Sunday, August 17, 2008


As a stubborn North Londoner (via Suffolk and Leeds), I rarely ventured south of the river before Spring last year, but for the last six months I've split my time between Camden and my girlfriend's flat in Brixton. I was immediately taken by the market and the arches under Brixton Station (refreshing to see arches untainted by the hands of regenerators), but it's taken longer for me to accept the idea that maybe, just maybe, there might be something to this South London business.

So yesterday, the very lovely DV and I went on a daytrip to Peckham.

We took the 37 bus from Brixton and got off at Rye Lane. South London differs from North in many intangible ways, but an obvious difference is the sharp dividing lines between neighbourhoods. The chaotic desperation of Brixton lurches suddenly into the verdant provinciality of Herne Hill; then leafy Dulwich lurches back into the avowedly working-class and multi-racial Peckham Rye. In North London, this doesn't happen so much - the passage from Wood Green to Muswell Hill, for example, is a relatively smooth one (though socio-economic movement from the former to the latter is well-nigh impossible). It feels rather like South London is less planned than the North, that it has grown out of necessity rather than judgement.

Peckham reminds me a bit of La Paz - a ridiculous comparison, but both lay bare their disorder and their poverty. Peckham is unreconstructed, the sort of place celebrated by people who visit deprived places and embrace their "vibrancy" and "diversity". In the late 80s and early 90s, it was home to warehouse parties and squatter collectives. Back to the Planet, a dub reggae band who recently reformed in a pub in Camberwell, were the scourge of Tory governments intent on pushing through their Criminal Justice Act. Today it is both thriving and deprived, a mixture of vitality and depression.

We visited Peckham Library - a well-intentioned example of civic architecture which nevertheless doesn't quite work. I was looking forward to seeing it - it does, after all, look terrific in photos - but its efforts at broadening the role of the public library are hampered by the metal netting in which it cages itself, and the fact that the library itself is on the fourth floor. Still, it is a library and not an "ideas factory", so for that we must be grateful.

From the library we walked along the cycle path to Burgess Park, past a woman performing various agonising gyrations in the name of fitness, to Chumleigh Gardens. As with all gardens or nature reserves in London, this one feels rather out of place. It is home to species from all over the world, arranged in Islamic, English, African/Caribbean, Mediterranean and Oriental styles. The buildings used to be an asylum for women (a "female-friendly" asylum, according to the plaque). There was nobody about on Saturday except for a conference of geological-looking types who chattered in one of the meeting rooms, and looked quizzically at DV when she visited the Ladies'.

We walked on towards the King William the Fourth pub on Albany Road - or rather, the ruins thereof. From a distance it looks like it's made of chalk. A closer inspection reveals that someone has covered it in perforated paper. It looks rather good, until you learn that it's just marketing for a private-sector regeneration scheme. It proclaims that the paper-covered pub is public art, but the wall surrounding it is covered in anti-climb paint and dire warnings against stepping any further.


Our walking instructions told us that a junkyard-cum-salvage-company on the corner of Southampton Way was worth exploring. On the roof are carousel figures, ponies, strongmen, skeletons, ruddy-faced butchers - all manner of characters welcoming you to the Architectural Rescue. It was just closing as we arrived, so we had to peer through the gaps in the fence to see its myriad bannisters, Tube signs, balustrades, chandeliers, Irish phone-boxes, life-size wooden goats and sundry bric-a-brac, like melancholy children looking into a sweetshop window. We will return next Saturday, partly to take pictures, and partly because DV knows the just the spot for a life-size wooden goat.

The other side of Southampton Way presented another reason to kick ourselves for not having cameras: two blocks of low-rise flats which had been entirely gutted except for two sides of exterior walls and ceilings. It's as if some property developer had sent in the demolition men, taken one look at the economic forecasts and called the whole thing off. The solar system wallpaper is still up in the children's bedroom; flock wallpaper still covers the kitchen walls. A WC sits precariously on a beam, pushed this way and that by the flourishing weeds. Oddest of all, someone has decided to hang bed-frames and tables from the roof of each flat. DV saw toys piled up on one of the bedframes, including Po the red Teletubby. There they hang, swinging in the breeze, watched by the mannequins from the Architectural Rescue.

I'm not sure even photos will justify this strange and sinister spectacle, but I'll do my best next weekend. Otherwise, you may have to find your own way down to the Peckham / Walworth divide and see the malevolent furniture and the baleful stares of the butcher for yourself. See also here for more on the lost canals of Burgess Park.

(Ta v much to DV for reminding me of the bits I'd forgotten)


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