment, to the Hackney Empire or the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre on Commercial Road.

Radio was our showbiz diet, voiced by cheeky comic Tommy Handley, who would sign off: "TTFN… Ta Ta For Now." We played football on the primitive Hackney Marshes (freezing sheds for dressing rooms, carry and erect your own goalposts) or in the AJY league at the more pleasant Elms in Walthamstow. I even went on to play for England in the European Maccabiah Games. But in November 1960, after two years serving the Royal Army Medical Corps in Millbank - cycling distance from home - it was my time to leave.

Not long after my 21st birthday, I fled to California, seeking sun, a new future and a new life.

It's curious to see how, in my absence, adventurous souls have moved to what were once working-class Jewish neighbourhoods. First to Islington (along with Tony Blair) and then to places like Shoreditch and Dalston. Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightley and all manner of artists proudly call the East End home - a community brimming with culture, food and maybe even paparazzi.

Once, you would have been banished to Stamford Hill if you dared describe down-at-heel Stoke Newington or Bethnal Green as fashionable. For us Jewish Eastenders in the 1950s, the pinnacle of shopping wasn't trendy clothing from designers like Alexander McQueen, but a half-yearly trip to Gardiners department store, labelled the "Harrods of the East" and site of the Cable Street rally of 1936, to splurge on a new pair of trousers. Today, a towering financial building stands in its place.

"Cuisine" was not a word in our lexicon. A food treat meant a trip to Johnny Isaacs' fish-and-chip shop opposite the Salvation Army in Whitechapel, or a journey to Bloom's deli in Aldgate for their world-famous salt-beef sandwiches and their inevitably rude waiters. Alas, the once iconic eatery is kosher gastronomic history.

A sophisticated, adventurous evening out was a drive from Hackney Boys' Club to Heathrow Airport in the club leader's car. We cavalierly ordered coffee as we watched the take-offs and landings.

Sometimes, we hopped on to the 38 bus to Piccadilly, to dine in style at one of the many Italian holes in the wall - our idea of an ethnic restaurant. An indifferent spaghetti bolognaise (now that was what you called cuisine) and a glass of wine set you back three shillings and sixpence.

Times, of course, have changed dramatically. Stratford, the seedy and neglected suburb where I began my career on the now defunct local paper, has been made into Olympics Ground Zero. Amazing what you can do with a spare few billion.

In my youth, our nearest playing field was the odorous environs of the Beckton gasworks. Certainly, we watched good football at Leyton Orient and West Ham United. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined Stratford with an Olympic Stadium and restaurants serving healthy food from around the world.

There was one cultural gem. Occasionally, we walked round the corner to the Theatre Royal Stratford, to watch Joan Littlewood plays like Oh! What a Lovely War. I wonder if Joan ever imagined that she would be the forerunner of an East End inhabited by luvvies. The East End used to export its best talent up West when they made it big. Now the traffic is going in the opposite direction.

It's a pity the late East End lyricist Lionel Bart is not around to see what time has wrought. For indeed, "Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be."

Ivor Davis is a writer based in Southern California

Last updated: 2:45pm, July 20 2012