Deborah Orr: Only wealthy hipsters can afford this sentimental nostalgia for street violence

The tragedy is not that the King's Road isn't much fun any more, but that the poor have been herded away
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Humans, the sensible among us acknowledge, tend not to like change. No anecdote can illustrate that better than this nostalgic quote that mournfully dwells on happier times.

"There is no equivalent to the likes of Keith Moon prowling the street, as he did, in comedy SS uniform, Sieg-Heiling hapless shoppers. You won't find punks and teds fighting pitched battles along the pavements as they did in the summer of 1977. Even the tattooed mohican-wearing leather-and-studs brigade of the 1980s, with their curiously old-fashioned London street cry, 'Have you got 10p?', have long since disappeared."

There are some fools, I guess, who would consider it progress if a street had managed to dispense with its litter of gratuitously offensive alcoholic lunatics, flick-knife armed gangs of brawlers, and gobbing, scary beggars, only to establish it, within a couple of decades, as a residential area so gracious and beautiful, so clean and lovely and pleasant, that people are willing to mortgage their very souls to live there.

That, Max Decharne and many others might argue, is exactly the point. The King's Road has lost its soul now that the money-people have moved in. All the edge and energy, the buzz and creativity is gone. Mr Decharne has written an entire book bemoaning the sad fate of this once-proud street. It is called King's Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World, and it charts the sorry tale of how Mick Jagger and Mary Quant were replaced by Vivienne Westwood and Chrissie Hynde, who were replaced by, arrggghhh, horror, Tesco Metro and the Abbey National.

The King's Road became glamorous, then it became rich, then it became boring - just, many would argue, like its major cultural players. Decharne, for example, appears to think that the presence of "Terry Stamp" drinking coffee in these environs is somehow magical. But my own understanding is that Terry Stamp is one of the guys who supplies goods to the King's Road health shops that replaced such landmarks in history as Granny Takes a Trip (a short-lived dress shop), and which are, according to Decharne, part of the problem.

The trajectory of the King's Road has been perfectly natural, and entirely predictable. Ambitious, talented people lived and worked here. They found huge success. They made money, they spent money and they attracted other people who liked money and success. The less wealthy, and less hip, found themselves able to sell up at a tidy profit and get away from the glamorous street gangs and picturesquely gobbing punks. The poor, found themselves quite often urged out even if they rented.

There was the great council house sell-off scam, of course. but there was also a tendency to rehouse growing families in rented accommodation in less "dynamic" areas. The result has been a polarisation of the west london population. So the Eton-born prime-minister-in-waiting, David Cameron, is able to feign hipdom by living in Notting Hill - itself the beneficiary of the Chelsea effect - while Acton, the west London area literally too far out for the wealthy post-hippie generation, is locally nicknamed Crackton. Which is rather more edgy than many can bear.

For the awful tragedy is not that the King's Road isn't much fun any more, but that the poor have been herded so far away from the gentrified areas of Britain that people really believe that the alienation and violence of the teds or the disgust and nihilism that fuelled the punk movement really was there to give them street cred, and that it is some kind of criminal let-down all those involved in creating it could not have been preserved in aspic, bigging up the wealthy-but-uncool in perpetuity (though obviously their children couldn't be expected to pick up street smarts some other way, like at state school).

If edgy is what you want, there are still places where street fights occur, or where young people dressed in street finery will menace you for money. There is still a plethora of edgy youth culture all over Britain. But like the teds, or the hippies, or the punks, or any of those groups when they were in their full cry, this lot scare the shit out of all but the most adventurous or disturbed of bright grown-up things.

They are lucky, these people, for whom London street gangs are nostalgia. Astoundingly, they appear to have no idea how lucky. For the King's Road and well-to-do streets like it across Britain, special pleading is constantly made. Only here, argue the very people whose patronisation caused the changes they profess to hate, are the consequences of wealth creation and globalisation, ever less than positive.

Only here is the loss of a small local business or a local produce outlet something to mourn. It is actually said often, in disgust, that these precious and unique streets are being turned into the sort of ghastly high streets that the rest of us schmucks have to put up with, as if the local population in these rarified areas are such a huge exception to the rules the rest of us have to bear.

The reality is that in the Fifties and early Sixties, nearly every high street in the country looked as quaintly lovely as the black-and-white pictures of the King's Road or of Portobello Road, these marvellous exceptions we are called to admire so much. The miracle of these very special places is that they stayed in successful small businesspeople's hands for so long (because there were already some rich and enthusiastic consumers in the area), not that they have finally been sold to the highest bidder.

What's more, for other streets that have not fared so well, hell is not a branch of Gap in the neighbourhood. It is ugly derelict frontages and weird fried chicken outlets with misspelled names and greasy pavements. It is off-licences so kitted out with safety glass that you feel like something out of a Damien Hirst show every time you buy a bottle of tonic water, or weird cafés that honk of skunk and seem unable to grasp the principles of tea-making.

The butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the greengrocer - they are gone, priced out by the supermarkets, and the all-in-one store that replaced them is unable to offer much that isn't from the cash and carry because it exists only to provide the forgotten items that no one picked up that weekend in the superstore. With its trade based largely on unpredictable purchases, perishable goods are a risk.

For many people in this great nation of ours, there simply is not a local place where they can go with their children to buy fresh produce, however many times they are told to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Frankly, there are little parades of shops all over London and Britain, tucked away in corners of estates, that look like they've been put to the torch, and that you enter only with your heart in your mouth. No books commemorate their rise, even though their narrative arc has been quite the reverse of that of the King's Road. Isn't that a funny thing?

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments