About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Akasha at The Bread and Roses - bringing the love magick back to SW4




For every entry  published on this blog, another 10 or 12 are left to rot in the drafts folder. But I'm going to publish this one, because this semi-local band playing at a local pub gave me more pleasure in one brief free gig than I've had at any music venue in years.

Among dozens of unpublished blog pieces gatheirng dust in the vaults of this site are several about gigs at The Bread and Roses pub in Clapham Manor Street. It sometimes feels like an unappreciated SW4 treasure, this trades-union-run pub.  I've several times been to their free music nights to find the audience almost outnumbered by band members.

But not last Saturday evening, which belonged to a band from the Brixton area named Akasha,  whose performance left me eager for more, buzzing with that strange energy you get from great music - and also kicking myself for not having followed their every gig for the past 20 years or so. There was a good crowd, and at least half were dancing wildly by the end - well, some of us were at least shuffling from foot to foot.

Akasha (a name they share with a few others, being the sanskrit word for "air" or  "aether") started in  1994 as a duo, Charlie Casey and Damian Hand, but have now grown into the seven -piece band which crammed the small pub stage last week.

The band was a pioneer of  jazzy, electronics-infused, spaced-out hip-hop fusion style which was emerging back in the early 1990s, and became the signature sound of the highly influential Wall of Sound label.  Some called it trip-hop...but the music was much too diverse and agile to get trapped in such a name.

The two originals - Casey on guitar, vocals and MacBook Pro,  Damian Hands a sort of new-age Roland Kirk on all manner of reeds and deeds and woodwinds - were backed up by a rock-steady demon of a drummer, a fabulously 70s-looking keyboards player, and solid trumpet, bass and alto sax players.

The sound system wasn't really up to such an adventurous band - and it took about half an hour of the engineer traipsing between stage and mixing desk to get things right. But once they got going, the gates to a new musical heaven opened in the skies over southwest London. Well, that's how it seemed to me, and I wasn't even on anything, apart from Guinness.

Akasha's music is catchy, exciting, incredibly danceable, unpredictable and mind-blowing at times, risk-taking (or so it seems); and it has that magic ingredient - wit. No wonder they were such a big influence on loads of their more commercially-minded label-mates (whatever happened to the Propellerheads?)

No wonder that so many big names wanted to work with them - and many did, notably Neneh Cherry, the true godmother to all this jazz-hip-hop-punk-funk crossover stuff. I've never got over seeing  her fronting Rip Rig & Panic under the Westway back in about 1983. And also Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne and the guy from Faithless - Maxi Jazz - who, coming from a similar milieu, had all the worldly success that eluded this band. But Akasha has the sort of success that others long  for - they're still loved and respected by their original fans, and winning new followers with every set they play, worldwide.

This night, Akasha played plenty of their old favourites, ratching up the involuntary dance factor with each number. I listened very hard when they played a song about their musical influences - but the vocals were drowned a bit by the poor PA. At a guess I'd say they would go for James Brown, Miles Davis, maybe Charlie Parker, Roland Kirk, maybe the Sugarhill Gang, maybe Curtis Mayfield or maybe Stockhausen? Herbie Hancock? Coltrane? Gil Scott Heron?

So, will have to go to next gig and hope they play it again. Also, buy the CDs. Next gig? One of the band said they were playing the Railway Tavern in Tulse Hill sometime soon. I think. Go!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Farewell old friend: Battersea Power Station disappearing behind more new apartment blocks



A pair of medium-sized apartment blocks have been rising for the past few months just south of Battersea Power Station. Now they've reached the point where they're ruining the view of what had been the best-loved local landmark for thousands of SW11/4/8 residents.

These two new blocks - one of which is still swathed in scaffolding - already appear to be just as dull as most of the other stuff that has risen out of the mud of Nine Elms since 2011. All that most of us will be able to see of the renovated power station are the chimney-tops - and these of course are not the originals! (But - it doesn't do to carp - they'e made a damn fine job of replicating them).

Oddly, very little mention is made of these two new blocks in the flashy online brochure for the Battersea - Nine Elms development.

Those sweeping great aerial views of the whole zone, with their computer-generated impressions of all the new towers, simply don't show anything that far from of the river.

