SHORT STORY: JUNKSPACE

We're doing it for the kids. The door to Gap Kids wafts the vocals of Kylie and Robbie onto the main stretch of the shopping complex with every swing. Lucy Webb’s sticky hands are suctioned to the glass like Garfield’s paws to a rear windscreen. She appears younger than her four-and-something years. A veil of dry skin covers her crown like cradle cap. The remains of a lolly form a snail trail from her chin to her jumper, jeans and jelly shoes.  “Lucy do it,” says her mother, Debbie, gently. “Lucy open the door. Lucy do it.” As the child can’t control a lolly, it’s unlikely she can shift a thick glass door, but — “Lucy do it,” Debbie says, going for the hat-trick.
With the heat and pressure almost melting the child’s digits into the glass, Debbie Webb gives up and puts her full weight forward. Her reflection makes her wince. Fourteen stone she was the last time she stepped on a set of scales. It must have been over a year ago.

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THE LEGACY OF THE DOCKS

The aerial view of Canary Wharf in the opening sequence of BBC1's The Apprentice is the iconic image of Docklands, now fixed in the public consciousness. It's impossible to imagine the docks that Henry Mayhew witnessed in the 19th century, where the scents of tobacco, rum, coffee, spice and "the stench of hides" greeted the passer-by within a "forest of masts". Even the desolate wasteland in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe in the 1970s, just as the southside docks had given up the ghost, seems remote. Where the Design Museum now stands, alongside a colony of Conran restaurants, the late artist Derek Jarman once occupied an old grain warehouse, and scouted for coins and pilgrim badges on the shore below.

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TRIBES OF CLUTTER

This book sums up how far social anthropology has progressed since Henry Mayhew wrote about the skull shapes of costermongers in the 19th century. Daniel Miller's approach is more in keeping with that of the wild and weird Tom Harrisson and the pioneers of Mass Observation in the 1930s. Having studied cannibalistic tribes in the New Hebrides, Harrisson despatched researchers to Bolton and north London to spy on the British working class at play. They reported on, among other things, the fixation with astrology, the football Pools, and "the cult of the aspidistra". These brief expeditions were undertaken as a tentative consumerism began to lighten the lives of the masses. At the time, George Orwell, having returned from his sojourn in Wigan, suggested that fish and chips, tinned salmon, radio and strong tea might have averted revolution.

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BACKLASH AT THE BALLOT BOX

A tiny bit of history repeated itself with the results of last month's London mayoral election. In the spring of 1908, the Progressive Party, the first administration at the London County council, was ejected from the office it held for almost 20 years. In The Condition of England the following year, parliamentarian Charles Masterman wrote: "The Progressive Party ended its political career in the Metropolis because it had forgotten the Middle Classes." Those middle classes dwelt in suburbs in what became Greater London, and existed as figures of fun, particularly to authors such as George Gissing and even HG Wells, himself a native of Bromley, south London.

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UTOPIA REVISITED

The disappearance of 30 electricity pylons from a chalk quarry in Kent heralds the construction of Britain's first new town of the 21st century, and the nation's first "wired" neighbourhood. By the autumn, the burgeoning town of Ebbsfleet will be branded by a "landmark" piece of British art. It will be the largest statue in Britain, chosen from a shortlist of six contenders currently exhibited within the megalithic Bluewater retail complex. Standing in the backyard of Bluewater, adjacent to Ebbsfleet international station - Eurostar's suburban link to Europe - the acreage of Ebbsfleet Valley is three times that of Hyde Park. As the realisation of this whole vision will take 25 years, the developers behind the scheme, Land Securities, will be selling dreams of the future for some time yet, even though show homes for the first stage, at Springhead Park, have recently been completed. 

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PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY

For three decades, George Plemper's photographic record of south London working-class life gathered dust in carrier bags, only disturbed each time he moved home. He hoped that one day the images might be recognised as a significant social record of a community and a landscape. At the time, in the late 1970s, this was not a fashionable photographic subject, so Plemper's hopes seemed as unlikely to be fulfilled as his mother's fantasy that he might become chairman of ICI. It would be nearly 30 years later, with the emergence of a new media platform that gives us the potential to be producers, broadcasters and exhibitors, that Plemper finally unpacked his bags. The turning point came with the launch of Flickr, the webpage that does for photographs what YouTube does for home videos and Facebook for friendship.

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DREAMS IN CONCRETE

To an outsider, inconsequential sounds and shadows take a sinister turn on Tavy Bridge around late afternoon, as the day begins to darken: damp tea towels drying at half-mast, a weather-beaten flag of St George flapping on the balcony of a tower block. It's not simply because the raw climate here brings harder, faster winds than the rest of south-east London. It's because Thamesmead has a reputation - compounded, even created, by its use as a backdrop to violent scenes in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange. But even Kubrick's glam-rock Droogs, with their bowler hats and baseball bats, pale beside the figure loitering around the estate's walkways and stairwells: a gangly white boy in oversized parka, his head lost in the protruding hood, his face concealed by a chalk-white kabuki mask.

