Me and Mand went for a curry in East Dulwich the other night, it’s only been a few months since I was last there but even in that time the change has been startling. We used to go there a lot when we first moved to London and were living over that side of Peckham, now it’s just occasionally when we’re hungry or when I want to piss myself off.
I suppose what I’m talking about here is what used to be called gentrification, the idea that the influx of wealth pushes up houses prices and thus the quality of facilities like shops and pubs. Gentrification itself is a strange word, conjuring up images of Victorian men with canes and top hats, witty one liners and the odd slap for the good wife.
‘The gentry, gentlemen’
In fact any phrase or word involving ‘gent’ reminds of people under the age of forty who still hold the door open for women, and then do that little bow in that side parting accountant sort of way.
East Dulwich has been well and truly gentrified. Every shop must have changed hands within the last week, changing from something useful like a newsagent, in to a useless hobby business, probably run by a permanently terrified hippie woman who drinks herbal tea and does veggie farts. The sort of place that sells traditional wooden toys that kids get given because some relative read in the Guardian that they’re good for development. You can see it now, the child ripping open what it thinks is yet another PS2 game but is in actual fact a hand painted wooden car.
“Thanks Aunty Verity, that’s about as much use as a chocolate fucking ashtray!”
And then there’s the pubs. Stripped of any character or meaning they’ve all been refitted to look exactly the same. Sneering over the pumps of faddish drinks and floppy hair, overpriced to afford affluence to the willing customer. No familiar sign to welcome you up the road, no cosy furniture, dart board or fruit machine. The minimalist interior design makes for an echoic canteen experience, a candlelit half way house between the Students Union and the NAAFI. The lead windows of coloured glass that used to give the pub it’s warmth and security have now made way for huge expanses of gawping shopfront, these suck the life out of what has become little more than a marketplace.
‘Locals not welcome, no football shirts, caps or dirty cash’
But as the rebranded name would suggest, they’re not really pubs anymore, just bars and restaurants with stupid chalk boards and obscure Belgian beers to compliment the Sunday supplement lifestyle. The restaurants are full of tedious writers like Brian Viner or Mathew Fort who write about Sea Bass when they’re not waffling on about how great their children are.
‘The world is your oyster sweetheart, let nothing stand in your way’
The stripped and signless bars are patronised by students, past and present, hugging glasses of Chilean Merlot and smiling inanely at the, ‘Good food and friends’ mood of warming smug. As toothy conversations of cool irreverence cover the real agenda of self, I can’t help be feel let down by the lack of humility and vision. It feels like a members only playground for grown ups that will soon become a deserted ‘last year’ scenario.
I walk past these places feeling a little more than intimidated by the aggressive culture of laughter and educational importance. The glancing that looks me up and down know full well that I don’t belong, and my panicking expression must be very reassuring. Most of the people that go to these places would pride themselves of living in a multicultural city, and would probably make an embarrassing point of trying to join in at the Notting Hill Carnival. Yet the irony of the situation is that on a day to day level they choose to socialise and surround themselves with the safety of their own type. In this sense, it’s like Glastonbury or skiing, almost exclusively white and very middle class. Diversity at arms length that sounds great amongst friends at work, but in reality is representative of a society that is more polarized than it’s ever been.
The whole area has about it a cool well to do sort of feeling, the kind that goes down well on idiot Channel 4 property programs. To me it feels selfish and short term, a modern gold rush of smug congratulation and trend. As History stands by staring hopelessly at the need breed and their inbred arrogance, I can’t help but get the feeling the bubble will one day burst, and I hope it will too.
The thing is, I wonder what will be left of the place once the market forces move on and take the market with them, now that the history and community have been left out in the cold.