Sunday, 16 November 2008

KingsHill II

Back on Kingshill . . . once you seen it, you don't want to leave. 

Saw two families pulling stuff into the lift and out again into a van parked at the bottom. Looked Asian. One black couple. Everyone friendly, easygoing. Maybe leaving brings it out. 

Drizzle, the fog enveloping the Gherkin, the dome of St. Paul's, the towers of the city. Tower Bridge off in the distance behind the blunt edge of another tower. The drizzle made the foilage between the buildings seem more febrile, alive - you could smell the moss, the green and for seconds at a time, I felt like I was back in my native British Columbia, walking through the woods, with the damp dripping from the trees onto the rich undergrowth. 

Memories. Squatting in London, tearing away iron doors from blocked up flats like the ones on KingsHill to get inside some shabby council flat. I never squatted in towers like the Heygate, but I roamed them often enough, wondering what I was doing in London wandering these shabby estates looking for a place to live. Every spring I'd go back to British Columbia and work in the forests for two or three months to make enough money to live for the rest of the year so I guess those two images - council flats blocked up with iron doors and rain dripping down through the rainforest canopy are linked inextricably - bizarrely - in my mind. 
What will the credit crunch bring to the Heygate? Already there is talk that the private developers responsible for the demolition and 'restoration' of the estate and environs, might not be able to access the funds to come through. The government is guaranteeing high-profile projects like the Olympics and Crossrail - but will they come through for the Heygate? 

What happens then if nothing is done at all. The Heygate comprises some 1260 units - will they just remain empty? Let's say the council moves everyone out yet the demolition doesn't take place, the estate just sits there, rotting. Inevitably, with more and more pressure on the rental market - people who now can't afford to buy or have lost their homes have to live somewhere - there will be pressure to make those 1260 units available again. By that point, many of these flats will have been vacant a year or more, their already delapidated condition that much further gone - will the council even be able to move tennants in? 

At what point do the squatters take over? 

Sunday, 9 November 2008


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. 

I'd never been up KingsHill before. When I lived on Claydon, I used to look out at the building every morning when I woke up. Sometimes a crescent moon would sit directly above, or the setting sun would reflect off the gangways, but the tower almost always loomed up like a keelhauled battleship behind the line of trees along Heygate Road. I'd heard it was the worst estate on the Heygate, plagued by crackhouses, and squatters, but perhaps that was just rumour, and my own prejudice. It seemed slightly unknowable, like the surface of another planet, and I entered it with a good deal more trepidation than I would Claydon or the building along New Kent Road, even though it is not that much bigger or, at this point, not that much more deserted. 

The views are fantasitc. You can see right across the northern half of the Elephant, up through Burough and the Thames, right to St. Paul and the City, the green between the towers masks a good deal of the rest of the estate. You don't think about the green when you see the estate from the outside, but in the roughly hexagonal shape created by the towers the green, the two-story buildings and even the rampways create an almost pleasant space. Almost, because you look up and see the towers in every direction, peering down with those prison yard gangways, but from this vantage you can at least see what the architects had in mind. 

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Down the Walworth Road

Waiting at the bus stop across from the excellent Turkish shop down by the Aylesbury . . . 

Guy in a wheelchair, cradling a Tennant's Super while yelling into a mobile over the traffic. "I fucking told 'im, he can't, he fucking can't!" while two women in scarves in the gypsy style, cradle fully swaddled babies. One woman, older, nudges the other and she goes out into the stream of people hurrying past, approaching first a well-dressed black guy, then some middle-age South London prole, then a woman pushing her own kid in a pram and so on, holding out her hand, begging but being sort of matter of fact about it, as if it were a business transaction. The older woman sees me watching, glances at me a couple of times, but neither woman approaches. 

The guy in the wheelchair has stopped yelling into his mobile and has been joined by another guy in a wheelchair, also drinking Tennants. They have the ravaged, blunted, if genial faces of South London alcoholics - a few years ago you saw their type all over the place, though rarely in wheelchairs. They hang out a bit, smoking and drinking their Tennant's, then the original guy says, "You shouldn't ever bully someone. That's how we were bullied, in school, remember? I don't ever bully nobody now . . ." 

Meanwhile a third woman with a baby has joined the other two, and all three are out hitting up people on the street. Then, unsuccessful, they convene at the bus stop, the older woman points up the street. I can't make out what language they speak in - it might even be English. The woman sees me watching again and looks at me pointedly and shrugs, as if to say, "Well, we all have to make do somehow . . . " and they push out into the crowd cradling their babies . . . .

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Aylesbury

From the London Times: 

Funny, the guy goes to great pains to show what a hellhole it is, then pulls back and says, actually it's not so bad etc. 
Question is: what will it be like for the resident as all this construction work is going on around them - for YEARS?

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Pictures from Walworth Road

An Audio Slide show of faces along Walworth Road by Photographer Sylvie Goy. From the Guardian Society Section. 

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.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tourist Shots

Friday, 29 August 2008

Endgame Continues pt. II

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.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Filming on the Heygate Pt. II

My friend came round the second day with cameras. He filmed me going into one of the decrepit lifts where the silver panneling had been ripped off the back and we rode to the top floor. Or tried to - the lift went down instead of up, reminding me why I'd almost never used the lifts when I'd lived on the estate. On the ground floor, a big black guy got on, glancing us over when he saw the camera, and as we rode to the top floor I grew self-concious about our accents and being on the estate with a camera. But as we neared the top, the guy turned to us again, curious rather than hostile.

"Are you with the tele or something?"

"No," my friend replied, "just a private project."

Then the guy told us, with the disarming forwardness Londoners can display with foreigners in certain contexts, that he'd been moved out of the estate just that weekend, and he'd come back to see his old flat. "Just to see where I'd lived for seven years."

