Tag Archives: Lambeth

Pop Brixton (and the Q&A last night)

Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:


The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzz here. I liked it, containers are very cool.

They held a live pop-up music and cinema event last summer, which was greatly enjoyed by many and which showed promise to become a genuinely bottom-up all-around good thing for central Brixton.

In July they submitted a planning application for 5-year temporary use of the land on Popes Road  also slated by the council as a site of the future massive redevelopment being orchestrated by Future Brixton.

In September Planning permission was recommended.

And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.

From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’ 

So this evening the crowd awaiting answers from Philippe Castaing, Commercial Director of Pop Brixton, along with Cal Turner (architect and director) and Cllr and Cabinet Member Jack Hopkins was not an entirely happy one.


Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.

Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.

I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.

There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.

They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.

This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):

  • the quality of their business plan
  • their locality to the project
  • their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
  • their commitment to the local community

Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.

There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.

The audience was certainly disapproving.

The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?

Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.

Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.

He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.

The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.

The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.

The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.

He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.

There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.

Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.

I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.

On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.

Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.

Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.

The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.

Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.

There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.

Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.

Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.

Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.

An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.

It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.

Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community  — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.

Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.

Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.

Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.

So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.

Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.

So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.

[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]


Mord Em’ly, what’s in a name?

15472625Mord Em’ly is fierce and funny through poverty and misfortune, and this little history of her life stands in very enjoyable contrast to heavier, more moral works of reform  from the turn of that century.  And she will insist you pronounce her name correctly, which I particularly love.

From London Peculiar and Other Non-fiction by Michael Moorcock:

Its author  W Pett Ridge was the most famous literary Londoner of his day. He walked everywhere. He knew the city from suburbs to centre. He knew everyone, an energetic social reformer, he was a good friend of HG Wells, JM Barrie, WS 1631050Gilbert, Jerome K Jerome, E Nesbit and many contributers to the Pall Mall Gazette, The Idler, Westminster Gazette, journals of what we’d today call the moderate left. All testified to his experience and talent. ‘There is nobody else in London,’ said JM Barrie, ‘with his unique literary ear.’ (52-53)

Like many of his contemporaries from poor backgrounds, he educated himself at the Birkbeck Institute’s evening classes. (53)

Betty Balfour, who played Mord Em'ly in Me and My Girld, not dressed like this, but I am sure Mord would have approved
Betty Balfour, who played Mord Em’ly in Me and My Girl, not dressed like this, but I am sure Mord would have approved

Mord Em’ly was his best loved book. A silent film. From IMDB:

A Cockney thief reforms, her ex-convict father kills her mother, and she weds a boxer.

I suppose there could be worse summaries.

As Moorcock suggests, Pett Ridge is able to capture some of the joys of working class life, the freedoms it offers to women for possibly the first time:

All the members of the Gilliken Gang possessed the privilege which the London girl demands–that of having their evenings for their very own. Some were engaged in a large mineral water factory in Albany Road; two walked over Blackfriars Bridge to the City every morning; the remainder did nothing of a definite character (loc 226).

And after having read a great number of moral literature and studies written by reformers (see Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Harkness, Mary Higgs, and I will include W. Somerset Maugham in this dour list of tales of the working class’s feckless improvidence, dull capacity for suffering and dire poverty):

Pandora Buildings, despite its bare passages and blank, asphalted yard and drafty balconies, all suggesting that it was a place where people were sent for some infraction of the law, was, nevertheless, for its inhabitants sufficiently cheerful, and there were very few of them who were not happy. To understand this fact it was necessary to become an inhabitant in Pandora, and not merely to come down on a hurried visit, as lady philanthropists did, and sniff, and look sympathetic, and tell each other that it was all quite too dreadful. Nothing privately amused Pandora more than the visits of these people, and Mord Em’ly gained much applause by her very faithful imitation of one of these visitors.

“Oh, the poor, dear creatures!” Mord Em’ly would look at the diverted women on the landing with half-closed eyes and a glance of condescension. “How do you do, my poor women! What do your poor husbands do for a living, pray? Dear, dear! what dreadful occupations, to be sure! I’d never really heard of them before. And the poor, dear children–I do so hope you look after them. Our country’s future, you must remembers, lies in their hands, and — This is my daughter, Lady Ella. She, too, is going to be so interested in the poor. In fact, I may tell you that she is going to play the zither at a concert near here some evening.

“Ah, Mord Em’ly!” The women would laugh and wipe their eyes with aprons exhaustedly. “You can take the toffs off to a T.” (loc 239)

Speaking geographically, there are some brilliant summaries of how place and class intersect in here, like this description of New Kent Rd:

At the Paragon end of New Kent Road she stopped to take breath. There is a decorum about New Kent Road, with its tree-bordered pavements and calm dwelling-houses, that constitutes a silent reproach to its noisy, restless, elder relative, and even on this Saturday night it was not without repose. Middle-aged couples, out for the purpose of buying forage for the home, and accompanied by the newest baby in order that it might thus early study economy, were going east to Old Kent Road, or went to the Elephant, as their fancy or their traditions dictated (loc 71).

