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Lunch At Mama Thai

August 24, 2017
by the gentle author

Raj Chawla (centre) and his team at Mama Thai

Mama Thai on the corner of Toynbee St and Brune St, just fifty yards from Christ Church, has long been one of my favourite lunch spots. Thus it was with great sadness in 2015 I reported the death of chef Pam Chawla who had run this beloved establishment with her husband Raj since 1991.

Two years later, I am delighted to announce that, under the continuing supervision of Raj, there are new chefs at Mama Thai and the standard of fresh food prepared daily is as high as it has ever been. I know of nowhere else in Spitalfields where you can find such a reliably wholesome lunch for just five pounds. In face of a disappointing proliferation of chain outlets around the Spitalfields Market offering fast pre-prepared food, it is heartening to return to an old haunt and find it reinvigorated with new life.

At least once a week you will find me here tucking in to a tasty plate of vegetables and rice. In my opinion, it is the ideal healthy lunch. I always have the same thing and I am never disappointed by its reliable high quality. Sometimes, Abdus Samad Ajad, the chef who does the serving, asks me which vegetables I should like from the seasonal selection they have cooked that day and my reply is always the same, ‘You decide!’

Spinach is one of my favourites and the texture is very important, it should not be overcooked and turn to slush. At Mama Thai, head chef Mohammed Shofique Miah understands this and his spinach is always chewy and freshly cooked. I cannot to pretend to enjoy to lentils on the whole, but here they are cooked to such a gentle consistency and so subtly spiced that they are delicious. Similarly, the pumpkin accompanied by ground coconut is another favourite of mine.

Cooking vegetables well is the test of any chef and it is an unexpected delight to discover real cooking in this cosy corner cafe where no dish costs more than five pounds. Among all the junk food and over-hyped pretentious places, Mama Thai is Spitalfields’ best kept culinary secret and I do recommend you seek it out. Raj Chawla is waiting to welcome you in person.

Chef Mohammed Shofique Miah

Hajera Begum prepares all the vegetables freshly for the chefs during service

Mohammed with his Deputy Chef Abdus Samad Ajad

The kitchen team

Raj Chawla has run Mama Thai in Spitalfields since 1991

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

You may also like to read my earlier story about Mama Thai from 2010

Mama Thai, The Noodles of Spitalfields

Sheila Bell of Great Eastern Buildings

August 23, 2017
by the gentle author

(Click on this photograph to enlarge it)

Can you spot Sheila Bell in this photograph of the residents of Great Eastern Buildings celebrating Victory in Europe Day at the Grey Eagle in Quaker St on 2nd May 1945? Look more closely, there she is sitting in the front row, to the left of the girl in a floppy hat. Sheila has a bow in her hair for this special occasion.

Unfortunately, this picture was not too much use when I met Sheila at Victoria Station recently to hear about her life at Great Eastern Buildings on the corner of Brick Lane and Quaker St. Yet, as Sheila began to tell her story, I quickly recognised the little girl in this photograph of a lifetime ago.

“My grandparents, George & Sarah Keppel, lived in Great Eastern Buildings and my great-grandparents, Emma & Frederic Lewis lived in the same flat before them – before that I do not know. My nan never went out to work, she stayed at home, cooked the dinner and kept the house, and my granddad worked down Spitalfields Market. He started off as a porter but he was a carpenter by trade, so he made the ladders for the guys in the market. He hired two rooms in the next block at the Buildings and did all his carpentry work there. I used walk in there and smell the fresh wood shavings. He had a black iron glue pot and he made me stir it. It looked like toffee but it did not smell like toffee, I can assure you.

My parents lived in the Buildings as well and, as soon as I was born, I was taken to the Buildings, as the fourth generation of my family there. My mother worked in Truman’s Brewery as a bottling girl, she wore a green overall, a white apron and clogs, and my father was a smoked salmon curer in Frying Pan Alley, opposite Liverpool St Station. We lived in flat number sixty-eight Great Eastern Buildings, on the second floor. I was brought up in those Buildings with Jewish, Irish and Maltese, and we all rubbed along very nicely.

