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.
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.
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.
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.
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.