Brixton: a place of continuity and change

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A Brixton high street scene familiar to many – clogged, police car with its lights going, pavements full of the world’s flotsam…

One  thing I adore about living in London is that I’m connected here by family links going back over at least 120 years. And I’m even more connected to the small grubby part of South London around Brixton.

When I first came to live in London in 1979, to do my training contract – articles as it was then called – I lived just on the north bank of the Thames at the World’s End which is on the Chelsea-Fulham borders. Fashionably tatty, the home of Vivienne Westwood’s sloping floor shop with the Sex Pistols as visitors. The Textiliste followed me nine months later but for various reasons – cowardice, my father’s opposition to cohabiting pre-marriage (I regret few things but not standing up to the reactionary old curmudgeon’s approbation ranks in the top five) – we had separate flats. Hers backed onto the railway line near Clapham North and was a few hundred yards from the centre of Brixton. Edgy, down right dangerous at times. Using the phone box on Landor Road outside the mental home lent calling home a certain frisson.

This, then, was a very run down and somewhat dodgy part of London. The racial tensions were palpable. The police used their stop and search powers – the infamous sus law, based on an 1824 Vagrancy Act –  pretty indiscriminately on the young black population and combined with the recession that followed Maggie Thatcher’s coming to power plus the exponential growth in youth unemployments exacerbated an already bad situation.

The result was a vicious and destructive riot in 1981. It was, pretty literally a stone’s throw away from the Textiliste’s flat.

brixton riots 1 brixton riots 2

It’s odd looking at these photos. The street is so familiar yet the riot gear non-existent and the rioters ill prepared. The 2011 riots were a lot more professional. And that is not a good thing.

There are differences between old then and the recent now. In 1981 there were utterly genuine grievances focused on a specific group being awfully treated. In 2011 the causes were mixed but a lot of it was opportunistic looting and crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Tensions remain but they are more universal, multicultural if you like though I’m not so naïve to say there’s no racial or ethnic mix to it.

Brixton has always been a melting pot. In the 1890s when my grandmother was born the tensions were between the predominant White British and the Irish and the Jewish immigrant groups. Times change and the influx of post WW2 immigrants, especially from the Caribbean changed the dynamic. By the 1980s when I took my gran round Brixton to visit the places she remembered as a girl she was shocked by the predominance of black faces. Prejudiced? Yes, for sure. It was unexpected and difficult for her to comprehend. I was living in amongst this diverse group, I had grown up with that mix in Bristol since the mid 1970s and now in London so it barely rated a mention, though I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable there. There were suspicions on both sides for sure. But she was a resilient old girl and she shook her shoulders and made me look around.

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The magnificent town hall in the centre of Brixton.

At the town hall she told me, ‘I saw the foundation stone being laid,’ There’s a stone embedded in the wall. 1906. She would have been 11 or 12.

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a note of the ceremony seen by Gran

I commented on the magnificence; I’ve always love the soft red brick tones and stunning clock tower. Thursday I went inside to a meeting.

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stunning Victoriana

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They went over the top, those Victorians

Gran warmed to her theme. ‘Brixton was a happening place, back then. The Bon Marche, the Electric Avenue street lights. We were the first you see.’

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as ever I quite like some of the bridge graffito too

She was right, too. The Brixton Bon Marché was the first purpose-built department store built in Britain – in 1877 – long before Oxford Street or Harrods or Selfridges. Brixton was affluent and the newly empowered and enriched middle classes needed an outlet. It is perhaps a sad fact that today while the Bon Marché still stands it is business space not a department store.

Electric Avenue is now part of the outdoor fruit and veg market that weaves its way through Brixton. When the Textiliste and I first visited this warren we were fascinated by the exotic world we had entered. Cabbages and carrots were replaced by green bananas and yam. There were strange straggly cuts of meet dyed bright cerise, long geometric courgette types (probably okra) that seemed impossibly exotic. And my first ever sweet potatoes. While at every corner you were offered ‘Jamaican woodbines’ the herby smell replacing the usual tobacco.

Electric Avenue was so named because it was the first market street to have electric light.