The Paragon, New Kent Road
The Paragon, New Kent Rd

But above all come the marvelously satirical descriptions of the three sisters living on their own at 18 Lucella Rd, Peckham Rye where Mord is taken on as a servant at the age of ‘firteen’. Pronunciation corrected

No. 18 was precisely like No. 17, and like No. 19, and like every other number in Lucella Road; the lace-curtained bow-windows, the ventian blinds half-way down, the row of yellow pots on the edge, the glimpse of oval mirrors and draped pianofortes within (loc 196).

‘This, dears,’ said the youngest sister, ‘ is the little girl who has come after the place. She looks willing, and my idea is that we might take her for a month, at any rate. Her mother is a good worker.’
‘I expect Letty is right,’ said one of the elder sisters. ‘ What is your name, my girl ?’
‘Mord Em’ly.’
Name interpreted by the youngest sister.
‘Oh, you must really learn to pronounce distinctly. You should say Maud, and then wait for a moment, and then say Em-ily.’
“All very well,’ said Mord Em’ly, ‘ if you’ve got plenty of time.’
“Are you a hard worker, my girl ?”
“Fairish, miss. I ain’t afraid of it, anyway.”
“I think we shall decide to call you Laura if you stop with us.”
“Waffor?” demanded Mord Em’ly.
“We always call our maids Laura,” explained the eldest of the ladies complacently. “It’s a tradition in the family. And my youngest sister there, Miss Letitia, will look after you for the most part. My other sisters are engaged in — er — literature; I myself; if I may say so without too much confidence, am responsible for”–here the eldest sister looked in a self-deprecatory manner at the toe of her slippers–“art.” (loc 312)


“My sister Fairlie,” went on the eldest lady in a lecturing style, and pointing with her forefinger, “writes under the pen name of ‘George Willoughby’ and has gained several prizes, some of them ammounting to as much as one guinea. My sister Katherine pursues a different branch. her specialite, to use a foreign expression, is the subject of epitaphs–queer epitaphs, ancient epitaphs, pathetic epitaphs, singular epitaphs, amusing–”

“Speaking about epitaphs,” interrupted Mord Em’ly, “how much do I get a year for playing in this piece?”

And the banter — the banter is marvellous. At no point is Mord bested in banter.  The perspective of Mord allows Pett-Ridge to get more sharp observations of the regulated, restricted and repressed nature of middle-class life:

It seemed to Mord Em’ly that the people in the road led lives that were ordered by some precise and stringent Act of Parliament. By half-past eight in the morning every man in every house had come out, had pulled the doors to, and had run off to catch the train to the City, an exodus which also used to take place (at an earlier hour) at Pandora Buildings; but, whereas there is signalled opportunity for free conversation, in Lucella Road it seemed that the women-folk remained indoors, and kept themselves in rigid seclusion; when they did come out, they wore, Mord Em’ly noticed, a reserved air, which they put on for out-door walking, and they looked up at the sky with an air of disparagement, as though it was not at all the kind of sky that they had been accustomed to before they were married, and they sneered at the pavement; the other houses seemed to excite in them a feeling of boredom and contempt; their manner generally was that of people who are by no means pleased with the world. There were no disputes in Lucella Road; nobody came home late and noisy; it appeared to mord Em’ly that everybody carefully abstained from giving entertainment.  (loc 406)

This is compared to the life and vibrance of Walworth Rd and the Music Hall:

…with the barrows stacked with yellow Lent lilies and scented violets, and giant bundles of wallflowers tied with twigs round their thick waists; pyramids of oranges, too, and huge cliffs of sweets, and men and women, their owners, exultantly calling attention to them; the slow crowd on the pavement stopping now and again to haggle, and, at infrequent intervals, to buy. There were two butchers with their shop fronts afire with red joints; the men were chaffing each other, and each shouted his opinion of the other man’s face. The drapery shop, selling off because it had nearly had a fire, or because its premises were not coming down, or on some other excuse, was frantic with placards; it had bargains in pale blue blouses and in gay bunches of linen flowers, that demanded attention, and would take no denial. In the roadway, the yellow and scarlet trams sailed along, with passengers continually boarding them and passengers continually disembarking; ‘buses rocked about and played games of cup-and-ball with their passengers, or danced recklessly over the roadway. On the other side of the road, in Princes Street, a piano-organ was playing, and two ridiculous men were waltzing and behaving to each other with preposterous courtesy. Through Princes Street, and there, with four white globes, arch-fashion, over its entrance, was the Mont.

East Street Market
East Street Market

Mord Em’ly gave a quick gasp as she thought of the Mont.

You paid twopence to an old lady seated in a little sentry-box, and you went through a passage which had swing-doors at the end, and on the walls of the passage there were portraits and a poster of a very fine lady in fleshings, called Miss Flo Macgomery, also known as Britain’s Brilliant and Beautiful Brunette. You could hear faint music before you reached the doors opening into the rear of the long hall, and when you pressed open one of these, the singing and the music boxed you on the ears in rather a jovial, agreeable way. You were at the very back of the hall, but the floor sloped a little, and, away through the smoke, and over the heads of people, you could see, on the stage, Mr. Pat Foley, who was Ireland’s Brightest Gem, and who, in view of that fact, might well have provided himself with a complete dress-suit, but had, up to the present, succeeded in obtaining the necktie only, and wore tweed trousers and a double-breasted jacket. No song of what is called questionable character was ever sung at the Mont., because the Mont.’s patrons had no appetite for that sort of thing; to vulgarity they had no deep-rooted objection, but even of this they desired less than did their similars in the West-end. They would always rather see a man dance intricate steps than watch furious whirling by girls; and damsels at the Mont. who kicked high and kicked often, and made themselves breathless in the effort, found their last ambitious skip received with casual interest; the hall allowed them to go in glum silence, with sometimes a few derisive whistles.


