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Vaisakhi At Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar

April 23, 2018
by the gentle author

Making roti for the festival of Vaisakhi

Photographer Andrew Baker has been documenting the life of the Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar, Sikh Temple in Manor Park, for several years and I was delighted to accompany him recently to witness the annual ritual of Vaisakhi – a celebration of new year and harvest festival which centres around a flag pole being taken down, washed in milk and then re-erected with a new silk wrapping for another year.

This ritual of renewal commemorates the events of 14th April 1699, after Guru Gobind Singh’s father had been beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. When the guru asked which of his followers would sacrifice their head as a proof of loyalty – five volunteers stepped forward into his tent one by one, and each time he emerged with blood on his sword. Yet on the fifth time, he emerged accompanied by the five volunteers all unharmed and they became known as the Panj Pyare (the five beloved ones). This was an initiation ritual establishing the Order of Khalsa, created by the guru to champion religious freedom and fight oppression of all kinds.

Meanwhile, more than three hundred years later in East London, I was astonished by the open-hearted generosity of the welcome I received – as a complete outsider to Sikhism – from both male and female members of the congregation when I visited their temple. Upon arrival, I stepped into the kitchen where group of brightly dressed women were singing as they cooked huge pots of fresh green spinach and yellow chickpeas for the forthcoming Vaisakhi feast. Removing my shoes, washing my hands and wrapping my head in a coloured cloth, I entered the temple and sat in a quiet corner while worshippers lined up to present their offerings during an extended reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, by a distinguished gentleman in a long beard who could orate – seemingly – for hours without pausing for breath.

Yet I noticed that the congregation were beginning to drift discreetly towards the exit, so I followed them outside to observe the activity. On my way, I put my head around the kitchen door again where the women were still singing but now working in a production line to produce enough roti to feed the hundreds that had assembled.

An excited crowd had gathered in the street, adorned in garments of blue, orange, yellow and pink that are beloved of the Sikhs. The sense of anticipation grew tangible as five bearded men dressed in orange tunics with white scarves and blue turbans, bearing steel sabres, processed out from the temple to stand barefoot in line upon five squares of carpet that had thoughtfully been placed upon the asphalt for them. These were the Panj Pyare.

A group of women were chanting to a rhythm enhanced by an array of percussive instruments but all eyes were upon the flagpole with its steel finial in the shape of double-edged sword glinting in the sun. Two men on a ladder were dislodging the pole from the clamps that supported it and – with a cheer from the crowd – it hinged down to reach the forest of arms extended to support it as it reached horizontal.

Once the ribbons that secured it were untied by members of the crowd, the yellow silk pole cover was pulled off, just like an extremely long sock. Then others with steel bowls of thick milk, almost like thin yoghurt, stepped forward so that everyone could dip their hands in it and apply the milk to the flag pole.

On either side, people leaned forward eagerly to smear milk all over the pole with their fingers while standing back to prevent milk dripping onto their shoes. Then the pole was dried conscientiously with towels before the new silk cover was tied lovingly in place with ribbons. Once this was accomplished, the crowd was suffused with delight at their collective achievement to see the flagpole ascending to its vertical position again.

The five beloved ones led the way back into the temple with their sabres gleaming in the sunlight and everyone followed in hungry expectation of the feast that was to come. In this particular corner of East London, Vaisakhi had been observed for another year and spring was in the air.

Taking down the flag pole

Baking roti for the Vaisakhi feast

Inside the temple

Reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book

The Panj Pyare (five beloved ones)

The flag pole comes down

Removing the silk wrapper

Washing the flagpole in milk

Wrapping the flagpole in a new silk cover

Photographs copyright © Andrew Baker

A Walk Along The Black Path

April 22, 2018
by the gentle author

Sculpture of porters resting at London Fields

Taking to heart the observation by the celebrated poet & resident of Aldgate, Geoffrey Chaucer, that April is the time to go on pilgrimages, I set out last week for day’s walk in the sunshine along the ancient Black Path from Walthamstow to Shoreditch. The route of this primeval footpath is still clearly visible upon the map of the East End today, as if someone had taken a crayon and scrawled a curved diagonal line across the grid of the modern street plan. There is no formal map of the Black Path yet any keen walker with a sense of direction may follow it as I did.

