A Wednesday this year, weeks ago now in a fog of mad deadlines but bracketed by two weekends full of delights and I took the day off to go to London. The week brought me some of my very dearest friends whom I haven’t seen for years … at the Trinity in Brixton, breaking every rule in Cheltenham. Also a meeting with my editor (I love those words) and free books, the Rock on imax, Holst’s birthplace, Victorian pockets, Mayfield Station, looming chimneysweeps, Annie’s, decanted wine, Fast and Furious live, bookshop and book presents and the reading and some writing of novels, and Mark and my friends. Happiness.
From Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, 1984…Brixton, uprising, the ideal and the violent, brutal, racist reality.
And Brixton. And the feeling staring back in time and at the violent austerity of the present and into the future if we don’t act, that things don’t change.
With the stampeding hiss and scurry of green lemmings,
midsummer’s leaves race to extinction like the roar
of a Brixton riot tunnelled by water hoses;
they seethe toward autumn’s fire–it is in their nature,
being men as well as leaves, to die for the sun.
The leaf stems tug at their chains, the branches bending
like Boer cattle under Tory whips that drag every wagon
nearer to apartheid. And, for me, that closes
the child’s fairy tale of an antic England–fairy rings,
thatched cottages fenced with dog roses,
a green gale lifting the hair of Warwickshire.
I was there to add some color to the British theater.
“But the blacks can’t do Shakespeare, they have no experience.”
This was true. Their thick skulls bled with rancor
when the riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips
you could trace to the Sonnets, or the Moor’s eclipse.
Praise had bled my lines white of any more anger,
and snow had inducted me into white fellowships,
while Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire
that began with Caedmon’s raceless dew, and is ending
in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships.
Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:
The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzz here. I liked it, containers are very cool.
In July they submitted a planning application for 5-year temporary use of the land on Popes Road also slated by the council as a site of the future massive redevelopment being orchestrated by Future Brixton.
In September Planning permission was recommended.
And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.
From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’
So this evening the crowd awaiting answers from Philippe Castaing, Commercial Director of Pop Brixton, along with Cal Turner (architect and director) and Cllr and Cabinet Member Jack Hopkins was not an entirely happy one.
Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.
Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.
I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.
There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.
They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.
This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):
- the quality of their business plan
- their locality to the project
- their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
- their commitment to the local community
Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.
There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.
The audience was certainly disapproving.
The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?
Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.
Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.
He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.
The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.
The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.
The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.
He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.
There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.
Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.
I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.
On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.
Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.
Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.
The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.
Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.
There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.
Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.
Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.
Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.
An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.
It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.
Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.
Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.
Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.
Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.
So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.
Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.
So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.
[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]
I quite loved The Pickwick Papers. I’ve been making my way through Dickens in chronological order (beginning with Sketches by Boz), but while I blithely cut and pasted my favourite passages into a draft thanks to Project Gutenberg, I did not blog it properly before moving on to blogging Oliver Twist (though I’m not quite done with him yet). It matched better with Flora Tristan’s London Journals (though I’m not quite done with her either).
The 31st of March marked the anniversary of the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, however, making me feel bad about my pasted quotations languishing in draft-form obscurity. While this post is now two days past due, it is something. I cannot imagine a way to summarise this novel, think of something deep to say about it, explain just why I enjoyed it so much.
So instead I present a few of my favourite bits.
On old inns, the ways that every generation looks fondly backwards, and indirectly the entrance of everyone’s favourite character, Samuel Weller:
There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of
celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
In the Borough especially, there still remain some half-dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling queer old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
There is, of course, still an inn like this in Borough — The George. I recommend it, though best in summer when the annoying throngs that visit can sit outside and you can enjoy the rambling queer inside. It only smells funny because it is old.
I like the glimpse of Pickwick’s home, before it is shattered by Mrs. Bardell’s legal team:
Mr. Pickwick’s apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation. His sitting-room was the first-floor front, his bedroom the second-floor front; and thus, whether he were sitting at his desk in his parlour, or standing before the dressing-glass in his dormitory, he had an equal opportunity of contemplating human nature in all the numerous phases it exhibits, in that not more populous than popular thoroughfare.
His landlady, Mrs. Bardell–the relict and sole executrix of a deceased custom-house officer–was a comely woman of bustling manners and agreeable appearance, with a natural genius for cooking, improved by study and long practice, into an exquisite talent. There were no children, no servants, no fowls. The only other inmates of the house were a large man and a small boy; the first a lodger, the second a production of Mrs. Bardell’s. The large man was always home precisely at ten o’clock at night, at which hour he regularly condensed himself into the limits of a dwarfish French bedstead in the back parlour; and the infantine sports and gymnastic exercises of Master Bardell were exclusively confined to the neighbouring pavements and gutters. Cleanliness and quiet reigned throughout the house; and in it Mr. Pickwick’s will was law.
While I might not agree with the sentiments, I feel sure Dickens copied this dialogue word for word in a pub somewhere:
‘Rum creeters is women,’ said the dirty-faced man, after a pause.
‘Ah! no mistake about that,’ said a very red-faced man, behind a cigar.
After this little bit of philosophy there was another pause.
‘There’s rummer things than women in this world though, mind you,’ said the man with the black eye, slowly filling a large Dutch pipe, with a most capacious bowl.
‘Are you married?’ inquired the dirty-faced man.
‘Can’t say I am.’
‘I thought not.’ Here the dirty-faced man fell into ecstasies of mirth at his own retort, in which he was joined by a man of bland voice and placid countenance, who always made it a point to agree with everybody.
What is probably the best poem ever, by Mrs Leo Hunter. It beats out — though barely — the phenomenal poem about Dick Turpin that I present closer to the end of this post:
Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Being at LSE I came to know Holborn well, and each and every one of its surrounding pubs. This one once sat in the epicentre of these pub ramblings — or pumblings:
With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.
