Walking to Brixton

Like many Londoners, I’ve spent a lot of the last week struggling to find meaning in and around the riots. I’ve read the seemingly endless commentaries. I’ve talked to people and ranted at the radio. Mainly though, I’ve done what I’ve always done when I’m sad about something but don’t have any answers: I’ve gone for a walk. Yesterday, pissed off after watching David Starkey on Newsnight, I walked to Brixton.

Bookshop in Brixton

Brixton was a site of some of last weeks’ riots, and lot of it was still boarded up. Thirty years ago, it saw some rather different riots. There were more in 1985. In 1999, it was  of one of a series of nail bombs placed around London. It has a famous street called Electric Avenue (causing an ear worm every time I visit). Vincent van Gogh lived there for a bit. There is a nice cinema, some decent bars, loads of buses, a tube stop, a friendly bike shop, a few clubs, a good market and several housing estates.

Brixton is also where one of great-grandfathers was born. I never met him, but remember being told that he ran off to the Boer War as a boy, lying about his age to join the army. When he came back, he got a job as a bus driver, married a bus conductress and had five kids. That family lived slightly further south, next to West Norwood cemetery. There’s a story that, during the Blitz, him and my great-grandmother came back from an air raid to discover a tombstone at the bottom of their bed. A bomb had sent it flying across the street and in through their front window.

Tate, Bovril

At the heart of Brixton today is a space now called Windrush square. There’s a monument to Henry Tate – of sugar cubes and art galleries fame – who built the library there (and is buried in that cemetery next to where my great-grandparents lived). At the edge of the square is a derelict building where the Black Cultural Archives are currently being build. Just to the south is a road called Effra, named after an ancient buried river. There’s plaque to Sharpville around there too, though it might be off being cleaned at the moment. London is a patchwork of long, intertwined histories.

old london

It is often said that London is a collection of villages, and that the bits of this patchwork don’t always connect that well; that it can be quite tribal. I grew up in North West London (if you’ve read White Teeth, Zadie Smith describes the area very well) and, as a child, Brixton and West Norwood seemed almost as far away as Aberdeen, where the rest of my family are from. I must have been 16 when I seriously started walking the city, I’d leave the house and see where I’d end up. By foot, I’d work out the overground connections to stops in the Tube, discovering whole new bits. I think a lot of Londoners do this. As an adult, I’ve lived North, West, South and, most recently, East. With every new bit, I never feel at home till I’ve really walked it.

People's Friend

Around the same time, one of my school teachers started taking us out for weekly trips in London. An English teacher, she focused on Literary London; not just London in writing, but people like Keats, Shakespeare and Dickens as Londoners. We also visited places like the Royal Courts of Justice and the British Library. We’d walk around the streets and she told us historical stories, showed us secrets others’ didn’t always know about or see. This was important. Even though we were Londoners, the centre of town was reasonably alien to many of us, we didn’t feel we belonged there (now, I have more letters after my name than in it, but still feel like a bit of an impostor at the British Library). Ms Hook helped us lay claim to our city.
the view from Frank'sAt 18, I got a job at the Globe and so was hit a tourists’ view of the city too: a consumption of the city where you purchase a postcard or a pinbadge. Back before the Jubilee Line extension, Tate Modern hadn’t opened yet and area around that bit of Southwark wasn’t as busy as it is now. On my evening breaks, I’d sit by the river with nothing but a passing boat to keep me company, glancing over the north bank, pondering the long history there. I’d walk in to evening shifts via the Monument, moving in the opposite direct to city kids on their way home. If I was running early, I’d take a detour to pass over London Bridge. I’d look east over to the Tower, and imagine Tudor heads on sticks. Sometimes I’d go via Waterloo, and stroll along the South Bank, stopping to watch the skater kids under the Royal Festival Hall.
stripe along riverFor all its various boundaries, bits of London do bleed into each other, and it’s a city with a multitude of international connections. Bits change too. The Kilburn I grew up in is very much Queens Park now. It’s all posh bakeries and boutiques, in sites I remember as boarded up shops. Change isn’t just gentrification though. Just north of those bakeries is a mosque (part of school) that only a few decades ago was a synagogue. It was built to look like a church though, in the hope that if it blended in it’d be less likely to be attacked. Three major religions and centuries of people rubbing often uncomfortably alongside each other encapsulated in a collection of bricks, cement and coloured glass. I could list a whole host of other changes too; short and long term, personal and political, big and small. Places shift.

Stepney Nature Study Museum

One of the things Ms Hook taught me was to look out for street names like Effra Road and the old river it refers too, and try to learn what bit of history it is a remnant or memorial for (mildly not-safe-for-work example). I lived for a while in Nunhead, near Peckham, just off a place called Dr Harold Moody Square.  We wondered who this Moody guy was, and why the Dr was included in the place name, which seemed unusual. We googled him and discovered an amazing life. I was a bit surprised I’d never heard of him before. Growing up in Brent, we’d done a fair bit of black history (or at least more than most UK kids) but maybe Moody was too much of a South Londoner to make it onto the curriculum in NW10. I also learnt about things like the Peckham Experiment and other cool bits of local history while I lived there.
round pond

I can’t explain what happened in London last week. I suspect there will be many explanations. Many, because it is most-likely multi-factorial but also we because finding out will be hard, leading to a range of competing explanations. Right now, I’m feeling my roots as a fourth generation Londoner quite strongly, but I want to stress that I feel these roots as a large set of stories; ones that reflect ongoing, shifting problems as well as ongoing, shifting delights. For all that people might try to impose binaries of class, race or age to comprehend these recent riots, I sincerely doubt it is as simple and them and us. If it is, what the hell would that say about ‘us’?

Note: I haven’t given credits for any of the photos in this post, but they are all by me. They are also deliberately a bit disconnected, taken all around the city at different times. Click on them to see their flickr page with notes on location, etc. 


7 thoughts on “Walking to Brixton

  1. Teralittlepaul

    This is a truly lovely post. Thank you. I moved to London (Brixton) four years ago from Prague. I am also a city walker. I spent all my childhood walking Prague, getting to know every corner, stone and brick. Now in London I am trying to do the same, it is a hard work and I am not as persistent as I would like to be. There is still much much more unknown than known for me to be discovered and seen. This post reminded me that I should go for walk soon. London is great place. Thank you.

    1. alice Post author

      Thanks! I love walking in Prague too, though as a tourist. I was there a few months ago and amazed that once I started walking around I could remember where I was, even though it was a good 6 years since I’d been there last (and it had clearly changed a lot – I think the shapes of the street were what I recognised).

  2. Lyla

    Lovely post. I remember those Genral Studies trips round London! They really were fantastic, made me realise how much more joy there was in knowing a little story about the streets and buildings we were passing everyday. That little depth made me feel more part of London and is probably why I find it so hard to even consider living anywhere else!

  3. Gaia

    What a lovely post.

    It’s strange to realise that our important lives are just a tiny part of the city’s story that began in the Iron Age (there are Saxon burial mounds near me in Greenwich Park) and will presumably continue for many centuries after we and these riots are long forgotten.

    If you know London by walking and buses, it’s actually really hard to drive around – there are lots of alleyways and shortcuts a walker uses unthinkingly, which cars can’t drive down; not to mention the bus-only lanes and pedestrian strips. I never get lost by foot, but often end up in a tangle of one-way madness if I have to drive.

    1. alice Post author

      Yes! I have exactly the same problem with cycling – gave me a whole new map of the city when I had to worry about one-way streets


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