As you may or may not be aware, place names in England often sound like well-intentioned nonsense. For instance, here is a list of my favorite train/underground stops:
- Tooting Bec
- Goodge Street
- Elephant and Castle
A fun game I like to play by myself sometimes is narrating along with the train announcements in that particular sing-songy way that the train announcements here have, but making up Englishy places that the train goes, i.e., “This is a train to West Bumpleyshire.Calling at: Dinkle, Piss-on-Porpington, Fadding, Fadding West, Dagger Spence, Worcestershire Sauce, and West Bumpleyshire.
The reason place names sound so goofy is that they have had something like two thousand years and countless revisions. The borough of Southwark started out as Suthriganaweorc, which means “fort of the men of Surrey”. Apparently. “Elephant and Castle” is named after a pub that no longer exists. (God knows how they named Cockfosters.)
The other problem is that English pronunciation, as any language teacher knows, bears little resemblance to the spelling anymore. Southwark is said “sutherk”. Dulwich and Chiswick are similarly “Dull-itch” and “Chizik”.
This is all a long and rather convulted introduction to Brixton, the neighborhood where I work. I figured the name came from something like “Brick’s town,” but no — “the stone of Brihtsige,” Brixistane, used to be a few huge rocks in the middle of a field that hut-dwelling Anglo-Saxons used as a convenient meeting spot.
Brixton is a wild place. Through the industrial era and just up until the 1930s, it was an attractive neighborhood for the middle classes — close by train to Central London, but cheaper housing. And it got HELLA bombed during the war. After WWII, Britain sent a boat over to the Carribbean and invited people in former British colonies to come back to the motherland and like, work. There was just nobody to rebuild the city. All the Caribbean and West Indian immigrants settled around Brixton initially because that’s where the labour center was. This was a key part of modern British history because it was the genesis of a multicultural nation – the idea that you could be both black and British. Brixton as a result became a powerhouse of immigrant culture. Every musical genre that made England famous has roots here. (The song “electric avenue” is about Brixton, because it has a street literally called Electric Avenue, because it was the first street in the entire city to get electric lights. That was in the 1870s though.)
After the “Windrush generation” arrived (so called because the boat to the Caribbean was named the Windrush), the neighborhood transformed from middle to working class, and received a lot less government attention. There was a bunch of riots in the eighties after stop-and-frisk policing became widespread, and white police killed a few black people (sound familiar?). Some white wackjob planted a nail bomb in the middle of Electric Avenue back in the 90s because he wanted to start a race war. Poverty and neglect gave the neighborhood a bit of a rough reputation. My dad cued me into a Clash song, “The Guns of Brixton”:
“When they kick in your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of a gun?”
Because this story is the same the world over, developers began arriving in the 90s. Brixton Market, where I work, was due to close down about ten years ago and get turned into condos. It’s sort the Grand Bazaar of South London — an indoor grid of streets and shopfronts, and wide skylit hallways which open through arches to the street. In 2008, though plenty of market stalls still sold Afro-Caribbean goods to the locals, plenty more had been abandoned or shuttered.
The residents of Brixton staged enough protests that the city council stepped in and vowed to rejuvenate the market. They brokered a deal with the owners: for the first three months, there would be free rent, and anyone could apply to open a space. For three crazy months there were tiny indoor cinemas and theatres, arts classes, handmade goods galore, groceries, god knows what else. At the end of the three months, the owners increased the rent by such a staggering amount that most of the wildness had to move out — but the plan had worked. Some businesses survived, and lots more moved in.
I work at a place that’s been here all ten years. My bosses, Anne and Ian, have changed the function of their three shops time and time again over the last ten years according to market forces and their whim. They did sustainability workshops, ran a restaurant, a cafe, and now they run both a homeware/kitchen store and the plant shop. “We apologize for being at the forefront of gentrifying everything,” they told me.
It’s still a vibrant place. You might hear a different language at each shop along a row — Albanian, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Thai.