The plan was to meet in Brixton for an all-day gallivant to discover and celebrate what it has to offer now, today, as opposed to record and lament a Brixton gone by. But in a place where the pace of change is relentless, evident on every street corner, gentrification is a difficult topic to avoid, particularly when one of the people you’re meeting is volatile local, Half-life.
I’d just ordered an americano and a lovely big, fluffy pain au chocolat at the Ritzy cinema cafe/bar when he bowled in.
‘Behold the fucking gentrifier!’ he said loudly, pointing at me, and I smiled weakly at the barista.
‘Surely, “gentrifucker”?’ I countered, and he nodded grudgingly.
First comes the coffee, according to the big man, then the cake, and the next thing you know all your pubs are couture pâtisseries. Half-life ordered an Estrella and a carton of popcorn. It was just after midday and it was time for his breakfast, in silence.
Then Roxy arrived, furious.
‘Why are we meeting here? They don’t pay their staff properly. Drink up, we’re leaving.’
Outside, Dirty South was smoking a fag and staring up at the clouds. At least someone was happy.
‘You know, that Town Hall is a beautiful building,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ replied Half-life. ‘Shame it’s full of cunts.’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘Can everyone cheer up so I can start having some fun?’
‘Ah, the Fridge. Grace Jones pulled me off in there once,’ he said, adding, ‘Or was it the other way round?’
‘Sexist,’ said Roxy.
‘How is that sexist?’ said Half-life.
‘Because,’ she said, ‘You’re suggesting that as she looks masculine, she must have a penis.’
‘That’s not sexist. That’s sexy,’ said Half-life.
‘Is it?’ asked Dirty South, confused.
‘Oh, open your mind!’ railed Half-life, ‘Grace Jones? With a sexy penis? Are you telling me that doesn’t get you going?’
‘I think I’m too sensitive for the modern world,’ said Dirty South.
We turned into Blenheim Gardens and headed up towards the windmill.
‘It’s closed,’ said Half-life, as we approached the pub of the same name.
‘That wasn’t the windmill I had in mind,’ I said, and he groaned.
‘Oh, please, not the actual fucking windmill.’
Yes, I meant the actual fucking windmill. Half-life had a point, mind. It is a bit confusing, what with the pub right next to it and all. Perhaps it should be called the Actual Fucking Windmill. I made a mental note to mention it to the Friends of Windmill Gardens next time I ran into them.
Brixton Windmill, once better known as Ashby’s Mill, is 200 years old this year and lives in its own little park, hidden from view until you’re right in front of it. After the climb up the noisy urban sprawl of Brixton Hill it provides the city-dweller with a hefty ‘what the fuck?’ punch. I love it.
‘Apparently, it was all the buildings going up in the area that reduced the wind flow and meant that there was no longer sufficient breeze to turn the sails,’ I said. ‘Mid-Victorian building boom,’ I went on, answering a question that never came. ‘It was basically used for storage from then on.’
There was a short silence.
‘Pint?’ said Half-life, and the others chorused their assent.
But first we went past HMP Brixton, the formidable old ‘house of correction’ that stands nearby, pausing to gaze up at the yellow-brick facade and imagining the grim lives of the the inmates within.
‘At least someone’s still getting pulled off on Brixton Hill,’ remarked Half-life, wistfully.
Today, HMP Brixton is a category C training establishment in which prisoners are readied for release back into society. It even houses a restaurant – The Clink – in which paying members of the public can be served food by rehabilitated brutes with ‘LOVE’ tattooed across the knuckles of one hand and, possibly, ‘PATÉ’ on the other.
The White Horse on Brixton Hill is usually a dependable boozer, with music and a lively crowd, but today it smelt of bleach and the beer was off. Perhaps it was because it was still early. At least it was open. Two other pubs on the same stretch, The Telegraph and the George IV, haven’t fared so well, the former now some bullshit God-squad gaff and the latter a Tesco.
We took our drinks out onto the terrace at the front and the sun came out to join us.
‘I remember dropping into the George IV with Spider,’ I said. ‘The dancefloor was filled with lads with their tops off, which was a surprise. I turned to him to tell him it was obviously a gay night but he already had his top off and was waving his hands in the air like a good ’un. Never seen him happier. It was his favourite place in Brixton.’
