About Me

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

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.










Friday, 28 April 2017

The new Nine Elms: even uglier than expected

Let's hope that when the new Wandsworth Road tube station is built in the the foreground of this pic it will block out the view of that ugly bunch of apartment buildings behind. 

Some of that cluster of hefty buildings around the old Sainsbury's site at the eastern end of the Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall development are nearing completion - and God help us, what a terrible blot on the landscape they are.

Take one look at these pictures, that's all you will be able to stand. The shapes and colours are just so dull, the positioning of each building in relation to its neighbours seems wrong. Imagine the poor buggers who are spending their life savings on an apartment on the 9th floor of one of these dingy erections (OK - no normal people have such life savings, only City rooks and crooks and speculators and you won't feel sorry for them).

You couldn't even call them towers; they are neither high-rise nor low rise. They are hunched, bad tempered, and they lean awkwardly towards each other, like a badly-posed group photo of people who loathe each other.

It has to be said they are wilfully ugly. In an age when computers allow architects to design buildings of almost any shape, and materials can be supplied in almost every colour, how on earth did they think these shapes and colours would do for this location? The facings are dark grey, tan, off-white and a sickly yellow. The tan is particularly horrible - the colour of the last shoes on the rack in a Clark's sale when everything else has gone.

One  thing is clear - there's not going to be any shortage of contenders for the 2017 Carbuncle of the Year awards, many with an SW8 post code.

Which is a shame, because I have been longing to be proved wrong on this development. It surely will all be wonderful when finished.

A singularly depressing bunch of buildings hits your eyeballs
as you head west down the Wandsworth Road and see this
new Barratt Homes development nextto the new Sainsburys.
The new Sainsburys has been open for a while. I went there, as I used to quite like the "old" 1980s Sainsburys at Nine Elms that attracted customers from an astonishingly wide hinterland, south east down to Camberwell, locals in Vauxhall and Stockwell, and most of Clapham, Battersea and beyond before "local" supermarkets popped up every few yards.

The new one - oh, I am sorry to have to say this - is underwhelming. For a start , it is all up two steep flights of stairs. When you enter that shiny gold and orange building, you walk into a bland car-park foyer with those annoyingly slow travelators going up and down. Who, in 2017, builds a supermarket designed chiefly with motorists in mind in such a central location?

The shop itself occupies the normal large space, which could just as well be used for offices, storage, a call centre...a mass dormitory....a rave venue; and who knows, if it last long enough it might see  all these uses.

It shares the floor with a couple of not convincing concessions. One is called Habitat but  it's hard to see much connection with the original yuppies' favourite furniture store in their offerings; not much sign of the Conran dedication to good, useful design is visible.

What a shame. No-one expects to love a supermarket, but there was a time when people admitted to some affection for the old Sainsburys, where you would keep bumping into people you knew. These days the store seems to be just an adjunct to the property developers; indeed, with all its inner city Local stores, it seems Sainsburys is a bit of a player int this field itself.



Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The day Theresa May stole Clapham's big radio moment

Clapham High Street - here and now, but not on the BBC Radio London Robert Elms show last week thanks to Mrs May's election announcement...but where, oh where, was the wonderful Maxwell Hutchinson?
Was listening to Radio London Tuesday morning.

As, to be honest, I often do....working at home, you know, self-employed teacher....freelance writer and editor...you know, well I will get back to jobseeking when I've had one more coffee. And listened to the wonderful and Reverend Professor Maxwell Hutchinson on the Robert Elms radio show on BBC Radio London - a local radio station that is often more interesting and intelligent than many of the national channels.

That man - the very Rev Prof Max - is quite a wonder. He's a great entertainer and educator on his many and various special subjects - architecture and the built environment, music, the Church and all manner of ecclesiastical matters....and much more. I think he is a world authority on Frankincense. And myrhh.

He's been doing this for ages, alongside running a successful architectural practice and being president of the RIBA, as well as a lay deacon. A couple of years back he had a bad, serious stroke. He was off air for months. But Mr Elms and his very loyal, very solid band of listeners, kept the idea of Max alive. By his own account, Mr Elms and his many listeners helped to keep Max alive. And Max came back and again turns up on the show every week, often on location as a sort of Kolly Kibber character - find Max in your Manor!

