Monday, 27 February 2017

Walthamstow's 29-storey monument to greed

When I first moved to Walthamstow 10 years ago it was a scruffy place, full of local colour, and a smidgen of middle class gentrification (I appreciate I contributed to that in my own way). You could walk down the high street in your pyjamas and no one minded. There wasn’t much point in keeping up with the Joneses because there simply weren’t many Joneses about.
I had found my perfectly distant haven, an ungreedy place away from the thrust of central London where I could shuffle to the cornershop in my slippers.
Cormorants and herons flapped overhead for everyone, both rich and poor, to enjoy. There were friendly shopkeepers, shabby but adequate public services, a well-meaning Labour council and rather too much dog poo (let’s not romanticise this too much).
Just after the 2012 Olympics, I welcomed the influx of small organic bread businesses, craft markets and general hipsterdom. Who would begrudge a man with a beard the right to launch a craft ale company on a run down industrial estate? I was not a denier of gentrification. I feel the area is better off for a few extra pizza places to break up the chicken shop monotony.
However, then the estate agents picked up on it all and started to “sell” the area to people without the wit or imagination to find it or appreciate its charms unaided. It was great for my house price (I say this without pride or delight). But I am vaguely sickened when agents send a postcard through my door featuring a piece of street art on the side of a house. They are keen to cash in on every pleasant detail of the area. No mobile kebab van is safe from exploitation, no mid-century clock tower escapes the estate agents’ graphic design software.
This is where it all started to go wrong. Please understand, I am still in love with the place and appreciate the need for more housing - especially of the "affordable" and social kind. I know it is easy for me to say I don’t want people to move here because Walthamstow is mine all mine. I know that is unfair. I was an interloper not so long ago and welcome our new residents, as long as they are tolerant, friendly and love the area as much as I do.
So I reluctantly accept the many blocks of flats popping up. They aren’t particularly pretty, but these low rise developments are probably an inevitable change.
But this weekend, the owners of our local shopping “mall” – a modest shopping centre containing modest shops – showcased their plans for an extension. Like almost everyone in the area, they are keen to “add value” to their property. I have mixed feelings about much of it. Plans to introduce “active shop fronts” in the form of cafes could improve the town square and gardens (which, worryingly, will shrink). There will be more big chains, which I despise, but I appreciate many will welcome them.
But there is one plan that is clearly unacceptable – I suspect even the owners of the mall know that it is so. They are due to lodge outline planning permission for two 29-storey blocks of flats towering above the mall. This beast, which is utterly out of scale with the rest of the area, will be built by the highest bidder for the site and the mall owners and developers will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The whole thing is particularly galling as we are expected to tolerate this greed and physical invasion on our public space and open sky as we watch the quickening collapse of our public services. For example, I recently learnt that the community-run swimming pool where my sons have their swimming lessons is under serious threat of closure.
If the plans for a tower go ahead, our human scale town will suddenly become another Stratford, where vast, aggressive and misshapen towers dwarf the people, homes and businesses in the area. The promised regeneration of that part of East London has become a sort of grim Gotham-ification of a poor but vibrant neighbourhood. It is a kind of obliteration where the less well-off are left to scratch at the shining windows of Westfield or stare up towards the shadow of looming concrete, glass and steel. We do not need these buildings. We are not the banking district and nor do we want to be. Create homes for people. Let the developers make money and contribute to the community, by all means. Just know when to stop. But I fear that they don't.

Monday, 20 February 2017

'Why are all the street cleaners black?' and other awkward race-related kid-questions

My husband was walking down the street with our eldest (for tis he, the GREAT ASKER OF QUESTIONS) and they passed a man of African origin picking up litter for the council.
“Why are all street sweepers black?”, our boy said, quite reasonably. Certainly around our neighbourhood, this would be a fair observation.
“I hope you gave him the full history of slavery, migration, inequality and the immutability of the social status quo” I told my husband, who himself is black and descended from slaves and indentured workers. “Did you give a heartfelt speech about your people’s struggle”?
“No,” he said, “I told him there were one or two Polish ones too”.
My husband chose not to go into detail with our boy, who, as a mixed race chap from a middle class background, has spent the last eight years working out where he “fits in”. Maybe my husband didn't want to confuse the lad, who is still grappling with what his skin tone might mean for him.
I, on the other hand would have given the boy the full speech about how it came to be, in 21st century East London, a child could still get the impression that white people are in charge, Asians drive fast cars and black people sweep the floor. 
If he had listened long enough, I would have explained how four decades of women’s lib has resulted in white men being in charge of pretty much everything and his mother washing nappies in a housework tabard (yep, must try harder).
Despite huge advancements, many youngsters are still unlikely to see black or mixed race people in positions of power, such as headteachers and civic leaders. Even within my son's school, there are more black cleaners than there are black teachers. Children might be lucky enough to have an inspiring black football coach, but it’s tough if you’re not into football.
I can see why this degree of apparent segregation is confusing to a boy who has friends from across the racial spectrum. Pupils are all equal in his primary classroom and skin colour does not influence their allegiances. Friendships are far more likely to be determined by interests than anything else.
However, the fact that he has already absorbed the idea that there are certain roles for certain races shows what a long way we still have to go.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Having three kids turned family life into a messy trifle laced with booze, sponge and recriminations

There is a really good reason people with two kids stop right there and say, quite sensibly, “I’m done with all the pregnancy and birth fandango. I’d like my nights back, my boobs back and that damned stinking nappy bin outta the bathroom.”
It all makes perfect sense, and that is why I thought it would be a complete hoot to have a third. I hated the idea of a neat pair and dreamed of a disorganised, sprawling, loving brood. After all, which borderline OCD control freak careerwoman doesn’t dream of such things?
However, the reality is somewhat different. Each one of my children is beyond splendid in every way (no, really, they are, you need to meet them). But that third one turns a calm four-pack of healthy organic yogurts into a badly made trifle laced with booze, sponge and recriminations.
Yes, if three kids were a dessert, it would be an Eton mess. Or an own brand Tesco tiramisu that has not travelled well. And there almost certainly would not be enough to go around.
One obviously gets used to this situation and you start to think it is the way things have always been. You get used to the stress, the noise, and constant grinding fear and feelings of appalling inadequacy. The yawning age gaps that make doing anything together as a family almost impossible. You start saying crazy things to people in the park like: “A third? Oh it’s not a big difference really, just one more mouth to feed. It’s the same as having two, not a bother, more the merrier, ha ha ha”. It’s all complete nonsense, I discover. I’ve been talking drivel.
The start of this half term holiday has highlighted just how much work we’ve made for ourselves. With the littlest one out of the way at nursery and the two older boys happily playing Monopoly in the lounge (without having the board destroyed by a marauding 2-year-old) it becomes all too clear. The living room has stayed tidy for at least two hours. Nobody is accusing anyone of anything or having a fit because they can’t butter their bread.  The whinging and whining levels have plummeted. All seems unbelievably harmonious and calm (ish). Is this what having just two is like? Or is it what having two is like if you briefly remove a third from the equation? I guess I will never know.
One thing is sure, however, my husband and I are closer than ever before in our shared adversity. There’s a blitz spirit, a sense that, while we are outnumbered by the “enemy”, we can get through it together.
He tells me our homelife, with its inhumane hours, roaring noise, insufferable mess and lax health and safety rules is a “happy hell”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.