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.