There always used to be a lot of workmen in and out of the Buildings, fixing things, and my first memory was of playing with a load of sand and water. Me and my cousins used to make sandcastles in the builders’ sand. That was our life! We lived in two rooms. We shared a wash house with a mangle and three sinks, two normal-sized and one butler’s sink with two taps. There was no hot water and each of the four flats on the landing shared the wash house. If you wanted a bath you had to boil a kettle. We had a tin bath like everybody else and an outside toilet that we shared with the three other families. We took it in turns to clean the toilet on a weekly rota system.

I do not remember a gas stove but I do remember a black range. You could lift the lid with a poker and put coal in. The kettle was always on the hob and there was an oven to the side. On Sunday, my nan would black-lead the range and it used to gleam. It had a white hearth and she used to whiten it, that was her pride and joy. It was always done, and our two rooms were kept clean. One room doubled as a front-room-come-kitchen, -come-everything really. We had old armchairs in there and a settee made of Rexine, that looked like leather but it was plastic and, in the summer, it used to stick to your legs, so we had to put a blanket on it. We had an old piano, I think everybody in those days had a piano. There was a little sink in the corner for the bowl and jug which we kept in the bedroom. That was all you had plus a table and a cupboard.

In the bedroom,  we had a double bed and a single bed, if you had more than one child or if anybody came to stay. Unfortunately, that was how it was. We put up with because we did not know any different. I was the eldest and I had a younger brother. Now my nan had two rooms and my mum had two rooms, so my brother slept in the front room which meant mum and dad had the bedroom, my nan and grandad had the other bedroom and I slept in the other front room on a made-up bed. I used to lie on the floor and listen to the trains shunting in the goodsyard. Both flats were opposite each other across the same landing.

When I was fourteen, the flats were modernised by combining two, so then we had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a lounge. They put in electricity. It was amazing because I had only known gaslight since childhood. We did not know we were born! It was like a palace. I had my own room and my brother had his own room. It was our home and they did not move us out while they modernised, they just worked around us.

As children, we used to love to run through Wheler St Arch because it was always dark and gloomy with gas lamps – it was a dare really. We liked to go down Spitalfields Market and pick up the specks – the damaged fruit –  and we used to bring them home. We did not have any other fruit. At Christmas time, my granddad came home with a sack full of specks. All the family would get together round the piano. My Auntie used to play the piano fantastically, sitting on a crate of brown ale. My nan never went out all week but on a Saturday night she went with out her friend and they would go either to the Two Brewers on the corner or the Grey Eagle. On a Saturday night, when she did not go out, my nan and I, we would get our pillow and put it on the window sill, and sit with our cups of tea and wait for the pubs to turn out. There would be fights and it was entertainment for us.

My granddad used to have a stall at the top of Brick Lane on Sundays and sell nuts and bolts, and I took tea to him in a white enamel flask. The market was packed in those days and, by the time I got there, the tea would be splashed everywhere, so he only got one cup out of it.

My first job was for Durrants the printers opposite Mount Pleasant Post Office in Clerkenwell and I absolutely hated it. I was sixteen or seventeen and I used to come home black with ink. Then I went into the rag trade, machining at Universal Underwear – it was very highbrow, we made it for Marks & Spencers – just off Shoreditch High St. I loved it and stayed there for ten years. I did an apprenticeship and my first week’s pay was four pounds, nineteen shillings and eleven pence. I thought I was rich!

After three months, they put you on piecework and I used to earn a fortune. Twenty or thirty pounds a week was a lot of money in those days. I was a saver and there would be times when I only had a shilling and sixpence in my purse but that was fine. I have always put a bit by because you never know what might happen. My parents did the same and they taught me not to spend money on non-essentials. Then, if you really need that money you do not have to go to anybody, you have got it there. My mother was very independent and my parents never owed anybody any money. I only ever wanted to pay the rent and put food on the table.

When I was twenty-five, I left Great Eastern Buildings to get married. I met my husband Riaz at Queen’s Ice Skating Rink in Bayswater. It was a ritual, I used to go there every Friday. Every Saturday, we went to the cinema and, every Sunday, we went to the Mecca Ballroom in Leicester Sq. We had a fantastic social life. We moved to a rented two bedroom flat in Hackney Downs when we got married and my daughter was born in Lower Clapton Rd at the Salvation Army Hospital. My husband was an aircraft engineer at Gatwick and the travelling was too much for him, so they offered us a flat down there and we stayed thirty years.

