I began my last post by saying that it was difficult to write about different London districts without continually repeating oneself, and I feel it again as I grasp blindly for a starting point to this post. London offers only the gentrified and the soon-to-be gentrified. Elephant & Castle has had a bad reputation for a long time, but it is a short stroll from Waterloo and London Bridge alike and it’s surprising that the great clean-up hasn’t happened yet. Behind the stage set facade of the South bank is a real rabbit hole of teeming, noisy life that hasn’t yet been disinfected by office blocks of curved glass and the obligatory thirty branches of Pret. They always come for you in the end, mind.
Although he’s chiefly remembered as one of the Blair creature’s many dupes, I still think of David Trimble as a great man. Whilst at Westminster, he shocked his patrician colleagues by renting a spartan flat in the Elephant, which was a short hop from Parliament but did not gobble up too much taxpayers’ money. My first experience of Elephant & Castle was while I was still a student and had been DJing at indie/retro nights. A friend got the gig of DJing the St Martin’s College freshers’ party at the Ministry of Sound and recruited me to help out; neither of us were even slightly qualified. I started by playing the closest things I had to clubbable dance music (Giorgio Moroder, mostly) and we were deluged with complaints that our records were “shit” and the crowd wanted “proper house”. The closest my collection came to house was probably ‘Endless Art’. In the end we evaded lynching by taking the time-honoured route of eighties cheese and ended with 1,400 people punching the air to ‘Gold’.
The Old Kent Road starts in this area and finishes up near where I live. Like the northbound A10, it was built by the founders of London -the Roman Empire- and evidently did what it said on the tin in the days before London’s limits sprawled many miles beyond the old City. For many I suppose it still does, as the road perpetually hosts tailbacks of tradesmen’s white vans to the point where taking a photo of anything across the road is near impossible. It’s a household name for being the cheapest piece of land in Monopoly. I have never played Monopoly, but I have dipped into Monopoly pub crawls. I feel quite intimate with this road as, on the 60-70% of weekends when the Overground is off, its buses are my route into work and/or London, and I wondered if I would see it differently, or see more, by walking its entire length; I also thought it would make a good document of an area that is unlikely to stay as it is for much longer.
The Old Kent Road feels as much of a sad ghost as the Shankill in Belfast nowadays. Only one of the four or five “libraries” is still open, and the fancy old cinemas are long gone, as are all but one or two of the myriad pubs. There are oblique traces of what the road looked like in former times. You find the odd Victorian church with big rose windows, but these are heavily outnumbered by the new churches with their strange, mutated English that is at best a cousin to the English that we speak.
There is social housing in the form of high-rises -a group clad in grey-blue first, no beauty queens but not in bad nick- and private housing in the form of shiny new medium-rises with prices calculated to make BTL landlords drool and renters whimper in terror. I certainly couldn’t afford to live in them, and if I could I wouldn’t be prepared to throw away such huge sums of money. After Ilderton Road and the railway bridge is the Tustin Estate with its three mammoth high-rises, pure Nelson Mandela House. I know these well as they block the view of St Paul’s dome from our local park.
Next up, derelict buildings and more church signs whose wording aims for grandiosity and arrives at awkwardness. You could get an entire Tumblr account out of the ones on Old Kent Road alone, were you so minded. If you live here, heaven must be your only hope and these places do actually promise heaven, unlike genteel agnostic C of E places that are just looking after the cultural heritage.
Around here is the point when the OKR turns into one vast retail/business park. A procession of stadia-sized brick megastores, not all of which I have heard of, begins with an Aldi that has weirdly shaped rocks under its gantry sign. It’s hard to say if they are a hamfisted gesture towards “garden” landscaping or some kind of installation. These stores sit, without fail, behind a vast car park in which you can really imagine Breaking Bad‘s Walter White sitting -alone, with his family, or with business associates- to eat drive-thru fast food meals in taciturn silence.
