NOTES FROM THE HEYGATE:
I am ensconsed in one of the many ocean-liner sized buildings that make up the Heygate Estate. Years ago, when I was squatting on one of the old brick estates north of the Old Kent Road, I used to look out at a section of the estate I’m on now and wonder ‘who the fuck would live in a place like that?
Now I know – people like me.
Out back you can see a long stretch of trees, the leaves all turning color, and rising here and there like the peaks of some slightly menacing mountain range, the other buildings of the estate – as oblong and massive as beached aircraft carriers, seamed by lines of gangways and doors with iron grilles on front and floodlights that click on at three pm like lights in a prison yard. On the other side, beyond the gangway, you can see the peaks and spires of the House of Commons, shining gold at night, spread out so it seems like many buildings instead of just the one. From the gangway, you can see St. Paul’s – in the early mornings it seems to rise up out of the city like the moon.
Last night (or afternoon – you realize how far north England is in early winter when the days effectively end at four pm), was the most magnificent sunset as the sun spread out behind Big Ben and the other buildings on the north side of the Thames and the first of the Guy Fawkes fireworks started going off. The fireworks continued all night, the explosions bouncing off the spaces between the buildings.
Yet however magnificent the view, you can never entirely shake the feeling that you are in a shitty tower block. The concrete gangways, the rickety metal lift. Even the doors inside the flat are those flimsy council issue type with the silver door handles that always seem about to fall off. A sense of lives half-swallowed by the massive building – especially since the estate is slowly being emptied, the empty flats sealed with strong, sophisticated looking metal barriers two or three generations up from the sturdy, but brutal and relatively easy to get around Sitex that were the norm in my day. On our estate it’s only perhaps one in ten but on some of the others, the scary ones further away from the train station and Pink Elephant shopping mall, it seems like whole upper stories have been blocked off – which must be great for people still living there. A couple I know who live behind the estates say drug dealers and pimps have taken over the upper stories of some of the emptier buildings. The girls come out on the New Kent Road behind the estates, the drug dealers lurk around the parks. I haven’t seen them myself, but I’m sure they are there.
Last night, after making the obligatory pub crawl around the ‘hood, I came back to find a notice by the elevator:
‘ALL THOSE ANSWERING THE GUMTREE AD FOR FLAT **** – DON’T GO! HE IS A RAPIST!’
Then, in the lift and on the floor in question:
“MAN IN FLAT **** IS A RAPIST! SHORT BLACK MAN’
Fucking intense. My flatmate says it would have been put up by the tennant’s association, who evidently run a pretty tight ship. Still – why not just call the police on the fucking guy? Or organize a vigilante group to go round to flat **** and warn him off. What evidence is the accusation based on?
Some people were talking in the lift about it this morning. An old couple and a young black woman. “I heard he was calling himself ‘****’ or somfing,” the white woman said while the black girl nodded sympathetically. It’s worth riding that shitty lift just for these experiences.
I can’t quite shake a slightly sinister feeling about the place. Partly it’s the size – walking up the main gangway at night is like walking into the bottom of a beached ocean liner, and not even being sure what is on the top levels. Maybe its’ reputation as well – I’ve heard plenty in the year I’ve been back about the muggings and so on that take place on this estate. But so far, after 24 hours, I don’t get that tense feeling that comes in a danger zone – the wary glances, the sinister types staring at you, the air of aggression that comes from everywhere and nowhere. So far, all I’ve seen are the aforementioned people in the lift – poor certainly, but far from sinister – a couple of African ladies next door, an old man playing with his over-friendly lab in the green down below, and a Latino man holding his child’s hand coming up the gangway. Typical poor south Londoners, in other words.
The pubs around here were fun last night. The Charlie Chaplin, built into the mall, where you can get a pint of middling ale for £1.60 and seems divided between traditional working class patrons and Latinos who look like they come from Central or South America somewhere. The place that used to be our regular, which was again pretty typically estate people – but again not particularly unfriendly (at the Charlie Chaplin, strangers actually talked to each other at the bar).
The pubs haven’t changed much – even the new picture window in the place that used to be our regular doesn’t lighten the layers of cigarette smoke or that very 70’s interior of wood beams and faux-finish plastering (The most entertaining part of being there was watching the movie remake of ‘Charlie’s Angel’s’ on the big screen TV). Then, past the mosque on Harper Road (the Islamic Crescent rising in the dark and across the street some Hallal shops, Bengalis in the corner grocer who seemed much better off than the poor besieged Pakistani who had the place when we lived around the corner – I’d hear the local kids calling him a ‘bloody Paki’ to his face sometimes) – the Windmill, a corner pub half-converted into a lounge with Thai food served upstairs. Then the Rising Sun, built into the corner of Bramwell House, with the same working class guys hanging around the bar. Aimiable enough, a great jukebox. Almost like the old days, except for the hot Latinas at one table, feeing coins into the jukebox and singing to the music in comically accented English.