Katy Evans Bush:
Hackney Wick – that seedy, industrial, inaccessible part of Hackney down by the river that languished forgotten for decades – is still holding onto its wasteland aesthetic. There are desolate streets, decrepit warehouses, and graffiti all over every available surface as far as they eye can see. But these days, this appearance is a choice – it’s an aesthetic – and Hackney Wick costs money. Forget what you’ve heard about Dalston, or Peckham – they’ve gone, tipped over the edge. The real hipster epicentre is Hackney Wick.
The warehouses now house bars, the vans sell veggieburgers and pastries, the air carries an aroma of artisan beer and the graffiti covering all those brick walls is just as likely to be ‘street’-style advertising as actual tagging. But it’s apparently not quite as simple as that: there’s a war being fought for the spirit of Hackney Wick, and the battleground is its brick walls. Two Sunday afternoon trips a couple of weeks apart revealed the speed with which one covers the other, and is covered again.
Even the graffiti brings with it the subtle but unmistakeable whiff of money. The burgers aren’t cheap. The warehouses house galleries. The labels on the single-hop beer look very similar to the pictures on the walls outside. Last weekend there was a Christmas tree seller in the middle of Queen’s Yard (apparently the epicentre of the epicentre), with trees selling for anywhere £35 to £75.
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, alongside the intensely calm beardy cyclist fellows, the main demographic you see is the well-dressed bourgeoisie. Walking about. Being given the tour by their offspring. Eating artisanal food. Taking photographs. Like the tall, slim, puffa-clad French family we saw the other week, heading for their Range Rover, looking round and all exclaiming at once. Your correspondents felt a pang of kinship for one person: an older, scruffier man with a toddler on his shoulders, stopped between a narrow boat that is a prosecco bar and a warehouse pizza place that offers craft beers and walnut-&-stilton pizzas, conferring with his friend and looking slightly flummoxed.
The area is ringed – that is, more or less defined – by large ‘upmarket residential developments’, smooth-faced expanses mostly with big locked gates at the street entrance. Some have well-lit interiors, personal touches visible in their plate-glass windows, and balcony gardens; others are barren. Along the prime real estate River Lea they look across at the remnants of the Olympic Park, and down over a hotch-potch of narrow boats, whose riverine ‘broken-chairs-tarpaulins-&-cables’ aesthetic evocatively offsets the penthouses. In front of one block – its retail premises empty on the ground floor – is an old industrial chimney, standing all alone, with a plaque on it.
Near this, across from the entrance to Queen’s Yard, is a vacant lot where once stood the Lea Tavern, demolished in 2008 for reasons which are opaque; the site is overgrown with buddleia. Along the top of its hoarding (a battleground of the graffiti war) is an ambiguous and badly punctuated sign:
It is as well to remind oneself that the great thing about London – the truly great thing – used to be the way that people of all sorts shared a neighbourhood: council blocks jostled with mansions, terraces of 2-up-2-downs gave onto parks and mansion blocks onto motorways. The narrow boats have suffered over recent years with increasingly punitive rules about mooring, but they do even now offer – if you can stick the lifestyle – relatively cheap housing. And in this neighbourhood, even the tattiest canal boat has sculptures in front of it.
This is, in a way, still real life. Tags and posters, hipster street art and the retro, angry, non-ironic article, fight for space and fight each other (as per the re-written speech bubble emerging from the mouth of this dazed stereotype).
This wraith, not far from a set of ‘Sweet Toof‘s ubiquitous teeth, might be shaking his fist at a sign listing property prices.
The battle lines are clearly drawn.
Hackney Wick station looks a bit sinister by night, but it is probably getting more traffic than ever before. The studiedly ‘urban’ look of the area gives the lie to the sanitised gloss of the recent ‘Spirit of 2012′ (though it feels fair to suppose that this look owes as much to Jean-Michel Basquiat and the iconographised dirt of eighties New York than to anything more organic); but the biggest surprise in Hackney Wick is its proximity to Stratford Westfield Shopping Centre.
Stratford, of course, was the local station for the Games, and the town centre had a massive do-over for the tourists. Facing east, looking past the couples strolling along the waterside like animated architects’ mock-ups, past the Olympic park and Anish Kapoor’s Brobdingnagian toy town tower, the backdrop for all this is a familiar, and surprising, sight. The beacon of the middle class. An unflashy, but insistent, glowing sign: JOHN LEWIS.
Neighbourhoods are mortal. Change is constant. The really important thing to remember is that the really big developers are already moving in. The second Battle for Hackney Wick has probably already been lost; the artists, pizzateers and canal-dwellers will be shunted to the provinces, the cute little prosecco boat will give way to a big slick floating bar where you have to book, and we will rue the day when we thought these little concrete galleries with bike racks were the actual problem, not just the symptom. And the real old London will be that little bit more lost.
© Katy Evans Bush. All pictures © David Secombe.
Katy’s new collection of essays Forgive the Language is published by Penned in the Margins.
‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
Abney Park Cemetery, N16. © David Secombe 2010.