Went up KingsHill today. The lights were just clicking on in the gangways and but for a few people coming down the long ramp to Heygate Road, the estate was empty. I walked up the stairs to the top level, taking a few shots with my little camera, trying to get the last of the light. Here and there was an occupied flat with an open door and a light in the window, but most of the estate was blocked off – perhaps one or two flats per level were open. I saw exactly two other people – a young woman in a beret walking down on the gangway to the stairs on the opposite end, a black woman caught in silhouette, talking to someone in an open doorway at the very edge of the estate.
An Audio Slide show of faces along Walworth Road by Photographer Sylvie Goy. From the Guardian Society Section.
Went back to the Heygate today. I haven’t been in a month or more. Shocked to see how much more empty it is now. On the _____ Building, the majority of the flats are sealed off now. The council isn’t taking any chances – any section between stairwells that is now empty has been sealed off not just by the iron plates over the windows, but metal grates over the gangway and fan-shaped spikes over the balcony.
The flats that are left seem lonely, almost absurdly isolated. In the stairwells, you hear the roar of the traffic on New Kent Road, on the roundabout, but on the estate itself, it is dead silent – you can’t even hear the hum of machinery.
A curious normality reigns even here. The postman comes by, up and down the terraces, looking for the odd occupied flat. A concil worker in a yellow vast ambles down the gangway, holding a broom. A woman brings her young children out on the balcony to catch what will be ten minutes of milky sunshine.
A police helicopter buzzed the Elephant two or three times in the hour I was on the estate. The police were up in Claydon House when i got off at the train station, going up and down the gangways, stopping at one flat that wasn’t covered with the plates, knocking on the door, checking the windows.
Woke up this morning to the dawn breaking over that huge estate behind Heygate Road, the one that rises like a cliff from the mass of tree branches down below. Even in the shadow cast by the rising sun, you can make out the metal plates over the windows, the bare concrete and metal where the paint is peeling away. From a distance, the estate looks like some drydocked tanker being readied to be keelhauled. That same melancholy feeling of a long journey coming to an end, the structure breaking apart under it’s own weight.
I’ve never known what to say about this mall. I’ve tried to describe it years past and failed because it’s such an odd little corner.
Right now, I am sitting in the Café Nova Interchange (‘making connections!’) off the entrance to the brutalist concrete railway station, one of the Colombian places open on the upper level. Muzak overpowering everything else, the little wooden tables mostly empty, good espresso coffee served in little Styrofoam cups. Down the mezzazine is another Columbian café with outside tables and a combination café/ store where you can buy fresh coffee beans, Colombian cokes, cold empanadas. Latin music, all syncopated bass and wailing voices has just erupted from the stall or the Bodequita Restaurant with the big glass windows and the great, if pricy, food at the end of the mall, competing with the Muzak.
Even though most of the shopfronts are full, this level never quite loses the abandoned air that it had twenty years ago – you feel like you are on the top level of a not very busy airport (those 60’s spaces seem to work better without people anyway). When I first came here in the 1980’s, the mall seemed both strangely familiar and totally alien. A North American style mall but with all these ugly shops – the totally depressing diner with the big glass windows and hard plastic chairs and old men having chips and eggs and beans at three in the afternoon. The massive roundabout outside, interconnected by dark concrete tunnels with that inexplicable cube in the middle, surrounded by yellowing grass and marooned amidst the traffic like the remnant of some lost civilization. The concrete – concrete tunnels, concrete rampway connecting the mall to the even more alien world of the estate. The lobby of the Hannibal House office tower which rises from the top of the shopping centre like some misshapen grey head, looked musty and decrepit, as if the offices above had already been abandoned. It was hard to imagine that any work actually took place up there.
By the time I’d come back in 91, they’d painted the outside of the mall pink in hopes of cheering everyone up. I took my new Canadian girlfriend round to see it once and she said she’d never seen anywhere more depressing.
The Latinos have cheered things up considerably, as has the market in the concrete hollows runs in a big L around the ground floor. No mean feat, since that concrete space, inevitably dingy and dark, overwhelmed by the traffic noise just above and only one step removed from the black holes that mark the tunnel entrances, is even grimmer than the mall. But in the evenings it is full of people coming home, buoyed the forcefield intensity of some sort of dub. The vegetable guys by the front entrance, south Asians of some sort, say ‘what you want tonight buddy’ and chat a bit when you stop by, and in the cold and the yellow light you feel a sort of camaraderie with all these disparate folk crossing paths in this strange place before disappearing into the tunnels or onto one of the dozens of busses that swirl round the roundabout, or out into the back where the big estate is all lit up like a freighter behind the mall.