This favoured tavern, sacred to the evening orgies of Mr. Lowten and his companions, was what ordinary people would designate a public-house. That the landlord was a man of money-making turn was sufficiently testified by the fact of a small bulkhead beneath the tap-room window, in size and shape not unlike a sedan-chair, being underlet to a mender of shoes: and that he was a being of a philanthropic mind was evident from the protection he afforded to a pieman, who vended his delicacies without fear of interruption, on the very door-step. In the lower windows, which were decorated with curtains of a saffron hue, dangled two or three printed cards, bearing reference to Devonshire cider and Dantzic spruce, while a large blackboard, announcing in white letters to an enlightened public, that there were 500,000 barrels of double stout in the cellars of the establishment, left the mind in a state of not unpleasing doubt and uncertainty as to the precise direction in the bowels of the earth, in which this mighty cavern might be supposed to extend. When we add that the weather-beaten signboard bore the half-obliterated semblance of a magpie intently eyeing a crooked streak of brown paint, which the neighbours had been taught from infancy to consider as the ‘stump,’ we have said all that need be said of the exterior of the edifice.
There was actually (and is) a Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey — a bit far and so hitherto unvisited, but apparently the good old George IV most likely stands on the site of the one Dickens described here. But really I need to get over to the George and Vulture – mentioned many a time in this book though without the same delicious description, and ‘the headquarters of the City Pickwick Club since its foundation.’ I found a Dickens pub crawl with no real effort of course, and while the digital Dickens website makes me realise I have nothing new to add on the subject of Dickens, at least I am among the good company of those who try.
On Portugal St, now at the heart of LSE and its absence felt as a loss by me but clearly replaced by reality television for those who once filled its halls:
In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.
It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.
A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim.
This description of a religious meeting by the elder Mr Weller is pure genius:
I dresses myself out wery smart, and off I goes with the old ‘ooman, and up we walks into a fust-floor where there was tea-things for thirty, and a whole lot o’ women as begins whisperin’ to one another, and lookin’ at me, as if they’d never seen a rayther stout gen’l’m’n of eight-and-fifty afore. By and by, there comes a great bustle downstairs, and a lanky chap with a red nose and a white neckcloth rushes up, and sings out, “Here’s the shepherd a-coming to wisit his faithful flock;” and in comes a fat chap in black, vith a great white face, a-smilin’ avay like clockwork. Such goin’s on, Sammy! “The kiss of peace,” says the shepherd; and then he kissed the women all round, and ven he’d done, the man vith the red nose began. I was just a-thinkin’ whether I hadn’t better begin too–‘specially as there was a wery nice lady a-sittin’ next me–ven in comes the tea, and your mother-in-law, as had been makin’ the kettle bile downstairs. At it they went, tooth and nail. Such a precious loud hymn, Sammy, while the tea was a brewing; such a grace, such eatin’ and drinkin’! I wish you could ha’ seen the shepherd walkin’ into the ham and muffins.
As is this commentary by the elder Mr Weller on poetry:
‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’
And on compliments:
Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel,
‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.
‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s
arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.
‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.
‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.
His view of Camberwell (as opposed to Gissing’s among others):
‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a
respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’
And a mention of Brixton — I am collecting the literary geographies of South London you see:
The office of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, of the Stock Exchange, was in a first floor up a court behind the Bank of England; the house of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was at Brixton, Surrey; the horse and stanhope of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, were at an adjacent livery stable; the groom of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was on his way to the West End to deliver some game; the clerk of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, had gone to his dinner; and so Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, himself, cried, ‘Come in,’ when Mr. Pell and his companions knocked at the counting-house door.
Some hilarious commentary on Bath and Tradespeople:
‘The ball-nights in Ba-ath are moments snatched from
paradise; rendered bewitching by music, beauty, elegance, fashion, etiquette, and–and–above all, by the absence of tradespeople, who are quite inconsistent with paradise, and who have an amalgamation of themselves at the Guildhall every fortnight, which is, to say the least, remarkable. Good-bye, good-bye!’ and protesting all the way downstairs that he was most satisfied, and most delighted, and most overpowered, and most flattered, Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esquire, M.C., stepped into a very elegant chariot that waited at the door, and rattled off.
On Bristol (finally Dickens tackles Bristol!):
Having inspected the docks and shipping, and viewed the cathedral, he inquired his way to Clifton, and being directed thither, took the route which was pointed out to him. But as the pavements of Bristol are not the widest or cleanest upon earth, so its streets are not altogether the straightest or least intricate; and Mr. Winkle, being greatly puzzled by their manifold windings and twistings, looked about him for a decent shop in which he could apply afresh for counsel and instruction.
Now, as promised, we come to Samuel Weller’s song about Dick Turpin:
Bold Turpin vunce, on Hounslow Heath,
His bold mare Bess bestrode-er;
Ven there he see’d the Bishop’s coach
A-coming along the road-er.
So he gallops close to the ‘orse’s legs,
And he claps his head vithin;
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
Says Turpin, ‘You shall eat your words,
With a sarse of leaden bul-let;’
So he puts a pistol to his mouth,
And he fires it down his gul-let.
The coachman he not likin’ the job,
Set off at full gal-lop,
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
Thus we are brought to the end, and I quite loved the end because it eased my sadness at parting:
Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant and looks round him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fullness of his joy.
Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed
happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them. It is the fate of most men who mingle with the world, and attain even the prime of life, to make many real friends, and lose them in the course of nature. It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.
I’m afraid it makes me terribly sentimental. I am saving all the grim debtor’s prison stuff for a much better, more forceful and fascinating post. But this is everything I loved most.
The occupation down at the Loughborough Park Estate has already been covered by the Buzz over the last few days, both management’s attempts to smash up the occupied flat to make it unliveable, and the ongoing protests every morning at 9am.
While much has been won, and the occupation is at an end, the struggle continues to win secure tenancies in Brixton for the tenants.
There were a handful of people in the evening as I joined them, half of them residents, the room dominated by the chatter of kids colouring and playing. A table full of food was in the other corner, and there are now lights and warmth and a working toilet.
This was a space of protest and a place for residents to meet together and get support from the wider community. Since they moved in — up to ten to eleven years ago now — the Guinness Trust has denied all use of the Loughborough Park Estate community hall to shorthold tenants.
