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8 April 2015

A lament for the place where I was born: it can’t be gentrified, so it’s being pulled down

These streets won’t appear on chocolate boxes - so soon they won't appear at all.

By Nicholas Lezard

A trip back to Shepherds Bush, where the children and their mother still have their home. Let us leave aside for the moment all considerations of poignancy and regret at not being with them every day for the past seven and a half years. Let’s just consider the area itself.

For those of you outside London: Shepherds (there are variant spellings with an apostrophe) Bush is where you go when you roll down the hill westwards from swanky Notting Hill and Holland Park. Historically, Notting Hill was an area with a high African and Caribbean (mainly Caribbean) population, also attractive to arty people. This hasn’t been the case for 20, 30 years, although Ladbroke Grove, which cuts through it north-south, still retains some interesting mixes. Holland Park, though, is and always has been swanky.

But at the Shepherds Bush roundabout, everything changes. You move from Zone 1 to Zone 2 of the Tube; from 020 7 phone numbers to 020 8. And socially and psychically, you are in another world. Here, basically, is where ordinary people live. Or used to. It has two major arteries, running east-west: the Uxbridge Road and the Goldhawk Road. These are honestly shabby streets: that is, they’re not going to be appearing on any chocolate boxes, but they have resisted the invasion of the chain shops that make every other town, or part of a city, look identical. It’s as if all the scouts took one look and thought, “Screw this: let’s try somewhere else.”

I have always been pleased at the way gentrification has failed to change the character of the neighbourhood: and, thanks to the nature of ribbon development, as I believe it’s called, it always would fail. (The residential streets between the two roads tell another story, though. But the thought of wealthy occupants holding their noses or averting their eyes as they pass the kebab shops and pound stores on their way to and from work is a consoling one.)

Only now, the rules, I see, have been changed. It’s as if the invisible hand of the most rapacious capitalism has decided that if it can’t change the area organically, it’ll just knock it down and put up another one in its stead.

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So far the Uxbridge Road remains pretty much the same. But the Goldhawk Road – where, incidentally, I was born – is simply being wiped out. It is having its blood supply cut off. Long stretches of it have been knocked down, and in the gaps are cranes building (you guessed it) luxury flats. This means also that any businesses on either side of these gaps have gone, along with their customers. You run a newsagent that survives on a slim margin selling sweets and papers and fags; or you run a garage that also serves as a corner shop for those who don’t, can’t or won’t go to the big Tesco a mile and a half away; your customers go, and then so does your margin. Boom, you’re out of business and no one even needs to make a compulsory purchase order.

So now the air is thick with cement dust; and it is barren, lifeless. So, too, will it remain when the apartments are built: for even if they are lived in, which is a long shot, because these places are mainly bought as investments, the people in them will hardly be nipping out to the fag shop for a bag of Monster Munch and a pack of green Rizlas at any point in their lives.

Also due to be knocked down is the market, which runs between the two main roads at their eastern end. A little chaotic, but also picturesque; at the Goldhawk end there was a small sign proclaiming that the yard behind it belonged to Albert Steptoe, scrap merchant. Next to that is one of London’s last two eel, pie and mash restaurants. By the station is a watch repairer whose frontage suggests occupancy of at least a century.

All these are to be knocked down. It was, of course, all sold off by a Tory council. And I wonder: why do they call themselves “Conservatives”? They conserve nothing, except perhaps an attitude: a very simple, reductive attitude that says the only important thing is money, and the only important people are those who have or crave it. Apart from that they are like locusts. Objections to what they do are laughed off as sentimental or scorned as “anti-business”. Still, where the pro-business spirit resides in killing off small businesses, some of which have been around for generations, escapes me. And the thought that there may well be five more years of this virus, in only notionally human form, makes me want to cry.

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