Tracing a trajectory running northeast and southwest between Shoreditch Church and the crossing of the River Lea at Clapton, the Black Path links with Old St in one direction and extends beyond Walthamstow in the other. Sometimes called the Porter’s Way, this was the route cattle were driven to Smithfield and the path used by smallholders taking produce to Spitalfields Market. Sometimes also called the Templars’ Way, it links the thirteenth century St Augustine’s Tower on land once owned by Knights Templar in Hackney with the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell where they had their headquarters. No-one knows how old the Black Path is or why it has this name, but it once traversed open country before the roads existed. These days the path is black because it has a covering of asphalt.

On the warmest day of spring I took the train from Liverpool St Station up to Walthamstow to commence my walk, seeking respite in the sunshine after the harsh winter that outstayed its allotted season. In observance of custom, I commenced my pilgrimage at an inn, setting out from The Bell and following the winding road through Walthamstow to the market. A tavern by this name has stood at Bell Corner for centuries and the street that leads southwest from it, once known as Green Leaf Lane, reveals its ancient origin in its curves that trace the contours of the land.

Struggling to resist the delights of pie & mash and magnificent 99p shops, I felt like Bunyan’s pilgrim avoiding the temptations of Vanity Fair as I wandered through Walthamstow Market which extends for a mile down the High St to St James, gradually sloping away down towards the marshes. Here I turned left onto St James St itself before following Station Rd and then weaving southwest through late nineteenth century terraces, sprawling over the incline, to emerge at the level of the Walthamstow Marshes.

Then I walked along Markhouse Avenue which leads into Argall Industrial Estate, traversed by a narrow footpath enclosed with high steel fences on each side. Here you may find Allied Bakeries, Bates Laundry and evangelical churches including Deliverance Outreach Mission, Praise Harvest Community Church, Celestial Church of Christ, Mountain of Fire & Miracle Ministries and Christ United Ministries, revealing that religion may be counted as an industry in this location.

Crossing an old railway bridge and a broad tributary of the River Lea brought me onto the Leyton Marshes where I was surrounded by leaves unfurling, buds popping and blossom exploding – natural wonders that characterise the rush of spring at this sublime moment of the year. Horses graze on the marshes and the dense blackthorn hedge which lines the footpath provided a sufficiently bucolic background to evoke a sense that I was walking an ancient footpath through a rural landscape. Yet already the municipal parks department were out, unable to resist taking advantage of the sunlight to give the verges a fierce trim with their mechanical mower even before the the plants have properly sprouted.

It was a surprise to find myself amidst the busy traffic again as I crossed the Lea Bridge and found myself back in the East End, of which the River Lea is its eastern boundary. The position of this crossing – once a ford, then a ferry and finally a bridge – defines the route of the Black Path, tracing a line due southwest from here.

I followed the diagonal path bisecting the well-kept lawn of Millfields and walked up Powerscroft Rd to arrive in the heart of Hackney at St Augustine’s Tower, built in 1292 and a major landmark upon my route. Yet I did not want to absorb the chaos of this crossroads where so many routes meet at the top of Mare St, instead I walked quickly past the Town Hall and picked up the quiet footpath next to the museum known as Hackney Grove. This byway has always fascinated me, leading under the railway line to emerge onto London Fields.

The drovers once could graze their cattle, sheep and geese overnight on this common land before setting off at dawn for Smithfield Market, a practice recalled today in the names of Sheep Lane and the Cat & Mutton pub. The curve of Broadway Market leading through Goldsmith’s Row down to Columbia Rd reveals its origin as a cattle track. From the west end of Columbia Rd, it was a short walk along Virginia Rd on the northern side of the Boundary Estate to arrive at my destination, Shoreditch Church.

If I chose to follow ancient pathways further, I could have walked west along Old St towards Bath, north up the Kingsland Rd to York, east along the Roman Rd towards Colchester or south down Bishopsgate to the City of London. But flushed and footweary after my six mile hike in the heat of the sun, I was grateful to return home to Spitalfields and put my feet up in the shade of the house. For millennia, when it was the sole route, countless numbers travelled along the old Black Path from Walthamstow to Shoreditch, but last week there was just me on my solitary pilgrimage.