WandsworthThis is, you see, a most enjoyable read about a smart and confident heroine who makes her own way in the world — and even though it ends with marriage and emigration, you hardly feel that Mord’s independent spirit will be slowed down, much less broken by that.


No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

Protests all look the same in pictures, and sadly these days they all feel the same too. Bigger than you feared, but not as big as you hoped.

We’ve had years of cuts. There’s no way more won’t hit an artery or two and bone. This year Lambeth Council is proposing selling Waterloo and Minet library, and using the proceeds to allow communities to run (poorly) three more for which ALL other funding will be cut — Durning, Carnegie and Upper Norwood. Goodbye librarians we love and services we need. Jason Cobb has done a brilliant rundown of what the Lambeth Council Cultural Consultation holds in store when you slog through all 22 documents — the first part can be found here. There are lots of other cuts to investigate.

The Tories know that once we lose this land, lose these services, lose these qualified and wonderful workers, we will never get them back. And they are profiting from all of it.

The Council’s just carrying out their hatchet job. Reprehensible as I feel not taking a stand and doing that is, we really should have brought down the precarious coalition government by now, shamed anyone with actual power in the Labour Party for refusing to fight and supporting their councillors to fight. For bowing to neoliberal logics and refusing to be an alternative. For being so stupid and lame.

All I want is a real fight. This wasn’t it.

On the positive side, however, standing outside City Hall is so much nicer when not surrounded by SWP signs branding everything, but nice hand-drawn ones instead. And flags, I love flags. Unions are good for flags, if not for leading the battle against austerity and preserving their own existence into the future. I don’t want to be too pessimistic and say it’s all over for the unions once the librarians are gone, but it might very well be true.

But more than puppies on signs and flags, I love Cressingham Gardens. Like the Ritzy Living Wage Campaign, like the Guinness Trust Occupation, like the Co-op tenants, they are keeping some hope alive with their awesomeness.

No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

No To Austerity, No to £90m cuts in Lambeth

You can find more photos on Brixton Buzz, and get updates on the campaign to save libraries here. There will be a public meeting on 11 March to plan further campaign steps.


Round About a Pound a Week

3368334Maud Pember Reeves ([1913] 1979]
Virago Press

A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.

I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.

So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press,  bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.

The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.

Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).

I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:

There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).

The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:

the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)

The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:

TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.

At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.

They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).

The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).

The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).

The description of the study, and social experiment,  is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:

A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).

As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:

It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).

And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):

the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).

There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:

Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).

And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:

The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).

There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:

At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).

It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:

The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).

I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:

strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).

That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.

I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:

Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).

The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).

I quite loved this:

If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).

I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:

if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).

There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):

She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)

It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:

Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).

It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.


Lambeth College Open Forum, 19 November 2014

Held on Wednesday and announced in the Brixton Blog, it was what I should have been expecting. I thought it might have been more like a meeting, but was actually a small room with about six professionally done schematics and some artists renderings of what the new buildings as a whole might look like hanging on the wall. There were smiling white men in suits, very nice and friendly and anxious to answer any questions we might have. While I was there they outnumbered the community members present.

Lambeth College is almost entirely gone.

I knew that was what they were planning — in spite of our protest’s earlier  ‘victory’ in saving the site for education rather than development as luxury flats, in spite of assurances that Lambeth College is staying in Brixton. Perhaps being bought by the Department of Education was the worst possible outcome given the Tories’ ideological onslaught against public education. Lambeth College was here reduced to a small yellow rectangle engulfed by Trinity Academy and the South Bank University Technical College (SB UTC), neither of which we need here though our other needs are very great. While many people there had been informed through leaflets distributed among those living immediately next door and were very concerned about the height of the new building and the construction (and rightfully so), my own concern as a slightly more distant neighbor was primarily the new use for the land.

So first the issues with Trinity Academy. There is of course a string of hard and repulsive facts about academies in general: academies are failing their students and providing inadequate education, they have been shown corrupt in their dealings with Ofstead (and buying designer tea sets), aren’t hiring qualified personnel, and are being fought tooth and nail by local parent groups along with students and teachers.  There has been some brilliant research done on who the politicians are who are pushing academies, and their links to the people who are profiting off of them here, and an array of well-researched briefings to be found here, collected by the Anti Academies Alliance. All in all they seem like one giant land and profit grab by people trying to make money off our children, while also taking over public resources.

Trinity Academy though? Even if you’re not involved in this longer and broader political struggle, you’ve probably heard about how few students it has, and how insanely over-subsidised it is. The Independent investigated and found only 17 pupils studying on the premises given them by the Tory government at a cost of £18 million pounds. This when:

Imogen Walker, deputy leader of Lambeth Council, said: “We want every child in Lambeth to have the best education possible and a near-empty free school in an area that already has adequate provision will not help that aim in any way.”

The borough estimates it already has 226 spare places in its schools.