I wonder how much longer this mall will last. You can’t do much to change it’s basic dinginess (Muzak, fluorescent lights that make your eyes ache if you stay under them for too long), pink and neon green pillars and the diner with the plastic seats and 1973 menu), but it has, if not charm, then a uniqueness. Two good used bookstores downstairs – the kind of stores that can no longer survive in central London. The aforementioned Latinos. The Chinese herbalist advertising cures for ‘man problems’. Maybe if they got rid of the Muzak, it wouldn’t be a bad place. I’ve heard that the Bingo Palace upstairs has recently renovated – but the mall looks like it’s on the way out. The white siding over the pink is peeling in long strips outside, exposing the tired silver paneling, and the concrete ramps are cracked and dirty. Like the estate, it looks tired, as if it is just waiting for the wrecking ball to move in.
Slept a good part of the morning after being woken up at three am by some jungle/ techno blasting from somewhere on or near the estate. Went on for an hour, which surprised me – this estate is usually so quiet. Woke up to snow, sweeping past the window in great flurries our of an iron grey sky, just like snowfall in late winter Canada. Might have been pretty if any had stayed.
Went out around three to biting cold – even with the thick wool sweater the cold cut right through me. The mall was almost empty, muzak ringing about the fluorescent orange interior, maybe a half-dozen people staggering around, mobile phones clutched to their ears. Some black guy moved in on me so aggressively by the exit from the train station I thought he was about to hit me up for change, but he said:
“Do you know why we celebrate Easter?”
“Sure. I’m Catholic.”
Hesitating: “So you’ve let Jesus into your life then.”
“Like I said, I’m Catholic.”
He wanted to press it further but I kept walking. Anyway, I was protected. Catholics confuse Evangelicals – Christains but not quite Christain enough. Tainted somehow . . .
With the muzak and the milling people, the mall was as depressing as it had been in the early 90’s, when this would have passed for a typical shopping day. Outside, it wasn’t much better. A lot of black guys in padded jackets, either nattering into the mobiles pressed to their ear or glancing around suspiciously. The library was closed, just like everything else. Some crazed looking guy in front of the gas station doorway shouting ‘Change! Change!’ at everyone coming in and out. Three young black guys conferring then one splitting away to come up to me: “I know you won’t help me with the whole thing . . . “ he started before conveying some elaborate story about a train ticket and a journey home, speaking in a whimpering south London accent. He had a nice new leather jacket and when I gave him 20 pence he gave me a long whimpering look until I barked at him and he ran off to harass some middle-aged black lady carrying her shopping.
That’s who’s out on the cold on Easter Sundays: the druggies and the deranged. Could have been in Brooklyn.
I walked along the gangways through the estate. Some of the gardens on the smaller buildings between the towers are impressive, with tangled vines and what appear to be orchid trees, like the gardens in long-standing allotments. Iron grey slabs have been put over the empty flats on the big estate behind Heygate Road, sealing them off to maximum effect, getting the massive building ready for the wrecking ball. I wonder how they’ll take it down – level by level as they did on an 60’s office block by Victoria Station, or with a few well-placed explosions, bringing the massive building down in one big mass. From across the street, the slabs look like bands of duct tape, placed over the half the length of the lower stories in long grey strips.
From the walkway, you can see the backs of the empty flats. Curtains still in place, garish red or green interiors. Unguarded from the back – some of the windows have been left open. Back in the day, someone would have broken and squatted these places in a matter of hours.
Founder’s Arms, the pub on the Thames with the magnificent view of St. Paul’s, the cranes along the skyline of the City. Fog so heavy this morning that I could barely make out that great hulk of an estate behind Heygate Road. Felt as if the entire estate had shot up into pillowy sky.
