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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.


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.


To deepest North London to see my daughter who is staying at a friend’s house for a while. Walking back to Seven Sisters tube I go another way from the road I came by and misread the map. I don’t mean I went the wrong way, but I failed to guess what sort of place I was walking through. There’s a circular street called Clyde Circus. On the map it looks like the sort of street plan I associate with 1930s or later council estates. But when I got there its actually very late Victorian terraces and quite posh. I should have paid attention to the words rather than the pictures. Anywhere called “Beaconsfield Road” is likely to be a long straight street of late 19th century “villas” (because almost certainly named after Lord Beaconsfield AKA Benjamin Disraeli, who died in 1881).

North London feels different from South London. (for a valus of “South London” that is I suppose more or less South East London inner suburbia). At any given distance from town it tends to be more inner-urban, with a more developed and denser infrastructure, perhaps more sophisticated, and also somehow less provisional. It feels like they finished building it. And fewer of those dark streets. S

And it really is a quick way back to the tube.

Not that that did any good. Hoping to be back home just after midnight I tried to change to the Northern Line for London Bidge at King’s Cross. Arrived on the platform about twenty past eleven and waited, and waited. No southbound train on the indicators. Just when I was starting to think about looking for a bus they did the Inspector Sands announcement, Sensible passengers started leaving immediately. A few minutes later they did the evacuation alarm and we all made our way to the surface. False alarm it turned out but at five to midnight I was at the back end of St Pancras watching the staff try not to have a fight with an aggressive drunk. So out to the bus stop, and three cigarettes later (waiting for 63, 171, 436) was back at Lewisham at nearly half past one.

Then I still had to change the washing in the machine do some other stuff to get ready for tmorrow and fell asleep in an upright chair which is why I am blogging this now.

Can I go to bed and get up in two or three hours? I am about to find out.

I’ve got chalk on my boots.

Its the season for fire and remembering so on Thursday I went down to Brighton with the idea of taking a bus to Woodingdean, where I lived when I was a child, and then walking over the Downs to Lewes to see the Bonfire celebrations.

The plan was all but scuppered by public transport. These things are so much harder when you get out of London (so at my age maybe can never leave London – how could I live anywhere else where there is no proper transport? I’d be trapped in a house unless I lived near a mainline railway station) It took about an hour and twenty minutes to get from my front door to Brighton Station. A bus and two trains. Then it took over two hours to get from the centre of Brighton to the top end of Woodingdean. There is only one bus from the station to Woodingdean, its called the 52, and it comes along hourly. I had to wait 35 minutes for it – or would have if it hadn’t been over a quarter of an hour late. (Maybe I could have gone down to St Peter’s and got another bus there but there was no sign or information at the station telling me that.) And the bus was full of schoolkids going home – who gets let out od school before half past three?

And the bus went all round the houses – up to Dyke Road through sidestreets, down the the Steine, along St James’s Street, and through Kemp Town streets that I have leafleted every house in, past the Royal Sussex Hospital (the last time I went in there it was to see my Dad die, about 19 years ago) uselessly in and out of the Marina (ten minutes without once stopping to let anyone of or off), up past St Dunstan’s and through Ovingdean, all round the back of Woodingdean almost to the top so I was about to get off – then it turned left, went down to Warren Road and then turned right back up Falmer Road – by the time I got up there it was after five and getting dark. So it took longer to go by bus from the centre of Brighton to Woodingdean than it did to get to Brighton from Lewisham, or to walk from Woodingdean to Lewes.

sunset_over_marina_7730 st_dunstans_7733
woodingdean_7736 Langley Crescent, Woodingdean

So no time to have a look at any of the places remembered from childhood, and I make my way straight onto the hill, fail to find the path I am sure was there once that leads up to the radio mast at the top, and I don’t want to go down into what I still think of as just “The Valley”, where we used to play when I was a kid. The map calls it “Newmarket Bottom” and “Balsdean Bottom” and part of it is now a nature reserve called “Castle Hill” – none of those words we ever used when we lived there (thugh we did know of Balsdean Farm – I went badger watching there once) So I walk back down to Falmer Road and start again there.

The old road from Brighton to Lewes – called Juggs Lane locally for reasons supposedly to do with fish, a name we did use – starts at Warren Road on the Race Hill above Bevendean, opposite the second bend in the race course, and continues as a muddy track behind the older part of Woodingdean, the plotland bungalows from between the wars in streets like Seaview Road and Downsview Road (I thought those names stupid – they are streets, not roads, and where can’t you see the sea and the Downs from?) Then across Falmer Road and up across barley fields behind Woodingdean, incongruously though patchily tarmaced for the first few hundred metres (I guess it was from the War when presumably the radio masts at the top of the hill and further down on the path to the Valley were radar stations or forward observation post or maybe even anti-aircraft batteries) then just a chalk path along Kingston Ridge.

Navigating on the Downs after dark isn’t as hard as it sounds. There is enough light to see the shape of the hills against the sky, and chalk paths almost shine, so its not that hard to find your way. And, at least on the Brighton side, I’ve known these hills since I was a kid. I used to play up here when I was six years old.