An insult really, to a borough reeling from budget cuts and the ongoing slashing of budgets for all teachers and youth workers across the borough, with shortfalls being made good by the eviction of long-term residents in so-called shortlife housing so their artisanal Clapham homes can be flogged off in a process of social cleansing.

The artist’s drawings of the new site show only Trinity Academy, a new four-story building with the giant logo highly visible along the side of it. I was a little sick. In them all the greenery now in the frontage of the school is also gone, the trees cut down, so the building comes right up to the pavement.

2014.11.22 big picture
But talking later with some friends, we realised that equally terrible is the proposed UTC block and their technical programme for teenagers. They write ‘The UTC will equip students with the necessary technical and employability skills sought after by employers.’ That sounds all right, because in this climate of economic recession everyone is worried about their kids being able to find work. This seems to be what they are counting on. I’m so wary. Especially reading this:

The UTC is government funded and was introduced as part of the Academy Programme. The UTC is free to attend
and is independent from local Authority control.

They are sponsored by a University, but the staff are not required to have the same level of expertise or training, and several UTCs can be run by the same board of directors. Essentially it’s the flawed academy model with lower standards and less public oversight (or any oversight at all).

They are offering highly specialised education that starts at 14, by 16 children are supposed to make ‘an informed decision’ about whether they want to specialise in medical or building engineering. There might be a few children capable of deciding that all they want to be is a radiographer at age 14 when they enroll in this place, but this level of specialisation this early seems set up to entrap students into ‘career’ tracks of their parents’ choosing. Because the focus is employability and skills development, it also means they are not geared toward higher education (though the possibility of this is maintained throughout the document in glowing language), thus entering their ‘chosen field’ at the very lowest level of qualification, leaving top level jobs with advancement possibilities to those who follow the higher track of education.

But the employability stuff is the worst. Because what is it that employers want? Training children to work adult hours — even though the latest research is uncovering how teenagers need more sleep and perform better when school starts later. Have they left their own school days so far behind that they can’t see that this erases childhood and leave students without the downtime they need to process what they are learning? I also wonder when we lost the old 9 to 5, and the desire to work less not more:

The UTC day will follow business hours starting at 0830hrs and finishing at 1730hrs

Getting them used to unpaid overtime and REALLY long work days:

All post 16 students will be required to undertake two extension activities, which will take place on two evenings a week

Getting them used to working for free – and taking advantage of their labour in the same way workfare does:

During the year it is anticipated that all students will undertake a period of several weeks of volunteering work during one of the extracurricular sessions.

It seems so cynical to me to have this kind of institution where a college used to be, taking advantage of local community fears of unemployment and parent’s need for something to do with their kids during working hours now that all children’s services have been destroyed. They’re doing this to channel local youth into technical jobs that will always have ceilings without higher education. Clearly this is targeted at poor kids and Black kids, the ones being failed by our current education system and blamed for it, the future drones of Britain.

You can download a scanned pdf here (apologies for the poor quality of the scan). The information sheet is as below, or for download here:

2014.11.19 Information sheet

They seem to be sticking to their timeline as posted earlier by the Brixton Blog, there will definitely be some community action around the public consultation and the plans:

  • End of Feasibility stage – November 2014
  • Design Development – up to end of January 2015
  • Public consultation – January – March 2015
  • Town planning submission – March 2015
  • Town planning decision – June 2015
  • Start on site (subject to approvals) – July 2015
  • Project completion – targeted for early 2018


Gardening at Leigham Court

Leigham Court is a beautiful ‘modernist gem’ of a sheltered housing estate, sitting high up on a hill in Streatham and designed by celebrated Architect Kate Macintosh. This is from a Housing Activists press release on what is happening there:

Lambeth Council and Lambeth Living are planning to close the Leigham Court Sheltered Housing scheme. Senior residents have been informed that their homes will be demolished and the land sold off to pay for a mixture of extended care and private accommodation.

A recent Guardian article by Oliver Wainwright celebrating the architecture also includes some great quotes from residents and the reasons for the sell-off:

Over the last few months, the residents of 269 Leigham Court Road in Lambeth have come together to campaign against the “disposal” of their community, which the council plans to sell to fund the construction of “extra care” housing elsewhere in the borough.

“They call it ‘extra care’ because it’s more like being in hospital,” says Joyce James, 89. “We live here like a family; we don’t want to be separated from one another. And the buildings are spectacular – it would be like pulling down Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey. It’s criminal.”

The drastic cut-backs in the national budget have set Lambeth Council scrambling rather than fighting, or even just effectively holding the dented shield and preserving as much as possible until there is a political change. So they have started selling off homes and public assets to finance services, evicting long term tenants causing incalculable pain, destroying the remaining footholds of current community members in rapidly developing and gentrifying neighbourhoods, and losing land forever to speculation and private interests. The so-called ‘Short-Life’ housing cooperatives that are now decades old, Cressingham Gardens (and more here), the Guinness Trust Estate, and Myatt’s Field regeneration plans are all additional examples of how much social housing is at risk or already lost.

