I’ve included a couple of links to show some general history of both the Heygate and the Elephant.
Cancer Support is a 15 story building across the Thames from the Tate Britain and next to M16. On the 14th floor, where I was based, I could see right into their windows, and the patio on the roof with the little tables. ‘Spying on the spies’ I said to the guy who was showing me around. Comic Relief, which does regular fundraisers for Cancer Support starring Lenny Henry and other bigshots, as well as other linked organizations, have their offices in the building, as do a couple of non-related companies –but mostly it is CS.
As far as I could tell, a good part of the CS operation was about fund-raising. Events, marketing, direct marketing. The post room was the prison laundry of these kinds of places, where everything pass through on it’s way in or out. A good deal of incoming mail involves cheques and pledges – CS provides grants to cancer sufferers who can’t pay their rent, etc. Yet so much revenue must go into paying rent, paying for staff, for the reams of promotional material.
The fundraising team take up half a floor and seem completely cut off from the rest of the organization. They seemed a racier, more flamboyant, perhaps even self-conciously bohemian bunch. A group of them got in the lift when I was going for lunch one day, gathered around a black guy with an Afro and a ‘Jesus Loves Me’ belt in the lift who mused the whole way down on the best place in the area to go for salad. I watched the whole scene through the window. All these guys walking around with the hands free, making big gestures as they tried to suck money out of some sponsor. This must be the infamous boiler room – it would be the same scene for an NGO, or a pyramid scheme or a hedge fund. Much more aggressive, much more clubby than the people on the upper floors – you had the sense they drank together after work. One morning they had a big pep rally, with some guy pointing at a chart and naming people on the team who I guess had made the best sales and everyone clapping enthusiastically like they really believed in what they were doing.
The other floors were all open-plan with waist high dividers so you could see the person in the next seat, even when you aren’t sitting down. I wasn’t at the desk much, but I’m sure it would be a little unbearable after awhile – the phones going off, everyone talking around you. Staring at the computer for hours on end. I spent all my time running between floors – I must have spent a good hour of the day in the lift – so I didn’t see much of that side. One temp, an Indian girl they sat right next to the post room, has the most boring job I could imagine, sitting at that desk, updating spreadsheets, typing up letters, looking so bored sometimes that I felt for her. When the 11th floor had a speech and a party of some sort, she wasn’t included except for the speech and then she had to go back to her desk, put on her Ipod, and go back to her spreadsheets.
A lot of people seem to spend most of their time on Facebook – how much is everything from facebook to chat rooms to blogs to ‘have your say’ add-ons to newspaper articles, are designed for office culture.
Every floor had its’ kitchen area but only the 13th had a lunch room, complete with microwave and tables and chairs. People were quite free about making breakfast in the morning to have at their desks – at lunch they microwave their food and had it in the lunchroom or at their desks. A sort of nauseating, lazy habit – you’d think they’d seize any chance for fresh air, for natural light, especially this time of year.
At lunch, after checking email, I went to the park to look at the animals. They have a ‘little farm’ at the bottom of the park where the horses run free in a pen and horses, pigs, roosters, goats, ferrets, ducks, bunnies and a couple of lemur type creatures, are kept in small pens behind the park and you can walk between the pens and look at the animals looking back with mute animal eyes. At first they just looked stupid, chewing cud and staring pointlessly off into the distance but then the keeper explained that the cow cares for the younger goat, protecting it and showing it affection by stroking it with it’s big bovine tongue, and the goats and the cows respond to affection, have tugs of wars with the keepers and even respond to their names.
And sure enough I watched the goats nudge and pester one of the volunteer kids, chewing at his sweater, sniffing around for his sandwich, and putting their noses up to be rubbed, while the cow rubbed it’s big head up and down the little goat’s back. The kids who worked there all seemed to be misfits in some way. Two teenage boys who were studying farming and wanted to start a farm because they ‘loved animals’ – I didn’t have the heart to say that farming is a tough haul, and that they’d have to kill their animals to survive. One kid had two wide eyes and buck teeth, but he was a friendly kid with funny anecdotes about the animals and every time I went down he’d say “alright then?” Watching the animals, I understood how a kid, especially a kid who had a hard time fitting into the normal school world, could find solace, even peace, in this animal world – as I probably did for a time as a boy. The animal world does seem gentle from a distance – after all, the animals in the little farm have their basic needs – food, reproduction and safety from predators – taken care of and have no need to be aggressive.
You can see a slide show of some of the people who live on the Heygate Estate here:
I will try to set this up as a link – when I figure out how!!!
