Of course, amid all the sleaze in Tower Hamlets, life goes on and there is a multitude of people doing good work for our community. It was fabulous to write about a few of them in today’s Sunday Express. Here’s a tale about The Geezers, a pensioners’ club run by my friend and neighbour, Ray Gipson, the former Lib Dem councillor for Bow.
IN THE heart of London’s famous East End, a group of retired butchers, truckers, builders, undertakers and boxers are redefining what it is to be men growing old.
They have seized life by the horns and confronted the spectre of loneliness head on.
Meet The Geezers, a club of can-do pensioners whose inspirational work with local schools and universities has just won a string of awards and curiosity about their success nationwide.
Their aim is that sometime somewhere, an energetic Geezers Club will be opening near you.
When David Cameron set out his idea of Britain’s Big Society last year, his words were largely met with the big shrug. Few knew what he really meant.
If he’s still trying to illustrate the vision, he would do well to look the Geezers’ way.
The club was set up five years ago after research from Age Concern in the east London borough Tower Hamlets showed few men were turning up to their day centres.
While women were being catered for with classes in dressmaking, line dancing and how to be a grandmother, none of the activities interested men.
Yes, there were worthy talks about men’s health and eating well, but they hardly pumped adrenaline through the veins.
Instead, retirees and widowers were hanging around in pubs and betting shops; even sadder, many were seen simply leaning against roadside railings watching the traffic go by.
So a few old friends took matters into their own hands and decided to recapture the things that made them laugh.
They formed their own club, asked for £1 a week subscriptions and sought out public funding.
They even helped form a women’s group called The Bow Belles (club rules allow the occasional mingling) and five years on, the local phenomenon they have created is, they hope, set to spread across Britain.
They play indoor bowls once a week — an activity so popular that many cancel their hospital appointments rather than miss out – and have regular outings and social gatherings.
However, those are the bread-and-butter ingredients: what makes The Geezers extra-special is their other work.
They have now won £20,000 in awards and grants, while their industry and creative energy has attracted the attention of artists and academics.
Their latest accolade was a cheque for £5,000, handed to them personally late last year by Attorney General Dominic Grieve for a unique project they undertook with the local Bow Boys comprehensive school.
The prize was from the Awards for Bridging Cultures organisation for a touching and fascinating short film chronicling called Bow: Now and Then, which chronicles the reflections of two generations growing up in the iconic East End.
For nowhere else in Britain has there been such dramatic change in terms of demographics and urban development.
Decimated by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, what was once the engine room of London’s river-borne trade and a centre of stereotypical Cockney life is now a skyline of City skyscrapers and a defining picture of multiculturalism.
A combination of City expansion from the west, Canary Wharf growth from the south and a wave of mass immigration from Bangladesh has contributed heavily to what social researchers have termed the “white flight” of traditional inhabitants to the suburbs of metropolitan Essex.
In short, older and whiter generations feel alienated in what they see as their own manor.
The younger ones, meanwhile look towards their elders as if they are occupiers from a foreign land.
The Geezers’ film was an attempt to address that. They teamed up with Andy Porter from media charity Hi8tus and produced a montage of talking heads and sights and sounds from today and yesteryear.
Over 15 minutes, the film is a collection of themes about growing up: playing, fashion and wooing girls are all explored.
Each scene juxtaposes tales from life then with teenage thoughts from today.
While Geezers talk about playing in bomb craters, with footballs made out of paper in traffic-free side streets and courting by taking sweethearts to Epping Forest, today’s youth buzz about computer games, hanging around with friends on densely packed housing estates and chatting up girls on mobile phones.
With so much concern about gang culture in modern Britain and especially inner city London, the discussion about “territory” was perhaps the most illuminating.
Today’s “post-code” gangs are merely modern names for what’s always happened, it seems.
Innocent Johan Campo Marin, 16, recounts in the film how he and his cousin were asked “what end”, or what post-code, they were from as they walked through the Elephant and Castle district in south-east London.
When they replied “Tower Hamlets”, they were chased by a gang.
To the older generation, that was nothing new: even venturing on to the other side of a railway bridge in their day risked trouble.
However, 81-year-old Ted Lewis, a former Billingsgate fish market porter, amateur featherweight boxer and uncle of acerbic TV critic Victor Lewis-Smith, said there was an honour to their day’s toughness.
He tells the camera: “We would have gang fights. A neighbourhood would bring their champion and we’d have our champion and the two would fight each other. If you kicked someone, you were a coward. You had to stand up and fight properly.”
Mr Lewis, a former Lib Dem councillor, is one of the stars of the film and when The Geezers met the boys again at their school last month, he was still showing off his strength and boxing skills.
Reflecting on the film, he said: “It’s been wonderful getting involved with them. I found that we can talk to these young children and they can also talk to us. They accept us so easily.
The pupils agreed there had been mutual respect.
“We thought they would be really boring, but after talking to them we just thought they were really just the same as us,” Johan said. “It’s made us think and learn more.”
Jim Morris, the head of the pupils’ year group at school, said he had been fascinated by the project.
He said: “The great thing is that it broke down the barriers and the stereotypes that both groups came with.
“They came with an idea of how they’re going to interact with each other and then their relationships developed with each other.
“They found they were different to each other. They couldn’t understand the world in which The Geezers used to live as children, when there was so much more space to play and where they were free to roam.
“That’s a different place to where these boys are growing up.
“Yet there are some things that they found to be a constant, particularly fashion.
“They were able to sit down easily with each other and ask questions about what it’s like being young in the different times.”
So what next for The Geezers? Chief Geezer Ray Gipson, 70, an ex-lorry driver, football referee and another former Lib Dem councillor, says they have already worked with the University of East London on renewable energy projects.
They even made a wind turbine that lit a sign over Tower Hamlets boasted “Geezer Power”.
He wants more men from around Britain to follow their example.
“People just seem to let men grow old and senile,” he says.
“We just didn’t want to have a talking club. We wanted to be talking about doing something and then actually doing something.”
Geezer Power is on its way.