News (and stuff) from London E3

Saturday 21 February 2009

George Lansbury (born 21 February 1859)

George Lansbury Memorial plaque, 39 Bow RoadThere are no prizes for being the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. You don't get to run anything, you're not really important, and nobody remembers you except as the answer to a pub quiz question. Which is why you lot probably aren't particularly well informed about George Lansbury, who was Leader of the Opposition for four years in the early 1930s. George was born exactly 150 years ago, which makes today a bit of a special anniversary. And he was also an East End bloke from Bow, and spent much of his life down my street, so this is an anniversary I feel is well worth celebrating.

Let me tell you ten things about 'Good old George' that you probably didn't know.

i) George was born in Halesworth, Suffolk - a market town so unexciting that George Lansbury is still its most famous resident.

ii) In his mid 20s, George and his young family emigrated briefly to Brisbane, Australia. George took various jobs to try to keep the family fed, including stone-breaking, slaughterhouse work and test match cricket ground maintenence. His antipodean experience of inequality and unemployment helped to shape his political beliefs.

iii) George's first political role was as General Secretary of the Bow & Bromley Liberal Association. From here he moved steadily leftward into radical trade unionism and Marxism, before joining the brand new Labour Party and becoming MP for Bow and Bromley in 1910. Two years later he resigned his seat to force a by-election over the issue of women's suffrage, and lost.

iv) Also in 1912, George was one of the founder members of the Daily Herald - a militant socialist daily newspaper. He steered the paper for the next ten years before handing over control to the TUC and Labour Party. The Daily Herald eventually metamorphosed into The Sun, whose post-Murdoch political slant would no doubt appal the left-wing radical who founded it.

v) In 1921, as Mayor of London's most poverty-stricken borough, George led the Poplar Rates Revolt. He was angry that richer boroughs weren't paying their share of relief to the poor, and so refused to pay £270,000 of local taxes to the London County Council. Thirty councillors were sent to prison for defying the courts, and Poplar Council business had to be conducted from inside Brixton prison.

vi) In 1927, back as Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, George joined the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works. His many responsibilities included the Royal Parks, and it was he who created the mixed bathing 'Lansbury Lido' on the Serpentine.

vii) The 1931 General Election was the Labour Party's biggest ever landslide defeat. Only one member of the Cabinet kept his seat, and that was George, and so he became Leader of the 46-strong Opposition by default. Even in this lofty position he always travelled from Bow to Westminster by tube - part of a common touch that ensured he remained widely admired, even across party lines.

viii) George was a committed lifelong pacifist, and campaigned to disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. In any decade other than the 1930s he might have got away with it, but German militarisation left him increasingly out of step with reality. He was forced to resign as Labour leader, and took to campaigning for peace across Europe until his death in 1940.

39 Bow Roadix) Four years after George's death, his house at 39 Bow Road was destroyed by a German flying bomb. A block of council housing (and a plaque or two) now mark the site. George's name also lives on in Poplar's sprawling post-war Lansbury Estate, which featured as a Live Architecture exhibit during the Festival of Britain.

x) George has two very famous grandchildren - actress Angela Lansbury and animator Oliver Postgate.

Four special events are being held over the forthcoming week to celebrate George's life and work. The first is this afternoon...
» Saturday 21: Radical Bow - a history walk around Bow & Bromley led by the local vicar and George's biographer – meet at Bow Road station (2pm)
» Sunday 22: Memorial Service - conducted by the local vicar, with guest preacher Rev Dr Kenneth Leech and Monsignor Bruce Kent - at St Mary's Church, Bow Road (4pm)
» Wednesday 25: Panel discussion in Committee Room 4A at the House of Lords - featuring Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams (arrive by 6.30pm to clear security)
» Friday 27: Panel discussion at Bromley Hall, Bow Road - featuring Tony Benn and Sylvia Pankhurst's biographer (7.30pm)

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Merchant's Quarter

bus passing Merchant's QuarterAt six o'clock this morning a brand new supermarket opened in Bow. Fancy that, a brand new supermarket. It's halfway between Bow Road and Mile End tube stations, opposite the girls' school, next to St Clement's Hospital. A couple of years ago this spot was a narrow patch of greenspace sandwiched between Bow Road and a particularly unlovely council estate. Buddleia grew, white vans parked and stocky dogs squatted. Ripe therefore for acquisition by property developers, who noticed that they could squeeze a long thin apartment block into the gap. They built thin, they built high, and they built grey. The end result is a fortress of boxy apartments, shuttered behind what look like prison bars, in an architectural style I can only describe as ruddy ugly.

And on the ground floor there's a proper new supermarket. You probably haven't noticed it yet because it manifested itself very quickly. I only noticed last week when a single small sign saying "Store entrance →" appeared in a window on the ground floor. I had wondered whether this space might be for a row of shops but no, silly me, it's for a supermarket. I recognised the typeface immediately, so perhaps I wasn't quite so surprised that this particular national store chain had muscled its way into Bow under cover of a new housing development. Oh yes, retail homogenisation continues - we've got ourselves a new Tesco Express.

Bow's newest supermarketThey were stacking the shelves on Monday morning as I trudged past on my five mile wintry commute. Just the one bloke, by the looks of it - presumably the rest of the workforce were trapped elsewhere by catastrophic snow chaos. Signs reading "Half Price" and "Buy 1 Get 1 Free" were already in place, presumably pre-planned by whichever Tesco department has the job of fitting out a new supermarket in one week flat. There was rather more activity when I passed by at dawn yesterday morning. A fleet of contractor's vans was parked up on the extra-wide pavement, representing at least six different tradesmen essential to kickstarting a new business. One of these vans was for Rentokil. I also noticed a man on his knees inside the supermarket scurrying around behind where the tills are going to be. I'm not suggesting that these last two sentences are in any way connected, obviously.

And this morning, Bow's new Tesco Express is open. You can pop in and buy milk, rather than going to the small supermarket over the road beneath Minnie Lansbury's Clock. You can pop in and buy a newspaper rather than getting it from the nice family in the kiosk beside Bow Road station. You can pop in and buy six cans of lager rather than going for a beer at the Little Driver pub. You can pop in and buy paracetamol rather than getting it from the tiny pharmacy the other side of St Clement's Hospital. You can even pop in and buy fresh bread rather than getting it from Bow Supermarket just round the corner in Merchant Street. In short, you can pop in and help to kill off many of the independent shops in the neighbourhood, if you really insist. Which would be a damned shame. Do shop carefully (especially if you're living upstairs in one of the prison cells immediately above the frozen food cabinets).

Bow's never been well blessed with supermarkets, especially since Safeway on Roman Road closed down a few years ago. Sure there's the giant Tesco store at Three Mills, which is damned convenient for me, but quite a trek for those in the less well-off estates nearer Victoria Park. You'll find a Budgens under the Green Bridge and a mini Somerfield at the Bow Church Texaco, but there's no sign of a Sainsburys or a Lidl or an Asda. Does Bow exist in some sort of food desert? To find out I've knocked up a Google map to show all the major supermarkets in and around the E3 area. Local readers might find it of interest (or be able to pick holes in it). The new Tesco Express is represented by the yellow basket, then the surrounding pins show the paucity of supermarkets in E3 and beyond. Maybe turning the old Woolworths into an Iceland is exactly what the area needs...