I quite loved Gabriel Gbadamosi’s coming-of-age novel, a little boy figuring out his place in his family, his school, and his city as the son of an Irish mother and Nigerian dad. Culture and the racism provoked by the colour of your skin, homelessness and addiction, violent death, the embarrassing things that you do as a child because you just don’t know much…
I bought this after doing a walking tour of Vauxhall with Gabriel Gbadamosi (you too should buy it). So I knew I would love it, and recognise some of the stories — it did take me too long to get to this book. I’ve been watching a lot of Trümmerfilm or rubble films, (like The Third Man (Reed 1949), and Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius 1949)), and then reading Stuart Dybek on the tearing down of his Chicago neighborhood after declaring it ‘blighted’ and remembering Marshall Berman describing the Bronx and my many years of struggle in LA and the stories I heard from urban renewal’s heyday.
It struck me how urban renewal resulted in the same kinds of landscapes as WWII, and it struck me that exploring that would be a really good little article. Bombs and war are a different level of violence and terror and death, why then do we recreate its landscapes for profit? It might capture a little of my ever renewed store of fury over people being forced from homes they love and have invested in. I remembered this book, and it did indeed have both bomb damage and the council’s slum-clearing damage and underlined that this losing of home, especially as a child, is something you never quite get over.
How many thousands of children are experiencing this at the moment, because we are bombing them…it breaks my heart. I wish I believed an article would stop bombs and urban renewal and evictions, but it can’t be bad for people to feel these things, get a sense of how they might connect.
So from Vauxhall — first there is growing up where bomb damage is taken for granted:
Brian was pulling back the corrugated iron on the bombsite that was blocked off round by the pub. We didn’t play in there because it was dangerous and could fall in on top of you. (64)
‘Lucky it wasn’t a bomb,’ Brian said, and shrugged.
‘It’s a bomb site.’
It took a while to sink in. A bombsite was a playground, a rough place you could play in between the houses — when you could get in past the corrugated iron. I didn’t know it was the place where a bomb fell. No one told me there was a bomb under there. Until it burst in my head, and the ground went out under my feet. (69)
The feeling of the landscape as more houses begin to come down one by one (This row of houses is just where Vauxhall Park is now, and you would never know it):
It was half dark, the light was going. We looked round at the rubble of broken bricks from the house that wasn’t there any more, at the gaping hole that was full of rubbish people had thrown out. The empty space between the walls had tall weeds growing up into it. We were on our own. (87)
What it is like to lose your neighbours, your best friends:
After I while I passed his house and it was like only I knew anyone ever lived there. It was like a bomb had hit it and everyone had gone, and it was just the walls standing. It was dark and it felt dead, but I still had to get up and walk past it on my way to school and come back, past all the bomb sites where people used to live but no one knew who they were any more. (93)
I’m just going to slip this one quote in here, this specific non-rubble related quote, because I love this bit just as I would have run down always to the Thames….
Everyone told us not to go down by the Thames. Manus said the scaly fish wrapped round the lamp posts would come alive if the water splashed them, they were dredged up from the bottom, that’s why they were black. They had open eyes and fleshy mouths that dripped and glistened in the rain…
‘Dont go down to the river.’
‘All right, Mum.’
The way down was dank and slippery, and I was always down there where it opened on to a bend in the river…Everyone said don’t go, but there river pulled you. (145)
And so to end with this…the whys and the how-it-feels and the anger and the resignation, and a very creepy echo of my own thinking before reading this book that the results of urban renewal and bombing aren’t all that different:
It was like the houses had been eaten from the inside. they just had the wall of them facing the street with the sky through the windows. And then they knocked that down.
‘Like a bomb hit it,’ a man said, passing by in the street as my dad was locking the front door. My mum was beside me putting her coat on and looking up at the flattened houses — you could see through to the back of the school playground. Bits of brick wall were standing, but the houses just weren’t there any more. And they’d knocked down the first two houses on the corner of our street next to the bomb site.
‘The council,’ my dad said over his shoulder.
‘Why?’ The man paused on his way and shook his head, ‘Because the got outside loos?’
My dad shrugged, putting the keys in his pocket, ‘They want the land. Big Ben is just there.’
‘We’re being slum cleared,’ Manus said. (205)