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Posts Tagged ‘elephant and castle’

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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Elephant and Castle

   I live in the Elephant, on one of the big estates that are scheduled to be pulled down as part of the larger push for 2012. I’ve been here two months and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here. I lived here when I first came to London twenty years ago and now, when I don’t know if I’m coming or going, I’m here again.  

    In a way it’s the perfect crossroads. My flatmate said the other day: “So many people who come to London come 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 is there to 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 that the Elephant feels like a clearing house – and that is part of it’s attraction. Living here is, quite literally, like standing on a platform looking out on the rest of London. Even late at night, it buzzes with motion – another major autoroute runs along the other estate building to the south. The noise from the New Kent, Walworth, Heygate Road continues all night – a hum of decelerating diesel engines, clattering trains, car horns, the gereral ebb and flow of whooshing traffic. Yet, in between the traffic, you can still hear the rustle of leaves across concrete, the whispering of the wind through the tree branches.

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