Rosa's (& Rossi) Special: A classic slice of old Spitalfields

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Bud Flanagan once lived above the shop and the commemorative blue plaque is proudly displayed right over the door outside. A first for a London cafe.

Up until a few years ago signed Gilbert and George ephemera was posted up amongst the music hall memorabilia - playbills, autobiographies, songbooks - which the owners still keep mounted on the back walls. (Also proudly displayed is the framed birth-certificate of Rosa's original owner!)

For a time, the caff seems to have become Gilbert and George's local after the closure of their beloved Market Cafe near their home on Fournier Street. Not much sign of them now, even though Rosa's wistful greyed-out interior seems a pretty good substitute.

The leaded window frontage, black marble-effect Formica walls, sterling mug n' plate sets, hanging boxes of Italian cake and great orange pendant lamps suspended from a latticed ceiling make up a great caff package.

Only the somewhat inauthentic table and chairs sets let things down (most in mismatched chalet-styles). Overall, the sequestered atmospherics are splendid.

Rosa's is open six days a week. Though, annoyingly, not on Sunday - Market day.

Occassional coach parties and walking tour groups shuffle in to see the Flanagan collection. But that's about it. The local Hoxton-tots tend to keep clear, massed on the latte slopes of the City.

As such, Rosa's remains a pleasant left-alone relic selling awesomely cheap food to a small band of pleased regulars. What's not to like?

The site however on happening Hanbury Street - bang opposite the covered market, right next to newly renovated ChristChurch - is surely too well located to survive for long.

Another brutal St*rb*cking looms. The area that has already been comprehensively culturally laundered. Like Borough, Spitalfields is all too rapidly (and readily) morphing into yet another 'New Covent Garden'; scoured, blanched and sanitised for incomers even before the 2012 Olympics beckon.

Only twenty to twenty five years ago much of the district remained a teeming ruin, vividly abject - much as Jack London would have remembered it only a few generations back...

In 1902 London had departed for South Africa to report for the American Press Association on the effects of peace after the end of the Boer War. When this assignment was cancelled, he decided to stay on in England to study the poverty-stricken East End.

Living as one of the poor, London witnessed the squalor, degradation and slow starvation of the area. The book that resulted, The People of the Abyss, is a study of the crushing poverty of body and spirit that defined life in the East End at the time.

In the book, London wrote:

"... it must not be forgotten that the time of which I write was considered 'good times' in England. The starvation and lack of shelter I encountered constituted a chronic condition of misery which is never wiped out, even in the periods of greatest prosperity...

Mr. Justin McCarthy, writing in the month of January, 1903, to the New York Independent, briefly epitomizes the situation as follows: 'The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means in trying to raise supplies of food for the famishing residents of the garrets and cellars of London lanes and alleys.'

Nowhere in the streets of London may one escape the sight of abject poverty, while five minutes' walk from almost any point will bring one to a slum; but the region my hansom was now penetrating was one unending slum. The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance.

We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling.

At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels, but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot...

[As] far as I could see were the solid walls of brick, the slimy pavements, and the screaming streets; and for the first time in my life the fear of the crowd smote me. It was like the fear of the sea; and the miserable multitudes, street upon street, seemed so many waves of a vast and malodorous sea, lapping about me and threatening to well up and over me...

It has been urged that the criticism I have passed on things as they are in England is too pessimistic... For the English, so far as manhood and womanhood and health and happiness go, I see a broad and smiling future. But for a great deal of the political machinery, which at present mismanages for them, I see nothing else than the scrap heap..."

In a letter to George and Carrie Sterling, London later concluded: "I have heard of God's country, but this country is the country God has forgotten that he forgot. I've read of misery, and seen a bit; but this beats anything I could even have imagined. Actually, I have seen things and looked the second time in order to convince myself that it was really so... I think I should die if I had to live two years in the East End of London."



Rossi Cafe, Hanbury Street E1, 2005

Rosa's is right next to Rossi's cafe (now ruined internally, though the light fittings are worth a gander) possibly a haunt in the 60s of mythic East End spectre David Rodinsky - the Golem of Princelet Street.

Rodinsky - 'A penniless haunter of cafes. A city wanderer who assembled a library that filled more than fifty cases... a shape whose only definition was its shapelessness [Iain Sinclair]' - lived above the Princelet Street synagogue, gathering around him a bizarre collection of writings, annotated books, maps and gramophone records.

Rossi's owner (ensconced in his cafe since the 40s) claimed to remember Rodinsky playing the spoons for customers in the cafe in return for meals.

Then one day, in the late 1960s, Rodinsky vanished. His rooms were left undisturbed for over a decade...

On the advice of local resident Dan Cruickshank, cultural historian Patrick Wright first wrote about Rodinsky in a cover feature for the London Review of Books in 1987.

