Making sense of Peckham: How urban art can help root us in our surroundings

Besides the East Dulwich Tavern. Image: Christopher Jackson.

There is an obvious difficulty with living in cities: their sheer gigantism can sometimes make it difficult to find meaning. Many confine themselves to a few safe places: the local pub, the newsagents, the high street. To venture out further might be to court a sense of bewilderment, or even to run into conflict.

Art has always worked against fears of this nature. In fact, the earliest art we know of in the caves of Lascaux in southern France seems to have had precisely this motivation: image-creation was an attempt to promote understanding, and to reconcile these early humans with the shocking complexity of life.

Well, the world has never been less innocent or more complicated than it is today. In Peckham, in south London, we can still see this instinct at work in our street art.

In fact, the place increasingly seems to want to be an art gallery. Images come out of the earth with a primal force. They cover the sides of pubs and houses; they supervise parks. Sometimes they jostle at us and demand that they be considered. At other times, they are tucked away proudly as if to say, “Look at me, or don’t – I don’t mind”. These images – raw and unfussed as to whether they constitute great art – nevertheless whisper to us about who we are and, in doing so, promise to make the urban environment less alienating.

Consider for instance, this rat on the western wall of that beacon to footsore travellers, the Queen Victoria pub on Bellenden Road. This distended vermin has just enough room for its snout to fit into the upper corner of the building. It is an urgent image: the artist may have clambered up and over the pub to paint it, or else must have jumped down from the window on the upper right of this shot.  

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet about to kill Polonius with “How now, a rat!” to “the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built”, this creature, with its invasive cunning, has long held a dark fascination in the collective mind of Londoners. Much as the animals of southern France did for Upper Palaeolithic man, it has a hold over us that demands to be exorcised – as it is here. Enlarged and hoisted, it might seem to hold sway over the viewer, were it not also elongated, and made a little ridiculous.

Yet Peckham isn’t just a place of urban squalor. It is also highly conscious of a strain of lyricism in its past. Modern Peckham has become a hub for creative artists, which is especially fitting when one considers that creative greats associated with the area range from Robert Browning and Kenneth Branagh to John Ruskin and William Blake.

Blake claimed to have had visions of angels in nearby Camberwell. Here, in this image before a children’s playground overlooking Goose Green, his work has been directly referenced. The church in the picture’s distance is recognisably that of St John the Evangelist church, whose distinctive spire is one of the landmarks to the west of Peckham. But a ghostly Blake can be seen in the left-hand balcony, peering out over the blue flame of his vision. It is as if we are looking at the world through Blake’s own eyes – a world that might any moment burst into vision.

There is even a note by the artist in the corner: “Originally painted with community in 1993, repainted May 2009, with added Blake poem ‘Echoing Green’.” The picture has been revisited after an encounter with the poem whose reference to the “cheerful bells” of the church, and its sports on the green, must have struck the artist as apt. Peckham therefore comes to us as a self-aware place – an example of the city coming all the time into deeper knowledge of itself.

This self-consciousness can be seen in another picture just off Dog Kennel Hill, that Sainsbury’s-dominated hinterland between Denmark Hill and Lordship Lane.

This picture of a girl at a window is a take on a Rembrandt housed in the nearby Dulwich Picture Gallery. A riff on one of the most astonishing pictures the Dutch master painted, it might be more powerful still if it didn’t tell you what it was up to in its bottom right-hand corner.

Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable addition to an otherwise desolate part of Peckham. The cans of spray-paint tell us that this is a self-portrait, and therefore an image of that glamorous Macavity of our cities – the street artist. Her look is visionary and confident as she surveys the possibilities of the environment around her. Again, the image shows us that our street artists are hungry for knowledge – we can imagine how the decision to paint will have been prompted by a visit to the nearby gallery. This encounter has in turn led to a reinterpretation of the world. It is both an exhibitionist dialogue between past and present, and a conversation between London and mainland Europe.

As the city has become increasingly gentrified, Peckham has begun to shed its hostile reputation. It has become, in effect, more like Dulwich and less like itself. But it has never lost its edge – the Blakean thought that here, any minute, something surprising may happen.

This rawness can be seen in the picture at the top of this essay where two men next to the East Dulwich Tavern are shown about to engage in fisticuffs. Its location just outside the area’s most famous pub seems a satirical comment about the place. It is, like the Bellenden rat, a kind of unburdening: if we are prepared to look at violence as archaic like this, then we have also made a move away from it.

But Peckham, though it is able to laugh at itself, is also a place which sometimes seems to be dreaming on elsewheres. It is increasingly idealistic, with a strong green streak, and vehemently anti-Brexit (its borough of Southwark voted to remain in the EU by a whopping 72.3 per cent).

This can be seen in its street art too. For instance, on Choumert Road, there is this enjoyable idyll, a homage to wind energy. It is an odd image. The plane flying towards the rainbow, though anachronistic, is presumably still run on oil, and as such seems out of place. But this is still a welcome moment of pastoral, climbing out of the telephone booth, and the litter-strewn pavement: a dreamy alternative.

I don’t think these are great pictures, but they undeniably contribute to the dynamism of a great part of this city. Through these images, Peckham is shown to be in constant reassessment of its identity. It is amorphous and unsentimental, but also occasionally nostalgic and full of dreamers. It is educated and edgy, a place that revels in its own contradictions.

Above all, Peckham’s street art shows this city to be what it needs to be – fundamentally unafraid and continually creative. 

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All images courtesy of the author.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.