Brick Lane: A Case Against Social and Ethnic Exclusion in Britain – Asher Gibson


Straddling the border between zones 1 and 2 and diverging from the bustle of Whitechapel High Street is a road with a “Jekyll and Hyde” history of struggle against a shadow of social deprivation. Brick Lane, introduced to many by the talking heads of young, affluent YouTubers reporting “THE BEST PLACE TO GO THRIFT SHOPPING IN LONDON”. The street resembled the bright, bohemian North Laine Bazaar of Brighton, which stood firm as the place-to-be for young alternatives, from the “goths” of the 1980’s to the “softbois” and “eGirls” of today. Brick Lane was like London’s sixth form sketch book; illustrated by the residents with street art and stickers, models, murals, and tiles painted to tell the stories of the people who lived there. Its artwork was a sign of possession. The people who painted Brick Lane loved this street and showed this with posters, paints, and prints.

In contrast, the street’s visual noise was coated by a blanket of quiet. This may have been the fault of the late Wednesday morning, but the upper end, Osborn street, was nonetheless tainted by an air of deprivation. Shops were closed and their grates were painted over, but not with street art. Instead, with the haphazard graffiti signatures that declared a place “abandoned”. The few people I passed on Osborne Street were far removed from the young, middle-class bohemians I met near the lower end – the group who introduced me to the street in the first place. They were would once be called the “salt of the Earth” by people who want to show them a distant sympathy, but on the basis of their usefulness, not their humanity.

Many were not rich, and many more were migrants from one to three or more generations. These have been Brick Lane’s people for decades. The street began its life as Whitechapel Lane, as a slum area that, during the Victorian era, was one of the worst hit streets by the Jack-the-Ripper murders. Over the years, it began to rise in its economic status, becoming a haven for many migrants escaping poverty, war, and deprivation in their home countries. During the 19th and 20th century, they were mostly Jewish and Irish, but today are mostly of Bengali heritage. However, the affectionate defacement of an ATM sign with “HALA MADRID” paired with a love heart in black spray paint shows that this is not the limit to the diversity of people that have come to make Brick Lane their home.

The people of Brick Lane were not just the bright, white talking heads on YouTube. Instead, they were more like the pixels in the DSLR in my hand. They were bright, varied, multicoloured components of an image that reflected the reality of both London and Britain. Its artwork, defacement, stickers and storefronts showed Brick Lane as a unit pushing back against the battles of it’s past. It is a case study of Britain’s story as a whole. Its language is a blend of Latin, French, and German with loan words from Arabic. Its cultural symbols, from the cup of tea to the tikka masala, were taken from once distant colonies in South Asia. Its universities and research are funded by the European mainland, while its buildings are built on the sweat of Slavic expats. The very essence of Britain’s cultural character has been built on the contributions and the exploitation of others. If one lesson can be learned from Brick Lane, it’s that Britain’s current trend of isolating itself from the rest of the world will be suffocating. It will lose the very things, the very people, that brought Brick Lane up from the ground and made it the wonderful, dog-eared sketchbook street it is today.

Asher Gibson was a Senior runner up in the Orwell Youth Prize 2019 responding to the theme ‘A Fair Society?’. We asked him where he got the inspiration for his piece and what motivates him to write: 

What was the inspiration behind your piece?
When I wrote the piece, I had two interrelated goals in mind. I knew that I wanted to write something orientated around a social issue related to London so that, if it received any commendation, I could use it to apply to the student newspaper at the university I had applied to. Around this time, I had stumbled upon a YouTube video of a student who was reviewing the thrift shops in Brick Lane. In the first part of the interview, I noticed he showed a marked discomfort as he navigated the streets in front of Brick Lane, which he described as a “rough area”. His demeanour completely changed, however, when he arrived at all of the ritzy, slightly overpriced shops, and it made me curious as to why there was such a significant difference in this young man’s attitudes towards two places that were less than a 5 minute walk from each other. As I was going to be in London the week after for a visit to what is now my University (King’s College London), I decided to investigate the area for a bit of ethnographic study to see for myself, what was the difference between the two areas? Why are they there? How do the people who actually live there, day by day, feel about the area and how do their attitudes differ from those held by the people like the YouTuber? How might the history of the area and political issues like class, race, national identity and London’s multiculturalism have affected these discrepancies?