As we stepped out on the landing, my friend asked if we could film him and he said sure and we filmed him walking down the terraces. Like a lot of big men, he seemed like a basically gentle guy. His old flat had already been sealed off by heavy iron plates.

"I wanted to come back and remind myself I'd been here all these years - now it's all sealed and blocked off. Didn't waste any time, did they," he said, then laughed. "I wondered if I'd left something inside. . . Funny to think I used to come in and out of this door."

He agreed to let Brahm interview him in front of his old place.

"Most people here is glad to get moved out - some of us have been waitin' years. Some pretty bad things have gone on here . . .used to be pretty bad with the nightclub just across the street (on Walworth Road, beside the bridge) - you'd get people coming on the estate, doing all kinds of things that weren't even from here.

"Been here seven years - I'll be movin' to Peckham. It ain't so bad down there. Like a lot of people round here, I had my flat broken into, so I put the bars on the windows and barricaded myself in. This estate wasn't the worst for some reason. Big Hill and the other one on New Kent Road always had the most problems.

"It's taken 'em so long to get us out, to do anything. First they took down the parking garage then left that empty so no one can find parking anymore. You remember the funny things about this place - how they'd turn off the heat in the winter so you'd be freezing all day, or crank up the heat in the summer so you could hardly be inside, or there'd be no water at all so you'd be sorry for the people what left their taps on when they went out to work forgetting then coming home to find their whole place flooded . . .

"Sometimes too, you'd find half the lights out on the block so you'd look over and the building past the stairwell was all dark. Or the lifts wouldn't work so you'd wait forever for the lifts that did work and some of the old people especially had a hard time getting up all the stairs with their shopping . . . some people would say the council did it deliberate so people would just move out."

"Would you have stayed if they fixed the place up?"

"No, no. Most people here, they been waiting years to get out. People from outside, they come here and say, 'why do you live in an army barracks'? "I won't miss it, not really. Best thing about living here is you're close to everything - you got all busses, two tube lines, you can walk to Westminster if you want . . . " Looking back at the iron plate over what had been his door: " The council won't wait now - they got this on before I'd even made it to the lift! They don't want trouble with squatters. We had a couple of Polish next door, raising a ruckus and they had to boot 'em out. . .

"You can be sure, much as tennants here want to leave, there's others who want to come in, like these Polish geezers.

"That mall will have to go as well. You look at other places, like the Bluewater out in Croydon, they got waterfalls, nice stereo . . .they got to do that here. They say when they're finished, you won't even recognize this place. They'll have trams, big office towers . . . "

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Filming On the Heygate - PtI

Stairwell, Villa Savoye

An old friend from Canada showed up last week. He is making a film about modernist architecture. He has already filmed in Montreal, Hong Kong, Brasilia, at that palace to Modernism, Le Couboisier's Villa Savoye in Pouissy, France, so of course I had to take him to the Heygate.

   We hit Claydon House, my old building, in the full glow of the early evening light - one of those radiant summer evenings that remind me of the summer light where I grew up in Northern Canada. As we wandered up and down the terraces, I was amazed at how many flats had been blocked off - half the terrace on some levels - and how empty the estate felt. When a gang of kids appeared at the top of the 11th floor, running from the stairwells to the lifts, they seemed like a mirage. 

   On the edge of the 11th floor, we leaned against the fencing and talked about gentrification. Out behind us were the lead towers of the Aylesbury Estate, their upper terraces suspended above the greened-up trees and lines of rowhouses so they did indeed look like 'cities in the sky'. Brahm said that in Paris, where he lives now, the central part of the city is almost like a gated community. "The cops make sure no one from the bainliue can come in and raise shit, and whole sections have become playgrounds for the offspring of the rich." 
   This is true of all great cities now - Paris, London, New York - and once places like the Heygate disappear, the non-rich will disappear with them. since it was the non-rich who gave these cities their character, where will the great cities be in ten, twenty years time? 

   We wandered through the gangways, marveling at the sheer scale of the building, the colossal delusion of the architects who built them. Brahm talked about how the modernist project became so central to post-war planning that no one dared oppose it, that then, as now, developers made big money colluding with governments to bring us places like the Heygate. That even when people pointed out the inhuman scale of these places, their objections were shrugged off - concrete blocks were the future and 'that's just the way it has to be'. I noticed how many windows were smashed or hung open, exposing the empty flats inside, how deserted the walkways were at an hour when, even in winter, they would have been almost full. But for some kids on the playground, the whole estate seemed to contain barely anyone at all . . . 

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Endgame Continues

The Big Estate on Heygate Road. Probably two thirds empty now. Look for the lines of grey iron plates over the doors and windows. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

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

Heygate in July

Back in the Elephant and Castle Train Station after three, four months away . . . 

    They've painted the handrails a glossy dark pink the same colour they painted the mall back in the early 90's in the dark days of the last recession. Harbinger of things to come? 

    Bright new windmill which looks like a serrated barrel, spinning deliriously next to the old windmill, powering all of three or four flats I'm sure. 
   A| drunk screams abuse at no one in particular somewhere down the platform. A new hi-rise is going up up next to the tracks. 

   Claydon House as grim as ever, with a few more of those Death Star iron patches over the windows. Latin kids playfight in the stairwell, taking jabs at each other and edging up and down the stairs. Even with the greened up trees, the estate looks about as inviting as a keelhauled battleship.  As ever, Massive Attack goes well with the scene from No. 4 train platform, like a sound track to grey sky, the concrete gangways and the iron plates over the windows. 

   And so, London marches steadily on to 2012. Who will in the city after the Olympics have come and gone, I wonder? For those of you who are interested, I'd show you pictures if I hadn't left my freakin' camera in Toronto. Had to borrow these off the web.  

