Saturday, July 19, 2014

Suburban diversions

We moved further out a few weeks ago, to the ’burbs north of Bromley (yet still zone 4, he says somewhat desperately). With Lewisham borough’s notoriously patchy secondary school coverage, usual factors like schooling applied (my partner having taught in a half decent one in Bromley), but an unwillingness to pay stupid pounds for a bigger place where we had grown to love in Crofton Park (or somewhere close like Forest Hill or Sydenham), even though we got fairly stupid pounds for ours, was a big factor too. The whole experience of being in this bubble market was depressing. But then moving to this area – at a time when the Ukips were getting second places in most council wards – was not edifying either, as a few early visitors from the smoke rather gleefully reminded us.

Anyway, it’s immediately clear there is not much doing for entertainment here, no pub in immediate area except down at Shortlands, nothing in Downham. Decent pubs do apparently exist near Bromley north but who would I entice to come down from the metropolis to and check those out? I’ll have to check out Bromley’s Labour club before it gets knocked down too.

Nevertheless I was heartened to see that the Downham Tavern reopened in time for the World Cup. Originally built as the ‘world’s largest pub’ for the Downham estate that rehoused southeast and east Londoners in over 6,000 dwellings from 1930. The area returned a Communist councilor in the 1940s but egregiously, as the Municipal Dreams blog says, the snobs of west Kent put an Israeli apartheid-style separation fence to stop the Downham folk having a direct route into Bromley.

A search revealed the tavern used to put on the Fascination monthly all-dayers during the peak period of 88-89, a companion to the Fascination night at Bonnies bar on Bromley Hill (still there). These mixes reveal the standard Balearic refashioning of 80s rock and pop hits with the newer house and techno but, taken together with the spirit of the time and the excitable tributes on this thread, then you can imagine that these dos would have made quite a mark on heads from Bromley to Catford and beyond in the late 80s. After rave’s absorption into the mainstream, it’s doubtful the area played host to such subcultural interventions since.

I’ve got to know a bit of the northern end of the Downham estate in recent years, killing time before daughter’s recorder lessons at the park in Mondragon road, near the Ahmadiyyah mosque, and now connect back to our new place via Whitefoot Road or cycle back down Downham Lane after a late shift from Grove Park. Indeed I have postulated how in one sense this highly ethnically diverse but solidly working class area is the ‘real’ southeast London rather than your pop-up, regentrified metropolitan enclaves in zones 1 and 2.

As I surfed for further details on the tavern/Bonnie’s, I got diverted on to the case of the Bon Bonné and discovered a veritable subculture of 80s/90s nightclubbing. An old mansion in Herne Hill, the Bon Bonné was a regular haunt for a certain type of south London white boy (neither inner London or too suburban, not too cool-obsessed) as these pages on a Crystal Palace FC forum show (trigger warning, some racist comments). Seen as just beyond the 'no-go area' of Brixton, in the 80s it was likely to have at some stage operated a no-blacks door policy or was at least made unwelcoming for local people of colour. At this stage, it was 80s pre-rave clubbing as Yer Da remembers it – punters dressed up to the nines to get in, wedding rings left at the door, Steve Walsh–type Camber Sands-style soul and funk with some pop fillings, the latest continental lagers yet served in tankards, a pulling joint basically. This post on that Palace thread paints a proper late 80s picture:

“Back from Selhurst or reasonably local away venue, shit and a shave and then drinks in Clapham to start. A short drive to Brockwell Park and then I remember queuing up for more than an hour in the desperate hope that a 'not that bothered' stance would persuade the doorman to let us in … if you got in, it was almost as good as Palace scoring.
A walk past the very smart cloak room and get settled in the lounge area feeling all very VIP and then after a few, out into the arena … Then some banter with a bunch of Charlton w*nkers, a bit of a dance to Joy & Pain by Maze and then the slowies at the end with an impressive 70% chance of success. Absolutely fan fcuking tastic, I miss those days very much.”

It would seem to share cultural space with places such as Cinatra’s in Broad Green (West Croydon) and the Cat’s Whiskers in Streatham, the names in themselves taking us back to an era of cheesily named clubbing venues rather than the laughably pretentious ‘Liquid Lounges’ that followed. After rave the promoters seemed to have mutated Bon Bonné into the stereotypical funky house shindig but it was still a popular venue before it finally closed in 2005, after a run of 31 years. You can surely guess that it is now flats.

If the threads are right, they take us back to the Bromley/southeast London hinterland, as the guy who owned that place is said to have run or is still running one of the bars by Beckenham Junction. There’s a Facebook page for Bon Bonné reunion nights in sticks such as Chislehurst, and the DJs are also to be found doing expected activities like ‘old-school’ radio shows, an over 25s night called Sugar in another of those Beckenham bars by the station, etc. The brand lives on. All in all a group who made their mark in town before following the familiar path of leaving the inner zones to the youth and retreating further out.

All the stories are in a way portals to the suburban life I’ll be (sorry, my kids will be) living now, and all of them (apart from, actually maybe including, the hints at petit gangsterism and racist policy) may look not so different from the nightclub culture many of you will recognise from the provinces.

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Anonymous matt said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm another South-East London incomer, simultaneously fascinated by the kind of youth my children will have, and what it used to be like here. Searching for the whole Bonnie's/Downham Tavern thing is what brought me here, following mentions on the Boy's Own mixes over at I've always been a bit of a Balearic fanboy from afar, but was too young to take part in it and am now shocked to find out that round here it was all happening almost 30 years ago.

1:41 pm  

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