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.

Heygate People

You can see a slide show of some of the people who live on the Heygate Estate here:

I will try to set this up as a link - when I figure out how!!!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Gunfire ??

I heard gunfire the other night. One loud pop, ricocheting all about the estate then a police siren, the car wailing up Heygate Road and coming to a sudden stop somewhere below our building. Two more pops in close succession, as loud as depth charges with the echo off the neighboring buildings, then another police siren then another.
Then nothing. A lot of noises bother me, but gunfire isn’t one of them. It says a lot about how long I lived in Brooklyn, where the sound of gunfire was such a regular occurrence it became part of the background noise of the city, that I couldn’t even rouse myself out of bed to have a look. I fell asleep moments later.
I’d heard a lot of stories about the Heygate before I moved in. A guy I met who used to take his karate class up on the roof of one of the larger estates (no, I don’t know why either), told me crack houses dotted the council flats on the upper stories. Friends who lived behind the estate near the Old Kent Road talked about the drug addicts and the hookers appearing in the little park in front of their house – about pimps so brazen they hustled women with babies in strollers in hopes of turning them out. Like most ‘failed’ estates, the Heygate is seen by a lot of people as a nest of hooded teens lurking around dark corners with killer dogs, drug gangs, the aforementioned crack houses – a nightmare of mayhem, deprivation and crime that needs to be eviscerated as soon as possible.
The first thing I noticed after I moved in was the quiet. Except for the background traffic noise and the odd car stereo booming for a few minutes from the parking lot – and of course the gunfire the other night which is the only time I've ever heard anything like that - the estate is by and large a quiet place. With the concrete walls, you hardly hear the neighbors – and if you do it’s usually just their kids playing (or crying). Families, by and large, seem to dominate the estate and people seem respectful of that. The odd time a sound system goes off for a party it’s turned down at a reasonable hour. Many Hispanics, many Africans. On the terraces or the rickety metal lift, people are civil, if somewhat distant. Council workers come by a couple of times a week to sweep out the terraces, drop off Southwark Council recycling bags, collect the trash.
The only two hoodies I’ve encountered have been two Latin kids at the foot of the gangway which leads to the estate – pleasant looking kids who were quick to make room for me and even apologized for being in the way. In the parking lot you see Smart Cars, sedans. Plenty of people in Gore-tex biking to work in the morning. At six am, when I usually get up, the first commuters are already starting down the gangways to tube, bus, car.
People live here for the same reason I do: this is one of the last affordable places in central London, especially for a newcomer to the city.
Still, you could be forgiven for not realizing this at first. Paint peels from the gangways, the terrace balconies, all around the flats themselves. Even in my building overlooking the train tracks, every fourth or fifth is blocked off by sheet metal barriers – on the estate behind Heygate, entire terraces, three city blocks long, look like one seam of metal. The council patrols, keeps out the squatters, but you can tell that in one year, two, these buildings will be reduced to rubble.
If I was a kid, maybe I’d love living in a place like this – after all, kids have an innate fascination for abandoned buildings. Just as long as it wasn’t dangerous. As it is, I wonder what the kids here think about what is going on around them . . .

Mornings Into the City

Up at six am. Out the door, looking out on the dome of St. Paul’s rising blue and white from the end of the gangway and out beyond Hannibal House and the jumble of buildings between the Elephant and the river, the two towers of of the Houses of Parliament, still glowing golden yellow in the dusk -
Down the concrete stairs, the lights of the glowing beyond the terraces, to the gangway which sticks out like a snaking concrete limb from the bottom of the estate – down to the muddy path across the green where the old man plays with his dog every morning, throwing sticks so his dog runs back and forth across the green. I said hi to the man one morning but in true London fashion, he just looked at me blankly then looked away . . .
Up to the back end of the elevated railway, through the concrete concourse with the fluorescent lights, up to the platform where the whole of Claydon House spreads out across the purple dawn sky, floodlights glowing in the gangways. The train arrives, ejects half it’s passengers, and even at six-thirty am there are so many they cram the little stairwell for five solid minutes, queuing silently in the cold with typical English resignation.
The train doors close and the train whooshes forward – curving for five minutes through the old brick estates with the red rooftops that make up most of Burough, onto Blackfriar’s Bridge – and as the train breaks into the open, the dawn reflects off the smooth water of the Thames, illuminating one of the loveliest views in London (and possibly the world) – St. Paul’s Cathedral still glowing white and blue in the pale dawn sky, the surface of the Thames glimmering pale yellow and blue with the first light of the sun, the cranes around the edges of the City rising in silhouettes, poised at different angles like ballerinas in a crane ballet caught in mid-flight – and the Thames curving off the West, ending with a silver of Westminster’s jagged spires glowing like lamplight in the dark . . . .

Friday, 11 January 2008


Had to go to work in Mayfair yesterday. Left the Elephant at five am for a six am start. No tubes, a twenty minute wait for the bus in the cold London dark. The busses were packed. Not quite standing room only, but close. All Latins or Africans, on their way to cleaning jobs in Victoria, Mayfair, Belgravia. These people make up a significant proportion of the Elephant’s population now . . .
The afternoon before, I watched as four men (maybe one was a woman) roamed up and down the terraces of the big estate on Heygate Road. Dark-haired, dark-skinned – Latinos probably. One guy leaning over the balcony keeping watch, the others checking behind the metal grating covering the windows, looking for a way in. Edging up and down those long terraces as if like figures in a video arcade, visible to everyone on the estate.
They left, hurrying down the stairs and back into the street, so I gues they didn’t find anything.