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Vintage Photographs from the Elephant

Vintage Photographs of the Elephant from the James Hyman Gallery: 

Monday, 5 May 2008

Siouxsie Sioux and the Aylesbury

Caught the 343 down to Brockley today. A relatively painless ride except for some African yelling into his mobile right down to Peckham Rye. Even after I put the headphones on, I could hear this guy yabbering away, his outburst resounding in staccato points between the lows and highs of the music. Finally, it was just him and me on the top level, and even with the music cranked, I could STILL hear the silly fucker. 

   What the fuck is it with people here and their mobiles? The mobile phone has ruined so many public spaces in London. 

   On the way back, the peaks of the Aylesbury appeared just as Siouxsie and the Banshees 'Quartermaster of the Dog' came on the headphones. That slow guitar opening, seguing into the repeated riff then Siouxsie's childlike (or just plain childish) organ riff - moody, haunting, one of the songs that made up the soundtrack to my younger days haunting marveling at places like the Aylesbury. With the sunlight reflecting off the rows of windows, the towers - two or three city blocks long, angled north-south and stacked one behind the other and joined by lines of two or three story buildings with the same grey stucco panels and factory issue council windows, the same little balconies and yards, interspersed now with satellite dishes . . . old white couples tapping forward on their canes, middle-class looking black people in nice hats and coats. A 'KIDZ' centre and the text of the 'I have a dream' speech by Martin Luther King painted as a mural on the wall. 

   Then came the lead edges of one of the towers, spreading out along the horizon like some sort of freighter  - a freighter converted into a refugee ship, arriving with the dawn. 

   These shapes seem so iconic now. Channel 4 recognized as much when they started using Mark Lewis' clips of the Aylesbury as one of their intro sequences. But for me,  it will always be a symbol of the period in my life when I was fascinated by these huge estates and how they sprawled over south London. 

Sunday, 4 May 2008


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'd almost stopped noticing that estate - indeed become sort of inured to it. Remarkable how quickly this can happen - the flacking concrete, the iron bars, the massive buildings themselves - all become background. Last night, when the kids were out in the little playground out back of Claydon House, swinging on the miniature ferris wheel, and people strolled along the walkways coming home from work, you could almost forget about the estate altogether. You stop seeing the estate but it's empty spaces, it's decay, it's inhuman scale, all become a part of you and you stop seeing outward. A part of you starts going numb and the estate begins to claim you. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Endgame - one more step . . .

Yesterday when I came home the welders were working in on three or four flats all over the building. The reverb from their generators shook through the walls like they were working right next door. When I went out, I watched them from platform four of the train station – the arc welders working three at a time putting up the big plates of iron, the blue welder’s flame flashing like sparkles from the gangways, a trio of council officals wandering in and out of the flats that had already been blocked off by the grey iron doors.

Soon, these iron bands will block off a third, then a half of Claydon House, just like they block off a third of that huge estate I see out the window. How will it be when the whole estate is empty but for one or two holdouts? How would it be occupy a single flat in a building this vast, to feel the emptiness spreading out through the building at night, to walk down gangways past sealed off flats, knowing no one else’s steps will tread the concrete stairwells – to know the building will soon be rubble?

For now, people are coming out again to enjoy the light evenings. Kids on the gangways, the Africans and Latinos who seem to make up most of the Heygate’s residents feeding on and off the rampways. Two young English girls, hair back in those ponytails young English girls seem to favour, one of them pushing a baby carriage with that stolid efficiency of young English single moms, as if having a baby has fulfilled their duty in life . . .the friend chattering and breaking into random dance moves – hip-hop hand gestures, a more obvious 80’s style sway of her hips and legs; the robot – moving as if to music only she can hear, describing to her friend through motion what is playing in her head.


Got home around five to find a lot of kids in the proverbial hoodies hanging around the estate. A teenage girl walking her well-muscled bull terrier on the walkway, barely able to hold it back as it strains on its’ leash. Some kids hanging a terrace halfway up thebuilding, and some more kids, mostly black, edging up the stairs to join them. Briefly, I considered catching the lift to avoid them, but when the lift didn’t come and went up the stairs – and as it turned out one of the black kids ducked his head around the stairwell when he heard me coming up then they all ducked to the lift before I got to the top of the stairs.

When I got to my floor, I looked down to see what all the fuss was about. Two bike cops in yellow vests had stopped someone on the street below and some black people – men and women, council workers or possibly detectives – were conferring with them and suddenly four regular patrolman rushed out of a stairwell. When the melee cleared, I made out two skinny black kids in full hoodie gear being interrogated by the cops, edging them back into the stairwell then out again.

The kids came out again onto the terrace below me to watch what was going on. They were mixed between black, Hispanic and white and spoke mostly in Spanish and even their English was tinged with an American accent. Two guys came up the walkway below eathing chips and greasy fried chicken from Styrofoam containers. They wore derivative gang-banger gear with their heads pulled down and after glancing at the cops made some sort of hand gesture and went away. But the kids on the terraces seemed to be enjoying themselves. Way up near the top, some girls had come out and were shouting out to the boys – “Come up! Come up!” And one girl laned out so far her long hair fell straight down – and I was worried for a moment she would slip and come tumbling out of the fencing and down past me and the boys and down to the rampway with it’s peeling paint – but she slipped back in and the boys waved up and shouted something I couldn’t make out, and then everyone went back to watching the show down below – where nothing much was happening except the two black kids in hoodies were still being interrogated by the police . ..

Friday, 4 April 2008

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 . . .

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

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.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Mall

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.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

New Blog

Hey Folks,

I have a new blog. I'll continue to post on this one, but more of my efforts will go on the new 'city of strangers' blog.

