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“A Grain of Sand in Lambeth”: Shaking the Creeping Torpor of Gentrification

November 2, 2015
It’s the fulldress Toussaint’s wakeswalks experdition after a bail motion from the chamber of horrus.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Gentrification and graffiti near Salamanca Street, Lambeth, January 2013.

Gentrification and graffiti near Salamanca Street, Lambeth, January 2013.

Events over the night of October 31st – November 1st 2015 – Hallowe’en and All Saints’ Day – in Lambeth, have compelled me to rework and publish an incomplete post I’ve had on file for the last seven months, concerning a visit to the epicentre of those events in Lambeth in January 2013.

The draft post was originally to be dedicated to musings on the appropriation of a participatory working class culture – in music, dance and song – by the entertainment industry, to be sold to passive consumers as spectacle. It was composed against the backdrop of my sad feelings about the acceleration in the pace of the expulsion and dispersal of the poor and the working class from central London and the concomitant resistance to this process of ‘gentrification’.  The post was to record a meeting with a friend, and our perambulation – or dérive – around the ‘chart’rd streets’ of Lambeth. There was an additional personal significance in this for me, for – to borrow a title from a book on the archaeology of the Neolithic – the perambulation became something of an exploration of my own ‘ancestral geographies’ in this city (Edmonds 1999). The unrest of Hallowe’en 2015 – in reaction to the heavy-handed police closure of an ‘illegal’ rave in a derelict Fire Station, opposite a pub called The Windmill – has forced my hand.

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Graffiti on Vauxhall Bridge, January 2013.

After a couple of pints and a bite to eat at The Morpeth Arms, Millbank, we headed across Vauxhall Bridge towards Lambeth, to locate Salamanca Street, where my great-great grandparents once lived, and The Windmill in Lambeth High Street, of which a distant uncle was landlord (after he ran The Fox-Under-the-Hill across the Thames, off The Strand). As it was, the current incarnation of The Windmill was closed for refurbishment, so we thought we’d head back to Black Prince Road where there appeared to be a couple of pubs.

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The Queen’s Head in January 2013, a “cafe-bistro” rather than a pub.

We were disappointed with The Queen’s Head as it seemed to have transformed from a pub to a slightly upmarket cafe (I’ve learnt to be suspicious of any commercial premises that have a battleship grey colour scheme) and we wandered further along to The Jolly Gardeners.

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The Jolly Gardeners, January 2013

It turned out to be a German-themed bar – the pretentiously-named Zeitgeist @ The Jolly Gardeners – that only served lager and assorted bocks and weissbiers. I suppose it appealed to some demographic or other. On the far side of the bar was a battered old German piano, made in Berlin; I didn’t know whether it had been bought to fit in with the theme or whether it was original to the pub. My friend rattled out a bluesy riff on its keys…

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This attracted the attention of someone who introduced himself as the last local who drinks in there – everyone else drank in pubs across Kennington Road, too far for someone with his mobility problems to walk. He told us – in between lamenting how “the Germans” had bombed the area and had now taken over their pub – that it was the very piano that Charlie Chaplin’s dad played. It may well be true, as I’ve since learnt that Chaplin’s uncle once ran The Queen’s Head a few doors up, and Chaplin himself step-danced as a boy on the wooden boards covering the chute to the beer-cellar. Reading up stuff since, I learned that Lancashire clog dancing became massively popular in the United States in the 1840s, becoming part of the repertoire of Minstrel troupes, and Charlie Chaplin himself was an accomplished clog dancer. Chaplin left Lambeth, to go on the road with Fred Karno’s Army, destined for stardom…

After parting ways near The Queen’s Head, I returned alone to Salamanca Street – where I had the fortuitous encounter with the black cab – before seeking out Hercules Road, where William Blake lived.

Jolly Gardeners

The Jolly Gardeners on November 1st 2015

So, it was with a flash of recognition – and some consternation – that I saw some of the pictures of the morning after the night before in Lambeth. If I was praying for something to shake the creeping torpor of gentrification, was this something? I notice The Queen’s Head‘s had a lick of black paint too…

Queen's Head

The Queen’s Head on November 1st 2015

“There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it: tis translucent & has many Angles
But he who finds it will find Oothoons palace, for within
Opening into Beulah every angle is a lovely heaven
But should the Watch Fiends find it, they would call it Sin”

William Blake, Jerusalem

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