‘The Real Eastenders’, airing on Channel 4 tonight (July 21), takes an in-depth look at working class families in London’s East End. The Isle of Dogs used to be the heart of Britain’s shipping industry, but now the docks are long gone and the community finds itself squeezed between high-rise office blocks and unaffordable housing. Here, in his own words, local musician Hak Baker explains why the capital’s rich cultural landscape is slowly dying.
Hak Baker: “I always knew I loved music, but the first place I was actually allowed to make music was in my local community. After school, from about the age of 13, we’d go to east London’s youth clubs. People would be on the decks mixing and they’d have equipment where you could learn how to play music. They’d have computer games too – and take you on trips sometimes. It was all free and run by local mums and dads, cousins and uncles. But then came the budget cuts and these things were the first to go. Now, all the government cares about is high-rise buildings, moving rich foreigners in, privatising everything and destroying social housing. Music has been closed as a career path to young working class kids – and London’s working class community has been shut down dead. They’ve been trying to bury it for years.
When I was a kid though, it was still strong. I’m an islander, which means I grew up on the Isle of Dogs [in east London]. Our family – my three siblings and our mum – has been there for 29 years. We’re like part of the furniture really. And even though I recently moved to Hackney, I’m still on the island all the time. When I was a kid, it was all about the daily hustle and bustle – people trying to work as hard as they could to survive. It really was like Eastenders – everyone in each other’s business, wanting to help out and look after one another. That was before councils had their funding slashed, high rents meant people had to move out and local services became a thing of the past. At the end of the day, if the local youth clubs can’t offer anything, like residential trips, cheap snacks or even electricity, then the kids aren’t gonna go there anymore. In most examples, the centres where I grew up have been closed down. If you’re in a group on the street you get moved on. So where do you go? There aren’t any places for people to congregate now – and kids are going to end up getting in trouble.
Another problem, without beating around the bush, is all of the newbies who’ve come in. It’s the middle class elites who don’t want to mix. Where I live now, in Hackney, was such a strong community back in the day. And then they came in and broke it up. They don’t look twice at the people around here. 12 years ago, they wouldn’t have come near this place, so how dare they look down their nose at me in the street just because I wear a pair of shorts, flip flops and a raggedy t-shirt. And then when coronavirus hit, they just fucked off back to the country! They’re not here right now because they’re not from here – and they don’t care.
So what can be done? The problem is the Tories, Boris, the powers that be. In times of trouble, the working class is always what they slash first. But it’s easy to point the finger. That’s not going to do anything. I think people have got to take things into their own hands. If you want something, then you have to come together and make it happen. Getting on your knees saying ‘please sir, please sir’ just doesn’t work. There’s no time for it.
Obviously, it’s difficult at the moment with social distancing. But we can do some things. Me and a mate put on a regular party called Thirsty Thursdays where we don’t charge for entry. We give people beer and some of those old school cakes with the hundreds and thousands and the white icing. Performers come on stage and sing – and people that want to DJ that haven’t got a place to practice can come on for an hour or so. It’s just a little party, but we do what we can for our people.
For real change, we might need to find a politician that has our back, but we’ve got to wait until the next election because it’s a Conservative government right now. That’s another generation who will have to wait for someone that’s going to care about our class of people. Time and time again, we have to beg for someone to give a shit about us. If we wait anymore, some of these communities might not exist.”
As told to Alex Flood