I still miss the community spirit of Great Eastern Buildings. Nobody went without, the people in those Buildings would give you their last ha’penny even if they had nothing.”

The Grey Eagle photographed by Philip Marriage in 1967

Corner of Grey Eagle St today

Steven Harris, who also grew up in Great Eastern Buildings, managed to identify these people:

Little girl at front, right of centre, with floppy white hat is Joyce Gibbons (my Aunty Joyce).

Next to floppy white hat, toddler with bow in hair is Sheila Bell herself.

The lady to the left, with her arm up, may well be Franny Vigas.

Behind Franny, with the dark hair is Sarah Keppel (Sheila’s grandmother)

The shorter of the two men, just to Sarah’s right, is Sheila’s granddad, George Keppel.

To George’s right, with her back against the pub wall is Lily Bell (Sheila’s mother)

Further to the right, holding two children (you can just see her head against the pub window) is Bessie Lee, sister to Lily Bell. The two children were Lorraine and Ronnie Lee.

Staying at the back and just along from Bessie Lee and her children, are two dark haired women – they were sisters, Celia and Sarah Bawes.

One forward and three along to the right from Lily Bell is a blond girl with roundish face – that was Betty Wright (who was long standing friends with my Aunty Pat)

Third row back, a little to the left of the roll of honour, with her beret pulled down at a sharp angle and standing slightly alone, is Phyllis Greenslade.

To the extreme right of the photo, sitting next to the honours roll, is Pat Green.

Third row back, to the left of the central line of children, is George Hall (with finger in mouth).

To the left of George is, I believe, my very own nine-year-old dad – Eddie Harris!

George’s sister, Rosie, is the blond girl with big smile, one row forward and three along to the right of George.

Sheila Butt (nee Bell)

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Steven Harris at Great Eastern Buildings

Two Spitalfields Shopkeepers

At Kelmscott House

August 22, 2017
by the gentle author

I have walked past William Morris’ former house on the river bank in Hammersmith many times and always wondered what it was like inside but, since it is now a private dwelling, I never expected to visit. However, the residents kindly open their doors to members of the William Morris Society once every two years and thus, a couple of weeks ago, I was permitted to join the tour.

William Morris was forty-three years old when he came to live here. It was to be his last house in a succession that began with his childhood home in Walthamstow and included the Red House in Bexleyheath, designed for him and Jane as their marital home by Philip Webb, and the sixteenth century Kelmscott Manor by the Thames in Lechlade. The rural idyll which William Morris hoped for at Kelmscott Manor had been sullied by the overbearing presence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose obsession with Jane Morris had led him to take up permanent residence.

“If you could be content to live no nearer London than that, I cannot help thinking we should do very well there and certainly the open river and the garden at the back are a great advantage,” William wrote tactfully to Jane in February 1877. “If the matter lay with me only, I should be setting about taking the house, for already I have become conscious of the difficulty of getting anything decent. As to such localities as Knightsbridge or Kensington Sq, they are quite beyond our means.”

Built in the seventeen-eighties, the house was known as The Retreat and had once been the home of Sir Francis Ronalds, inventor of the electric telegraph, who had filled the long garden, which stretched all the way back to King St then, with buried cables as part of his experiments. When William Morris came here and renamed it Kelmscott House, it had been the home of the novelist George MacDonald for a decade. However – somewhat ominously for Morris – they chose to leave since MacDonald believed that the proximity to the polluted river was responsible for his family’s ill-health. In those days, the riverfront at Hammersmith was heavily industrialised with factories and wharfs.

I realised that, in my imagination, I felt I had already visited Kelmscott House. Long ago, when I read Morris’ novel News From Nowhere, I was seduced by his vision of a homespun Utopia that had turned its back on industrialism. In my memory, as if in the moonlight of a dream, I joined the characters as they departed Kelmscott House and undertook the journey up the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, travelling a hundred years into the future.