At Bell Corner, Walthamstow

‘Fellowship is Life’

Two quinces for £1.50 in Walthamstow Market

Walthamstow Market is a mile long

‘struggling to resist the delights of pie & mash’

At St James St

Station Rd

‘leaves unfurling, buds popping and blossom exploding which characterise the rush of spring’

Enclosed path through Argall Industrial Estate skirting Allied Bakeries

Argall Avenue

‘These days the path is black because it has a covering of asphalt’

Railway bridge leading to the Leyton marshes

A tributary of the River Lea

Horses graze on the Leyton marshes

“dense blackthorn which line the footpath provided a sufficiently bucolic background to evoke a sense that I was walking an ancient footpath”

‘the municipal parks department were out, unable to resist taking advantage of the sunlight to give the verges a fierce trim with their mechanical mower even before the the plants have properly sprouted’

The River Lea is the eastern boundary of the East End

Across Millfields Park towards Powerscroft Rd

Thirteenth century St Augustine’s Tower in Hackney

Worn steps in Hackney Grove

In London Fields

At Cat & Mutton Bridge, Broadway Market

Columbia Rd

St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

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The Map Of The Coffee Houses

April 21, 2018
by the gentle author

Each Saturday, we shall be featuring one of Adam Dant’s MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND from the forthcoming book of his extraordinary cartography to be published by Spitalfields Life Books & Batsford on June 7th.

Please support this ambitious venture by pre-ordering a copy, which will be signed by Adam Dant with an individual drawing on the flyleaf and sent to you on publication. CLICK TO ORDER A SIGNED COPY OF MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND BY ADAM DANT

Click on the map to enlarge and read the stories of the Coffee Houses

These days, London is riddled with Coffee Shops but, at the start, there was just the Jamaica Coffee House, which was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee in St Michael’s Alley in the City of London. More than three hundred and fifty years later, it is still open and so I met Adam Dant there  to learn about his new map – which you see above – drawn in the shape of a coffee pot.

“I’ve always wanted to do a map of the Coffee Houses, because it marks a moment when intellectual activity had a parity with mercantile activity. They called them the penny universities,” he explained, eagerly quaffing a glass of Italian red wine in the mid-afternoon. “And it wasn’t just coffee they sold but alcohol too,” he added, fleshing out the historical background as he sipped his glass, “so you could get drunk in one corner and sober up with coffee in another.”

The first Coffee Houses became popular meeting places, facilitating introductions between those of similar interests, fostering deals, trading, and business enterprises. Lloyds of London began as a Coffee House, opened by Edward Lloyd in Lombard St around 1688, where the customers were sailors, merchants and shipowners who brokered insurance among themselves, leading to the creation of the insurance market.

“People complain about the proliferation of Coffee Houses today,” admitted Adam Dant with a sigh, before emptying his glass, “But there were thirty here in these streets behind the Royal Exchange, until a fire that started in a peruke shop burnt them all down. The only reason we know where they all were is because somebody was commissioned to draw a map of them, assessing the damage.”

Executed in ink of an elegant coffee hue and bordered with Coffee House tokens, Adam Dant’s beautiful map gives you the stories and the locations of nineteen different Coffee Houses in the City. Fulfilled with such devoted attention to detail, Adam’s cartography of caffeine led me to assume this must be a labour of love for one who is addicted to coffee, yet – to my surprise – I discovered this was not the case.”I drink expresso at Allpress in Redchurch St,” Adam confessed to me, “but the best coffee is at Present, the gentlemen’s clothiers, in Shoreditch High St. I like to drink three cups before dinner and one after, but, fortunately, I am not a creature of habit and I could easily go three months without drinking coffee.”

Adam Dant at the Jamaica Coffee House in St Michael’s Alley


Adam Dant’s MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND is a mighty monograph collecting together all your favourite works by Spitalfields Life‘s cartographer extraordinaire in a beautiful big hardback book.

Including a map of London riots, the locations of early coffee houses and a colourful depiction of slang through the centuries, Adam Dant’s vision of city life and our prevailing obsessions with money, power and the pursuit of pleasure may genuinely be described as ‘Hogarthian.’

