Brick Lane is one narrow street, one long vein-like narrow street which, like a stick of pink seaside rock, has the history of immigration to Britain running through it. At one end are dozens of popular curry houses bearing witness to the Bangladeshis who settled here – in Banglatown -from the 1970s onwards.
A few bagel shops remain – a modern day testament to the older influx of Ashkenazi Jews to the area in the early 18th Century. These were poor immigrants fit only for the “sale of old clothes or in peddling goods such as fruit, jewellry and knives”, unwelcome because of fears that they would “deluge the kingdom with brokers, usurers and beggars”. They, in turn, took the place of Irish weavers who arrived in the 1730s, competing with the French immigrant population.
For, longer ago, the street was occupied by Huguenots refugees in dwellings more humble than the Hugenot house in nearby Folgate street that remains infused by spirits of ages past from the Rake’s Progress to the Christmas Carol. These refugees were Calvinist Protestant silk weavers who had fled from France after the Edict of Nantes in 1598 revoked their their right to worship as they pleased. Like the 20th Century immigrants, the Huguenots were mistrusted, accused of trading secretly among themselves, of engaging in illicit commercial practices, and contributing to overcrowding by dividing up houses and filling them with lodgers and others. Though their children were by law English, they remained foreigners by “inclination and kind affection”. In 1567 there was “a great watch in the City of London … for fear of an insurrection against the strangers which were in great number in and about the city”.
Each wave of immigrants sought to displace the previous wave, each leaving it history on the street. Part of the street still retains an East End Englishness too, even if a little gentrified in places. Artisans rent small shops to sell unusual jewellery, vintage clothes and pop art and residents of the quartier like Ralph Fiennes provide a colourful population against a background of graffiti art by the likes of Banksy. Lola B’s godmother and her husband hang out in Brick Lane, in trendy museum-quality post-modern living.
Monica Ali wrote a novel called after the street, about its Bangladeshi population and a small nuclear family in particular whose make-up matched both my own little family and that of my family of origin: a father, a mother and two teenage daughters. I tried to read the book several times, but it defeated me. A film of the book was made late last year and released on DVD a month ago. My husband brought it back from the local bicycle shop that doubles as a video shop, and all four of us watched it together, mesmerised by a world contained in a very ordinary council flat, coloured and scented by vivid memories of Bangladesh.
At times the film is very difficult to watch as we are unwelcome voyeurs of forbidden intimacy. At times my husband and I exchanged amused glances as two very familiar British Bangladeshi daughters fought over toothpaste and pushed the boundaries. Both our daughters howled with tears as they thought themselves inside the girls and we spent many minutes afterwards mopping up tears and soothing anxious orphan-anxieties.
Nasneen is a beautiful, spare, caramel coloured elder sister who is sent to England by her widowed father. She is only eighteen. There, in the area around Brick Lane, she begins married life with a man twice her age and twice her weight. He is a self-educated Bangladeshi man so steeped in the English literature of Shakespeare and Thackeray that he spews it out constantly: she is a village girl who misses her younger sister. They have two daughters and – for sixteen years or so – Nasneen tends them and her husband, scrimping and saving pennies to pay for a flight back to Bangladesh to see her sister. She buys a sewing machine, and takes in blue jeans and sequinned boob-tubes to finish, brought to her house by a delicious young man, whose political radicalisation we watch day by day, just as their entanglement threatens to strangle the whole family. Nasneen blossoms, beginning to burst out of her irritating depressive passivity, even whilst her husband slowly deflates like a pricked balloon.
But the story is about more than a young Bangladeshi woman transported from a rural childhood to a decaying estate of council flats in London and an arranged marriage with an overweight man who has lost himself. It is about where home is, and what home is.
I enjoyed reading a blog called “Domina Grecia” which, like Theophilos’s previous blog, sadly disappeared without warning a couple of weeks ago, leaving its regular readers wondering what on earth could have happened to him. One of the last posts provoked an interesting discussion which reflected the range of feeling that I see amongst my friends. It was a post about “home”, whatever that is.
For some people “home” is where they are, wherever they are. In the words of the song, home is “wherever I lay my hat”. Or, like like the tag on a recent Louis Vuiton advert with Catherine DeNeuve, “Etre chez-soi n’est pas un endroit, c’est un sentiment” (Home is not a place, it’s a feeling). For others, “home” is a distant place in the past that they may never return to, or something that they dream of creating in the future when things are better for them than they are now. For some “home” is where their family is, thousands of miles away, going on without them but visited by them now and then. Our idea of “home” may change too: parents in our old home place die and with them our link to a place dies. Children root us to a place which we have only previously felt vaguely connected to. Good friends move away and a place seems less like home. Bad things happen at home, and we drift until we find a safer one.
Home is many different things for the characters in the film. For the two daughters, roughly the same age as my own, there is only one home that they have ever known, and that is the unprepossessing flat in East London. The father has tried to adopt all the ways of the English and appears ridiculous in the process, but any pretence at having “become one of them” falls away when the English rise up in prejudice against him after 9/11 – because of his faith. He finds that he has lost his home, and needs to find a new one. Nasneen knows where her home is, until she is about to go back there and discovers that it has moved without her noticing. Home is where her heart is, where her daughters are.
It is also a film about love, and how it, too, surprises us, metamorphosing constantly and being found in places that we thought were loveless.