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Archive for March, 2008

   Morale at MCS didn’t seem that great. On my last day, maybe a half-dozen people told me how lucky I was to only be there for a week.

   Certainly in the post room they weren’t happy. They were mostly older folks, Londoners with that cheerful London thing of enjoying a good joke, appreciating little courtesies. The second week one of the Londoners was replaced by Hank, a hangdog American, originally from Brooklyn, who’d been living in London off and on since the 70’s. He wasn’t particularly friendly at first – he had that laconic NY thing but e warmed up quite a bit after I’d done the post room a few favours.

   He said he’d lived in Gramercy Park and drank at Pete’s Tavern on 18th – he seemed like a Pete’s Tavern kind of guy. He’d lived in the area in the 60’s, when the area must have been prime real estate – the beautiful Manhattan before the 70’s crash. Until recently, he’d stayed at the Gramercy Park Hotel, across the street from 1 Lexington where I had my first job in New York. “All the models used to stay there. But they renovated a couple of years ago and now I couldn’t afford it.”

   I never found out what his deal was, or why he worked the postroom at the Cancer Support. I don’t think he or any of the others were volunteers – they complained about the way they were treated and seemed to want to get out each morning as fast as they could. Maybe they were retirees. Hank mentioned being sent to London by his company, who had a branch plant here.

   Then there was Gerald, the guy from Zimbabwe. At first he kind of irritated me since I often had to repeat myself telling him things and yet he’d get defensive when I DID tell him things and I generally like to work alone anyway. He WAS a volunteer, and came in twice a week to help out. He’d only left Zimbabwe the year before. His daughter worked in the building – I guess that’s why he volunteered.

  He seemed sad, a little lost, caught up in his nostalgia for Rhodesia. Twice, he showed me his tennis booklet, from his Rhodesian Tennis Club in 1969, showing me all the people he knew. Of course they were all white, with bright, ruddy faces and sharp white tennis clothes. He said he used to be a manager of a sugar firm, and I had the sense that white people in Rhodesia had been able shift into pretty much any job they’d wanted and it was hard not to feel just a bit of ‘well, you’re getting yours now,’ at first.

   Then he told me that for awhile he’d thought he had Alzhiemer’s because his memory was going, that his doctor had confirmed it until a specialist in Alzheimer’s said no, he was fine in every other respect, he was just having memory loss. He explained that he’d gone to the aid of one of his employees at the sugar firm who was being attacked by some of Mugabe’s henchmen, and the henchmen had turned on him and beaten him unconscious and he’d had short-term memory loss ever since. “I don’t think I could go back to the positions I was in before. I don’t think I could manage it – I forget things too easily now. But it’s funny, once I remember something, it’s in there.”

   I understood him a little better after that. Ian Smith had just died that week and he said he’d thought Smith had he’d never liked the way things were gone. He’d stayed on all those years, not just after independence, but after things started going very badly later on. He’d lost not just Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, but a part of himself as well. He and his wife left Zimbabwe not long after his injury, so whatever physical damage he’d suffered had been compounded by leaving the country where he’d lived all his life, by leaving so much of himself behind and coming to London.

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   Went by the Imperial War Museum this morning. All those years in the Elephant and I didn’t even realize that it was there until recently –  a ten minute walk from the Pink Elephant shopping centre.

   Big main hall with a Spitfire and a Meschershmitt fighter hanging from the ceiling. Tanks, APV’s lined up in rows on the ground floor. Cutout of a Lancaster, a Halifax, a Japanese Zero. Kids running through the cut-out of the Lancaster, pointing at the tanks, peering at the photographs.

    Amazing how small these spaces inside the bombers are, how bizarre it must have been to be cooped up in those spaces for hours at a time, the flak going off all around, (and at night, flying in formation, one of the biggest risks I heard wasn’t even flak, but the possibility of flying into other bombers – their wings came so close and the bombers were so unwieldy, they often slammed into each other then dived towards the ground). A squadron of those same Meschershmitts coming in for your gunner or your pilot. Dropping your payload, then heading back for the long, dangerous journey home.

   Going through that same routine night after night.

   A lot of Canadians crewed the Lancastars. They might have even been the majority. I met an old guy in Toronto once who’d been a tail gunner. Since tail gunners were killed at an amazing rate (How the fuck did they decided who was going to be tail gunner? Was it just your lot?), he was lucky to be alive. I was sent down by the company I worked for to paint his house. He and his wife had an unremarkable condo by the lakefront with beige-brown walls and heavy, typically Toronto middle-class furniture – tacky browns, tans, the couch covered in plastic.

