Robert Kazandjian in Edmonton, North London
Photo: Christopher Bethell
Life

Home Coming: Edmonton, in North London

An intimate tour of one writer's hometown, one grime MC at a time.
November 27, 2020, 9:30am

On the day I sit down to write about my hometown, videos circulate on social media of a local man crashing his car into a police station entrance, pouring flammable liquid on the tarmac and setting the road on fire. If you’ve seen it, it’s probably reinforced your view that the pocket of north London where I’m from is to be avoided, feared and laughed at from a comfortable distance. 

Edmonton is huddled in the south east corner of the London borough of Enfield and exists in the wider consciousness as: the place where IKEA is, despite the website stating it’s in Tottenham; a recipient of mocking banter when people on social media label our ends as one of London’s “bottom tier” places to live; and “Shank City: The London suburb hijacked by gangs”, as told by some prick from the Daily Mail

The reality behind all that dead banter and Daily Mail-style demonising of our youth is that people are really struggling. In 2017, End Child Poverty found that 45.4 percent of children in Edmonton were living in poverty – the 11th highest rate of all UK constituencies – with the following three years of Tory rule only making things worse. The violence here is largely a symptom of that struggle. And IKEA is in N18, which means it’s definitely in Edmonton.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Edmonton Green is our commercial centre. When my family lived on Church Lane in the 1990s, we did our weekly big shop there. For me this meant shoplifting mini cans of Lilt from Woolworths or trying and failing to get my mum to buy me a Spliffy jacket from the Inn Shops. Beginning in 2003, The Green was subject to a £50 million development project, completed in 2008, which demolished the leisure centre and swimming pool (where legend has it a chubby boy exploded after belly-flopping from the top diving board), replacing it with a massive Asda. The site was purchased again in late 2018 by a real estate company, whose “regeneration” plan for the area reeks of displacement and gentrification.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

My memories of Church Lane, where I spent the first 11 years of my life are vivid and clear. We lived at number 46, in the middle of a three-house terrace. There’s a strip of grass out the front that served as a football pitch / Thundercats sword fighting death-match arena. Across the road is a low-rise block of flats. A legit strongman and his family lived there, and he used to practice lifting Atlas stones from that patch of grass into the back of a flat-bed truck. My dad defo believed he could have him in an arm wrestle.

I had what was meant to be the most banging birthday party there – our narrow garden was packed with all my day-ones. My parents had booked a magician, Ali Cadabra, who I suspect was a friend of dad’s from the bookies and looked like an olive-skinned Jimmy Hill.

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When it was time for the grand finale, during which Ali was primed to pull a rolled up fiver from my nostril or something, my little brother upstaged me by toddling over with the nosebleed to end all nosebleeds. Ali gave him one of those never-ending technicolor handkerchiefs – cue the raucous applause and laughter that was meant for me.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Running alongside the terrace briefly, before disappearing into a culvert, is Salmons Brook. Sometimes there were ducks on the water: a pair of swans, the occasional heron, supermarket trolleys and once, an unzipped sports bag overflowing with porn mags. On especially cold winter mornings, the surface would freeze over and my brother and I would watch respectfully as the strongman’s teenage sons raced their remote control cars over the thin ice or shattered it with bricks dropped from a height.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Romantic poet John Keats is a certified Edmonton veteran, and when he lived round the corner on Church Street in the early 19th century, he composed beautiful verses on the brook’s once lush banks, or so it goes. Of all the Romantic poets, Keats resonated with me as little as the rest of them. There’s a blue plaque above the estate agents now – not because he used to rent flats and smash his weekly targets, but because it was where he lived.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

On Church Street stands the imposing, Grade II-listed Charles Lamb Institute, named after another 19th century Romantic poet. Lamb lived in the ends with his sister, who apparently had a bit of wobble and murdered their marj. Until 2009, it housed Tower Gym. If you were local and harboured any fantasy about getting wedge, you banged weights there at least once. Hang tight teenage me in my pigeon chest-emphasising, loud orange racerback vest, struggling with a pair of 8KG dumbbells. The space is rented by an Evangelical church now.

To the left is Ladbrokes, where my dad did his absolute best to keep us in financial turmoil. He’d come home reeking of smoke after a long session, a little red and white pen tucked behind his ear, pockets full of sure things. There was a rotating cast of defeated-looking men he’d say hello to in the street. I’d ask who they were. “Betting shop man,” he’d say. When we moved from Church Lane to Upper Edmonton, off Silver Street, he migrated to a different Ladbrokes and bonded over losses with a fresh crew of betting shop men.

