I used to live in one of the less salubrious neighbourhoods of London. Loughborough Junction to be precise, in a truly crappy-but'appy house-share off Coldharbour Lane. I had moved to London in order to seek my fortune and I ended up there after several weeks of playing 'chase the Loot advert', giving in and gratefully accepting the first place which I found which I could a) afford b) didn't have the landlord living there c) wasn't already taken d) where the landlord liked me but-not-in-that-way-thankyou-very-much (anti-siren that I am) d) the inhabitants hadn't already found someone cooler. I truly didn't know any better and the landlady swore it was in Herne Hill, which sounded good to me. I never quite got round to moving out. I wouldn't recommend it. The streets weren't paved with gold so much as rat faeces and chicken bones.
The area both amused and repelled me in equal measures. Six railway lines crossed at the junction and I woke up in terror and bewilderment on the first night to a shaking room and shaking bed as the 2am freight train clattered by on the bridge conveniently placed at the back wall of my room (you can learn to sleep through these things, I discovered). Conversely, there was a roof-balcony-thing attached to the house, with bracing views of said bridges and lines where, during parties, we could wave to or flash the passengers and drivers as the mood struck us. No fewer than 4 general grocery shops-cum-offies in the vicinity, meaning that one never had to even cross the road let alone break into a sweat to pick up supplies. There were also 3 cab companies right by us, except one was a cover for a crack dealer (no cabs), one was notorious for dealing in hash (cabs if the controller remembered) but one actually ran a taxi service.
The locals were... different. The area is mostly famous among Brits of a certain age for being crime-ridden and for riots and general racial tensions, but was usually fine to be in if one was ultra-sensible; some legends can become self-perpetuating without due care. Let's skip over the fact that the infamous Loughborough Estate, murder hotspot, was across the road. Let's gloss over the shooting which took place in the dodgy pub on the corner one night and the big yellow crimestoppers shield which appeared outside the door on the very week that we were looking for a new housemate. Let's not dwell on the night that my bag was snatched or the day that my housemate was nearly dragged off his racing bike to nick same (we were located in the streetcrime triangle of doom after all). Let's absolutely not address the sad truth that I avoided certain establishments for fear of being cussed out for being a 'snowflake'. Brixton is a bustling and vibrant place, which you do get used to eventually. Going into and out of the tube station alone is a bit like finding oneself on the set of some postmodernist musical, complete with homeless guys demanding travel passes or trying to sell them. On concert nights, these are supplemented by ticket touts yelling to the crowd. Walk along any street and a chorus of people will say, "Skunk. Skunk. Want any skunk?" to you (they stop once they recognise you as someone who has never expressed the slightest interest in their wares). In my bit, the skunk-salesmen would also be joined by the people standing outside the shops drinking Dragon Stout (bought on tick) and eating fried chicken, shooting the breeze and occasionally saying, "Whoo!" to the laydeez. I had thought that this was an evening pastime only, until one lunchtime I had to rush back from work to pick something up and... the same activities were still going on. I wonder if there's a pension plan?
The more enchanting aspects of living in Dodge co-existed with the alarming ones. If I walked a little way up Coldharbour Lane, I would soon come to the indoor markets and shops. There were fish stalls laden with brightly-coloured parrotfish and alien-looking tilapia; green-grocers selling yams, sorrel, plantain and manioc; fashion stores offering the most bedazzling shoes, decorated with paste gemstones, sequins, feathers and whatever else the designers had fancied throwing on them as well as the most outrageous kaftans; shops selling nothing but wigs and then other, stranger, shops. It was a bit like being a child again, so oddly dreamlike were the array of stalls. Fish with blue and red spots? Of course! Why ever not? I had no idea what to do with them. Wild clothing? Bring it on. My actual purchases were conservative and limited, but my browsing was legendary; so much was so foreign to me.
The strangest shop of all, to me, was one by Railton Road. It appeared to deal in magic. Hoodoo, I think, by and large. I went in one day, out of boredeom, believing it to be some manner of candle shop judging by the bank of candles in the window. In a display case I saw items such as Crowley'sThoth Tarot, water pipes and strange herbs; headshop fare, I guessed. However, people were thronging around other parts of the shop. The candles weren't just candles, but candles which promised to help you win the lottery, to send bad dreams to your enemies, to capture the man of your dreams if you burned them. If this seemed odd, I could have also bought herbs or bathsalts for my bath to make me desirable, to help me recover lost items and to keep the police from my door. Stranger still were shakers of such stuff as Hotfoot Powder to drive away unwanted vistors and bottle upon bottle of floorwash, all promising to bring me money, bring me luck, drive away trouble or confound foes. My naughty, rational brain told me that everything claimed here was designed to be sold to people who were poor, uneducated, powerless and marginalised, to help them feel protected aginst authority, to go towards satisfying their desires or taking their minds from their woes. With the floorwashes, one would at least have a nice, clean, floor afterwards and who knows what good the power of belief might do...
I was stopped by an old Afro-Carribbean woman who, out of the blue, told me that she had bought a floorwash to help her through bad times. It was sufficiently unusual to be addressed by a stranger in London, that I gave her my full attention and her tale was indeed an odd one. On the day after she used the floorwash, she found a stone with a hole in the middle and picked it up and put it in her drawer. That night she had a dream where a stern-faced indian brave handed the stone to her and said, "Keep it by you, woman. I can't help you otherwise." When she awoke, the stone was under her pillow. She told me that I shouldn't mess with this stuff, as it was all real and who knew what might happen. I didn't dare ask if her problems had gone away, but I felt the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as she told me all of this. She didn't seem to be a loony and I left the shop feeling a little more respectful of what was going on.
At around the same time, in the middle of the street, I found a group of model birds, stylised game birds painted in black with white spirals and trimmed with red. I let them be and noticed that, even in the middle of a place notorious for its thievery, everybody else had too. I never found out who had put them there, nor yet why. There was no-one by them, no price tag and they seemed to be very deliberately placed, almost ritually so.
Somewhere in among the subculture of violence, of drugs, of crime, of shiftlessness, it calmed me that there was still room for the exotic, the unexplained and an alien glimmer of faith.
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