We Went On a Quest to Find the New Dalston
Feb 7 2013
Photo by Alan Denney.
There comes a point when every scene must die. For punk, it was when the originators began to see bronzed Italians with yellow mohicans posing for Chinese tourists on Camden Lock. For rave, it was the Ibiza Chillout compilations and bad comedians doing the "big fish, little fish" dance at the Royal Variety Performance. For grime, it was probably when MCs stopped getting paid in cash.
The key isn't so much knowing when a scene, club, look or location is kicking off, but knowing when it's kicking the bucket. And for Dalston – London's number one late-night booze and drugs vortex – the bucket has surely been kicked. Last Friday, Harry Styles, ace face of the world's biggest boyband, went out in Dalston for his birthday. His night climaxed with a phalanx of paparazzi battling to get a shot of him stumbling out of a house party at the Dalston Square apartments, themselves new-built with regeneration money, in the hours just before dawn.
What next? Calum Best helping girls pot their reds in Efes, haunting the pool hall like a sleazy version of Patrick Swayze in Ghost? Prince Harry shuffling to "Au Seve" in the basement of Dalston Superstore? Caggie Dunlop passed out in some rubbish bags outside Stamford Works?
The sound of Dalston's death rattle is ringing out into the sprawl beyond. The place seems oversaturated, sold out and embroiled in an endless inter-venue cockfight, each undercutting the other with later closing times and less frequent toilet searches. It's got to a point where even the Evening Standard know the jig is up, running an article recently about how everyone despises the "revellers" who pour off the new tube links every night to drink, shout, fuck, piss and vomit in the street.
You can't blame the locals for hating what the place has become. It exists somewhere between the Groucho Club and a £4-a-pint night at the Swansea student union. It's time for London to move on, but where to? It's a big city, but outside of the usual places, it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot happening.
I decided to hit up a well-known property site in search of the cheapest (because that's why people originally moved to Dalston, lest we forget) locations within a five-mile radius of E8 (because nobody wants to live in Hendon) to find out where the next Dalston is going to be and how much fun you can expect to have while "urinating, vomiting and making too much noise" there in a couple of years' time.
Why Is It the New Dalston: Highly Affordable, Plenty of Greenery.
Young artists and "creatives" originally flocked to Dalston because it was cheaper than Shoreditch, where the graphic designers and trainee lawyers were busy filling the once-affordable warehouses with egg chairs and street art. Dalston was purely residential – all ex-authority flats and big white Victorian houses perfect for running an electroclash fanzine from.
Now, Dalston is undergoing the same process.
When it comes to dirt-cheap places to live in East London today, Forest Gate is the dirtiest, cheapest place on the list. The hometown of Plan B and Idris Elba has a time-warp vibe to it; it exists in a weird bubble that seems untouched by the wand of gentrification. I imagine this is how the whole of East London was before cafe culture and late licensing turned Hackney into London's Las Ramblas.
The high street is lined with chicken shops that have pictures of chicken rather than art in the windows, post offices that sell cakes and nail bars where you can book a trip to Lagos while getting your tips done. A trip down the high street here is witnessing retail in its purest form – people selling stuff other people need out of blue Perspex boxes, rather than trying to convince them they need something on a hanger with a £250 price tag. The impulse buys lined up before the till are international phone cards and weird Polish chocolate, rather than David Shrigley pocket books and knitted Aztec-print hip flasks.
Perhaps it's a refusal to overcomplicate things that gives Forest Gate its sense of community. The prevailing Muslim population seems to have set itself up in a way that matches that rose-tinted idea of the East End eulogised about by gangsters and Barking BNP councillors. It seemed to be a decent place, full of decent, working people and all the other cliches you'd expect (kids kicking balls around in the street, fruit and veg stalls, etc, etc).
Add to that streets lined with large Victorian houses and ex-authority flats, and the area seems like the perfect new home for hordes of suburban fashion students who'll keep your kids up every night by ironically blaring Rihanna through the walls and surfing their ironing board down the stairs.
