Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Camberwell, on the 16th floor

S: I've never lived so high in my life. It's amazing, to think that there are 15 floors beneath us... that's 60 flats, or some 120 people. Underneath our feet. How strange.
J: what i find strange is looking down from the balcony and seeing birds flying.

* * *

For years I had only a vague idea where Camberwell was. I thought it was just another name for Peckham. Like many of South London localities, it didn’t sound English at all to me: I first heard the name from my Spanish housemates S and G, so it always had a rolling r and an emphasis on the end: Camberr-WELL.
Since most of my friends here are not English, my psycho-map of London is full of names with a ‘foreign’ ring to them, according to the way I first heard them pronounced. Stretham will always sound Polish to me, with that heavy urgency characteristic of Polish punks. The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton is decidedly Italian. Stoke-Newington is often Swedish, because of J’s many squatting tales from that area in North London. Nunhead is American. And so on.

As years went by, I gradually discovered the English side of all these places. It is always interesting to hear the names pronounced with an English accent, and to hear the history behind them. But first impressions are the strongest, and the English side never overpowers the image of these places; it’s just one more layer, one more viewpoint on these nooks in the tower of Bablyondon. Brixton, I was amused to find out at some point, was a suburban neighbourhood for rich Victorians; but it is also – for me – the noodle bar on Coldharbour lane, the crack dealers outside the Mansions, the Christian nutters outside KFC; i will probably always remember it as Afro-Caribbean and slightly Polish: Brixton, with a very thin R.

* * *

Some more psychogeography…

This morning, cycling on Walworth Road, I saw a headline on one of the London local papers:
I find the idea that a postcode can mourn quite interesting.
But seriously, how many people define themselves in terms of their postcode? Can it define a community? E14, in which I lived for more than a year, is the most polarised in the UK, including the poorest and wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country. There the dividing line is quite clear – the DLR railway line.

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