Last week I stood in the middle of Elephant and Castle roundabout and wept.
Now, I normally save that level of dramatics for missing the last bus back to Nunhead but this time it was different. This time the tears came as I realised that soon Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre would be gone.
Yes, that clumsy concrete block will be no more. No longer will it sit there on the edge of the roundabout like the drunk person at the party who no-one can remember inviting – unloved, unwelcome and being sick on its own shoes. Instead, it is to be knocked down to make way for a ‘significantly improved shopping centre’ (as if that could be possible!) and a new campus for London College of Communication.
But once – ONCE – Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre was the future. The first American-style mall in Europe, it promised so much: It was going to make the area the Piccadilly Circus of the South. Instead it became a by-word for the failure of post-war architecture and planning.
It may be ugly, but I will miss it.
Half the shops are boarded up but the place has got more of the spirit of London in its three dingy floors than the Shard has in its 95 light-flooded levels. For a start, last time I was there a teenager let me into the public toilets for free after she jumped over the gate. Nobody ever did anything that publicly spirited for me in a Westfield.
When it’s gone, part of the patchwork of underground London will be gone too, replaced with more Oliver Bonas’ so people can buy more pineapple-shaped homeware (how much can our poor living rooms take?).
Not a Wahaca in sight
But what’s so good about it, I hear you ask? Well, it was selling ‘world food’ long before pesky street food stalls started taking over every unassuming car park in the capital.
You can eat ceviche at Peruvian cafe Mikos, French crepes from a stall in the basement and salted corn kernels – more addictive than Spice – from the nut stall outside Tesco. In Castle Tandoori you can eat curry underneath the sort of retro ceiling fans that trendy restaurants up East would kill for.
But the best is Latin American deli La Bodeguita, where the custard tarts are deep filled, snacks deep fried and the coffee dangerously strong. With salsa on the stereo and papers in Spanish on the tables, it’s a lot like being in Bogotá (if Bogotá looked like the atrium of a South London shopping centre) which means it’s a lot like being on holiday, which means it’s totally acceptable to crack open la cerveza at 10am.
Strike it lucky
Once you’re revved up on coffee and beer there is only one place left to go. Up into the gods. Up to a better place. Up the escalator to the flashing, sticky world of London Palace Bowling.
This place is what bowling was before it got an ironic sailor tattoo and turned up in Shoreditch. Sticky star-patterned carpet, air hockey, vodka slush puppies and teenagers showing off. Sure, you get the feeling that the staff have half-given up fixing things – you’ll have to call someone over to retrieve your stuck pins at least three times per game – but with pitchers of lager at £10 and Rick Astley on the sound system, this is bowling as it should be.
Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m biased. Me and Elephant Shopping Centre got history. You see I used to go there as a child. Them bonds are hard to break.
My nan lived in the Elephant and trips to the shopping centre were the sum of my ‘proper London’ experience until I was 12. London to me wasn’t St Paul’s, Harrods or Camden Market. Nope, it was the Tesco in the basement of the Elephant Centre. Perhaps not quite the Famous Five, but to me those were halcyon days.
In my nan’s older years a walk to the shopping centre was her daily connection to the outside world. It kept her going. So standing on that roundabout last week I felt like the developers were knocking down my own family. The gentrifying bastards.
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Image credits: Photos by the author