Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Heritage served

(adds image of agit-graf in Clink Street arach)

London’s visitors and residents like to project what they feel is the historical soul of the long established capital city onto certain areas. The West End is too brash, its façade too ripped out and remade, and the City is too domineering, a fascinating walk but too alienating in its occult cash generation. Thus they head south of the river to hit on what is the ‘real’ (usually Victorian/Dickensian) London, specifically around Waterloo, the South Bank, Bankside and the rest of the area east to London Bridge station and up to Tower Bridge. The impossibility of this supposed transpontine continuity is never needed to square with the reality of regular erasure and regeneration that has got the district to where it is today, as the people anchor themselves round a few key sites and order a slap up traditional English heritage dish.

It is not necessarily by design but not exactly disapproved of either that I spend much of my out-of-house time in this bit of SE1. I work in the area now, drinks with commuting friends are often in bars in the back streets near the termini, the place is good to bring the brood because of the public spaces, my wife and I spent our recent anniversary in the retro-modernist Skylon. The area seems abuzz with activity, and you can get back easily, a key box-ticker for any suburbanite.

What I see is a hotchpotch of architectural styles as each postwar era tried to rejuvenate the area. The cute grid of Victorian streets north of The Cut and south of Cornwall Road give way to the South Bank, the revamped Brutalist glory thriving with wifi surfers waiting for their cultural partners to turn up. The complex suffers the encroachment of the chain restaurants in metal boxes along the Hungerford Bridge and on the riverside concourse.

These and others around Gabriel’s Wharf feed those who have had their bite-size culture in the Tate Modern or the Globe, to get to which tourists may have negotiated under or around some dreary and unloved 20th century shells around Blackfriars Bridge, Stamford Street or up from Southwark Tube. Newer ego statements exist, such as the Palestra or the Blue Fin buildings (previously discussed here), the latter hub of yet more restos and office space they hope they can fill above ground-level.

The ‘Bankside Mix’ project sits next to the Blue Fin on a similar scale and ambition, with promotional slogans offensively reducing everything to a commodity – ‘Poetry Panini Painting’, ‘Art Culture Cake’, etc. Those units that were open do at least have some customers in them on most chilly evenings I pass by them. From here, the streets away from the river are mostly quiet, clean and commerce-free until we get to the dense and winding patchwork of Victoriana underneath the network of viaducts serving Cannon Street, Blackfriars and Waterloo East from London Bridge. In this section we’re confronted by yet more food and booze shacks (Wagamama’s, Vinopolis, Nando’s - all near this image of Clink Street below) but ignore them and wander round the twisting lanes. Wander around Borough market too, but again ignore the ridiculous prices and buy from your local butchers and grocers.

Only Southwark Street west from the hop exchange widens out and assumes the feel of a European-style avenue, especially with the occasional hotel chain along the way. Beyond London Bridge, we have the frankly horrific turds from space of the GLA buildings, now surrounded by loads more arbitrary and contrary shapes housing hotels and offices. Aesthetic appeal is limited, but the kids enjoy the space and the big cast metal balls, the steps of the GLA ampitheatre and so on.

With the focus so much on securing the tourist trade, what I find, on my night-time breaks, is a desolate place for somewhere so central. I walk round more in hope than expectation of finding a night-time café (that isn’t a fried chicken bar), and for the fresh air after several hours of cloying aircon. A £3.50 liquid lunch is not an option, or even desired. SE1 is rehabilitated enough to serve transient needs, but sustainable community seems a way off. There are not enough local services here to cope with anything beyond the odd small-scale estate and the obligatory loft-dwellers (creatives supposedly crucial to the regeneration of any inner-city area).

So visitors come here certain of a safe environment, with the infamous British hedonism dispatched to other revitalised areas. Head for Shoreditch, Brixton or up west for bespoke debauchery. To meet in this area provides an implicit message that the night won’t descend into the usual stupefaction; everywhere shuts by 12. That deficit puzzles me too – there are plenty of unusual spaces and quiet backstreets, with the arch venue part of British clubbing lore. The area has form – think of the raves at Clink Street (now a substandard tourist attraction) and all the venues under the arches between Tooley and Stainer streets. Maybe it is because the offices and approved art spaces now lend the area a certain cachet that doesn’t fit in with in-your-face youthful abandon. Discreet gay nights at an arches haunt, which doesn’t look as it’s ever open when I went round to take a look, fit in better around here.

With heritage culture on the menu, it is not surprising that the pubs do so well. Workers and tourists settle down in the George off Borough or the Ring off the Cut (used to be boxing ring upstairs, dontcha know) and, of course, those around Borough Market, for a pint of tradition, and gladly at a remove from the hordes in the City and West End. The lads old and young stepping outside the Market Porter may point out that Park Street was used in Laughing Stock and 2 Smirking Barrels. Then they’ll fit in another and run for the last train.

In winter’s time, that buzz around the area really drops off as the workers leave for their dormitory towns and those staying on scuttle into the restaurants and pubs. With further economic growth and development put on hold for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely this area will become any more lived in or ‘real’ than it is now.
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