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Pymmes Park, once the estate of Robert Cecil (the anti-Catholic, Gunpowder Plot-ruining creep), is Edmonton’s most historic park. It’s got a Victorian walled garden, which you need permission to access, a small lake full of rowdy waterbirds and plenty of horse chestnut trees. 

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Of all the things my dad claimed to be good at, he was truly brilliant at basketball, like an Armenian Gary Payton. The court at Pymmes was the sight of many hustles, where he’d halfheartedly shoot around with us until some long-limbed teens or big musclemen challenged us to a game. Two boys and an innocuous middle-aged man probably looked like light work, until that man broke their ankles with a crossover and shot a fade-away jumper over their heads. 

Edmonton north London

Photo: Christopher Bethell

Alongside those happy memories are some traumatic ones, too. In 1997 Michael Menson, once a member of groundbreaking dance music group Double Trouble with Karl “Tuff Enuff” Brown, was doused in flammable liquid and set alight by racists near the park’s gates. He was found by passersby on Silver Street, but died in hospital 16 days after the attack. 

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the police concluded it was a “non-suspicious incident”, meaning he’d set himself alight. After two shameful investigations, Michael’s death was finally treated as a murder and the case was reopened, largely due to the tireless campaigning of his family. Michael’s murderer – who was eventually arrested, charged and given a life sentence in 1999 – lived on our road.

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A few years later, not far from where Michael was murdered, the most gifted player in our broad coalition of teenage ballers was stabbed to death. Football was the bridge that connected me with so many of the boys in the ends; mass games stretching into elastic summer evenings where it always seemed to be getting dark but never too dark to stop playing, like every Cruyff turn, drag back and nutmeg kept the sun entertained enough to keep watch over us a little longer. I pass the corner where he died and suddenly resent the clarity of my memories.

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Edmonton is a place of few “landmarks”. My love for the ends isn’t about sights, it’s about sounds and the people behind them. Our slept-on history of producing great Black British music – from queen of Lovers Rock Janet Kay to UK rap king Tion Wayne – is the soundtrack to my recollections. Music and memory are intertwined; familiar tunes cause our brains to light up like a nighttime metropolis.

In the early 1990s Edmonton was a Jungle music mecca. Epic overnight raves were held at Roller Express (RIP) on the Lea Valley Trading Estate, where I spent Saturday afternoons back-skating in my junior Roces. A couple roads away from our house, a teenage Shy FX cooked up the undefeated “Original Nuttah” in his bedroom. It was impossible not to fall in love with the Junglist vibe.

I was nine years old when I bought my first CD: Jungle Hits, Vol. 1. I picked it up from Vibes Records, an independent record shop on Winchester Road, after saving up my £2 a week pocket money for what felt like an eternity. I bopped into the shop with confidence (and my mum, because I wasn’t yet allowed to go further than the end of my street on my ones). Then I power-walked home and shocked out to “Murder Weapon” and “Ride the Punani” in our living room.

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Vibes Records sat between Raj’s newsagents and Turgay’s barbershop, where I got my monthly “French crop number one please”. The shop moonlighted as a wildly inappropriate shrine to the female form; its wood-panelled walls and the frames of its mirrors were plastered with soft-core porn. Oiled breasts stared back at me while Turgay skilfully gelled my fringe to my forehead. I’ve not seen such a spectacle in a barbershop since. Mad. The shop is still there, but I don’t know about the nudes, as its shutters are down.

I associate our move from Church Lane to Upper Edmonton with a shedding of innocence. It’s a natural part of growing up, but it takes on different forms, depending on where you grow up. I was gripped by a sudden anger and unhappiness without really knowing why, which morphed into a skunk-enhanced inertia as I grew into a teenager.

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I spent a lot of time out on the roads, without really being “on road”, lurking and posturing on backstreets between the Great Cambridge Roundabout and Silver Street station. There were countless futile running battles with other boys, who were probably as unhappy as I was, and plenty of  “what you got for me?” moments on buses and in underpasses, where I’d hand over pocket change but swing out to the death in defence of my Nokia

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That Nokia (3210, jaguar-emerging-from-forest-of-ganja-plants-against-sunset-backdrop cover) was the undoing of my first whirlwind romance. My girlfriend hated my weed habit, so she dropped me. There might’ve been a way back for me, had I not written a text in the immediate aftermath to my guy, wanting to pick up a draw. Which I accidentally sent it to her. 