I talked to Helen, an assured shorthold tenant (an AST) and one of around forty long-term tenants with shorthold status being displaced by Guinness Trust’s redevelopment plans. A musician with Yaaba Funk and other groups and a capoeira teacher (don’t know about capoeira? You need to find out more about this awesome Brazilian dance/martial arts mix invented by slaves), a filmmaker and artist, it isn’t hard to see she is one of the people that have made Brixton what it is.
We sat in the smaller room and talked briefly about what is happening at the occupation and the goals of the campaign from her point of view:
Q: So if you could just tell me a little about yourself and how you are connected to the occupation
H: I’ve been here– I didn’t take this place over but I am a supporter—and they’re supporting me. I live just over the road and I’ve lived here for eleven years, so I might be one of the longest ones. I’ve been to the meetings, the radical housing activist meetings, so I knew it was a thought, I knew it was going to happen and it’s good, it’s a good little office.
They’ve done this because there are so many people out on a limb, like ourselves who are literally going to be homeless, you know, we are literally going to be living on the streets, we’ve got no where to go. It’s a very difficult time. A very difficult time.
Q: So can you give me just a little back ground on what is happening here, and with Guinness Trust?
Helen: It’s been a long struggle, it’s been going on for a while, and we’ve been fighting for a while with people like the filmmaker Rashid Nix who used to live here.
We’ve kind of known since 2011 or 2012, they started demolishing back about 3 years now– but bit by bit they’ve knocked down bits of the estate and then built it up and people have been, what’s the word? Decanted.
With some people, you know, you’ve got your golden ticket, you’re a tenant and you get into one of the new flats. I’ve been into one of them and they’re really nice. But they’re selling some of them off as well, we know that now.
Some tenants are still chatty and nice, they’ve got a completely different aura. They’re getting somewhere better to live. Our places are a bit knackered really, they need doing up. My boyfriend was asthmatic and it’s nasty with all the green on your walls unless you’re really handy and you’ve got to do it yourself, because they never came in once in 11 years.
Lots of things have gone by the wayside because you know, let’s demolish it, let’s redo it. And there’s all sorts of classes here, it’s a complete class system. You know, you’ve got your tenants, who will be able to stay here, you’ve got your ASTs who are going to get a little pay off, you’ve got your Camelot who are groups of young people who get cheaper rent than what we’ve got and they’ll get a month or two weeks notice and then they’ll get put into another place to oversee and look after.
Q: They’re the company that puts tenants in empty buildings aren’t they.
H: They’re to keep people from squatting, to keep things like this from going on.
Q: So you’re a shorthold tenant?
H: Myself and Betiel, that’s what we are. Didn’t really have any way to change the tenancy, to get a full tenancy, to see a way to do it.
Q: So basically Guinness Trust has been taking your rent for eleven years, without giving you the same status as other tenants?
H: Yes. You know, a funny thing happened the day before yesterday, we were picketing and protesting and I saw this woman that I’ve known, she’s a tenant, and she came over and I suddenly realised she has been here less time than I have, and I thought oh my god! How did that happen then? So there’s not, there’s something wrong going on. She’s got a tenancy, she’s got a flat.
Q: And what about the other tenants?
H: Some of them are supportive, some embarrassed, some just don’t want to know.
Q: What would it look like if you won?
H: One of the flats [laughs]. But I don’t know, so many of my friends are gone now, they were ASTs and they’ve gone.
Q: But were they able to stay in the area?
H: Not all of them, some have gone to Hackney, some to Earl’s Court– It’s really expensive in Brixton, it’s very expensive here, there’s a complete – let’s call it gentrification, regeneration.
As a person who has lived here eleven years I’ve watched it really change. I’ve watched the shops that were vegetable shops change to champagne bars and, you know, the whole sort of different feel of the place.
Places where people lived for thirty years and have now been gutted, they’ve been thrown out, done up, and now you’ve got people who look like Prince Harry’s girlfriend who live there, to be honest [laughs]. Its not even Shoreditch, it’s like Chelsea, it’s very high end, I don’t know what’s happened, I mean, I’m living in it. I’m looking around trying to move and the rents are really high, I’m not sure what to do, I’m a part time worker, I’m an artist and a musician who works with kids. I don’t always earn that much money, so it’s hard.
Q: So what can people do to support you?
H: We’re just hoping to get people together in support, and it would be fantastic if we can actually change things. I just think it’s really wrong the way they’ve treated people.
First posted on the Brixton Buzz, 20 February, 2015
I’m not entirely sure what I thought about this. Somewhere around the middle I had to put it down, after Nancy is seduced by Tarrant and its disdain for both the female sex and for the aspiring lower middle and lower classes seems to reach its height. I came back to it, and was glad I did as it is at least somewhat self-reflective on this point and didn’t go quite where I thought it would, so it improved on me.
The story focuses primarily on Nancy Lord, daughter of a self-made man now made fairly wealthy through business. She and her brother Horace seem made for better things than their neighbours and friends — a family of three sisters (Ada, Beatrice and Fanny) residing with the eldest’s hen-pecked husband Mr Peachey, a bookish girl named Jessica, the strict and religious Barmby family, the advertising man Luckworth Crewe. Above them is Mr Tarrant, gentleman, and a Mrs Dameral, who turns out to be the mother they thought was dead (this is the plot of a Georgette Heyer novel of my mother’s, Venetia, whose other main character is a Lord Dameral — it seems hardly coincidental but I can’t think it an hommage). Really this novel is an uncomfortable portrait of almost everyone in it. It is well-written but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it were it not for the insights it offers onto Gissing’s own geographies of class mapped across the streets and homes of London (and those of Empire via Barbados to some extent), as well as a fascinating (if disapproving) look into changing views on women and their place in society. There are extensive descriptions of streets and areas making this an oft-quoted source among those writing about literature and the city — or so I was told. It’s on Gutenberg Press so I was able to pull large blocks of text:
It was a house in De Crespigny Park; unattached, double-fronted, with half-sunk basement, and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance. De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).