The churches and the nightlife seem to compete over who can be less salubrious. I have often wondered about this “bar & restaurant” as my bus passes it, but never noticed that they have ingeniously swirled streaks of black paint through white to create what looks, from the top deck of a zooming bus, not unlike some imitation of marble. Leftover shipping containers supply us with cafés, viewing points, and housing, and “free schools” are clearly getting in on the act. The through-gritted-teeth praise cited here reminds me of my appraisal write-ups at work.
Another trio of high-rises, these pebble-dashed. Most natives to this area moved out to Kent a long time ago; the metropolitan shibboleth has it that they did so to get away from immigrants, but I would imagine the biggest factor to have been the gleeful demolition of the streets where they lived and their replacement with then-fashionable tower blocks. Looking at the Victorian houses that have survived and been fixed up in nearby conservation areas, I can imagine the “slum” houses that were cleared around here going for close to a million apiece nowadays.
In the midst of all the gasworks and recycling centres, we are suddenly presented with a chunk of Heritage London in the form of an erstwhile library, a church with an Italianate campanile and a nice tympanum carving of the Sermon on the Mount, and a row of swashbuckling terracotta-clad buildings, originally put here by the Royal London life & pensions company. Very handsome they are, and you do yearn to see what this road was like before the Blitz and the Planners, when there were tramways and 30/40 pubs and all of it looked like this.
Another bright spot lines a square brick edifice called The Everlasting Arms Ministries; a lively display, taking us through the long and colourful history of the OKR. Romans and their aqueducts, Chaucerian pilgrims, Kentish rebels with pitchforks and triumphant processions for Henry V and Charles II. The frieze is from 1965, and is quite firmly dated by the fact that it ends with a helmeted Bobby on the beat, and a family of Pearly Kings and Queens.
Back to retail, a burger van with Bulgarian flags, and some of those vacant buildings where a security firm place “hired squatters” who get cheap rent and stop actual squatters from getting in there. I knew a bloke who lived in one of these set-ups, he got to live in a big house in Bloomsbury.
The pattern seems to repeat itself six of seven times during the length of this road. A council estate, no doubt all sold off now, that doesn’t look too bad, and more shiny investment flats. You wonder if these ones are, like so many of London’s new builds, simply places to park your capital that no-one will ever live in. It’s close to Waterloo and London Bridge as you get near the top of the road, but someone who could afford to spunk £300+ on rent every week could surely find a nicer location. Thumbs up to this downmarket estate agent for the inexplicable mannequin in their window (do they throw in a trafficked bride with their dodgy loan?).
After a small piece of parkland with its lawn parched and bleached, out of curiosity I look at one of the side streets and see a different world; a terrace of smart and distinctive old houses. This interesting church disproves the truism that the dingier the building, the more grandiose its name will be; it currently trades as the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim & Seraphim. At this junction is just one of many lamented lost pubs. The Thomas A Becket, after the murdered archbishop, was Bowie’s rehearsal room in the Ziggy Stardust era. One of the last men standing, its licence was revoked after a bit of argy-bargy; presumably the same trick that was pulled to get rid of Madame Jojos in Soho.
The next stretch of road feels like some country other than Britain. I don’t make this pronouncement with a howl of Faragiste anger, despair, or sense of displacement. London is interesting because it is a World City that has more in common with other mega-cities than its host country; all the world is here, and even when it is very grim it is still worth looking at. In this context, the very grubby remains of what was probably an art deco cinema could have been left by the Italian modernists that built up Asmara.
Immigrants from very different places (Africa, South America, Eastern Europe) each have their own bit of turf here. I’m always baffled by the “business centres” on high streets that have an eccentric name (here, ‘I AM SERVICES UK L.T.D.’ (sic)), tend to serve citizens of a particular country and will have a barber and/or nail bar, sell CDs and transfer your money back home. Here I wonder if they act as drop-in community centres.
Again, take a few steps down a side street and it’s a quite different world.
Before a big Peabody-style block of social housing is the Latin quarter. I’ve always been intrigued by the weather-beaten old house of Iglesia La Luz del Mondo and the little obelisk beside it, looking quite out of place and time as it does- although their new, less ramshackle, sign out front has removed some of the mystique. The bloke in the poster is the new head of this denomination, whose Christianity is so hardcore that they do not observe Christmas. The Internet claims that this house is C18th and at one time belonged to a Mr Rolls, who would get together with one Mr Royce and make history.
