Posts Tagged ‘London’

My friend Ian has a new site: 

London Sound Survey

Ian spent a year or so walking all around London recording street sounds, market criers, preachers, crowds in Soho on a Saturday night, random coversations, building sites . . . pretty much anything he could. He has a ‘sound map’ where you can click to see how different neighborhoods sound – outlying areas are not always quieter than the centre – and a blog recording different reactions to sounds (AN Wilson on the advent of the Walkman), his own experiences walking around with his headphones/ microphones. 

And since everyone wants to hear the Elephant, he has two recordings taken in the Elephant and Castle mall: 

One, on the lower level inside the mall

Then the Lady in White, who preaches regularly outside the main entrance, shouting over the noise of rush hour traffic (recreated faithfully here).

So, if you can’t travel to London, you can at least find out what it sounds like . ..

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The Mall in all it's glory

The Mall in all it's glory

You wanted it . . . you got it.

The most popular posting on this blog has nothing to do with Brooklyn Obama Art Culture  or even Planet Toronot  but . . . .

The Elephant and Castle Shopping Mall.

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

helpful orientation map at Walworth Rd. entrance

Britain’s oldest indoor mall, like the Heygate Estate behind it, is part of an earlier regeneration scheme for the Elephant Castle, which had been devastated during WWII. The mall , like the Heygate Estate and pretty much everything else in the Elephant, is slated for demolition to make way for another attempt at ‘regeneration’, though the mall likely won’t be torn down until 2012 – at the earliest. 

It’s easy to hate the mall, and up until a couple of years ago I basically did. In the late 80’s, it was depressing, and the tunnels that fed into it from the nightmare roundabout were not just depressing but sometimes even dangerous. Packs of kids hung around the mall, especially on the upper levels, along with more than a few drunks. The few cafes were dingy, served terrible food; the garish reds and pinks, the muzak, the vandalized phone boxes, made it seem like some awful caricature of the malls I’d left behind in North America. 


Perhaps it was just familiarity, even sentimentality, but eventually . . . while I can’t say I came to love it ,  I had to admit a sneaking affection came over me when I lived on the neighboring Heygate a year ago. 

Columbians had taken over many of the stores on the upper level. They served great coffee, and you could sit and watch the waves of pedestrians in and out of the concrete terminal of the neighboring train station. There are two kiosque type places, and La Bodeguita, a Columbian restaurant with big glass windows that plays Columbian music out into the mall, offsetting the muzak classical drifting from the ceiling . . . 

Cafe on second floor

Cafe on second floor

Underneath the railway arches, where there’d been the original raver’s clubs back in the 80’s, were more cafes with more good coffee and that rarity of rarities in London: good, cheap food. They also have South American music, films. Nice place to hang out for a half hour or so. Up the street was a bike shop, with the bikes stacked up outside.  

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

Columbian Cafe underneath Railway arches

The Charlie Chaplin pub had been taken over by squat Latin American men with profiles straight out of the great Mayan frescoes. The first time I went in, I thought I was hallucinating and that I was back in New York. 

The Elephant's most famous citizen

The Elephant's most famous native son

The murals. The kids breakdancing on thursday (or was it wednesday) evenings, inhabiting the airport lounge space on the second level, almost out of sight as you went by for the train. The great used booksellers on the lower level (I never had the money to actually buy any books, but that’s London for you). The Chinese Herbal medicine place by the 2nd floor entrance advertising remedies for ‘man problem’. 

Pink elephants racing through the mall

Pink elephants racing through the mall

And the market, open most days, running through the concrete cavern next to the mall. ‘Cheap and cheerful’ clothes, some electronics – mostly junk by and large. But I’d stop at the fruit and veg market just beside the ground floor entranceon the way home. For London, it was almost cheap and the young South Asian guys who ran it were always friendly, a welcome pause after the frenzied, usually alienating ride home.  

Market on a weekday afternoon

Market on a weekday afternoon

Curiously the Super Bowl was still in use. I didn’t know people still bowled in the Elephant or anywhere else, but on the weekends and evenings, I’d see families going up and down the escalators. There was some sort of patio bar place on the roof behind the Super Bowl and there always seemed to be people out in the evenings, even in winter  . . . 

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper level

Entrance to the Super Bowl on the airport lounge upper leve

The mall is decrepit certainly, but it’s that  very decrepitude allows people like the Columbians, the market, the used booksellers to flourish. Once it’s gone, the Elephant will look just like any other part of London – that is to say, homogenized, gentrified – and boring. If they do blow up the Heygate this summer and, as expected, not have the money to put up anything in it’s place, how will the mall be in one year, two years time? What will happen to the booksellers, Columbians, the South Asians in the market? Whither the Elephant?