In reality, it was one of the brightest days of our rather disappointing summer when I paid my visit to Kelmscott House. Comparable to the experience of visiting a location from a dream, there were compelling details which evoked that faraway world, even if time and change had wiped away almost all of the evidence of Morris’ occupation of the house. “Let us hope that we shall all grow younger there,” he wrote to Jane with forced optimism in October 1878, just before they moved in.

Walking through the narrow passage beside The Dove, you discover the wide expanse of the Thames on the left and Kelmscott House rising up on your right, presenting an implacable frontage to the river. You enter through the area stairs on the left of the house, leading down to the kitchen, and immediately you notice a wall of original trellis wallpaper, designed by Morris with birds drawn by Philip Webb. If no-one told you, you would assume it was a recent reprint since these papers remain in production today. The low-ceilinged basement rooms are now the headquarters of the William Morris Society, where you may admire his Albion Press before climbing stairs again into the former coach house. This long narrow room was employed by Morris as a workshop for knotting carpets, also lectures and meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League were held here. During his final years at Kelmscott, Morris became increasingly involved with politics and the Socialist cause.

The garden no longer stretches to King St, just as far as M4, yet it is impressively generous for a London garden, with well-kept herbaceous borders and a wide lawn. Most fascinating to me, though, was the strawberry patch – since William Morris’ Strawberry Thief is one of his most celebrated textile designs, inspired by his experiences at Kelmscott Manor where the thrushes raided his soft fruit.

Approaching the house from the rear, it presents quite a different aspect than from the front, with assymetric projections and a bowed turret. The high-ceilinged dining room at the back was especially offensive to Morris with its Adam detailing and Venetian window. This seems a curious prejudice to the modern sensibility. Perhaps our equivalent might be those eighties post-modern buildings which have not aged well. Fortunately, Morris suspended a vast sixteenth century Islamic carpet across one wall and part of the ceiling, drawing the eye from the Georgian elements which he found so hideous.

Emery Walker photographed the interiors, capturing Morris’ personal sense of interior design, employing lush textiles and extravagant antiques, mixed with furniture painted by Philip Webb and fine oriental ceramics. Architecturally, the most impressive space is the first floor drawing room which spans the width of the house, created by George MacDonald by knocking two bedrooms into one. In this south-facing room, the views over Chiswick Reach are breathtaking. Morris lined it with a rich, bluish tapestry of birds in foliage that he designed for this location. A huge settle painted with sunflowers by Philip Webb once sat beside the fireplace, lined with blue and white tiles manufactured by Morris & Co and still in situ.

In 1881, seeing children from the nearby slum known as Little Wapping swinging on his garden gate, Morris recognised, “It was my good luck only of being born respectable and rich, that has put me on this side of the window among delightful books and lovely works of art, and not on the other side, in the empty street, the drink-steeped liquor shops, the foul and degraded lodgings.”

Overlooking the garden at the back was Jane Morris’ room, somewhat detached from the rest of the house, granting her the independence she required as she withdrew from her marriage during the years at Hammersmith. The two front rooms on the ground floor, overlooking the river, comprised William Morris’ workroom and bedroom. It was in the workroom to the left of the front door that he supervised the creation of the Kelmscott Press, publishing fifty-two titles in five years. In his bedroom to the right, he installed a loom to undertake tapestry through the long hours of the night when he could not sleep. Here he died from tuberculosis on 3rd October 1896, aged just sixty-two, nursed by Emery Walker as his breath failed him. His last words were, “I want to get mumbo jumbo out of the world.”

I walked back along King St to the tube, past the Lyric Sq Market where William Morris once spoke. I thought about him taking the District Line back and forth to visit East London for public speaking – and I decided I should trace his footsteps in the East End next.