You have to look at their interactive map to find out that this is the so-called Battersea Power Station Development Zone 4a - otherwise known as the Battersea Exchange site. It's separated from the rest of the development by Battersea Park Road, and seems to be the main location for the much reduced number of so-called affordable homes, plus a primary school and a health centre.

It's hardly mentioned on the main glossy marketing sites. But if you look closely at the photo above you can see they've put a great big ad on the side of the bigger block - batterseaexchange.com
.

Go to this site and you find it's part of the TaylorWimpey firm. You'll also see an impression of the finished buildings - looks like the bigger tower will also be white with those deep fins you can see on the smaller one, making them look a bit like electrical transformers. This might be relevant as there is also a major electricity substation being rebuilt on this site....but probably isn't. Some remarkably similar blocks are going up right now along York Road opposite Waterloo Station as part of the old Shell building redevelopment.

These two blocks in themselves are no worse than any of the rest of the development, and less ghastly than some of them. Looking at the brochure, it looks like these towers will not actually be the "affordable" flats (prices seem to be in the £550k - £1m region) - so they must be in the smaller brown blocks fronting the road?

What is sad is that the mile or more of these stubby towers, strung out along both sides of Nine Elms Lane, simply do not work together; they don't coalesce, they don't complement, they don't form anything like an interesting cluster. Even Canary Wharf is beginning to get that 'Manhattan' effect where the sum of the parts is much better than most of the individual buildings.

Around here, the reverse seems to be true. Perhaps it will be better when the massive new towers  at the Vauxhall end go up. I'm personally hoping they will block out my view of the most-hated tower of the lot - that killer cylinder, I think they call it St Georges Tower - the one that downed a helicopter a few years back.

Longer term of course, all this stuff will return whence it came. Like so many worm-casts thrown up on a mudbank, it will all sink back into mire. Maybe sooner than we all expect.


Thursday, 31 August 2017

Open House London weekend celebrates 25 fantastic years: hurray! But what's with this Clapham Old Town walk?

Here we go, into the radical redesign of Clapham Old Town on the new cycle-friendly pathways....sort of.
If you're into London's Open House weekend, then your annual treat is getting very close, and this year's free booklet is packed with even more potential pleasures than ever before.

What's more, this year's weekend - on the 16th - 17th September -  is the 25th anniversary of Open House London, which took a brilliant, simple idea and made it happen: why not open up interesting buildings - however grand or however modest - to the public, just for one weekend in the year?

This year's catalogue includes a great Top 25 of the most popular buildings it has featured over the years - the perfect trigger for debates. It also includes several topical essays on the big issues facing the city now, notably affordable housing, transport and traffic congestion, and accessible open spaces.

As a creature of bad habit I turn immediately to my local borough - Lambeth - and find amidst a well-stocked selection of local treats, this slightly curious entry in the Walks & Tours section:

"Clapham Old Town and Venn Street: This guided walk...looks at a radically redesigned public realm which re-balanced the street environment in favour of the pedestrian and cyclist..."

This refers to the recent tarting up of the old Polygon area which was commented on by this blog back in 2014.
So here you are at the end of Bromells Road. Cars have to turn
left across the pavement. No signs to say what bikes should do,
even though a bike path starts just across the road...


Well, the patch of artfully sown wild flowers at the northern tip of the Polygon (or is it "piazza" now?) is gorgeous. The new public space around the Polygon and Rose & Crown pub is certainly neat and tidy but to be honest it's a bit sterile. Especially now that the old public toilets have disappeared behind hoardings.

There are a few of those metal chairs scattered around, single seaters which look like they were designed to give bankers who have just been told their bonuses are frozen, somewhere to sit and contemplate their futures.

There's a very celebrated upmarket restaurant, a trio of pubs (if you include The Sun and The Prince of Wales across the road)  and...well,  a couple of cafes, also over the road...but not much else.

As for it being more cycle friendly: well, how, exactly?

After a couple of years of trying to get to grips with the remodelled and supposedly bike-friendly traffic flows,  they still seem at best puzzling, often confusing, and in some places downright dangerous to both cyclists and pedestrians.