Iain Sinclair followed this with a Guardian article which was expanded into the fifth chapter of his 1991 novel Downriver.

In 1989, artist Rachel Lichtenstein visited Rodinsky's attic for the first time and archived some of the room's ephemera for an ongoing series of art works.

In 1999 she collaborated with Sinclair on a book about the Rodinsky's vanishing:

"In my final year, against the advice of my tutors, I decided to write my thesis about Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the East End of London, and the process of assimilation and integration in the new country.

I travelled to London to conduct the necessary research, spending a week at the Museum of the Jewish East End, situated in Finchley.

While there I befriended an elderly volunteer who suggested I take a visit to the Heritage Centre in East London, a former synagogue that was, he told me, now a museum of immigration.

I caught the tube to Whitechapel. The name, Princelet Street, sounded vaguely familiar, but at the time I could not place it.

After travelling for about an hour I arrived at Aldgate East station. I took a left up Brick Lane and found the turn-off for Princelet Street.

Number 19 seemed a most unlikely museum, with no plaque outside, and apparently derelict. I rang the bell anyway but there was no response. Gently, I pushed against the large wooden doors and, finding them open, stepped inside.

I was told... that an orthodox scholar called David Rodinsky used to live in the attic rooms above the synagogue.

One day in the late Sixties he disappeared and his locked room had not been disturbed for almost a decade. It was opened for the first time in the Eighties, with everything in place just as he had left it.

I became increasingly drawn to Rodinsky's room. It no longer existed in its original state, as an abandoned tomb.

The room had been dismantled, the contents boxed up by the Museum of London, then taken to storage rooms to dry out in stable conditions before being returned to the synagogue.

When I first saw the room, Rodinsky's belongings were neatly piled away in archival boxes lining the walls in large stacks. At first, outside the boxes, the room seemed to contain little evidence of Rodinsky's long time in residence. But gradually I began to uncover the clues.

I found his old gramophone records lying under the bed, and a large collection of dust-covered empty beer bottles in a cupboard in the corner. Stiffened pyjamas and fossilised blankets still remained in his wardrobe.

While fondling his piano one day, I lifted the lid to discover faint traces of pencil on the ivory keys: strange indecipherable symbols, written in his own hand.

In the centre of the wooden ceiling was a rusty gas lamp, surrounded by a charcoal halo from constant use. The peeling wallpaper behind the door had also been marked, with faint traces of handwriting hidden beneath the sodden edges.

The floorboards were bent and cracked next to the enamel sink where I presumed he had washed every day. His table stood in the centre of the room, covered in a green baize cloth, and it was here that I would perform my daily ritual of excavating his remains.

Wearing protective cotton gloves, I would slowly remove his belongings from their archival boxes, gently unveiling them from their acid- free wrappings, before photographing each one and attempting to define and catalogue it.

At first this seemingly arbitrary archaeology revealed little, the objects appearing mute with the loss of their originator's voice to explain them.

I spent countless hours in his room. Heaps of inaccessible, rotting material piled up around me. Most of the languages in which he wrote I could not read.

Gradually, over time, through careful examination of his vast collection, a faint image of a man began to emerge: a scholar harbouring secrets, a meticulous annotator of texts, a comedian, an enigma.

I discovered handwritten notebooks revealing his knowledge of languages - Sumerian, Arabic, Japanese, Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek and Russian - and of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

I found an old rent book that dated back to 1936. There were foreign travel books, though I doubted somehow that Rodinsky ever visited these places. I found one notebook full of Irish drinking songs written in thick red capital letters, and I discovered a crumpled cabbalistic diagram stashed behind his wardrobe.

There were other scraps of evidence suggesting he had been orthodox in his beliefs: the Kosher food packets, the religious books, the battery-operated razor, the shopping list for Shabbat: 'two challahs, candles, meat, six eggs, kiddush wine'.

I unwrapped hundreds of artefacts, thousands of small scraps of paper covered in coded messages, in different languages, by his own hand.

On the backs of chocolate wrappers, inserted inside his diaries and books, were hand-drawn maps, indications of journeys around London, from Hainault to Chigwell, Clapton to Hendon, with no clues as to who he was seeing or what the visits were about.

At first I was convinced he lived alone, but bits of evidence kept cropping up suggesting he had shared the room with other family members. I found an envelope addressed to a Mrs C. Rodinsky, his mother maybe, postmarked 'Essex January 1961'.

And another, sad letter from St Clement's Hospital social services department, concerning the death of his sister, Bessie Rodinsky.

It required him to come and collect her possessions, one pair of gold earrings. He had scrawled over the type in red ink the words 'diabolical concentration camp'..."

(from 'Rodinsky's Room' by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair, Granta 1999)

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