    He seemed a bit simple and his wife kept upbraiding him for forgetting things. Not in a mean way, but she was obviously tired of saying the same things over and over. She even took me aside to say, “Pay him no mind. He’ll forget your name as soon as you tell him. It’s just the way he is now . . .”

   Upstairs, I was fucking around with the thermostat, pissed because the cover wouldn’t come off and irritated with the old guy for hanging around staring at me blankly. I swore:

   “Ah fuck!”

   “Calm down there, young fella,” the old guy said, coming into focus for a moment. Afraid that I’d offended him, I pointed at the framed picture of a Lancaster on his wall.

   “I used to build those as a kid.”

   “Oh yeah?” He said, obviously pleased that I knew what a Lancaster was. “I used to fly in ‘em! In World War II, over Germany! Used to be a tail gunner!”

   “You flew in a Lancaster and here I was making a big deal out of the thermostat.” I said, ashamed now for losing control in front of him. We both laughed at this. Later on, his wife backed him up. “Oh yes, he flew in one of the bombers. He still sees some of his flying buddies down at the Legion.”

   After the airplanes, I stopped in at the Holocaust Museum. No kids in there. Funny, you think you’ve heard all about the Holocaust, that it’s become part of the background noise of our culture you hear about it so much, then you see it all laid out again – complete with a scale replica of Auschwitz with the ‘goods’ yard, the factory-like sleeping quarters and the gas chambers at the far end so prisoners had to march in a long queue past the tracks and into an underground hovel (flowers and trees in front of the chamber compound so the prisoners wouldn’t suspect what was really there) which led to the gas chambers.

   Then TV footage – news clips of a ranting Hitler, with his grating Austrian accent. Goebels, his skin wrapped tightly over his skull like a mummy. Clips of British soldiers in I guess Dachau. The ordinary soldier’s horror at discovering what had happened in the camps. I was almost in tears and in fact had to struggle to control my emotions throughout. It is still that inconceivable that this happened, in a culture not so far from ours, in a generation so close to our own.

   My only quibble: the 1.5 ‘non-Jewish’ Poles killed by the Nazis are mentioned as an afterthought. Were they somehow less important? Was their murder any less a crime? And, since the Nazi plan to was to begin by exterminating the Jews then move on to the Slavs, Poles, Ukranians and so on region by region, in the greatest killing machine ever known – were their deaths any less symbolic?

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   Went early to the East Street market this morning, part of which winds through the shadow of the mighty Aylesbury Estate, twenty minutes brisk walk down Walworth into the heart of South-East London. I started going when I lived in the Elephant in the 80’s then went back every time I lived in London after that. I remembered it as winding on forever– a ramshackle English market of cockles and jellied eels, pig’s feet, great mountains of produce, charged with the smell of roasted chestnuts and fresh fish, the hoarse cries of the fruit and veg sellers – all of it exploding beneath the harsh gaze of the massive Aylesbury Estate.

    Either the market has diminished or it has expanded in my memory with time, because it isn’t much really – mostly a lot of produce, and cheap clothes that only an English housewife could love. Tools, locks, watch straps. A single seafood stall with fresh crab, cockles, eels.

   An old guy setting up his breakfast stall – smell of frying sausages, bacon, greases – next to a West Indian woman.

   She says, “I hate working next to you!”

   He replies: “Don’t go to work then. Go on home.”

   She hissed at him and went back to setting up her own stall. When I came back, a big white woman, presumably the man’s wife, was frying up the meat and the black woman was leaning on her wooden display table, putting up those horrible jeans with the sparkly silver inlays.

   It wasn’t so much the variety that caught my attention back in the day, but more the atmosphere. The ‘cheap and cheerful’ Cockney thing – the sense of going back to a working class England of housing estates, street markets, smoke-filled pubs with cheap booze; squats, fry-ups on hungover mornings; drunken football hooligans careening down the streets.

   How to describe the market?

   A big iron sign greets the visitor on Walworth Road (and isn’t Walworth Road itself so evocative? Winding down from that grey sphinx atop the Elephant and Castle shopping centre into the familiar London jumble of cheap diners, old brick buildings, kebab shops, and those old pubs which always seem so charming from the outside with their brick fronts and ornate windowframes, the hanging wooden sign over the swinging doors – but are often depressing, even dangerous outposts of drunks, druggies or outright psychopaths.