‘Mine was the Queen’s Head,’ said Roxy, of another fabled local venue, now re-opened under new owners with an ‘emphasis on food’. ‘Oo, the things that went on up those stairs, if you were lucky enough to get the nod.’
‘Like what?’ I asked.
‘Oh, music, mind-altering magic, maybe a tropical bird,’ said Roxy, with a twinkle.
‘A tropical bird?’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘And as you know, I like a cockatoo.’
‘Little bit sexist,’ said Half-life.
‘Idiot,’ said Roxy.
On the way back down into Brixton we passed another dead post-pub favourite, Mango Landin’, now transformed into an ‘exciting’ block of flats. At the end of Brixton Water Lane there are another couple of our picks, the Hootananny (Half-life’s) and the Effra Social (mine) but they were resolutely closed, one of the perils of daytime drinking. We knew they’d be closed, but we wanted to walk past them anyway, just to check they hadn’t been turned into churches or supermarkets.
‘I’m sure Brixton used to be more… open,’ said Dirty South. ‘Shall we go somewhere open?’
So we went straight to the beating heart of the matter, the Prince Albert on Coldharbour Lane, splendidly sandwiched between Club 414 and an offy. Even this reliable old chum has had a refurb and now sports high tables and funny metal stools, though there is a DJ booth so hopefully it still parties after dark, like the old days. The little back yard was reassuringly filled with locals using a Tuesday afternoon to its full potential.
‘The weed garden, we used to call out here,’ said Half-life, as we took a table.
‘Why was that?’
‘Why d’you think?’
Next door, Club 414 continues to host music nights that last well into the following day, but it hardly came as a surprise that even this venerable institution is under threat from developers who want to turn it into flats and a shop. This was beginning to get depressing.
A man strumming a guitar in the garden lightened our mood and jogged Roxy’s memory.
‘I need to get some plectra,’ she announced. ‘I’ve got a guitar lesson first thing in the morning.’
‘Do you mean plectrums?’
‘Simon says “plectra”.’
‘Who the fuck’s Simon?’
‘My guitar teacher.’
‘He sounds like a nonce,’ said Half-life.
‘Well, he’s lovely,’ said Roxy. ‘He’s from Chelsea and he gives me free lessons.’
‘Free? How come?’
‘He just offered. No strings attached.’
‘You’re gonna need some strings, Rox, it’s a guitar, for fuck’s sake. You’re being skanked.’
I was sure there was a music shop opposite on Coldharbour Lane, but having walked up and down it a couple of times, I couldn’t see it. I looked it up and it turns out it’s now a Dirty Burger, the specialist round meat chain owned by Soho House. Worse, my Internet research also turned up that Soho House is opening an ‘upmarket’ cocktail bar in Brixton called Fox Bar.
‘I bet Simon will love it,’ said Half-life, and Roxy pulled a face.
Faced with an onslaught of the unfamiliar there was only one course of action: Head for the ’Spoons. At least we might get a decent ale. The Beehive immediately offered a familiar, warm fug and a convivial vibe. The racing flickered on the TV and Half-life fist-bumped a number of acquaintances.
‘Am I right in thinking your Real Ale Festival is on at the moment?’ I enquired at the bar.
‘That’s correct,’ said the barman.
‘Excellent! What do you have on?’
‘Erm… this one,’ he said, pointing to a Sambrook’s Pumphouse Pale.
‘Is that it?’ I asked, incredulous. And it was, too. Biggest ale festival in the UK, my arse.
That did it. In a desperate bid to find beery excellence I lead the team round to the Craft Beer Co on Station Road. I apologised for taking them to a somewhat soulless chain bar.
‘Well, we were just in a ’Spoons, to be fair,’ said Dirty South.
Beavertown’s immense Lupuloid IPA was delicious but we all had to have plastic glasses as the dishwasher was broken. The day’s beer curse continued.
Outside, Station Road was quieter than usual as Network Rail and Lambeth Council evictions have left much of this previously lively stretch boarded up pending a controversial refurbishment that will see many of the old businesses close permanently.
We sat at the outside tables and got talking to some Swedish tourists who had come to visit Pop Brixton, only to find it closed for a makeover. Pop Brixton is a box park filled with shipping containers offering a bright, sanitised version of Brixton that Half-life calls ‘Little Clapham’.
‘Anyone who wants to go there is a wanker,’ he told them, like a Bizarro Tourist Information, before pointing them to some decent alternatives.