I partly only love these meditations on suburban architecture and the lives they shape within them because I know these suburbs — though being from America I don’t think of them as suburbs at all. Itself interesting. I might just share the belief that it is more pleasant when homes are different, even if differently ugly:
Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls. Narrow passages connect the Lane with its more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove; on the other side are ways leading towards Denmark Hill, quiet, leafy. From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.
These are suburbs perhaps, fundamentally, because they are still in construction. Because all around lie the remains of the country that was there before the universally reviled speculative builders arrived to do their damage:
Her place of abode favoured neither health nor mental tranquillity. It was one of a row of new houses in a new quarter. A year or two ago the site had been an enclosed meadow, portion of the land attached to what was once a country mansion; London, devourer of rural limits, of a sudden made hideous encroachment upon the old estate, now held by a speculative builder; of many streets to be constructed, three or four had already come into being, and others were mapped out, in mud and inchoate masonry, athwart the ravaged field. Great elms, the pride of generations passed away, fell before the speculative axe, or were left standing in mournful isolation to please a speculative architect; bits of wayside hedge still shivered in fog and wind, amid hoardings variegated with placards and scaffolding black against the sky. The very earth had lost its wholesome odour; trampled into mire, fouled with builders’ refuse and the noisome drift from adjacent streets, it sent forth, under the sooty rain, a smell of corruption, of all the town’s uncleanliness. On this rising locality had been bestowed the title of ‘Park.’ Mrs. Morgan was decided in her choice of a dwelling here by the euphonious address, Merton Avenue, Something-or-other Park.
The old mansion–not very old, and far from beautiful, but stoutly built–stood grim and desolate, long dismantled, and waiting only to be torn down for the behoof of speculative dealers in old material. What aforetime was a tree-bordered drive, now curved between dead stumps, a mere slushy cartway; the stone pillars, which had marked the entrance, damaged in the rending away of metal with a market value, drooped sideways, ready at a touch to bury themselves in slime (loc 2696).
Here is another passage where moving up in the world always means moving out, the obtaining not just of well-kept lodgings, but bay windows and an address that will impress:
Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed. Under any circumstances, the family must soon have sought a home elsewhere, and Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).
The mysterious Mrs Dameral is given the seal of trust and approval simply because of her post code. We reach the difference between the West End and everywhere else as Horace tells his sister Nancy why he continued her acqaintance:
‘One couldn’t refuse, you know; I was only too glad to go to a house in the West End. She opened the carriage-door from the inside, and I got in, and off we drove. I felt awkward, of course, but after all I was decently dressed, and I suppose I can behave like a gentleman, and–well, she sat looking at me and smiling, and I could only smile back (loc 429).
In trying to ‘improve’ Horace from her West End flat, she says:
You, Horace, belong to a social sphere so far, far above her. If I could only impress that upon your modesty. You are made to associate with people of the highest refinement. How deplorable to think that a place in society is waiting for you, and you keep longing for Camberwell!’ (loc 2049)
Later she tells Beatrice:
‘Miss. French, I believe you reside in a part of London called
Camberwell. And I believe you are engaged in some kind of millinery business. This excuses you for ill-manners. All the same, I must beg you to relieve me of your presence.’ She rang the bell. ‘Good evening.’ (loc 3219)
Neighbourhood is everything, you see. Everywhere the characters and the narrative itself equates neighbourhood with social station and personal limits. These limitations are never fully exceeded, even as a few make the very best of them they can and finally win narrative approval. From early on Nancy blames the closed of nature her life and prospects on her home almost entirely:
It is a neighbourhood in decay, a bit of London which does not keep pace with the times. And Nancy hated it. She would have preferred to live even in a poor and grimy street which neighboured the main track of business and pleasure (loc 196).
Always she comes back to her neighbourhood, and the connections it was lacking. Her father is dying, though she doesn’t know, and:
She stood before him, and spoke with diffidence.
‘Don’t you think that if we had lived in a different way, Horace and I might have had friends of a better kind?’
‘A different way?–I understand. You mean I ought to have had a big house, and made a show. Isn’t that it?’
‘You gave us a good education,’ replied Nancy, still in the same tone, ‘and we might have associated with very different people from those you have been speaking of; but education alone isn’t enough. One must live as the better people do.’ (loc 593).
In Camberwell you do not find the better people. You find people like Ada, Beatrice and Fanny:
They spoke a peculiar tongue, the product of sham education and mock refinement grafted upon a stock of robust vulgarity. One and all would have been moved to indignant surprise if accused of ignorance or defective breeding. Ada had frequented an ‘establishment for young ladies’ up to the close of her seventeenth year; the other two had pursued culture at a still more pretentious institute until they were eighteen. All could ‘play the piano;’ all declared–and believed–that they ‘knew French.’ Beatrice had ‘done’ Political Economy; Fanny had ‘been through’ Inorganic Chemistry and Botany. The truth was, of course, that their minds, characters, propensities had remained absolutely proof against such educational influence as had been brought to bear upon them. That they used a finer accent than their servants, signified only that they had grown up amid falsities, and were enabled, by the help of money, to dwell above-stairs, instead of with their spiritual kindred below.
Beatrice herself becomes quite a canny business woman. She opens a kind of cooperative dressmaker business and moves off on her own — surely a braver move than this novel ever gives her credit for. You cannot like her as she is portrayed, her business described as predatory (how could it not be given the silliness of women) when in fact it seems more to me a pooling of resources, and she herself is predatory too, though perhaps trying to be kind despite her brusque lack of civility. She moves to Brixton…
Another cab conveyed her to Brixton, and set her down before a block of recently built flats. She ascended to the second floor, pressed the button of a bell, and was speedily confronted by a girl of the natty parlour-maid species. This time she began by giving her name, and had only a moment to wait before she was admitted to a small drawing-room, furnished with semblance of luxury. A glowing fire and the light of an amber-shaded lamp showed as much fashionable upholstery and bric-a-brac as could be squeezed into the narrow space. Something else was perceptible which might perhaps have been dispensed with; to wit, the odour of a very savoury meal, a meal in which fried onions had no insignificant part. But before the visitor could comment to herself upon this disadvantage attaching to flats, Beatrice joined her.