   The old ladies with their little shopping carts on wheels, moving inexorably to the market from all sides of the street.

   The market winds along a typical street of brick buildings. Stores on the ground floor, flats or store-rooms or offices of some sort up above. The street winds around a bit before joining the edge of the Ayelsbury, which appears from behind the brick in the relatively benign form of concrete gangways and low-rises – two up, two down – with the little yards or balconies out back, these ugly stucco plates and the metal-framed windows like in the Heygate that swing out all in one like windows in a factory, before the massive bulk of Tuplow House rises up out of nowhere.

   The street is almost picturesque, with big trees on either side, and leaves still on the branches and covering the sidewalk and the gutters. The stalls are mostly covered in these ugly coloured plastic material like you find on cheap shopping bags, but the produce – oranges, plums, avacados, carrots and so on – is colourful, particularly with the electric lights shining from the stalls. Even at nine am, when many stalls are still setting up, the vendors are already started broadcasting, “three pound a pound’, ‘top quality merchandise’ into the frigid morning air.

   Stacks of cow’s feet in front of the butchers. The vendors chatting with each other, their regular customers. . . .

   I stood at the end of the market and looked up at leaves blowing across the pavement, the edge of the Aylesbury Estate looming up behind the stalls in a mass of grey windows and grey concrete gangways, grey stucco panels – and felt at home the way I used to in London back in the day. Remembering the feeling of being hungover and glad to be out in the fresh air, merging with the thickening crowds of an English market on a weekend morning . . . street . . . gutters full of yellow leaves, the air cold against the face . . . wine- dark stone of some old warehouse on the corner . . . shopping for produce, for stuff to kit out some squat before going to the pub to be part of the early afternoon crowd, the air thick with cigarette smoke, football on the TV in the corner.

   Sitting or standing by the high windows, watching the whole street come and go . . . riding some dim memory of being a little kid and visiting my grandparents and feeling at home with the low grey sky, the old wine-dark buildings, a colourful English market winding down a city centre street.

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   Sunday morning. Ten am.

   Two men walking below the back of the train station. Sparse beards, green army jackets. Look more Slavic than English. Very drunk – one guy staggering ahead, the other following holding his camera phone backwards in front of him as he walks, looking into it very carefully through narrowed eyes as he films himself lurching down the deserted Sunday morning street behind an elevated train station.   

   I wonder if he’ll put it on Youtube?

   The flatmate, who would know since he was living on the Aylesbury at the time, said the original raver clubs used to be in the tunnels built into the side of the elevated, now occupied by a furniture store, a Latino music shop/ café.

   “It was more acid back then – acid and sulphate. Dexy’s. E hadn’t really hit the market yet.”

   Funny, when Marie and I lived down on the Elephant, right around that time, we didn’t even know about these places. For us, the Elephant nightlife was confined to the pubs around the old brick estates north of the New Kent Road, the Coronet Theatre (where we saw some low budget spoof spy thriller starring Lemmy as himself masquerading as a secret agent – I think ‘Orgasmatron’ was the soundtrack), and the kebab place next to the mall with the white tiles and the fluorescent lights which made it look like a giant urinal. We usually went there after the pubs closed. The Turkish or Arab owners were friendly enough, especially to drunk young Canadians like us.

   In the early 90’s, when I was back in the Elephant again, the clubs were already moving in. Ministry of Sound set up shop around this period. I missed the whole rave thing because I didn’t like E –  I’d done enough hallucinogens as a teenager to do me for feeling shiny and happy for the rest of my life.

   Now the clubs seem to be in the tunnels below London Bridge. I walked up there one morning without knowing where I was going, strolling through the old Victorian Estates in Burrough. You walk in this dark tunnel with the trash in the gutters, water dripping down the decrepit brick walls and suddenly you see dozens of club kids, tripping, drunk, coming out of the clubs sequestered in the tunnel walls, dressed in stripy shirts, scarfs, sunglasses – or, even more incredibly, sitting despondently in a line on the tunnel floor, waiting to get into a club entrance guarded by some giant bouncer. Walk out of the tunnel and you are on the south bank with the ‘Blitz’ museum and the families with kids strolling along the Embankment to Tower Bridge.