Electric Avenue 1900

My gran remembers the lights being turned on. She knew this beautifully canopied street as the Oxford Street of the South right up until World War 2. Today it’s tatty, de-canopied and as vibrant as a calypso. All Gran saw was the litter, the vegetable waste and the people. For her it was a history lost, a place on the edge of terminal decline. We turned away and left.

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The Black Cultural Archive, with Windrush Square in front

I wish she could see it now. My gran was uncertain of the changes happening to the country and the place of her youth. But she was a trader to her fingertips; she would have loved the banter, the effort still being made to make a sale. She would, I hope,  have loved the way the way the place is changing again. It is a destination for the young, for its clubs and good food in the ‘Village’ – part of what I knew as the market but now a destination bringing in tourists, money and improvement.

You still can passively smoke more cannabis here than in most other shopping streets in the UK, it is still a draw for litter (now, that does bug me), it seems to have more 24/7 barbers and hairdressers than anywhere else I have been. But it is thriving. And that is due in a large part to a settled community. In the last year the Black Cultural Archive has opened alongside Windrush Square, named after the eponymous ship that brought the peoples of the Caribbean islands to dull, depressed post war Britain on a promise of work in the Mother Country only to find, far too often a welcome as cold and as uninviting as the weather – signs in the windows of lodging houses spelling out only too plainly ‘no dogs, Blacks or Irish’.

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My favourite independent cinema, The Ritzy. And another police vehicle. We still have a way to go.

I wouldn’t yet say Brixton must be on a must visit list if coming to the UK. The restaurants in the Village are good and the BCA will be a draw. I’m just pleased I’ve been around to feel and see its renaissance. It may not (yet) have been restored to its Victorian glories but it isn’t about buildings is it? It is about people, about feeling like a place wants you. And when I visit Brixton today, little old me, white, aging, beaded, patently middle class – well I feel it wants me too. Especially if I’m prepared to spend a bit of my hard-earned.

As I took my leave by train, following my meeting (we’re negotiating with Lambeth Council for grant money to run various children’s programmes in Streatham, another part of Lambeth Borough) I wandered the platform to photograph two of the bronze statues that stand, one on each platform. These stem from 1986, just after the second 1980s riot (1985) and are the ‘Never Ending Commute’. The two facing each other seem to represent those fleeting, catch the eye moments you have while waiting on crowded platforms. This link explains some but I just like them as somewhat subversive. Many times have I gone through Brixton on my way from Victoria to West Dulwich and smiled. Today it is sunny in Brixton.

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Platform 1 – the man, reputedly the first Black Man cast in Bronze in the UK.

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and this lady was German; she certainly seems drawn by the guy across the way. peer closely and you can see the Bon Marche in the background


About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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22 Responses to Brixton: a place of continuity and change

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for this slice of history and your time spent in Brixton.


  2. Sacha Black says:

    Your memory of life events is spectacular. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast 4 hours ago! let alone anything before the age of 14!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It’s funny you say that. I have a sense of photos dropping into a viewfinder when I recall a place or a time. I assume everyone is like that but maybe it is just me.


  3. roweeee says:

    Hi Geoff,
    Thanks so much for sharing this fabulous tour and your grandmother’s perspectives as well. I love watching “Escape to the Country” and I thought you’d be well placed to do some tours around London and tell some tales. My Dad’s family lived in Sydney’s Surry Hills and Paddington for many years after they arrived in Australia during the 1850s and I’ve had some great fun retracing their steps. This area is full of old Victorian terrace houses and is quite a social and cultural melting pot although it’s been yuppified over the years and has gone from being a slum to being expensive.
    Hope you are having a great weekend. After a stressful week which I’ve blogged about in all it’s stressful glory tonight, I did escape to Palm Beach onboard the ferry and its been the best. My foot is back in the boot and I sat down on the wharf while I was waiting with my bag and walking stick and got chatting to some 20 somethings who adopted me in the manner of Paddington Bear and were so lovely. Gave me that TLC that I don’t often get or seek because as my husband pointed out, I’m always falling over and I’m equally always picking myself up smiling. Laughing…often at myself. Must remember to cry next time …LOL!
    xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      Love this Ro. Just picturing you toppling like a Tasmanian tower and giggling all the way down. It’s true, being brave gains you less sympathy but I assert a better quality because no one is any doubt about fakery when you do grimace. Keep blogging and telling us up here what it’s like for you down there. Are you exploding with excitement about the World Cup and Aussis hopes -esp now the Poms have been banished. Or does this pass you by?