This week, the Rev Professor was supposed to be in my manor. I did not know this til 10am Tuesday when I tuned in my dodgy transistor to 94.9fm.

Poor old Robert Elms was having to deal with people from Clapham; he could hardly conceal his distaste for the place. He cheered up when someone pointed out Clapham Junction was in Battersea and it was only through snobbery they changed the name to Clapham.
A crescent moon over the bell-tower of Clapham's Holy Trinity
church: maybe Maxwell Hutchinson was somewhere around
this historic building, marooned like a ship on Clapham
Common.

You could sort of tell from the way he enunciated "Clapham" (and even slipped in a naughty "Cla'am" which was bound to annoy some SW4 listeners) that he did not have his usual enthusiasm for this Manor: too posh by 'alf, too silly, was what he  perhaps was half-secretly thinking. ALso it has the disadvatage of being south of the river, and just south of Chelsea.

I sort of agree with Mr Elms ...but I also agree with the caller who said Clapham had always been up-and-coming. But it never actually arrived. Which is (in my view) its saving grace. The High Street is still pleasingly scruffy. It's quite a horrible place but it is also mixed enough to remind you that the Henrys and Banker-wankers and so on are only the most recent and actually quite thin layer of this suburb's social geology.

There is still enough social housing in Clapham to ensure that the Henry&Henrietta brigade never completely colonise. Nor any other group of transients, my own lot of of 80s chancers included.

Then Mr Elms was talking to some chap who represented Clapham Common, a preservation society. He was in fact in Spain as he spoke. He did a so-so job, hardly exciting much interest in the long and outrageous history of this odd open space. Instead he kept telling us there were lots of fun runs. 'Fun run' is surely oxymoronic. He mentioned also 'Australian rules' football and dog-walkers. Yes, alas he was right - that is now what the Common is about. Sport, fitness, dogs and their owners. And in summer, young people eating huge picnics and drinking lots of champagne or prosecco from Sainsburys then leaving all the rubbish on the grass afterwards.

What about the 1985 (?) AntiApartheid free concert? Dr John? Alternative Miss World? Sunsplash? Archaos? Desmond Dekker at the Bandstand? Remember that, do you? etc?

Look, you know I am  a big critic of what has happened around here, and I wouldn't trust myself to defend it now, to be honest, even though it has served me well over three decades - but when we're on a global radio show, we need to stick together, right?

Well, I was waiting with some trepidation to find out what would be said.

Or maybe he was here, Old Clapham Library on the North Side of the
Common. This building was eventually saved and became what is now
the Omnibus, a well-used arts centre which is currently showing
Jim Grover's excellent photos of Clapham High Street life,
low, high and higher.
I was waiting for the chance to ring and tell Mr Elms about the Bread and Roses pub, almost the last place in Clapham I still feel very positive about. A trade union pub with music, free music, theatre and more! The Studio Voltaire contemporary art organisation also seems like a very good thing, deserving of much more praise than it gets. I'd have tried to mention that as well.

But I was also waiting for Jim Grover, the photographer of 48 hours on Clapham High Street, who was due to appear on the show to talk about his book and photo-exhibition at the Omnibus Arts centre.

And above all - I was waiting to find out where in Clapham the Rev Prof had chosen - and even more trepidation as to who he might meet. I began to fantasise. Maybe he will be outside the Holy Trinity Church on the Common - home of the Clapham Sect, one of the key places where the abolition of the slave trade gained momentum.

I think that would be the obvious place for Maxwell Hutchinson to set up shop - a church (albeit not that interesting, architecturally) - with some powerful history, and right by the popular paddling pool and temperance statue to boot.

Or maybe he was at the the new Library. Flashy noughties public-private rip-off architecture. No café any more!
This would have been a good place for the Prof Maxwell Hutchinson to hang out
with his Radio London crew: outside the new Clapham Library, half way down
 the High Street. Andrew Logan's mirrored artworks spelling out "Library"
are popular with all age groups and are arguably more interesting than
the building they stand in front of. 

