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.