A metastasis of apartment blocks, the ubiquitous design differentiated merely by an exterior paint job. Cranes mark where another few degrees of vista will be obscured. Just when it seems every possible gap has been filled, magically another site is cleared and the pile-driving resumes. Parsimoniously-sized flats for the urban dweller, cheaply constructed with a narrow balcony overlooking the railway line. Welcome to Walworth Road, SE17, a window on the rapid physical and demographic transformation of London.
My daily train journey runs parallel to this mile-long thoroughfare, which runs due south from Elephant & Castle (known in Charles Faraday’s time as Newington) towards Camberwell. An old working-class district of south London, it’s a stone’s throw from Westminster and the City, and it has never been pretty. Dilapidated terraced streets gave way to concrete construction in the 1960s, including the enormous Aylesbury estate, recently demolished. West Indians settled here, and the borough of Southwark had the highest proportion of black residents in London. But the deck blocks were badly designed and became hotspots for drugs and crime. For many years the Labour Party HQ was at Walworth Road before arch-moderniser Peter Mandelson moved it in 1997 to Millbank Tower (traditionalists dubbed those responsible for this symbolic departure the ‘Millbank Tendency’).
Believe it or not, Walworth Road is reputedly the origin of the true Cockney. It’s very different now. Traditional pubs such as The Duke of Clarence and The Beaten Path have turned into crudely-named shops like ‘Buy’n’Save’, SIM card dealers, African churches (‘Ministry of Fire’) and an Islamic centre. Remnants of the old King’s Head, now a bookmaker offering odds too good to be true, include a Watney’s crest not worth the effort to remove, and a tiled wall promoting ‘Reid’s Stout’.
Off Walworth Road is the famous East Street Market, pictured in the title frames of Only Fools and Horses. This was the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin. Barrow boys once had an array of drinking holes to quench the thirst of their labours – the British Queen, the Rising Sun, but like Rodney and Del Boy, they’re long gone. The market, though, is as busy as ever, with mostly African and Asian stalls and clientele.
To some extent, there is gentrification, with the more fashionable towers nearer Elephant & Castle attracting middle-class professionals. Spit-and-sawdust pubs have given way to modern tastes, but the architectural metamorphosis cannot be blithely lauded as progress. Walworth Road was rough, but at least it was on a human scale. Unlike the remaining Georgian terraces, church and civic halls, the new buildings are geographically and culturally rootless and could be anywhere. And the people are from anywhere. Walworth Road is multi-lingual, multi-faith, multi-everything – except the white working-class, who have been completely replaced.
Take an old East Ender who moved to the outer suburbs after the war back to the Poplar described by Jenny Worth in Call the Midwife, or the Silvertown of Melanie McGrath, and these places will be barely recognisable. An annual influx of hundreds of thousands from west Africa, Afghanistan, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere makes Walworth Road the future for our towns and cities. Yet most British people seem to keep calm and carry on regardless. As such rundown, former industrial areas are revitalised, is there cause for concern?
A mainstream media criticism of Douglas Murray’s book on immigration is the title: The Strange Death of Europe. There has never been so much life in European cities. Neoliberals ask what is wrong with the economic growth concomitant with the rising population. Yet we are sleepwalking into a country that is still formally called Britain, but has little left in its culture that is British. White Londoners are less than a minority in great swaths of our capital city – they are extinct.
The Left doesn’t mind; block votes for Labour to harvest. In our our fear ridden conversations, any comment on ethnic changes may be regarded as inherently racist. Downsides of this massive social change are not up for discussion, unless you are attacking rich landlords thriving on the backs of the poor. But most ordinary people, given the opportunity for candour, worry about the fate of our culture and our heritage against the overwhelming tide of global mass migration. Integration? Forget it.
In this apparently vibrant yet soulless landscape, there are fewer social amenities. With an atomised existence, the flat-dwellers mix with their own kith and kin, but a broader sense of community, shared space and identity are lacking. Ironically this is celebrated by the Left, whose favourite quote of Margaret Thatcher was: ‘There is no such thing as society’ (as most readers here know, these words were taken out of context; she meant that families and communities are best served by each other rather than dependence on an impersonal state). The Labour Party, dominated by middle-class graduates, no longer seems to care for white working class culture, which explains why its support has declined in Midlands and Northern towns that still feel English.
Neighbourhoods are powerless in stopping this demographic juggernaut. The authorities have all the power: accountability has been conveniently undermined by the demise of local newspapers (which kept us informed of planning applications), and councils make unholy alliances with big businesses who have a green light to maximise their profit in high-density developments. Effectively, council elections are a sham. Whoever you vote for, you get more of the same. The priority is housing, and don’t think of complaining about the new flats all going to foreigners. There are laws against that, you know.
While citizens have lost their say on their surroundings, quality of life is diminishing. Families are living in 20-storey flats too small to swing a cat, but we all suffer from this overcrowding. Trains so full that passengers cannot board, doctors’ surgeries and hospital waiting rooms packed with people speaking in a myriad of native lingo (needing translators paid from your taxes), oversubscribed schools with playgrounds built over in a futile attempt to keep up with demand. This is unsustainable folly.
On Walworth Road, there is a pattern to the development. Each new block of flats is slightly taller than the last. But perhaps in years to come this level of residential construction will be quaintly modest compared to the dizzy heights rising from other cleared sites, where builders have carte blanche. London will look more like Hong Kong or Cairo, or perhaps the cities of futuristic dystopia. Gotham City here we come…
Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health. He has written two books: The Moon and Madness, and The Story of Nursing in British Mental; Hospitals: Echoes from the Corridors.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of The Salisbury Review. (Subscriptions from as little as £10 a year)