Having had the misfortune of hopping onto a bus that took me into the heart of Deptford, I was surprised beyond redemption when The New York Times pronounced this “dodgy” south-east London suburb as the capital’s next tourism hotspot. The review moved from the sublime to the ridiculous when it went on to describe Deptford as “a boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism”. Since the 1593 murder of the 29-year-old playwright Christopher Marlowe, Deptford and its ilk have hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
During my brief but deep encounter with Deptford, I had felt transported to a different milieu altogether. Shabby youths, pound stores and fried chicken shops together in a row are a disaster cocktail in the making. On the other side, rundown pubs, fast-food outlets and budget clothing stores have another story to tell. I have come across plenty of reports of stabbings in the local newspaper, The Docklands; teenage gangs are acknowledged as a problem of mammoth proportions. Very few times would the inanimate environment give away so much about the animate wonders that populate that area.
There is a distinct feeling of someone looking over you all the time and all you are left doing is desperately awaiting the arrival of the Docklands Light Railway train to take you back to what would seem like the salubrious climes of Canary Wharf.
So, The New York Times article made me go back for a real look at Deptford.
My first stop was the Deptford market, an eclectic mix of fruit and vegetable stores alongside scores of fishmongers. Those of you in New Delhi who have passed by and smirked at the fish markets in Chittaranjan Park would be pleasantly surprised to see how deep the pit of squalor can actually be.
A few more hasty steps take me to “The Deptford Project”, an old railway carriage that has been converted into a café. The locals consider this as a beacon of the gentrification. The contrast between the people inside “The Deptford Project” and those on the high street could not have been starker. People of Afro-Caribbean descent roam the high streets, while the café is sparsely populated with whites. While I try to strike up a conversation with a fellow café-goer, I find that the level of conversation is going to be sub optimally local. Clearly, education and outlook have been victims of the suburb’s gradual decay.
For the art lovers who throng London and who have exhausted all that the museums and galleries that central London has to offer, a contemporary art festival is being planned for October as an annual fixture under the slogan,“poets, pirates and luvvaduck charm”. The unique selling proposition (USP) of the art trail that this art festival seeks to popularize is really the element of surprise, including the burial place of Marlowe in the nearby St Nicholas Church. The Lewisham Council, the local authority, is keen to promote this event and the London Development Agency has put its weight behind it with a £1 million grant. I am given to understand that a public relations firm has been at work and even Vogue has carried praises of Deptford.
While I am unable to agree with The New York Times, I do find that efforts to promote the area and make it a part of the greater scheme of things in London must be applauded. Though policing, patrolling and clean-up actions can probably deliver faster on the counts of making Deptford a more desirable place rather than doses of hyperbole which spring surprises from the pages of The New York Times and Vogue.
Saionton Basu is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India and solicitor, Supreme Court of England and Wales. Comment at email@example.com