Basement stairs with original Morris ‘Trellis’ wallpaper

William Morris’ design for ‘Trellis’ wallpaper with birds drawn by Philip Webb

William Morris’ Albion Press

Hammersmith Socialist League gathering on the back lawn at Kelmscott House, 1885

William Morris’ workroom from which he ran the Kelmscott Press, with stairs leading up to the coach house where Hammersmith Socialist League meetings were held (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Strawberry patch in the garden at Kelmscott

William Morris’ ‘Strawberry Thief’ design

Sixteenth century Islamic carpet displayed by Morris in the dining room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

‘William Morris’ rose blooms at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

Tapestry designed for the drawing room at Kelmscott

The drawing room at Kelmscott (Photograph by Emery Walker)

William Morris spoke here – Lyric Sq Market, Hammersmith

Archive photographs courtesy William Morris Society

The lower floor and coach house of Kelmscott House are open on Thursday and Saturday afternoons. Visit the William Morris Society website for further details

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At Emery Walker’s House

At John Keats’ House

At Dr Johnson’s House

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Ed Gray, Artist

August 21, 2017
by the gentle author

This is  Ed Gray sitting in his studio in Mile End, beside the canal and next to the Ragged School Museum, where I visited him last week. I found him in a large empty room with windows overlooking Mile End stadium and just three sketches on the wall for a street scene in the City of London which is his current work in progress.

Ed’s visceral paintings capture the tumultuous street life of the capital superlatively, teeming with diverse characters and delighting in the multiple dramas of daily existence. Despite his mild manners, his is an epic, near-apocalyptic vision that glories in the endless struggle of humanity within the urban stew. Yet the overriding impression is not cynical but rather a life-affirming raucous celebration of the indefatigable vitality of Londoners.

“I paint people and I make art about scenes of daily life. But I do not see this kind of picture represented very much in the contemporary art world. In their view, this work is not cool, happening or sensational. Yet I find so much stimulus when I go out onto the street drawing. I could make dozens of paintings about any single location. London is such a mixture of different places, there are different energies in every place, so I do not want to stay in one place, I keep moving on.

I have been painting a lot for the last twenty years, doing figurative scenes, and I work hard to have exhibitions and find an audience for my paintings, and provoke conversations about the city. It feels like an underground thing. My shows are popular and I am lucky because my paintings sell, so that keeps me going.  It seems a shame that more artists do not go out and paint the people of the city.

It is a challenge because the city changes so quickly. If I am working on a painting for three months in my studio and then I go back out into the city, it is different place. The place I painted has changed and the people have changed too. Sometimes buildings I painted are not there anymore, even in a short space of time. It is an incredible challenge and hard to know where to begin.

I studied at art college in Wimbledon and then Cardiff, where I used to go down to the docks. It was before they regenerated them. I painted the docks and the buildings – landscapes without people. Then I got interested in the fish market in Cardiff and I painted the people there. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a fish merchant in Grimsby so I had an interest in those scenes. It took off from there and I became more and more interested in painting people, which I had always done as a kid but I had not found the confidence to paint people the way that I wanted. It took that experience to put me on that path.

I left college in 1995 and moved back to London, and I had a studio in a squat in the Elephant & Castle. I was trying to paint big oil paintings seven foot across, but I had no money so I could not afford to do it. I lasted a few years doing odd jobs and trying to keep that going. Eventually I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ so I took a full time job working as a security guard at the Natural History Museum. I thought I would go into some kind of educational work, I had been working in a youth club in Battersea and I knew I had something I could pass on to the kids. I liked making art with them.

So, during my two years at the Natural History Museum, I would paint in the evenings just for myself. And I read all the books I was supposed to read at art college and secured my knowledge. Then I did my PGCE in art education at Exeter University and for a year I was teaching in Cornwall. When I came back to London, I realised I could teach and paint. So I taught part time at a school in Peckham for four years while painting the rest of the time. I had studio on the Old Kent Rd in a building which is no longer there. Over time, I accumulated a lot of paintings in the flat that I was sharing with friends and they said, ‘You need to do something with these pictures.’

By then, I had found a way that I wanted to work, which was based in going to a location, making direct observations with my sketch book for however many days it takes until I have soaked up the scene, before going back to my bedroom and making a paintings over a period of weeks. These were much smaller than the work I am doing now but it was keeping me going, it was an outlet for all the things I wanted to say about the city. In the nineties, there was a negativity about the city and city life, but I had just come back from Cornwall and I thought it was the most exciting place, with so much to paint.

