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