Around here the OKR dissolves into a mess of roundabouts and multi-lane junctions (planned as the site for a Bakerloo Line station that never happened), but there’s one last sting in the tail with the tank on Mandela Way, an unexpected dose of magic realism that turns its guns on the dreary and quotidian. According to legend, this soviet tank served in Czechoslovakia and was brought here for use in Ian McKellen’s Richard III film. A property developer acquired it, and parked it here in a fit of pique when he was refused permission to build some flats; an example of doing good unwittingly. It is painted like a tiger at the moment but previous guises have included zebra stripes, leopard spots and the yellow livery of an NYC cab. After the tank, a short and wide flyover to sort out congestion rises above street level, as if it were a semi-flighted bird trying to pull itself away from all this dreariness, before losing its tussle with gravity and sinking back down after a few metres.
The OKR forks into three roads; one to Tower Bridge via Bermondsey, one to Borough, and one to the Elephant: New Kent Road. I follow the latter and notice that the hostel at Driscoll House, a building with Christian mosaic fragments and rococo embellishments, is flying B&W Union Jacks. My best guess would be that this is a post-colonial twist on the design, but their significance is unexplained.
There are some beautiful houses hiding out amongst the take-away joints on NKR, but as you approach the developers’ gold rush that is the Elephant these days, you feel like Sauron’s tower looms before you.
To our left, the building site where the Heygate Estate until recently stood. I should have come here with my camera before the demolition work. This was a notoriously dodgy piece of business as the council sold the land for a fraction of its market value, and no more than it cost them to kick out all the residents. Whether brown envelopes were involved, or they just fancied the idea of replacing the chiefly poor occupants of the estate with yuppies, I have no idea. Perhaps, as with taxation, the businesses simply have vastly greater resources and can easily identify the loopholes with which to run rings around a hapless government. The best government can do, it seems, is quibble about adding four or five “affordable” homes; meaningless when “affordable” rent is defined as your entire salary X4 instead of X5. There isn’t much to see on the building site, which is lined with boards displaying artists’ impressions and propaganda about the utopia-to-come. It seems that the new complex will have ersatz made-up names like “Orchard Gardens” and “Highgrove”. It looks like it will be an artisan coffee version of those Lego parodies of Venice, Paris or Cotswold villages that they built on the outskirts of Shanghai.
The Elephant & Castle pub gives the area its name; in an early piece of product placement, Shakespeare recommends it in Twelfth Night. With the pub about to become a branch of Foxtons, the Amazon of London property, squatters went in and occupied the place. I remember this happening in Stoke Newington, when the legendary Vortex jazz club on the then-chainless Church St was bought by Nando’s. Red and black flags flew outside, there were discussion groups and screenings of Panther Panchali, and after three or four weeks the state turned up with sticks and stones to evict them. The Elephant people have been moved out since my visit, having had a stay of similar length (probably the length of time it takes to get court approval for going in with a gang of Brownshirts). One of their posters proclaimed them to be “Anti-Hipster, ridiculous moustaches and fashion sense”, as clear an example of confusing symptom for cause as you’ll ever see.
My instinct is to find the blocks behind the pub ugly, and redolent of leisure centres in the early 80s, but these were made listed buildings just as plans were drawn up to get rid of most of their neighbours. They are by Erno Goldfinger, and apparently one of his favourite creations. Through the tiled underpass, and across the road to look at the Elephant shopping centre. I wanted to take a look at this place because although it’s not my favourite spot on Earth, I’m fairly certain that it’s not very long for this world.
This shopping centre is less Westfield, more communist Moldova, and in an age where every town on earth has the same chains I think we’ll miss it once it’s gone.
The place has clearly been deliberately run into the ground for a long time; it’s a poor place for poor people but they make the best of it and despite a shoestring budget, it’s quite gaudy and cheerful. The cafés of diverse ethnicities are only surpassed in popularity by the many massaging armchairs that are £1 a pop. The only thing I can really say I hate about the place would be the predatory sofa/white goods stores, that are selling their £300 products at £10 a week for 800 weeks.