Or perhaps in one of the leafy upper-crust streets or squares...or in Venn Street, a pleasant enough place. Or maybe he was at the Old Library, now the Omnibus Arts Centre - that would have made sense, especially as those High Street photos are on exhibition there right now.

So yes, I was waiting....and then Theresa May said she wanted a general election, and that was that! The rest of the show was devoted to political analysis and speculation, inevitably and properly, of course.

Ah well, maybe it was for the best.

Clapham is such an odd place now. I don't think it fits Robert Elm's idea of the sort of place real "one of us" Londoners live. Maybe it was once. It does not seem that sort of a place any more, even though, in reality, it of course is.

Clapham. Marginal but not edgy. Common, yes, very common. But not cheap, and certainly not very cheerful. Unless you have a city bonus to spend.

Why I write this stupid blog/ Why do I write this stupid blog?

Macaulay Road, Clapham, in autumn. Sometimes it is good just to celebrate the beauty of the place you live in.
It's always a joy to have some time - and the necessary drive - to write something for this blog.

What's wonderful about writing a blog named Microgroove 33 is that i can write about anything I bloody well like.

It doesn't have to be local, it doesn't have to be news, it doesn't have to be about music or art or people or linguistics or bicycles or Penguin Classics or charity shops or architecture  or even about London - although those are all things I'd love to be expert enough to write a blog on.

It doesn't even have to be about dogs.

Like I said, I have been looking back at the blog, and especially at dozens -  five dozen in fact -  of unpublished entries that are scattered around in the blogger editing and design area, like so many unfinished projects in a bike workshop.

I trip over them, frequently - especially two or three unpublished updates to the totally subjective south-west London charity shop survey for bibliophiles first published in 2013.

Ever since I have been promising myself to update and extend this series, and have even written new stuff, about the charity shops of Streatham, and Stroud Green, and Kilburn, for example (there are lots, and lots).

Recent visits to the Barnado's shop in Brixton confirm and re-confirm my feeling that this would be the number one shop if I were to update that silly top 10. It's solid on my staples - books and music and good old clothes - and it keeps throwing up interesting oddities. This week there's a whole glass case full of vintage cameras, and a whole shelf of cut-price bath products.

Not long ago it had a rack-full of over-size string vests - you know, the type some Rastas wore back in the 80s? But these were not just in the Rasta red green and gold, but in the colours of lots of other African flags. Reader I bought one - but no-one outside this blog will ever find out, and no-one will ever see me wearing it either!

So, there you go ....maybe one day I will complete some more of these beached, stranded stories.

Like the one on the strange increase in people getting caught short and crapping on the streets. Twice within 150 yards of where I am now sitting, in the past two months. I'm talking humans, not dogs. Young humans. I could continue but I will not.

Or the story on the mystic Xanadu of Dawson Heights.

Some of the articles are no more than a headline that  for some reason I liked at the time. In a long career as a mediocre journalist, I remember how every so often a sub would come up with a perfect headline for a story that did not exist, and we'd try to find that story and write it.

I also want to write about the beauty of the wisteria in three streets, and the beauty of Californian Lilac in another three; or maybe one just about the beauty of the residential streets of SW8 in spring.

I could write a hundred more posts on my curious work pattern, which takes me to Vauxhall, Bermondsey,  Camberwell, Dulwich, Forest Hill, New Cross and New Malden on a regular basis, sometimes in the evenings. And once to Stoke-on-Trent.

And to converted shops in Angell Town ...

I want to write about the writers I love, and about places I love; about bikes and bike shops.

But I'm sure I will soon be back to ranting about Range Rovers, posh types and luxury apartments.
It's so much easier to write when you're really stirred up with anger!



Monday, 10 April 2017

The first warm weekend of the year and look what happens

Why is the grass of Clapham Common so green, so lush? Maybe we don't want to know...
It's the first really warm weekend of the year, and as always, most of the population of this locality go a bit crazy.

