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.