Perhaps this is because Labour’s position no longer seems to be much different on these issues, which is criminal, especially given the vision of both architects and the Labour government that built this housing in the first place. I realise writing this I need to do a lot more exploration of Blair and Brown’s housing legacy, and really read the new housing report being used by Labour to develop new policy.  But on Lambeth’s own website, you can see that after the Leigham Court tenants voted to remain council owned rather than be transferred to social landlords, the council pledged to find funds for the renovation and upkeep of the estate. That was 2007, so what happened?

Now with Leigham Court on the chopping block, they have stopped maintaining the grounds as they should — a tried and true tactic of running down an estate and then using its poor condition to serve as an excuse for getting rid of it. So we did this:


I love the above picture showing how beautiful the garden once was, and should be — and kicking myself for not getting a good picture from this view. It is a little different now, and shameful that our elders should live in housing that is not cared for. The work we did on Saturday was not to take the place of gardeners and caretakers paid wages by the council — as they keep pushing for with their cooperative council ideas that replace jobs with volunteer work when our borough desperately needs good jobs.  It was to do basic maintenance for the interim well-being of Leigham Court’s residents, and show what needs to be done. Cold and wet work, but we went to it with a will. The biggest need was simply rubbish collection:

IMG_9814 IMG_9816 IMG_9817But we raked leaves and planted some bulbs as well:

IMG_9839 IMG_9833There were at least fifteen of us over the course of the morning along with local resident Valentine Walker, who can perfectly break down for you the council’s future plans, their reasoning, and the deadly conflict between community need and profit.

You can get a sense of how lovely an interior communal space exists here from this shot, taken from the main entrance through the doors to the gardeners collecting for the group photo, and into the covered patio running through the gardens:

IMG_9808There may be more gardening to come in Spring, hopefully not, hopefully the council will work to save Leigham Court rather than sell it off, or redevelop it with market rate housing. Walking there from Brixton Hill you get a feeling of just why this property is so valuable, especially given the view over South London from the other side of the road. Beautiful, even on a damp, grey, miserable day:


I’ll be writing more about Leigham Court as I’m fascinated by this period of the mass building of social housing, this incredible commitment to creating a more just and integrated society, this utopian strain within architecture, building around people’s needs. This is, in fact, one of the key estates within this movement, with a fight on to get it listed by Docomomo.

Apart from the Guardian article, the architect has also recently spoken on Resonance FM about the work to save the estate, and Leigham Court features in a documentary called Utopia London (directed by Tom Cordell), which I bought immediately and is sitting on my shelf as yet unwatched — even though a majority of the estates it looks at seem to be in Lambeth. So after getting to that I will be returning to this estate in more architectural and utopian detail.

More articles on Leigham Court can be found on the websites for Save Leigham Court and the Lambeth Housing Activists.


Liza of Lambeth

Liza(1897) W. Somerset Maugham


Meh. So you have your misanthrope and your misogynist and this is a little of both, but mostly I found it to be just a morality tale with some sniping at the animal nature and sad lives of the working classes. The kind of thing that makes me want to make a rude gesture when I read the description ‘Maugham’s first published novel – a vividly realistic portrayal of slum life…’ Of course, Maugham trained in obstetrics at St Thomas’s hospital in Lambeth and worked with the residents of Lambeth’s slums, so he knew a little something of the subject. But an outside view, a judgmental view, a superior view that looked down on the people he was being trained to cure. It permeates the novel, even as there seems to me to be some of that voyeurism associated with slumming, assumptions made and perhaps a small amount of jealousy of people he describes as unfettered by middle-class mores, driven by their passions, able to express themselves completely freely, however coarsely and violently that may be.

There’s some interesting views on family, men and Empire as described by Liza’s alcoholic mother as they are getting drunk together near the end of the novel, after Liza has had the shit beaten out of her by the wife of the man she’s having an affair with — and right before she miscarries and dies.

‘Yus,’ went on Mrs. Kemp, ‘I’ve ‘ad thirteen children an’ I’m proud of it. As your poor dear father used ter sy, it shows as ‘ow one’s got the blood of a Briton in one. Your poor dear father, ‘e was a great ‘and at speakin’ ‘e was: ‘e used ter speak at parliamentary meetin’s–I really believe ‘e’d ‘ave been a Member of Parliament if ‘e’d been alive now. Well, as I was sayin’, your father ‘e used ter sy, “None of your small families for me, I don’t approve of them,” says ‘e. ‘E was a man of very ‘igh principles, an’ by politics ‘e was a Radical. “No,” says ‘e, when ‘e got talkin’, “when a man can ‘ave a family risin’ into double figures, it shows ‘e’s got the backbone of a Briton in ‘im. That’s the stuff as ‘as built up England’s nime and glory! When one thinks of the mighty British Hempire,” says ‘e, “on which the sun never sets from mornin’ till night, one ‘as ter be proud of ‘isself, an’ one ‘as ter do one’s duty in thet walk of life in which it ‘as pleased Providence ter set one–an’ every man’s fust duty is ter get as many children as ‘e bloomin’ well can.” Lord love yer–‘e could talk, I can tell yer.’

‘Drink up, mother,’ said Liza. ‘You’re not ‘alf drinkin’.’ She flourished the bottle. ‘I don’t care a twopanny ‘ang for all them blokes; I’m quite ‘appy, an’ I don’t want anythin’ else.’

