Here’s an edited version of a talk given by Tony White at the Idea Store Whitechapel on the tenth anniversary of the publication by Faber of his novel Foxy-T.
Last week I gave a reading and a talk about my novel Foxy-T for the Asian Eastenders event at the Idea Store Whitechapel as part of the Cockney Heritage Festival, on the tenth anniversary – almost to the day – of the novel’s publication by Faber and Faber back in July 2003. Foxy-T is set just a short walk away from the Idea Store, on Cannon Street Road, which (with its odd, double-designation; both street and road) is the southerly continuation of Vallance and New Roads – respective historical homes of the Kray twins and the Salvation Army. Together these streets form the backbone of the old East End, an albeit slightly neglected thoroughfare that links Hackney and Wapping, crossing Whitechapel Road at the western end of the now boarded-up ruins of the old London Hospital. The Idea Stores are the London Borough of Tower Hamlets’ thriving new libraries, replacing older buildings on Watney Market and Aldgate among others. Libraries in the area have played an important role in finding readers for Foxy-T, so I felt honoured to have been asked to speak.
The event was opened by Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who gave an inspiring speech about the East End’s traditions of tolerance, and about slang, including a touching reminiscence of her father’s entreaties that she and her brother ‘speak clearly’. She spoke about strong women with the capacity to effect change in their communities and beyond, from the Match Girls to the matriarchs of the Blitz era.
Foxy-T is the story of two women who run an internet shop and whose lives are disrupted by the arrival of a young man named Zafar Iqbal, a former resident of their flat. It is a love story with a killer twist. The novel was written over a two-year period through 2000 and 2001 as an attempt to map the ephemeral economies of that part of East London, and it is loosely based on D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Fox.
In my notes for the Idea Store event, I wrote: ‘Wanted to prove DHL wrong.’ Feeling that Lawrence’s female characters lacked agency, that they were there simply to service the whims of the central male character, I wanted women in my novel who – as I write in the book – ‘might have other plan in mind than just play along with what simple-minded scheme him a hatch.’ I took Lawrence’s central ‘love triangle’ – more accurately a square, since the role of the author/narrator could not be excluded – but tried to populate it with women who had a bit of gumption (like the strong East End women that Rushanara Ali referred to in her introductory speech) to see where they would take such a story, confident that it would not end with the kind of meek compliance that Lawrence offered.
The catalyst for the novel – though I didn’t know it yet – was the closure of the area’s only minicab office: the former Megna Cars on Cannon Street Road, just around the corner from where I lived at the time. Then, even more than ever, the East End was in a state of flux, and it was impossible to tell whether this now-empty shop and the flat above it might become a garment factory or a high-spec commercial art gallery. Two extremes, perhaps, but either was just as likely. Or maybe it would become an internet shop. If it were the latter, in those pre-broadband days, it would save me walking up to the one that had recently opened on Whitechapel High Street.
Looking back on it now, I don’t think my choosing the empty shell of the former Megna Cars on Cannon Street Road as the location of the ‘E-Z Call’ – the fictional internet shop in Foxy-T – was a random choice. Some buildings seem more tuned to the frequencies of the time. The former minicab office was such a building, and it has since been home to a succession of new businesses that have each reflected changes in the surrounding society. When it did finally reopen for business in 2002 it was not as an internet shop, but as an Islamic bookshop. A few years later, renamed Megna House, stickers on the shutter announced a Western Union Money Transfer service. After that, as ‘New Tech’, it offered computer and mobile phone sales and service. When I passed by more recently, it had become an immigration law specialist. While I was writing Foxy-T, the building was empty, and its upper windows were left open to pigeons. This sole gap in an otherwise bustling street was the perfect blank canvas on which to project my story, just as at one point in the novel my narrator watches the goings-on above the shop from the window of what was then the Halal Kebab and Fish and Chip on the opposite side of Cannon Street Road.
