16 October 2015
I don’t think I’ve ever known as much change as what is underway in south London right now, particularly in my current and long standing haunt, Vauxhall and South Lambeth, and my old Stockwell neighbourhood too.
Change can often be unsettling. I speak to many of the people I grew up with in Stockwell and Clapham and to a person, the one thing they do say is the significant changes to the areas they grew up in make them feel old and like there’s no place for them anymore in the new vision. When I hear this, it gets me thinking whether our parents would’ve felt the same back in the seventies and eighties, us they walked through our high streets. Having thought about it, I don’t think they would’ve. The changes back then were not as great, and not geared towards the obsession for being young and happening, and easy on the eye. Even back then, while young though always disinclined to be ‘happening’, this pandering and emphasis towards youth by developers always grated with me. Communities are made up of all age groups.
There was more emphasis on the changes serving the existing community back then and perhaps tweaking a few things and introducing the odd new business to cater for the influx of for example, the yuppies that moved into Clapham in the early to mid-eighties when the area underwent its first significant change in my lifetime.
I never understood the change back then. I was just a kid. I do remember though losing a whole bunch of friends on my road and the surrounding streets as their parents sold the places they’d just bought off the council and moved away. Suddenly street football was dead, owing to a lack of friends and each house, having been converted into flats, now having up to three cars jostling for parking space in the street. I would ask my mum why I could suddenly see into people’s houses. The disappearance of net curtains was the biggest thing I remember from that early period of change in Clapham.
Clapham still had enough for me to keep me going up the high street a couple of times a week, up to the Moonfleet record store, next to the old Plough pub which in the late eighties staged brilliant stand up comedy nights on Saturdays. The high street was a big part of my life and would be until the mid-nineties until I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the new wave of changes. Clapham Market, the stand out attraction of the old high street for me and where I bought my doomed terrapins Sammy and Shirley in March ’82, closed down in the late nineties and in the summer of 2000, I found myself having a final meal with an ex-girlfriend in a wanky restaurant/bar built in its place. I knew that night Clapham was no longer for me and I washed my hands of it that night. I was in my twenties then but I felt as I do now. These changes were not for me. They had been crowbarred in for the middle classes, for the young couples beginning to flood the area before they moved onto Chelsea, as they tended to before the global crash in 2008 meant that these people began to see Clapham as a long term destination rather than merely a stop off before they moved to the neighbourhood where they would have their nice flats, kids and a parking spot for their four by fours.
In a decade and a half of being bounced around from one post code to another, unable to retain a toe hold in any of the neighbourhoods I did know and was comfortable in, I settled on South Lambeth/Vauxhall, an area to which I had a long standing connection. South Lambeth was where my mum had settled when she first arrived in London in the mid-sixties, and my dad's now much Anglicised family have been in SW8 since the late fifties. Up until the mid-nineties, SW8 had enjoyed a big Spanish presence, nothing like the Portuguese invasion post ’96, but nevertheless big enough to have its own weekly Spanish club running on Sunday nights from St Anne’s Hall, opposite Vauxhall Park. I knew the area very well. From the late eighties, I was there even more having met one of my great friends who lived on one of the estates, the Space Daddy.
In 2001, in between the loss of my parents, I happened upon the Portuguese café, one of many that surfaced on South Lambeth Road in the late nineties, and I never went away. The place informs so much of my work and practically every big piece of work I managed to sell was mostly written from there. In the café, I had found the place my dad once told me it was important to find, somewhere to stop and think every day in a city as unforgiving as London, and I knew I had the first time I went in there.
Now, as the developers in Stockwell and Vauxhall, having radically altered our skyline, finally begin turning their attention to the smaller long standing businesses that will cater for the new moneyed people their new soulless developments have ushered in, the café is under serious threat. With its owner having sadly passed away last month, its future is uncertain.
Talking to the regulars, it’s felt the owner’s children are likely to be open to the offers from developers that their mother would’ve waved away. The changes in the café over the last year, with the owner’s declining health and eventual death playing out in the background, have been significant. New better-heeled customers have arrived in time possibly to witness the café’s final days, and the curious belated debut of the hash brown in a cooked breakfast, which looks ill at ease with the new addition, was targeted at the new English middle class clientele that have recently discovered the café.
Meantime, three minutes southbound, just up the road on the site of the old Di Lieto bakery, a new Sainsbury’s local is set to move in, the sixth local store now between Clapham Common and South Lambeth. That’s six locals (plus an old school old Sainsbury’s supermarket) in the space of a fifteen-minute walk. From 1990 to 1998, we did not have a single Sainsbury’s in the area until you got to Nine Elms. Now we have an overload of tiny stores flogging marked up goods. This isn’t the future. This is now. And this wasn’t done for the existing community. This has been done for the money that has come into the area. When my mum was around, she would have to go to Brixton to do her shopping because Clapham and Stockwell had no decent supermarkets. It could be argued bar the one Supermarket in Clapham, we still don’t. Local stores are not the answer. They are merely an upmarket Londis.
It’s a common grumble when you’re opposed to change that anything new kills the character of an area. Areas such as Stockwell did need to change but I see very few of the changes serving the community’s needs. St Andrew’s Church, the area’s oldest building, as discussed on my radio show last week, is set to be converted into flats. South Lambeth Library, as I’ll be discussing this week, is once again under threat of closure as Lambeth Council tries to convert it into the fifth gym within five minutes walk of the library. Having lost my childhood library on Jeffrey's Road in the nineties, I’ve spent the last fifteen or more years going to the Tate Library. During some tough winters, it gave me somewhere warm to stop and collect my thoughts and read the broadsheets I could no longer afford. A place to stay informed (Confession: I downloaded the entire first series of the original Dallas from there in the autumn of 2008).
Every day I see the same faces in that library, faces for which the new proposed gym will not cater for. Where will these people who’ve already seen their old haunts shuttered, go? Are they, we, to lose everything we love? Can they not leave us anything? Where will the immigrants learning English on a Saturday afternoon go to master the language too few Iberian immigrants have got to grips with over the last five decades owing to the community’s insularity?
I like to think if I was one of these new people moving into an area that I had no pre-existing knowledge of, and knowing I was fortunate enough to have money behind me to allow me to move into one of these soulless developments that have sprung up, that I had enough about me to know what I was seeing before me might not be the area as it really was. That what I was seeing was merely some developer’s wet dream. That before the Sainsbury’s Locals and CostaStarNeros begun to clutter up SW8 and SW9 and push the locals out, there was something much more interesting going on. And I would be disappointed not to have known that world.
Hopefully I have a few healthy decades still ahead of me, but I know I will never find a place like the café. South London as we knew it is dying. The life support has been switched off and loved ones have been told to come and say their goodbyes.
This makes me very sad.