I heard gunfire the other night. One loud pop, ricocheting all about the estate then a police siren, the car wailing up Heygate Road and coming to a sudden stop somewhere below our building. Two more pops in close succession, as loud as depth charges with the echo off the neighboring buildings, then another police siren then another.
Then nothing. A lot of noises bother me, but gunfire isn’t one of them. It says a lot about how long I lived in Brooklyn, where the sound of gunfire was such a regular occurrence it became part of the background noise of the city, that I couldn’t even rouse myself out of bed to have a look. I fell asleep moments later.
I’d heard a lot of stories about the Heygate before I moved in. A guy I met who used to take his karate class up on the roof of one of the larger estates (no, I don’t know why either), told me crack houses dotted the council flats on the upper stories. Friends who lived behind the estate near the Old Kent Road talked about the drug addicts and the hookers appearing in the little park in front of their house – about pimps so brazen they hustled women with babies in strollers in hopes of turning them out. Like most ‘failed’ estates, the Heygate is seen by a lot of people as a nest of hooded teens lurking around dark corners with killer dogs, drug gangs, the aforementioned crack houses – a nightmare of mayhem, deprivation and crime that needs to be eviscerated as soon as possible.
The first thing I noticed after I moved in was the quiet. Except for the background traffic noise and the odd car stereo booming for a few minutes from the parking lot – and of course the gunfire the other night which is the only time I’ve ever heard anything like that – the estate is by and large a quiet place. With the concrete walls, you hardly hear the neighbors – and if you do it’s usually just their kids playing (or crying). Families, by and large, seem to dominate the estate and people seem respectful of that. The odd time a sound system goes off for a party it’s turned down at a reasonable hour. Many Hispanics, many Africans. On the terraces or the rickety metal lift, people are civil, if somewhat distant. Council workers come by a couple of times a week to sweep out the terraces, drop off Southwark Council recycling bags, collect the trash.
The only two hoodies I’ve encountered have been two Latin kids at the foot of the gangway which leads to the estate – pleasant looking kids who were quick to make room for me and even apologized for being in the way. In the parking lot you see Smart Cars, sedans. Plenty of people in Gore-tex biking to work in the morning. At six am, when I usually get up, the first commuters are already starting down the gangways to tube, bus, car.
People live here for the same reason I do: this is one of the last affordable places in central London, especially for a newcomer to the city.
Still, you could be forgiven for not realizing this at first. Paint peels from the gangways, the terrace balconies, all around the flats themselves. Even in my building overlooking the train tracks, every fourth or fifth is blocked off by sheet metal barriers – on the estate behind Heygate, entire terraces, three city blocks long, look like one seam of metal. The council patrols, keeps out the squatters, but you can tell that in one year, two, these buildings will be reduced to rubble.
If I was a kid, maybe I’d love living in a place like this – after all, kids have an innate fascination for abandoned buildings. Just as long as it wasn’t dangerous. As it is, I wonder what the kids here think about what is going on around them . . .
Up at six am. Out the door, looking out on the dome of St. Paul’s rising blue and white from the end of the gangway and out beyond Hannibal House and the jumble of buildings between the Elephant and the river, the two towers of of the Houses of Parliament, still glowing golden yellow in the dusk –
Down the concrete stairs, the lights of the glowing beyond the terraces, to the gangway which sticks out like a snaking concrete limb from the bottom of the estate – down to the muddy path across the green where the old man plays with his dog every morning, throwing sticks so his dog runs back and forth across the green. I said hi to the man one morning but in true London fashion, he just looked at me blankly then looked away . . .
Up to the back end of the elevated railway, through the concrete concourse with the fluorescent lights, up to the platform where the whole of Claydon House spreads out across the purple dawn sky, floodlights glowing in the gangways. The train arrives, ejects half it’s passengers, and even at six-thirty am there are so many they cram the little stairwell for five solid minutes, queuing silently in the cold with typical English resignation.
The train doors close and the train whooshes forward – curving for five minutes through the old brick estates with the red rooftops that make up most of Burough, onto Blackfriar’s Bridge – and as the train breaks into the open, the dawn reflects off the smooth water of the Thames, illuminating one of the loveliest views in London (and possibly the world) – St. Paul’s Cathedral still glowing white and blue in the pale dawn sky, the surface of the Thames glimmering pale yellow and blue with the first light of the sun, the cranes around the edges of the City rising in silhouettes, poised at different angles like ballerinas in a crane ballet caught in mid-flight – and the Thames curving off the West, ending with a silver of Westminster’s jagged spires glowing like lamplight in the dark . . . .
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:
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.
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.