The ‘natty parlour-maid species’ indeed. There is more in relation to Beatrice’s new business and the lack of taste associated with certain locales:
The ineptitude of uneducated English women in all that relates to their attire is a fact that it boots not to enlarge upon…A very large proportion of the servant-keeping females in Brixton, Camberwell, and Peckham could not, with any confidence, buy a chemise or a pair of stockings; and when it came to garments visible, they were lost indeed (loc 2961).
And still more, with a reminder that there are neighbourhoods even lower:
Now indeed the last trace of veneer was gone, the last rag of pseudo-civilisation was rent off these young women; in physical conflict, vilifying each other like the female spawn of Whitechapel, they revealed themselves as born–raw material which the mill of education is supposed to convert into middle-class ladyhood. As a result of being held still by superior strength Ada fell into convulsions, foamed at the mouth, her eyes starting from their sockets; then she lay as one dead (loc 3143).
Ah, the female spawn which their family and location had not succeeded in molding properly. These passages point without needing exposition to what I hated about the drawing of women characters — there is so much to hate. Nancy is drawn the most fully, but is as limited by Camberwell itself as by her own limitations of blood and nurture (though these she manages to ‘overcome’ as the novel progresses). The others range from those who are superficial, who pretend at learning for appearances not for its own sake to those like Jessica, who overheat their poor limited brains with the excesses of their learning:
This friend of hers, Jessica Morgan by name, had few personal attractions. She looked overwrought and low-spirited; a very plain and slightly-made summer gown exhibited her meagre frame with undue frankness; her face might have been pretty if health had filled and coloured the flesh, but as it was she looked a ghost of girlhood, a dolorous image of frustrate sex. In her cotton-gloved hand she carried several volumes and notebooks (loc 232).
‘A dolorous image of frustrate sex’? As if intelligence and learning aren’t the sexiest things ever — or should be. Tarrant from the luxury of his higher social position looks at what is changing (for the worse):
We must begin by admitting that the ordinary woman hates nothing so much as to have another woman set in authority over her.’ He paused, and laughed lazily. ‘Now, before the triumph of glorious Democracy, only those women kept servants who were capable of rule,–who had by birth the instinct of authority. They knew themselves the natural superiors of their domestics, and went through an education fitting them to rule. Things worked very well; no servant-difficulty existed. Now-a-days, every woman who can afford it must have another woman to wait upon her, no matter how silly, or vulgar, or depraved she may be; the result, of course, is a spirit of rebellion in the kitchen. Who could have expected anything else?’
Nancy played with a dandelion she had plucked, and gave sign neither of assent nor disagreement.
‘Mrs. Bellamy,’ continued the young man, ‘marvels that servants revolt against her. What could be more natural? The servants have learnt that splendid doctrine that every one is as good as everybody else, and Mrs. Bellamy is by no means the person to make them see things differently. And this kind of thing is going on in numberless houses–an utterly incompetent mistress and a democratic maid in spirited revolt. The incompetents, being in so vast a majority, will sooner or later spoil all the servants in the country.’ (loc 684)
Again and again we see women rising above their station, not formed properly thus carrying the potential to revert to their origins. Gissing can see (or imagine he sees) some of the attraction in this, and it horrifies him really. Women are there as temptations, dragging men down with them. This is Fanny, with her fascinations for Horace:
It was not thus that Horace would naturally have spoken, not thus that he thought of his father. Fanny had subdued him to her own level, poisoned him with the desires excited by her presence. And he knew his baseness; he was not ignorant of the girl’s ignoble nature. Only the fury of a virgin passion enabled him to talk, and sometimes think, as though he were in love with ideal purity.
‘I didn’t think you had the pluck,’ said Fanny, swinging one of her feet as she tittered (loc 1111).
For a brief moment Nancy herself is able to break away from all society tells her to be, she does so alone in the crowd celebrating the Jubilee (I am fascinated by all that happens to people in crowds, but will think about that later):
Nancy forgot her identity, lost sight of herself as an individual. Her blood was heated by close air and physical contact. She did not think, and her emotions differed little from those of any shop-girl let loose. The ‘culture,’ to which she laid claim, evanesced in this atmosphere of exhalations. Could she have seen her face, its look of vulgar abandonment would have horrified her (877).
Enter the capitalist Luckworth Crewe (great name!) who sees her like this, falls in love with her like this. To his doom of course, though I don’t think Gissing much minds as Crew also represents the man on the make, perhaps the capitalism itself that is driving so many of these changes:
Nancy made him moderate his pace, which was too quick for her. Part of the pleasure she found in Crewe’s society came from her sense of being so undeniably his superior; she liked to give him a sharp command, and observe his ready obedience. To his talk she listened with a good-natured, condescending smile, occasionally making a remark which implied a more liberal view, a larger intelligence, than his. Thus, as they stood for a moment to look down at the steamboat wharf, and Crewe made some remark about the value of a cargo just being discharged, she said carelessly:
‘I suppose that’s the view you take of everything? You rate everything at market price.’ (loc 1280)
Crewe is not a good man, but you regret him as Nancy falls for Tarrant who will never amount to anything in this new world that no longer has much use for the gentleman of leisure but without means. She is seduced, they marry, she conceals the birth of the child and the marriage as her father dies and the provisions of his will strip her of everything if they are found out. Tarrant can’t handle it, though the author is most sympathetic to his plight (I need to do a post just on Gissing I think). He needs to make easy money — he is not a man of the labouring classes you understand. And where can a well-born Englishman make money without working?
Barbados of course. The whole disgusting colonial attitude in a nutshell, both in Tarrant’s expectations and the ways that they are frustrated. In convincing Nancy of the wisdom of his plan to abandon her and the child, Tarrant says:
‘Partly because it is a delightful winter climate; partly because I have a friend there; partly because the islands are interesting. A man I knew at Oxford has gone out there, and is likely to stay. His father owns nearly the whole of an island; and as he’s in very bad health, my friend may soon come into possession. When he does, he’s going to astonish the natives.’
A vision of savages flashed before Nancy’s mind. She breathed more freely, thinking the danger past.
