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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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’.
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.