For more (and continuous) posts about the Elephant, please visit my other blog: livefromtheheygate

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Why go to the riots when you can read about them on Vice?

Do they owe us a living?

A blow by blow account by blogger John Knight. Great pix by James Pearson-Hawes (aka Queenie) and Jamie Teate.

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The Recession is Now Pt.# 87

Damn. I leave London and riots and protests break out all over Europe

And wildcat strikes break out all over the UK in support of oil workers going on strike after their bosses hired European workers, and effectively locked them out. 

Well, bless their hearts.

When I was still in England, I wondered how long it would be before this happened. Though the rallying cry of ‘British jobs for British workers’ might be exclusionary – and might make it that much more difficult for my one generation removed though British passport holding person to get a job – you can hardly blame these guys for feeling the way they do. The ‘Polish Plumber’ might have been great for the middle-classes, but the drastic wage cuts, the pressure that immigration put on employment in general in Britain was very real, and was making life very difficult for non-rich people. This was pretty much ignored by the government, the papers, by everyone except the BNP.

Wages for most people in London were a joke, the cost of living was a joke. As  the son of British immigrants to Canada – as a North American – I’m not against immigration or immigrants, but so often in Britain immigrants were used to undercut standards, wages of the British worker. It’s about time they got their own back.

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Friend sent me this:

London from High Up, At night.

Great shots of Trafalgar Square, the decidedly unlovely O2 Arena . . .

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Victoria Tube Station, 8:30 am.

I missed the train and caught the tube. At Brixton, the very end of the Victoria line, two tube trains were sitting in the station, packed full of passengers, with no sign of leaving. More and more people got on the trains until they were full right down the aisle while a couple of inspectors or coordinators or whatever they were strolled around trying to figure out which drivers to send to which train.

Finally one train left, another sat there as more people piled on – another train pulled in and me and a bunch of other ‘customers’ (as the euphemism has it) rushed over to get the seats before that train filled up as well – and by the time the train did pull out five minutes later, it was standing room only.

   By Victoria, four stops on, the car was so packed you could hardly squeeze through to get off the train. I followed two other passengers, a man and a woman, as they forget a path through the impossible press of bodies. You felt bad pushing through – having been on the receiving end more than once, with someone stepping on your foot – and really having nowhere to go since people are pressed in all around you. But you have to get out. Some nice London touches – the man pushing through fell over on top of a woman standing on the platform, and sort of half-embraced her to say sorry – so many times you encounter this sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling in these impossible situations in London – but before I was even off the people on the platform were pressing in, pushing me backward, knocking me off balance so if I really slipped I’d be pushed under the crowd – until someone pushed me from behind and I yelled out and people gave way.

Upstairs, they’d blocked off the entrances so they could regulate the flow of people descending into the station. That is, pulled back the metal grates they use to shut off the station after closing. Outside, people were queued up around the stairwells, dozens and dozens deep, and once they opened the gates, people flooded  into the station to queue up in the hundreds in front of the ticket barriers (which, curiously, they leave open after hours at the train stations and sometimes the tube, but never at rush hour, when people have to queue dozens and dozens deep to pass through the gates).

I swore I’d never catch the tube at that time of day again. But people do it every day – stand in the aisles on packed trains with people on their mobiles yammering in their ears and the train waiting at an interminable time at the station because of some delay (‘We regret any inconvenience caused’) queuring for the ticket barriers at the train station, queueing for the ticket barrier at the tube – standing crushed together in the tube for the bruising ride to work.

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Unreal City,   60
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,  
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,  
I had not thought death had undone so many.  
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,  
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

TS Eliot, The Wasteland.

Boy, does that describe London. As it was then, so it is now . ..

I don’t understand people here. I don’t understand their coldness, the way they can be crammed so unbearably close together, yet remain so comopletely isolated – like they hardly even see each other. When I think back to the long period when I was away from London in the 90’s, it was this isolation that most scared me about this city – the fear of being swallowed by the grey, by the extreme anonymity, until I felt I hardly existed. The grey creeping into my nerves, senses, soul . . . a weight where my heart should be, congealed into grey mornings and grey afternoons . . . that monotonal emotional pitch that comes so easily to the Anglo-Sexon spirit.

This fear is a little further away now, but I still feel it. Isolation hangs about this city like the damp. When I first got back to New York this spring, one of the most intense pleasures (and pains) was being able to feel again. it was like discovering a faculty that had gone missing, like the ability to see colour after seeing only in black and white . . . I don’t remember London always being this way, but perhaps my circumstances were different before. Maybe that’s part of why people drink so much here, so they can feel again – so they can feel like they EXIST . . .

