From Chelsea punks to Hackney hipsters

Dabbler editor Gaw ponders the ever-changing character of parts of London…

I’m reading Iain Sinclair’s book Hackney: That Red Rose Empire and something said by one of his interviewees seemed to encapsulate the social character of many of those parts of London which suffered in the recent turmoil, areas which are difficult to pigeonhole socially: Hackney, Stoke Newington, Clapham Junction, Ealing. The speaker was one Driffield, a second-hand book dealer who’d moved away from the borough:

The odd thing about living in Hackney is that everybody is so entrenched. You’ve got working class people for whom all the others are interlopers. You had black people for whom whites were interlopers. You had middle-class people about whom all the others agreed: get rid of them. It was ten different Hackneys, nothing overlapped.

It was a very class conscious area. I thought Hackney was the poorest borough in Britain. They boasted about it. They were always brandishing the statistics: ‘The poorest borough in Britain.’ I’ve been to places a lot poorer. I went once to the outskirts of Hull. It’s embarrassing to go into charity shops there. People are buying second-hand knickers that are falling apart. You wouldn’t see that in Hackney. That’s what I don’t understand. It’s middle-class people who use the Oxfam shop in Kingsland Road. It’s their department store, better than John Lewis.

I imagine the influx of what are known as hipsters (top) in the last few years has made the picture even more fractured. I’ve seen hand-painted signs outside Hackney pubs banning them, a peculiar updating of the infamous boarding house sign. They can certainly sometimes appear indecently numerous. A recent walk up the canal to London Fields one sunny Sunday afternoon revealed hundreds of really quite nice looking young people swigging fizzy wine and tending disposable barbecues. Their dejeuners sur l’herbe were delimited at one end by police tape cordoning off forensic work on what is described on TV as a fresh crime scene.

I suspect they’re resented because some are so obviously slumming it. Last week my wife was queuing up for an icecream from the van on Highbury Fields. It’s manned by the admirable Tina, who will refuse to serve children – and even hooded youths – who don’t mind their p’s & q’s. A close-to-middle-aged man was next to her in the queue, sporting a fashionably unfashionable pork-pie hat and tweed jacket. Agingly hip. On his lapel he wore a pin badge: ‘Keep Hackney Crap”. I wonder whether the recent looting was what he had in mind. Given his location in bosky Islington – apparently picking up from the nearby well-reviewed Canonbury Primary – he may have been urging crapness on from a comfortable distance. Surely, somewhat insincere. In any event, I can’t see Tina signing up.

A little further on in Sinclair’s book another interviewee relates an anecdote illustrative of Hackney confusions; it also provides some context for a former Shadow Home Secretary’s catchphrase:

“Cherie, who was the real politician, was doing her thing in the free legal advice centre. While she was haranguing the old bill about their treatment of one of her clients, the same guy was turning over the Mapledene gaff [her home]. A neighbour, an executive at London Weekend, had to physically restrain her. She was trying to nut the thief who was in the grip of two or three unusually prompt coppers.”

The Blairs were soon to move westwards; they kept going until their surroundings met their aspirations. But that’s not to imply that money has moved exclusively in one direction.

Until recently I had a theory about London: that everywhere in a few years would come to feel like Chelsea. When I first started coming to the capital in the mid-80s, parts of the Kings Road still felt quite edgy: punk was a recent memory and there were plenty of cheap cafés and quirky boutiques strung along it. A few years later, I heard crack phials crunching under my heels on Westbourne Grove. Mid-90s and I recall being told by an estate agent not to bother looking for a flat in Clerkenwell as it wasn’t really a residential area. And then in the noughties Hoxton went Brooklyn and Shoreditch gained a Silicon Roundabout.

Over the last few decades a wave of prosperity has spread across London, from west to east, making everywhere it touched friendly to bankers and their tastes. I wonder now whether Hackney will mark the high water line. And I suppose I worry – selfishly but understandably – how far the tide might withdraw.

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16 thoughts on “From Chelsea punks to Hackney hipsters

  1. Worm
    August 23, 2011 at 09:09

    these days it’s all about Peckham apparently….

    James Hamilton
    August 23, 2011 at 09:14

    Ian Sinclair was born in Wales, wasn’t he?

    I worked in the public library in Chelsea for most of the ’90s, long enough to remember the area before it really became enormously wealthy – what I mean by that of course is that by the time other places had achieved its ’80s mix, Chelsea had itself moved off onto quite another plane. Quite another yacht, too, and although some of my old haunts are still there, it’s no longer “my” London as it once was. Chelsea bleached like coral: the years have been kinder to much of the rest of the city. Earls Court now is a far better place than the one I lived in.

