Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Muggers Are Polite

Magazine article The Spectator

Even the Muggers Are Polite

Article excerpt

THE first time I arrived' at Brixton Tube station, I was startled by a loud noise as I fed my ticket through the turnstile. 'Diggy diggy diggy!' announced a deep, robotic voice, like Twiki's from the 1980s television series Buck Rogers. `Please try to remember. You are not a human being. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.'

A striking-looking black man, aged about 30 with a shaggy crown of dreadlocks, standing in the middle of the station concourse, paused for a few seconds, then repeated his announcement to no one in particular. The crowd flowed past. Everyone ignored him - and on he went.

Outside there was more noise. Religious wackos were lined up to harangue passersby (a good Brixton rule of thumb - don't accept leaflets from anybody with a megaphone under their arm); small choirs had assembled to sing hymns; protests were being staged and socks and joss-sticks offered for sale; an old lady with a face like a deflated football played the comb unsuccessfully; and touts muttered incessantly, buying and selling used travelcards. The scene outside Brixton Tube never fails to cheer me up.

Two weeks ago, a far less benevolent madness expressed itself in a far louder noise just a street away. The nailbomb left at the mouth of Electric Avenue injured 39 people, blinding two and leaving a young child with a four-inch nail in his head

The bombing is thought to be the work of racists -- possibly the same ones who planted a similar device in Brick Lane a week later. One wonders who in particular these nasty thugs were hoping to fill with nails. The phrase `multi-ethnic community' does not begin to do justice to Brixton's diversity and its atmosphere of cheerful, mongrel cohabitation.

Electric Avenue, hymned in happier times by the reggae artist Eddy Grant, is a short curve running from the High Street down to Atlantic Road. There is an Afro food supplier, a Chinese supermarket and more than one Halal greengrocer. Market-- stalls offer yams, green bananas and plantains. Fishmongers bundle red snapper by threes and fours into plastic freezer-bags. Butchers festoon their ceilings with scrawny chickens, their necks hanging down like plumb-lines. Boss-eyed pigs' heads poke out their tongues. Around the corner on Coldharbour Lane, Miss Nid's West Indian takeaway competes for trade with a satay bar, a noodle house, a fried-- chicken franchise, and a hippie cafe which threatens its clientele with poetry readings.

Brixton present is edgy, diverse, funny and haphazard. More than anywhere I know in London it has the feel of a community - or, rather, of overlapping communities within a self-contained urban village. It feels local.

Things have not always been so optimistic. For many people the words `Brixton' and 'riot' go together like 'bread' and 'jam'. An off-licence on Atlantic Road is called Front Line. But as Brixton changes - in part with the influx of mostly white twentysomethings in search of the new Clapham - it does so piecemeal, and Brixton past has left fascinating fossils everywhere. Faded paint on a brick wall behind the Ritzy cinema still advertises Bovril and Butlin's in letters eight-foot high. Adjacent shops have their telephone numbers above their names - one with the area code 01 and next-door 071. In the street where I live there is a derelict house with cardboard across the windows from which can be heard some evenings the sound of strange and demented Latin chanting. Next door to the satanist squatters is a house through whose Venetian blinds can be glimpsed a cosy kitchen full of polentachewing yuppies. …

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