Even with his back to me, there is no mistaking the owner of Le Grenier, a tiny, doll-like shop on Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End stuffed with vintage treasure. It’s partly his height, partly his presence rather larger than his tall frame. He speaks with a smile as soon as he turns to you and with a shadow of a French accent asks “Can I help? Are you OK?”
We value this community
Inside, his walls are strung with vintage finds and collectibles, a mixture of what Jean-Louis Gayou himself likes to call ‘les choses’ and hopes someday his customers will treasure. Yuko his wife turns from the old salvaged money till and explains that their collection consists of carefully curated finds from flea markets across England and the UK. Since setting up shop here they’ve become part of the soul of the Bethnal Green community. ‘We value this community and the streets on which our children play.’
Many British communities are made up of individuals and groups of people not unlike the Gayou’s. New families who have settled into an area living side by side with second and third generation residents. I witness this sense of community thrive on many levels as I schelpp about London. From the whole city “I’m a Londoner” to the different boroughs “I’m an East Londoner” to the streets and businesses in which they work (a shop, a school, a restaurant).
We had the privilege albeit fleeting to meet and photograph the Gayou’s and their two young children and as I randomly walked around their store I saw first hand the dynamics of this young East London family first hand. Jean-Louis and Yuko explained to their young daughter that her chicken box could not be regular. On this occasion it was a rare treat. Simply put… overhearing the Gayou’s with their children made me feel safe myself. For the most part, it’s families not unlike the Gayou’s who make up my East London; Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, Dalston, Hackney; families and family values which help sustain these thriving communities. It’s a vision a million miles away from what unfolded in London on our TVs last week.
This territory; Shoreditch, Hoxton, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, Dalston, Hackney is my stomping ground. I spend most of my down time here with friends who have fashion or painting studios and live here. Watching the first images of looting on TV at the airport, it utterly paralysed me. A week full of fires and alarms, desolation and disaster. A week of warning about what happens when communities begin to unravel from the inside collapsing inwards. I tried to write earlier about this but felt upset as the trouble spread outwards and onwards. And although my job is primarily to examine and celebrate the beauty of many beautiful things here, I felt too uncomfortable to talk about shiny things in a week where the dissatisfied looted and plundered. Maybe you might have felt a little of this feeling too.
Finally tonight I feel like writing. Could I have stepped in earlier? Maybe, but I’ll never lie to you here and corny as it may sound I’m only making sense of it all myself now. London changed my father first when he moved here to find work in the 70s as a retailer and in turn it has educated and changed me in the past two years. Yes I felt alienated when I first arrived in London fresh with the image of my mum and dad giving me the thumbs up sign back at home to get over here and try it out. I was coming to London to be a writer, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for someone with no support system trying to make a tiny go of things from scratch.
And I don’t for one minute want to be disingenuous and pretend that I’ve had a difficult upbringing. I was born into a safe Irish country background where I attended the same school as five generations of my father’s family, but not unlike Britain’s youth now the image of the city (Dublin, London , New York) and its glistening promise of excitement and success always called to me. Growing up, the allure of fame and fortune belonged in the big cities but was seemingly accessible (even when you lived in an area as rural as I did where it was many miles away from you it was beamed into your living room on TV.)
I’ve never knowingly been bad, but there were times when as a girl I was excessively energetic, easily bored, restless, competitive and temperamental. Nowadays, they’d have a whole bunch of names for it and put me on Ritalin and have my spark dulled. I grew up in the country, climbed trees, outhouses and broke bones and promises. Other than that my childhood was safe, like the safe provided by Jean-Louis Gayou. I certainly never suffered from any syndrome anybody might care to invent to explain my behaviour and far from being delusional, do I not appear to have an enviable gift for honest self-appraisal? Or maybe there’s another word for it.
World = 1 Gisèle (the naive) = 0
To simplify this…. there was an Irish condition/expectation that you could always be excused for being a bit ‘different’ once you managed to soak up a good education and then you could go to a big city and see if you could fit in there. I looked towards James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who were ‘different’ before me and they had against all odds become successful as writers. Years of words, thoughts, scribbled into notebooks as they travelled. These guys were my role models.
Oh and there was the Romanian gymnast Nadi Comăneci. I had her poster on my bedroom wall (her fame was fading as I put up the poster) and for ten years I trained diligently to be just like her; hours, days, weeks, months, years perfecting back flips, arabesques and handsprings. I only realise now that my role models were what saved me. The people I looked up to were all famous FOR something, they had a talent, a gift which they worked hard to refine.
Only recently (I’m being extra-honest here) I realised that, that rather unappealing trait for craving fame just for fame sake eluded me because I wasn’t willing to take the risk and so a life of hard time, hard graft stretched out before me. Ergo I poured hours and years of deep affection into my work. That’s right, you read correctly I worked for years for practically nothing, no money, no recognition because I didn’t fancy taking the chance that fame and fortune would accidentally find me. I had/have a deep artistic attachment to what I do. I could see from an early age that it was my only chance.
This is currently at odds with my industry and with society where the cult of celebrity deeply permeates. It’s omnipresent. As is the sense of entitlement. We’re all part of it; a culture that deifies the famous and puts huge value just on fame. Forget talent just chance something/anything and you might become famous just for a few minutes.
At a broader level all last week I wondered honestly to myself why so many felt so detached that they could turn in on their own communities and burn them. Did they have mums and dads to give them the thumbs up? Who were their role models? Amidst their darkness, society too had presented and dangled the same light and fairy dust which it presented to all of us as kids so why did they decide to fall prey to the attractive spectacle and notion of fame and its empty sense of entitlement. The notion that owning some shiny stuff will distract you from the boredom of everyday life. It’s fish fingers and festivals.
I’m not (as you must have noticed) a politician nor a theologian (thankfully you’re probably thinking at this point) but if we want to help our own (and because they are mostly young I consider them my own) we need to find a better way to explain that fame or infamy in itself is not worth striving for. It has absolutely NO value, it’s a spectacle, an allusion, a distraction for all of us. Have those JD sport runners filled that gap? Famous people seem to have significance now where previously it was religion and family that gave people that sense of hope.
Yes both looting and arson are inexcusable behaviours but I just want to scoop these looters up and ask them why they did it? I think I have an idea of what they would tell me. Society has failed them. I don’t care if I make a fool of myself saying that. I just think as a writer it’s my job to relate honestly to the world around me and help in any way I can. Either people will listen and things will change, or it will fall on deaf ears or stony ground. At least I won’t have done nothing.
I know this situation is far more complex than I can understand fully on my own here but Jean-Louis Gayou and Yuko’s and their family and their pride of being part of the Bethnal Green community is as good a place as any to start. We admired Bethnal Green Road, this little family and I and the constant stream of buses, and the way the sunlight, putting in a brief appearance, made the puddles on the path shine. Jean-Louis said he didn’t like pigeons, and I said ‘Jean-Louis sometimes neither do I’. The whole family loved going on holidays but equally loved coming back home to London. Their little daughter reminds me of Dora the Explorer. I think if I were tiny again Dora the Explorer would most definitely be one of my all-time heroes.
Sometimes it can be something as simple as finding the right role model. It’s worth a try I think. But who out there is a good role model?
Le Grenier, 146 Bethnal Green Road, Brick Lane E2 6DG +44 (0)20 7790 7379. Times: Mon – Fri 11-6pm. Sat-Sun 10-6pm. Closed on Wednesday.
P.S I’ve been thinking since. If I were a boy I’d love Graham Lenihan @Glinner and Stephen Fry @Stephenfry lots and lots. (OK scrap the boy bit! I love them anyway.)