A SPITALFIELD MYSTERY
by Suzi Feay
Welcome to the house of vanishing men
I'll always cross town for a book launch in an unusual venue. I've chomped canapés on the deserted platform of Aldwych tube station; in the reptile house at London Zoo; at St James's Palace and Number 11, and high above the Thames on the walkway of Tower Bridge. But for atmosphere and a haunting, almost suffocating sense of the past, 19 Princelet Street is hard to beat; and as it's very rarely open to the public, I hastened to Spitalfields to the launch of Jeremy Gavron's latest novel, An Acre of Barren Ground.
Cold and dimly lit, the building is a sleeping beauty, perilous and fascinating even in its decay (in 1999, it was "close to collapse" according to one newspaper). It's braced and clamped and scaffolded, but this Huguenot townhouse (built 1719) has a surprise for anyone lucky enough to get a glimpse inside. In the 19th century, the house was converted into an Ashkenazi synagogue by Polish Jews, part of the latest wave of immigration in the area. It was an audacious undertaking, the entire back garden was excavated in the process. A first-floor gallery still has faded inscriptions bearing the names of worshippers up to the 1960s, when the Jewish community was dying out or moving away Finally, the synagogue was abandoned to the cold and the darkness.
Sadly, it wasn't possible to go up to the silkweaver's garret where the house's most famous inhabitant, David Rodinsky, eked out his strange, occult existence. A displaced and eccentric Jewish scholar, he disappeared in the late 1960s, leaving his room as a perfect time capsule-it wasn't rediscovered until 1979, when the house was sold to a historic buildings trust. The artist Rachel Lichtenstein and author lain Sinclair later wrote a book Rodinsky's Room, about the vanishing.
Rodinsky's story was ultimately tragic, but there are happier immigrant tales to tell. The plan is for the building to become a museum of immigration, though currently all money raised is going to the urgent task of shoring up. But local volunteers continue to breathe life into 19 Princelet Street, running programmes for local schoolchildren and helping them to understand the rich fabric of the area and their own place within it.
I finished off the evening chatting to one of the volunteers, an enthusiastic
schoolgirl of mixed English and Indian parentage who could have come right out of the pages of Monica Ali's Brick Lane (if it had been any good, that is). Her 10-year-old self appears on the video installation downstairs, and she has been coming to help out ever since. "I just love this place. My friends didn't understand why till I brought them here. Then they said, 'This is amazing, this is incredible -we had no idea it existed. This place changes people:' So presumably she wanted to be a historian or archaeologist, I asked? "Actually, what I really love is canoeing," she confided.
Nineteen Princelet Street will be open on Sundays during May, 12-5pm, and during Refugee Week (19 June -2G June, daily 12-7pm). Entry is free, but donations are more than welcome.
Don't blame me if on the rickety staircase you sense the swish of Huguenot silk or the spectral presence of Rodinsky himself, climbing to the attic to immerse himself in Talmudic mysteries.