E N D P I E C E
David Ransom watches the fall of a folly.
For many years we lived in the shade of Rowan Court – a tower block named after an ash tree – much as one might live in the shadow of a mountain. The sun set behind it, the wind blew around it, the clouds sometimes descended over it and legends grew up about the people who lived there. Cast upwards into purgatory, cut off from the world by jammed, urine-drenched elevators, they were said to descend onto the streets only at night to feed off the local populace by mugging.
Late one night I too was set upon by a group of their young. They formed a circle around me and waved bottles at my head.
‘Oi! You!’ they said.
‘Who, me?’ I replied. My knees began to shake uncontrollably. Somehow the word ‘love’ slipped from my lips as I thought of conciliatory phrases.
‘Right! That’s it!’ said one of them. ‘This one’s a bleeding nancy-boy [gay]!’
Then, for reasons I cannot explain, I asked: ‘Do you know who I am?’ and began to search in my mind for someone awesome to impersonate: a distant cousin of the Kray Twins (celebrated, if incarcerated, hard men of local folklore) perhaps.
They began to whisper among themselves. It became apparent that I was not the only one under the influence of mood-altering substances of one kind or another.
‘I am... I am...’ I began. But it was no good. ‘I live round the corner,’ I said tamely.
‘Really?’ said one of them.
‘Just there, with my daughter,’ I said.
‘Oh! Sorry mate!’ he said. ‘We didn’t realize. Pleased to meet you!’
We shook hands and introduced ourselves by false names.
‘Watch out for yourself!’ they said.
‘You too!’ I called after them as I turned away, expecting a heavy blow to the back of my head. It never came.
That was in 1976, not long after we had moved into a house on a street that was all but derelict, near a patch of grass and plain trees known as London Fields. Built in the 1850s, our street was heading for oblivion, like similar ones nearby that had been demolished just a couple of decades earlier to make way for the Holly Street Estate and its four 20-storey, system-built ‘tower blocks’ of public housing.
In the early 1980s, when fear of urban riots heralded each spring as surely as the blossom, the fate of our street still hung in the balance. By the end of the decade, however, we had become ‘Mapledene Village’ in real-estate-speak, a place fit for property speculation and the offspring of the financial ‘Big Bang’ in the City of London, just down the road.
Holly Street, on the other hand, had ascended into hell.
A few years ago I moved away. But I just had to go back this year for the blowdown, the ignominious execution of Rowan Court. Its people had been ‘rehoused’ and had vanished forever. The tower now stood gaunt and gutted, a skeleton draped with a blindfold of banners: ‘Down with the old! Up with the new!’
At midday almost precisely, injections of high explosive spurted like blood from its joints. A shudder, then floors hurtled down behind the rooftops, and for an instant we seemed to travel upwards as we watched. A billowing dark cloud, a surge of light, a pyramid of rubble and it was gone, flattened in four seconds. Everyone agreed that Rowan Court had never looked better.
What we had witnessed was, nonetheless, quite insane. Thousands of people in London, hundreds of millions beyond, have nowhere to live. Two hundred serviceable homes lay in ruins before us – and we applauded.
How had we come to this? No good ever came from demolishing the old ‘slum’ (now ‘desirable’) houses to make way for Rowan Court. What good would come from demolishing Rowan Court? The people who had lived there became outcasts in their own homes. They had now been cast out once more, blown away for good. A trace of the folly that built the place surely survived to demolish it. The blowdown made perfect sense only in a perfectly senseless world.
As Rowan Court tumbled and the onlookers cheered it seemed to me that a terrible, unspoken revenge was being visited on the people of the mountain ash, the children I had encountered that night 20 years earlier, whose histories had been displaced by a vacant space.
Standing beside me, an old woman wept.
Ashes to ashes.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996