New horizons. New ramblings.

The adress is:

Easter in the Elephant and Castle

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.

Home on the Heygate Estate

The flatmate gave me a lift back from Burough Station. We circled around and around, trying to find a parking space, the four walls of the estate looming up all around us. After being away for a couple of weeks, the estate, with it’s rows of windows and gangways studded with floodlights was overwhelming. We drove around the front of Claydon House and back again, along Heygate Road before an Asian family in white robes got into their min-station wagon and pulled out.

Way up on top of the estate, the wind turbine was going full blast, the vibrations and droning of it’s heavy blades resonating about the parking lot. “If we can hear it down here,” the flatmate said, “imagine how it is for those poor bastards who live right below.”

The hi-rise in front of the Alexander Fleming has gone up a few more stories, accumulating a covering around it’s lower stories like skin forming around ectoplasm. This morning walking up Rockingham, I noticed the beginning of another hi-rise going up on the site of one of our old locals (a pile of rubble when I first came back last year). Part of the new development one presumes – one of the propaganda posters in the shopping mall promises that of the 440 new units created, 140 will be ‘affordable.’

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Heygate Demolition

Article about the state of the Heygate, circa 2006. Two years later nothing much has happened except they seem to have cleared out the crackhouses:

Tuesday, 18 March 2008


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. . . .

Monday, 3 March 2008

Imperial War Museum

Went by the Imperial War Museum this morning. All those years in the Elephant and I didn’t even realize that it was there until recently - a ten minute walk from the Pink Elephant shopping centre.
Big main hall with a Spitfire and a Meschershmitt fighter hanging from the ceiling. Tanks, APV’s lined up in rows on the ground floor. Cutout of a Lancaster, a Halifax, a Japanese Zero. Kids running through the cut-out of the Lancaster, pointing at the tanks, peering at the photographs.
Amazing how small these spaces inside the bombers are, how bizarre it must have been to be cooped up in those spaces for hours at a time, the flak going off all around, (and at night, flying in formation, one of the biggest risks I heard wasn’t even flak, but the possibility of flying into other bombers – their wings came so close and the bombers were so unwieldy, they often slammed into each other then dived towards the ground). A squadron of those same Meschershmitts coming in for your gunner or your pilot. Dropping your payload, then heading back for the long, dangerous journey home.
Going through that same routine night after night.
A lot of Canadians crewed the Lancastars. They might have even been the majority. I met an old guy in Toronto once who’d been a tail gunner. Since tail gunners were killed at an amazing rate (How the fuck did they decided who was going to be tail gunner? Was it just your lot?), he was lucky to be alive. I was sent down by the company I worked for to paint his house. He and his wife had an unremarkable condo by the lakefront with beige-brown walls and heavy, typically Toronto middle-class furniture – tacky browns, tans, the couch covered in plastic.
He seemed a bit simple and his wife kept upbraiding him for forgetting things. Not in a mean way, but she was obviously tired of saying the same things over and over. She even took me aside to say, “Pay him no mind. He’ll forget your name as soon as you tell him. It’s just the way he is now . . .”
Upstairs, I was fucking around with the thermostat, pissed because the cover wouldn’t come off and irritated with the old guy for hanging around staring at me blankly. I swore:
“Ah fuck!”
“Calm down there, young fella,” the old guy said, coming into focus for a moment. Afraid that I’d offended him, I pointed at the framed picture of a Lancaster on his wall.
“I used to build those as a kid.”
“Oh yeah?” He said, obviously pleased that I knew what a Lancaster was. “I used to fly in ‘em! In World War II, over Germany! Used to be a tail gunner!”
“You flew in a Lancaster and here I was making a big deal out of the thermostat.” I said, ashamed now for losing control in front of him. We both laughed at this. Later on, his wife backed him up. “Oh yes, he flew in one of the bombers. He still sees some of his flying buddies down at the Legion.”
After the airplanes, I stopped in at the Holocaust Museum. No kids in there. Funny, you think you’ve heard all about the Holocaust, that it’s become part of the background noise of our culture you hear about it so much, then you see it all laid out again – complete with a scale replica of Auschwitz with the ‘goods’ yard, the factory-like sleeping quarters and the gas chambers at the far end so prisoners had to march in a long queue past the tracks and into an underground hovel (flowers and trees in front of the chamber compound so the prisoners wouldn’t suspect what was really there) which led to the gas chambers.
Then TV footage – news clips of a ranting Hitler, with his grating Austrian accent. Goebels, his skin wrapped tightly over his skull like a mummy. Clips of British soldiers in I guess Dachau. The ordinary soldier’s horror at discovering what had happened in the camps. I was almost in tears and in fact had to struggle to control my emotions throughout. It is still that inconceivable that this happened, in a culture not so far from ours, in a generation so close to our own.
My only quibble: the 1.5 ‘non-Jewish’ Poles killed by the Nazis are mentioned as an afterthought. Were they somehow less important? Was their murder any less a crime? And, since the Nazi plan to was to begin by exterminating the Jews then move on to the Slavs, Poles, Ukranians and so on region by region, in the greatest killing machine ever known – were their deaths any less symbolic?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Berry Brothers and Rudd Pt. 1

The chairman only comes in once a week, on Thursdays, and some weeks he doesn’t come in at all. He has a big office with a fireplace and a clock with big black metal hands and the old two key system to wind it – one key for the chimes, the other for the clock itself – and he gets very upset if his clock isn’t wound properly. I’ve never met him, only stood in the gloom of his office, entering through the big wooden door with ‘managing director’ on a gold plaque across the front. The office is on the first floor, in the building adjacent to the store with it’s wooden floors, stacks of wine bottles, the big iron scale where you can weigh yourself and buy your weight in wine, the two assistants who stand by the doorway and hold the door open for customers.

