Secret History of Streets

Well. I just managed to see the recent BBC “Secret History of our Streets” documentary about Deptford. Right up this blog’s street. After all it is mostly about what I see and hear walking around London’s streets.

Obviously I was going to be fascinated by it, as I live round here myself, I’m a big fan of Booth’s map, I’m obsessed with the design and layout of London (which is most of what this blog is about) and I’ve met some of the people they interviewed (though I know none of them personally). I’ve also drunk in some of the demolished pubs they talk about and walked down every street they showed and been in the shops they filmed in. And those Abercrombie Plan and Motorway Box maps look scarier every time I see them. How could such well-educated well-meaning hard-working planners be so utterly ignorant of the way cities really are or how people live in them? (Maybe Alison and Peter Smithson could have told us – though as far as I know they never damaged Deptford with their misplaced buildings – yet I noticed that the TV sneaked in shots of what looked very much like a corner of Robin Hood Gardens and a bit of the Balfron Tower at one point)

This programme was genuinely interesting and well-made, It was a better film than “The Tower” was, though perhaps an even more unfair picture of the place. But so many problems with it. They literally demonised the West African preacher, yet a he’s just about the only person they showed actively trying to improve things. Almost the only West Indians they showed were, well, rather scary. Not to mention “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”. When listing the folk exiled to various other suburbs they lumped Greenwich and Brockley – places you can walk to from Deptford in ten minutes – along with Grove Park and Woolwich and Bexleyheath, which by comparison are the Outer Darkness.

They somehow managed to make Nicholas Taylor the villain of the piece. I’m sure he’s made his mistakes but he doesn’t deserve this. In real life he was one of the few voices on the council opposed to the new brutalist redevelopment, and perhaps the only architect who was. Yes the slum clearance reports they showed made the council seem like authoritarian bullies – but after all these years we don’t need to be told how anti-working-class the “regeneration” industry can be. But Taylor wasn’t was one of the people who warned us of that way back then, and he wasn’t even on the council when they did it. And he actually lived there, and as far as I know still does. At the end when it was obvious that they were going to show some gentrifiers taking over I was briefly worried that they’d be showing Nick Taylor’s own, presumably reasonably presentable, house, to complete the fix-up. At least they got their floppy-jawed wimps from somewhere else. And they were the only people in the show who felt alien to me. Maybe they were actors. I rather hope that they were. Though the Canadian-sounding woman was quite cute.

Yet again they show the local people, or the working class in general, as mere passive victims of the plotting of those set above them, whether to send them to war or demolish their houses or destroy their businesses or replace them with dubiously dark-skinned incomers. (The BNP and their friends will love this programme). On the surface it seems to be sympathetic and even radical but its a deeply, deeply, establishment rhetorical stance. Resistance is futile. Opposition is pointless. The working-class people they interviewed aren’t depicted as actors in their own drama, more as a kind of stage-cockney chorus of cheeky chappies, drunkenly staggering through events they cannot be expected to understand.

Getting that church to sing “May the circle be unbroken” at the end was a cinematic and emotional triumph. Even if its probably not at all typical of what they’d actually sing. Not that I really know what they would sing. I go to a quite different church in Deptford, even if most of our congregation are Nigerians.

Not sure what I’m saying really, its four in the morning and I’m not being very coherent. maybe time to go to bed. Or else look around and see what others are saying about it. But well-done as it was it doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouth.

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Meanwhile back at the ranch, the next morning…

Now I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit more, there are some other niggling doubts. The way it showed women was very strange. They were almost all entirely sitting still and talking quietly and sadly, both in the present day and in the clips from the past. Lively women, strong women, happy women, angry women, were only shown in still photos. Whenever they talked they seemed to be doing it in a spirit of passive obedience, quiet resignation. Especially the women in the clips from 1960s and 1970s documentaries who seemed to be portrayed as meekly putting up with whatever their husbands dished out to them, just as those husbands themselves were rather less quietly taking whatever the landlords and local authorities did to them, living in quiet desperation and getting through the day on pills. One of them said something like “I was so depressed till my husband made me go to the doctor and he gave me the pills.” The women are shown as the victims of the victims, the underclass of the underclass.

