Lesson 8: Don’t believe the hype

While reading my favourite British liberal newspaper (no plug intended) this Saturday, I was struck by a feature entitled “Let’s Not Move To…”, rounding up the UK’s worst places to live, as defined by their movie depictions. For example, the town of Thamesmead was listed for its inclusion in A Clockwork Orange.

It was with some sadness that I turned the page to discover this:

Elephant & Castle

You’re kidding.

Where to start? This is the place where Britain got broken: see Harry Brown, The Disappeared, Children Of Men etc. It makes Escape From New York look like In The Night Garden.

“On the Northern and Bakerloo underground lines, and within easy reach of both the City and the West End, it is shaking off its former seedy image.” (buyassociation.co.uk)

The entire area is one gigantic, labyrinthine housing estate – all graffiti-covered walls, underlit walkways and boarded-up windows. Oh, and it’s patrolled by gangs of vicious hoodie monsters. Don’t even think about hugging them!

The Heygate Estate is about to be demolished, but you can get a two-bedroom ex-local authority flat nearby for £170,000.

Um, there’s the underpasses. Did we tell you about the graffiti?

Tomorrow’s dystopia today!

Full article

Just to clarify, Elephant & Castle is the district of London I call home.

Now, let’s be clear here: I’m not looking at E&C with rose-tinted glasses. It’s not upmarket, particularly beautiful, or overly friendly. I know this. On the other hand, it’s not the hideous hell-hole that Guardian journalists are suggesting, either.

It seems this is a theme. Restaurant critic Jay Rayner criticises Elephant in his review of a local restaurant:

“There are many things I would not be surprised to get in the Elephant and Castle: run over, say, or a nasty, suppurating skin condition. The Elephant and Castle is somewhere you go en route to somewhere else, unless you live there, in which case you are also trying to get to somewhere else.”

- Jay Rayner (full article)

Once again, London snobbery comes into play. Anywhere ‘south of the river’ is instantly deemed to be under gang control, riddled with drive-by shootings, drug dealers, prostitution and those ghastly foreigners. Now, all of those things exist here. They also exist in North London. And West London. And East London. And pretty much everywhere else that isn’t, say, Shropshire.

So why the snobbery? I think it’s because it’s trendy for self-satisfied smug Londoners to look down on places like Elephant. Its fall from grace (Wikipedia suggests it was once a central London hub) makes it an easy target for mockery. Its enormous roundabouts and eyesore housing estates have made it the butt of jokes. The fact that Southwark Council are removing the roundabouts (and the subways the Guardian mentions), and have almost completely rehoused the tenants of the Heygate estate is left forgotten in this criticism.

So what if I was to have read this article before moving here? Would it have changed my mind about the place? Probably not, but I might have been more concerned. I’d be lying if I said the area was 100% safe and filled me with joy every time I looked at it, but it also has its perks:

  • Great transport links to the rest of London – you’re in Zone 1 and it’s cheap to get anywhere else.
  • Major landmarks (London Eye, Westminster, Tower Bridge, Borough Market) are all within a 15-20 minute walk away.
  • Local markets offer a real chance to try out world foods and cultures without the glossy sheen of the safe, gentrified versions more common in upmarket areas
  • Outside of the roundabouts and shopping centre, the rest of the area has some pretty streets of Victorian houses and some gorgeous buildings (the Tabernacle, the Imperial War Museum, St Mary-at-Lambeth Church).

Today’s lesson is as follows: don’t believe the hype. See a place for yourself. Get a feel for it and decide if you could call it home. Londoners are a proud bunch and want to convince everyone that their particular area is close to the tube without heavy traffic, vibrant and cultural without gangs and drugs, and small and friendly without being dead and boring. News flash: these places don’t exist. Everywhere has its flaws, just like journalists wanting to single out places for the sake of comedy.

One Response to “Lesson 8: Don’t believe the hype”

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