Here it is - so off you go, heading north against the traffic 
Firstly, far from "reining in" motorists, they have given those coming from the north two separate routes up to the Common and the High Street. They can either be good and follow the B303 past Orlando Road and stop at the junction with the one-way system around Clapham Common.

But if they're in a hurry, or just typical motorists, there's nothing to stop them going the old way, up past The Sun pub and the local Sainsburys and a load of new flats, then pushing their way back onto the one-way system via The Pavement. It's a new rat run beloved of big white vans and equally big black SUVs.

Originally under the new scheme, as I remember, this road was gated at the northern end, and should have been for resident and delivery access only.

A few yards on you get to this bit, but no explanation why
you might want to turn right across the road...nothing!
Most of the pedestrians coming from Orlando Road, The Omnibus Arts Centre and the homes and many businesses on North Side want to get to the tube station. So they continue to cross the road at the point, directly outside the old Library (now The Omnibus) where there used to be a very well-used pedestrian crossing.

Mysteriously they have now moved that crossing just 20 or 30 yards further east, past the Starbucks, and just far enough to make it seem an annoying diversion if you're in a hurry.

The trouble is, this road is now two-way and there is also a bus-stand a few yards to the west. There are almost always a couple of 249 double-decker buses waiting there, which completely block the view, making it impossible to see approaching traffic until it is literally upon you. This is so dangerous for all pedestrians.

As for cyclists, well it seems like the cycle route has been sketched-in by some town planner at the end of  a long liquid lunch; clearly they all forgot that this bit of the scheme was never fully planned.

Not that anyone expects joined-up thinking from a council that has recently shut down one of the finest, best-loved and most-used libraries in London.  (In case you missed the stories, I mean the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill).

But a joined-up cycle route through this complex junction of roads would be good. The route as it stands is, frankly, bonkers.

If you do cross the road, you end up on this scary contra-
flow bike lane where you are glared at by drivers of big
black shiny SUVs (and OK, other vehicles too...)
If you're coming from the Brixton direction, or from Clapham Common tube station, and aiming for Lavender Hill or Wandsworth Road - well, you have to think hard about where to go. Most cyclists just follow the roads. The pavements around the tube station offer no bike routes (although quite a few cyclists use them, to the annoyance of crowds of commuters and school-kids milling around here at the busy times).

There are no signs to encourage cyclists to use, for example, Venn Street - which looks pedestrianised, but is it?

So the bike lane seems to start quite arbitrarily on the edge of the Common, 100 yards further north, opposite the junction with Bromells Road. This is a one way street with no bike lane. Cars and bikes have to cross the wide pavement to rejoin the road (which, confusingly, is called The Pavement at this point).

Cyclists can then cross the road and get onto a little bit of bike lane going north; but a few yards further on it sends them back across the road and onto a contra-flow bike lane which is frankly scary.

If you follow the cycle path past the above-mentioned wild flower patch, it sends you back west towards the Common - and to re-cross the main traffic flow, this time on a zebra crossing - so
As you can see, parked cars and oncoming traffic both
habitually impinge on the so-called cycle lane.
that you've negotiated four of the five sides of the Polygon to get back to a point a few yards from where you were 5 minutes ago.

There's a tiny bit of pavement here which has one of those joint use cyclist/pedestrian symbols in one paving slab - but who notices that? And the path is not wide enough for this dual use.

Like you, I hate seeing cyclists charging around recklessly on footpaths - but around here, it's sometimes almost understandable.

Lambeth Council is still open to changing these arrangements, apparently, so let's hope this Open House Weekend walk makes the crazy layout of these bike lanes clearer to all.

Plenty of really great stuff in the Open House programme, though. In Lambeth, the residents of the threatened Cressingham Gardens Estate have organised a tour, as have the residents of the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace. Both these estates were built in the 60s and 70s; a Lambeth architect, Ted Hollamby, was involved in both; they are both largely judged to be successful in meeting the need for low-rise, high-density, housing - important in the 70s, absolutely vital now.

In neighbouring Southwark, there's a chance to learn  more about the Dawson Heights Estate, a place that has always caught my imagination. From the distance, say in Brockwell Park,  it has the look of some re-imagined version of a medieval hill-town. Somewhere, in other words, where I always wanted to live!

There's so much to see, and only one short weekend to see it all in! Until 2018.

