The other week I witnessed the latest heroic struggle against the rapacious development of London with the campaign to Save Earls Court – a vast redevelopment that will completely alter the shape of this part of West London.
It was when I was walking round Soho with Geoff Lloyd recording for his Absolute Radio show that I noticed the closure of Madame JoJo’s, that great icon of Soho nightlife to the extent that closing it could be as catastrophic as releasing the ravens from the Tower of London.
I later connected with Soho resident and musician, Tim Arnold, one of the co-ordinators of the Save Soho campaign that includes local residents, small businesses and luminaries such as Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch. Tim offered to take me round some of the venues under threat and also the ones needing to be preserved if the Spirit of Soho was to survive.
Although not actually in Soho we decided to start outside the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street and were there the day it closed. Almost immediately afterwards it was squatted and occupied by the Soho Bohemians so again I went along with a camera to capture the moment.
Denmark Street (known as Tin Pan Alley) is the historic heart of the music industry in London (and indeed Britain). It was where the early sheet music publishers were based, the music press, management companies – it gave us rock’n’roll and pop music, the Top 40 and the Sex Pistols. It’s probably more famous now for the guitar shops. Many of the buildings date from the 18th Century with the street plan being older still.
But this all now risks being swept away by development, driven by the destructive force of Crossrail and that fact that it sits in the heart of a parcel of land worth around £980million.
If action isn’t taken now a precious ancient district of London will be erased from the map and replaced with a characterless complex of steel and glass blocks. The soul of Central London is being squeezed in the talons of rapacious development.
Yesterday returned with the boys to a much loved spot – Coram’s Fields. The first time we’ve been back for at least a year to this city oasis where adults are only allowed to enter if accompanied by a child. A kid’s paradise among the dying plane trees.
When we lived on an estate atop Penton Mound, Coram’s Fields was a valuable bit of open space to escape to – swings, sand-pit, slide, goats, rabbits, geese and a lovely little old fashioned caff tucked away in a corner under a whitewashed colonnade, a surviving remnant of Thomas Coram’s 18th century Foundling Hospital. A bowl of pasta pesto at £2 was a standard order on those long days out in the Bloomsbury air. Simple sandwiches of the ilk I scoffed myself as a boy – cheese and tomato, ham and cheese, tuna and cucumber a mere quid. Little cupcakes 50p, ice-cream in a cone 60p. Public park prices, kids prices, queueing up clutching their fistful of coins in a sweaty palm. Despite it’s centrality and trendy associations, the area that Coram’s Fields services has some of the poorest estates in London, ranking among some of the most economically deprived in the country. This is council run play-schemes for working Mums, and only a smattering of Yummy Mummies.
My horror yesterday then when the caff was gone replaced by some dreadful poncey continental Upper Street colonial outpost of a place. The name was some meaningless combination of consonants, the staff young, beautiful, indifferent and mainland European. Where was that lovely old weather-beaten cockney maid who dished out the cookies and cordial? Delicate pastries had replaced our slabs of sponge cake. The pasta boasted of being served with a homemade sauce and weighed in at a hefty £4.50. Who gives a toss when you’ve had that mangy goat licking your fingers. Get the local kids onto that stuff and it could trigger a crime wave. I stood in the queue and watched as a Dad despondently shelled out £9 for a few juices and biscuits – I think there was some sort of claim of being organic or some such guff.
As I waited for the staff to finish fixing their hair between customers my horror turned to anger – this was a cultural invasion. How had we let the locally specific Caff be replaced by the ersatz Cafe? Where will it end? Would I mind so much if they kept the prices the same? Probably not. I’d let it pass in a minor huff. But the point of the over-margarined sandwich bar, the strong tea stand, the too-sweet biscuits was an idea of democracy, a day out for all, a food we all understood because our Nan’s plated it up for us. I can see the Cappucino Tsar for Camden Council condemning the old caff to a fate befallen by all too many before, and dreaming up the list of Conranista criteria that a cafe should have. And here it is – sending the disappointed kids slouching away with nothing but an over-priced Fredo Frog.
Sat in The Heathcote last night reading David Boote’s excellent series of leaflets on the Leyton Loop made me think about the walk that I did through Leyton to the West End via Kings Cross in June 2007. I posted a blog about it at the time.
Enthused, I came home from the pub, dug out the miniDV tape and quickly edited together this vid. It’s always difficult to capture the experience of walking in any form – literature seems to have managed it best. Here I tried to film as instinctively as possible as if scribbling in a notebook.
The Heathcote btw was shut tonight due to a gas leak – was it something I did? Not quite sure what I’ll do if it stays shut for a while. Maybe get round to writing up some notes I’ve got on walking that I’d like to share.
Received this by email on the Games Monitor list:
Jules Pipe (Mayor of Hackney) said that if you opposed developments like the Dalston Square then you were part of a ‘keep hackney crap mentality’. But Hackney isn’t crap. Not even close. It doesn’t need property speculators
to ‘make it a nice place’. Don’t take our word for it – come and see for yourself.
On Sunday 28 September we will host a walking tour of Gentrification in Dalston and Hackney Central, culminating in a picnic in London Fields.
While Hackney Council celebrate the Olympics with the ‘Carnival for the Cultural Olympiad’ we will have a look at the gentrification of Hackney that the Olympics will cause. From Dalston Lane to Broadway market we will
take people on a guided tour of dispossession and hear from shopkeepers, residents and the homeless who are fighting to keep their area a place they can live and work in and struggling to survive in this Olympic borough.
On Sunday the 28th of September meet at 1pm at the Dalston Peace Mural on Dalston Lane, (just after corner with Kingsland rd, near Dalston Kingsland Station)
We are looking for volunteers to help organize the event: both before and during the 28th! We need people to suggest tour stops, write pieces for the booklet that accompanies the tour, speak on the day about campaigns, developments, injustices and change, put up posters, tell your friends and help make refreshments!
If you would like to get involved, or know more please contact – firstname.lastname@example.org or
Call 07932 241737