Finding the way is not as hard as not falling over. When you get to the top of the hill you can see the lights of Brighton behind you and Lewes before you and a little later you see Kingston much nearer nestling in the side of its Down. A little Tolkieny moment, seeing Kingston from above, by the pale lights from house windows – no streetlights or moving cars or shop windows. Its not much more than a mile from tarmac to tarmac in a straight line and even in the dark you can walk it in an hour.

falmer_road_from_newmarket_hill_7741 brighton_from_newmarket_hill_7744

It would be less than an hour if it wasn’t for the last couple of hundred metres. The path comes down steeply from Kingston Ridge to the village through a deep cut lane. In places the sides of the cutting are taller than I can reach – how many centuries of walkers does it take to wear the ground down ten feet?

There is a knack to walking on bare chalk that I picked up as a child but would probably be more difficult to people not used to it. There are also knacks to walking on grassy steep downland (stepping from hummock to hummock) and other ones for shingle and the wave-cut platform

Chalk paths form ruts and ridges easily. The tops and sides of the ridges are often at quite odd angles making it easy to turn your foot over walking on them. The bottom of the ruts can be full of exposed flint – which grips your boots well – but can also be very wet. Bare wet chalk is slipperly, slidy and claggy. The path is steep, maybe one in six or steeper. I walk slowly and carefully, almost falling over three or four times. At one point trying to hold on to some vegetation to steady myself I put my hand in what felt like a gorse bush. Maybe it was only a large burdock, it was too dark to see.

Its easy to see the path, its chalk. It all but glows in the dark. You can even see it by starlight. What you can’t see is what the dark patches are. In the dark a patch of grass, a heap of horseshit, and an eight-inch deep hole you could break your ankle in all look just the same against the chalk. And there are plenty of all of them on this part of Juggs Lane.

And then into Kingston (or rather the Kingston Ridge estate uphill from it) feet and ankles complaining (though it was my back that felt it the next morning) and suddenly the navigation problems start. Kingston is not the sort of place that has streetlights. Or even roadsigns. Its not designed to be easy for strangers to find their way about in. It is also just off the edge of my map of Lewes, but not shown in detail in my OS map of the Downs. It ought to be possible to find the other end of Juggs Lane (“Juggs Street” on the map) and so to Southover that way – but in the dark, I miss it. And find myself in a deep cut road with flint walls and many cars and still no street light. Which is one of two or three such roads in the area and I’m not sure which.

So, on principle, I carry on downhill, hoping to find the pub. And I do. I have half a memory, probably false, of the Juggs Arms (its all “Jugg” round here) being called something else and small and rural and frequented by farmers and retired colonels. Well, now its been extended and its got a restaurant and a car park and a large covered area and the customers seem like the sort of people who live in Lewes (if that makes sense) But the beer is good (Shepherd Neame – some sort of very hoppy ordinary bitter rebranded as Kingston Ale, and also Spitfire kept well) and the bar is warm and I have a couple of pints before setting off for Bonfire.

Lighting up

There she blows barrells_7800

Historical Archives of the First Circumnavigation of London

Select the map for a bigger picture:

First Circumnavigation of London

This was a series of walks done, IIRC, in about 2001/2002. The idea was I would take a train out to the last station in zone two, then walk round to the outermost zone two station on the next line. So dividing the walk into a series of a couple of dozen stages round London. some only a few hundred metres (I tended to go on little excursions in that case) the longest being only a few hours walk, so they could be fitted in to an evening after work (followed by a quick pint in whichever local pub seemed nicest), or a Sunday afternoon stroll and still be back in time for the 6.30 service.

It started by taking the first train up to town from Lewisham (which went, not surprisingly, to London Bridge) then getting on the first tube train out of town, which took me to Willesden Green. So the first walk was something like Willesden Green to Kensal Green, the next Kensal Green to Kensal Rise and so on anti-clockwise (in tune with the natural rotation of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy 🙂 ) until I found myself back there a year or more later.

The pattern of walks tends to break down in the southern part, Herne Hill to Brockley is a longer stage than I wanted to do, and goes almost entirely through streets I have walked all over before, so I diverted down through Dulwich for variety. And it also breaks down in the downriver section where you need to go all the way to Woolwich to cross the river on foot and the stage ran (before the DLR extension) from Greenwich to Silvertown because you aren’t supposed to walk through the Blackwall tunnel. Though I walked past both ends of it.

Not that I would want to walk through the Blackwall tunnel. I’ve both walked and cycled through the Rotherhithe tunnel and its not recommended for the asthmatic and bronchitic. Or anyone remotely scared of playing with traffic. Its a bit like being trapped in a smelly dirty hole in the ground with a couple of hundred cars and a few dozen big diesel lorries, all belching fumes. In fact it IS being trapped in a smelly dirty hole in the ground with a couple of hundred cars and a few dozen big diesel lorries, all belching fumes. Its worse on the bike. You can’t use the narrow walkway so you have to share the road with the motors. And its a lot longer than it looks on the surface (I have no idea where it goes under the river but it certainly isn’t straight across ), and whichever way you go the second half is continually uphill for about half a mile, straining your lungs while being forced to cycle in the path of the motor vehicles whose drivers are getting angrier and angrier.

Anyway, like I said, time to buy a new book and set off for new journeys. The map books are all coloured now, which is fine for almost every likely use EXCEPT marking where you went by filling in streets with yellow pens. It was all so much simpler when you could still buy a black and white A to Z.