Why did you pick the form you did?
Although I have written literature in the past, most of my recent work (including this piece) has taken the form of long-form essays and journalism. These are the forms I’ll have to familiarise myself to develop professionally as I begin to seriously pursue a career, either in journalism or political communications.

‘Why I Write’
At risk of sounding cynical, I write because I’ve been told I’m good at it since I was very young. Teachers and family members saw something in the way I wrote, and so I was encouraged to practice and hone the craft. It became a source of positive reinforcement. It’s just lucky that I love it too. I also write for a wider purpose, but this was borne out of the initial, Pavlovian reason. Because I love it, I learned why it is important. By formal and informal education, watching the news to see how it’s produced, speaking to those affiliated with the Orwell Prize, I came to realise that society needs people putting words to paper, artistically and factually, for humanity to progress and to allow us to try and go about building a good and fair society. There is a reason why fascist governments burn books and ban the marginalised from learning to read and write. Writing can be an art or a technology. Art lets us imagine how we would like the world to look and technology lets us change it. If you don’t want the world to change, you stop people writing about it. I was born in a country where I’m allowed to use my skills, to write and to learn. If I didn’t, I’d be disposing of something very powerful – like tossing a Molotov into the ocean, for instance.

Advice to fellow young writers
Do not be disheartened by failure. This whole practice is completely subjective. I entered a competition before Orwell Youth Prize where, despite my teacher’s praise over my work, my piece, and I, received no attention. It knocked my confidence so severely that it almost caused me to forego attending the OYP Celebrations Day, which would have meant sacrificing some very useful advice from Max Daly, engaging political debates, the pride of standing as a Runner Up in this competition, and a very nice set of George Orwell’s essays. Failures are inevitable because a) not everyone is going to like your writing style and b) not everyone is going to like what you write about. That does not make you a bad writer.

Also, practice, and practice in a range of styles. Write essays, academic and non-academic. Write short stories, poems, journalism, anything you can think of. Write for competitions like Orwell Youth Prize or the New College of Humanities essay competition or the John Locke Institute essay competition. If your school has a student newspaper, write for it. If not, start one, then write for it, or start blogging, or contact a local magazine, newspaper, or radio station for work experience. Volunteer for the communications department at a local charity. Get as much published as you possibly can. Keep your momentum going. Throw spaghetti at the wall until something sticks, then keep throwing it so more sticks. Eventually you will build up a portfolio, experience, and confidence that will set you in good stead for whatever you decide to do as a writer, whether you make it your career, as a novelist, poet, administrator, journalist, PR consultant etc, or if you keep it as a hobby.

Also, learn to code and use Excel. You don’t have to be particularly good but writing with data, using data to tell stories, is a very helpful skill to have right now, in many different industries.
A piece of writing/poem/novel/article that has influenced me

Aptly, I have to be honest and say the essays of George Orwell influenced my journalistic and academic style. His way of being able to use a perfect balance of technical, classics-borne words with more simple, Germanic ones to create clear, distinct meanings in very few words is a skill I’m in awe of. It’s something I try to emulate in most of my writing (and hopefully I’m getting better.) I also find that a lot of the poetry and fiction I write comes out with the unconventional rhythms and grammar I’ve seen in The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. I suppose it’s difficult to not let a book you’ve studied inside out for 2 years influence your writing style. It’s great for literature, but I have to make sure that those tendencies remain separate from my academic writing, where language is more prescriptive than descriptive.

Remember kids, different styles call for different rules. That’s why you should write in as many as possible.