It’s been such a struggle for poor folks, bilingual folks, Southern folks, Scottish folks, anyone not speaking the Queen’s English, to write true to themselves and their own way of speaking. I don’t know what I think about well educated men writing like this, not without more respect for the people he writes of, not when there’s such a sly superiority in so much of what he writes.

Still, I did love the opening scene, which Liza steals in spite of Maugham really.

All at once there was a cry: ‘There’s Liza!’ And several members of the group turned and called out: ‘Oo, look at Liza!’

The dancers stopped to see the sight, and the organ-grinder, having come to the end of his tune, ceased turning the handle and looked to see what was the excitement.

‘Oo, Liza!’ they called out. ‘Look at Liza; oo, I sy!’

It was a young girl of about eighteen, with dark eyes, and an enormous fringe, puffed-out and curled and frizzed, covering her whole forehead from side to side, and coming down to meet her eyebrows. She was dressed in brilliant violet, with great lappets of velvet, and she had on her head an enormous black hat covered with feathers.

‘I sy, ain’t she got up dossy?’ called out the groups at the doors, as she passed.

‘Dressed ter death, and kill the fashion; that’s wot I calls it.’

Liza saw what a sensation she was creating; she arched her back and lifted her head, and walked down the street, swaying her body from side to side, and swaggering along as though the whole place belonged to her.

”Ave yer bought the street, Bill?’ shouted one youth; and then half a dozen burst forth at once, as if by inspiration:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

It was immediately taken up by a dozen more, and they all yelled it out:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road. Yah, ah, knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

‘Oo, Liza!’ they shouted; the whole street joined in, and they gave long, shrill, ear-piercing shrieks and strange calls, that rung down the street and echoed back again.

‘Hextra special!’ called out a wag.

‘Oh, Liza! Oo! Ooo!’ yells and whistles, and then it thundered forth again:

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

Liza put on the air of a conquering hero, and sauntered on, enchanted at the uproar. She stuck out her elbows and jerked her head on one side, and said to herself as she passed through the bellowing crowd:

‘This is jam!’

‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road!’

When she came to the group round the barrel-organ, one of the girls cried out to her:

‘Is that yer new dress, Liza?’

‘Well, it don’t look like my old one, do it?’ said Liza.

‘Where did yer git it?’ asked another friend, rather enviously.

‘Picked it up in the street, of course,’ scornfully answered Liza.

‘I believe it’s the same one as I saw in the pawnbroker’s dahn the road,’ said one of the men, to tease her.

‘Thet’s it; but wot was you doin’ in there? Pledgin’ yer shirt, or was it yer trousers?’

‘Yah, I wouldn’t git a second-‘and dress at a pawnbroker’s!’

‘Garn!’ said Liza indignantly. ‘I’ll swipe yer over the snitch if yer talk ter me. I got the mayterials in the West Hend, didn’t I? And I ‘ad it mide up by my Court Dressmiker, so you jolly well dry up, old jellybelly.’

‘Garn!’ was the reply.

The man turned on a new tune, and the organ began to play the Intermezzo from the ‘Cavalleria’; other couples quickly followed Liza’s example, and they began to waltz round with the same solemnity as before; but Liza outdid them all; if the others were as stately as queens, she was as stately as an empress; the gravity and dignity with which she waltzed were something appalling, you felt that the minuet was a frolic in comparison; it would have been a fitting measure to tread round the grave of a première danseuse, or at the funeral of a professional humorist. And the graces she put on, the languor of the eyes, the contemptuous curl of the lips, the exquisite turn of the hand, the dainty arching of the foot! You felt there could be no questioning her right to the tyranny of Vere Street.

Suddenly she stopped short, and disengaged herself from her companion.

‘Oh, I say,’ she said, ‘this is too bloomin’ slow; it gives me the sick.’

That is not precisely what she said, but it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story, the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue.

‘It’s too bloomin’ slow,’ she said again; ‘it gives me the sick. Let’s ‘ave somethin’ a bit more lively than this ‘ere waltz. You stand over there, Sally, an’ we’ll show ’em ‘ow ter skirt dance.’

They all stopped waltzing.

‘Talk of the ballet at the Canterbury and South London. You just wite till you see the ballet at Vere Street, Lambeth–we’ll knock ’em!’

She went up to the organ-grinder.

‘Na then, Italiano,’ she said to him, ‘you buck up; give us a tune that’s got some guts in it! See?’

She caught hold of his big hat and squashed it down over his eyes. The man grinned from ear to ear, and, touching the little catch at the side, began to play a lively tune such as Liza had asked for.

The men had fallen out, but several girls had put themselves in position, in couples, standing face to face; and immediately the music struck up, they began. They held up their skirts on each side, so as to show their feet, and proceeded to go through the difficult steps and motions of the dance. Liza was right; they could not have done it better in a trained ballet. But the best dancer of them all was Liza; she threw her whole soul into it; forgetting the stiff bearing which she had thought proper to the waltz, and casting off its elaborate graces, she gave herself up entirely to the present pleasure. Gradually the other couples stood aside, so that Liza and Sally were left alone. They paced it carefully, watching each other’s steps, and as if by instinct performing corresponding movements, so as to make the whole a thing of symmetry.