   Even the Elephant roundabout has been transformed. Back in the day, the tunnels below the roundabout were dark, and pretty much taken over by the drunks even in the daytime, the Alexander Fleming building dark and empty after office hours. When I passed through this spring, I was surprised to find not just the streets but even the tunnels full of people – Africans and Latinos going to the bars and restaurants which now surround the roundabout, trendy Asians and Euros and English off bus or tube, stopping for a drink or some food before heading to the clubs. Despite the ever-present traffic noise, it was a good place to stop for a drink or even sit on a terrace for a few moments before catching the bus or train

home  . . .

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   MacMillan Cancer Support is a 15-story building across the Thames from the Tate Britain and next to M16. On the 14th floor, where I was based, I could see right into their windows, and the patio on the roof with the little tables. ‘Spying on the spies’ I said to the guy who was showing me around. Comic Relief, which does regular fundraisers for MacMillan Cancer Support starring Lenny Henry and other big shots, as well as other linked organizations, have their offices in the building, as do a couple of non-related companies –but mostly it is MCS.

   As far as I could tell, a good part of the MCS operation was about fund-raising. Events, marketing, direct marketing. The post room was the prison laundry of these kinds of places, where everything pass through on it’s way in or out. A good deal of incoming mail involves cheques and pledges – CS provides grants to cancer sufferers who can’t pay their rent, etc. Yet so much revenue must go into paying rent, paying for staff, for the reams of promotional material.

   The fundraising team take up half a floor and seem completely cut off from the rest of the organization. They seemed a racier, more flamboyant, perhaps even self-conciously bohemian bunch. A group of them got in the lift when I was going for lunch one day, gathered around a black guy with an Afro and a ‘Jesus Loves Me’ belt in the lift who mused the whole way down on the best place in the area to go for salad. I watched the whole scene through the window. All these guys walking around with the hands free, making big gestures as they tried to suck money out of some sponsor. This must be the infamous boiler room  – it would be the same scene for an NGO, or a pyramid scheme or a hedge fund. Much more aggressive, much more clubby than the people on the upper floors – you had the sense they drank together after work. One morning they had a big pep rally, with some guy pointing at a chart and naming people on the team who I guess had made the best sales and everyone clapping enthusiastically like they really believed in what they were doing.

   The other floors were all open-plan with waist high dividers so you could see the person in the next seat, even when you aren’t sitting down. I wasn’t at the desk much, but I’m sure it would be a little unbearable after awhile – the phones going off, everyone talking around you. Staring at the computer for hours on end. I spent all my time running between floors – I must have spent a good hour of the day in the lift – so I didn’t see much of that side. One temp, an Indian girl they sat right next to the post room, has the most boring job I could imagine, sitting at that desk, updating spreadsheets, typing up letters, looking so bored sometimes that I felt for her. When the 11th floor had a speech and a party of some sort, she wasn’t included except for the speech and then she had to go back to her desk, put on her Ipod, and go back to her spreadsheets.

   A lot of people seem to spend most of their time on Facebook – how much is everything from facebook to chat rooms to blogs to ‘have your say’ add-ons to newspaper articles, are designed for office culture.

   Every floor had its’ kitchen area but only the 13th had a lunch room, complete with microwave and tables and chairs. People were quite free about making breakfast in the morning to have at their desks – at lunch they microwave their food and had it in the lunchroom or at their desks. A sort of nauseating, lazy habit – you’d think they’d seize any chance for fresh air, for natural light, especially this time of year.

   At lunch, after checking email, I went to the park to look at the animals. They have a ‘little farm’ at the bottom of the park where the horses run free in a pen and horses, pigs, roosters, goats, ferrets, ducks, bunnies and a couple of lemur type creatures, are kept in small pens behind the park and you can walk between the pens and look at the animals looking back with mute animal eyes. At first they just looked stupid, chewing cud and staring pointlessly off into the distance but then the keeper explained that the cow cares for the younger goat, protecting it and showing it affection by stroking it with it’s big bovine tongue, and the goats and the cows respond to affection, have tugs of wars with the keepers and even respond to their names.

   And sure enough I watched the goats nudge and pester one of the volunteer kids, chewing at his sweater, sniffing around for his sandwich, and putting their noses up to be rubbed, while the cow rubbed it’s big head up and down the little goat’s back. The kids who worked there all seemed to be misfits in some way. Two teenage boys who were studying farming and wanted to start a farm because they ‘loved animals’ – I didn’t have the heart to say that farming is a tough haul, and that they’d have to kill their animals to survive. One kid had two wide eyes and buck teeth, but he was a friendly kid with funny anecdotes about the animals and every time I went down he’d say “alright then?” Watching the animals, I understood how a kid, especially a kid who had a hard time fitting into the normal school world, could find solace, even peace, in this animal world – as I probably did for a time as a boy. The animal world does seem gentle from a distance – after all, the animals in the little farm have their basic needs – food, reproduction and safety from predators – taken care of and have no need to be aggressive.