I had all these paintings but I had no experience of galleries, so we took a car load of work around and the only place that would give me an exhibition was a little pop-up space in Brixton. I had my first solo show there in 2001 with ten paintings in it. It was amazing, loads of people came the private view and some could not even get into the building! It was real eye-opener to me that my painting was communicating something. All kinds of people came in from the street in Brixton, there was not a single demographic that came to see that show. It was a really exciting thing.

I applied for a residency in Bermuda and I got it, so I took a sabbatical from my teaching job. I had some money because I had sold a couple of paintings from my show. I had a studio in Bermuda and I had three exhibitions out there. It was the first time I was able to think entirely about making art and not having to pay my rent. It was an incredible time and I can hardly believe it happened. Afterwards, I travelled from Panama to Mexico City, making paintings and drawings. I was learning about making work on the hoof.

When I came back to London, I went back to the school and, after another year, I had another exhibition. A gallery in Camberwell gave me a show in 2003. I did ten paintings and they all sold, so I left my teaching job and concentrated on painting. Acme offered me a studio in Mile End next to the canal in 2006. I have always lived south of the river, first in Bermondsey and now Rotherhithe, so I am very familiar with those scenes and I have painted some of them. But separating where I live and really work is really important to me, coming across the river. The amount of life and lives you encounter here is more diverse in the East End. There is so much I could paint.

My picture of the Whitechapel Rd felt like a beginning for me of the paintings I could make about Whitechapel. I have so many scenes in mind. I wanted to start in the Whitechapel Rd because it is this long ancient road that comes out of the City of London. I used to cycle or walk that way to work and come through the market. I love markets, people are drawn to them and the characters are fantastic for painting. The history and the politics, the combination of the hospital and the market, and so many people from different lands that have come to work in London – for all of theses things, it is a meeting point.”

‘Lucky Tiger,’ Whitechapel Road, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I often walk through Whitechapel Market on my way to the studio. From a cafe, I watched the men set up the cardboard boxes and I took out my pencil and I began to draw. There is no ‘Lucky Tiger’ in this painting because there is no luck here, no punter will win. The child senses this and she can see past the man’s arm which is covering the switch he is about to make.”

‘Adoration in the East,’ Mile End Tube, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Lion’s Den,’ Milwall Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration at the Emirates,’ Arsenal Football Club, 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Adoration of Thomas A Becket,’ Old Kent Rd, 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Liverpool St Station, 2007 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

St Mary Axe, 2012 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have always painted the Gherkin when I can, I use it to navigate around the City while I am drawing. This painting is about the banking crisis that began in 2008. I sat by the Aviva building in windswept St Mary Axe and drew the faces of the brokers and bankers, the secretaries and the construction workers.”

‘Skittles,’ Blackfriars Bridge 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“For a few wintry mornings, I stood on Blackfriars Bridge in 2008 making sketches of the waves of flowing commuters. An icy wind whipped up the Thames, blowing through me. A boy crept unwillingly to school dragging a figure through the soot on the bridge and leaving his mark in defiance of the journey he had to make. He dropped a ‘Skittles’ wrapper and it occured to me that these Londoners are like skittles bracing themselves against the next blast that could topple them.”

Mile End Beginning, 2008 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“This pair of Mile End paintings are about my working day and how inspiration arrives for me, they are both views from my studio window. ‘Beginning’ is about arriving at work for the day in the summer, I’m optimistic and full of ideas after walking from home in Rotherhithe through the streets of London.”

Mile End End, 2008 (Clickon  this painting to enlarge)

“I began ‘Mile End End’ as the nights became darker and the autumn set in. When I turned out the studio light at night, the glowing  green of the Mile End sports stadium seemed so intense that I had to paint it. I wore a head torch while I worked to capture the intensity of the light and I studied the movements of the night time characters – the addicts, the sportsmen, the fishermen and the lovers.”

Night on Mare St, Pig’s Ear Beer Festival 2010 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“At the Ocean Leisure Centre in Hackney, the faithful gathered for the annual Pig’s Ear Beer Festival, with beer and cider from every corner of the British Isles to be sampled. The painting is a celebration of this country.”

