Sunday 1 October 2017

#268 A community event near Elephant and Castle

I'd never heard of Walworth. The overbearing familiarity of London's tube map meant that districts without a bright coloured line and white blob to their name became shrouded to those that didn't live or work there. Yet I'd visited the area many times.

I used to pedal along that thriving artery connecting Camberwell with Elephant and Castle every time I cycled into central. It was the gateway between South London and the city at large. The name of that street I'd so often used and never identified was Walworth Road.

Despite the heavy flow of traffic up and down its length, Walworth itself was far more than a trade route. What other district's community possessed such a rich cultural history that residents had seen fit to organise no less than four separate summer festivals? It was the last of these festivals I had the pleasure of attending this weekend.

On a lukewarm and blustery September Saturday, thirty stalls were assembled around the flat green space just off the northernmost end of the road. The freshly laid lawns of Elephant Park provided a smart, unnerving setting for the area's families and local vendors as they gathered to celebrate their heritage under the shadow of numerous new developments.

The main stage hosted a variety of Latin American dance acts. A large crowd had gathered to spectate and eat chilli. They seemed merry but strangely coherent. Where was the booze? Either someone had ordered a dry zone or noone had told the breweries. Could it have been a conscious omission so as to avoid attracting the wrong crowd? One crowd member gladly met by each stall was Charlie Smith, the new Mayor of Southwark. He seemed to take a keen enough interest in each of the sellers' wares as he plodded carefully from one to the next.

At the CoolTan stand, I met three other volunteers I hadn't seen before. Saffron the artist, Charlie the poet and Peter the blogger. The group had flogged plenty of paintings and postcards throughout the morning and had read several poems to the crowd. By all accounts it had been a productive appearance.

Peter gave me some background on a couple of CoolTan's poets, along with a crash-course in compulsive hoarding, a behaviour often related to one or more psychological conditions. "It's not so much the accumulation of things that's the problem" he explained "It's the failure to identify the useless ones and get rid of them".

I hadn't known much about hoarding before but started to cotton on when Peter pointed out that the difficulty in sorting increased with the volume of items hoarded, creating a vicious circle. I later thought about how hoarding seemed like a physical parallel of a mental condition. The inability to identify useless thoughts and throw them out. The more you accumulate, the harder it gets.

I spoke at length with an African Art seller named Deja. He gave a passionate verbal tour through the shifts in culture, economics and media facing what he called the deep south-east. A photographer himself, Deja wanted to form a group to document the remaining grassroots culture. To help preserve it against the onslaught of "Legoland" buildings and Buzzfeed articles. The importance of having a group was that subjects could be captured more fully and shared more vividly if they were represented in a collection of photography, film and writing rather than using just one medium. A necessity in any campaign.

Deja was not alone in his concerns. Fifteen minutes into my time on the scene, I'd heard the word "gentrification" several times. Some of CoolTan's poetry touched on the subject. It was hardly news from a news point of view but the inevitable destruction of Elephant's 1960s shopping centre would be on the minds and tongues of locals until it happened and beyond. What then? Would Walworth Road become the next Rye Lane? It was getting there but might take a while. For one thing, the traffic moved so slowly that the exact same cars and busses would probably still be there in ten years' time but like the chicken rissole I'd grabbed from a food stall, Walworth was a delicate pocket of culture getting squeezed and nibbled at from the outside. It was there for the time being though. Available to taste in all its original spicy glory.


Running on empty said...

Great article, I thought I was there.

Profound Familiarity said...

Thanks, that's nice to hear.