Yes it makes you cry and it ought to make you angry. And yes that is certainly how some women lived then. How some live now. Its partly true and entirely tragic. But its not how most people live now. And I think I remember enough about the 1960s and 1970s – I think I remember enough working-class women in the 1960s and 1970s – to know that it wasn’t how everybody lived then either. “My nan had very nice curtains”

OK, the filmmakers probably know perfectly well they are doing that. They are no doubt decent well-brought-up BBC journalists, sympathetic to the community they are filming, well-meaning activists. Maybe they reckoned they only had time to show the worst, maybe they want us to be angry at the abuse those women received. But they showed effectively all working-class people as hopeless and desperate, the men reacting with drunken violence and bitter humour, the women by sinking into depression. Like I said it leaves a funny taste in the mouth.

As does the way they conflated the social decline of the new high-rise estates with the arrival of large numbers of black people. I’m sure they would say that they didn’t mean to do that, but they did, by the stringing together the fact that the new high-rise estates were unpopular with local people and soon became hard to let with Nicholas Taylor talking about the council going to the bottom of the housing list to find tenants (if only there were any council in the south of England that had that luxury now!) and then showing Black and Asian people all of a sudden when everyone up to then had been white. Every picture tells a story and their pictures told a story that I hope they did not really mean.

Also the film seemed to mix up two levels of argument in a rather confusing way.

On the one hand there was the exposure of a genuine wrong done to a specific small group of people, the owners of the houses in a few condemned streets off Deptford High Street (and, as they didn’t entirely make clear it is the owners they were talking about, not the tenants – who if they hadn’t been moved out by the council in the 1960s and early 70s would have probably been priced out by gentrification in the late 70s or 80s). If the allegations they made about the council and council officers are true (and I suspect they are) then it was a disgrace. If it had happened five years ago instead of fifty there would be an inquiry, probably compensation paid, maybe even criminal charges. Perhaps there should be now. Though it would be a heck of a lot of compensation. Tens of millions.

On the other hand there was some much vaguer stuff, at a larger scale, repeating the now familiar litany mourning the “white working class”. There are shades of the Rod Liddle about this or even (god forbid) Garry Bushell. Or maybe more respectably Michael Collins (no, not that one – the one who writes about South London) Billy Bragg or Gary Robson (or Gary Younge even though he’s black – why do so many Garys write about this stuff?) Or the blokes in our local pub who will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about East Street Market or the Surrey Canal or various dodgy night clubs back in the day. (More than you want to know, not more than I want to know, I’m a sucker for this stuff) Amazing they never mentioned Millwall. And its a story that is worth telling, even though its been told again and again and again over the last fifteen years or so. And even though a very similar story is the basis of half the racist lies the BNP and UKIP and the others are peddling. Starting with the very dubious mixing of categories of class and race.

But its a different story from the one about why this house was demolished and that one wasn’t. And they didn’t make any connection between the two. Just laid them side by side and strongly implied some things that I suspect that they would deny meaning if you asked them directly. Yes you can link them, yes you ought to illustrate general points by showing specific facts, and yes you need to have a mental framework to understand isolated incidents, but you need to make the connection and I don’t think they did.

I didn’t get the feeling that they really understand how big cities work, about the balance, or tension, between change and continuity. They tried to suggest that there has been some kind of long-term stable community of settled families in 19th and early 20th-century Deptford. But there wasn’t really. Or anywhere else in inner London. Of course there were families who had been around for generations – loads of them. But they were hugely outnumbered by incomers. Every generation millions of new arrivals came to London and its suburbs, every generation millions left. In the mid-19th century there was almost no district in London where the average person had as many as half their grandparents born in London (I think Bethnal Green might have been and exception). In the late 19th century vast numbers of working-class Londoners moved out to the inner suburbs, including Deptford, and even larger numbers of non-Londoners moved in to the same suburbs because they were neither rich enough nor poor enough to live in the city centre. The fastest turnover was probably the 1880s and 1890s, just the time that the grandparents and great grandparents of the families we saw on the TV were living in the houses that were demolished. Things slowed down after the First World War, because London stopped growing, and from the 1920s to the 1980s huge numbers moved out entirely, to the outer suburbs or beyond. But all the time others were moving in, and in the last thirty years that movement in has outgrown the exodus again. Most of the population of most districts of London is replaced every generation or so, and that has been true since at least the late 18th century. That’s how great cities work, its part of their life rather than their death.