Just wait till they discover cocaine. The 24-hour booze shops will be doing a roaring trade. The local economy will be booming louder than Ri-Ri's voice in your dreams until the vultures arrive to turn all your friendly local watering holes into pubs that smell of gourmet sausages, and you can finally get some rest.
Chances of Becoming the New Dalston: High.
Why Is It the New Dalston: High Levels of Street Crime.
Are the boutique shops and Waitrose mums of Clapham getting you down? Do you feel like picking up sticks and moving somewhere a little more "edgy"? (And, by "edgy", you mean somewhere you can buy an eighth without getting jumped by bored local police, rather than a well-known human trafficking hotspot.) Well, considering Hackney is in the middle of a police clampdown and Brixton has become an overpriced skunk hole of boorish Australians, it looks like Edmonton is the next logical place for the parents of Home Counties teens to discuss in worried, hushed tones with their friends.
For those of you not familiar with BBC London news reports or Gang Green-affiliated YouTube freestyles, Edmonton has a bit of a rep. Whether anyone really calls it "Shank City", as the Mail claims in their piece "Edmonton: the suburb hijacked by gangs", is certainly up for debate, but any shopping centre that needs a bouncer for their branch of Sports Direct probably has a few issues to contend with. Reading news reports about Edmonton, it sounds like the Gunfight at the OK Corral reimagined by Crazy Titch and JG Ballard. But is it really like that?
The truth is, walking through Edmonton at school kick-out time is not unlike the calm before the storm right after the final whistle goes at a London derby. The shopping centre exits and bus shelters are guarded by police officers of all rank, steely security guards with walkie-talkies and shopkeepers standing outside their stores like Dodge City saloon owners before a shoot-out.
Look, I'm not saying Edmonton's the Bronx – I'm sure it'll be fine in the long run, but there was a cardboard cut-out of a policeman stood in one of the supermarket windows. There was just a palpable sense of unease, is all.
The odd thing about Edmonton is that it doesn't look like an urban hellhole. It feels like Plymouth or Wrexham or some other mid-size provincial town. It's a big shopping centre with a bus garage that takes you to places you only hear about on Football League round-ups. Edmonton feels like a Parisian banlieue rather than a part of London – a distant suburb forgotten by the rest of the city, a Thatcherite DMZ of low-rent retail hemmed in by red-brick estates and punctured by the enormous tower blocks that emerge from the shopping centre like the candles of a concrete birthday cake left out in the rain.
It's the centrepiece of a platter that nobody wants to touch. Sorry, residents of Edmonton, I can't foresee you helping yourselves to slices of pop-up pizza any time soon.
Chance of Becoming the New Dalston: Very Low.
Why Is It the New Dalston: Nightlife.
Despite the 30-somethings who rave about the Japanese teas at Cafe Oto and Dario Argento nights at the Rio, it's its nightlife that Dalston is really renowned for. "The Strip" – the colloquial name for the part of the A10 that runs from Dalston Junction to Arcola Street – doesn't feel inappropriate when you realise that it's basically Las Vegas if it was run by the Turkish mafia rather than La Cosa Nostra. The area has long been populated by tiny bars and converted pool halls run by local mavericks, all united by their love of arcane card games and lacklustre approach to music and door searching policy.
Alas, for aforementioned reasons, the scene has taken a kicking from the mainstream recently and the world needs to move on before we all turn into those ex-Britpoppers still hammering the nosebag in the toilets of The Good Mixer. The best option appears to be migrating south, particularly to Peckham, which is in the middle of a thriving party resurgence.
As you can see below:
The great thing about Peckham's nightlife is that it's made up of kids who aren't yet jaded by working a job they actually want to do and slightly older people who just want to take pills and shout at the sunrise. There are no professional gak-fiends, no music industry banter and no Jake Gyllenhaal anecdotes. Instead of the owner's son playing "Gimme the Light" for the thousandth fucking time at Efes, you get a secret Rick Wilhite set at its south London equivalent, Canavan's, and the good vibes of the South London Soul Train at the Bussey Building. Peckham is about music rather than networking, about enjoying yourself rather than being seen enjoying yourself.
