Up the Elephant

Tramping the streets of south east London for the past two weekends has given me more, vital, intelligence about London - my adopted home city of the past seventeen years. Myself and a friend have been looking at what could be potentially possible - at a push - as a property purchase. I apologise for the p alliteration - perhaps I should add that most of it so far has seemed like one big piss-take as we have trawled through the poverty of pockets of south-east inner London. If London are the trousers, then these are not even the pockets, which are deep and baggy, but that which we find at the far corners: the old tissues and detritus.

What could be had for £250,000 - a quarter of a million pounds - in this capital of ours? Try a council flat in an eyesore of a block on a monster of an estate just minutes walk from the Elephant. And not just a monster of an estate, but an area that holds totalitarian type block after block after block of utter depression. All off the Walworth Road: Bethwin Road, Tiverton Street, up beyond the East Street market. These blocks. Like nothing I had ever clapped eyes on. And this is someone who grew up a stone's throw from the delights of Manchester's Hulme Bull-Ring and Crescents; they were dwarfed in comparison; made to look, in the confines of my own memory, almost genteel. The only phrase that is lodged in my mind as I play back the sights is 'what fresh hell is this?' And there had been people in these who had bought under the right to buy, and were now selling their little flats, for anything upto 250k. An estate agent, Hugo, with floppy hair and a weak stomach for smelly flats, told us that, with a couple of the worst and uninhabited blocks soon to be demolished, the area's private homes would increase in value. And it was remarkable how, the value of a flat could suddenly, from one street - still overlooked by one of these high-rise, wide-widthed - shoot up thirty grand. Another told us, in an area just minutes away on public transport and posh in comparison though still only 'on the up' that the markers of the area being thus were the decreasing fried chicken shops in favour of the deli. In one of these areas, nice and perfectly liveable though feeling a little cut off despite being in zone 2, which in south London is akin to zone 4 or 5 in west or north of the river, thanks to the lack of the tube (a blatant discrimination if ever there was one), we found a deli. Run by what appeared to be a gay couple, this little middling-class hipster-foodie haven felt like a parody. It was as if the area's 'up and coming' could breathe a sigh of relief as they congregated in communal comfort and consolation to survey the labels of micro-brewery ales and organic wines; partaking of the free wifi as they sipped on their skinny lattes and nibbled on home-made Scotch eggs, surrounded by displays of local honey. I noticed that the labels of said honey didn't advertise the demographic of the honey bees; perhaps local meant derived from hives that were hidden atop the Elephant & Castle shopping centre itself, just as the overly-monied had the hives atop Fortnum & Mason. Or even some industrious council tenant had them buzzing away on the roof of a Bethwin Road block? That little analogy could easily apply to the megalithic and monstrous towers, off the main drag, but from which comes our city's hidden workers; the stokers - worker drones - of those parts of our lives we'd rather not face. The cleaners, the chicken shop workers for those late night stops in dodgy neighbourhoods for cheap fried food that will, when we come to, shame our drug and drink addled minds far more than not knowing the name of the person you'd woken up to. It is true that many of the inhabitants of these estates are not native in that they were not born here. Yet it has to be sheer desperation that has people - families - having to take these places. The right to buy in such conditions, however prosperous it has made those few tenants who bought feel, is not just a piss-take and parody of late capitalism, but another blatant mugging of those who also work hard, and who may have originated from similar beginnings, now priced out of a bloated hideous market and desperate to get a foot on that increasingly wonky ladder. And yet who would feel only that life has pushed them beyond backwards.

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