Archive for the ‘Squatting – London’ Category

Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

Since the Pink Elephant Shopping centre continues to be the number one hit on this blog (who knew?) I should provide a link to my other blog ‘live from the heygate’. I started this blog when I lived on the Heygate Estate from October, 2007 until April the following year. In part I wanted to record the experience of living on the estate and the Elephant in what I thought might be it’s last moments before being demolished. Since then, I have followed developments both from while living in adjacent neighborhoods, and now from New York. I try and keep up with the regeneration, how the tenants are faring, and any artistic projects taking place in or around the estate – with anything to do with the Elephant generally.

Posts specifically about the shopping centre:

Elephant Saved (one month ago)

The Mall (from March, 2008)

and Deja Vu All Over Again (today)

I also have many posts about the regeneration, the heygate estate, the Elephant and Castle area in general.

Include from Time Out: a fine post about the Elephant and Castle mall in 2006.

Also, for a bit of recent history: A great post from Micheal Collins from 2001 (The Likes of Us), about growing up on the Heygate Estate and the Elephant and Castle: “The Elephant’s Graveyard”

Escalators to Bingo Palace

Escalators to Bingo Palace

I’m interested in marginal areas in transition, and the Elephant is about as marginal and in transition as it gets. I have also lived in the Elephant, on a mostly transient basis, since 1987, when I first came back to the UK as an adult after growing up in Canada. I lived in a squat across the New Kent Road in one of the inter-war brick estates. Squatting was very common back then – the law supported it, and there were many empty flats across London. I’ve heard it’s making a comeback now, but I doubt it will ever reach the popularity it had in the 80’s, when basically any newcomer to London with any sense lived  in a squat.

The regeneration scheme, the largest construction project in all of Europe, is designed to completely remake the entire area, including the estate, the mall, and the roundabout, encompassing several city blocks, is falling further and further behind schedule. No deal has been signed with preferred bidder Lend Lease. In the latest statement, Councillor Nick Stanton of Southwark Council says he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that a deal will be reached with preferred bidder Lend-Lease by the end of 2009, but no deal his been reached.

People remain on the estate – including exactly one lease-holder living on the Kingshill Estate, a building which once held 800 or 900 people. One person in an empty building, the flats covered in thick iron slabs to keep out squatters.

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They just end up in the Guardian. 

Skins and Punks by Gavin Watson


Photo series by British photographer Gavin Watson of sins and punks in mid-80’s London. Watson knew many of his subjects, and this intimacy comes out in the photographs.

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permanent renovation

permenant renovation

Went to the Marlborough Arms up on Torrington Place (near Goodge street) yesterday. Bank holiday afternoon, hardly anyone around. Music burbling non-intrusively in the background. Might have been hanging out twenty years ago, back when the Arms was my local and I lived in a squat across the street.

Back in the day, we used the Arms so much we called it the living room. Our squat in the red-stone building across the street had no heat, and you could hang around the Arms all afternoon nursing a pint and reading the papers left around on the tables. They had big couches and you could lie back on, and even fall asleep if the bartender was feeling indulgent. The place hadn’t been renovated in years and the couches, chairs and even the couch had huge bald patches in them, as if they’d attacked by mange, but the decay was part of the attraction – like it was in so many places in London in those days.

It had a reputation as an old lefty icon, and I’d heard some of the people who went to lead liberation movements in Africa and Asia used to drink there – I guess they’d been students at the University of London. I never found out any names, or if this was even true, but I did meet an old Stalinist at the bar once. He was from Glasgow originally and had been hounded out of Scotland because of his activities with the party. I fancied myself an anarcho-syndicalist at the time, but I wore a hammer and sickle earring in one ear as a sort of joke and one night at the bar he pointed at it and started yelling at me: “That’s the symbol of the worker’s and peasant’s party . . . ”

Commie or not, he was a good old guy. He worked as an accountant and lived in a basement flat in the apartment house across the street, the twin to the one where we had our squat. He usually came in early in the evenings and stayed until closing, drinking at the bar and talking to whoever came along and playing the fruit machines. When I asked him what the Party thought of him playing fruit machines, he glanced at me wryly, “they don’t approve, I’m afraid.” Glasnost was still all over the news and he thought Gorbachev was ‘interesting’ and hoped he could rejuvenate Communism, but he could be testy about old Joe. He figured Sholzenytsin was a religious nut, his accounts of the Gulag not to be trusted . . . but he had to admit that Stalin had done ‘questionable things’ that perhaps he’d even betrayed the Revolution.
They ended up renovating the pub, getting rid of the old couches, putting in new carpet, and clearing out the old men. I can’t remember how it happened but my communist friend ended up getting in a fight with one of the barmen and was thrown out. I think he even tried to attack the guy across the bar – he was a tough old bastard. I didn’t see him until a few weeks later. He was leaving his flat. I was across the street and he called out: “Hello, my young anarcho-syndicalist friend!” as cheery as ever.


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   The flatmate showed me pictures of the Aylesbury. He lived there for five years, back in the 80’s. He said his flatmates would take sulphate all weekend, starting on Thursday night and continuing through until Monday, dropping acid when they were at the absolute low from taking sulphate. “They said it was better then, you felt the effect more. One of my mates ended up going into therapy and counseling for four years after one acid binge too many – he just didn’t come back.”

    He showed me a picture of the guy in question, taken on a beach when they went on a trip to Israel. Good-looking guy with a sort of New Wave 80’s look with the shades, the brushed up blonde hair and the chain around one of his boots. Like a fan of Human League or Duran Duran or any of those 80’s bands.

   The Aylesbury is full up now. No room for any overflow from the Heygate or anywhere else. Yet it’s still heavy. Just before Christmas a dozen or so kids set upon some poor pizza delivery man, beat him, robbed him. And stabbed him in the neck.

   He told me that the ramps which inter-connect the Heygate used to run right through all the estates, right down to Burgess Park, a distance of about a mile. “You could go right from the shopping mall to the Park without once touching the ground. The police made them blow up the ramps between the estates. The kids would commit some crime then have a couple of miles of gangways to escape into one of hundreds of flats. The police couldn’t catch anyone.”

   He lived in a squat on the Aylesbury for five years. The working class tenants had been suspicious of him and his mates at first, “but they calmed down a bit when they saw we weren’t some thieving junkies. Me mate – – – had a posh sort of accent – he was public school – and I moved around so much when I was a kid I didn’t have any accent at all. They were more like ‘don’t make too much noise breaking in,” after that. But one night six big geezers came round, thinking we’d knicked something from one of the flats. They didn’t know it was us, but we were squatters and to some of the tenants all squatters were scum ‘taking homes from decent people’. So they tried to kick the door in to get at us for four straight hours. Luckily, we had bolts in from the back – the door was a lot stronger than we had thought because they would have had to take out the doorframe and a whole section of the wall. But there we were, six skinny potheads waiting inside for these geezers to come bursting in until they finally gave up and went away.”

   “Why on earth did you stay five years on the Aylesbury?”

   “I loved it! It was close to everything, all my mates were there. It was a laugh.”

    I’ll bet. I can’t remember the details now, but a lot of his friends from that period ended up pretty fucked up. Some public school guy who ended up in a hardcase psychiatric prison in his teens for slitting a cow’s throat then, after he was released, he moved in with a friend – and the friend jumped out of a window two weeks, a month later high on acid – and all the dead man’s friends thought the first guy had killed him because he was jealous of his good looks, his success with women.

   So that was the other face of squatting. I didn’t experience it too much. My ex did, but I didn’t.

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