On Brixton

SwirlyBrixton is where I chose to hang my hat in London. This reveals nothing special until I tell you that my image of England before coming here for the first time was one in which people were a bit uptight but generally good-humoured with a wonderful comprehension of satire, wearing brown corduroy and emanating that air of sophistication that used to be revered back in the colonies. It was further coloured by the fantasy of a fine pub-loving culture and fresh rain on ancient streets where the expectation that the Goodies could leap out at you from any corner dressed as nuns or amuse you with some comparable hilarity was a reasonable one to entertain.

These illusions subsided the moment I met my new suburb. Subsided is putting it rather mildly: they in fact scattered like cowardly rats, only to be collected up again and squeezed into a large, glass jar, swirled about with violence and vigour of a paint mixer, set alight and then, while still in flame, poured out into the gutter.

The most overused adjective to describe Brixton is edgy : a word often utilised by people who don’t live there. What this is supposed to mean I’m not sure. If by edgy they mean that there are opportunities to score cocaine, get stabbed and grab a chicken burger in the same five square metres of concrete, then they’d be close. They would also be warm if they meant that at any time you may be accosted by someone either trying to scam money from you, sell your soul to Jesus or shower you with a tirade of unintelligible sentences. I suspect that the first person to describe Brixton as edgy was a white, middle-class male working in media who one day attended a concert at the Academy with his university friends and had the misfortune to feel slightly nervous during the five minute walk from the tube station. But I would have understood: away from the white bread fancies of the inner north and west it is true that, if you’re not used to the animation and noise, you do feel a little on edge.

Brixton has the largest population of Caribbean people outside the Caribbean and there is a growing number of South Americans, most notably Peruvians and Brazilians. Throw in a growing middle-class of city workers, students and retirees and you have an indescribable mix. There are stereotypes yes, you’ll see the typical gangster rapper – a large African with enough bling to sink the QEII, speaking a form of English totally devoid of consonants – and even Euro kiddies with their campers and backpacks, but each day a curious diversity will look you in the face and force you back into your store of prejudices to retrieve another. Such is the diversity of the streets of Brixton that on some days you will be the only (white) person apparently speaking English. I in fact like this feeling as it liberates me from the pressure to act cool and talk, both of which are impossible when you’re surrounded by people who excel at the former and don’t really want to do much of the latter, not with you anyway.

There is a common reaction in people when you tell them you live in Brixton. Their heads cock to one side (presumably that is the preferred English position for when one is about to unfurl a string of unfounded twaddle) and they simply say say, “Oh, how lovely, do you like it?” when you know what they are really thinking is, “Why in the shallow pile of shite did you even consider moving there? It’s so far off the Monopoly board that you have to pay $200 just to get to jail.”

This attitude is, of course, deeply flawed but entirely understandable – just like the overuse of adverbs.

It is true, I admit, that Brixton has the unfortunate reputation of being a violent place. There were race-related riots in 1981 and 1985 and you are regularly approached by people trying to sell you drugs, or what you presume to be drugs as the vocabulary of illicit substances has changed somewhat since my day. You will hear calls to purchase skunk and blow – both comprehensible – whizz, fat, chalk, charlie and cake sound rather dubious in origin however. So if you’re not a heaving crack head, it can be tedious day after day passing these gentlemen who, to any passerby, appear to consider themselves rather tough and cool. And perhaps they are, but most of the time they’re just annoying. Like swimming with sharks: the more you are in their presence, the more comfortable you become. Now when trudging by I let out a sigh and exclaim “No! If I wanted something I’d have asked you!” and the thought that I could be knifed a few metres down the street doesn’t enter my mind. Besides, I’d be paranoid to think such a thing, wouldn’t I?

Still, there are things that Brixton offers that other suburbs do not. The Brixton markets are some of the best and cheapest in London for all types of food and general goods. There are dozens of butchers, fish mongers, fruit and vegetable stalls, and shops, the descriptive title of which I’ve not yet worked out that resell assorted shampoos and dish washing liquids for a discount. People jam into the backstreets of Brixton all weekend to do their bargain shopping. I see South American families querying the butcher on the quality of beef for 30 mins before buying ten kilos of pork belly and a dozen sausages. The butcher told me they buy the same thing each time but really just like to talk. I don’t. Give me two sausages and make it snappy since I’m also next in the line to buy some socks.

Yes, there are crowds, but that is inescapable in London. The difference is that you’re not struggling on your way home from the tube or lining up at the ATM for money, but investing time in filling your stomach – a pastime that is infinitely more captivating and worth the odd push and shove. On my first outing to the markets the level of my excitement increased in proportion to the weight of food that I was carrying. I just could not buy enough. My arms, suffering for the pleasure of my stomach, laden with two kilos of fresh goat meat, rainbow trout, bunches of basil, eggs, coconut milk, peppers, celery, a lifetime supply of spices, yoghurt and basically anything that was edible and had caught my attention. For 15 pounds it was a bargain. By the time I was thrust out the end of Electric Avenue, (yes, like the song) I was carrying enough food to feed a bus-full of sumo wrestlers and their former sumo-wrestling coaches, but it felt good to be eating well in a country where inedible is a relative term.

It was here in 1999 on Electric Avenue, just outside the supermarket, that a neo-nazi set off a nail bomb that injured around 50 people. Today the servants of God sit on this corner and wail out warnings of eternal damnation (but add as a convenient side note that God’s love is eternal), while tired workers file out of the supermarket doors laden with their cheap meats and bottles of red wine.

While I won’t be here forever, being a short tube ride from central London suits me for now. It’s the common experience of living in a big city that keeps most people sedated – you become totally self-centred at the same time you are aware of the trials that all ordinary people have to endure. I know that Brixton will be good to me, just like her parent London has been, but there’ll come a time when I’ll probably discover what all this edginess is about and fall right off.

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