It's Dalston without the cunts, essentially.
Peckham feels current rather than tired, erratic instead of predictable. Yeah, you're more likely to see Giggs driving around listening to his own music than Miquita Oliver spilling drinks on people, but that can surely only ever be a good thing. I'm sure Peckham's time for police crackdowns, boyband birthday parties and hot dog vendors will swing round eventually, but for now, it's arguably the most exciting place in London.
Chance of Becoming the New Dalston: Pretty Much Already Is.
Why Is It the New Dalston: Fuck It, Why Not?
So you want to really push the boat out in South London? Think Peckham's played out already? Camberwell's too pricey? That New Cross is essentially just an extended Goldsmiths campus populated solely by people who've just got their first bowl cut and other people forcefully asking them for change? Well, you're wrong, but if you refuse to admit that, why not try Thamesmead, a small South London enclave that's so undiscovered no one's even bothered building a train station there.
The area is probably most famous for being the place where Stanley Kubrick decided to realise his new-build nightmare in A Clockwork Orange, which goes some way to summarising how bleak the place feels. Something about the streets of the newly built estates reminded Kubrick of a modernist utopia gone very badly wrong. That was in 1970 and, visiting the place, you can't help but think he might have been right about Thamesmead's future. All he failed to predict was the arrival of a super Morrisons and the fact that the nearby sewage processing plant would remain its most notable export.
This bus stop is gloriously described as "Thamesmead Town Centre". There is no grand monument, no town crier, not even a water feature. Thamesmead feels like a town that's been built without a heart. The "town centre" is, in fact, a leisure centre, which is a nicely coded way of saying "There are no jobs here." Just walking around the place in the daytime, it's hard not to wonder if this is what Britain would be like if we'd lost the Second World War and the Cold War after that. If Forest Gate is a multicultural version of the pre-war Cockney dream, then Thamesmead is a Soviet nightmare forged in the mind of a bipolar town planner.
It feels exactly like what it is, which is a place that clings to the fringes of a metropolis. Thamesmead is a place where British Gas stock their reserves, where the British government place their lowest priority guests. If London is a sizzling grill frying up fusion food, then places like Thamesmead are the plastic tray that collects the fat beneath. The sad, neglected tray that the health-conscious city-dwellers can't be bothered to tip away.
There is no typical Thamesmead person. It's somewhere that operates within a psychological demographic rather than a racial or societal one. There are people of all creeds and colours in Thamesmead, yet what unites them is their shared hatred of living in Thamesmead. A community at the end of its tether, a desolate seaside town within the M25, without any sea. Thamesmead isn't just a place that's sort of near Bromley; it's a state of mind. It feels out of time and out of place with the rest of the city – an unfortunate reminder of the 20th century.
But, y'know, Kubrick. It's got that going for it. And if anyone's paying anything more than £50 a month to live here they're probably desperate enough to welcome the next wave of London's creative class. Frankly, a bunch of spoiled, overgrown kids turning up with residual hangovers and haircuts like Stephan al Sharaawy "urinating, vomiting and making too much noise" sounds like an improvement on things.
Chances of Becoming the New Dalston: Thamesmead, Get the Fucking Gak In and the Bloody Bunting Out.
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I'm not saying that places like Thamesmead, Forest Gate or Edmonton should be given off to Essex, Enfield and Kent like they're ready for the geographical fly-tip. There's a worth in places like this, and soon enough they're going to be the closest semblances of "real London" that we have. Looking at the police state shopping centres, the decrepit dockyards and the clusters of warring chicken shops, you can't help but feel that these places are far truer representations of the real state of the city than Upper Street or the Fulham Road.
They might feel like different parts of a different city, but they're London through and through. Which is exactly why they're likely to vanish beneath the waves of gentrification before the next pointless cafe on Church Street goes bust.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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