I was born and raised in Hackney.
Technically, if we’re going to wax literal about this, I was born in St.Bartholemew’s Hospital, Smithfields, the day after a nuclear disaster and a few months before the maternity ward shut down, and while this is not in Hackney, by dint of being within the sound of Bow Bells it does technically mean I’m supposed to be a cockney. I mention this only because, as you might have guessed, dear reader, my syntax isn’t very cockney. I am the product of my education, which was ridiculously academic, so don’t hold your breath if you’re looking for my blogger’s guide to rhyming slang; I’m just not your girl. All this being so, Hackney is the borough where you were traditionally supposed to stumble on your cockneys, although you’re more likely to stumble on dialects of Farsi these days, and you’d probably have an easier time understanding if you did.
I guess I should start off by explaining the title of this blog – London Borough of Hackney. I’m a dead proud Hackney girl, not least because there’s a snotty knee-jerk reaction that happens generally in London when you mention the borough’s name, a certain curling of the lower lip or, in some cases a cry of ‘but is that safe?’ The estate agents would probably tell me that I grew up on ‘Islington borders’ – in other words, I nearly practically grew up in a borough that is in every way considered brighter, better, cleaner, safer and basically nicer than Hackney. However, I mildly resent this accusation, since I can’t help but notice that the people on the other side of the borough line never describe themselves as being in ‘Hackney borders’ so why should I return the compliment?
Let’s not beat about the bush, there’s plenty about Hackney that’s wrong. The local council once had a reputation for being one of the most corrupt in Britain, although I think in recent years there’s been so many councils that they’ve been reluctantly forced to relent. The bureaucracy remains fiendish, but this may just be a common local borough trait. (Certainly none of the boroughs I’ve lived in since have exactly gone out of their way to make life easier.) There are plenty of grotty areas; Hackney possesses both a very large number of council estates of the kind that were built with an ideal in mind and not much sociological reasoning, and poverty remains a quiet under-note for much of its busy streets. It is not a place for Waitroses or Starbucks, but rather the streets of Hackney are ruled by pound shops and greasy spoons and I for one kinda cheer for this. Hackney has a reputation for gun and knife crime; whether this is earned I’m not in the best position to judge; with guns and knives there are also drugs. If you look, you can find all of the above; however my one weak comfort to those who cringe at this thought is that if you don’t go looking, it’s not going to seek you out either.
But! With all this doom and gloom out of the way, let me explain why I remain a proud Hackney girl. For a start, I challenge anyone to enter the borough and not be able to find something of anything. It’s a great big sprawling place, with its southern border stopping at Old Street, nudged right up next to the Corporation of London, the oldest part of the city where the bankers do their business behind extremely polished glass while wearing very expensive ties. Its northern border makes it to Tottenham, a place where inner city density and suburban sprawl fight tooth and claw for which will be the winner. (Currently 0-0.) At the eastern edge, Hackney meets Tower Hamlets, and at the bottom edge of Mare Street the lampposts are hung with banners proclaiming each borough to be superior to its neighbour, as if the daily inhabitants might somehow want to reconsider their place in life while jostling for the Central Line at Bethnal Green. It is a mixture of old and new; grand Victorian terraces, black and white houses with sashed windows, sit opposite 1960s orange brick council estates and all shop at the same local newsagent. Rather optimistic council initiatives, such as bright white offices and the perhaps ironically named ‘Ability Plaza’ sit bang smack next to the old-made-new, such as the Hackney Empire. The Empire was resurrected a few years ago from a run-down music hall with barely a lick of paint left on its walls to a brilliant, bright new theatre with all the extravagance of its past brightened and raised up. Throughout the year you can find panto, comedy shows, high drama, amateur dramatics and soap opera all being acted out in fairly even quantity at moderate prices. The Empire itself sits at the top of Mare Street, which is the nearest thing to a main thoroughfare that Central Hackney lays claim to, a mixture of grand terraces turned into shops selling mysterious unnamed root vegetables and hairdressers specialising in bright nails and the Afro style.
The ethnic diversity of Hackney is one of its most notable features. Halal butchers and telephone shops specializing in cheap calls and money transfers to Jamaica, Sudan and Pakistan are as common as parking fines, and in the bustling market at Dalston Kingsland you would have to be blind to not be able to find cassettes of the greatest hits of Trinidad, or love music from Bollywood on sale in between the fish and cheap clothes stalls. It is as easy to buy a sari as it is a pair of sandals, pide is as cheap as pizza and baklava is the dessert of choice. Council leaflets to all its residents come in a minimum of eight languages, and no self-respecting Hackney library would be without its foreign language and gay interest sections. There’s a large Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill, noticeable a mile off for their uniform of black fur hats and black coats, smart suits and skullcaps, clustered to the edge of the railway lines that run out of Liverpool Street towards the north; around Green Lanes there is a Turkish community who, when Turkey came 3rd in the Football World Cup some years ago, drove round and round with the roofs of their cars open and flags waving, much to the chargrin of the Cypriot and Armenian communities that live up towards Wood Green. On Stoke Newington High Street, one Turkish supermarket has set up shop inside what was once a mosque, a building covered almost entirely in green and blue mosiac tiles, while towards Clissold Park you can find church sat opposite a synagogue with only a kebab shop and some rather over-enthusiastic traffic to keep them apart. Towards Whitechapel you will struggle to miss the minarets of the Suleyman Mosque, but it is far easier to not notice the Regents Canal as you cross it on your way heading south, running from Camden, through Islington, slicing across Hackney and finally moseying out towards the Lee River Valley. It is a place of transitory immigrants, people passing through on the way to somewhere more stable, as well as a borough where the newly settled plant their first solid roots; you don’t have to look hard in Dalston or Clapton to find a wedding dress, first or second hand.
The density of buildings can often disguise secret patches of calm in Hackney as well. Clissold Park, London Fields, Cambridge Heath, Bethnal Green and the sprawling marshy mass of Hackney Downs all seem to pop out between the buildings when you least expect them, a simple turn down a simple street like any other and bham, open grass and swings and people playing football badly. Buses are the traveler’s means of choice in Hackney, almost entirely because it has barely a half dozen underground stations to claim as its own. (Although all in the borough wait with baited breath to see what will happen to the East London and Crossrail projects, come the election…) There are a few unlikely travel options available though… with the underground so dominant in north London, few really considers the potential of the mainline trains that chug out of Liverpool Street station and up the side of London Fields on route to the edge of the city, but they can illustrate with immense ease how a train can in ten minutes cover a distance that on foot would take an hour. Likewise, there is the Overground railway, which has in its time been known by many names – ‘Silverlink Metro’, ‘North London Line’ or more often than not ‘you aren’t seriously thinking of taking that, are you’? Recent years have improved on the Overground and it is now possible to get from Hackney Central to Camden on one train in one journey in roughly fifteen minutes without having to beat little old ladies over the head to do so.
So you see, when I say that I come from the London Borough of Hackney, I’m only giving its full name to make sure you understand… it’s not just any old place I grew up in…