Despite the arrival of the Millenium Dome southeast London remains compellingly awfulby CAR Hills / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Every week I go on a journey. It is the afternoon. I stand on the railway bridge and watch the approach of the two-carriage train which takes me from Wandsworth Road to southeast London. We pass the boarded-up station house at Clapham High Street; the gaping windows of terraced houses soon to be demolished. Then at Brixton, in the valley of the Effra, just past the 1880 clock tower, the landscape opens out onto a panorama of towers and hills.
At Peckham Rye I move to a larger but emptier train. The low hills provide an amphitheatre (“three long lumps of clay, on lease for building,” as John Ruskin described them in the 1850s). The train swings to the high ground at Nunhead and the muddled valley of Lewisham; I see a Union Jack decorating a shed, and a shuttered Victorian villa; then on to the concrete wasteground of Kidbrooke, and the faint suggestion of an Italian hilltown that is Eltham. A turreted Edwardian school is visible on the horizon; there I am to give my evening class in Portuguese.
On warm summer days, I used to spend an hour or two walking in Peckham Rye, as far as the blue plaque to Percy Lane Oliver, founder of the voluntary blood donor service, at the south end of the park. And now I have penetrated “such secret dimnesses as Hither Green, St John’s, Forest Hill, Anerley, Penge and all the despairing repetitions of grey terrace houses surrounding a laurel-embowered church that no traveller can ever find.”(Michael Harrison)
But does southeast London exist, except as a collection of postal districts? Would someone set down at random in outer London have any idea where he was? Of course not. Peckham Rye is similar to Finsbury Park or Elephant & Castle-only slightly more depressing than Stratford. Yet southeast London does exist. Its characteristic is remoteness. It is one of the rare parts of London that, at least for the present, lacks the tube. Yet it is more than this. It is an area where, without a car, or even with one, at times you cannot move. At four o’clock the buses are so packed with schoolchildren that they do not stop. The interlocking but not interconnecting trains finish early; the buses are mostly local; after a certain hour the only way out is by minicab. Many years ago, a friend of mine was awarded a council flat in Catford, but he had to give it up because none of his friends would visit him.
If the essence of the city is freedom, the southeast is where freedom is most limited. Spiritually, it is like a ghostly simulacrum of England in the 1920s and 1930s, “just endless people sleeping,” as one friend put it. It is full of people who grew up there and whose parents did. There are immigrants, but more than any other area it is still white London. Here are “the bland and pasty, the long and dour, the pretty and painted faces of the people”(Muriel Spark): the comfortable middle-aged women having tea in a Greenwich pub; the bull-necked Kidbrooke youths (“When I hit him, my hand swelled up like a balloon”); the solitaries sitting on walls, dragging at cigarettes, in the still midday.
Why do I like it? In what other part of London would something like the Green Chain Walk be possible-40 miles of paths through parks and woods, from the waterfront at Thamesmead to the Crystal Palace? The Norwood hills stretch in a great arc between these places, never as protuberant as the heights of Hampstead or Harrow, but more subtly blended with the city. Everywhere, among housing estates, on exposed platforms and grim roundabouts, the hills are present to remind you of what the land once was. Here the dream of rus in urbe has been achieved-but for people who are not smart, whose lives are not idyllic and who do not know what they have.
London sometimes seems to exist only so that it can be turned into reportage. But Betjeman never rhapsodised about the southeast; it has not been explored by Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair. I can have the illusion that these places have not been documented, that I am truly alone, as I wander through the empty cemeteries (which come in two closely-bunched groups of five), or past some deserted playground, with the gulls flying low, the noise of the trains and, on the horizon, the two winking towers of Canary Wharf and Crystal Palace.
The inhabitants of these places share the same dream as I do. They came to escape the crowded inner city and they are restlessly moving further into Kent. England lives not a rural but a semi-rural dream, dating back to the mid-Victorian age: its instrument was the train; its object the one-day excursion. It is a dream of escape, but not too far; the vital component is anonymity, impossible in the true countryside.