The strangeness of the shopping centre is heightened by the tasteful courthouse classicism of the Metropolitan Tabernacle sitting directly across the road; it looks bewildered and outraged (as much by the brutalist college beside it as by the shopping mall) like some old lady, inadvertently caught up in the Notting Hill Carnival on the walk to her local Russian Orthodox mass. The incongruity makes me chuckle.
From Elephant roundabout there are so many possibilities, that this post would be length of a book if I explored them all: you can go to Kennington and the Oval, to Lambeth and Westminster, to Southwark and Waterloo, or to Borough and London Bridge. It is such a key point on the way into London that it really is surprising they’ve taken this long to redevelop; it feels like a crucial pivot ,or hinge, for the whole South Bank, and the City and Westminster beyond. I decide to eschew the northbound routes and turn back on myself: as a Millwall season ticket holder of some years I feel it’s ridiculous that I have never been down such a key place as the Walworth Road, so that’s where I go. En route you pass other bits of Elephant Park, where a sort of tiki Boxpark has been stuck up to make the investment appear ‘pop-up’ and less nakedly hypercapitalist.
It may have a bad reputation (I think of Darling, where Dirk Bogarde tells Julie Christie “Five bob on the Walworth Road, that’s about your bloody mark”) but I liked the Walworth Road, its shape and its buildings. Obviously it has seen better days but it has the makings of a great high street, whereas the absurd amount of traffic carried by the OKR leaves it more like a motorway that some poor sods have to live next to. From the word go, the Walworth Road throws up interesting food for thought; a blue plaque for Charlie Chaplin, a quaint Mock Tudor pub in all this urban strife, with the pathetic touch of Elizabethan chimney pots, and the extraordinary assertions made by the fabulous (and pre-NHS) modernist carvings on what is now the sexual health clinic.
The Walworth Road pleases me just by its shape, its gentle outward curve. Even though it seems to have been run into the ground like the rest of Elephant, if you disregard all the payday loans and pawnshops you can see the spine of a high street that could be something great again. It is lined with florid Edwardian buildings, and it is shocking that where gaps needed filling in (perhaps after the Blitz), people had the impertinence to stick in some “will this do?” shanty-town stuff across the road.
It’s questionable voyeurism on my part, but I find the shop units quite interesting. One dessert/cake bar is full of small children, and yet decked out like a strip-club; glossy black tiles on the ceiling and floor, hot pink leather seats and rotating mirrorballs.
A pie and mash shop no longer trades in P&M, but has had the sensitivity to keep the beautiful fixtures and fittings inside. The Red Lion looks so like my ideal pub that I don’t dare to go in and spoil the fantasy; if it were full of topknotted ukulele players it would break my heart. I regret not stopping for a pint, though.
All of this would be quite edifying on its own, but down Liverpool Grove I spot a strange, fascinating building that I presume to be a church, but had no idea was here. A capped circular portico sits on a clock tower, and beneath is a low, shoebox-shaped church bolstered by round-topped windows, with four Ionic columns bringing the recessed entrance level with the front walls. A simple Grecian pattern runs above the yellow brick in a band. It mesmerises me; I have no idea what it is but it looks so satisfying that I can’t take my eyes off it. Everything fits perfectly.
All of this makes sense when I consult the Internet and learn that St Peter’s was the first church of Sir John Soane. We all know about his house/museum in Holborn, and his telephone-box tomb, and Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the remaining scraps of his mutilated Bank of England, but I had never in my life heard of this jewel. There’s an echo of his Tivoli Corner in the top of the tower, and its geometry is so neat that you think, “Yes, of course”.
Back to the Elephant roundabout for my bus home, where I stop to glance at their proposal for this muddle. It still looks quite muddled in the idealised artists’ impression, although it is trying to accommodate the pedestrian by taking down all the railings and opening up the central island with the Michael Faraday memorial. The Goldfinger buildings are there too; it’s a funny business, what gets listed and what gets bulldozed.