Tamar Yoseleff and Vici MacDonald collaborate with poetry and photographs in the collection Formerly. This poetry collection looks at historic areas of London that are disappearing as the modern city grows. Whitechapel is one of these poems and an area of London I find interesting.
I did a little research and Whitechapel is that area of London on the East End that has housed the city’s immigrants for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, it was home to very poor Londoners and immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ireland. Prejudice and discrimination led to riots and violence in Whitechapel in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. Today it is home to many immigrants from East Asia: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. It is now reportedly changing again and becoming more gentrified with renovation of housing and offices with an increasingly upwardly mobile population.
Whitechapel is also, more notoriously, the place where Jack the Ripper committed his crimes. He preyed upon women in this poor, slum ridden area of late 19th Century London. It is believed he was responsible for 18 murders in this area. The locations of his horrible crimes are located on the streets of Whitechapel and there are ‘Ripper’ tours taking people to the locations of these murders.
So, Whitechapel has an interesting and tragic history. Home to human misery via its poor and immigrant slums and to human violence and evil through its connection to Jack the Ripper and anti-immigrant riots and intolerance.
But it also has a more hopeful history and future. The desire for a better life drove many immigrants to this area and generation upon generation has helped build London and made it a more vibrant, diverse and interesting city.
While I don’t usually do well interpreting poems, I’ll give this a try. I think the poem that represents Whitechapel in this collection kind of reflects the history of the place. Phrases like “marrow of the dead” and “they carry omens” may refer to the dark times there. There is reference to imprisonment and an inability to leave. This may reference the poor population being stuck in immigrant slums of the last few centuries. Finally, the accompanying photograph appears to be a mannequin imprisoned, motionless and cold behind the ‘bars’ of a grid of window panes. Does this represent being stuck in a cold, harsh space?
I think the poem Whitechapel was trying to lament the history of the place. While all of London has multiple layers of history, some parts of it seem to have more of it. Places that have a lot of history often reflect a lot of tragedy. I think the poem Whitechapel reflects that tragedy of this place.