Billingsgate Porters 2005 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

‘Rock of Eye,’ Threadneedleman Tailor, Walworth Rd 2014 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I have had the pleasure of knowing George Dyer ever since I asked him to make my wedding suit several years ago. A Jamaican by birth with some Cuban added to the mix, young George flew to England aged five to be reunited with his family who had emigrated earlier. George is the go-to man for sharp tailoring in addition to philosophical discussions about our place in the cosmos, all of which he offers from a small shop in the Walworth Rd.”

York Hall Boxers 2011 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

“I spent an evening sketching in the crowd at York Hall thanks to the late great Dean Powell, manager and fight manager for the legendary Frank Warren. Dean is seated at the top of the ring. It was a successful night for him. I filled three sketchbooks, hypnotised by the rhythm of the dancing boxers and jabbing my pencil at the paper with the violence of their blows.”

‘Adoration of the Cockney Rebels,’ Bermondsey Carnival 2016 (Click on this painting to enlarge)

Ed Gray at his studio in Mile End

Paintings copyright © Ed Gray

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

Mary Burd, Clinical Psychologist

August 20, 2017
by the gentle author

‘You cannot overestimate sitting down quietly with someone and listening to what they have to say’


Mary Burd worked as  Clinical Psychologist at the Jubilee St Practice in Stepney between 1979 and 2009, beginning as a mental health trainee and eventually becoming Head of Mental Health Services in Tower Hamlets. Over this time, she saw great changes both in the nature of the East End and in the health service itself. In thirty years of work, Mary grew deeply engaged with the lives of those that she served and, when I interviewed her recently, she spoke to me with deep affection for the people and the place.

“When I was twenty and first came to London in the sixties, a friend of mine said to me on a spare evening, ‘Why don’t you come to the East End? I work in a youth club there.’ That visit to Dame Colet House was my very first time working in Tower Hamlets, I helped out in the youth club and I can remember it was pretty tough. I had to guard the cash box from Les whose main interest was to raid it.

Ultimately, it was chance that brought me to work in the East End. In my early thirties, I decided that I needed to change career – I had been working in publishing – so I went and did a psychology degree at Brunel University and then studied Clinical Psychology at the University of East London. It was a three year course with placements and I was based at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. In my final year I could chose, and I always wanted to work in General Practice, so I went to the Jubilee St Practice in 1977 which was operating in portacabins then.

I remember sitting around the table with the group of GPs. A rather elderly gentleman asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’ve come because I would like to provide psychological help within practices, rather for everybody to have to go to the Outpatients Department.’ And he said, ‘I think you’d be better off working in John Lewis.’

In spite of this, I had an amazing time and I did a lot of work with Health Visitors, helping them with babies and toddlers who had behavioural problems. Often, they couldn’t sleep or didn’t eat properly. I used to accompany the Health Visitors and help them think about what was going on. I got a research grant to look at the application of psychology in Primary Care, but it was really just an excuse to stay on at the Jubilee St Practice. At the end of that, the Director of Nursing said, ‘We really like the work you have done with Health Visitors and we are creating a psychology post for someone to do that sort of work.’ So that was how I started off.

I had a job that I loved working in General Practice in the East End. In those days, there was very little mental health provision and I was lucky enough to go into a practice which was forward thinking. It comprised three doctor’s practices that had come together and, when one of those GPs died, his relationship with his patients was so strong they all joined his funeral cortege.

When I first came to the East End, there were only a few practices that had more than one doctor and a few helpers. There were a lot of elderly doctors operating out of converted shops. I remember going to a practice to talk about the service and the only examination couch was in the kitchen, and it was propped up on old medical journals. There was so much dust you could write your name in it and there were files scattered about the place without any proper confidentiality. It was completely archaic and that was in the early eighties, not so very long ago. Because healthcare was so prized by people in the East End, who had never been used to decent medical services, I think they put up with things that people in other areas of London might not have done.

Jubilee St Practice became my home in the East End. I was always ambitious and I used every attempt to get funding for my work, and I taught on the East London Vocational Training Scheme, training GPs. I found that GPs who came onto the East London Scheme tended to stay in Tower Hamlets, so I got to know them all. It meant that, when they came to practice, they were receptive to the things I was doing and it gave me easy access into the world of General Practice.

