Friday, 16 August 2013

We went to Brixton last night – it’s yet another thing about London that has improved vastly since the ‘80s

I haven’t graced Brixton with my presence for at least 30 years - just before the riots, probably. Back then, it was a dump. People talked rather desperately about its vibrancy and sense of community and exotic food and how – apart from the distinct likelihood of being mugged or caught up in street violence – it was all really rather jolly. It wasn’t. It was a dangerous, crime-ridden ghetto. All I wanted to do was get back to Bayswater with all my internal organs still functioning.

A niece of ours has bought a house with her partner a six-minute walk from the Brixton Tube Station, and we’d been summoned for dinner and a look around their new place. Standard London three bedroom terraced house, beautifully done up. That was no surprise, but Brixton was. Okay, we didn’t enter the borough’s hinterland, where I’m told some things haven’t changed, but the bit we saw – including the High Street – was busy and bustling and pleasant, with nary a hint of menace. There was some young fool distributing leaflets while shouting out slogans about fighting racism and colonialism (maybe he meant the anti-white racism routinely purveyed by the BBC/Guardian axis and the reverse colonialism represented by waves of immigrants taking over large swathes of English cities) – but there was no other sign of idiotic militancy. The crowds emerging from the tube at 7.45pm – and again around 11, when we were making our way home - mainly consisted of young white people. The roads we walked down were about three-quarters gentrified.

Brixtonians being vibrant 30 years' ago
Brixtonians being dull and well-behaved now
As we rode the Victoria line on the way back, surrounded by tourists, chatty twenty-somethings and a few exhausted workers, it struck me how safe the tube now feels compared to 30 years ago, when late-night trains always seemed to be full of ethnic gangs, drunks, football hooligans, beggars, buskers and creepy-looking weirdos. I presume a massive increase in the deployment and sophistication of surveillance technology has helped (but I'm told it doesn’t seem to have made buses any more pleasant). Whatever the reason, using the underground late at night no longer feels like playing Russian Roulette. There were even bouquets of fresh flowers liberally dotted around some of the District Line stations - what a lovely touch!

King's Cross Station
Apart from Brixton, many other areas of London have also improved out of all recognition. My wife took me on a tour of St Pancras and King's Cross  and the surrounding area a few weeks ago. I’m sure that many architecture experts will tell me the vast new development and what’s been done to the stations themselves is a betrayal of traditional London architecture – soul-less and show-offy - while socialists will be appalled that so many poor people, prostitutes, pimps, muggers and crack-fiends have been forced out of their traditional haunts. Me, I loved all of it – it’s just so civilised and pleasant and attractive. Who would ever have imagined that sipping a cappuccino in King's Cross Station could be a delightful experience? Or that one would be surrounded by people who didn't look like savages from some post-apocalyptic nightmare? Or that it would all be so clean? Or that having a sign for Platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter would afford so many people so much pleasure? (The crowd around it was so large, we initially thought some pop star must have put in an appearance.)

As for the street-food stalls behind the station at the top of King’s Boulevard - they change every day on a rota system - well, I had a Basque roast pork “sandwich” which may just have been the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted: every stall appears to offer superb, cheap food with all the boring bits edited out. For those of us who grew up in an era characterised by Wimpey hamburgers and Lyons Corner Houses, London food is now a marvel.

St Pancras Station (and I never thought I'd ever have occasion to write these words) is simply wonderful - enormously impressive and welcoming. And, on the day we visited, entirely free of scuzzballs - proof that if you make genuine, sensitive efforts to improve the urban environment, design it intelligently, fill it with busy people, and then police it, it'll creep-out the creeps, and they'll move on. As someone pointed out recently, after St Pancras, Gare du Nord feels distinctly Third World.

We have friends in Hoxton, and that’s now surprisingly pleasant (and achingly trendy). Ditto Clerkenwell. Thanks to the Westfield Shopping Centre, even grotty old Shepherd’s Bush – whose Green used to be infested by a representative cross-section of the underclass – is approaching acceptability.

I know Roger Scruton would despise me for admitting this, but I love all the new buildings erected along the Thames during the past three decades. And while Canary Wharf isn’t my scene (too many nervous-looking financial types puffing cigarettes and holding tense pavement conversations on smartphones), there’s nothing much wrong with the look or feel of the place.