Berry Brothers and Rudd was originally the store and the offices above it, but over the years the original building has joined up with Cutty Sark, the whisky company, taken over the building behind – which they converted into guest apartments and function rooms – and the building next door, which became offices. Since the Cutty Sark building is on Pall Mall and Berry Brothers and Rudd on St. James and a building sits between them, the two halves of the company are connected by a sort of bridge on the third floor which has big glass windows and houses the all-important coffee machine.

Only the Cutty Sark building has an elevator, so in the other three buildings you have to run up and down the stairs – old wooden stairs at the back of number 3 St. James (the store building), and a larger, modern staircase in number 4. Below all four buildings are the cellars. Most of the rooms are open, but there are one or two rooms where really expensive wines are kept behind iron bars. Mixed in with the wine cellars are store rooms, and impressive function rooms with bare stone walls, heavy wood beams holding up the ceiling, and framed prints that look like they were clipped from the old Punch magazine. Below the cellars and the conference rooms is a kitchen where a half-dozen or so cooks prepare lunch and dinner for functions.

The whole is like a maze, with rooms leading to stairs and back into rooms. To get from one building to another, you often have to go down to the cellars and up again, or find your way to the bridge, or simply go out onto the street and re-enter through the front of either of the buildings. The function rooms above the store are even more impressive than the ones down below. Old rooms with bottled sailing ships, and paintings of famous clippers and other sailboats – a reminder of England’s glorious seagoing past, at a time when Britain has hardly any presence on the sea (how does it affect the psychology of Britons, to have once had the sea so much a part of their lives, and to have it no more? To be landlocked on their little island?). A paneled table dominates the main room, the kind where you can take the panels in and out as you need them. I almost broke it my first day when I forgot to put in the supports first – the damn thing must be at least a century old. Old clocks like the one in the director’s office sit above the fireplace in each room, and it is my job to light the gas fireplaces each morning and wind the clocks every Monday and Friday. One clock, made of metal – unlike the others, whose casings are of deep brown wood – has 1656 stamped on the front and I nearly had a heart attack when, on Friday, the old one stopped ticking as I was winding it.

Aside from taking care of the fireplaces and the clocks, my job is to collect and distribute the mail, open the rooms, stock the tea and coffee machines, replenish the water coolers and attend to whatever needs attending to. It’s not that hard, not yet anyway, but it does involve going up and down a lot of stairs – I get pretty tired at the end of the day. On the plus side, I like the feeling of having stepped back a hundred and fifty years, so that I half-expect to see a man in a big top hat creaking up the stairs, or the lights fuelled by gas rather than electricity.

So far I’ve been treated courteously enough by everybody. Maggie, the receptionist and the person I report to the most (I have to wear one of those little beeper things so she can page me wherever I am in the building), has been nice. She has those qualities I respect in a certain type of English woman – respect, civility, thoughtfulness, warmth. Humour, a finely developed sense of the absurd. She said she had been a special needs teacher for fifteen years but became burnt out because so many of her children would die over the course of the year from illness or just the natural course of their disability. “You couldn’t explain to the bureaucrats up above who wanted a special curriculum that the only curriculum many of these children needed was to stay alive. “ She didn’t want to dilute her passion by turning to some other form of teaching so she became a receptionist.

The portraits of a young Queen with Prince Phillip adorn all the rooms. Buckingham Palace is just around the corner. Maggie said she met Princess Anne once when she was a teacher. “Very down to earth and seemed engaged with the real world.” On Friday, we got letters addressed to Buckingham Palace – postcode SW1A 1AA – and even one addressed to HRH Princess Anne. We had a laugh about it and Phillip, the very gay financial manager came out of a meeting and Maggie showed him the letter and we laughed about it again as Phillip said:
“Oh Maggie, we are royalty. Most of us anyway.”

Booze is everywhere – whiskey bottles line the shelves and desks and even the floor in the Cutty Sark building, booze and wine the St. James’ buildings. Far from making me want to drink, looking at it all day after day makes me slightly naseous – in many of the offices there is the sour odour of an opened whiskey bottle and I get the sense that some of the staff imbibe pretty regularly – that for some, imbibing is part of their job. But after a certain point, booze inspires no longing in me – it becomes just an object, like shoes or chocolate.

Thursday, 14 February 2008


Recently, this noticed arrived through the letterbox from Southwark Council. Given there are one or two more empty flats in my building alone every couple of weeks, it's not hard to see why this is happening:


As many of you are aware, there has been an increase in illegal squatters on the Heygate. This is causing problems for residents and has been marked by an increase in both crime and nuisance.

The London Borough of Southwark will not tolerate squatting in any of its properties, and will always take action against squatters. However we do need your assistance. If you see anyone in the act of breaking into a property, please call the police on 999. If you suspect that a property has been squatted, please contact your housing officer. You can also contact Southwark anti-social behaviour unit on . . .

Decpetion Crimes:

We have also noticed an increase in deception crimes. Some residents have received a notice which is sometimes used to remove squatters from properties.

We do not know who has served this notice, but we suspect it is being used by squatters in an attempt to move into tenanted properties to squat them.

If you receive such a notice, please contact your housing officer, or any member of temporary accommodation staff. If someone visits your property and claims to work for Southwark Council, please always ask for identification.

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.”

Friday, 8 February 2008

Slideshow of the Heygate Estate

Found this slide show of the Heygate Estate by Mark Chilvers.

Great Photo of a rainbow over the estate!