Unparalleled in his draughtsmanship and inventiveness, Adam Dant explores the byways of English cultural history in his ingenious drawings, annotated with erudite commentary and offering hours of fascination for the curious.

The book includes an extensive interview with Adam Dant by The Gentle Author.

Adam Dant’s  limited edition prints are available to purchase through TAG Fine Arts

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of Spitalfields

April 20, 2018
by the gentle author

Poet Niall McDevitt writes about Emilia Bassano Lanier, who was a long-term resident of Spital Sq and believed by many to be the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets. On Sunday 22nd & 29th April at 2pm, Niall leads a walk starting at Tower Hill visiting the locations of Emilia’s life and telling her story. Click here to book.

Portrait miniature by Nicholas Hillard

Emilia Bassano Lanier is one of the most distinguished people to be born in Spitalfields, yet her reputation only grew four centuries after her death.

She was born in Spital Sq early in 1569 and baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate on 27th January. Her family situation was highly unusual. Technically, Emilia was a bastard since her father Baptista Bassano was not married to her mother Margaret Johnson although they lived together as a couple. Baptista was a racial outsider, a Sephardic Jew from the Veneto region of Italy with family connections to Venice and the small town of Bassano del Grappa. As Jews had no legal status in England at that time, he should not even have been there officially.

Yet he was not alone. There were growing numbers of Bassanos in London. Henry VIII invited six Bassano brothers over to London as court musicians. They were a prodigious musical family who doubled up as fine instrument makers. Perhaps the brothers explained their reservations about their racial origin to Henry VIII’s negotiators and were told not to worry. Were they crypto-Jews, known as ‘Marranos’ then? It is not known for certain whether they practised Judaism, though it is not unlikely. In those days, a little Protestant window-dressing was sufficient to cover up secularism or any other illicit belief.

The Anglo-Italian, Anglo-Jewish Emilia grew up in an artistic and courtly milieu. Her father and uncles played in the royal palaces such as Greenwich and big houses such as Baynards Castle, as well as the burgeoning inn-yard theatres such as The Cross Keys in Gracechurch St. Interestingly, while most of the extended Bassano family lived in a mansion on Mark Lane, Emilia’s father Baptista lived separately in a row of three properties on Spital Sq, close to the site of the former church of St Mary Spital. There he died in 1576 – the same year James Burbage’s Theatre was constructed – and was buried at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate.

Emilia’s status as minor gentry meant she was familiar with aristocracy if not quite of it. At six, she went to live in the London home of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent, possibly the original Willoughby House in the Barbican. She was fortunate to find herself in a Protestant humanist circle that prized education for women and she was brilliantly tutored. The musical talent that ran in her family was enriched by literary and philosophical learning. She became a musician and writer, although debarred by her gender from any professional status.

Yet despite the obstacles, Emilia became the first woman in England to publish a collection of her own poetry. Her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a profoundly Christian poem told from a feminist point of view two centuries before Mary Wollstonecraft who – coincidentally – was also born in Spitalfields. Note Emilia’s daring philosemitic title: ‘Hail God, King of the Jews.’ But her radical epic was ignored and forgotten and she died in 1645 at the great age of seventy-six, uncelebrated, and was buried at St James Clerkenwell.

It is thanks to the London diarist Simon Forman – also healer, astrologer and magician – that Emilia is remembered. He had many clients from all walks of Elizabethan-Jacobean society and his casebooks are full of detailed notes. In the last century, A.L. Rowse found information about Emilia among a mass of Forman’s unpublished papers.

During consultations, Emilia revealed to Forman that she had become the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain – patron of Shakespeare’s troupe, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – when she was eighteen and he was sixty-three. Falling pregnant by him in 1592, she was forced to marry her cousin Alphonse Lanier, another musician, yet the affair with Carey continued until his death in 1596. Carey showered her with gifts and annuities which her aggrieved husband confiscated. Additionally, Forman tells of his own frustrated affair with Emilia who permitted every intimacy except penetration. This angered Forman and in his diary he accused her of sexual magic, ‘raising incuba’ and ‘villainy.’ He portrays Emilia as a dark, scheming psychopathic figure who inspires fear and, from 1600, she ceases to feature in his writings.