And yes the Prices seem to have been shafted. And yes, at least some of their neighbours and tenants and friends who moved out to the outer suburbs didn’t want to go and would rather have stayed in Deptford. (Though I suspect that given the choice between private renting in Deptford and a council house in Downham in the 1950s. 60s, or 70s most people then would have gone to Downham – and some woudl even now). Yes the new estates in Deptford mostly went bad very quickly (though not all of them) and on the whole they were a disaster. We already know all that. Yes the grandiose plans for rebuilding London from the 40s to the 80s were mostly shite. Yes the more recent private estates that turn their backs on the city are a different kind of disaster. (and need fixing) Yes the whole rhetoric of “regeneration” is loaded against city-dwellers, implying that they and their neighbourhoods are degenerate and that cities need to be saved from their own residents by wealthy outsiders. Ands yes Deptford is still a wonderful place (even at the Cold Blow Lane end) despite all the crap that’s been handed out to it Those are all stories worth telling.

But this documentary, wonderful as it is, still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, from the way it shows women, the way it shows black people, the way it shows working-class people, the wasy it shows some individual peopel who are my neighbours, and the way it shows Deptford.

And this rant has gone on far too long.

8 thoughts on “Secret History of Streets

  1. An interesting program and insight from you Nonhead (chuckle). I worked with N. Taylor on the Mansion in Beckenham Place Park and have to say he is not one for idle unthought of change so it surprises me that he would be depicted as the villian behind the regeneration of Deptford. Not that he is not up for change, just that he seems to know a lot more about the sort of change that would be acceptable. Regardless, he couldn’t have single handledly “regenerated” Deptford. The Council does not leave decisions to be made by individuals.

    The program could have well have been called “How other people took over Deptford”, but I guess that would be very wrong of the BBC.

  2. Great post, Ken.

    As a Nunhead resident, I was particularly interested to see this first episode of The Secret History of Our Streets as it covered a local area I’ve visited a number of times and first became familiar with through watching The Tower.

    Secret History was a compelling documentary but not a very balanced one, either in its treatment of Nicholas Taylor or in its portrayal of present-day Deptford – which has very much more to offer than the bleak scenes shown here would suggest.

    Like The Tower, this film focussed on a limited selection of local people and painted a fairly unflattering picture of some of them as well as the planners, developers and gentrifiers – which, I suppose, is understandable in the case of the latter three groups, especially when uncovering old paperwork from Lewisham council and encountering the caricature estate agent.

    In reality, I’m sure it’s a very complicated situation where all of these people need to contribute positively to their part of the city – which can quickly fall into decline if nothing changes and nobody comes into it from outside.

    However, that’s not to say that structurally sound residential streets should be bulldozed and existing communities broken up in the process – and this is one of the main lessons to be learned from what happened to Deptford.

    In a way, The Tower showed the next chapter to that shown in The Secret History of Our Streets – the one in which residents now living in a council-owned tower block are relocated, some against their will, so the block can be sold and redeveloped. That’s quite a different story as it’s less about town planning and more about a council selling off social housing – the former inhabitants and people in the surrounding area seemingly abandoned while it happens.

    Deptford is already on its way to being transformed once again so we can only hope that its next incarnation is more sympathetic to those who already live there while appealing to those from elsewhere.

    Neither The Secret History of Our Streets nor The Tower tells the whole story – and what they do tell is enormously subjective – but I’ve really enjoyed both, despite the obvious flaws.