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.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

East Street Market

Went early to the East Street market this morning, part of which winds through the shadow of the mighty Aylesbury Estate, twenty minutes brisk walk down Walworth into the heart of South-East London. I started going when I lived in the Elephant in the 80’s then went back every time I lived in London after that. I remembered it as winding on forever– a ramshackle English market of cockles and jellied eels, pig’s feet, great mountains of produce, charged with the smell of roasted chestnuts and fresh fish, the hoarse cries of the fruit and veg sellers – all of it exploding beneath the harsh gaze of the massive Aylesbury Estate.
Either the market has diminished or it has expanded in my memory with time, because it isn’t much really – mostly a lot of produce, a lot of cheap clothes that only an English housewife could love. Tools, locks, watch straps. A single seafood stall with fresh crab, cockles, eels but petering out after a half-dozen blocks.
An old guy setting up his breakfast stall – smell of frying sausages, bacon, greases – next to a West Indian woman.
She says, “I hate working next to you!”
He replies: “Don’t go to work then. Go on home.”
She hissed at him and went back to setting up her own stall. When I came back, a big white woman, presumably the man’s wife, was frying up the meat and the black woman was leaning on her wooden display table, putting up those horrible jeans with the sparkly silver inlays.
It wasn’t so much the variety that caught my attention back in the day – aside from the produce, it was stuff you’d find at any Woolworth’s or Army and Navy – but more the atmosphere. The ‘cheap and cheerful’ Cockney thing. The sense of going back to a working class England of housing estates, street markets, smoke-filled pubs with cheap booze; squats, fry-ups on hungover mornings; drunken football hooligans careening down the streets.
How to describe the market?
A big iron sign greets the visitor on Walworth Road (and isn’t Walworth Road itself so evocative? Winding down from that grey sphinx atop the Elephant and Castle shopping centre into the familiar London jumble of cheap diners, old brick buildings, kebab shops, and those old pubs which always seem so charming from the outside with their brick fronts and dark windows, ornate windowframes, the hanging wooden sign over the swinging doors – but are often depressing, even dangerous outposts of drunks, druggies or outright psychopaths inside.
The old ladies with their little shopping carts on wheels, moving inexorably to the market from all sides of the street.
The market winds along a typical street of brick buildings. Stores on the ground floor, flats or store-rooms or offices of some sort up above. The street winds around a bit before joining the edge of the Ayelsbury, which appears from behind the brick in the relatively benign form of concrete gangways and low-rises – two up, tow down – with the little yards or balconies out back, these ugly stucco plates and the metal-framed windows like in the Heygate that swing out all in one like windows in a factory, before the massive bulk of Tuplow House rises up out of nowhere.
Even Tuplow House seems relatively benign, at least at first. The street is almost picturesque, with big trees on either side, and leaves still on the branches and covering the sidewalk and the gutters. The stalls are mostly covered in these ugly coloured plastic material like you find on cheap shopping bags, but the produce – oranges, plums, avacados, carrots and so on – is colourful, particularly with the electric lights shining from the stalls. Even at nine am, when many stalls are still setting up, the vendors are already started broadcasting, “three pound a pound’, ‘top quality merchandise’ into the frigid morning air, while people already queue at the more popular produce stalls.
Stacks of cow’s feet in front of the butchers. The vendors chatting with each other, their regular customers. . . .
I stood at the end of the market and looked up at leaves blowing across the pavement, the edge of the Aylesbury Estate looming up behind the stalls with the grey windows and grey concrete gangways, grey stucco panels . . . and felt at home the way I used to feel at home in London back in the day. Remembering the feeling of being hungover and glad to be out in the fresh air, merging with the thickening crowds of an English market on a weekend morning . . . street . . . gutters full of yellow leaves, the air cold against the face . . . wine- dark stone of some old warehouse on the corner . . . shopping for produce, for stuff to kit out some squat before going to the pub to be part of the early afternoon crowd, the air thick with cigarette smoke, some football game on the TV in the corner.
Sitting or standing by the high windows of a dark Victorian pub, watching the whole street come and go . . . riding some dim memory of being a little kid and visiting my grandparents and feeling at home with the low grey sky, the old wine-dark buildings, a colourful English market winding down a city centre street.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Reasons To Love London (Despite Everything)

Leave before dawn as per usual.
That heavy inky black, floodlights burning along the gangways – that oppressive London dark that just sits on the soul. Pass round the shopping centre, hulking there in the darkness, past the crowds queuing up at the bus stop. Two black guys yelling into their mobiles so their voices carry out across the traffic – who the fuck wants to talk on the phone at seven am? – then into the tube station. A queue at the lifts so I jump down the 112 stairs that wind down to the trains. Even traveling at a good clip, there are many others who brush by me, who must make this descent every morning and have it just DOWN, taking the winding stairs two, three at a time. That’s London – rush, rush, then stand in a queue.
Yelled at the whole way from voices amplified by loudspeakers. Yelled at in the station, down the stairs, the corridors leading to the platforms, on the platforms and in the trains themselves. “Minor delays are reported. . .due to a shortage of staff “, ‘Severe delays are reported . . due to a signal failure”, “No service on the Central Line between . . . this is due to a malfunctioning train.” At least four lines were out – and does anyone care about the REASONS? Just make the damn trains work - and they have to yell the information, in all the politically correct accents of the spectrum, Cockney white, Asian, West Indian, over and over at ear-splitting volume until I emerge from Picadilly Circus station fifteen minutes later exhausted.
I step out at Lower Regent Street to see Big Ben, part of Westminster Abbey and the column at the bottom of Lower Regent all draped in grey against the first brightening of the sky, their spires and featureless bulks cast in silhouette – rising into the grey dawn like ships looming out of the fog. All the mystery of which this city is capable there in those grey silhouettes like all the majesty of dawn itself . . .