But Emilia Bassano Lanier may have had another advocate. She is arguably the subject of one of the most celebrated sequences of poetry in literature, Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Sonnets 127-154 concern not so much a lady who is dark but a ‘mistress’ who is ‘black’. This does not imply an Afro-Carribean origin but someone dark-haired, dark-eyed, and ‘dun’ of complexion, such as an Italian Sephardic Jewess. The sonnets are a portrait in verse of someone remarkably similar in character and appearance to the woman that Forman desribes. The arc of both narratives is also similar – a sexually charged affair that ends in an atmosphere of toxic recrimination. Consequently, A.L. Rowse declared Emilia Lanier to be Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ in the seventies and a host of proponents and opponents have followed ever since.

For Emilia Bassano Lanier, oblivion is over. She now has a place in the canon of English literature as an esteemed poet and feminist in her own right, as well as potentially being the female subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Emilia is becoming more and more present.



My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.


Portrait miniature by Nicholas Hilliard believed to be William Shakespeare

Sixteenth century drawing of St Mary Spital as Emilia Bassano Lanier may have known it with gabled wooden houses lining Bishopsgate

Title page of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Emilia Basson Lanier, 1611, the first collection of poetry published by a woman in England

Simon Forman, Diarist, Healer, Astrologer and Magician c.1611

Spital Sq, home of Emilia Lanier who may have been the inspiration for the ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets

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Last Of The Crooners At The Palm Tree

April 19, 2018
by the gentle author

This Saturday 21st April promises to be a big night at The Palm Tree in Mile End. Accompanying the opening of an exhibition of portraits of celebrated musicians by photographer Tom Oldham is the release of limited edition of five hundred copies of The Last of The Crooners, a record of  live recordings of the performers (including a portfolio of portraits) for £20 available exclusively on a first-come-first-served basis at the pub. The exhibition opens at 7pm and the music starts at 9pm.

“Jack Honeyborne on keys, Alan Jackson on drum and Izzy on bass, playing a more freeform instrumental track prior to the singer stepping up.”

Jack Honeyborne“Jack used to perform with Vera Lynn and maintains the heyday for modern music in this country was before the rot set in, in the fifties.”

Charlie Willis - “Charismatic singer Charlie used to sing in down in the tube stations during the Second World War. They’d ask him to get up and give us a song, which is how he started performing.”

Alan Jackson - “The other rock solid element of the Palm Tree Trio rhythm section is Alan Jackson on drums. Cheeky, but an incredible talent at beating a jazz pattern out of the modest cocktail kit that comprises the absolute minimum of luxuries for a drummer.”

Izzy - “Izzy play bass. He’s the backbone of a rock solid rhythm section and one third of the Palm Tree Trio.”

Andy Gangadeen“a drummer of world reknown, having played with greats such as Massive Attack, Jeff Beck and a huge variety of artists going back thirty years. He happily sits in at the Palm Tree and loves the gig for its challenges and the free range creativity it demands.”

Helen Keating - “Helen Keating is so glamorous it’s almost impossible to believe she’s almost eighty-one, dare I say it. She is a true performer and reglaulary played the last Sunday of every month for next twenty-five years before retiring a few months back. She also performed in Minder and the Sweeney back in the day.”

Bruce - “Bruce is a pianist at the Palm Tree and guests at the old piano occasionally. He plays beautifully and always makes a welcome return to the little stage.”

Shireen Francis - “Shireen has a beauty in her voice that brings so much to these old songs, everytime. A proper journeyman singer, she regularly performs all over London but still gives every show her all. A delight to see if you’re every in.”

Colin Anthony - “Colin Anthony is a guest singer and regularly travels to Bow to guest on the mic at The Palm Tree. He adds a stylish air of panache to the proceedings, as well as performing with a voice truly reminiscent of Tony Bennett.”

Kerrie Barrett - “daughter of Alf & Val, landlord & landlady at the Palm Tree. She’s also the owner of a great set of vocal chords and often graces the stage at the weekend to sing a jazz standard or two, which everyone looks forward to.

“generations of talent have stepped onto the stage at the Palm Tree”

Photographs copyright © Tom Oldham

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