Preview: 'The Secret History of our Streets'
Phil Harrison visits modern Deptford for an insight into London’s disappearing working class
‘Tell ’em the truth,’ mutters a passerby. ‘How they fucked everything up.’ We’re in Deptford High Street, exploring what, in Charles Booth’s day, was considered ‘the Oxford Street of south London’. It’s hard to justify that claim these days. But there’s another tale lurking here and it’s overflowing with London’s evolutionary essence. BBC2’s new series, ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’, takes Booth’s 1889 ‘poverty maps’ as a launch pad for six surprising, occasionally outrageous social histories, examining London thoroughfares and discovering stories more contested than you might imagine.
Booth’s maps were unique. He was attempting nothing less than a comprehensive survey of the social and economic character of every London street. His categories ranged from ‘upper-middle and upper classes’ to ‘vicious, semi-criminal’. Superficially, what emerged remains an eternal London theme. Namely, that it’s startling how closely extremes of wealth and poverty co-exist. But director Joseph Bullman’s series opener uncovers a much more singular story which transcends this truism and goes to the very heart of how we live together in this unwieldy and intoxicating city. And how we’re changing too.
These feel like films about our present and future as well as our past. ‘The beauty of this series,’ reckons Bullman, ‘is that it’s microcosmic and, because it’s about very particular places, it allows you to bore down into the past in ways that you wouldn’t manage if you were doing something broader. We had the idea that slum clearance would be the story.’
On the day we visited Deptford, it was pissing down. The High Street is like many others in London’s less exalted districts – a jumble of bookies, fast-food outlets and pound shops. The once-renowned market was denuded by the rain but, in any case, it’s not what it was. The street once supported 12 pubs – now it’s down to two. But Deptford’s drinking culture hasn’t gone away. Instead, it’s taken to the street.
Part of the new breed of Deptfordian, Apostle Emmanuel Maiyaki is a brief, fascinating presence in Bullman’s film. Alarmed by the ‘evil altar’ constructed by the street drinkers, he and his acolytes ‘speak to the air’ in an attempt to cast out the demon drink. Maiyaki is wrong about the existence of demons. But when it comes to negative energy, he’s got a point. As a market trader points out in the film, ‘it’s an angry High Street. No one likes anyone.’
But glance above and behind the cookie-cutter shopfronts and traces of the past remain. We pay a memorable visit to Harry Haward, a man of many parts, the most notable of which are bank robbery (he did three years and was the subject of an ITV documentary upon his release) and philanthropy (he runs a drop-in centre for elderly Deptfordians in the back of his shop and refers fondly to ‘the old people’ despite pushing 80 himself). As he riffs relentlessly on everything from a visit from ‘horrible bastard’ Ken Livingstone to his first court appearance (Judge: ‘Do you recognise this court?’ Harry: ‘Why, have you had it fucking decorated?’), we wonder why Bullman hasn’t found room for him in the film. The answer’s simple: he couldn’t edit him. Still, if Harry isn’t an exhilarating vestige of old Deptford, we don’t know who is.
As the documentary explains, the waning can be traced back to 1943 when town planners addressed London’s poorer areas. Slums would be demolished. Inhabitants would be rehoused in tower blocks or antiseptic new towns. London would function like a machine. The planners were resisted for a time. But eventually, bulldozers moved in, creating slums where none existed previously. The film contains heartbreaking footage of a woman defiantly scrubbing her front doorstep, even as the wrecking balls arrived.
Many of Deptford’s original inhabitants found themselves resettled in Bexley Heath, Bromley and Woolwich. But a few hung on. Harry Haward is one. Another is John Price: shop owner, informal community hub and the central figure in Bullman’s film. Waifs and strays still gather in his shop telling tales of Deptford life. There are tabs on the ceiling; John’s been letting locals shop on tick for years. He’s a magnetic individual: funny, acute and unflinching in his assessment of the area’s changes. He recalls communities, even families, being dispersed.
Depression was commonplace, in both the tower blocks and the new towns. Bullman’s film culminates in cine footage from the Price family’s past being projected on to the wall of a low-rise block. It’s bitter-sweet, and then just bitter. Visibly upset, Price eventually asks, ‘can we finish now?’ ‘The Secret History of our Streets’ carries plenty of emotional weight – John is realistic about Deptford’s new circumstances but offers a melancholy hint of the kind of spirit it once embodied too.
But this isn’t just a straight history let alone a misty-eyed wallow in an idealised past. There are nuggets of universal truth in here and they lend the film real scope and a distinctly polemical feel. At the end of the film, Bullman and his researchers pull off a stunning coup. Council documents are discovered suggesting that medical officers tasked with inspecting streets found nothing wrong with most of the residences around Deptford High Street. ‘No disrepair,’ read the notes. ‘This whole street could be dealt with by means other than slum clearance.’ So was this well-intentioned, albeit wrong-headed humanitarianism? Or was it class cleansing; social engineering by any other name?
‘I don’t know if that was the intention’, says Bullman, ‘but the result was to displace and expel traditional working class communities from the centre of our cities. I think it’s to do with a fear of working class street culture. It’s a deeply under-told aspect of our recent history. You see the ’60s on the telly and it’s Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the Beatles. It’s the things that happened to the middle-class elite. Because they’re the people who are commissioning the films.’
Of course, the bleak irony is that the kind of sturdy, elegant Victorian properties demolished in ’60s Deptford are worth millions now. Places like Deptford have been caught between the two competing ideologies of the twentieth century. Prescriptive central government planning dispersed these communities. Now, the unfettered free market is taking its turn, pricing out all but the very richest.
The film ends with an estate agent showing a couple around a house on nearby Albury Street which narrowly escaped the bulldozers. The property is on sale for £750,000, a price the interested parties consider to be ‘good value’. Eventually, there’s a sense that this documentary may have recorded the death rattle of a particular kind of London community. ‘Oh God, that’s such a sad thing to think,’ says Bullman. ‘I feel a deep sense of loss at the change. But we’ve also met people from African and West Indian backgrounds who are deeply connected to this place. You don’t know. In 50 years’ time, could we be making films with that same sense of loss about what we have now?’
It’s not impossible. But around the time we visited, news was breaking of Newham council’s letter to Stoke council, mooting the possibility of moving tenants north due to rising private rents in east London. It doesn’t look like expediency is going to stop trumping community any time soon.
‘The Secret History of Our Streets’, begins Wed June 6, 9pm BBC2