I haven’t been to Greenwich to see the Olympic Park. I was extremely sniffy about it while it was being built – but given how startlingly well other run-down chunks of London have been revived, I suspect even that’s okay.

And, for some odd reason, the sight of Boris bikes always cheers me up, as does the introduction of new buses that look a bit like our dear old Routemasters.

I realise other areas will have suffered due to an exflux from bourgeoisified parts of the capital – local news is full of stories of knifings, shootings, rapes, gang-fights and ethnic and religious tensions in depressing-sounding bits of London I’ve never heard of despite living here for 54 years. But as I don’t know anyone who lives in those places and have absolutely no intention of ever visiting them, I prefer to celebrate the enormously heartening improvements to those sections of this ridiculously huge, maddening, yet strangely lovable city I do visit.


  1. Between 1994 and 1997 I was in and out of Kings Cross two or three times a year. I stayed at the Number by a really sweet Maltese lady.

    I know it was a dump but I loved it. I never did any "business" around the station but I did occasionally share a smoke with those employed on the sidewalk. That's where I took Martha when we visited London together...she's a sturdy one. The only thing appalled her was the absence of Mashed Potatoes on the menu at the Kentucky Fried Chicken across from the station. She was so beside herself she didn't even notice the gigantic black passed out across the counter. The look that the cashier exchanged with me as we looked between the comatose woman and Martha bitching about the mashed potatoes was priceless. Hahahah

    I had some good times at that place. I reckon I'm glad it's been cleaned up...they were talking about even back then.

  2. Wow, you know how to show a lady a good time e.f.! You must really be a glutton for punishment. I'm not a high liver by any means - luxury embarrasses me, for some odd reason: I just want to tell them to knock it off. But I can't stand being in grotty surroundings - I'm always on edge, because you never know if someone's going to do something bizarre and quite possibly dangerous. Judging from the stories you tell on your blog, I suspect you really relish weird people and slightly scary experiences. Mind you, I'm a big KFC fan - and I'd choose fries over mash any day (except for with pork chops or a Cumberland sausage, of course). Mind you, mentioning in company over here that you like KFC has the same effect as breaking wind (which, I suspect, is the effect that eating too many meals at KFC might have).

    You'd probably find King's Cross a bit tame for your taste these days - but, believe me, the street food is sensational.

    1. Hey we were young and broke. Of course, we came out of the station and had to step over a girl screaming for a rock on the pavements. That may have taken her back a little.

      Martha had been on the road in Italy and France for over a week and she was ready for something familiar.

      Though to that point her idea of a big city was Indianapolis...a particularly pasty place in the midwest. Since then she's become familiar with New Orleans and dingy as Kings Cross was at the time, it was quaint compared some of the places around here.

      How do y'all eat fried chicken without mashed potatoes and gravy?

    2. With the finest food known to mankind - roast potatoes. If they're not available, then good old-fashioned British chips fluffy enough to soak up the gravy. You can have too much of anything, except roast potatoes or chips.

  3. Very refreshing and upbeat post Nice to see some praise being heaped on the old place, for a change. Interesting article in the Spectator ["Welcome to Big Venice" 10th August 2013]. This states that London is being bought up by wealthy foreigners who want "holiday" homes with the result that in the Chelsea-Mayfair-St John's Wood -Mayfair square six out of ten property sales were made to foreigners [2011-12]. 37% were bought as "holiday" homes which means that one in five properties stand empty most of the time. "And here's the danger of our great capital...all these unlived-in houses kill the soul of a city."

    Bloody foreigners. Whoops! Sorry, old boy. I forgot. Please forgive.

    1. Yes, old fruity, I am a foreigner - but unfortunately not one of those wealthy ones who are buying up London.

      I discovered early on that if you claim to be British, the British will immediately point out that you're not, but that if you tell them you're a foreigner they fall over themselves to assure you that you're British. Odd.

      By the way, I have reported you to the police for Hate Crime. Expect a call from Inspector Knacker (with about 20 armed officers in tow) any day now - they're apparently as keen as mustard when it comes to investigating this sort of thing, rather than, say, rapes or muggings or other minor offences of that sort.