A weekend hunting ghosts in a more benign Brixton
When I was waitressing in London in the early 1990s, Brixton felt rawer than it does now, and still scarred from the riots
A woman boards a bus in Brixton. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The waiter was tattooed, his arms and neck a graphic jungle of serpents, bleeding hearts and gothic hieroglyphics. He wore an apron around his narrow waist and moved around the tiny cafe as if he was skating on ice. Underneath his skin-tight black T-shirt, his torso, all shoulders and biceps and abs and pecs, looked as if it too had been drawn, maybe by a cartoonist specialising in superheroes.
He delivered a plate of syrup-heavy pancakes to my son with a flourish and a delicate ripple of well-tended musculature. I sipped my coffee and watched the chef, a big, bearish man with a huge bald head and ears delicately studded with a row of tiny diamonds, paint pancake batter on to the hot plate with infinite care and precision.
“You like a fork?” the waiter asked me.
“Sorry?” I said. “Oh, no thanks. I’m not mad about pancakes.”
“No,” he sighed, appraising me like a difficult stain, “I’d say you’re more of a vegan tart.”
We were house-sitting in south London over the May bank-holiday weekend, taking care of a tall old home around the corner from Railton Road, Atlantic Road and Electric Avenue, names still associated with the Brixton riots of 1981.
The pancake-and-panache breakfast was in Brixton Market, a rambling indoor arena where the locals come to buy red snappers, plantains, amputated chicken claws, great spongy slabs of tripe and huge live edible snails that the traders corral inside plastic laundry buckets.
Alarmingly cool eateries
In the past few years, alongside the stalls that sell everything from replica designer boxer shorts to cheap hair extensions, a clutch of alarmingly cool eateries has sprung up in the market. Now the place is prey to increasing numbers of fashionable young Londoners, their noses and tongues studded with hooks and eyes, who come to congregate over miso soup and chai masala and triple-cooked chips.
When I was waitressing in London in the early 1990s, Brixton felt more raw, scarred still from the riots. Back then, hurrying down Atlantic Road on a summer night to buy 10 fags and a bottle of warm wine from the late-night corner shop, the streets hummed with an edgy intensity, which, while still there, now feels diluted, maybe a little more benign.
The Irish contingent
There was a cohort of young Irish living in and around south London at that time. They were, for the most part, a well-educated bunch of recession refugees, who had left Ireland for solid jobs in London banks and hospitals and businesses.
During the working week they would emerge from their shabby Lambeth flats in shoulder-padded suits and sharp footwear, and take the Tube to their grown-up jobs. But at the weekends they seemed to revel in Brixton’s elegant squalor, lying around on low-slung beds in shafts of pale sunlight, listening to Santana, blowing smoke rings at the ceiling and talking long and deep into the buzzing night about their repressive mothers.
It has all changed, of course, now those once young Irish are married with children, repressing their own offspring, going on calorie-controlled diets, sleeping on orthopaedic mattresses, getting acupuncture needles in their earlobes, and tut-tutting over the reports of metabolised cocaine traces in the drinking water.
I walked along some of those
once-familiar streets over the weekend, ghost-hunting, I suppose. The flats we once partied in have been bought up now, the damp patches dispatched, the cornices replastered, the kitchens gutted, the mildewed showers marbled.
Brixton is a more desirable address than ever. It’s on the Tube, there’s a lovely, leafy park and a well-known cinema; there are settled schools and music venues and bars that serve cocktails in dewy glasses. Young Irish emigrants would be hard-pressed these days to afford to lay down their futons in the neighbourhood.
Unlike some areas of 21st-century London, however, the old population has not been pushed out by the affluent new arrivals. It’s still there, the harder end of life, in the faces of some of the older men and women who gather by the stalls under the great metal arch of the railway, rheumy-eyed and bent under the weight of shopping bags; it’s there in the bemused faces of some of the toddlers being pushed fast through the crowded streets, their mothers bleating loudly into mobile phones; it’s there in the sceptical and humorous talk of the customers gathered in the more long-established shops and hairdressers, pubs and cafes, a reminder that the vegan tarts haven’t quite completed their invasion.