Friday, 14 October 2016

In the steps of Young Hitch's East End

When I was fresh out of university I lived near Salmon Lane where eleven-year-old Alfred Hitchcock lived above the family fishmongers. I revisited the street and nearby to connect as closely as possible with the area which is very important in the books.
Of course many things have changed in the hundred and more years since Alfred Hitchcock was a child and a teenager in Limehouse and it's interesting to see the old juxtaposed with the new.
When I lived nearby in the late 1980s I squatted in an old council block which has now been demolished, so I have my own sentimental connection with times gone by. It was quite run down in those days, but the development of the docks on the Isle of Dogs was already in progress. I even wrote a rather over-simplified song about listening to the pile-drivers putting in the new foundations for Canary Wharf called 'Docklands Blues'! Since then the area has been gentrified and cleaned up substantially. I remember how dirty it was and my parents were a little shocked I had chosen to live there.

In Alfred Hitchcock's day Salmon Lane was a bustling market street, very busy, and quite rough with a mixed clientele of Dockers, warehouse workers, pub owners, shopkeepers, former seamen and more. It had a strong maritime air and at the bottom of Salmon Lane there is a large Mission standing built to house those returning from the 1914-1918 war, I presume originally targeted at men who had served in the navy who were unable to cope back in civilian life without some institutional support.

outside 175 Salmon Lane
The site where the Hitchcocks ran a fishmongers was at 175 Salmon Lane. They lived together in a flat above the shop. The original building has been knocked down but at the same number there is still a shop with flats above.

outside 175 Salmon Lane

The Hitchcocks also ran a fish and chip shop on Salmon Lane. This does not feature in the early stories. I have plans to introduce it later in the novels as I did not want to clutter the narrative of the first books with too many Hitchcock businesses as I have imagined the family not only to run the fishmongers on Salmon Lane but to still be in charge of the original grocer's shop in Leytonstone. But it certainly would have made good business sense to fry the fish in the evening that had not been sold during the day. Fish and chips was a very dominant fast food in the market of the time and there will be a plot involving the new outlet that takes advantage of some of the interesting things we know about this area of retailing during the 1910s.

I looked around for a building to represent 130 Salmon Lane where the fish and chip shop had been located but I couldn't find one. It's hard to reimagine places that have vanished. You really need to use your imagination to reconstruct them in your head.

I took a walk down the Regent's Canal to Limehouse Basin, an area that Hitchcock knew well as he wanted to use it in his late film 'Frenzy' for the scene where a victim's body was washed up. But in the end 'Frenzy' used the iconic River Thames and the corpse was washed up at Tower Bridge.

Hitch liked to dramatise himself within his film's stories making regular cameo appearances in each movie. And for the trailer of Frenzy a dummy of the director was floated in the river.

Limehouse Basin connects the River Thames with the canal system. It is part of a navigable dock which was built to allow seagoing vessels to offload cargoes to barges for onward transport up the Regent's Canal. In the pictures above you can see the canal system and the seagoing vessels behind me. In the picture below you can see how close the tower of Canary Wharf is to the basin. The sailing vessel connects with the transport of Hitch's childhood which would have included sail, steam and manually powered boats.

Finally, the great lock gates lead impressively to the Thames, the longest river in England and the famous tidal river of London. This stretch of river, part of the Pool of London would have been incredibly busy while Hitch lived on Salmon Lane. Before the construction of the Thames Barrier it was possible to navigate to London Bridge on a tall-masted ship.

the great lock gates of Limehouse Basin - much more impressive in person!

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