Karel Čapek: The East End

IT starts not far beyond the centre of the world, the Bank of England, the Stock Exchange and a regular jungle of other banks and financial establishments; this Golden Shore is almost washed by the black waves of East London. "Don't go there without a guide," said the denizens of the West End to me, "and don't take much money with you." Well, that 'is decidedly putting it too strongly: for my part I regard Piccadilly or Fleet Street as a worse haunt of savagery than the Isle of Dogs or Limehouse of ill repute, even with Chinatown, or than the whole of Poplar, lock, stock and barrel, with the Jews, the seamen, and the misery of Rotherhithe on the other side of the river. Nothing happened to me, but I came back feeling acutely depressed, although I have been through the abominations of the har­bours at Marseilles and Palermo. The streets are very unsightly with their filthy cobbles, with their swarms of children on the pave­ment, with their queer Chinese types who flit like shadows past shops which are still queerer, with their drunken seamen, with their Philanthropic Shelters, with their bat­tered-looking youths, and with their stench of scorched rags; yet I have seen worse places, flaunting misery, filthy and virulent as an ulcer, unutterable stenches and haunts viler than a wolf's den. But it is not that, it is not that. The horrible thing in East London is not what can be seen and smelt, but its unbounded and unredeemable extent.

Elsewhere poverty and ugliness exist merely as a rubbish-heap between two houses, like an unsavoury nook, a cesspool or unclean offal; but here are miles and miles of grimy houses, hopeless streets, Jewish shops, a superfluity of children, gin palaces and Christian shelters. Miles and miles, from Peckham to Hackney, from Walworth to Barking, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Poplar, Bromley, Stepney, Bow and Bethnal Green, the quarters inhabited by navvies, Jews, Cockneys and stevedores from the docks, poverty-stricken and downtrodden people — everything equally dull, grimy, bare and unending, intersected by dirty channels of deafening traffic, and the whole way equally cheerless. And in the south, in the north­west, in the north-east again the same thing, miles and miles of grimy houses, where the whole street consists of nothing but a vast horizontal tenement, factories, gasometers, railway lines, clayey patches of waste ground, storehouses for goods and storehouses for human beings. There are assuredly uglier quarters and squalider streets in all parts of the world; even squalor is here on a higher level, and the poorest beggar is not clad in rags; but, good heavens! the human beings, the millions of human beings who live in this greater half of London, in these short, uniform, joyless streets, which teem on the plan of London, like worms in a huge carrion.

And that is just the distressing thing about the East End — there is too much of it; and it cannot be re-shaped. Not even the devil as tempter would venture to say: If you will, I shall destroy this city, and in three days I will build it up anew — anew and better: not so grimy, not so, mechanical, not so inhuman and bleak. If he were to say that, perhaps I would fall down and worship him. I wandered through streets whose names recall Jamaica, Canton, India or Peking; all are alike, in all the windows there are curtains; it might even look quite nice if there were not five hundred thousand of such dwellings. In this overwhelming quantity it no longer looks like an excess of human beings, but like a geological forma­tion; this black magma has been vomited up by factories; or it is a deposit of the merchandise which floats yonder along the Thames upon white ships; or it was piled up from soot and dust. Go and have a look at Oxford Street and Regent Street and the Strand, and see what fine houses people have built to hold goods, commodities, things; for the produce of man has its value. A shirt would lose in value if it were to be sold within such drab and plain walls; but man can live there, i.e. sleep, eat repul­sive food, and beget children.

Perhaps some one more expert would lead you to more picturesque places, where even dirt is romantic and squalor decorative; but I have strayed into a maze of small streets and cannot find my way out. Or is it certain that these countless black streets lead any­where at all?

Čapek, Karel: Lettres from England. Translation byl Paul Selves, Geoffrey Bless. London 1945.

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