London Childhood

I spent most of my childhood, or at least the parts of it that weren’t mnfined to institutions, in a riverside community in South London called Bermondsey. Bermondsey hugged the banks of the Thames in the shadow of Tower Bridge and traditionally drew its lifeblood from the activity of the docks, an entry point into London of goods and merchandise from all over the world. lt was very

much a docklands community and had been for centuries.
Then in the 1970s that all changed. The introduction of what b6tame known as “containerisation” rendered the labour of the Dockers superfluous to the needs of capital and effectively the lifeblood of Bermondsey dried-up and the community began to die. Later, in the 1980s the docks would close completely and be sold,off to predatory property speculators who would turn the dock area into a yuppie playground. Social cleansing would later still transform Bermondsey into an exclusive residential district for upwardly mobile professional classes. My feelings of angef over what had happened to Bermondsey were tempered by sadness over the loss of a community once characterised by mutual-support, solidarity and genuine human warmth.
As a young teenager I witnessed the slow death of Berirondsey and the breaking of its spirit, the gradual disappearance of the bonds that once held the community together and defined its character, its intimacy and warmth, and it was a process of emasculation that deeply affected my own life. With nothing left of the community my alienation and estrangement from society deepened and like so many young men of the district I drifted to its outer margins.
“Back in the day” Bermondsey had a roughish character that coloured its reputation as a sort of outsider community, a place that existed as a law unto itself, somewhere were the police were not welcome and where the community sorted out its own problems; in turn the police and authorities viewed Bermondsey as a hostile district, both because of the strength of the local Dockers union and the prevalence of large criminal families and gangs in the area. Charles Dickens had used Bermondsey as a social backdrop for his novel Oliver Twist because in the 19th century the area wasfull of criminal rookeries and extreme poverty, and existed almost as a place apart and foreign to the rest of London. For Dickens this gave the place a sort of terrible exoticness that would excite and appal his readers.
The docks had always been the lifeblood of Bermondsey and the Dockers its sort of ruling class, and therein lay their ultimate downfall. Decades of fighting against a primitive system of hiring cheap, unorganised labour, where desperate and hungry men would congregate and gather at the dock gates each morning and be handpicked by corrupt overseers for at least a day’s work, had over time shaped the Dockers into a strong and powerful union, and one that guarded its control of the dock workforce with a rnilitant tenacity. The Dockers leaders operated a closed shop policy, which meant they would decide who worked on"the docks and who did. not, and they existed as a Sort of aristocracy; unless you knew or were related to a docker by birth then your chances of getting work on the docks was virtually non-existent. And strikes and unofficial walkouts were almost a weeklyoccurrence as the Dockers felt it necessary to regularly remind the dock owners where the real power in the docks lay. Pilfering from the docks was endemic and almost as much stuff left the docks by the back door, so to speak, then legitimately through its front front gates. lt was a situation that would’nt continue into the 1970s when a tory government under Edward Heath decided to take on the unions and break them. lnevitably the powerful dockers union was targeted, and before Heath ran foul of the miners union which halted his union-busting campaign. He effectively removed the organised dockers movement from the docks of London by introducihg the containerisation scheme,
the loading and unloading of huge steel containers by a small ununionised workforce. The economic austerity of the 1970s provided a commonsense argument and justification for containerisation, and the resistance of the unionised dockworkers was weak and half-hearted; all finally accepted redundancy packages and left. ln Bermondsey the redundant dockers mostly migrated out of the district to Kent and what was left was the elderly, the unemployed and the alienated youth of which I was one.
During the 1970s Bermondsey declined physically and emotionally and its old vibrancy, rhythm, and warmth evaporated and was replaced by a mood and feeling Of depression and greyness. Soon the old Bermondsey would fade from living memory and an important and vital part of me would also die; I often feel angry when I hear about the transformation of Bermondsey from a warm,close-knit working class community into a soulless place populated by upwardly moblile young professionalswho live private insular lives, I rage at the calculated destruction of a community so unique in character, I rage at the destruction of a precious part of my own life, yet it’s a rage tempered by deep sadness. Maybe l’m just saddened by the irrevocable passing of my youth and childhood and a time before the endless.years of captivity and prison, before the terrible act that effectively ended my life as a free humanbeing. Life and society moves on, places change, and all that’s solid melts into air. And yet somewhere in my memory and psyche the Old Bermondsey remains and itcontinues to form a firm, unbreakable foundation for all that is genuinely strong and good in me’

London Childhood

George Coombs

Brighton and Hove, United Kingdom

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Artist's Description

As Red Bubble friends will know I do things to help people in prison, here is anothe rpiece from John Bowden who is remembering the London of his youth

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  • BlueMoonRose
  • George Coombs
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