  3. The problem was it was only 60 minutes and the basic premise of the series is to take the Booth maps and illustrate how the classification changed, in Deptford High St’s case specifically from reasonably comfortable to deprived. I agree with most of your comments, but realistically the entire series would have to be about Deptford to give a more rounded view.
    I don’t come from Deptford but I’ve lived here since 1973. My family was from Walworth and I suppose I’m un-average in that my grandparents and great grandparents were from Walworth.

  4. Deptford may as well be on Mars for all I know of it, being on the other side of this globe, but, as always Ken, you’ve described in such detail and knowledge that I feel I am on a walking tour of the place with an educated and knowledgeable guide, and learning all about it.

    And I am sorry to read the documentary left a bad taste in your mouth, despite other strengths it had.

  5. I lived on Creek Road, Deptford, for a couple of years in the early 1980s and then in other parts of SE London (Brockley and Forest Hill mainly) for the rest of that decade. The thing that struck me about the documentary was that the estates, particularly Milton Court, were built in the 70s. It may be that I was so young at the time (relatively) but they struck me as being old and run down – and yet they had only been there 10 years at most.
    I used to look at the buildings on the High Street – and could see that they were old and characterful if somewhat battered and down-at-heel. The tragedy was that the new estates and tower blocks were no improvement on what They pulled down. And communities cannot develop when they are living vertically.

    One woman in the archive material said that she lived at the top of a high rise – her husband had had a mental breakdown, she couldn’t leave the children with him and the children had nowhere to play – unless she brought them down several storeys to play in a park. It seemed to me that the town planners were caught up in their cloud cuckoo land fantasy of streamlined living without understanding that communities are made up of people and relationships. The question they should always ask themselves is “would I live there?” If the answer is no, then don’t build it for others to suffer in. I noticed the filmmakers filmed Nicholas Taylor in his very nice house with large garden seen through the windows of his conservatory. He was not (I think?) responsible for the pulling down of those houses that “needed a little remedial renovation that could be effected at little cost” but somebody was. It seems to me that they made a big mistake. My heart broke for those families and communities who had been forced to live elsewhere. No, Brockley is not on the other side of the world from Deptford by any stretch of the imagination but it’s been my experience that when neighbours move just a couple of miles away, your whole relationship with them changes because you can’t just pop in, or wave as they pass by the house… a greater effort has to be made to maintain the relationship and in busy lives there often simply isn’t the time to sustain the relationship at the same level.

    I’ve rambled on…but those were a few of the thoughts I had when watching the film.

  6. Kerensa, we must have been moving around each other! I came to London in 85, lived two years in Nunhead, two in Brockley, then I’ve been around Loampit Vale in Lewisham since 1990.

    Yes, high rise doesn’t work for families with young children. And yes, its astonishing how the planners didn’t seem to realise that. Its a great tragedy. They were genuinely well-meaning, but failed, because they were ignorant of things they had supposedly been studying for decades. Its one of the huge ironies of the thing. But then the other vision of social housing, the out-of-town low-rise council estate loosely based on the “Garden City” ideal, also failed. In some ways it failed worse – the houses worked in many of them but the estates themselves only worked when the original tenants had been booted out. Just as you can convert a high rise into luxury flats by selling it to rich people with no kids.

    (As for Brockley not being on the other side of the world from Deptford, its on the other side of the street! The street in question being Lewisham Way. If the drunks sitting by the anchor at the junction of the High Street and Broadway were to cross the road and walk up Tanner’s Hill they’d be on Upper Brockley Road in about a quarter of a mile. In fact just about the whole of Brockley is closer to that end of Deptford High Street than the Pepys Estate or the Millwall ground are)

  7. Hi I have written a booklet on the false impressions viewers of ‘The Secret History of Our Streets: Deptford High St’ seemed to get about Deptfords history, Deptford today and about my dad. Do u have an e mail address so I can send it to you? The website it is on is deptfordptrs.com. Cheers Martin

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