The soundtrack to those turbulent years reflected my mood. Grime might’ve been pioneered in E3, but we had our own bold, war-ready MCs in Edmonton too. Being at secondary school when the genre took off was unforgettable. One minute I’m in the back of Mr Grant’s maths lesson, listening to MCs duppying painstakingly taped pirate-radio sets with my guys. The next minute, one of those guys is on pirate radio, duppying the same MCs.

Scorcher’s confidence and skill set him apart, even when we were at school together. He’s gone on to create some of the scene’s great moments: a razor-sharp non-rhyming verse on Skepta’s “Private Caller”; a PHTV freestyle outside Krispy Kreme on the A10, which featured the maddest supervillain screwface of all time; and the time he pulled up at Axe FM on Bounces Road to find a man from south London doing a set under his name, so finished him on the spot in what’s now known as “Scorcher Vs Scorcher”.

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Axe FM was where the late, great Black the Ripper cut his teeth as a ruthless Grime MC, too. When he passed away earlier this year, he was better known as a smoked-out rapper, cannabis connoisseur and activist, through his Dank of England brand. Before all of that, he was just Dean from Aylward, one of the first friends I made when we moved house, and my counterpart in some hotly contested Pokemon card trades.

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Then there’s the generation of unknown young MCs in my year group at Edmonton County, who are now lost to the ether. Names like Ganja Man, Knowledge, Rage and Killa Kane (“Killa K-A-N-E, E-N-A-K, man test, gun spray, no lay-lay”) might mean little to everyone else, but they still ring out in my mind as neighbourhood heroes. I had a lyrics book too, and plenty of shank bars for the shower, but never any shower bars for the set. 

I just about emerged from those teenage years, thanks to my English teacher, Mrs Lindy Jones. She clocked I was troubled, and instead of asking me to take my hood off or my headphones out, she simply encouraged me to write. She never hid the fact that writing helped her manage her own feelings, and I slowly began to fuck with that idea too.

I went to university to study English and she carried on supporting me. When she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, she wrote and published a book; her way of making sense of the end of her life. I wrote a poem for her funeral, cried rivers, and embraced her husband like he was my own dad.

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I remember when the myth of my dad’s superhuman indestructibility began to collapse. I was seven years old, sitting crosslegged with my little brother on the path outside the house on Church Lane. I’d not long emerged from a lopsided negotiation with my pal Tony, who was now busy racing ghosts up and down the street on my bike while I tried and failed to imagine myself mastering the skateboard I’d just acquired for the weekend. Shit.

My dad rounded the corner, decked out in his trademark tight grey tee, blue-wash Wranglers and pair of sunnies from McDonalds (super-dark lenses, neon yellow temples, proper). Evening sun bounced off his bald head-top. He savoured a long gulp from the can of Coke he was holding and bopped towards us with the confident swag of a man who’d either just won big at Ladbrokes, or wanted to pretend he’d just won big to avoid being cussed out by my mum.

The gamblers’ confidence my dad possessed extended to all areas and activities, so when he spotted the skateboard unoccupied before him, he hopped on, fully expecting the cat-like balance he’s spent most of my life bragging about to secure him to the deck. Of course, he stacked it massively and landed with a dull thud on his arse and elbows. Both his left and right elbows were split. Even the toughest school welfare lady would wince at the grazes. He’d lost his grip on the can of Coke too, and sad brown streams formed between the slabs of paving.

“Bloody fucking,” he moaned quietly as my brother and I stood over him in confusion. I’d never seen him vulnerable before.

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For the majority of my adult life, dementia has been stealing my dad from us, from himself. He becomes more vulnerable with every passing week, which is probably why I’ve never actually strayed too far from Edmonton. Homecoming is a regular occurrence for me, to help my mum care for him. It’s also why taking a photographer on a tour of the ends and then sitting down to write this piece feels especially poignant. My dad’s stories have bled into each other like watercolours on a child’s paint palette; they’re a confused mess now. I know memories aren’t promised. If they abandon me, my daughter will always have this to refer to.

@RKazandjian