Meanwhile, September's also the month of the Lambeth Heritage Festival. Plenty of fascinating things are promised: must try to digest all this info, and get along to at least some of these events. Thanks!









Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The long and windy road to Woolwich (aka Get your kicks on the A206)




Less time to write this pointless blog as longer and longer journeys are required in search of the few hourly-paid hours of soft labour.

Less time needed, because stupid pointless blog no longer aims to do anything other than satisfy writer's solipsistic urge to see its verbal utterances smeared across a dirty Macbook screen.

Following the migration further out of town, further east, further south - writer finds itself cycling all the way to the Thames Barrier and beyond to what used to be Woolwich Dockyard.

Biggest surprise is actually getting as far as SE18 as there's so much incredibly interesting stuff to see on the way. From the leafy groves of Camberwell to the densely-packed historical delights of Deptford - we have to rush past them all, heading into the wind and the rain and the diesel fumes. And then, we dare not even mention....Greenwich.

All along the route, the sublime is buried under deep layers of ridiculous levels of pollution and aggression. The pollution from nose-to-tail trucks and buses on large sections of the obvious route is appalling.

The aggression, mainly from drivers. All along the Peckham Road, you try to beat the traffic lights and avoid all those huge angry powerful cars trying to push out across your cycle lane from their backstreet turnings. Bad enough even in the dog days of August; so much worse when schools are back.

The congestion reaches a peak in the bottleneck of New Cross Gate, every day, all day.  Hardly surprising, as this unfortunate stretch of what should be a High Street has to double as part of the trunk route out of London to Dover: it's a local, regional, national and international artery and it's about the width of three buses. And the pavements are hardly wide enough for two McLaren pushchairs to pass. It's bonkers!

So, for a superannuated cyclist, each journey involves cheating death many more than nine times.
I've tasted the tarmacadam of Coldharbour Lane too many times: I now have to make eye contact with every driver and every pedestrian before I dare to proceed.

But all the way to Woolwich? Madness. Last time this gormless blogger came this far south-east, it was to visit someone who was starting, and later finishing, an eight-year prison stretch, which began and half-ended at HMP Belmarsh, near Plumstead and Thamesmead.

This fellow always said he preferred the time in this modern high-security prison than the in-between years spent on a low-category wing somewhere near Nottingham, or  later spells in Rochester, Lewes and Brixton.

And now, when you look east down the river  - which is visibly more an estuary at this point - you can see that these areas will soon be as "sought after" as Battersea or Rotherhithe have already become.

Woolwich is here and now, Plumstead is coming soon after. Apparently there's even going to be a Crossrail link at some point.

The good news is that the river itself is so majestic that even the shittiest of new developments on the riverbanks fade into insignificance. There's more river traffic down here, as well: dredgers, sugar boats, the occasional small cruise liner, and lots of those giant steel barges filled with rubbish, or with earth or sand, presumably coming from or going to the high-rise building sites all along the river.

The Camberwell Hokusai: read the fascinating
story of its creation and near-destruction
on the BBC website
So what's so interesting about this ancient west to east run?  Unless, that is, you are a rich property speculator.

To cycle the route from Clapham to Woolwich is to witness the creation of a new seam of property developer gold in the making.

The  newish apartment blocks with their bright green balconies along Coldharbour Lane are just an overture to the really Wagnerian stuff going on around Deptford Creek and all the way up the Greenwich peninsula, and then across the river...and back again into Woolwich itself.

But....but....against all this, there is so much to love on this journey.

There's still the pure joy of passing through Camberwell, one of the few bits that has yet to succumb to the particularly nasty strain of the gentrification virus that has consumed Clapham entirely and is now well ensconced in Brixton.

Camberwell has its long-term affluent enclave, all the way up the Grove and into the hills over to Dulwich. Salute Hokusai as you cross Denmark Hill, cutting through leafy Love Walk and back onto the grinding reality of Peckham Road.

And how, and how. All the way from Camberwell to Deptford, you see it, you feel it, you are crowded off to the curb by the thundering ready-mix trucks and the massive "motorway maintenance" lorries which seem to be more often found on narrow inner London streets.

