Thursday, December 9, 2010

On the Beginning of the End of the End of Goldhawk Road by the Windowless Consultant

Of course a city must always evolve. I don’t mean, only, that not to is death, but rather, for a city, even decay is evolution, just as regeneration can be decay. Think, for the latter, of Westfield shopping centre, subject of a future post, for the former of Goldhawk Road.

In my incarnation as window consultant, I’ve come here often, after materials for commissions, drapes for backdrop. I’ve been doing so for as long as I remember, since some of my first ever jobs, doing my business and heading back off without, I suppose you could say, considering, noticing what it was as a place. It’s not an area you’d recognise as a thing in itself, just a patch of mostly scruffy houses with a low-end market behind, and it’s only a couple of notices pasted here and there, pretext for conversation, a job having fallen through, that had me considering further.

Ruby, of the Goldhawk Road station café, was one of the first to fill me in, happy at the prospect of the market becoming something, as she sees it, more like Borough, serving more quality foods, attracting people after something a little better, more natural, catering to the rising aspirations of the area. Presumably she hoped this business might open avenues for Ruby’s Café itself, allow her to nurture the first shoots already visible in the decorative scheme of olive oil bottles, the freshly squeezed juices, home-made soups of the day and quality herbal teas already insinuating themselves among the more traditional greasy spoon fare. While many are less enthusiastic than she, as to the present shabbiness of the space there is general unanimity, as there is, even among some stall holders, concerning the shoddiness of much on sale.

Something, it’s agreed, must be done, and the council, along with their plans to upgrade the market, find that the strip of houses adjacent along the northern end of Goldhawk Road are of poor quality, and are of frontage inappropriately humble for their scheme.

There is a class of areas whose claim to our affections lies in the melancholy allure with which they seek to be overlooked, to be passed in a hurry by those too busy to notice that the excitement they head for beyond may be surpassed here, less strident, intangible, more profound. And so it was that, discovering that it was to disappear, having visited so often, I at last became aware that this, here, was such an area, its quality, tagged for demolition, suddenly noticeable for having been overlooked.

Who could explain to the council that to knock down the authentic set of the key meeting of Quadrophenia, when Jimmy encounters Kevin, mod meets greaser, is a mistake, in the same way it is to dislodge Turker and Emete from their place at the helm of the last Zippy café, the first Zippy ever in London, perhaps anywhere outside of America? That people come from the States, where the franchise still abounds, to try the only Triple Shake left in the Old World can’t be expected to find its way onto the planning documents, or the pride of the textiles shops in that other local phenomenon, their accelerating proliferation. There were, it appears, a mere five or six years ago just four of these shops, but, with people beginning to cross London for them, another would open, then another and still others, attracting still more customers, until now people come from everywhere, they tell us, Arab royals in limos up to the inappropriately humble little pavement, people up from out of town going to marry, fashion students needing an edge in a new design.

More intriguing still than the facts themselves are their recorders, the shop traders and their quiet pride in their collective creation, or Mr Zippy, as Turker calls himself with a glint, as indefatigable in anecdote as he is in business, his only time for rest, he jokes, at red lights in the van.

Planning documents nowadays are, on the surface, exacting, must bear in mind the existing light quality, aspects of atmosphere, characteristic odours, too, at times. Here at the Bush they delve as far as into the etymology for clues as to character, though skirting over its murkier depths. Shepherd’s Bush, they tell us, refers to the open fields that once characterised the area, and their bucolic exploitation. That this folksier side is cast under doubt by the more scholarly, if superficially less picturesque suggestion that it may well have been a family that went by the occupational name, they fail to mention, missing thereby too a patronymic trail that, who knows? may lead to the notorious crook and prison breaker Jack, whose family, a thrilling legend could potentially be made to have it, once lived here.

It’s the aim of course of this collective blog to capture qualities about an area that pass unnoticed, that are notable, perhaps, for that reason alone, perhaps entice some of the subtler forces of the city out into the open, or furnish routes for a day-to-day with a keener or subtler awareness. It was speaking to the Goldhawk protagonists I began to realise that a study of this area might allow that, by seeking to grasp what the council fail to take account of, perhaps even must ignore – a thing, perhaps, whose existence is dependent on its being unable to be acknowledged by established procedures, a thing that can never quite be grasped.

And yet, even as I sought to record that intangible, I had constantly to suppress at the back of my mind a doubt that it was itself perhaps nothing but the shadow hanging over it, the atmosphere I saw there now not simply inseparable from but an actual product of the demolition order. Certainly I may never have seen the one without the other.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Walworth I: An Area Through Time by the London Archaeologist

There have been markets in Walworth since the sixteenth century, we’re told, and, if now they’re contained within marked and numbered pitches, things haven’t always been so formal.

Most days, he’d be at the local with the lads, and a bloke would come round with a shirt, a bit of silverware, a leg of lamb, too, a prize in hard times, after an offer. But then one day, a Sunday with the place busy for the markets, this bloke sticks his head round and goes, anybody want to buy a horse?

It amazes me all these years I’ve passed through it never to have noticed the area until now, as they begin demolishing huge chunks of it again, I get called to the sites where they’re digging – something’s come up, I’m told, that may be a mammoth bone, or the limb of a forgotten god.

This informal trading may be the key to cockney London, this skirting stacked odds, a rapid and unrecorded exchange of goods, knowledge, cash, style, opinion, or, in the present instance, anecdote, George Dyer, the Threadneedle Man, passing on a story passed on to him in turn by his friend and associate, publicist, local writer Mark Baxter, a story that may turn out to be the man’s jackpot, already post-production, out soon.

What attracted me into Dyer's wasn’t the cloth, fine as it was, wonderfully styled, but a book for sale – rare enough sight in a tailor’s window to have me passing through the old wood framed door: Walworth Through Time.

If markets figure heavily in these posts, it’s not simply for the photo ops they undoubtedly represent, and the traders in East Lane are justly proud of a stretch that, though those who have been there longest suggest unanimously it’s declining, still manages enough intensity of activity, banter, humour and variety to resist the glacial grip of Iceland, Pound Shops, and Boots.

From the walls around Dyer as we talked, and, slowly realising he’d have to have a central place in the Walworth posts, as I snapped, I gradually became aware of an extent of reputation I hadn’t guessed at, guests – for so even the most notable clients must be of this character the expansiveness of whose character was the stuff to accommodate any number of them, roving with his interests in the few minutes of my visit through Ronnie Scotts, subject of a large print by a local artist up by the ceiling at the front, to the connection between architecture and photography via perspective, film, a good story, what the mods did for the suit, his hands all the while giving the measure of these ideas, reeling them out like so many yards of cloth, chopping them up, realigning, pinning them down before folding them away for the next one – actors, boxers, entertainers, frequent journalists – having each furnished, along with further snippets, signed snapshots on their way.

The book, it transpired, wasn’t there out of interest alone, but found itself caught up in his roaming passion for anecdote, a love of the area he’d bought into with the premises of this, his first business, and itself a product of that, stitched together from shared stories, swapped photos, exchanged accounts of how Clint Eastwood, for instance, had drunk at the Red Lion, subject of local artist Morganic’s refuse bin, the old trades of Boundary Lane, and the crimes on the Heygate Highwalks.

How much truth lies behind the story don’t ask, anymore than you would where it comes from of a juicy leg of lamb in pinched times, and much is under wraps pending release, but it turns out it was a racehorse, and it was the fact the lads took a chance on it that led to a chain of events taking in not only the local area of Walworth, nor even the city as a whole, but, in one way or another, international.