How I Came to the Elephant

The first time I lived in England as an adult was in the fall of ’87, when I came here with my girlfriend, who I’ll call Molly. I’d met Molly in Vancouver, after she’d come back from a year in London, and she’d told me about her London squatting life which seemed very exotic, hip and slightly scary to someone like me whose idea of a big metropolis was Montreal (where I’d just spent a year) and eventually she dragged me back to London with her. We ended up on the Elephant because Molly had friends who lived on the Bramwell Estate. We didn’t know enough about squatting to break our own place so when somebody found us an empty room, we moved in.

I’d been to England often enough as a kid, passing through London on the way to see my grandparents up in Leeds. I’d been into punk rock for a couple of years, liked all the English bands like Joy Division, the Stranglers, the Jam, GBH, the Exploited; Canadian cities had skinheads, hardcore, mods, styles imported wholesale from the UK. I’d even knew people who’d lived on the giant estates in south London, who told me stories about the damp whistling through the cracks, the loaf of white bread under the table, the pints of sour milk in the fridge. Everyone waiting for the dole so they could go to the pub and get drunk, and spent needles turning up in the mornings in the kitchen or the bathroom floor.

But in the back of my mind, England was the country of my grandparents: green,safe, pleasant. I expected convivial neighborhood pubs, red postal vans, a friendly greeting from the corner grocer as I dropped in to buy milk. From a distance, even squatting seemed romantic – a grittier version of the artist’s communities I knew in Montreal.

We moved in next door to Molly’s friend Scottish Rob. We could have lived with Rob, but his flat had no heat and most of the rooms had broken windows – he spent most of his time at home in bed, reading. Instead, we moved in with a South African named Giles, whose flat at least had windows. Our room had been painted a bright, murderous red by a previous resident but we had a nice view out the big picture window of the green beyond the estate, the curve of Harper Road and the little library across the road.

At the time, the Elephant was mostly Irish. You heard Irish brogue mixed in with Cockney in pubs and on the terraces around the neighborhood, and one of the pubs around the Bramwell was rumoured to be an IRA hang-out. I heard it was even bombed at one point.

It was definitely a poor area. Enormous women in kerchiefs hung their washing in the terraces and yelled at their kids running around in the courtyard. A lot of flats were boarded up, and ripe for squatters but the locals hated squatters for the most part, seeing them as druggies, vandals, or worse. Since this element did exist, you couldn’t really blame them.

But most squatters were like us – outsiders to London, lacking the income, references or connections to get a council flat. For anyone coming to London in the ’80s, squatting was the best and sometimes the only option if you wanted a place to live, and the big estates in the Elephant and down Walworth Road were natural starting points, since they had so many empty flats and it might be months, even years, before Southwark Council got around to evicting anyone.

Molly had already lived in squats just south of the gargantuan and slightly horrific North Peckham estate for a year before she came back to Vancouver and met me, but at the first the whole concept flipped me out. Our flat was damp and smelled of mould: the cold leaked in through the windows and the paint was peeling from the walls. Outside, the grey light hardly penetrated the terraces, and the children hanging around the terraces glanced us over suspiciously. Gangs of young white men, usually drunk, mobbed the New Kent Road on weekend nights.

The Elephant and Castle mall – it was grey then – seemed both decrepit and menacing, with old people wearily pulling their shopping carts along the airport wing-like atmosphere of the second level, past drunks hanging around on the benches. The phone boxes had either been smashed or carved up with graffiti, and gangs of kids, black and white, hung around the lower levels in the afternoons.

Then there were the tunnels below the roundabout, criss-crossing from the Alexander Fleming building to the tube, Southwark Hall to the Shopping Centre. The drunks hung in the deepest levels, bumming change and drinking cans of Special Brew, graffiti covered the walls and many of the lights were smashed out so they were always gloomy, even dark. With the tunnels, the concrete rampways around the mall, and the orange formica interiors in the little coffee bars inside the mall itself, the area seemed like something out of Clockwork Orange.

But what made the neighborhood seem especially sinister was the ocean-liner sized structures flanking New Kent Road; the outer buildings of the might Heygate Estate. I had never seen anything like the Heygate before. The lead tower stretched the length of three city blocks, rising level upon level of doorways and windows, the green terrace fencing  make it look like a walll of plastic lawn dividers. Our estate, a warren of dirty brick, seemed human by comparism. On the concrete gangway at the bottom, someone had scrawled ‘Vote Labour’ and we imagined that our estate had been built by a compassionate Labour government while the monstrosity across the street was the legacy of the heartless Tories.

The first thing Molly had me do was sign on. The dole office was in the Alexander Fleming Building, which had just been voted the ugliest building in Britain. Perched on the edge of the roundabout, it was a Mie Van der Rhoe (??) inspired mass of cubes and long edges – modernism personified. Every window was streaked with dust, the paint was peeling – it was decrepit and past its prime even while still young.