This great old-school junk shop announces your arrival
in  New Cross Gate
Oh but cheer up - there's still plenty of old school south-east London on this route. Peckham is obviously requires a chapter or two all of its own; you daren't linger here, you'd never get away. Keep on until you get to the historic high street of New Cross Gate, signalled by the wonderful and genuine junk shop just before the railway station.

Amazing how the presence and huge influence of Goldsmiths College has never impacted on this high street in anything but a good way; the students and staff clearly care about their very special bit of urban streetscape.

Then on into Deptford: and this, like Peckham, or perhaps even more so, is such a deep well of history that the best thing is to shut your eyes and cycle on, else you'll be here for weeks. As you cross the Creek, you spot another dumped scooter in the mud.

Then suddenly you are in tourist heaven or Hell, whichever you prefer - and again you must keep the blinkers on, cycle on grimly through all that maritime stuff, the grandiose Wren, of Greenwich; stop if you like in the wonderful park for a sandwich and some water.

Because you're going to need all your strength for the next and final leg of this trip as you plug on east. There's a very distinct change in the atmosphere as you past the dark, almost northern looking chimneys of the big old power station, and as you enter the straggling suburban badlands east of Greenwich.

Cross that major artery, the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, at the nape of the neck of the Greenwich Peninsula - swing hard left onto the Woolwich Road and by God you get your first real sniff of life in outer-SE London.

Beware the stare of the plaster meerkat
The Road to Woolwich is lined with mythical creatures;
leave your best instincts behind, dear traveller, smell
the burning rubber!









































 Here you confront a row of small animals, chained to the railings, all staring at you, blank eyed, as if traumatised.

Oh by the way, these animals are made of plaster, and belong to a shop selling mirrors. Nevertheless the way they sit there, tethered, to brave the great surge of traffic, is always impressive. The plaster doggie closest to the junction is a goner.

He's imbibed too much tyre dust, too much distilled diesel, to many hard stares from lads on nicked scooters. Then you see the dead stare of the plaster meerkat,  and you think, that's enough I'm going home.

But it's too late, you are now in fast-moving traffic, it'll take you through Charlton and on, and on... to the next big junction.

A big pub on the righthand, south side of the road catches the attention. It's name seems to be a rallying call to the heavy traffic surging up and down yet another feeder road for the tunnel. It's name - The Antigallican.

In plain, polite English, that pub's name means: "against the French"...

Now, given we're not far from the main A2 road to Dover and Folkestone and thus to Calais, you might be forgiven for thinking this area has it own special take on history.

The old military influence of Greenwich and Deptford, the Woolwich Dockyards and Arsenal - all that stored-up potential violence - prevails, of course it does, it is all relatively recent history.  And of course it all came back home again in 2013 by the murder of the soldier, Lee Rigby.

No coincidence that one of the more violent scenes of Clockwork Orange was filmed in the brutalist concrete estates of Thamesmead, while the supposed murder in Blow Up happens in Maryon Park  - one of the entrances to which we're passing right now.

This strange green space is like a maze or snail's shell, folding in on itself, a strange vortex, paths leading upwards past tennis courts, up to a peak where there are views across the Thames. It is a Tardis of a park: much bigger on the inside than its boundaries suggest.

As is well-known and documented, this is the park where Antonioni shot the key maybe-murder scenes for his wonderful and crazy 1966 film, Blow Up.

I search in vain for the antique shop where David Hemmings buys a wooden propeller, before entering the park with his Nikon F.

The shop has gone but the park remains very much as you see it in the movie - except that many of the trees have doubled in size, and most of that distinctive wooden fencing has gone. And the grass is just normally green, not painted green as the mythology of the film suggests the Director insisted on.

For me the part that really worked was cycling around past the tennis courts where, 51 years ago, a load of hippie extras from the the Living Theatre performed their mimed tennis game, and drove off in a batter old Land Rover.

The murder scene - then as now - is supremely dull and inconclusive. I sit on a bench somewhere near where the killing might or might not have happened.  People have been here. There's the usual mess of silver foil, fag packets, dirty tissues, energy drink tins, fast-food containers, empty prescription pill strips, used condoms.

I eat my 9-seed bar and from the corner of an eye detect movement; about five teenagers in school uniform have arrived, seen me, and turned back down the hill. I've occupied their favourite spot, by the look of it.