    By and large though, given a choice between a pub dominated by hipsters and one with a sign on it banning them, I’ll go for the hipsters. Partly because there’s a hidden truth about local, old-man type pubs very often, outside of lovely villages: they can be bleak, soulless, marooned places, sometimes violent, sometimes sustained only as a front for “other” purposes. You can feel very old in a hipsters pub, but there are worse things to feel.

    August 23, 2011 at 10:01

    Inevitably the part of London that sees itself as the new Shoreditch/Islington/Greenwich Village will move east. I long to see the Broadway Market hipsters move on and attempt to sell shoes made from 6″ singles and ostrich cheese sandwiches to the descendants of Kursaal rioters in Plaistow.

    August 23, 2011 at 10:04

    Unpleasant man that I am, I still feel the urge to punch your three ‘achingly hip’ hipsters on the schnozzle. And I’m not even a violent man. Usually.

    August 23, 2011 at 10:34

    Excuse me Worm, but hard by still-grim Peckham is leafy Forest Hill where, with a fair wind (literally) my gaff is still standing in all it’s Edwardian splendour. We still have at least two boozers with sticky carpets, and although the cinema that sold fruit in the lobby is long gone, we have yet to spot any of those blokes with trousers that finish above their ankles in what passes for a High Street. The new Overground link hooks us up with Gaw’s Islington and all points east. My manor is set, I think, to be the new Chelsea, sweeping Jassy’s Brockley along with it. All I have to do is live long enough to see property prices quadruple in the next ten years.

    • Worm
      August 23, 2011 at 10:58

      you should be safe from the high ankled troused hordes MM – they tend to avoid hilly areas which are impractical to access with their fixed gear bicycles

        James Hamilton
        August 23, 2011 at 11:25

        Ha! So you’d think. But Edinburgh’s full of fixies…

        • Worm
          August 23, 2011 at 12:48

          well in that case MM needs to quickly invest in some boiling oil and flaming logs to roll down the hill then

            James Hamilton
            August 23, 2011 at 12:59

            It could become a regular feature at the Fringe..

  6. Gaw
    August 23, 2011 at 16:16

    Worm, I’ve heard East Dulwich is fashionable and wondered whether it’s a Peckham rebrand.

    James, he mentions he’s Welsh and grew up in Cheltenham, which sounds familiar. Medical family. Re the desirability of hipsters, they’re certainly easier on the eye than old geezers.

    Richard, that sounds all too possible. And further east there’s Margate to ‘discover’.

    Recusant, I bet an old reactionary like you was threatening to do the same to Kings Road punks. And I’ve heard a rumour you used to be one!

    Mahlerman, South London is a mystery to me. I have to admit it hasn’t been one I’ve been that eager to unravel but you, Jassy and Nige make it sound attractively mysterious. Perhaps I should post a travel piece?

      August 23, 2011 at 17:00

      True, Gaw, true. A long time ago. 1976 to be precise. And I rapidly switched into three piece suits, starched collars and studs when it all became a bit popular. Still, only someone who was infected by the desire to be an empty-headed fashion slave can know how truly herd like it all is.

      Reactionary, on the other hand, now that’s a stance with a future.

    August 23, 2011 at 17:00

    Those are hipsters? Not in any book of mine they aren’t. Hipsters are Mailer’s White Negro. My only hero Lenny Bruce. New York City. The Fifties. Not some grubby little tykes who really ought to get home to mummy. As for Ian Sinclair, the problem is that he’s become ‘Ian Sinclair’™. Not so much, perhaps, in the Hackney book but definitely in Ghost Milk, the latest one. Couldn’t finish it, which is very very rare. Lights Out… on the other hand was pure joy.

    August 23, 2011 at 18:08

    Several friends of mine who live up north either have no idea that a large part of Londinium exists sarf of the river or, if they do know, want no part of it. We have friends in South Kensington who occasionally ‘slum it’ in Battersea Park, but even then they bring a Mace Spray, just in case. So Gaw, you don’t really need to ‘travel’ darn sarf, it’s part of the same city you live in, and they speak (much) the same language. If your family really are worried, I will meet you at the station, and I will take you to a proper boozer where we can get ‘tooled up’ for a monkey.

  9. Gaw
    August 23, 2011 at 22:03

    Jonathon, I enjoyed the Hackney book but nearly 600 pages of the Sinclair shtick was about 150 pages too much. I gather his latest one is mostly polemic, which I think is not his best mode. I can’t help coming over all suspicious when chaps like him start pontificating. Unread, though so I may be being unfair.

  10. Gaw
    August 23, 2011 at 22:06

    Mahlerman, what an invitation. I look forward to comparing tools with your monkey (?).

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