The lost London of Marketa Luskacova.

Homeless men, Spitalfields 1975Homeless men, Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa Luskacova is a Czech photographer who has been largely resident in London since the early 1970s. She first made her name in the late 1960s, with a project documenting religious pilgrims in central Europe and a series of photographs of life in Sumiac, a remote village in Slovakia. These images show life rooted in a barely-changed medieval past, the realities of the 20th century banished by the sheer force of history. This subject matter might seem distinctly eastern European; but when she came to live in London in the early 1970s, she brought her unique sensibility (which I would characterize as a balance of grace, empathy and visual power) to the street markets of the east end.

Spitalfields, 1976Spitalfields 1976. © Marketa Luskacova.

This milieu is recognisable to us from Don McCullin’s pictures of down and outs, the footage of drunks in The London Nobody Knows, and from other photographers and film-makers who have covered the same turf: the lost and dispossessed in the dark heart of the east end. But the crucial difference between these familiar images and Marketa’s photographs of the same territory is that she wasn’t there as a social anthropologist with a Leica; she was there to buy food. The traders shown in these photographs were the ones she saw every week; they were her friends. Her pictures might be a document of a time and place, but they are also a memoir of a life.

London street musician, 1979Street musician, 1979. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa’s images of London stand as some of the most poetic and heartbreaking photographs ever made of the city. As with all her work, these photographs exhibit an almost supernatural gift for faces. They are also an evocation of a London irretrievably lost to us; these are not scenes you will see in today’s east end. Marketa’s hawkers and street musicians are receding from us, as lost in time as the peasants of pre-industrial Europe. Marketa’s photographs of Whitechapel show a world as remote as the rituals of Sumiac.

Spitalfields 1977Lion cub and greyhound, Spitalfields, 1977. © Marketa Luskacova.

Spitalfields 1977Spitalfields, 1977. © Marketa Luskacova.

Spitalfields, 1975Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa Luskacova’s work has been in some ways neglected in comparison with other photographers of the same generation who have covered the same sorts of material. That said, her work has been widely exhibited and championed by the likes of Roy Strong, Bruce Bernard and John Berger – not to mention erstwhile Magnum colleagues such as Rene Burri, Josef Koudelka, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who selected one of her pictures for La Choix d’HCB, an exhibition of his favourite photographs. Her eye is unflinching, but her photographs brim over with feeling that never tips into sentimentality. The final picture here is, for me, one of those photographs which renders any attempt to analyse it utterly trite: I will say that it manages to be as funny as it is sad, and as mysterious as it is beautiful. True greatness.  D.S.

Street singer, Spitalfields, 1982Street singer, Spitalfields, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.



The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe. (4/4)

London Bridge. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

Begging, pure and simple, seems to have almost disappeared from the London streets, even the most impoverished making an attempt to offer some trifle in exchange for a coin. Mayhew’s book on the London poor is one of several books necessary for a study of the city’s pavement life, of which now only fragments remain. Victorian London was full of such harrowing sights as the man I saw years ago, legless and armless, selling ballads, or the festering bundel of rags covering the remains of a woman I saw more recently on the Embankment – a bundle of rags, however, that did not lack vocal abilities. On my starting to draw her, she cursed in language which would have given a bargee the shudders, and so I pushed off.

David Secombe:

The dolls in the photograph above were situated in the elevated walkway which links London Bridge with London Bridge Station, and formed part of an elaborate and idiosyncratic beggar’s pitch. The beggar in question had taped dolls holding lit joss sticks to three posts in the walkway, and as commuters hurried past him and his installation he performed a manic, shuffling dance, jerking back and forth violently, lunging at them with his cap. I asked him if he would mind having his photo taken and he declined, although he didn’t object to me picturing the dolls. He was clearly very proud of his pitch, which seemed more suited to White Cube or Flowers East than a begging bowl on London Bridge Station. There is probably some earlier precedent for his particular schtick, but I can find nothing like it in Mayhew, and he may have invented a new form: avant-garde panhandling.

Given time, certain members of London’s homeless communities become landmarks. In his ‘biography’ of London, Peter Ackroyd mentions the lady who appeared to live in a doorway near the shop Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street for much of the 1990s: as Ackroyd noted, she had sat there day in, day out for so long that her outline was impressed upon the stone behind her. And there was the eccentrically dressed but actually quite beautiful woman who was a fixture in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for many years. I don’t know what became of the doll man, but I rather hope that his fate was less grim than the elderly oriental man who is a current fixture on Hungerford Bridge. He has a kind of toy guitar equipped with one string and a little hammer which he taps on it, feebly hitting the same note over and over again. He is worthy of Mayhew, and Fletcher, in authentic human misery.

… for The London Column.

