East London Folk History

Yesterday, I learned some of London's spy lore.

While on the way back from a life-drawing class, I stopped by a boozer in Bethnal Green for a cheeky few pints and a few chapters of Christof Koch's book on consciousness. A few drinks later, an old gentleman who had been sat quietly sipping a whisky with his wife, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me about the book, and which started us off on a back and forth about the nature of consciousness, which he was telling me was a big topic of popular interest when he was young, back in the 60s. It was the launch-point into a mystery tour round some East-End London lore.

Chris, for that was his name, got talking about how the East End had been a popular haunt for assorted intelligence agencies since "forever". The most recent escapades of course involved the more notorious guests of the East London Mosque attracting the attention of MI5, Mossad and the CIA. He claims they are absolutely everywhere in Tower Hamlets. "You know how to spot a spook?" he said "...look at his shoes. The rest of him will be dressed normally, but his shoes are always smart."

I have no problems believing that London's muslim community is crawling with spies and intrigue, but his next story was as outlandish as it was interesting. He told me of an alleged incident that happened in a pub down the road during the 60s that saw MI5, Mossad and the KGB working together to track down a certain individual who posed a threat to all of the nations. How? Well, this individual, who's nationality was not disclosed, had been travelling the world and selling his skills as a chemist - presumably of nasty products - to the highest bidder.

At some point, the individual got hold of some type of nuclear secrets that were a threat to both superpowers. He was not clear on the specifics, but he seemed to think it was pretty perilous stuff. The scientist allegedly had the information stored on a piece of microfilm that was curled up and stored inside a vein. Having evaded all of these spooks for years, he was eventually caught in an East End pub, after having a heart attack brought about by the microfilm lodged in his body.

Whether this is true, or how he came to know this, I was not polite enough to ask. We also talked about the acceleration of technology, and how his generation was being left behind. I told him that it was sometimes a challenge even to people my age to keep up with everything. I thought back to the talk I saw last week at London Futurists by a graduate of Singularity University, in which he admitted that even they had no way of keeping track of all of the developments in robotics that were happening.

As I chatted with Chris about this topic, we inevitably came to discuss the singularity, and he made a suggestion that more people should ask people like him - retired working class folk - thought about the future, because usually nobody ever cared to ask. He even suggested a title for a notional documentary - "Voices from the ages talk about the future". Could be quite interesting.

I also learned the cliff notes of his life, how he was born in Donegal but spent his first years in Longford, before moving to the East End 45 years ago. I learned how he met his wife - his "queen" - after being chucked out a club and knocking her over. I learned how he worked on the railways in Canada and how he travelled a lot when he was young.

I'd be surprised if his spy stories are anything more than the stuff of legend - not googled them at any rate. But a fascinating part of London's oral history all the same.