      Liked by 1 person

      • roweeee says:

        It is only thanks to my husband’s comments on the phone tonight that I’m even conscious of the World Cup. He was telling me how even Bangladesh beat England. We have a Scottish friend and we beat them comprehensively. I told Geoff that the Scots had been brave to play against us in the first place. One of Jonathon’s friends is soccor mad and when asked about the World Cup said it was over. Others friends are going to watch.
        I do end up watching a bit of cricket at home as Geoff watches it but not through choice. When I was growing up, many great battles were conducted in front of the TV set between my brother and I about who could gain control of the on off switch and or channel changer. Before the era of remotes, this battle became incredibly physical. My brother loved cricket so I by default, loathed it.
        Being over at Palm Beach for the weekend, just about everything is passing me by. I went down to the boat ramp and was just staring at the water flickering with the very last fleeting colours of sunset and felt myself slowly nodding off. It was so hypnotic and perfect for relaxing. I started thinking about how the different sounds the water makes as it runs over rocks and through crevices etc, sounds like a symphony and how you could replicate it in music or through creating some kind of water structure. I think I should probably stick with my violin!!
        So in answer to what it is like for me in Sydney during the world cup this weekend, it is incredibly quiet, except for the neighbour’s kids who were screaming in the pool having way too much fun but fortunately they had an early night and now there’s just frogs, crickets and the pitch black darkness punctuated by street lights across the bay.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        I think you put that beautifully. The sound of the waves on a shingle beach – the crunch, slurp, crunch is hypnotic. A great way to doze your cars away. Enjoy that fab city. I’ve not been in eight years but must visit again soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      • roweeee says:

        Hard to do it all, isn’t it?!! Since my parents bought the house at Palm Beach, I’ve been coming here every opportunity I get which means getting to know one place in infinitesimal detail in my case. Catching the ferry and bus here also means I’m not that mobile as well, which I don’t mind. We get the sunset over the water and it’s reflected in the windows on the boathouse and I’ve taken some fabulous photos with the furniture in the background so there are all these layers to the photo, giving quite a surreal effect. I like a bit of quirkiness!

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Looking forward to seeing the post and photos!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Norah says:

    Thanks for sharing this bit of history, Geoff. It’s interesting to see how it has changed over time. What a lovely piece of family history it becomes with your Gran’s experiences woven in. We don’t always think of the role that we play in history, but nowadays when I visit a museum and see artefacts from my childhood on display, the reality becomes too difficult to ignore!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Charli Mills says:

    Your city is such an evolving treasure of history and culture. That your Grandmother could share her experiences gives you an even longer perspective. I love these London walks on your blog!

    Just recently, we rented the movie “Iron Lady” from the library with Merle Strepe as Maggie Thatcher. What’s your view on her? Was the movie accurate at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It wasn’t bad. She evokes still very strong emotions. A lot of people hate her still and a lot think we would do better if we had someone of her convictions. Personally for me she did some good and some bad things but we needed someone of strength going into the 1980s after a poor two decades of decline. Streep’s performance was extraordinary


  6. Cindi says:

    I love reading of history, especially when told through the eyes, emotions, and experiences of someone who has lived it. Your photos, plus the historical ones, add to the experience. Thank you for sharing your grandmother’s reaction to her visit to Brixton!

    (And good luck with securing the grant money. Such a worthwhile cause!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. trifflepudling says:

    Very interesting read, thanks! Blimey, I used to use that phone box in Landor Road and had no idea it was outside a mental home!! Poor things –

    Liked by 1 person

  8. AJ says:

    These history lessons and journeys of your places and travels especially with how you weave in your family (past and present) are spectacular. I love them!

    Liked by 1 person

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