Tuesday, 5 February 2008


More of Kim Laughton's Photos of the Heygate (and other places) can be viewed here:


Saturday night, lying on the couch reading I heard a wrenching sound from one of the upper stories, followed by the un-mistakable crash of breaking glass. It sounded like a window had fallen out of the windowframes of one of the flats but when I opened the paneled window in my own flat, I couldn’t see anything except for a gang of hoodies hanging around the little children’s park with the bright red and blue rocking horses and swings and teeter-totters – and all of them looking up at me looking down at them from the open window of my brightly lit flat.
I closed the window and dimmed the lights.

The ‘hoodies’ hung out in the park all night. I checked on them periodically. Though I didn’t see any bottles, they must have been drinking because every time I looked out, they were swaying back and forth a little more and yelling at each other a little more loudly. Finally, they appeared to be in some sort of group hug, with one guy at the edge clinging onto a tree. They kept giving each other these elaborate hip-hop hand clasps like kids in the States and after awhile I realized that they were Latinos – from a distance they really looked like American kids. Despite being drunk, they didn’t bother passers by and seemed entirely focused on each other. Finally, around midnight, they staggered off in the direction of New Kent Road.

The next weekend, I was on the train platform when I noticed some kids hanging around the stairwell of my building. Black kids, hoods pulled up, cans of beer visible in hand. With that strange cut-away effect the estate has from a distance, you could see the reaction of everyone around them to their presence. A black woman walked down the steps from the upper levels until, two stories above the kids, she looked down and registered their presence and went straight to the elevator to avoid them. One of the kids threw a beer can down the stairwell – a man came up the gangway, glanced up, then caught the lift two floors above them. The way they were spread out across the stairwell, you’d have to press your way around them, and I was tempted, with that slightly insane curiosity I have sometimes, to go back and see if they’d make way or give me agro. It was a cold fucking night and I wondered why they would even hang around a draughty stairwell unless they were hoping to start something.

But I didn’t go back and by the time I returned home hours later, all that was left of their presence was a half-dozen empty tins of Foster’s, scattered about the concrete steps.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Heygate Memories

Hey Everyone,

I've found a new site dedicated to people recording their memories of living on the Heygate. You can find it here:


These towers may have been designed to be a city neighborhood extended upward, but they don’t feel like a neighborhood. In the two months I’ve been here, I’ve often been struck how little contact people make with each other. There isn’t even the cautious (or furtive) appraisal ghetto residents make of each other in New York – there is just this sort of blank. A family went by the night I was looking out on the fog and even the kids hardly registered my presence. And they live right next door.

Sometimes, when I walk home down New Kent Road at night, looking up from the ground at the vast bulk of the building, I can’t believe I live in a place this vast. It’s like approaching a drydocked aircraft carrier from the keel, wondering how you’ll ever get up on deck and what on Earth could be going on in the upper levels, far up on the gangways with the rows of yellow lights.

The building has so many occupants you hardly see the same people more than once or twice a week. Just this morning when I was waiting for the lift, some old man with a big silver ring on one finger, a gnarled, polished cane and a fedora got out, helped along by a slightly younger woman. I’d never seen either one of them before, but from the way they carried themselves, hardly looking around as they stepped out of the lift and into the street, and murmured at each other in their south London accents, I had the sense that they’d been on the estate for years.

London Fog

Came home last night and the fog was so thick it covered everything – even the grey mass of Hannibal House which sits on top of the Pink Elephant shopping mall was so wreathed in fog that I could barely make it out. I stood on the gangway drinking wine and looking out on it all – you don’t see many fogs like this in London anymore, and you get a sense of how this city must have looked up until the 50’s, when the last pea-souper blanketed the city. The fog hung about everything, making the whole city look like it was deep underwater – features like Big Ben, the dome of St. Paul’s looked like little yellow bumper lights far off in the distance. The fog muffled sound: the traffic in the roundabout seemed to churning through the bottom of the sea. The trees dripped water and each time someone came up the concrete gangway down below, their footsteps echoed up the terraces as if they were the only person in the city.

Friday, 25 January 2008


The flatmate says our building is still Band 4, but will be upped to Band 1 in April. The behemoth behind Heygate Road is already Band 1, which explains why so many of the flats have been sealed off by metal barriers. Band 1 is slated for demolition. Technically, the entire estate has been slated for demolition since 2003, with an estimated start time of 18 months. So the flatmate calls the council to find out how long he’ll have past April.
The answer? 18 months.
They’ve demolished at least one of the buildings thus far, a small wing of the estate on the corner of New Kent Road by the overhead railway. Now the concrete gangway which connected the building to the rest of the estate (and, if memory serves me right, to the shopping centre) stops in dead space and is blocked below the stairwell by signs and chain link fencing.
Inside the blue hustings reading ‘Believe in Oakmayne! Believe in the Elephant!’ is a pile of dirt, an earth mover, and a single portable trailer. I haven’t seen any work going on in the two months I’ve been here. On the New Kent Road side of the hustings away from the estate, big color posters show the new development complete with big picture windows and little terraces with nice (white) couples enjoying the view, the train station with a transparent shed roof with coloured panes of glass like a kaliedescope, a refurbished Heygate street with more nice (white) couples strolling down boardwalks and cafes. No pink shopping mall with the paint peeling off the side. No Hannibal House with the grey tinted windows – and no Heygate.
And underneath the pictures: ‘Completion date 2007.’
With the 2012 Olympics closing in, they’ll have to start moving soon. But where will all the tennants go? They have to be rehoused in the Burrough of Southwark. The Aylesbury, itself slated for demolition, is filled to capacity. What will happen to the Elephant in the intervening years when what is now the Heygate Estate becomes a construction zone, filled with the sounds of demolition and construction and heavy equipment by day, the big trucks blocking traffic already strained to the breaking point by diversions and roadworks – and at night, deserted but for a few security guards?
If the working girls are already turning up on New Kent Road when people actually live on the estate, what will it be like for the two, three, five years that the area is essentially abandoned . . .?
Maybe instead of spending billions taking the whole thing down and rebuilding the area into yuppie central (because they can talk all they want about keeping the area’s original character – these new buildings are not going to be built for the people living here now), wouldn’t it be easier and more economical to leave the people where they are and refurbish the estate buildings themselves?
After all, the Alexander Fleming, right on the roundabout, which once housed the DHSS and in 1987 or 88 was voted the ‘ugliest building in Britain’ by one of the tabloids, is now a listed building. A new coat of paint, some basic renovations and hey presto, maybe the Heygate too could become a listed building. Like the Trellick Tower up in Westbourne Park, the design no longer seems so inhuman now. We’ve had time to acclimatize to the scale.
The flatmate say Liz Taylor has bought up five flats in the Alexander Fleming, in anticipation of the flip when the Olympics go through and the whole East End, from Hackney right down to here becomes prime real estate.