Now the sleep of this huge urban sprawl has been disturbed. The Millennium Dome is to be built here. The Jubilee Line is being extended, and a cable-car will come across the river to meet it. Desperate museums are springing up everywhere: Brunel’s pumping station; the remains of Edward III’s house at Rotherhithe; a fan museum-the only one in the world. But all these projects principally affect the estuary.
The controversy about the Dome is a symptom of our disunion. The spiritual tension, the vague angst and incivility which occasionally shade into panic and hysteria, are characteristics of modern Britain. And they seem to characterise southeast London particularly, often taking the form of racism. At Kidbrooke School, where I teach A-level Portuguese, a white teenager was casually murdered last year by a Triad gang from the neighbouring Thomas Tallis School. At a bus stop in Eltham, the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered just as casually a few years before. One of my pupils, of mixed Portuguese and Cape Verdean descent, appeared before me recently with a black eye. To him it is all in a day’s work. (His sister tells me just as matter-of-factly that the murder was one of four deaths of pupils within a year.) But Kidbrooke School is not a bad school. The teachers are caring; the facilities excellent; the atmosphere enlightened. When I walk down the quiet street that leads to the school gates, or past the bus stop where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, it seems to me impossible that this could have happened here.
I am haunted by my second sighting of a Union Jack. It is on the white wall of an upstairs room in a terraced house in Eltham. It is not possible to see into the sitting-room of the house, although I can make out that the television is on. Perhaps there should be nothing alarming about seeing your country’s flag. But I find it sinister.
I began to write under the influence of Denton Welch, an author of the 1930s and 1940s. He was a student at Goldsmiths’ School of Art; he lived on Croom’s Hill. He scoured the antique shops to decorate his room and carried his prizes back over Blackheath. One day in the summer of 1935, he set off by bicycle from Croom’s Hill to stay at his uncle’s vicarage in Surrey. He rode over Blackheath, dropped into Lewisham, stopped briefly at the catholic church there, and went on towards Catford. He had tea at a small 18th century house, which I think must have been Beckenham Place. Then, somewhere in the outer suburbs, he was knocked down by a car and suffered injuries which permanently crippled him, from which he died 13 years later. All his writing was done under the stimulus of that disaster.
In contrast to his days, which were mostly just dull and lonely, every one of mine is briefly disturbed, like a pin-prick, by the possibility of violence. Once, outside a grocer’s shop near Honor Oak, I foolishly asked some teenagers if I was on course for the Rye. Two youths followed me. I walked faster, began to run, but they gained on me. In desperation, on the south side of Peckham Rye Park, I flagged down a car, driven by a young black man. He understood the situation perfectly and quickly bore me off. So far my peace, unlike Denton’s, has not been ruined, although I am nervous as I sit in the train carriage at evening’s end.
The southeast once looked set fair to be grand. From the 14th to the 18th century kings and noblemen built palaces and country houses here; the park of Greenwich was laid out by Le N?tre. In the 18th century, in the great meander of the Thames around Waterloo, which is the real heart of London, a system of grand avenues was laid out which anticipated Hausmann’s Paris by 100 years. It was the railways with their messy viaducts, and the cholera and typhoid in the mid-19th century, which ruined south London; it has never recovered. Southwest London, which had some tube lines, became an amorphous region, the only large area of London to lack its own character (it is no accident that the southwestern postal districts extend north of the river). Southeast London, where the Ravensbourne and its Greenwich tributary, the Quaggy, made the land too marshy for the tube to penetrate, became the territory of the railways and the huge inter-war housing estates; a less violent, less slummy counterpart of east London.
London should have had a Left Bank like Paris; its river should have been a unifying force (it is narrow enough). As it is, the artists of south London have usually been solitaries. The greatest modern English writer, Muriel Spark, wrote all the novels for which she will be remembered in two upstairs rooms of a large house in Camberwell. But her book about the house, published much later, is called A Far Cry from Kensington. You can’t blame her.
I, too, have been exploring this region faute de mieux. The vagaries of teaching an unusual language have brought me here, and when I no longer need to teach it I shall visit more exciting places. There isn’t anything satisfying in the end about limitation. Nevertheless, I shall carry with me a memory of wide spaces punctuated by stubby towers, and of that atmosphere of quiet interrupted by fear and violence which attracts me deeply.