What were they planning? God knows. I get back on my bike and edge downhill to the A206, and take a detour down to the Thames Barrier Park, a not very convincing sliver of green space which does take you all the way down to the river - and one hell of a view of everything.

From this angle, the scale of the development around Canary Wharf becomes truly apparent. Just for once, I think the developers got it right. This was the right place for a dense plantation of high-rise luxury apartments, and they are still shooting up. Many of them look much more interesting than any of the dreary rubbish going up in Nine Elms.

And so on to the next roundabout, this one blessed with a big drive-thru MacDonalds, just before you get to a huge Co-Op funeral parlour.  Which is about as far as we're going today, just back down to the river and on to the weird former industrial estate where new enclaves of artists' studios rub shoulders with confectionery warehouses, police vehicle depots and abandoned factories. Just across the river, Tate & Lyle's Silvertown plant sucks a lot of the world's sugar production into the UK.

Right next to London City Airport, which quickly sucks in and spits out global executives looking for always newer, always better havens for their megabucks.

So, new stories begin.












Thursday, 29 June 2017

"More bad news from Battersea" - Oh, really? what a massive surprise

Is that some affordable housing going up just to the south of the rebuilt Battersea Power Station? Probably not. The developers have just been given the OK by Wandsworth Council to cut the numbers of affordable homes in the development from 636 to 389. That's a 250 home shortfall on the promised total. Meanwhile some of the poorest people in the borough continue to suffer the disruption, the pollution and the congested roads caused by this absurd development, aimed at an international super-rich market which has already moved on. 

It has been a terrible few weeks for London, but a fascinating time to observe how the London Evening Standard, under the new editor George Osborne, has been covering the successive disasters and tragedies.

No opportunity has been missed to ridicule the prime ministerial qualities of Theresa May. That is entirely as expected. Slightly more surprising is its more cogently critical approach to residential property developers, and this recent headline - "More bad news from Battersea"  - is a case in point.

I've written lots - maybe too much - about the damage this unnecessary and vulgar development is causing, how it is blighting the lives of thousands of local residents from Vauxhall right through to Battersea. I used to prefix these entries with "Nine Elms disease" - but not any more, as that suggests a natural disaster, unavoidable. In fact it's a very human disaster, caused by human greed, and so highly avoidable.

The long-suspected impact on air quality of so much construction work in one area is given added credence by research published last month (see: South Bank construction boom sends London air pollution soaring, London Evening Standard, May 8 2017). There's also the noise, the congestion caused by endless roadworks and closures and the convoys of ready-mix trucks doing the circuits from Silverthorne Road to Vauxhall and back again. The chewed-up streets, the spilling of pebbles so dangerous to the eyes of cyclists, the way these bulky vehicles dominate the road space, just as the new buildings colonise the sky above us.

Now parts of the development are nearing completion, we get an influx of estate agents with their stupid pennants fluttering outside their "marketing suites". Of course they had some bad news too: in March 2016, well before the EU referendum, demand for the sky-high-priced flats (aka safety deposit boxes in the sky) fell back and prices slumped by 20 per cent and more. Demand is said to have recovered a bit since then due to the weaker pound, but it's still far from the 2015 level.

And this week there's further damning news about this place, again reported in the Standard: the developers now want to cut the number of "affordable" flats from 636 to 389, just 9 per cent of the total. This is because their profit expectations have fallen and they need to prop them up - presumably to keep shareholders happy.

They say the other 250 affordable properties could still be built later on - depending on the future state of the market.

Meanwhile they are still using the fact they have rescued a crumbling national icon - Battersea Power Station - as justification for their greed. Well, they might have rebuilt the chimneys very nicely, but unfortunately the whole building is now walled in by such massive banks of apartment blocks that its impact on the surrounding urban environment is totally lost.

The building of high-rise residential towers has gained a painful new topicality since the Grenfell Tower  fire. Last week the people building and buying apartments in the new "luxury" developments were the target of an excoriating attack by novelist Will Self, on BBC Radio 4's A Point of View.

Self, who lives in the Stockwell area, was audibly trembling with rage throughout his 10-minute talk. But he never let the anger get the better of the precision of his speech. Architecture, he said, was unique among the arts in that it had a direct social impact - and thus a moral dimension.

