Elephant and Castle Mall

The Mall . . . Britain’s first ever indoor shopping mall. I still drop in. I feel almost affectionate for it now, this decaying hulk that has been so central to my London for going on twenty years – ever since I first moved here as an adult in the fall of 87, not a month before the stock market tanked just as it did last week.

The mall feels embattled, though I wonder how long this feeling will last if the credit crunch deepens. At what point will the plug be pulled on all those new towers going up north and west of the roundabout, at what point will the ‘revitalization’ of the Elephant be put on hold? In the late 1980’s, when I was living in Montreal, you could walk downtown and see empty lots everywhere. Empty hi-rises and luxury shopping malls as well, with vacancy rates of 50% and up. You’d go on the top floor of Cours Mont Royal and see mannequins stacked up in the empty storefronts . . .

The Heygate Estate is half sealed off. Talked to my old flatmate last week and he said he was being moved out in a couple of weeks. Yet somehow, the mall survives. The little Columbian cafe in the middle of the second floor is almost pleasant with the Columbian accordion music in the background. On Sunday, when I was down, sunlight poured through the open doors and the traffic was minimal so you were spared the usual traffic roar that makes anywhere in the Elephant feel like the edge of an expressway.

You can never get away from the basic airport terminal feel of the mall’s upper level, with the terrible muzak played a little too loud, the concrete ceilings with the water sprinkler plugs, the flourescent lights reflecting off those strange pink and orange pillars- more than an hour there has a curiously deadening effect, but all malls feel deadening to some extent. In the evenings it is mostly empty but for a few stragglers off the trains, and people in the cafe. yet the doors remain open, so you can continue off the tunnels, through the mall to New Kent Road – I guess the Bingo Palace must stay open late.

It’s never menacing like it seemed when I first came to the Elephant in the late 80’s. One evening I came in to find a bunch of kids breakdancing in front of all the funky, council-issue graffiti on the billboards covering the empty storefronts. The main floor has not one, but two, excellent second hand bookstores and Le Bodeguita, the Columbian restaurant with the big glass windows in the corner, has dancing and great food. The Bingo Palace has been refurbished and does a good business, and there is some sort of bar on top with tables out on the roof. The Polish deli by the entrance to the train station has good sausage and Polish deli stuff cheap. An artist has taken over one of the storefronts, displaying drawings in an exhibition called Elephant Hotel. By the main roundabout entrance is a Chinese Herbalist advertising remedies for ‘man problems.’

You may not want to hang out here, but for an hour on a rainy day, the Elephant Mall is a little more interesting than most shopping malls.

Stag-Hunting on the Heygate

. . . .and in the vacant lot in front of Claydon House, someone has built a STAG out of scaffolding bars. 
   Nascent scaffolding was in place before I left, in the middle of the empty lot where the car park used to be –  as if they were finally going to start building something there – and when I first saw the stage, gleaming in the shadows behind the Elephant and Castle train station, I wondered if some builders got bored waiting to go to work and said, “hey, let’s build a stag!” 
   But no, it’s an artist. It’s always an artist. Guy named Ben Long. You can read about him here

Filming on the Heygate

One night I found a film crew below Claydon House. When I asked the guy on camera why he was shooting on the estate, he was defensive: “The estate is quite impressive at night, all lit up like that.” He was right: there is something mesmerizing about looking up at those long gangways all studded with floodlights like points in the night sky.

Films are always been shot on or around the estate. I talked to a friend who lives down New Kent Road, behind the last of the buildings that make up the Heygate. He said one nigh he saw a beautiful white horse cantering back and forth in the green in front of Claydon House. He stopped to watch it, fascinated by the image of the horse and the great building behind it, and only realized after a moment that a film crew had set up around the edge of the green and the cantering horse.

His girlfriend had told me about the crackheads who inhabited the little park in front of their house, how two muggers had robbed their neighbor right on his doorstep. The pimp who tried to chat up her friend – a nice middle class woman – right in the park with a view, they both realized later, to turning her out. But my friend says most of that is gone now, that the pimps and the crackheads didn’t so much originate on the estate as revolve around a pub down the street which was recently not just torn down, but reduced to rubble.

A film-maker himself, he knows a number of people who have made film shorts about the Heygate, including Martin Lewis, a researcher/ lecturer at College St. Martin’s, who shot that iconic segment of the Aylesbury that appears as a program intro on Channel 4. So I’m not the only one fascinated by these brutalist structures that will soon be no more . . .

Things I like about the Elephant

I like opening the blinds in the kitchen and looking out on the two Commons towers, the bell of the Imperial War Museum, even the edge of the London Eye out the window. It gives me a sense of being on the edge of central London and looking out on all this energy, all this motion. Hanging above the city, as it were.

Most of the time it’s pretty quiet here. Sometimes the flatmate is hardly ever home and when he is home he hides out in his room so it’s like having the flat to myself.

