Monday, March 27, 2006

London's East End as told by Mrs. Expat Teacher

Again with the wrist thing, so try this on for size. The same e-mail as the one below and again in progress...

Then, this weekend, we saw a part of London we’ve never seen before – Charles Dickens’ London – and had another very authentic foreign experience. Rarely ever do we venture to the East End of London: our lives are centered in the NW, SW and W (we live in the NW, I work in the W and our church is in the SW) Britain is a country that still bears the scars of the class system, and in London, the East End is home to the lower classes. A colleague of Expat Teacher’s invited us to attend the graduation of his girlfriend, who had recently completed a marketing course offered by the council. In attempt to regenerate a rather down-trodden section of town, the council, in collaboration with various private institutions, set up this course to train local would-be entrepreneurs. The theory was they would then set up shop in the local market and nearby.

I’ve never felt the class distinction as much as I did yesterday. We’re foreigners, so we don’t fit into the class system, per se, but we are pretty solidly middle class. And walking through the square where the graduation was to take place, I felt to be a different class than the people around me. Now, we didn’t treat our friends any differently, of course, and neither do the middle to upper class English treat the lower classes like they used to. But I felt very much out of place.

From hearing the vendor calling out his wares with a strong Cockney accent to seeing a food kiosk advertising ‘saveloys, pease pudding, faggots’. I had to take a picture of that. I walked by and saw those food items listed and immediately started humming along as the boy from Oliver Twist sang in my head, ‘Pease pudding and saveloys, what next is the question? Rich gentlemen have it, boys – indigestion!’

In case you’ve ever wondered, saveloys are sausages made with all the nasty parts of the pig (‘lots of grisly bits,’ our graduate’s sister informed us, wrinking her nose), pease pudding is a mash made of haricot beans, and faggots are basically meatballs made with lots of herbs.

And then there was the Pearly Royal Family. This was a group of five elderly men and women, dressed in black jackets, skirts and trousers, all of which were decorated with smoky pearl buttons, thousands of them. These buttons were sewn on in the shape of symbols of value to the East-Enders: Horsehoe for luck, doves for peace, heart for charity, anchor for hope, cross for faith, wheel for circle of life, playing cards for life being a gamble, and flower pots and donkey carts, for the market traders. The traditions of the Pearly Kings and Queens began in 1875 by an East End youngster who admired a certain group of traders in the local market. They cared for each other, and wore garments with smoky pearl buttons. Inspired to be like them, he started collecting the buttons that had fallen off and made for himself a suit decorated with them, and then began collecting money for local orphanages, hospices and workhouses. For yesterday’s graduation, this ‘family’ led the audience of students and family in renditions of popular Cockney songs, which cheerfully moaned about typical lower-class troubles, and took pictures with each of the graduates proudly holding their certificate.

And the Town Crier was there to announce every graduate. (This particular Town Crier’s proudest moment was announcing the birth of Prince William outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.) He said their name and the type of shop/stall they were planning to open. One lady was preparing to sell flowers (which immediately made me think of My Fair Lady!) while another was eager to provide locals with shoes made from all local products. Our graduate had the brilliant idea to sell candy. This is not currently on offer in the local market, and there are dozens of local children who would be viable customers.

Finally, a star from Eastenders, the popular English soap opera that is all about life in the East End, stopped by for a photo op and to offer autographs. As soon as he was spotted, he was surrounded. The part I find most ironic about that is the star is undoubtedly not from the East End. Yet East-Enders consider him one of their own.

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