He saved some of his most deliciously withering language for the Nine Elms development: "The very sight of these infantile-looking structures being doodled into being now turns my stomach" he said.

The majority of  these new residential towers, he said, were "as ugly as they are bad, enshrining as they do not the civic virtue of providing housing for people on low incomes, but the corporate vice of profit maximisation".

Well said, Will Self!


Friday, 12 May 2017

Taking a view on redevelopment....Battersea and Nine Elms, 2012 -2017


The first cranes appeared in 2012

There used to be a good view from the back of the small block of flats I live in.  It's in north Clapham, near the Wandsworth Road, and is on the last bit of the higher ground that forms Lavender Hill. So there's nothing but the Battersea marshes and the river between here and central Westminster.

But where once we had views of the old city, now what we see most of are the nasty little boxy blocks and towers scattered along the river, the increasingly baleful evidence of the Battersea - Nine Elms redevelopment. I've watched as the  four chimneys of Battersea Power Station came down, then went back up again. Now the huge building is being engulfed by equally huge blocks going up around it. The old gasholders have gone to be replaced by holders of billionaire owners' tax avoidance schemes.


Battersea Power Station from a fourth floor flat in Clapham: left, on July 6 2012; right, April 2017

Westminster and London Eye from Clapham; left, July 2012, right, April 2017
No point complaining of course...it's not as though we have a protected view. Not that even that status carries much weight in this world of vulture-gangster property developers. Look at the Richmond Park affair.

The funny thing is, I suppose, that all these new buildings are losing value as England commits its xenophobic hari kiri. Perhaps one day soon a penthouse apartment in Nine Elms will be as cheap as it looks.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Two films, two Brixtons, many gentrifications

Went to Ritzy to see A Moving Image, the new film about gentrification in Brixton. Emerged 75 minutes later without much new light on the topic and rather disappointed. Another, very different two-part film, coming at the same topic from a different angle, was far more evocative of at least two of Brixton's dispersed communities. This film, For What We Are About To Lose - was coincidentally the centrepiece of a small exhibition in Brixton Library, next door to the Ritzy.

Talk about keeping it local!

A Moving Image started with a strangely low-key sequence of a young woman emerging from Brixton Tube station into the street with a smart wheelie suitcase. The underground arrival in Brixton is surely one of the great full-on London experiences, but it seemed underwhelming here. Maybe deliberately, as this young woman was supposed to be returning to Brixton after a few years out east in the artistic community of Shoreditch. Maybe Brixton seemed rather unthrilling to her, what with her memories of an even livelier high street of the early 2000s.

 If so it underlined not only the problem of gentrification, but also  the whole concept of the movie, which was constantly struggling against itself.

On her return to her home patch, this young mixed-race woman, Nina,  played by Tanya Fear, stays in an enormous and ridiculously fashionable loft apartment owned by a friend of a friend. She explores the area, wandering the streets with her top-end digital SLR, filming what she sees.

She has debates with her equally smart girlfriend who agrees to help with her "project". At first she doesn't know what she wants the project to be but when she gets mixed up in a Reclaim Brixton demo she decides that's her subject - gentrification. Not a documentary, mind you, but an art piece, a piece of art.

One great moment in the film only works if you see the film in this cinema: during the demo we see the Ritzy strikers calling for boycott of the Picturehouse group cinemas until they're all paid the living wage. It was one of the few moments in the film that triggered some cheering in the audience.

It takes a while to dawn on Nina that she is part of the gentrification, even though her friends keep telling her, and interviewees make it clear. It's as clear as day to the audience, because the dear girl is wearing a totally different designer outfit in every take, and speaks the lingo of the casually moneyed hipsterish young.

She befriends a young black guy who is meant to be part of the community but he's also an "artist" and the art and music he makes is a truly terrible. The villain of the piece is a young and very successful white actor who falls for the girl and has bought a flat in formerly-squatted Rushcroft Road - you know the buildings - as a "good investment". He's a villain, sure, but he's also, as we learn later on,  a working class lad from Bermondsey made good, whose own family have been driven away from their old neighbourhood. One of the admirable things about this film is that it shows just how complicated this gentrifcation busines is.

