words & photos by CHRIS LONG
I’m never quite sure if talking about it is such a good thing. To be honest, I like to mention it mostly because it makes me sound just a little bit “interesting” to my friends who work in media and have university educations and money. Well, I guess that’s class for you.
See, I’m nearly sixty and I’ve only ever lived in the borough of Wandsworth. Born in Battersea, moved a bit west to Wandsworth, and then wester still to Putney.
I do local.
In my defence, I am something like third-generation Battersea; I can get my family tree back to a shop in Battersea High Street in the mid-1800s.
I am local.
Thus, over the last fifty-odd years, I have been watching with a vaguely jaundiced eye the metamorphosis of the place from grimy working-class adjunct to Chelsea to – well, Chelsea in all but postcode.
In the mid-sixties, the council pulled down the house in which we rented the top three rooms and moved us to a brand new block of flats. Mum and Dad were well chuffed. Sure, it was only a flat on the fifteenth floor, and the lift was used as a toilet and the rubbish chute was regularly blocked by people trying to force bags of rotten food down it but, for my parents, it was the first time they weren’t living in someone else’s house. We had our own front door and a bathroom (and a bath!) to ourselves.
All the same, I remember them – and everyone else who lived in a council block – putting notices in the local paper looking for swaps. That is, asking someone with a house and a garden if they would swap. Even at the time, the idea seemed a bit far-fetched: of course someone with a house and a garden would consider moving to the fifteenth floor of a block of flats where, when the wind blew hard, the water swayed in the toilet bowl.
As we all know from those BBC 4 documentaries, flats were the in-thing in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Flats were built on the street where I used to live, and my uncle and his family moved in; they were soon on tranquilisers because the cockroach infestation was so stressful. On the other side of the road stood Victoria Dwellings, a Victorian tenement which mum called a “halfway house”. I still don’t know what that meant, but I remember the narrow stone staircases and the half-blind old man living in two damp rooms with – for some reason – no front door. We had friends living there too. They also wanted to move.
The flats love affair thing didn’t last.
After twenty or so years, Mum and Dad had lived through the sound-system-party phase, the bloke-on-the-eleventh-floor-with-a-sawn-off-shotgun phase, and the rowing-with-the-young-men-next-door-having-loud-parties-during-the-night phase. They gave up on the idea of a house swap.
Passing through Wandsworth Town station on the train the other day, I saw that they are now building what looks like a ninth block on the area next to Wandsworth Bridge. That used to be a depot for Shell or BP, I can’t remember which – I know I had an uncle who worked there and it’s where my mate Reg had a job as a diesel fitter. An instant later, my view was blocked by the new block growing on the other side of the road – there used to be a school there, I think.
And all this sits opposite an enormous development on the other side of the Thames on the site of Fulham power station. In fact, as you move down the river to Albert Bridge, any evidence of Fulham or Battersea’s industrial past has been just about erased by squat blocks along both embankments.
I mean, they are flats, aren’t they? I know when you pay lots of money for something like that you can call them apartments or penthouses or something, but they are blocks of flats. Posh flats if you like, but still blocks of flats: lots of boxes piled on top of each other sharing lifts, sharing common parts.
I must have missed something. These new blocks are just giant tenements, battery farms for the well off. And some of the flats cost more than a million pounds. But people are queuing up to get into these places, paying all that money to live in them. I don’t get it. I really don’t get it. Perhaps they all have their eyes on a three-bedroomed house with a garden somewhere. If that’s the case, good luck to them – they’re going to need it.
Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, Mum and Dad got enough money from selling the flat to buy a house in Worthing. I reckon they got their swap after all: twenty-five years in a council flat in Battersea for a house near the sea.
And, fifteen years later, I still can’t work out if it was a fair swap.
Battersea from the air, mid-eighties