The Latin thing here was totally unexpected. When I first walked into the Charlie Chaplin pub in the mall, I thought for a minute I was back in the States because of all the short, Mexican-looking guys hanging around the pool table talking Spanish. On the upper level of the mall are two Colombian cafes and a Colombian (??) restaurant serving great empanadas and Spanish coffee. I wonder why they chose the Elephant of all places?

I mentioned the four would-be squatters I’d seen to my flatmate. “Squatting’s coming back now,” he said. “The migrant population is saturated – all the jobs are taken, all the places to live are full. So these people roam the estates looking for a place to put a roof over their heads.”
He said squatting really took off in England after WWII. “All the soldiers came back from the war and found the government didn’t give a toss about them. They saw all these empty properties, they needed a roof over their heads, so they took what they could get . . .”
The Walworth triangle, from the Elephant down to Burgess Park and I guess to the bottom of the Old Kent Road, is the most densely populated area in Europe. “Think about it – it’s nothing but estates. Everyone wants to improve it, but where are you going to put all these people?
“So many people who come to London from somewhere else – it could be Europe or South America or the North somewhere – and are basically skint – end up in these estates in south London – especially the Elephant. Where else can you go? This is the starting point for so many people who come to London. Everything comes through here – the Old Kent is the A2, which runs from Dover to London – that’s why you have all these coaches coming through reading ‘Polski’ or whatever. And everyone here has a story to tell.”

It’s true: the Elephant, especially now when so much of it is to be torn down and rebuilt, feels like a clearing house, a way station between one point and another. Living on this estate feels, quite literally, like living on a platform looking out on the rest of London. Even late at night it buzzes with motion as traffic hums through the four or five major arteries that feed from the south into the roundabout – a constant hum of decelerating diesel engines, clattering trains, car horns, incoming jets, the general whoosh of traffic.
Yet, in the fall at least, in-between the traffic you can hear the rustle of the leaves across the concrete, the whispering of the wind through the tree branches.

From here you can walk to Waterloo, Wesminster, the Tate Modern – right over the Millenium Bridge and into the City – and all in less than an hour. By train it is fifteen, twenty minutes. You really are on the edge of the city centre.

Thursday, 10 January 2008


The first time I lived in England as an adult was in the fall of 87, when I came here with my girlfriend Marie. I’d met Marie 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. I can’t remember why exactly we ended up on the Elephant – she had friends who lived on the Bramwell, we didn’t know enough about squatting to break out own place so somebody found us an empty room – and we moved in.

I’d been to England often enough as a kid, passing through London on the way to see my grandparent’s 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. I’d even heard stories about people living on the shitty estates in south London with 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 cheque so they could go to the pub and get drunk, and spent needles turning up in the mornings on the bathroom floor. In Canada we had skinheads, hardcore, mods imported wholesale from the UK.

In the back of my mind, England was the country of my grandparents. I expected convivial neighborhood pubs, red postal vans, a friendly wave from the corner grocer as I went down to buy milk. Even squatting from a distance seemed romantic – a kind of grittier version of the artist’s communities I knew in Montreal.

We moved in next door to Marie’s friend Scottish Bob, who had a squat in Bramwell House. We could have lived with Bob, but his flat had no heat and most of the rooms had broken windows – he seemed to spend most of his time at home in bed, reading. Instead, we moved in with a South African named Dave, whose flat at least had some windows. One room had been painted bright red by a previous resident but we had a nice view out the big picture window of a green, and the curve of Harper Road and the little library across the road.

At the time, the Elephant was mostly Irish. You heard the Irish brogue mixed in with the Cockney in pubs and on the terraces, 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 below. 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 1980’s, squatting was the best and sometimes the only option 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.

Marie had already lived in squats just south of the garanguatan and truly 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. The flat was damp and smelled of mould: the cold leaked in through the windows and the paint peeled from the walls. Outside, the grey light hardly seemed to penetrate the terraces, and the children hanging around the terraces glanced us over suspiciously. Gangs of drunk white men mobbed the New Kent Road on weekend nights.
The mall – it was grey then – seemed both decrepit and menacing, with the old people wearily pulling their shopping carts along the airport wing-like atmosphere of the second level, past the 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. With the drunks hanging in the deepest levels, bumming change and drinking cans of Special Brew, the graffiti and the smashed out lights, they seemed both dangerous and absurd. With the tunnels, the concrete rampways around the mall and the orange formica interiors in the little coffee bars inside, it seemed like something out of Clockwork Orange.
But what made the neighborhood seem truly sinister to me was the ocean-liner sized structures flanking New Kent Road; the mighty Heygate Estate. I had never seen anything like them before. The lead tower stretched the length of three city blocks, rising level upon level of doorways and windows and green terrace fencing 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 Marie 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 it’s prime even while still young.
The dole office was up some concrete stairs where people lay around smoking and 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, hitting the pexiglass with her closed fists (later, I found out that most 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 Marie had given me, that I’d been fruit picking in Greece or France, 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 getting my cheque, told me my UB40 would reach me in two weeks.


Tuesday, 8 January 2008

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

Sunday, 6 January 2008

New Year's Eve on the Heygate


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