In the course of making her art, Nina interviews a few people, and these are the highlights of the film; the bloke from Peckham is especially entertaining. The black members of a local community group are suspicious of her motives and one of their members cruelly tells her that her project "doesn't mean shit".

By the end of the film you can't help but agree with him. It was really much more about Nina's internal struggles with depression (rather clumsily revealed by the discovery of a strip of anti-depressants) and her romantic life.  Maybe it was me, but  the scene where she makes the white boy actor dance with her was very odd: were we supposed to be entertained or what?

The other main character in the film is Big Ben, a mysterious, homeless black busker and ranter who acts as a sort of conscience of the movie. She films him a lot, and perhaps he should be the real subject of her movie. But as soon as she realises this he dies. There's a nice scene where she dreams he's in her flat and sitting on her bed, and then he disappears in a ball of blinding light.

 So, perhaps that's it: the revelation that the true soul of Brixton has already departed.

The interviews with anti-gentrification people from New York and Berlin popped into the film were intriguing; it's only when you go to the community bit of this film's website you realise these videos are part of a bigger project to collect voices from threatened communities around the world.

In other words, the director of A Moving Image, Shola Amoo, is trying to do exactly what Nina is doing: he is Nina, and suddenly it all sort of makes sense.

All in all, a film's a curate's egg; it's intriguing and ambitious, but also annoying, and it seems that some opportunities are wasted. But, if you've never visited Brixton you at least get some moody rooftop views; but not enough, even of this, for my liking.

Still, you have to commend the director for attempting such a complex project, and the film has had plenty of good reviews in the media, so please don't take my criticisms too seriously ( I know that won't happen!)

The other film, For What We Are About To Lose, is a very well-crafted example of the traditional documentary style, with many interviews intercut with archive photos and some lovely footage of Brixton in the 50, 60s, 70s and 80s.

It was made by the Clapham Film Unit, and is in two parts. The first 20 minutes covers the history of the Carlton Mansions squat from the 70s to the final evictions of 2014; the second half looks at Somerleyton Road community. Together the short films are a precious record of what was once the true heart of Brixton, that little bit where Coldharbour Lane crosses Railton and Atlantic Roads, which is now undergoing transformation as part of the Somerleyton Road redevelopment scheme.

You might say that the Carlton Mansions film is only representative of a small fraction of the old Brixton community, the squatters, and that would be true. "Maybe we were all misfits," says one of the  first occupants.  Former squatters are interviewed inside the astonishing and huge buildings where they made their homes and workshops and studios. There were poignant moments, and also painful memories.

One of the original squatters, Dale, reveals how they were actually invited into the building by Lambeth Council, which at the time ran progressive short-life housing schemes, helping people set up housing co-ops and handing out grants to make the places habitable. Dale also worked with Brian Barnes on the famous Nuclear Dawn mural on the huge side wall of the mansions - a mural which is still there but rapidly disappearing under new graffiti.

 Another guy talked about how they had to secure and guard their squat because Brixton was such a "difficult place" in the 80s. It was not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There were hard times, hard winters, fights, a suicide, rows. But also a lot of creativity, and we hear from several successful artists and makers who got their first big break in the Mansions.

The Somerleyton Road part of the doc is only 10 minutes or so but an utterly joyous film. Some former residents are brought together in a community centre on Railton Road, and they talk about their lives back in Somerleyton Road back in the 60s and 70s - even before the Barrier Block went up.

There are some wonderful memories of blues parties, some fantastic old footage of Brixton market, and even an impromptu performance of by former members of a lover's rock group, who reminisce about the excitement of seeing Jamaican DJ Peter Metro at a Somerleyton blues before letting on they were part of a group of  five women who took over the stage from him...."we were not deejays but sing-jays, we took a broadway melody and we ride the rhythm...."

One woman at the end sums up the process which is sometimes referred to as social cleansing: "It seems like a plot. They sell your house, move you into a block of flats. Why are we knocking wonderful buildings down to build atrocious things like that?  To me it was like a con. That was the beginning of the change."

You must watch these films! Catch them on the Clapham Film unit website now; there's also a very good, well illustrated free booklet about the films; copies were available in Brixton library, last time I was there.