As the doctors practicing in High St shops retired, the Family Practitioner Council invested in new practices. The new GPs coming in were of a high calibre and they wanted to practice in decent surroundings to give the best possible care. They were keen on the idea of a multi-disciplinary team, so they worked with nurses and Heath Visitors. By the time, I left every practice in Tower Hamlets had onsite psychological support.

In the early days, I set up a referral service. So a GP could come to me and say, ‘I’ve Mrs X and she’s terribly depressed at the moment, do you think you could see her?’ I would not work with a practice unless they would give a minimum of an hour a month to discuss the patients. There was a tremendous sense of partnership. We worked so closely and it was a fantastic time.

I was very often asked to write housing letters but in all my time I only wrote two, because I knew there was absolutely no point. Instead, I can remember writing the the local authority saying, ‘What is the point of me providing a service to a young woman with four children living on the fourteenth floor of a tower block?’ By then, many families were moving out but there were still many extended families. I remember asking a young mother, ‘How often do you see your ma?’ and she said, ‘Oh not very often, only three times a week.’ I think living cheek by jowl brought pressures. The positive was stronger than the negative but, even so, some people were oppressed, not the young children but the mothers. Their own mothers used to go round and do the washing for them, and there was a real dependency.

I was in Jubilee St during the big influx of Sylheti people and we had a big problem in that General Practices did not refer people with mental health problems from that community. In the eighties, we were the very first to set up a Bangladeshi counselling service and we trained somebody who spoke the language to run it, and then we did the same for the Somali community. There is a difficulty because some people think that a service by their own community is not as good as one provided by white healthcare professionals. We used the insights of the Bangladeshi and Somali counsellors  to help us to work with those populations.

Patients would sometimes talk to me about ‘those Paki bastards’ and I would always point out that this language was not acceptable. In my time, I saw a lot of people from the Bangladeshi community. I can remember one woman whose husband was a complete nightmare but culturally there was no way she could leave him. It was very hard to work with her because it was absolutely clear where her distress was coming from – it was from her relationship with her husband – but she could not alter that in any way. I could only offer her a place to talk about it and a place to consider other things that she might be able to do to improve her life, so that she understood she was not totally alone with her problem.

I did a lot of teaching of young doctors and medical students and I think – wherever in the world you are – you cannot overestimate sitting down quietly with someone and listening to what they have to say. Doctors who are always trained to do things find that very difficult to understand.

I joined the Jubilee St Practice in 1979 and I retired in 2009. I also worked in St Stephen’s Rd, Bow, in an all women practice which was unique in the East End at the time, when most doctors were older men. The working atmosphere at the practice was collegiate and they were very interested in the emotional life of their patients, which I think was unusual then. They looked after their staff very well.

I also worked in Wapping, where the GP had a bed with a pink quilt. I thought, ‘What’s this doing in the General Practice?’ In fact, it was where the GP slept when he was on call at night. He had his own bedroom at work. I observed the changing nature of the Wapping population. When the City people started to move in, they had much higher expectations and demanded to be seen when they needed to be seen.

There are a lot more children now with mental problems than when I started. There are multiple reasons. Not all children are in families where they get the nurturing that they need. Diet has a bit to do with it too. We could talk about air pollution. A lid used to be kept on by quite severe discipline. In general, children are much more disturbed now than twenty years ago. Families are much more disconnected with less extended families.

Over thirty years in the East End, I saw a major improvement in health services. District nursing and health visiting was of a very high quality in Tower Hamlets. The great thing about the East End was that it attracted people who are creative and want to improve health care. Every healthcare professional who has worked in Tower Hamlets and moved on still talks about working in the East End because there was a tremendous sense of collaboration and the patients were inspiring – because life was not easy for them.

I had a fantastic career, I was so lucky. Every year, the Bengali services had a Disability Awareness Day at Swanlea School in Whitechapel. The Bengali Disability Council set it up and they presented me a wonderful plaque for my services to the Bengali people of Tower Hamlets. That was the most moving occasion I have ever experienced. I got the MBE for services to healthcare in East London too, but the other award meant more to me because it meant I had been accepted by the community.”

Mary with former colleagues at the Jubilee St Practice

Mary Burd, Clinical Psychologist

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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