‘Simply by making a fortune out of an estate that is lying all but barren. Before the emancipation of the niggers, the Bahamas flourished wonderfully; now they are fallen to decay, and ruled, so far as I understand it, by a particularly contemptible crew of native whites, who ought all to be kicked into the sea. My friend’s father is a man of no energy; he calls himself magistrate, coroner, superintendent of the customs, and a dozen other things, but seems to have spent his time for years in lying about, smoking and imbibing. His son, I’m afraid, waits impatiently for the old man’s removal to a better world. He believes there are immense possibilities of trade.’ (707)
It doesn’t work of course. Nancy in the end saves the day, but only by immense self sacrifice, along with repressing that sense of self that emerged in the Jubilee as well as any feelings disagreeable to her husband and all recriminations. I’ll end with this maxim that hopefully today no woman will ever have to live up to:
She looked up, and commanded her features to the expression which makes whatever woman lovely–that of rational acquiescence. On the faces of most women such look is never seen (loc 5108).
I love community planning. I love sitting in a group with neighbours I don’t know and thinking about how to make our community better — from the kinds of community space and green space we need, to where housing for families should go, to pedestrianising streets to what kind of new buildings we should have and how tall they should be. I like thinking about how design can improve people’s lives and bring us closer together as a community, how we can fill community needs and at the same time create spaces where it is easier to meet each other, get to know each other, take care of each other.
I was the at Brixton Central Masterplan workshop on Tuesday, and we did a lot of that. And at the same time we did none of it. Let me explain.
What did I love about the workshop? That about 30 of us came together and sat there from 6:30 (ish) to 9:00 pm on a Tuesday evening with only biscuits to nibble — because you know, I probably wasn’t the only one tired and hungry after a long day of work. But it makes you feel good putting that kind of time in to your own community. I enjoyed hearing about the proposals and discussing in our five groups our reactions, thoughts and dreams about Central Brixton. We were fairly diverse, though probably a little too old, a little too white a group to fully represent Brixton. I doubt many (if any) parents of young children were there (how could they be easily given that time slot?), for example. No youth. But even so, a pretty good group.
Fluid and AECOM, the architectural consultant brought in to help with community participation and planning, put together quite a smooth process that really got some good discussions going. They had wonderful staff (though strangely absent any women) to facilitate at each table, and I enjoyed thinking about all those things I don’t usually think about that are still key to making cities work.
Best of all, I had the chance to think about planning in a room full of community members who seemed to be in broad agreement on the key things that matter most to me. Everyone wanted this development to enhance Brixton for the people here (if we’d had to fight about that I would have not enjoyed this at all), and so it seemed to me there was little argument that:
- Brixton is awesome the way it is now. We love the mix of people in the community in terms of its awesome diversity (race, nationality, students, professionals, families etc), its vibrant culture, and the wonderful local businesses and artists that now exist in the market and under the arches.
- Above all we need truly affordable, genuinely affordable, housing. People who want to stay in the community are getting forced out, and there is not enough affordable housing for families.
Looking into the results of the special consultation Fluid did with the ‘youth’, it’s cool to see they want the same things:
“that it is suitable for the current population of Brixton and everyone feels comfortable in it”
“that is does not become overcrowded and that everyone knows each other with a family environment”
“that Brixton can develop while keeping its originality and diversity”
“for it to become safer and gang free, and affordable”
In the consultant’s own findings presented in the graph below, it’s clear that housing is the priority and principal concern for absolutely everyone (It’s that green bar at the top):
So we talked about how this plan can do all of these wonderful things through design, and especially through easing the housing crisis…
Problem is, it can’t.
I hate to lose that feel-good vibe, that I-contributed feeling, that excitement of imagining Brixton even better than it is. But this development is not building housing for people who live here now. The council is treating the three developments — Brixton Central, Brixton Hill and Somerleyton Rd — as one development in their treatment of housing. They are looking at building 750 new homes across all three with 40% of those being ‘affordable’. The consultants made the point that the term ‘affordable’ does not actually quite mean ‘affordable’.
People at my own table really struggled with this terminology — and I think that’s kind of the point of it. To confuse the issue, to confuse people, to redefine a word so that it sounds good while meaning what developers want it to mean. Because affordable doesn’t actually mean affordable now, you have to say ‘genuinely affordable’ or talk about ‘target rents’ to actually mean what you think you mean. So ‘experts’ can throw around the word affordable and get nods from everyone in the room who don’t actually understand that they are using a specialist definition that describes 80% of market rent, which means 1 bedroom flats renting for over £1000 pcm.
The current average market rates in Brixton according to home.co.uk, a rental website that tracks actual letting information and properties for rent in real time, are currently:
|No. of properties||Average rent||Median rent|
|One bedroom||188||£1,345 pcm||£1,352 pcm|
|Two bedrooms||278||£1,672 pcm||£1,603 pcm|
|Three bedrooms||84||£2,319 pcm||£2,264 pcm|
|Four bedrooms||27||£3,085 pcm||£2,947 pcm|
|Five bedrooms||7||£3,736 pcm||£3,640 pcm|
So when we say ‘affordable’, we mean approximately 80% of these kinds of rents — no actual numbers on rents have ever been presented at any point in these consultations, and I am embarrassed that I have failed to ask for them. For the flats built as part of the Olympic development in Stratford, ‘affordable’ rents are between £1,244 and £1,688 a month.
So what are families to do with this? What are their kids supposed to do when it comes time to move into their own place? What are older single people (or those of us surviving at a distance from our partners like myself) supposed to do, who don’t really enjoy want to live in shared flats their entire lives? This housing, even the ‘affordable’ 40% is geared to bring wealthier people from outside into Brixton — admitted as much by the projections that this new residential population will be injecting a few more million into our economy through their spending.
This housing is not for us. I’m not even one of the 20,000 people on their waiting list.
When you ask, the council will say that it is building some ‘genuinely affordable’, ‘target rate’ housing, but that’s only in the Somerleyton development. So 40% of those 250 flats will be ‘genuinely affordable’, all the rest will not be. 100 affordable flats out of all this millions of pounds of development.
