Late one night recently, after pub closing time, I walked through the back streets of Whitechapel again, something I had not done for several years. The sight of the familiar streets and the old smells and sounds reminded me of the six months when I had lodged there, during which time I had grown to know the area intimately. From my window, I could clearly see the dim outline of Hawksmoor’s 1714 masterpiece, Christchurch, all Portland Masonic solidity, one architect’s homage to another. As the sun set, I would see its reflection in my open bedroom window, as though another Christchurch had materialized a little to the east, floating, riding serenely above the buffeting, increasingly Islamic streets carrying its secret freight of Huguenot, Hellenist aspirations. When it was dark, I would still be able to see its lit clock dial and hear its sonorous bells.

I was always struck by the contrast between this calm vision and the days that I spent in the heaving, thrumming Petticoat Lane and Brick Lane markets nearby, looking for old Everyman editions, carefully avoiding the piles of old shoes, broken teapots, electrical extension leads, polyester ties, and the matted-hair street-dwellers and their cider cans.

Christchurch was not the only calm, attractive image in Stepney—there were other outposts, strange small survivals—like the toothless Cockney woman, who would sit in the ancient armchair, oblivious to the polyglot noise, lost in reverie, perhaps thinking of nights of dancing to Joe Loss at the Empire. She would sit there below a St. George’s flag that the young man managing the stall (her son?) had set defiantly flying above the melange, her bandaged feet surrounded by damp-spotted 1930’s textbooks on Elementary Chemistry, Concordances without covers, and recipe books showing smiling 1970’s women with heavy mascara—the spent energy and accumulated capital of past generations—a never-ending line of books inscribed “Ex Libris Jonathan D.L. Peabody,” “Presented by Old Hayworth Scripture Union, 14th. IX, 1897,” or “To Louise from Granny with love, Christmas, 1975.”

And there were even minor reclamations of lost territories, like Spitalfields Urban Farm—farm animals reclaiming at least a small part of vanished Middlesex. I particularly remember the tiny baby goats, digging their sharp hooves into me as they tried to suck my fingers, leaving long trails of nibbling, sweet saliva, rubbing their rough heads joyfully against my hand, and the scruffy pigeons, degraded descendants of escapees from medieval dovecotes, picking at spilt grain on the cobbles.

The rooster belonging to the man who kept hens across the road would wake me up every evocative morning, and I would look out across the golden-tinted roofscape and draw in my breath deeply in inchoate anticipation. The fine Huguenots’ houses, of which Spitalfields has very many, all now being rescued and gentrified, added proportion and restrained beauty to even the worst streets and made you look up, to where racing clouds reminded you that the open spaces and fresh air of Essex were only an hour away, at the end of the District Line. If you looked in through the windows of one of these houses as you passed, you would see a pastel vision of perfect order, a perfect combination of function and form, from high skirting board to airy ceiling. All around you were the areas and streets whose names you have heard so often they are part of your folk-memory. Here in these frenetic, narrow, long-suffering streets were born the soldiers, sailors, workers, and empire-builders of Britain—and all this five minutes’ walk away from the Square Mile, where the world’s biggest companies’ manicured employees sweltered in some of the most expensive office space in the world.

I would often walk for hours in the area between the Bethnal Green Road and Canary Wharf, along deserted streets of warehouses and old London County Council flats, legacies of the great philanthropic experiment begun by the Victorians, down narrow echoing alleys and churchyards become public parks, through a sad, secret country of empty, dirty streets and dark trees. I loved St. Dunstan’s at Stepney, the manor given to the Bishops of London in 604, with its Saxon rood, 14th-century relief of the Annunciation and its inscribed stone from Carthage: “Time consumes all: it spareth none”—a motto that might well be an epitaph for the white Briton in this area, where now the brown Muslim is king. Parts of the area around Whitechapel are 90 to 95 percent Bengali. The street names are bilingual, the political parties sometimes do not even bother translating their campaign literature into English, and you can hear the drone of the muezzin all Saturday long. It is a little like being a Madrileno, looking down upon the thousands of campfires on the Campo del Moro—and you cannot help thinking how it may have been in Constantinople in 1452.

I remember walks in the middle of the night, across Commercial Street, where haggard prostitutes would eye me up hopefully, or hold furtive conversations through car windows with partly shadowed men, awful in the green and red lights from the car dashboard, along Winthrop Street, possibly the most derelict place in London, with its line of toppling corrugated iron fence and defenestrated buildings, and cobbles covered in motor oil. Perhaps Jack the Ripper might have walked, or run, along here, aghast at the enormity of himself, the wind picking up behind him, as behind me now making the fences creak and move, with blank-eyed Alsatian guard dogs throwing themselves fiercely against trembling back gates. I saw a scrawny fox along here once; we stopped dead, to stare at each other, and then he ducked through a hole in the crazy-leaning fence of a breaker’s yard.

Toward Bethnal Green, I would turn and go under the dank bridge at Three Colts Corner, across the field where houses had been before Hitler’s bombs, no sound but the rushing of wind in bramble and dockweed, shadowy horses looming up, and sneezing startlingly in the hot wind. Above the railway line, an avant-garde artist had erected a huge fiberglass pistol held in a huge fiberglass hand, pointing toward the city, a protest against high finance, but looking like a protest against and a threat to the whole civil Western world. Passing and repassing under the menacing gun, late-night, lozenge-lit trains from Liverpool Street full of relocated East Enders would rush by toward Essex as though escaping.