Steven Berkoff grew up in the East End and lives there now. He was, for a time, “rehoused in north London,” he says, but even then the East End remained his spiritual home. So much so in fact that during the 1960s the actor/writer would travel back to Stepney and Whitechapel with his camera to take photos of a world that was already beginning to disappear.
Years later, Berkoff took a second look at these evocative pictures which portrayed a now-extinct Jewish street life. He says: “I showed them to someone who said: ‘My God, this is a fascinating record’.” The photos go on show next week in the East End.
Berkoff has particular favourites among the images which will be on display. “They were fascinating characters and people with whom I strongly identified. I loved being in Petticoat Lane market, among the slaughterhouses and in the narrow alleys of Hessel Street. It always filled me with a tremendous sense of belonging. The people were happy to pose because I developed a relationship with them.”
There is perhaps one photo he loves above all the others. “It is of a Jewish poultry dealer holding up a picture of her younger self taken on her wedding day. She said: ‘Don’t take a picture of me because I look too old and ugly’. She had blood on her hands from the chickens. She pulled out of her purse this old crumpled photo of her and her husband. I said I would not take a picture of her but of her photo. Actually, I took one of both.”
Another favourite portrays a man and a woman standing outside their shop in Hessel Street. “In the shop window there are Passover eggs, Easter eggs and some writing in Arabic. You can see the confusion of three cultures crashing in on one another.”
He bemoans not only the passing of the Jewish community but also of the old East End spirit. “It’s ghastly now, like a nuclear bomb has gone off. The East End was such a vibrant, lively, stimulating place — now, apart from yuppified areas like Shoreditch and Hoxton, it’s like a dead zone.