Sounds like a forerunner of the Lambeth Walk, and with just as much pride. I quite love her, and wished not just a better life for her, but a better narrator. The book’s available on Project Gutenberg, which makes such long quotes possible…

Somerset Maugham of course, is quite a fascinating character in himself. Liza of Lambeth was popular enough he was able to become a full time writer as I suppose medicine didn’t agree with him. He was one of the most famous and best-paid of his time, but this was after a desperately unhappy childhood after his parents died and he was sent to live with a harsh uncle, and bisexuality must have made life hard during these early days, giving him some edge to his work. He was also called up to work with MI6 — another connection with the borough Lambeth through his work — to aid British efforts to keep Kerensky in power.  We all know how that went, and Maugham went back to writing. He was the lover of the daughter of Peter Kropotkin (!), and married the daughter of Dr Barnardo (!) when she became pregnant with their daughter Liza (!), though he later denied she was his. This is, of course, a terribly truncated summary drawn almost entirely from one website. I may correct this in the future through more reading, but for now be aware the story is undoubtedly more nuanced, complex, and possibly quite different in its main points than the bits that most interested me after a quick scan. Still, as a chronicler of working class life and loves from a female point of view, I’ll take it with more than a grain of salt.


The Phoenix Suburb: A History of Norwood

511tJlTqiML._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A fascinating history of Norwood — though how could it not be? It is hard to imagine the importance of parish boundaries these days — especially as borough boundaries cross them willy nilly. But apparently they used to be preambulated every couple of years, by all of the men and boys of the parish led by the vicar, and apparently the boys used sometimes to be whipped at each marker so they would remember where they were! There was much drinking, and if the vicar were not bold the boundaries could be changed. In 1560 the timorous Vicar Richard Finch of Croydon was turned back from some disputed woods by the fierce men of Penge and they succeeded in changing the boundary…

Norwood itself is a contraction of North Wood, named so by the Saxons. It was still a hamlet in 1800, it’s first public house the Woodman. The woods of Norwood and Lambeth were home to gypsies, recorded by Pepys on 11th August, 1668 when his wife went to see them for a fortune telling, and Byron apparently skived off of his school in Lordship Lane to visit those living in Dulwich woods, but the Croyden and Lambeth Inclosure Acts in the early 1800s changed that to some extent, as did their inclusion in the Vagrant Act.

There is a chapter on the brilliant Mary Nesbitt, companion of Earl of Bristol, Augustus Hervey who left her their house at Norwood when he died. Possibly beginning adult life as a prostitute, she was the widow of a banker, and became the center of a large social circle that included Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, and played some kind of role in British machinations after the French Revolution. The book calls her ‘a woman of intrigue’, ‘conspicuous in the late revolution’ but no details! Gah! She died in 1835 at 90, the house became first a fashionable hotel, and then a convent school (!).

There is a bit on atmospheric railways! How cool are they? Moving through the displacement of air rather than a flow of electricity, in silence and speed though the materials weren’t up to the challenge — leather cracking and falling apart. It’s pumping stations were apparently architecturally brilliant (though I take that with a grain of salt).

Beulah Spa, All Saints Parish church and its ongoing controversy over the number of bodies in — and allowed in — the churchyard. A remarkably nonjudgmental remark on a major landowner whose wealth came from his Opium Clipper(!). He includes this brilliant description of Lambeth from Punch (no date however! But before Crystal Palace was built):

The purlieus of London are not to be described. The mind sickens in recalling the odious particulars of the immediate neighbourhood of the bridges. The hucksters and Jew furniture-showps, the enormous tawdry gin palaces, and those awful little by-lanes, of two-storied tenenments, where patent mangles are to let — where Miss Miffin, milliner, lives on the first floor (her trade being symbolised by a staring pasteboard dummy in a cap of flyblown silver paper) — where the street is encumbered by oyster shells and black puddings, and little children playing in them…

You emerge from the horrid road at length on a greenish spot, which I am led to believe is called Kennington Common; and henceforth the route becomes far more agreeable. Placid villas of cockneys adorn each side of the road — stockbrokers, sugar-brokers — that sort of people. We saw cruelty vans (I mean those odious double-barrelled gigs, so injurious to horseflesh) lined with stout females with ringlets, bustles, and variegated parasols. The leading stout female of the party drove the carriage (jerking and bumping the reins most ludicrously and giving the fat horse the queerest little cuts with the whip): a fat boy, resplendent in buttons, commonly occupied the rumble, with many children…

The villas gave each other the hand all the way up Camden Hill, Denmark Hill, etc; one acacia leans over to another in his neighbour’s wall…one villa is just like another; and there is no intermission in the comfortable chain. But by the time you reach Norwood, an actual country to be viewed by glimpses — a country so beautiful that I have sen nothing more charming… (99-100)

Of course, there is so so much on Crystal Palace. Brought to Norwood both for its beauty, and because Leo Schuster, the Director of the Brighton Railway, owned much of the property it is built upon. It’s hard to imagine what it looked like and what it meant — even with pictures. The impact it had on the world of music — Schubert and Schumann were really introduced there and made popular names in the face of dislike. The director August Manns was a key figure in searching out and recovering Schubert’s work from obscurity for which I love him immensely. He helped introduce Arthur Sullivan to the world as well.