So 650 flats mostly for newcomers to Brixton, a huge new makeover for the central area, a revamping of the overground train station — which it desperately needs but this will only make Brixton more attractive to people working in the city — a refurbishing of local business facilities which is great, but I fear that it puts the smaller businesses I love even more at risk. This will of course have a ripple effect on speculation and land values, putting even more pressures on rents and forcing people out.
I asked about that, and Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council, said fairly patronisingly that mine was one view. But their view was that building more homes at market rent will decrease the pressure on all of the housing. Besides, they were following the mandate of the mayor to build more housing. Which was just so crazy I didn’t really have an immediate snappy response. Trickle-down housing? Really? A Labour council happy to carry out Tory housing policy?
If Brixton was an island in the sea this might possibly make sense, but it’s part of London, and thus one of the hottest property markets in THE WHOLE WORLD. Our problem is not a lack of housing in London–look around you, we have a horizon full of cranes being used to build more housing. Our problem is a lack of housing people can afford.This is from a recent article in the New York Times:
With property at a premium, it’s renters who are paying full market value just to stay where they are. The average home in London costs nearly 20 times the average salary in Britain. The imperative to get a return on that capital investment is passed on to the renter. According to the housing charity Shelter, Londoners spend nearly three-fifths of their monthly income on rent.
London’s housing is no longer for those who need it but for those primarily concerned with accumulating capital. When bricks are cash and houses are savings accounts, the meaning of the word “affordable” is warped beyond all recognition.
So this development might be helping some of the young professionals roaming the city who can’t pay the even higher rents required to live in the new Nine Elms developments in Vauxhall or those massive towers going up in Chelsea or Limehouse. They can’t afford those because they are all being bought up by investment banks and elites from around the world as real estate investments or occasional crash pads, not as homes to love and cherish in a community they care about and want to make better. This is the worst case scenario, that these flats will be bought by such investors and left to sit completely empty, or occupied for a few months of the year or from Monday through Thursday. The best case scenario under this plan is that we’ll get an influx of the youthful white middle-classes, which will not help ease the demand for genuinely affordable housing coming from people who live in Brixton now. How can this not transform even further the vibrant culture and diversity we love and that we are losing?
No one in that room wants that to happen, not even the council member sitting at my table. We all want genuinely affordable housing, the more the better. Instead we were part of a process that will serve to legitimise another nail in the coffin of the Brixton we love.
No, it’s too big for that. This might be the coffin itself.
I have a lot of thoughts about the enormity of the developments planned for Central Brixton that will completely transform the place I live in and love and won’t be able to afford to live in much longer. This is the extent of the area shortly to become one enormous construction zone if the council gets their way (and you have to factor in construction on the Lambeth College site too):
So after a few days of letting it sit in my mind my primary question is, why the hell are they doing it now?
I wish I had asked them that. Though I’m afraid of the real answer.
The number one perceived need in the community as identified by every focus group and survey they themselves have carried out is housing affordable to people who live in Brixton now. They had a graphic even, housing dwarfed all other concerns, even jobs. And the one thing this development can’t honestly provide in the current climate without federal government funding is social housing. This ensures that this transformative development will only speed up the skyrocketing rents, the displacement of local residents, and the transformation of our community diverse in class and race to one that is homogenous, wealthy and probably overwhelmingly white.
We are in a period of ideologically driven austerity — all the evidence points to this government policy not working, even by Tory benchmarks, except in the sense that a massive transfer of land and money is taking place from public to private hands. It makes my heart hurt to see the infrastructure of social care and the urban fabric itself destroyed in this way. The slashing of central government funding has left the local councils scrambling to fund the provision of the services the community needs — and working with private developers out for as much profit as they can get rather than forming any kind of effective opposition to the destruction of a state that takes care of its people. Lambeth council has accelerated its sell off of community owned resources and housing to fund basic services. They are in fact selling off the housing we so desperately need. Once it is gone only a nationalisation of land will ever get it back given the inflated prices of land and the costs of building things anew.
So what does the council say about the housing situation now being exacerbated by their own policies? Future Brixton’s latest newsletter, handed out at the open day, shows on page two the three priorities of the council from this development: ‘Bringing new jobs to Brixton’; ‘What’s good for business?’; and ‘Desperately needed new homes’. Under this last, it says this:
With over 20,000 people on Lambeth’s housing waiting list and over 1,600 families in temporary housing, new homes are desperately needed. Since 1981, the council has lost almost 40% of its council housing stock, largely as a result of right to buy and of properties transferred to Registered Providers.
Over the same periods council rent levels have increased by approximately 500%, private rents and house price have increased by much more and the population of Brixton has risen by almost 18% to over 78,000 (according to the 2011 census). The Future Brixton developments will see about 750 new homes built over the next 10 years with the aim for at least 300 (or 40%) to be affordable housing.
At Somerleyton Road, building new homes for rent is the priority and as many of these as possible will be at council rent levels. It’s expected that all of the 300 new homes here will be managed by a housing cooperative. Read more about this on page 8.
20,000 people on the waiting list, and they are transforming all of Central Brixton through massive development and only providing 300 homes? It’s worse than that though, first because of how they are defining affordable housing, and second because they can’t even agree on what number of homes will potentially be built. As the Brixton Buzz reported, they originally stated the figure (as described clearly in this newsletter I’m holding in my hands) of 750 homes to be built, and received back an official letter from the council saying that only 250 homes will be built (of which 40% will then be affordable?). The number reported at Somerleyton estates alone is 300, are a fraction of those then the only ‘affordable’ units to be built? Confusion confusion.
We need to redefine ‘affordable’ as well, I hate the dishonesty of current definitions that ignore the deepening inequalities driven by low wages and unemployment to focus only on artificially inflated housing markets. The new and widespread meaning of ‘affordable’ in relation to housing is where rent is simply set as up to 80% percent of the area’s market rate rents, rather than what people can afford to pay. This is hardly affordable to any working people in Brixton (or anywhere), and also means the more expensive housing becomes (note the council itself is well aware of how private rents are steadily spiraling upwards), the higher rents will rise. This will ensure the steady displacement of the tenants who do manage to qualify initially as they are priced out. This false idea of ‘affordability’ is very different from the traditional methods of calculating rent for social housing, which work to ensure a better level of true affordability and are usually set around 50% of market rate, if not lower in more expensive areas. A good description of both and the differences between them can be found here.