In the fall, I loved the contrast between the roar of the city, the sound of the police sirens and the steady rustle of leaves across the concrete gangways. Peaceful, ironically enough.

The estate, although intimidating – coming home I still look up at this tower and wonder what the hell I’m doing here – is bizarre enough to be interesting. It is a piece of history in it’s way – and soon it will be gone. There is this sad, almost melancholic air of finality about it, since soon most of the people will be gone as well.

I like leaving in the morning, descending into the back of the decrepit mall, down into the tunnels and the short hop into the city. Or the one stop ride from the platform, the bank of lights glowing in the dark morning, the train wheezing in and gathering me across the Thames to the very edge of the City.

I like being able to walk across the North Kent Road into the old brick estates where I lived with Marie, or up a short walk to the Imperial War Museum, Waterloo Station – the south bank. Two tube stops to Oval, and another part of my London life entirely . . .

I have history here after all.

Stories from the Aylesbury Estate Pt. 1

The flatmate showed me pictures of the Aylesbury. He lived there for five years, back in the 80’s. He said his flatmates would take sulphate all weekend, starting on Thursday night and continuing through until Monday, dropping acid when they were at the absolute low from taking sulphate. “They said it was better then, you felt the effect more. One of my mates ended up going into therapy and counseling for four years after one acid binge too many – he just didn’t come back.”
He showed me a picture of the guy in question, taken on a beach when they went on a trip to Israel. Good-looking guy with a sort of New Wave 80’s look with the shades, the brushed up blonde hair and the chain around one of his boots. Like a fan of Human League or Duran Duran or any of those 80’s bands.
The Aylesbury is full up now. No room for any overflow from the Heygate or anywhere else. Yet it’s still heavy. Just before Christmas a dozen or so kids set upon some poor pizza delivery man, beat him, robbed him. And stabbed him in the neck.
He told me that the ramps which inter-connect the Heygate used to run right through all the estates, right down to Burgess Park, a distance of about a mile. “You could go right from the shopping mall to the Park without once touching the ground. The police made them blow up the ramps between the estates. Criminals would commit some crime then have a couple of miles of gangways to escape into one of hundreds of flats. The police couldn’t catch anyone.”
He lived in a squat on the Aylesbury for five years. The working class tenants had been suspicious of him and his mates at first, “but they calmed down a bit when they saw we weren’t some thieving junkies. Me mate – – – had a posh sort of accent – he was public school – and I moved around so much when I was a kid I didn’t have any accent at all. They were more like ‘don’t make too much noise breaking in,” after that. But one night six big geezers came round, thinking we’d knicked something from one of the flats. They didn’t know it was us, but we were squatters and to some of the tenants all squatters were scum ‘taking homes from decent people’. So they tried to kick the door in to get at us for four straight hours. Luckily, we had bolts in from the back – the door was a lot stronger than we had thought because they would have had to take out the doorframe and a whole section of the wall. But there we were, six skinny potheads waiting inside for these geezers to come bursting in until they finally gave up and went away.”
“Why on earth did you stay five years on the Aylesbury?”
“I loved it! It was close to everything, all my mates were there. It was a laugh.”

A Walking Tour of the Heygate Estate


Walked through the ramps of the Heygate yesterday. You can see the designer’s intentions when you stroll between the towers. You can see how, with better materials, it might not be such a bad place. Perhaps if the main buildings had been smaller, or broken up – their very bulk makes them imposing and inhuman. With the steel gates, the iron bars over the windows, you never quite lose the sense of living in a fortress.
The ramps circle around all the buildings, running across Heygate and even New Kent Road – once they ran right into the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, though I don’t remember where. Despite the peeling green paint (whose idea exactly was it to paint the estate military green?) the bare and cracked concrete, the winding rampways have a certain whimsy in the way they curve this way and that between the buildings, as if the designers were trying to make the world’s longest skateboard ramp.

Maybe if the estate was given a facelift, it could become fashionable like the Alexander Fleming Building which, back in the 80’s, also looked decrepit and depressing with the paint peeling from the windowframes and the barren concrete interiors (not for nothing was it voted the ugliest building in Britain). Maybe there is some justification for renovating the Heygate rather than simply demolishing it – take down a couple of the largest buildings perhaps, but leave the curving walkways, the smaller buildings in-between and maybe one or tow of the towers.
After all, we know what will happen when the condos come in, and who they will be for.
In the daytime, Claydon House looks shabby and depressing, the paint peeling from the outside of the gangways and showing bare concrete underneath, the metal sheeting covering the doors and windows of every fifth flat. Even at a distance, you can tell the materials were cheap – like all these places, the Heygate was meant to last a decade or two, no more.
But it no longer seems as intimidating as it once did. I’m not sure I could have lived here twenty or even ten years ago and I’m sure many of the people who DID live there would have felt alienated no matter how strong the community because the building itself was alien. Yet over time, we’ve become accustomed to buildings on this scale. Over time, they’ve come to seem almost normal.