Looking out of my window first thing this morning I was greeted by a sight which, whilst all too familiar, I still find stomach-churningly revolting: pigeons breakfasting on human vomit on the pavement opposite my house. Summoning up all the optimism I can, I try to regard this as part of the ecology of Hackney: nature’s unbelievable ability to generate new life from the detritus of the old. But I am strongly resisting the urge to think of it as one lot of vermin feeding another. Fortunately, before too long the street cleaning team came along with their machine (thank you Hackney Council) and washed it away. They also got rid of most of the rubbish but missed a few items, including this empty champagne bottle whose contents quite possibly contributed to the vomit.
It stands there as a testimony to the increasing social polarisation in the area. The moneyed kids who can afford to get legless on champagne are, by their very presence, innocent though this may be, driving the desperately poor out of the public spaces. In the last month two pound shops have closed in Kingsland High Street, no doubt to be replaced by up-market restaurants and clubs, or ‘vintage’ clothes shops (worth a whole article in themselves, these, an expensive parody of traditional second-hand clothes shops with nothing in them that a really poor person could possibly afford). The pound shops got rid of their stock as other shops do: ‘everything half price’ and ‘everything must go’. Half price, in a pound shop? I thought, wondering what difference this could possibly make. But then I saw the queues of desperate people descend on them, elbowing each other to grab the bargains. When the first shop was nearly emptied (the second one still hasn’t completed the ransacking process) it looked like the sort of scene you might see on the news in the aftermath of some disaster as these hastily taken and blurry pictures show.
This speaks of a degree of hardship unimaginable to the hipsters revelling at night on the streets made funky and cool precisely by the presence of these poor people and their improvised solutions to the intractactable obstacles they face, whose environment seems so lively and colourful to people brought up in the bland and ordered suburbs.
Another insight into life on the poverty line in Hackney came through my letterbox recently in the form of some condensed ‘Testimonies of God Visitation at Triumphant Chapel’ . Packed onto two sides of a folded A5 size sheet of pink paper are thirteen typographically challenging vignettes of local life, featuring the healing power of Pastor Kennedy. As well as performing spiritual and bodily miracles (‘Delivered from Satanic Strongholds’, ‘Healed from Acute Abdominal Pain’, ‘One Year Blood Flow Healed’) Pastor Kennedy also helps people negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the immigration system and survive the daily buffeting of the search for work. I give you two examples here: ‘Immigration breakthrough’ and ‘Miracle Job’, both of which hint at the extreme stress which must be the daily experience of being a migrant in Hackney’s precarious labour market. (you may need to click on the images to increase their size so you can read the tiny print).
What kind of a society is this, where the chance to work a 12-hour shift for an agency (something which would have been thought intolerable punishment 40 years ago) is something to thank the Lord for?
And where, when the gentrification is complete, will be left for such people to live?