The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe (3/4)

Sidney Street, Whitechapel. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

Half a century ago, the East End remained a closed book to the rest of London; hence the alarm created by the Hounsditch murders and the ensuing gun battle of Sidney Street. Londoners realized the unpleasant fact that there were gunmen in their midst and a vast floating population of refugees and anarchists living somewhere or other only a short distance from the opulent City. Peter the Painter, that elusive, unsatisfactory figure, and his gun-toting frienfds have always fascinated me, and I have visited the scene of their operations time and time and again. Whenever I go, in spite of modern changes (though there is a great deal left unchanged), I seem to see the top-hatted figure of Winston Churchill peering round a doorway during the gun battle, and policemen with walrus moustaches stare of the past, along with loungers in greasy cloth caps.

Sidney Street is more orderly today, and on the site of the siege the houses have been replaced by flats, but I remember the besieged house clearly … I also remember also a local coming out to watch me draw the house and telling me how he had watched the siege and the smoke coming out of the roof.

David Secombe:

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Sidney Street Siege, and the full text of The Guardian‘s contemporary report may be read herePeter the Painter, the legendary leader of the terrorists, was never found and uncertainty as to his real identity – indeed, doubts as to whether he ever actually existed – persist to this day. (In Julian Fellowes’s recent Titanic TV series, he had Peter the Painter on board the ill-fated liner, which prompted a few derisive guffaws round my neck of the woods.) In 2006, Tower Hamlets Council named a social housing complex on the corner of Sidney Street and Commercial Road after the mysterious renegade, a decision which brought complaints from the Metropolitan Police and others. The above photo was taken a few yards from the spot where 100 Sidney Street stood.

Fletcher’s account of the environs of Sidney Street was written fifty years after the siege, and The London Nobody Knows is all of fifty years away from us. Since Fletcher described the area with his antiquarian eye, the locale has developed newer sets of associations, newer urban mythologies. One strand of modern folklore which was brewing at the time of Fletcher’s early ’60s rambles eventually bore bloody fruit in a pub round the corner: a few steps from Sidney Street, on the Whitechapel Road, is The Blind Beggar, where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966, and now a fixture on the unofficial London underworld coach tour. The Kray Twins were local, of course, and famously lauded as a positive force by a vocal assortment of cartoonish East End stereotypes. Local boys who made good and took care of their neighbours – a bit heavy handed sometimes, but they only fought their own. Violent but fair. That sort of thing. But that implausible golden era of neighbourly, family-loving criminals is as distant from us now as the Sidney Street Siege was to them, so it is no wonder that the 1960s East End seems impossibly exotic today. Back in the early ’90s, I spent an afternoon sightseeing in the East End with a former Kray associate, and we had lunch in Bloom’s, the famous kosher restaurant in Whitechapel High Street. As we entered the rather grand premises, my companion wistfully observed that ‘a few of the lads considered knocking this place over, back in the sixties. Lot of money used to come through here, all those nobs heading east for a bit of a thrill.’ Bloom’s finally closed in 1996, its heyday long past.

In the last three decades, Whitechapel has become predominantly Bangladeshi in its ethnic make-up, and the East London Mosque, opposite the Blind Beggar, is a kind of 20th century counterpart to Hawksmoor’s great Christ Church, Spitalfields. And, with a certain historical inevitability, present-day suspicions of the ‘immigrant’ community crystallise around their perceived terrorist potential – so in that respect, the East End of 2012 is remarkably similar to that of 1911.

… for The London Column.

The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe. (2/4)

St. Anne’s, Limehouse. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

St. Anne’s, Limehouse, was built by Hawksmoor, 1712-30, one of his three churches in the East End which alone make a worthwhile pilgrimage: the other two are St. George in the East and Christ Church, Spitalfields. All were begun within a few years of each other. As early as the 1730s, overcrowding had become a characteristic of the East End, a process accelerated in the early 19th century by the building of the docks between 1800 and 1830, the demand for unskilled labour, and the arrival of Jews and other refugees from Eastern Europe. These three churches were built as necessities, but there is nothing utilitarian about them. Their originality continues to surprise us. Hawksmoor’s architecture, imbued with Baroque rhythms, is massive yet solid, like Johnson’s prose. Characteristic of how little we really value them is the fact that, at time of writing, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under threat of demolition, though thousands of pounds are uselessly thrown away in every conceivable direction.

David Secombe:

Christ Church, Spitalfields, was not demolished and has in recent years been the beneficiary of grants to restore the fabric of the building after decades of neglect. Hawksmoor’s six London churches have experienced a revival in general, and have become talismans for those who seek to pursue a hidden or mystical history of the city. Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor elaborates upon ideas proposed by Ian Sinclair that Hawksmoor’s churches map an Eye of Horus upon the capital, whilst Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell links the Jack the Ripper murders to the looming presence of Christ Church over Whitechapel. Psychogeography aside, the massiveness and intensity of Hawksmoor’s designs have a slightly forbidding quality– and his monumental East End churches must have appeared anomalous and strange to those living in the surrounding Georgian and Victorian slums. In the 21st century, however, Christ Church looks anomalous for a different reason: the deadly corporatised make-over of Spitalfields market has transformed the area into Covent Garden East, and Hawksmoor’s magnificent creation now looms over a retail theme park safe for hipsters and their friends.

… for The London Column.