Walked up through the Elephant into Burough and now the South Bank. Air very wet and cold, reaching beneath the clothes to coat the skin. Fog draped over church spires, bland brick estates – the now lovely streets north of Harper Road that I found so decrepit when I went there with Marie. A little park behind the mosque and the muddy trail, the fog dripping from the green and the smell of green undergrowth so that for a moment I was reminded of Vancouver. Then Burough, which isn’t much more than a collection of old brick estates and a few streets of brick foundries which seem straight out of the 19th century. All gentrified now. Burough Market open Sundays for the holidays – £2.20 for an almond croissant, packed as usual – so packed I skirted the whole thing and reached up the narrow lanes leading past the Prison Museum (‘the Clink’) and up to the South Bank.
U2’s ‘Unforgettable Fire’ seguing into Siouxsie Sioux’s ‘Tinderbox’ on the ipod, providing a soundtrack to whatever I was seeing so I felt like I was in a film. A film of part of my youth. Looking up at the dark brick of the Tate Modern, looming into the fog like some slightly sinister art deco monument to fascism. So many relics from the industrial age seem both magnificent and sinister. The fog comes in waves – when it thins you can just see the top of St. Paul’s, the gold statues shining like lanterns in the grey, then the construction cranes angling up along the North Bank. The hint of clear blue sky behind the low-lying cloud before the fog moves in again, taking everything over.
Later, after I left the pub (I was having coffee, not beer – in a good pub you should be able to enjoy going in and having either, at any time of the day), the fog continued to be dramatic. The spires of the London Eye, defined like the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. The statue men looking dignified and mysterious for once. Then the towers of the House of Commons, rising out of the low-lying fog like something out of Turner or Monet, patches of blue catching the spires, the white clock face beaming through the fog. I walked to Vauxhall Bridge just to admire it – the dazzling flashes of blue behind the gold, and the fog whisps in front of the long gold curtain in front. . . .
Sunday morning. Ten am.
Two men walking below the back of the train station. Sparse beards, green army jackets. Look more Slavic than English. Very drunk – one guy staggering ahead, the other following holding his camera phone backwards in front of him as he walks, looking into it very carefully through narrowed eyes as he films himself lurching down the deserted Sunday morning street behind an elevated train station.
I wonder if he’ll put it on Youtube?
The flatmate, who would know since he was living on the Aylesbury at the time, said the original raver clubs used to be in the tunnels built into the side of the elevated, now occupied by a furniture store, a Latino music shop/ café.
“It was more acid back then – acid and sulphate. Dexy’s. E hadn’t really hit the market yet.”
Funny, when Marie and I lived down on the Elephant, right around that time, we didn’t even know about these places. For us, the Elephant nightlife was confined to the pubs around the old brick estates north of the New Kent Road, the Coronet Theatre (where we saw some low budget spoof spy thriller starring Lemmy as himself masquerading as a secret agent – I think ‘Orgasmatron’ was the soundtrack), and the kebab place next to the mall with the white tiles and the fluorescent lights which made it look like a giant urinal. We usually went there after the pubs closed. The Turkish or Arab owners were friendly enough, especially to drunk young Canadians like us.
In the early 90’s, when I was back in the Elephant again, the clubs were already moving in. Ministry of Sound set up shop around this period. I missed the whole rave thing because I didn’t like E – I’d done enough hallucinogens as a teenager to do me for feeling shiny and happy for the rest of my life.
Now the clubs seem to be in the tunnels below London Bridge. I walked up there one morning without knowing where I was going, strolling through the old Victorian Estates in Burrough. You walk in this dark tunnel with the trash in the gutters, water dripping down the decrepit brick walls and suddenly you see dozens of club kids, tripping, drunk, coming out of the clubs sequestered in the tunnel walls, dressed in stripy shirts, scarfs, sunglasses – or, even more incredibly, sitting despondently in a line on the tunnel floor, waiting to get into a club entrance guarded by some giant bouncer. Walk out of the tunnel and you are on the south bank with the ‘Blitz’ museum and the families with kids strolling along the Embankment to Tower Bridge.
Even the Elephant roundabout has been transformed. Back in the day, the tunnels below the roundabout were dark, and pretty much taken over by the drunks even in the daytime, the Alexander Fleming building dark and empty after office hours. When I passed through this spring, I was surprised to find not just the streets but even the tunnels full of people – Africans and Latinos going to the bars and restaurants which now surround the roundabout, trendy Asians and Euros and English off bus or tube, stopping for a drink or some food before heading to the clubs. Despite the ever-present traffic noise, it was a good place to stop for a drink or even sit on a terrace for a few moments before catching the bus or train home . . .