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Westminster Cathedral Tower at dusk

Westminster Cathedral Tower at dusk



That Iconic Eye

That Iconic Eye

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In City AM this morning: Jobless nearing 2 million

That’s just to September. I’m sure it’s worse now. Somehow, these figures don’t really convey what’s happening. For this hombre, it’s been very difficult to find work in the UK since September and it feels like everything is just locked down. Possibly this is partly psychological – headlines blaring 1929 Redux for two weeks straight are bound to have an effect – but talks of a ‘looming’ recession are bogus. The recession, in the UK at least, is very much now.

I’ve never known this country in boomtimes. Just one month after I moved here in 1987, Black Monday hit and thus began the last prolonged downturn. I lasted here another couple of years – and I have to admit the first couple of years weren’t bad at all. For a young guy like myself, in London, work was pretty easy to find and if the pay wasn’t great there was always the dole. And squatting. Not having to pay rent made it easy to live in London.

But by 89, you could feel the gloom which had suffocated the rest of the country since the 70’s closing in and by 91, when I came back, London was just plain depressed. The only job I could get was Roadsweeping in SE London. I met guys there who had mortgages, car payments to make, who’d made a good living as satellite dish installers or other service jobs, who were working 92 hour weeks sweeping roads just to make the bills. The IRA was in full swing and every other day the tube or the trains shut down because of a bomb threat. A permanent gloom seemed to hang over the city. The experience was so depressing I didn’t come back for nearly three years.

By the mid-90’s the gloom wasn’t so thick but it wasn’t great here. Jobs weren’t easy to find and people were still by and large depressed. Service was non-existent. Ask a question in shop, pub, at work and the inevitable response was a blank look, followed by a sort of whining ‘don’t konw’. No one wanted to be bothered. Even by 97, on my next trip back, things didn’t seem much better.

But when I returned in 2000, London seemed an entirely different city. More outgoing for one – people did seem to look at each other on the street then, to have some contact in bars and pubs. The food had improved dramatically – in my week back, I didn’t have one bad meal and everyone I knew here had good jobs, was making enough – and yet London itself hadn’t changed a great deal, so you could still find the old neighborhoods, the old pubs, the litle cafs. London felt exciting again, an echo of the city I first expereinced back in 87.

I’m sorry now I didn’t move back here sooner. By the time I got here in 2006, the city had changed again. You could just feel the gloom starting to set in – the pay didn’t match the prices and there was a sense of a society spilling out of control with the insane binge-drinking, the rise in popularity of drugs like cocaine (cocaine! So very 80’s! So very boring!). Little things, like the independent bookshop closing down in the St. James Mall, that last independent sort of store in the area.

And more than that, a general unhappiness. People here seemed deeply unhappy.  This is a very unhappy society – you only have to look at the children, possibly the most miserable I’ve seen anywhere – to realize that. I wonder if the recession will bring out a different sort of spirit here, and where this city will be in two, three years time.

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Tuesday the 4th . . . even on this foggy English morning you could feel the electricity in the air, fed by the headlines across the newspapers (except for the freebie Metro which warned: “Britain to suffer from downturn more than rest of EU”) – right through to the crowds massing through the Victoria Station rush hour, on the street outside.

You feel like, with all that’s been going on, this is the beginning of a new era. It may be a frightening era – all that economic bad news has to add up to something and everyone knows the crash in jobs, savings, mortgages, is going to follow the crash in the stock market. Even if Obama, the big favorite here and throughout the world beyond the US, wins, there’s no telling what will happen – or if he’ll live up to even a fraction of the expectations around him. But the most powerful country on Earth will be on a different course . . . and whoever wins, Obama or McCain, and whatever they do once in office, new forces and expectation will be unleashed in the US and around the world.

After my shift at yet another shabby art college, i walked through Hackney to Bethnal Green tube. Mostly black area, everything closed off except the two or three kebab shops per block, yellow signs glowing in the foggy dark. If the black folks on the street felt anything about the possible election of the first black president of the USA, they didn’t show it. All the pubs, and even the street was empty . . . somehow I’d expected something else.

   At Bethnal Green tube, some english guy in a yellow vest and a light beard was screaming at an African guy who kept pushing him out of the way. They were arguing on the side of the road and the traffic behind them was honking furiously and soon it transpired that the African was trying to push the white guy away to get back to his car, which was parked in the middle of the road. When he finally got in, the white guy got in front of his car, smashing the hood with his fists, screaming something about a bike – refusing to get out of the way even when the African guy gunned the engine, edged forward, almost knocked him over, then drove forward with the guy hanging on his hood. Somehow, he got around the guy – who then jumped in front of the truck behind him, leaping onto the engine manifold and clinging on while the trucker drove forward. 

   And all this while a bunch of East End boys stood in front of the pub smoking: “run ‘im over!” 

   So that’s my election night. I’d planned to be in New York for this night, but it was not to be . . .

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