It sounds almost incredible now, but at that time it was still only a few years since the internet café had been invented, with the opening of Cyberia in London in 1994. In the intervening period, the slightly humbler internet shop, or internet and international telephone call shop, had become ubiquitous in the poorer and the more transient areas of probably most cities of the world, and yet I couldn’t think of a novel that was set in one. Internet shops were a new kind of public space, dedicated to speech and writing, and to new kinds of social interaction, but perhaps quite isolating places to work.
Internet shops, or cafés, are in the news again this week; their function and status newly contested. They are currently being targeted as part of the UK Home Office’s ambiguously worded ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ campaign. Together with newsagents and ‘money transfer shops’, ‘internet cafes’ have been described – with questionable grammar – by the UK Home Office as ‘areas where illegal migrants are known to frequent.’
The East End of London is in fact an area that has been defined, created over centuries by successive waves of migration, where diverse cultures and histories are overlaid, stratified. In writing about the East End, it seemed to me that what was happening ‘on the surface’, now, was far richer, more interesting and relevant than digging back through those strata in search of Kray-era nostalgia, or the Gothic of Jack the Ripper.
I wanted to use fiction to map these more ephemeral economies of Cannon Street Road, whether that was the re-purposing of the empty Megna Cars building, the comings-and-goings of a local wedding caterer, or the posting of a club night flyer. Of course, I was thinking of ‘economies’ in the loosest, non-technical sense, as systems of value and exchange. One such system being spoken language, and at that time – particularly in the East End – something seemed to be happening around Black British language, which was now being valued and used by other communities.
Chatting at the time I used to say that you could hear someone talking behind you on the bus and no longer be able to connect voice and ethnicity. Here were young Bangladeshi rude boys in Shadwell calling each other ‘Rasta’. It might sound slight, but that cultural disconnect represented a huge break with the politics of identity that had been fought for in the preceding decades, in every walk of life, including in literature, and this shift seemed worthy of note. More than that, it was obvious that a novel set in London E1 at that time would need to engage with this change head on, rather than constraining it in the kinds of apostrophised contortions that would be necessary to represent this use of language in standard English.
That is why the novel is written in the vernacular that surrounded me; what local journalist Hussain Ismail (who had been switched on to the novel by an early copy stocked by the former Watney Market Library), writing for a style magazine that was being published out of Brick Lane at the time, referred to as, ‘the real sound of the East End.’ More recently, this language has been given the technical name of ‘Multicultural London English’ or MLE.
Finally I would like to thank some local sixth-formers who used to smoke in the stairwell of the building that I lived in, and of all those buildings round there, on their way to college in the mornings. These young women would leave empty cigarette packets scrunched up on the stairs, and sometimes, too, they would write their names on the wall. This was a particularly neat kind of graffiti, often more like handwriting, done in a blue felt-tipped pen. At first I thought nothing of this, but here is a picture that I took the week or maybe even the day that I started writing the novel, when I realised that my building’s landlords were repainting the stairwell and all that neat and girlish graffiti was rapidly disappearing.
It was the subtle pathos created by this act of erasure that suddenly brought all of these thoughts about internet shops, D. H. Lawrence and the ephemeral economies of the East End crashing together. In those pre-digital, pre-phone camera days, the only camera I had with any film left in it was an old disposable that I’d been carrying around for years; unfinished and unprocessed. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought – as I raced to beat the decorators, as I ran down the stairs with this crappy disposable camera – if in a few years’ time it was a couple of these young women running their own business on Cannon Street Road.
I couldn’t use the ‘real’ street names that had been written in my stairwell, so quickly made up a couple: ‘They got proper names them two init,’ I wrote, once I was back at my desk,
but everyone still call them by there tags what are everywhere on all them like stairwell and flats and playground round here – least where they aint been wash off yet or paint over. And they are Ruji-Babes and Foxy-T.
Foxy-T by Tony White
Foxy-T by Tony White is available in paperback priced £6.99. Buy a copy at www.faber.co.uk.
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