Holy Ghost Zone, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
When playing Monopoly my father was always determined to acquire Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, and to build on them as soon as possible. It’s the most modest portfolio on the board, with houses on Old Kent Road, as I remember, costing little more than a hotel on Mayfair. ‘You might laugh,’ my father would tell us in baleful tones, ‘but everybody always lands on Old Kent Road.’
I’m interested in the Old Kent Road as a sort of social counterweight to Hampstead, but my friend David, a South London partisan, is a genuinely keen on it, and gave me a guided tour this week.
Tesco, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2004.
‘When the evening sun’s like this,’ he said cheerfully, as we skirted a sofa that had been thoughtfully set out on the pavement, ‘it’s got a sort of I’m-in-a-scary-part-of-LA charm.’ We were walking past the Old Kent Road’s array of cosmopolitan food shops, beauty parlours, international cash transfer places, evangelical ministries, van washing businesses. As the cars screamed by, David would stop every now and again to photograph the lowering clouds over some light industrial unit or brutalist block of flats. He seemed particularly taken with the visual possibilities of the flyover at the southern end of the Road. ‘A friend of mine owns a flat that looks right on to that,’ he said enviously.
I looked at a price list outside one of the Road’s pubs: it advertised a cocktail called a Slippery Nipple, consisting of Sambuca, Bailey’s and Grenadine. You could have a jug of Slippery Nipple for £12.50. Another sign forbade anybody wearing a hat to enter the pub. You knew there was some insight into human behaviour behind this, and that it had been won the hard way.
Re-branding exercise, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
‘If Dickens were alive today he’d be down here all the time,’ said David as car came crawling noisily down the Road with only two of its tyres inflated. David then attempted, with windmilling arms, to direct the dazed-looking driver to a nearby sprawling depot called Madhouse Tyres.
As he did so, I reflected that the Old Kent Road does have the look of suburban LA or Chicago – that rangy wildness – and it occurred to me that this is what happens to British streetscapes when middle class vigilance is reduced and planning controls relaxed: they begin to look American.
Chinese Elvis restaurant, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2002.
David pointed out East Street, which goes off the Old Kent Road. Its market features in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, in which Rodney and Del Boy inhabit a tower block inevitably called Nelson Mandela House. David took me to Mandela Way, which intersects with Old Kent Road, and where there is a small patch of green space occupied by a tank that has been painted pink and decorated repeatedly with the stencilled word ‘Scab’. ‘If this was North London,’ I marvelled, ‘there would be letters in the Hampstead and Highgate Express every week until it was taken away.’ ‘Really?’ said David, snapping away, ‘it’s been here for years.’*
Tank, Mandela Way. © David Secombe 2004.
In the streets off Old Kent Road, you never know what you’ll find: a battered looking Georgian house with an ice cream van parked in the front drive and a lone security camera staring at it; a tiny house with a sign saying ‘This property is protected by guard dogs’ – that’s dogs, plural; sudden bombsites with rampant buddleia, the scars of the Second World War still seemingly fresh. There are also surprising runs of pristine Georgian and Victorian houses with obviously middle class occupants.
Almshouses, Asylum Road, SE15. © David Secombe 2008.
You could argue that Old Kent Road is going upmarket. The famous old Dun Cow pub is now the Dun Cow Surgery, and the Thomas A Becket, the even more famous boxing pub, built on one of the many sites where the Canterbury pilgrims took liquid refreshment, is now an estate agency, a sign of the times to an extent almost ridiculous. ‘You’d think there’d be a plaque acknowledging what it used to be,’ I said to David. But he frowned and shook his head, ‘That’s one of the great things about the Old Kent Road,’ he said, as we trudged on, ‘a profound lack of sentimentality.’
© Andrew Martin. This article originally appeared in Andrew’s Class Conscious column for The New Statesman in 2004.
(*The tank is a Soviet T-34 placed on Mandela Way as a protest by a disgruntled property developer following the rejection of a planning application.)