Feeling peckish, we headed round to Brixton Village. We’ve covered Brixton Village (previously known as Granville Arcade) and Market Row before on these pages, so I won’t dwell on it again, at least not for long. In short, it’s a brilliant but precarious shopping, drinking and dining ecosystem that, for me, works very well indeed.
At 5.30pm, in the fading light, it looked sensational. Tables were being laid for the evening and as the shops were pulling down their shutters, the little bars were cranking into life. It was the golden hour. Even Half-life, who is less enthusiastic about it than most, had to concede the magic, as he swaggered down the avenues towards his quarry, Fish, Wings & Tings.
‘Don’t go telling every fucker about this place, Raider,’ he said, tucking into a codfish fritter. But I am. For five years it’s been peddling the finest Caribbean food I’ve ever had and is a perfect example of change for the better.
Cities are by definition places of change. If you don’t like change, you should probably move to Arselington-on-the-Wane, where nothing has happened since a fence blew down in 1992. What’s important is how this change is managed.
Currently one gets the distinct sense that Lambeth and other borough councils need only the slightest encouragement to drop to their knees and fellate the big, swinging dicks of large-scale property development (and then publicly ridicule those who dare to criticise their money-grubbing, anti-community activities). Money talks, and it shouts down the voices of those less well-off, even if they already happen to live in the area, thank you very much. The very people who have made a place pleasant, fun, diverse and interesting to live in, are ignored and spat out to make way for those with deeper pockets, who will generate a greater return on investment.
Brixton, like Clapham before it, is at the forefront of such changes. Witness the scandals of Cressingham Gardens, Lambeth library closures and the Brixton Arches evictions, the cancelling of Brixton Splash, the recent disappearance of local institutions like The Canterbury Arms, Mango Landin’, George IV, Mingles/Harmony Bar, not to mention the likes of Loughborough Hotel, The Grosvenor and The Railway Hotel before them.
And it ain’t over yet. Unchecked, I do worry we’ll end up (albeit very slowly) with an Islington or a Kensington: Bland, characterless strips of chain stores punctuated by niche boutiques; inheritances spunked on juice shops or theme bars in which your drink is strained through a tramp’s sock and served via an IV drip. The place will be overwhelmed by entrepreneurs with a ‘passion for pizza’ or a ‘mania for mangal’.
‘A boner for burgers,’ offered Half-life, swigging the last of his rum punch. ‘Right. Let’s do some proper Brixton.’
We strolled down Electric Avenue, surely one of London’s most handsome streets and looking splendid after a recent spruce up, and headed for the Effra Hall Tavern on Kellett Road.
The first time I went into the Effra, someone who had complained to the DJ about his gleeful over-playing of Buju Banton’s homophobic anthem, Boom Bye Bye, was stabbed in the arse with a Stanley knife on the way home. Nowadays it’s a handsome, woody, open-plan, backstreet pub that does music and football and pulls in a friendly, regular, local crowd. Again, the draught beer was disappointing (Doom Bar and Sharp’s Atlantic) but after some of the earlier stop-offs, it at least felt like we were happening again.
To build on this feeling we paused in Windrush Square, the open space opposite the Town Hall, and joined some of the locals in loitering with a spliff. In Brixton, the aroma of weed hangs on the air, like fresh spring blossom.
We bumped into our Swedish friends again and together we headed back up to The Windmill (the pub, not the Actual Fucking Windmill) for an evening of grunge metal, pub-priced pints and cheeky tokes, like Brexit never happened.
The Windmill is a glorious, no-nonsense haven, a bastion of old Brixton: Bands on every night, the smell of beer, the football on out the back and a secret garden round the side. No need to turn this place into flats, I’d quite happily move in as it is.
And God Created Brixton sang local boys, Carter USM, a song written after emerging from a night in the George IV onto a riot-torn street, and it’s places like this they were surely thinking about. Despite all the changes we’re pleased to report God’s own town is alive and kicking.
‘Fancy a tequila?’ said Roxy at the bar, after the bands had finished.
‘Why the fuck not?’ I said. ‘But what about your guitar lesson?’
‘Oh, slight change of plan on that,’ she said, twinkling again. ‘He’s coming over tonight, now.’
‘Gentrifucker,’ said Half-life.
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Image credit: Photo from Dulwich Raider, Urban Warrior: Escape Into Brixton Prison used courtesy of Heinemann