The dole office was up some concrete stairs where people waiting for an appointment or their cheque sat around smoking, glancing suspiciously over everyone who passed. Inside were punks with weedy Mohawks and the proverbial dogs on lengths of string, and rows of beaten looking people sitting on the hard plastic seats, waiting for their number to come up. Pexiglass separated the case workers from their cases and at one of the stalls a huge Jamaican woman was screaming at a white male case worker and hitting the pexiglass with her closed fists. Later on, I was to find out that most of the men and women sitting behind the pexiglass had been drawn from the ranks of those waiting on the hard plastic seats.

When my number came up, I recited the story Molly had given me, that I’d been fruit picking in Greece, run out of work and money, and so needed the £28.50 a week in Unemployment Benefit to survive. Dreading a barrage of uncomfortable questions, like why didn’t I just go out and get a job, I was relieved when the case worker, probably just as relieved to be dealing with a mildly fraudulent Canadian as I was to be let off the hook, told me my UB40 would reach me in two weeks.

And so it went, my very own UB40 . . .

NEXT INSTALLMENT: HOW I CAME TO LOVE THE ELEPHANT

My flatmate told me about an old lady who’d lived down at the end of the terrace. She had osteoperosis and was bent over and stood barely four and a half feet. She and her husband had lived down near the docks in Rotherhithe. The big ships would come in and be pulled up right onto the shore so they would wake up and find some huge freighter parked not fifty yards from their front door. Once, when a timber freighter came in, they woke up and found the logs stacked in huge squares fifty, a hundred feet high – the longshoreman had been unloading all night and they hadn’t even heard them! She was one of many residents who remembered the area before the estates were built “And look at the state it’s in now . . . “
‘She went away to see a relative and some little toe-rag kicked in her door and knicked all her valuables. She came back and found her flat all smashed up, and she was quite the same after that. I think it broke her spirit – she went away not long after that, into an old people’s home near where her son lives. She used to ring up and have me over for tea and tell me all these funny stories but I don’t see her anymore. You get plenty of robbers and thieves crawling around here . . . they mostly go after old ladies and the weak . . . “

New Year’s Eve on the Heygate

NEW YEAR’S EVE:

Didn’t go out last night – I much prefer to stay in most years. Watched the director’s cut of ‘Bladerunner’ then went outside to watch the fireworks. At night this estate is like the set of Bladerunner in some ways, the same tall, anonymous gloomy buildings. Even from the terrace, I could feel the city’s energy, rising from the lights and the mass of blocky building piled up south of the river, the great golden squares of the House of Commons towers rising behind the Eye. The people streaming out from the heart of the estate behind our building, up Walworth, disappearing into the blur of traffic swirling through the roundabout in front of the Pink Elephant shopping mall while the ever-present police cruisers, sirens wailing – they’d started wailing by in earnest, going in all directions, around eight pm and hadn’t let up since.
Some kids were already out high up on the 12th floor. On cue they did the countdown: ’10, 9, 8. . .’ but they had the time wrong and nothing happened. So they did it again. And again – shouting out the numbers into the night air, their voices echoing off the skeletal trees until the first of the fireworks exploded behind the great mass of the buildings in front of the London Eye and all the cars on Walworth Road began honking their horns and two more kids, a brother and a sister from the similar timbre of their voices, rushed out to the balcony above mine, yelling ‘Happy New Year!! It’s 2008!! Happy New Year!!’ over and over until their voices were hoarse and when I yelled ‘Happy New Year’ back,, they yelled ‘Thank you!” then went back to yelling ‘It’s 2008!! Happy New Year!!’ as before.
The fireworks kept on exploding behind the London Eye, then the Eye itself lit up like a pinwheel, the rockets shooting from each car making it seem like it was turning, the smoke from the fireworks billowing out in front of the Houses of Parliament red and blue and yellow as the area was being bombed by phosphorous. What looked like snowflakes showered down beneath the floodlights on the terraces but when I put my hand out, I saw that they were pieces of coloured paper – red, yellow, purple – tossed by the kids on the top floor. People came out on neighboring terraces to watch the fireworks and I wished I’d gone right to the twelfth floor where you could see right to Westminster, but the low buildings in and around the Elephant made it look like the city was being bombarded, the effect enhanced by the regular explosions that bounded out through the night air, bouncing off the great mass of the estate – and I felt like I could feel more of the city’s energy with the kids still shouting on the level above me, and the cars honking on Walworth and all through the roundabout . . .
Yet after the last great clusters of starbursts high up in the purple-black sky, everyone went inside. Walking along the terrace, I was amazed at how many flats remained dark, silent – of course many people had gone out for the evening. But even before midnight the estate was relatively quiet but for the odd burst of dub from a neighboring flat or a passing car stereo.

Journal Notes

NOTES FROM THE HEYGATE:

Early November:

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.

Live from the Heygate

Hi there, 

   This is an attempt at describing life on the world-famous Heygate Estate in what might be the last few months of it’s life, as the whole Elephant and Castle area is due to be redeveloped in the same way as the rest of London. Or maybe not – the council has been promising/ threatening (depending on your point of view) these estates for the last five years and they are still standing, in all their socialist-realist glory. 
   I’ll post when I can. Enjoy.