To say ‘Southeast London’ is to conjure up specific ideas of a place usually seen as distinct from Southwest London, a place we readily associate with the highly gentrified streets of John Lanchester’s Capital (although its ‘Pepys Road’ was likely named after a New Cross street). Southeast, we tell ourselves, is definitely not Clapham, Balham or Putney, which are cast closer to their neighbours across the Thames in Fulham and Chelsea. But have you seen swathes of Battersea or Stockwell – mile after mile of tower block and housing estate, as grim and real as any of SE’s? And, conversely, have you seen some of those belles rues in Camberwell, Blackheath and Greenwich?
Hemmed in by hillier country and the M25 while divided by the Thames, London lends itself to regionalist divisions but does not work so well in bloc terms – patches of increasingly obscene wealth sit next to low-quality housing in most areas. On the frontline of this internecine debate is Brixton, an area seen as the home of black pride and of a certain working class communal initiative struggling with gentrifying forces (‘Yuppies Out’ they scrawl on the cover of Foxtons). Some happily class it with the SW likes of Clapham; others see it as a more of a piece with Camberwell and Peckham.
Nevertheless, we love to self-ghettoise – folksy traders keep calm and call their little area a Village, YouTube grime heads big up their relevant area as their Ends. Postcode warfare is a thing for both go-getting professionals eager to land a place in the right area, and for 15-year-old playaz staking their turf. Clearly those specific ideas of place differ from person to person, with varying degrees of accuracy depending on prejudice.
Yet there is a slippage here, a lot of slippage. Mention ‘southeast London’ to many an out-of-towner or north Londoner and if the Peckham unworld of Only Fools and Horses doesn’t come up first they’ll think of the old southeast London – the docks, wharfs and warehouses, bombed out bits of Bermondsey, Southwark and Rotherhithe. One blissfully ignorant colleague resident in N19 claimed the reason ‘southeast Londoners’ (meaning those in the more central bit just described) were so depressed because it is under sea level. Here SE London also equals ‘Millwall’ and that football club (despite the actual place being on the Isle of Dogs) does so much to feed people’s fertile imaginations of the area. A criminalised and chauvinistic world, pantomime hoolies; Horrible Cunts. Nil by Mouth for these helpless white trash. But isn’t Bermondsey home to foodie markets, art galleries and chi-chi enterprises? And don’t many of Millwall’s boys come from Bexley, Sidcup and other suburban nonplaces? Nah mate, you can’t change the spirit of the place.
The BBC’s Secret History documentary featured three southeast London areas. While the Deptford one in particular suffered valid criticism for over-simplifying or fudging the issues over the changes, the Bermondsey and Camberwell ones told a less contentious story of how former down-at-heel streets became sought-after des res areas. Such gazumping of the locals is a familiar story for London as a whole, but no doubt it would have surprised some non-transpontiners that these southeast streets were so fetishised over.
Other corners trade on that southeast-ness for gritty cultural cachet but have a tenuous association with it, having been largely developed in the mid-19th century as suburbs to areas of industrial production. The likes of Brockley, Forest Hill and Sydenham were the domesticated and park-filled foil to the factories and commerce in Deptford and New Cross; Herne Hill would have had that relation to the hubbub of the commercial centre of Brixton. I’m guilty of such slippage, my Twitter bio has me in ‘London [SE]’ as if that signifies a lift of hardnosed realism when actually I’m out in generally nondescript Crofton Park. I’ve never forgiven St Etienne for calling south London an ‘endless suburb’, but by zone 3 and beyond they are of course largely right.
Yet neither these excessively grim inner images or leafier outer images quite nail What We Mean When We Talk About ‘Southeast’ London. For example, drive around the infinite maze of residential streets between the south circular, the A21 and Burnt Ash Road where there seems to be little of the basic facilities and cultural spaces (pubs are conspicuous only by their demolition or conversion to residential use). Filling former social housing built when relatively generous garden suburbs were the thing, this ethnically mixed and largely working class space seems to me a lot closer to what people think of as ‘southeast London’ – if only the metropolitans would venture down there to realise it.
So there is slippage: patronising minds have a small area of post-industrial docklands or cartoon Peckham in their minds when it comes to ‘southeast london’; sophisticates often ignore a much more inherently SE-London area round Downham, Grove Park, Mottingham, etc when proudly foisting their ‘sarf’east and proud’; all of us who live here in some way suffer from the constant barrage of negative associations in the press about the area. There is also self-parody – come the weekend at my work pub the locals think nothing of serenading the yuppie arrivistes with ‘Maybe it’s Because I’m a Londoner’ or ‘Let Them All Come Down the Den’. And why is the almost total cultural victory of the South Bank/Bankside there in SE1 not claimed as evidence of the transpontine surge – who even bothers with the West End now? Down here off the rive gauche we have everything we need, thanks.
(talk of Bermondsey's Blitz Spirit no longer applies)
In an area so prone to myth as this, truisms mix with and thus have to be constantly redefined from mere fertile association. So we know there aren’t enough good state secondaries in Lewisham borough while ‘gang culture’ seems more of a problem here than elsewhere. Yet I don’t live in Kilburn or Tottenham or Acton so cannot accurately compare these trends with other areas.
‘Southeast London’ for me is as wide a snapshot of the area as possible – Mountsfield Park for Save Lewisham A&E demos; Peckham Rye with the kids; Champion Hill for the football; Tamil shops in Loampit Vale; budget stores in Deptford; wandering round Downham while my son has his drum lessons. But there is a poignancy here – ever-inflating house prices in the capital means joining a rabid rat race to get a decent sized house and we’re not keen on that – and also an anger over land grabs at the Heygate or Kidbrooke that threaten the area with ever more stultifying homogeneity – of people as well as place. Yet whatever and wherever you think it is ‘southeast London’ resists and prospers in spite of all the negative developments and muckraking myths.