London editor, Sean Preston looks at the island that isn’t an island, at odds with itself and the relentless change of the city it sits within.
Londoners will know to which area the riddled title of this piece refers, the rest of the world, perhaps not. The Isle of Dogs isn’t an island, not really. It’s a peninsula in London and an area unlike no other, enriched with the fog of a confused identity. Once the home of mass and abject poverty, often degradation, community, Dockers, now the home of mild gentrification, marginalized poverty, and of course, what we call “The City” which is in fact London’s vainglorious project of the last part of the 20th Century in the form of skyscrapers that line the north of the Island, blocking out the sun. It’s East London, but sort of sits in the South and feels like it too, drooping, weighing down our Thames and bending it all out of shape. The Isle of Dogs has been threatening to burst for centuries. I wonder if all of London would seep down through it, down the plug, into the Garden of England via Bromley.
Abruptly, sensationally, for a fortnight in 1970, it became an independent state. In a move unavoidably likened to the Ealing comedy Passport To Pimlico, Labour’s Ted Johns, originally from Limehouse where I live, and a man of some lineage (his forebearers were involved in the Dockers’ Strike of 1889 and fought against Franco’s brand of Fascism in the Spanish Civil War), issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence as a reaction to, primarily, poor facilities for its some 10,000 residents of the topographic wonderland. The Island had been pushed as far as it could withstand. Paucity was a way of life, and with it anger. Routinely, the Islanders were overlooked, ignored, condescended. Inhabitants were treated obnoxiously by the Port authority, and Poplar’s Labour, a political party they backed unreservedly, seemingly ignored them. So too did Tower Hamlets which later encompassed the Island. It was time for regime change. It was time for President Johns. Of course, the move was always going to be more a statement (a crucially well-covered light trolling of the authorities) than it was a military coup with geographical longevity.
Within this anomaly in time, we see a microcosm of what was to come in East London. Gentrification, state-led or otherwise, is paramount for all of us to see. It’s the theme storified in pubs over pints. A friend of mine, rather crudely, told a two-part tale: In 2001 he was offered full board by a lady of Dalston’s night for a nominal figure. Just ten years later, he couldn’t get a pint for the same price in the same area. I laughed recently when another friend told me that the name Poppy, a name presumably favoured for baby daughters by the money-classed new parents of the eighties, was short for Pop-Up Shop. We joke, but Working Class Inner London is on its way out. Perhaps it’s this nagging truth that draws me to East London’s local history. There’s something rather horrendous to watch, most would agree, in the act of uprooting a tree. It seems cruel and tasteless, and I say that as someone not known for his environmentalist sympathies. The Islanders knew that troubles lay ahead in this respect. Microlocalism is important to those with little else. They were going to be dug up and chucked out. Not immediately, not barbarically, and not unlike the undesirables of London are being tossed asunder now. Quietly, permanently, eradicated.
Read more on the Isle of Dogs next week.