By 4pm today, the temperature in this part of south London topped 24 degrees, and as if by some cosmic ordination, everyone of a certain age and social inclination left their homes - their stuffy shared flats or luxury apartments - and went and sat down on the green grass of  Clapham Common.

So many people went out, it looked like Brighton beach on an unexpectedly hot Bank Holiday.

Cycling past on way home , seeing all these happy souls basking in the long-forgotten warmth of London sunshine, it is so easy to be seduced - why not join them for a while, the grass looks so green.

Oh, ill-advised one. You weave your way through the little groups of people, you find your patch, you stretch out on the grass, you relax. And then it hits you - a faint but distinctly unpleasant smell, but more than a smell, it is a tang, something almost hormonal. It is also as though your skin is being touched by something bad.

You look around. Can't all these people smell this smell? Is it just me? Am I in fact the source of this pong?

Then it dawns on me: there has not been any rain for weeks. Not real, heavy rain. The last few days have been warm. But every day, hot or cold, every single day, thousands and thousands of dogs from all the houses in all the vast tracts of residential streets surrounding Clapham Common - yes, all those dogs are taken out, every morning, every afternoon, every evening, to relieve themselves on the
grass of the Common.

The solid waste from these dogs is usually removed from the Common in small plastic bags. Most of it. But the liquids - these are sprayed onto the grass and the earth, and they stay there. Including the wee of randy male dogs and on-heat bitches.

That's the smell we are all enjoying today!

The rich, doggy aroma of south west London's biggest free dog toilet.


Friday, 31 March 2017

It's not just Nine Elms - even Mecca is suffering at the hands of property developers

View from the Abraj al Bait tower while it was under construction, looking down into the sanctuary of
Mecca's Holy Mosque. Note the areas cleared for more construction in the background.
Photo: Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons
Unless you are a Muslim, your chances of visiting the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia are approximately zero. But a short film, shown at last week's BBC Arabic Film festival, reveals that even this most sacred of places is being ravaged by property developers - remarkably similar to the ones working their grim way along the south bank of the Thames.

What this film, Prayer for Mecca,  brings home so sharply is how rampant redevelopment - which has the full support of the government and presumably the religious authorities - has already wiped out parts of the medieval city, and in doing so has also destroyed a slice of communal memory. A recent Guardian article reports local anger at the way their neighbourhoods are being erased to make way for new roads and hotels.

Directed by Matteo Lonardi, the film follows the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater as he attempts to document the rapid change being inflicted on his city. This young man - clearly at some risk to himself - is photographing what he can of the old city, as well as the redevelopment.

Much of the film, like the city itself, is dominated by the gargantuan Abraj Al Bait hotel complex, a grouping of massive skyscrapers which loom over the most sacred part of the city, the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Mosque) and its courtyard where millions of pilgrims gather each year, to circle the Kaaba, the most holy cube-shaped shrine at its centre.

A famous ancient Ottoman fortress was demolished to make way for these new buildings, which contain shopping malls and office premises as well as ultra-luxurious hotel accomodation, car parks and even helipads.

The central tower, with its huge clockfaces and spire, looks a bit like a kitscher version of the already kitsch Big Ben, but for its height - at 601m about seven times as tall - and the crescent moon at the tip. The forest of cranes surrounding the central area is painfully reminiscent of the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside development.

Of course it's the massive increase in numbers of pilgrims which provides the main justification for this redevelopment, along with some tragic incidents when the old city's infrastructure could not cope with the crowds.

But it's the brashness and show-off style of these buildings that is upsetting for some locals, according to Ahmed, who notes that they seem entirely at odds with the spiritual nature of the place. Apparently there's even a Starbucks in there somewhere. The minarets of the great mosque are dwarfed, and the new sykscrapers throw deep shadows across the courtyard.

The area where he grew up - an old quarter, with a maze of narrow alleyways - has been bulldozed.

Makes you wonder what Canterbury might look like if they had 14 million pilgrim-visitors going there for the same week every year....