Dawn On The Heygate

Woke up at four-thirty to the sound of two black girls hanging out on the ramp below, their black London girl accents filling the air outside the window. Directly over that ocean-liner sized estate which greets me every time I look out the window was a crescent moon with a star underneath like the crescent moon and star in Islam.
I fell back to sleep with the sound of the girls still chattering on the ramp, the faint whisper of the breeze through the tree branches.
When I woke up again the sun was just breaking across the sky behind the estate, yellow around the edges then faint blue darkening to purple. It was maybe seven-thirty. By the time I’d gotten up and gone into the kitchen, sunlight was sparkling off the mirrored face of Hannibal House, the London College of Communication tower, making those two remarkably unlovely buildings seem almost beautiful - shining in a dozen different points about the buildings leading to the river, narrowing in on the towers of Westminster as if Big Ben and it’s sister tower had become beacons for the sun.
Fifteen minutes later, the sun broke free of estate on the other side, casting the monolith face into shadow so you could barely make out the metal plates on over the windows. The sky shone palest blue, like the sky far out at sea, and the jumble of offices and rowhouses and tower blocks which fill the archipelago south of Westminster shone with the glow of buildings along the Mediterranean.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Cancer Support - Part II

Morale at the Cancer Support didn’t seem that great. On my last day, maybe a half-dozen people told me how lucky I was to only be there for a week.
Certainly in the post room they weren’t happy. They were mostly older folks, Londoners with that cheerful London thing of enjoying a good joke, appreciating little courtesies. The second week one of the Londoners was replaced by Hank, a hangdog American, originally from Brooklyn, who’d been living in London off and on since the 70’s. He wasn’t particularly friendly at first – he had that laconic NY thing but e warmed up quite a bit after I’d done the post room a few favours.
He said he’d lived in Gramercy Park and drank at Pete’s Tavern on 18th – he seemed like a Pete’s Tavern kind of guy. He’d lived in the area in the 60’s, when the area must have been prime real estate – the beautiful Manhattan before the 70’s crash. Until recently, he’d stayed at the Gramercy Park Hotel, across the street from 1 Lexington where I had my first job in New York. “All the models used to stay there. But they renovated a couple of years ago and now I couldn’t afford it.”
I never found out what his deal was, or why he worked the postroom at the Cancer Support. I don’t think he or any of the others were volunteers – they complained about the way they were treated and seemed to want to get out each morning as fast as they could. Maybe they were retirees. Hank mentioned being sent to London by his company, who had a branch plant here.
Then there was Gerald, the guy from Zimbabwe. At first he kind of irritated me since I often had to repeat myself telling him things and yet he’d get defensive when I DID tell him things and I generally like to work alone anyway. He WAS a volunteer, and came in twice a week to help out. He’d only left Zimbabwe the year before. His daughter worked in the building – I guess that’s why he volunteered.
He seemed sad, a little lost, caught up in his nostalgia for Rhodesia. Twice, he showed me his tennis booklet, from his Rhodesian Tennis Club in 1969, showing me all the people he knew. Of course they were all white, with bright, ruddy faces and sharp white tennis clothes. He said he used to be a manager of a sugar firm, and I had the sense that white people in Rhodesia had been able shift into pretty much any job they’d wanted and it was hard not to feel just a bit of ‘well, you’re getting yours now,’ at first.
Then he told me that for awhile he’d thought he had Alzhiemer’s because his memory was going, that his doctor had confirmed it until a specialist in Alzheimer’s said no, he was fine in every other respect, he was just having memory loss. He explained that he’d gone to the aid of one of his employees at the sugar firm who was being attacked by some of Mugabe’s henchmen, and the henchmen had turned on him and beaten him unconscious and he’d had short-term memory loss ever since. “I don’t think I could go back to the positions I was in before. I don’t think I could manage it – I forget things too easily now. But it’s funny, once I remember something, it’s in there.”
I understood him a little better after that. Ian Smith had just died that week and he said he’d thought Smith had he’d never liked the way things were gone. He’d stayed on all those years, not just after independence, but after things started going very badly later on. He’d lost not just Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, but a part of himself as well. He and his wife left Zimbabwe not long after his injury, so whatever physical damage he’d suffered had been compounded by leaving the country where he’d lived all his life, by leaving so much of himself behind and coming to London.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Heygate Video

Found this video on Youtube (where else). Shot in 2003.

General History of the Heygate and the Elephant

I've included a couple of links to show some general history of both the Heygate and the Elephant.

Monday, 21 January 2008


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 . . .

Friday, 18 January 2008

Temp Jobs - Cancer Support - Part 1

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.