Andre Gushurst-Moore enjoys a clergyman's intimate portrait of London's mysterious East This Bright Field by William Taylor, Methuen £15.99 THIS IS AN unusual work, "A Travel Book in One Place", which Involves the author, like George Orwell before him, going native in his own country. As Paul Theroux remarked somewhere, travel for most people nowadays involves flight from the strange and unusual in their own neighbourhood, and the transportation of their own prejudices and eating habits to far-flung parts of the globe. Modern tourism requires no internal journey. Here, in contrast, we have the evocation of one place, both still and moving, combined with autobiography and a search for personal identity. It is a highly successful mixture.
William Taylor, an Anglican priest and chaplain to London Guildhall University, has written a delightfully reflective book, full of humour and fresh discovery. It is a journey of realisation, both of Spitalfields — the "bright field" of the title — and of his own vocation as priest. Coming down from Oxford, and having been sent away by his bishop to learn something of life first, Taylor (rather resentfully at first) moves through different Spitalfields. He becomes, successively, a delivery driver for the market, a barman in the Jack the Ripper pub, a footman-impersonator in a Georgian house-cumrestaurant, and a consultant for a development company. Along the way, he meets some memorable characters, discovers something of the economic and architectural history of east London, and with considerable literary skill considers lessons that this small, vibrant part of the metropolis can tell us about life in our postmodern world.
Early on, the author takes as a kind of text a quotation from Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (a book set in Spitaffields): "The modern city is the locus classicus of incompatible realities. Lives that have no business mingling with one another sit side by side on the omnibus". Taylor finds that there are discrete groups of inhabitants: the cockneys of the market and the pub; the gentrifiers restoring and preserving the Georgian terraces; the Bengali immigrant craft-workers who have succeeded the East European Jews and the Huguenots before them. There are also the mad artists Gilbert and George. All this makes for a place of vision and promise among the privation and dislocation. Dr Johnson's observation that "The full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross" might be easily applied also to the Spitalfields of this book. It is emblematic of the transience that human life everywhere involves, a "passing through" which is always in tension with the enduring structures that imply permanence.
BUT LONDON, the author reminds us, is a modern city, rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. It reflects the birth of capitalism in the late seventeenth century, and the "emerging Enlightenment values of order and uniformity". One consequence was the separation of rich and poor. In the pre-modern city, all sorts of people had been jumbled together, but "it was in the eighteenth century that the West End/East End division first emerged". Social segregation became the answer to the "problem" of the earthly city, its physical and moral unhealthiness. Eighteenth century rationalism in architecture, and its more horrible recent descendants, comes in for some sharp and perceptive criticism here: "Whereas our actual cities are dark places, full of ambiguity and delight, these postEnlightenment fantasy cities tend to be places of anodyne contrivance".
The book is full of such felicitous writing, and one of its joys is seeing a vivid world through the author's literate vision. For instance, Taylor has a gift for simile, and metaphor generally: "the Mercedes emerge from the market car park at the end of the day like maggots from a rotting apple".
AS A STUDENT, he stared at books spread around him, "like so many unsprung traps". Again in the market he finds, amusingly, that "a pallet is stacked rather as society is organised, with the hard root vegetables at the bottom and the soft exotic fruit on the top". The title of the hook itself is an allusion to a poem, prepended here, in which the poet sees a field lit by sunlight and transformed like the burning bush that caught the eye of Moses. The image of fire runs as a connecting symbol throughout the book, first , seen in the haunting image of down-and-outs in the darkness of Spitaltlelds Market, "those few hunched figures gathering around the pallet fire". This strongly recalls, for this reader at least, the workmen around the brazier at the beginning of Anthony Powell's A Question of Upbringing, the first volume in his Dance sequence.
in 1991 Spitaffields Market was closed after some 300 years and relocated to Leyton. The area is under threat of office redevelopment. This is opposed by many residents, the author included, who have a regard for the human nature of the place, and its ability to form a community in spite of the difference of creed and colour among the inhabitants.
Both Christianity and Islam may be found there, as wellsprings of order in the post-modern chaos, fulfilling a need that celebration of "diversity" cannot alone meet. No wonder that, at the end of his bibliography, the author names as two essential guidebooks the London A-Z and St Augustine's City of God.