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261557753_feaba10d3f1.jpg    Had to go to work in Mayfair yesterday. Left the Elephant at five am for a six am start. No tubes, a twenty minute wait for the bus in the cold English dark. The busses were packed. Not quite standing room only, but close. All Latins or Africans, on their way to cleaning jobs in Victoria, Mayfair, Belgravia. These people make up a significant proportion of the Elephant’s population now . . . 

   The afternoon before, I watched as four men (maybe one was a woman) roamed up and down the terraces of the big estate on Heygate Road. Dark-haired, dark-skinned – Latinos probably. One guy leaning over the balcony keeping watch, the others checking behind the metal grating covering the windows, looking for a way in. Edging up and down those long terraces like characters in a video arcade, visible to everyone on the estate. 

    They left, hurrying down the stairs and back into the street, so I gues they didn’t find anything.

   The Latin thing here was totally unexpected. When I first walked into the Charlie Chaplin pub in the mall, I thought for a minute I was back in the States because of all the short, Mexican-looking guys hanging around the pool table talking Spanish. On the upper level of the mall are two Colombian cafes and a Colombian (??) restaurant serving great empanadas and Spanish coffee. I wonder why they chose the Elephant of all places?

   I mentioned the four would-be squatters I’d seen to my flatmate. “Squatting’s coming back now,” he said. “The migrant population is saturated – all the jobs are taken, all the places to live are full. So these people roam the estates looking for a place to put a roof over their heads.”

   He said squatting really took off in England after WWII. “All the soldiers came back from the war and found the government didn’t give a toss about them. They saw all these empty properties, they needed a roof over their heads, so they took what they could get . . .”

   He also said the Walworth triangle, from the Elephant down to Burgess Park and I guess to the bottom of the Old Kent Road, is the most densely populated area in Europe. “Think about it – it’s nothing but estates. Everyone wants to improve it, but where are you going to put all these people?

   “So many people who come to London from somewhere else – it could be Europe or South America or the North somewhere – and are basically skint – end up in these estates in south London – especially the Elephant. Where else can you go? This is the starting point for so many people who come to London. Everything comes through here – the Old Kent is the A2, which runs from Dover to London – that’s why you have all these coaches coming through reading ‘Polski’ or whatever. And everyone here has a story to tell.”

   It’s true; the Elephant, especially now when so much of it is to be torn down and rebuilt, feels like a clearing house, a way station between one point and another. Living on this estate feels, quite literally, like living on a platform looking out on the rest of London. Even late at night it buzzes with motion as traffic hums through the four or five major arteries that feed from the south into the roundabout – a constant hum of decelerating diesel engines, clattering trains, car horns, incoming jets, the general whoosh of traffic. (Yet, in the fall at least, in-between the traffic you can hear the rustle of the leaves across the concrete, the whispering of the wind through the tree branches.)

    From here you can walk to Waterloo, Wesminster, the Tate Modern – right over the Millenium Bridge and into the City – and all in less than an hour. By train it is fifteen, twenty minutes. You really are on the edge of the city centre here.  

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   My flatmate told me about an old lady who’d lived down at the end of the terrace. She had osteoperosis and was bent over and stood barely four and a half feet. She and her husband had lived down near the docks (in Rotherhithe?) when the big ships would come in and be pulled up right onto the shore so they would wake up and find some huge freighter parked not fifty yards from their front door. Once, when a timber freighter came in, they woke up and found the logs stacked in huge squares fifty, a hundred feet high – the longshoreman had been unloading all night and they hadn’t even heard them! She was one of many residents who remembered the area before the estates were built “And look at the state it’s in now . . . “

     ‘She went away to see a relative and some little toe-rag kicked in her door and knicked all her valuables. She came back and found her flat all smashed up, and she was quite the same after that. I think it broke her spirit – she went away not long after that, into an old people’s home near where her son lives. She used to ring up and have me over for tea and tell me all these funny stories but I don’t see her anymore. You get plenty of robbers and thieves crawling around here . . . they mostly go after old ladies and the weak . . . “  

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