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EXODUS OF THE MASSES

A playwright once castigated a BBC wardrobe assistant for kitting out the northern characters in his working-class drama in mufflers and caps. It was the 1960s, the season when there was said to be a social revolution in the air, and yet here was a BBC staffer unaware that the proles were shopping at Burton's. Judging by the reactions to the latest BBC season on the white working class, the corporation is still stuck on mufflers and caps. The series kicks off tonight with the film Last Orders, in which the decline of a working men's club is, presumably, a metaphor for the wider demise of the white working class. But the working class have not become extinct; they simply started drinking elsewhere. Where the numbers of the tribe have diminished is in major cities, and London in particular.

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A RAFT ON THE SEA

Heading into south-east London via docklands in early spring last year, I passed a spray of flowers propped against a wall to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Derek Jarman. The artist lived in various riverside warehouses in the 1970s, arriving at the third floor of Block B Butler's Wharf in 1973. During his first summer there, he wrote in his diary: "The studio is a forest of emerald-green columns, at sunrise, the ducks float in on the driftwood over a glacial river which reflects orange and vermilion, while the sun pours through the doors." By 1979 , however, he had jettisoned the old grain warehouse, having tired of lording it over a "gay Butlins".I've never been a fan of Jarman's art or even his films, many of which feature in a new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.

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THE MASSES ON THE BOX

By way of an appetizer to the current BBC series A Portrait of Britain, presenter David Dimbleby introduced a clip from his first television appearance of fifty years earlier, as the Lake District provided the setting for each programme. The documentary was presented by himself and his brother Jonathan, presumably as a dress-run for when they would share the shoes of Richard, their celebrated broadcaster father, as though taking over the family business. As a signifier of the role that class played on the small screen in television’s first full decade, this snatch of televisual history was pitch perfect. Here we had the clipped accents and the class that was imperative for a career on camera at the time, and the nepotism that took you to the parts of the BBC to which Oxbridge alone would not provide a swift entree.

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FORGOTTEN TRIBE

He was young, black. Short goatee. "Excuse me," he said, "do you know when the murder of Stephen Lawrence happened?" We were in a narrow room at the rear of a library in Southwark, south-east London. He couldn't find what he needed for his research. "The local papers wouldn't necessarily cover the murder, because it was outside Southwark," I suggest. 

"Oh." A beat, and then: "Where?" 

"Eltham," I answered. 

"Eltham, oh." 

"You'll find what you need in a library that stocks national broadsheets." 

"Maybe I'll stay here and look up the inquiry. That was local - wasn't it?" 

The inquiry was staged minutes down the road at the Elephant & Castle, in the imposing Hannibal House above the shopping centre. The centre had been painted Schiaparelli pink at some point in the 1980s and was like a comical pantomime backdrop when juxtaposed with the riotous scenes that occurred outside. At the heart of the proceedings was a tragedy, the senseless murder of a teenager, and the subsequent attempts by his grieving parents to see the perpetrators of the crime brought to justice. This followed a police investigation that was overshadowed by allegations of incompetence and racism. The erstwhile suspects had officially become "witnesses" by the time of the inquiry, but unofficially, according to the media, would never be anything but murderers, and - even worse - "racist" murderers. 

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FRINTON

At first sight, you could mistake it for a Tory heartland. Famously, many of Frinton's residents are in their dotage and adhere to a sartorial decorum and a social etiquette of a bygone age.  "We lost out to the pub, I suppose now we'll lose the pound." They are the words of an elderly woman who's discussing Europe in between talking about D-Day. She's talking to a queue in the local bakers, where she's buying "a small, uncut tin" loaf. Her fears and reminiscences are echoed by those in earshot. This is Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, where sterling and sovereignty are big talking points.

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THE ELEPHANT'S GRAVEYARD

'Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks. Its eyes have the blaze of street stalls, eel stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans. Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast-iron spines, and the marble pillars of pubs. Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide boy.' The Elephant & Castle (Picture Post, 1949)  In 1961, the year I was born, the Berlin Wall went up, and Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space on his street. Closer to home, in Walworth, south-east London, an 80ft-wide silver cube appeared on the roundabout at the Elephant & Castle interchange. It is made up of 728 stainless-steel panels, and rises 20ft above pavement level. The natives never knew why it was there, merely what it symbolised: an eyesore on a patch of land destined to be lumbered with more doomed monoliths than any postcode in London.

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