So we have a massive development that provides almost no homes (and a very questionable number of them set at very questionable levels of true affordability), that will also serve to send property prices (and therefore market rents) throughout the area soaring. What are we paying for it? Brixton Buzz reports: ‘What is clear is that Your Nu Town Hall will cost £50m. Cllr Paul McGlone, the Cabinet member for Finance has stated that this will NOT be borrowed money.’
I find the big picture of this, then, slightly vomitous. A massive development that, rather than produce the housing the community desperately needs, will instead force market rents and land prices higher, accelerating the displacement already rampant here. Worse, it’s funded partly through the sell-off of local cooperative housing and estates like Leigham Court, Cressingham Gardens and the Guinness Trust that the council is carrying out to make up the shortfall between their budget and central government funding. Talk about social and ethnic cleansing.
It seems to me that some people working on the project must understand this, but that many probably do not. The project itself in its details has quite a lot of very nice things that are much needed by the community. Perhaps some people on the council genuinely believe that to get any housing at all they have to do something like this. I’d say they should wait until Labour get back in power and start funding social housing and social services again, so this development can include a high proportion of social housing as demanded by the community, and the council can once more work to provide the services their constituents really need. But wait…that isn’t Labour’s policy now is it. Makes you want to punch walls.
So instead this lovely community process has been held, the primary request for housing has been essentially ignored, but some beautiful public spaces will be created (how wonderful that they are developing and opening up that terrible area behind the town hall?), some help will be given to local business and more market stalls created, the train station will be improved which it desperately needs, and I love the idea of a chef’s school at Somerleyton Rd. Sadly, this will all go to benefit the new people moving to Brixton, replacing all of those who participated in this community process in the first place. But that’s not part of the discussion at the Open Day. You walk into a room like this:
It is full of details and pictures and helpful people to answer questions about the development particulars. It focuses you in on things like the proposed 14 story building replacing Olive Morris House, the terrible cookie-cutter architecture, the innovative opening up of more railway arches. You notice things like how all the pictures of community consultation show a vibrant Black community, but most of the individuals wandering many of the artist representations of what will be are white (a huge problem with computer generated renditions visible all over this damn city). You see that the consultants have tried to address some aspects of the problems with ‘affordable’ housing, but without grappling with how this development in its entirety will make the need so much greater. It’s frustrating, because you know most of the people involved have without much thought accepted right-wing defined limits of what is possible and just haven’t thought through the big picture.
There are lots of details on the Future Brixton website, and I’ll probably be looking more at those as I drag myself to future consultations, but really. This development just shouldn’t happen until a very large block of funding is included to develop a very large amount of social housing. That would help stabilise the community who make Brixton what it is. Given they are the council’s constituents, their right to remain as the community should be the council’s first priority.
Wednesday evening I visited the Black Cultural Archives for the first time, though I’ve been meaning to stop by since I missed their grand opening on July 24th. Windrush Square is much better without those big huge sidings that have been up for all the years I’ve lived here, but more so because now we can finally enjoy the gem they hid inside.
In the turbulent spring of 1981, as the streets of Brixton seethed with rioters and the shops burned, a small group of black artists, activists and teachers met in the midst of the conflict. Their common goal was to create an archive that commemorated and educated people on the forgotten history of black people in Britain and offset the violence with understanding and education.
At the beginning there were just eight of them gathered in a small shopfront on Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. But last week, after a 33-year long battle, the permanent home of the Black Cultural Archives finally opened its doors to the public to a gathered crowd of thousands.
33 years. Damn. Thanks to their efforts there is now this truly extraordinary thing standing proud in the centre of Brixton, more important now than ever as rents keep going up and the heart of the community is at risk.
I met up with Sean and Helen, Kevin and Niall in the cafe, which has affordable coffee and cake and is such a good space! The building is beautiful, and a display on the wall describes its long and fascinating history from a large home of wealth and privilege to a school for boys to a dancing school to the Liberals Club to London’s first coach station! With some other things I have forgotten in between. A huge touch screen in the corner allows you to explore some of the many documents they have in the collections and we looked briefly through a series of leaflets from the 1970s and 80s with campaigns that ranged from how cuts affected black women the most to stories of deaths in custody and denunciations of police brutality. Inspiring, but also sad to think that we could just photocopy and hand out those same documents today with as much relevance as they had then. You can also see a range of their collection online here.
Adewunmi describes the purpose of the BCA through the eyes of the director:
It is the only institution of its kind in Britain, a place to bring together objects, documents, publications and oral histories of the black people of Britain over centuries, and, as the BCA director Paul Reid says, enable the black community to tell its own stories and its own history in its own voice for the first time.
What a beautiful place this is. And their first exhibit shows how they are going about it, the Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain exhibit was amazing. Here is the blurb for it:
Long before the Empire Windrush arrived on British shores in 1948 there were women of African descent in Britain. Black women were here to witness the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Britain and everyday life over the centuries, in the markets and music halls, homes and factories.
Re-imagine gives us a glimpse of some of these women, the traces of their lives lying in vaults of archives, libraries and museums across the United Kingdom and brought together for the first time.
Side by side. Face to face. Courageous women who, throughout generations have been brave. We invite you to ‘re-imagine’ their lives, to create a tapestry of stories that paint a picture of the many and eclectic roles of Black women over time.
I love that you stand there face to face with them, honour and know them in this way. The exhibition room is a small place really, but they make brilliant use of the space, and it was with some awe that I read how much historians have been able to uncover. The inspiration maybe goes without saying, but I need to say it anyway. You walk out of there happier than when you walked in. So many women graced those walls who have transformed our world for the better, from Mary Seacole to Marian Anderson to Olive Morris and Claudia Jones. The folks working there loved those exhibits, too. Not like most museums where there’s someone standing there to keep an eye on things, tell you not to get too close. Here they were excited to share this history with you, make sure you took away with you as much as you possibly could.
The exhibit is open until 30th November, go if you can.