Tag Archives: gentrification

Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

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Tightrope walking: pub life in East London

One of my favourite recent commissions was for Norwegian Air’s magazine, N, who asked me to write text accompanying Jan Klos’s terrific photographs of East London pubs that, as he says, “capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction.” The article is here.

I visited several pubs, interviewing the landlords about the difficulties of running a pub in London. “London’s pub landlords are tightrope walkers,” I wrote. “Maintaining a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.” What fascinated me about successful pubs was how they balanced their role as “a communal living room” as Pauline Forster, formidable landlord for The George Tavern described it, with their need to draw custom by programming events, from the ubiquitous pub quiz to the more avant-garde offerings at somewhere like the Jamboree on Cable Street. Even that is not always enough, and the George is under threat of development.

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All the pubs had been photographed by Jan for his project, the Photographic Guide To The Pubs Of East London. He explained to me via email how it came about:

“I was looking for a project and I was playing with the idea of examining London’s tourism industry. The idea of photographing pubs was born from (believe it or not) cycling by Parliament Square and Big Ben and watching all the tourists. I really hate crowds and landmarks. There’s much more to London than Big Ben, double decker buses and telephone booths and I wish more tourists would see that.

I thought of all the tourists who come to London following travel guides full of landmarks and return with home with exactly the same boring photographs as everyone who has ever visited. I felt it a duty to show them what they are missing out on. Around the time I started plotting the project, more and more articles started appearing in the press about gentrification, pub closures and the death of East London. I’m a massive fan of East London’s pubs and slowly a way in to my project took shape.

I thought it made perfect sense to combine a “tourist guide” idea with a documentary approach to capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction. It gives insight into London’s pubs as a good tourist guide would, but, most importantly, it documents these fantastic institutions and groups of people – “families” – who run them. The family portrait approach I have taken also highlighted how close the teams are and how strongly they feel about their survival: many of the staff I encountered have other jobs but still do an odd day of work  in the pub, just because they enjoy being part of a close-knit community.”