Nor did I know the role that the Crystal Palace once played in the history of aeronautics, beginning with ballooning, moving on to dirigibles and the earliest British airplanes. A very readable history is presented here that captures some of that early excitement…and sadly, to its decline, and then spectacular incendiary end in 1936. The ruins now are even more remote from its former grandeur, but I rather love them like that. Especially in the mist. The liberal interpretations of dinosaurs are amazing, as is this, my favourite of the illustrations:

The famous banquet in the mould of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon, New Year's Eve, 1853
The famous banquet in the mould of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon, New Year’s Eve, 1853

It ends with a note on the founding of the Norwood Society to protect and preserve, to keep some of the past alive in the face of development, constant development. That never seems to change.


My Speech for the Lambeth SOS delegation to the Mayor and Council

The demo was great last night I thought, especially given that we are now in the long hard grind of the 3rd year of cuts, and services have been cut, coworkers made redundant, and contact with friends and families lost. We wanted to highlight the deep cuts to children’s services that have already taken place by building our own adventure playground on the steps of city hall. We painted a backdrop over the weekend while leafleting for the demo


And the miniature inflatable playground gave everyone a taste of the joy that the lost adventure playgrounds once brought Lambeth’s kids


We created a library backdrop as well, as our libraries are still on the block. Only a small delegation was allowed in of course, though many joined us in the gallery. Public speaking isn’t quite my forte, but this is what I did my best to say:

Good evening Mr Mayor and Councillors. Thank you for agreeing to listen to me.

My name is Andrea Gibbons and I am speaking on behalf of Lambeth Save Our Services.

We set up Lambeth SOS in 2010 because we could see the cuts that were coming and we could see the damage that they
would do.

Over the past two years you have made £66 Million in cuts, and they have done real damage.

We have lost the Park Ranger:s.

We have lost the Ethnic Minority Achievement Team.

Two years ago, I was there when the former Leader promised that no Adventure Playgrounds would close – but if you visit our Parks this weekend you will see the tragic sight of deserted Adventure Playgrounds standing empty. There is nothing more tragic than a deserted and locked up playground.

At the same time you have made more than 550 redundancies and outsourced 100 jobs, jobs belonging to friends of mine, and half of them to Southampton.

These have been some of the effects of the cuts so far.

Now you face making cuts of £108 Million over the next four years, most of which have yet to be planned. These cuts will devastate our services and our communities and throw hundreds more workers on to the scrap heap of unemployment.

We all know two things about these cuts.

First, they arise from the policies of Central Government, who are forcing through spending reductions not to reduce the public sector deficit, because they haven’t and won’t, but in order to destroy our Welfare State.

Secondly, this is not a poor country that is short of money.

Seventy years ago, after the Second World War, when we had far less, the Attlee Labour Government created many of the services which are under attack from this Government.

If they could do that then, we do not need to tolerate these cuts now.

The cuts to our jobs and services are a political attack upon our communities by a Cabinet with a majority of millionaires.

Lambeth SOS believes that Lambeth, the whole borough, all of us, should fight back against this political attack.

And that includes you Councillors.

We believe that, instead of planning only how to live within the ever tighter financial limits which the Government set for you, you should be leading the fight against these cuts.

The Co-operative Council is not going to be an antidote to these cuts – particularly not when your next step is going to be to appoint three new Commissioning Directors each on more than £100,000.

Labour Councillors have rightly taken a strong line in opposition to the threat to Clapham Fire Station. We think you should fight just as hard to protect all our services.

I think that if you are going to set a budget which makes further cuts that you should not meet in this chamber.

I think you should meet in one of our closed down Adventure Playgrounds so that you can reflect upon the consequences of your actions.

Whatever you decide, Councillors, there are citizens and staff who will resist further cuts, whoever is making them.

In reply they said everything I said had been true, we were facing something unprecedented, we had to lobby the central government…but in response to our request for a council that will lead us in the fight? I’m afraid I don’t really see them leading much of anything.

But we will continue to fight, Lambeth residents and staff.

[also posted on www.lambethsaveourservices.org]


Closing Lollard Street Adventure Playground

I was looking up information on the four adventure playgrounds that Lambeth Council has ‘temporarily’ closed and I found these amazing photographs of Lollard Street Adventure Playground

lollard playground2

[photo from http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/whatson/exhibitions/brianbrake/brakeswork/Pages/Object.aspx?irn=1015656 ]


[photo from http://www.thearchitectureofearlychildhood.com/2012/01/post-war-adventure-or-junk-playgrounds.html, along with a fascinating description of the importance of playgrounds and theories of play]

This was the birth of the adventure playground. At Lollard Street children gathered to play with the detritus created by the clearing away of a bombed out school. While the children played, children’s rights campaigner Lady Allen of Hurtwood started to form a movement for the building of playgrounds (a short history can be found here). Originally known as ‘junk’ playgrounds, they were renamed adventure playgrounds — a good public relations move I confess — in 1953, and the movement grew.

Look at the beautiful place Lollard Street Adventure Playground grew into. For years this has been a fully staffed facility of fun, learning and mentoring



And now it is closed. Indefinitely. Empty of children for the first time in 60 odd years. In the old black and white photos you can see the houses of parliament in the background, you can still see them today. You can stare over a playground empty of children and committed workers at the parliament (dead center, just visible over the building, compare it to the second B&W picture!) that shut it all down.

[also posted www.lambethsaveourservices.org]