Brick Lane is going through a rough patch. As testament to this, a sign reading 'Beware *muggings* occur in this area' was recently chained to a lamppost at the top of Brick Lane. A few days later, the sign itself was mugged.
Obviously, like just about anywhere else where poor people live together in cramped and relatively poor conditions, Brick Lane has many problems. The policeman sitting behind Sergeant Kennedy in Brick Lane nick yesterday afternoon summed the whole inner-city problem up with extraordinary succinctness when he said, "Crime". When in doubt, ask a policeman. Everywhere has drugs and muggings however. What makes Brick Lane special in terms of crime is the curry-touts. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Firstly, Brick Lane is not a lane at all, but a long street roughly connecting Shoreditch and Aldgate East tube stations. Together with the streets immediately surrounding it, the area is currently known as Banglatown, but in its time it has also been 'Petit France', and later, slightly less charmingly, 'the ghetto'. Over the centuries, it has been home to all manner of desperate fortune- or more often sanctuary- seeking immigrants, from Huguenot refugees to Ashkenazi Jews, from starving Irishmen to the Sylheti Bangladeshis.
Today for most people Brick Lane is where you can find a decent curry, hear a bit of Benglish and dip your toes into what seems - depending on the time of day you go there - a warm and cosy pocket of a very different culture.
The main concentration of Brick Lane's restaurants is found between number one Brick Lane and the old Truman Brewery. On this one stretch of road, not counting side streets, there are 34 restaurants. Into this environment came the curry-touts, or as they are known in Banglatown, the 'callers'. If you've been ever to Brick Lane at night, especially in a group, you will have encountered them. They hang around outside or nearby the restaurants for which they work and they try very hard to get you inside.
Some of them earn an awful lot of money doing this, and apparently make quite a name for themselves. Generally paid a pound for every customer they can successfully lure in, the very best callers, the ones at the height of their game, are said to earn up to £500 a week. And with the stakes that high, it is not surprising that some of the tactics are a little intimidating.
Indeed, fighting off crack dealers in Tower Hamlets can be a walk in the park compared to running the gauntlet of the curry callers of Brick Lane. Their most common tactics are to block the path of dallying groups and offer extravagant discounts that frequently never materialise. Grabbing hold of arms is also not uncommon. As a result - despite the fact that Brick Lane is still allegedly London's sixth most popular attraction - less and less Londoners are going there. With the street full of aggressive hawking Banglachav teenagers, many simply don't consider it worth the hassle.
Utchol runs a restaurant on Hanbury Street, just off Brick Lane. When he spelt his name, he spelt it U-C-H-C-H-A-L-L, which seemed highly unlikely, but then perfectly possible. The first time we met, he told us that his father was 'one of the founders of Brick Lane'. We imagined cynically that you probably heard that a lot round here. The second time we went to meet him, he wasn't there, but his father was being interviewed by a TV crew. We walked in on them as they were filming. They had to retake the last shot. Then we tripped over a cable.
When Uchchall's dad had finished explaining how his family had to flee persecution in Bangladesh, the director requested thirty seconds or so of the interviewer nibbling on a poppadom and nodding. It was a touching TV moment. Then they were done. As they were packing up, a couple of the five-man crew made noises about being hungry and getting some lunch. It seemed obvious they were angling for something more than mere poppadoms and water.
They were to be disappointed. When they finally left empty-bellied, a waiter sidled across and said, "Do you know him?" He was pointing through the window at the interviewer still hanging around outside. "Who?" we asked.
"Him," he repeated. "Presenter. Something on Channel 5."
"What's his name?" we asked.
The waiter shrugged and said he didn't know. "Peter something."
We shrugged too.
"Famous," said the waiter.
That's Brick Lane. And it is a rare day indeed when you can walk its length without encountering at least one film crew.
As promotional activities go, Uchchall finds calling 'degrading' and 'immoral'. He told me that when it started up in earnest around five or six years ago, his restaurant lost half its business. Another restaurant owner, Ali, agreed with him about the degrading thing. As did Chowdhury. And Khorshed. As did everyone we spoke to. Plus of course, they would never dream of doing it themselves.
A couple of months ago Tower Hamlets Council agreed that calling had become a serious enough problem to send out another letter to all the Banglatown restaurateurs. A meeting was arranged. They've had letters and meetings before of course, but this time the Met were involved, so it was serious. At the meeting all of the restaurateurs bar a handful who claimed they couldn't live without the business, agreed that the callers had to go. That was that. It was decided. But as Uchchall pointed out, it had been decided before. "They stop for three weeks or so, then when they start to lose business they start up again." And so it is now. The calling continues.
Apart from their own innocence, the only other thing all of the restaurateurs agreed on was that "the police don't do anything". "The police station is like a toy shop," said one. We asked Khorshed what he wanted the police to do. "Something," he said. "Arrest them." Uchchall mentioned that a couple of kids had been arrested for calling. They spent a day or two at most in the cells and were released. "Nothing changes," he said. Then he remembered something else. The fact that the police tried to stop the callers from actually 'calling' by prohibiting them to speak to punters anymore. But they can still hand out flyers. So now when the police come into view, the callers simply shut their mouths and wave their flyers around like 'Get Out of Jail Free' cards.
The police station is situated near the top of Brick Lane. Inspector Anthill is apparently the man to talk to. He's been here a good while and understands the situation inside out. Unfortunately Inspector Anthill is out of the country for two weeks' holiday. Fair enough. We all need a holiday now and then. So we spoke instead to Sergeant Kennedy, who unfortunately has only been based in Brick Lane since the beginning of July.
In response to the criticism, Kennedy explained that basically, if anything is going to change, it has to come from the restaurateurs themselves. They agreed at the meeting that they would stop using callers to attract custom. Matter concluded. He said that currently the caller issue was considered 'dealt with'. If it rises to the top of the priority pile, it will be dealt with again.
When we asked about specific strategies to deal with them from a policing point of view, we were reminded of Anthill and the fact that he wasn't there. If he had have been there, he'd have explained it all no problem. Shame really. On the one hand of course, Kennedy is right. They voted in a meeting to end it. So end it. If that's what they want to do, they should do it. But clearly fear of going out of business means that a large majority of the restaurant-running community are saying one thing and doing exactly the opposite. It seems the community is not as unanimous in its condemnation of the callers as it pretends to be. But as long as the phenomenon persists, Brick Lane's reputation will continue to deteriorate and people will continue to stay away.
According to Khorshed, the solution is simple. "They must fine the restaurants who are paying the callers," he said. "Or in the end everybody loses." So there you go. All the police need to do is wade in, ASBOs at the ready and start slapping a few wrists. Sorted. But it probably won't happen that soon. Imposing laws costs money, and as Sergeant Kennedy pointed out, there isn't actually that much money available at the moment. Especially for things that are not priority. Firstly they have other issues to sort out. The drugs for example. And the muggings. It's a question of priorities. Anyway, Inspector Anthill will probably sort it all out when he gets back.
In the meantime, try not to be put off. Brick Lane is still a great street to knock about in, especially in the summer, and there's a great deal more to it than irritating hawkers breaking your balls every few feet.
For example, in just a few short weeks, there's this.
The callers will have a field day.