East End promise

Sukhdev Sandhu scratches the surface of working-class London

Historically, a good deal of the literature about London's East End has been written by vicars and clerics working as urban missionaries. The results have often been sensationalistic and a little patronising - as if they cannot believe that local people, mired in what they regard as dire poverty and foulest immorality, would turn their backs on the shining light of Christian redemption.

That's not the case with Kenneth Leech, who helped to establish the Christian Socialist Movement and was for many years a community theologian based at St Botolph's Church in Aldgate. Doing Theology in Altab Ali Park (Darton, Longman & Todd) is a thoughtful and often pained meditation on the work he and his colleagues did on issues concerning drug use, homelessness and alcoholism in the East End. These are interlaced with anxieties about the encroachment of the City on his parish, as well as the role of gentrification in rendering social inequality almost invisible.

Leech makes interesting comparisons between his brand of pastoral labour and that carried out in churches in Harlem, and is alive to the challenges of representing Christianity, no matter in how radical a form, in a neighbourhood that is home to the country's largest Bangladeshi community.

The title of Leech's book comes from a Whitechapel park named after a young Bangladeshi who was set upon by racist thugs in the 1970s, an event that led to a heightened mobilisation against the activities of the National Front and its associated groupings. Martin Lux's Anti-Fascist (Phoenix Press) is a hugely entertaining memoir about being a left-wing street fighter during that decade. He was a righteous and hyper-eloquent boot-boy who spent his spare time in the East End and travelling across the country in order to lay into the steel-capped "Ubers" who were marching in favour of repatriation.

Lux is particularly cruel to those around him, "the bourgeois feminists, pacifists, lifestylists, revolutionary anoraks", who favoured discourse over direct action: "This is the fuckin' East End, not Hampstead!" He's also hilariously unsentimental about the white working-class people he encounters: "Frenzied old bids brandished packets of Daz: 'Washes Whiter Than White!'." Another volume, this time on the 1980s, is hinted at on the final page: it can't appear too soon.

For a long time one of East London's most under-represented communities, the Turkish Cypriots, many of whom live in the Stoke Newington neighbourhood, have been done proud in Hatice Abdullah's Departures and Arrivals (Turkish Cypriot Community Association). It's an attractively designed and edited work of oral history, full of vivid recollections about moving to England in the mid-20th century. Many of the interviewees, and not just those who found jobs in the garment industry, worked with and for Jewish Londoners. This suggests to me another, potentially fascinating project: a history of working-class cohabitation among Muslims and Jews in Britain.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Guns: Where are they all coming from?