Friday, 1 May 2009

Out on a Limb with Mr Racheed

Amidst the little knot of fashionably-restored, newly gentrified panelled houses that huddle so discomforted alongside throbbing Brick Lane, one curious survivor stands out in lonely isolation, a boarded-up ruin. In place of elaborate door-cases, drawing rooms lit with Dutch chandeliers, and mouldings picked out in heritage colours, here are light wells piled with careless litter, peeling stucco and broken window panes hinting at darkened, rotting interiors unchanged for generations. A thick-trunked buddleia springs from half-way up its crumbling, open-jointed brickwork at the rear, complete with nesting blackbirds. Inside, it is quite untouched. Here, in this dark, glamorous place, three hundred years or more of history are subdued and silently, wonderfully ensnared. It is the last authentic, un-restored, early Georgian house in Spitalfields.

Who is the legal owner of this precious flawed gem, this picturesque ruin, this treasure, these last thirty-five years or so? It is Mr Racheed, local businessman, wholesale grocer and scion of the local Bangladeshi community.

As basket-cases go, it is a much sought-after wreck. At a recent meeting of the local amenity society, voices were raised in protest at the continued neglect of this historic building. "A disgrace," it was murmured huffily all around the room. "Source of vermin," people muttered. This was the sound of gentrification in full throat. Here were people with one eye cocked on the estate agent's window, intent on making the world, or their little corner of it, after their own image. Mr Racheed and his tumbledown house didn't fit the bill. They were not about to let the matter rest. Was this entirely disinterested? Or did one or two among them covet Mr Racheed's house for him or herself? Many have tried over the years to prise this property from its owner. Did someone maybe think they might pick up a bargain? I don't suppose so. I do not impute so low a motive to anyone.

Meanwhile the local worthies, the historic buildings people, agitated to get the building compulsorily purchased. These property paramilitaries do not let mere sentiment, and churlish, diffident owners, stand in their path. They had done heroic work in the sixties and seventies to rescue the area from dereliction, even demolition. For a couple of decades we were all in rehab. But the saving of Spitalfields had the unintended consequence of making the neighbourhood "safe" for white people. Now the ethnic trades and businesses are all gone, a middle class ghetto has emerged, and we are all poorer for it.

About this time I began to get visits from Mr Racheed. He cut a striking figure at the counter of our coffee house, his great girth shrouded in buff-coloured flowing robes, sort of male Hijab I suppose, incongruous trainers poking out from under his hem. A white beard encircled his smooth round brown face, querying eyes and mouth. He looked good amid the assembled bankers and businessmen queuing for their morning coffee, a glamorous figure, though without his customary sparkle. I had known Mr Racheed some ten years or so, principally as a customer of his cash and carry business. It seems I won his confidence when I opposed the City Corporation's plan to demolish the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, site of his premises.

Mr Racheed sniffed conspiracy in the air, and spoke darkly of "a gang" intent on separating him from his house. He was angrily determined not to sell. He'd been trading from this building before some of his neophyte persecutors were even born. He'd worked alongside jewellers, furriers, cabinetmakers, market sundriesmen, machinists, tailors, haberdashers, clothing was all commercial. It is a lost world now.

But he had a problem. He'd neglected the building and allowed it to decay. The authorities were rounding on him yet he was powerless to act. He fussed over imagined slights and flawed protocol in correspondence from the council, whilst quite failing to recognise the real and imminent danger of losing his house. I coaxed him. I counselled him. I bullied him. I told him bluntly how perilous was his situation. At last I made him understand. I found an architect, previously my own architect, who urgently drew up plans and applied for listed building consent for repairs.

A committee meeting was called to invoke the compulsory purchase order. Mr Racheed was invited to attend, backed by his architect. At the appointed hour, high in an alien tower somewhere in Docklands, he entered a hushed modern room. A dozen or so men and women awaited them. At the head of the table the Chairman, slowly and deliberately, intoned his welcome: "Salaam-Alaikum." His name? Racheed, as it would seem.

The order was suspended, but not revoked. It continued to hang threateningly over Mr Racheed's head, spurring him to act.

Eventually the work got started. The modernizing thin ply was peeled off to reveal early Georgian panelling throughout. Three times the tired worn-out stairs had been revived by stacking new treads one atop the other. Looms of fine wire spread across boarded-up windows, doors, even floors: primitive burglar alarms that once protected stacks of rare furs. Wig rooms and panelled closets helped enrich and articulate a five-bay, one-room-deep house. Descending the rickety wood stairs to the basement was like entering one of those heritage museums. In place of smart new kitchens and crisp plaster were an old flagstone floor, stone cistern, match-boarded ceiling, ancient dresser and handsome, paint-encrusted corner cupboard. These things were not retro-fitted, in homage to antiquity, but undisturbed, forgotten, like archaeology. This house, awaiting rescue, was in point of fact rescued by neglect, indifference, disdain. It is money that hurts these houses; its want their best conservers. Modernization strips out their souls.

I sense excitement at beckoning opportunity, but also trepidation at what lies ahead. Will I be able to unlock and unfurl the limpid beauty wrapped up in this house? Whispers of Mr Racheed not paying promptly are not borne out. (There are plenty who don't.) What is he looking for? Same as the rest of us: status, recognition, respect, as well as a nice place to live. "We make a good stewardship," he told me proudly. There is goodwill here, and encouragement, but what if I screw up? I am project managing in an honorary capacity. There is no payment. It is a favour for a friend and colleague, but a favour too for me. Old buildings have a way of tugging at my feelings. They leave me vulnerable, open, susceptible.

They say that no good deed ever goes unpunished. I wonder what special punishment lies ahead for me. One day last week my clever Slovakian builder began tackling the buddleia. From a high window at the back a shrill female voice commanded him to stop. "The nesting blackbirds," she shrieked. "It's against the law." Our crumbling pile must play gracious host some few weeks longer to squawking fledglings as nature takes its heedless path. None of this is going to be easy.