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A long-haired man drinks, turning the glass over and over, examining its depths, thinking of his dead father. The TV rattles on from below, an occasional cackle, throaty and dry, rising from his elderly mother’s throat.

The smiling figure bounces his son on his knee. His wife is calling him. It will be time to pray soon. He does so five times each day: once before dawn, through the hours of work, silently murmuring the names of God in this land of the kufr, whispering his devotion to the Prophet.

In a freezing Tube station, a hand shakes. The nicotine is still visible. He grips his fellow tramp, ignoring the commuters, pushing the needle slowly towards his neck, speedballing the memories away.

She climbs unsteadily from the window, gripping the sill, then the drainpipe, hijab fluttering, the thick feel of the gun pressed to her smooth skin, then slipping.

The Flour Man wipes a tear of memory, crowds parting in fear as he heads towards the mosque, walking past buildings which still bear his dark legacy.

She laughs freely, her Sephardic beauty and carefree manners causing heads to turn. Innocent. Her eyes light up, like a child’s and she starts forward. “Will you do heroin with me?” she rushes.


I am working on a book about a famous "ghetto" of London. 'The East End' is where infamous figures like the killer, Jack the Ripper, once roamed; where famous gangsters like the Kray Twins in the 1960s held sway; and where for hundreds of years different groups of immigrants – Huguenots, Irish, Jewish and now many Muslims from Bangladesh and Somalia – have settled.

In 2012 the Olympics comes to London and the stadium is being built in the East End. Money and redevelopment has flooded in. It is a Mecca for the young and City workers. Close to the centre of the City, near the river too, 40 or more nightclubs line the once-forbidding streets of Shoreditch whilst the azan – the call to prayer – sounds from Europe's largest Islamic centre just a mile away. Faith, money and the Abyss all vie for your soul.

Just over 100 years ago an American novelist called Jack London (who went on to write famous books like Call of the Wild and White Fang) was stranded in the East End of London. He was supposed to go to South Africa to cover the Boer War but the war ended, and so he ended up here. His adventures became a most striking book of reportage and adventure, called The Peoples of the Abyss. It chronicled the terrible poverty of the East End area and was an angry work, arguing that the English empire had failed its men and women to let them live like this.

So my mission has been to see if that old "Abyss", as Jack London called it, still exists in this area which is about to host the Olympics. Could I find a ghost of that terrible Victorian world? And if so, what would I find?

Nick Ryan's amazing journey into the underlife surrounding the Olympics.




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Photo ©Simon Wheatley