Robert Crampton reveals East End brawls against BNP before gentrification
- Credit: Ben Machell
A long-standing Hackney resident and award-winning journalist believes it is a "mistake" to lament the changing face of the East End, which he says used to be a "battleground" in which he joined regular fights against the British National Party (BNP).
Speaking to the Gazette about his memories of the borough, Robert Crampton said the BNP used to set up on Brick Lane every Sunday and the "Bengali lads would come out and there would be a fight".
He continued: "Those of us who opposed the BNP would join in, and it was a mess. It was awful. So, if the price of that going is a few overpriced coffee shops, then that’s fine by me.
“The idea that the gentrification of the past 15-20 years has in some way taken the soul out of Hackney is, I think, fundamentally wrong. I can see where people are coming from, because the fact that house prices have gone silly and local people can’t necessarily afford to live here is tragic.
"But on balance, I prefer it to be safe and relatively prosperous than unsafe and poverty-stricken, which it was.”
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Robert, who has been writing for The Times since 2001 and won Interviewer of the Year at the British Press Awards 2004, moved to Hackney with his wife in 1995.
“I’m not from London but I always instinctively knew that I wanted to be east rather than west,” he told the Gazette. What triggered his move here?
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“Where we were (in Islington) was gentrifying. I kept bumping into people I had been at university with, which I didn’t really want to do.”
Hackney was cheaper, he said, “extremely convenient for my work and my wife’s work, and we liked the atmosphere”.
It had its trademark “rebellious, nonconformist” energy, but Hackney in the mid-90s was a long way away from the friendly, flourishing place it is now, stippled with coffee shops and influencer-friendly bars.
It was “a nice place to live in many respects but it wasn’t great in others,” Robert explained. Initially, “my wife wouldn’t go out into London Fields by herself after dark - now she would, happily”.
Likewise, when they arrived, “Broadway Market was for the most part boarded up. It was kebab shops, off-licenses, betting shops, a couple of pubs - and that’s it".
He has witnessed Hackney’s rise first hand and charted it in his columns - and consequently, he has no time for nostalgia.
“It’s a mistake to romanticise Hackney and the east end as it once was," Robert said. "I was down on Brick Lane the other day, just having a walk with family and friends. When I first came to London 30 years ago, Brick Lane was a battleground.”
He writes regularly about the area’s community spirit.
“We spend our money on Broadway Market in local supermarkets...we know our neighbours very well, we know our shopkeepers very well. It’s as sociable and as neighbourly as any village.”
So what are Hackney’s best-kept secrets?
“One of the best ones used to be the towpath and the way you could use it as a cycle route. And then I wrote about it a lot and it turned into a bloody motorway for cyclists...The marshes and the River Lea and the area going up towards Haringey and Springfield Park, that's a pretty well-kept secret.”
Hackney’s lack of an Underground station may have served it well, Robert suggests.
"When we first moved here, a lot of people said: ‘Oh, it hasn’t got a tube.’ Then there was the cycling revolution, which Hackney I think can claim some credit for.
"Maybe people started cycling here because they had to, and then it became a positive lifestyle thing, and now it’s just become a normal thing. Which is great. Generally, there’s a more chilled, collective, community vibe if everyone's at 10 or 15 miles an hour, rather than if everyone's at 30 miles an hour in a metal box.”
However, he is "still surprised” by Hackney's proximity to central London and believes the Overground is underrated: “If I want to go and see my friend in Richmond, it’s less than an hour.”
So will Hackney keep improving? “I guess in another 20, 30 years, [Hackney will] be like Notting Hill is now. It’ll be full of bankers and lawyers, and that will be a shame. But I don’t think it is like that yet.
"It has still got an edge to it, it has still got a good social mix, ethnic mix and international mix. It’s still home to free-thinking, artistic, creative people.
“By and large I’m optimistic. I think things are getting better.”