The Street Where I Live: Richard Benson Writes About His Home Turf
At the time of writing, London is in a Tier 4 lockdown, people all over the city are losing their shit and my local pub is going mad. I don’t mean the people in the pub, because there aren’t any, obviously. I mean the pub building itself seems to have taken on a life of its own.
It began last October, with the lights in the bar coming on at odd times. Then, for no conceivable reason other than a mistaken belief that pubs were going back to normal, it sprouted, inside and outside, hundreds of St George’s Cross balloons, which gradually deflated and sagged like garlands of ageing, disappointed, patriotic scrotums. Around November it went full Shining, with dementedly scrawled messages appearing in its windows – all its windows. And it has many of them, as it’s a big old Edwardian corner boozer.
It was as if the windows were eyes, flashing out desperate cries of rage. “No known Covid in this pub” was the first, daubed in white chalkboard marker pen in capital letters on every pane, in some cases with the “No” underlined three times. After similar “Covid free” lines, the pub lapsed into wild Remembrance Day nostalgia, as if it was suffering from the onset of dementia. “This Sunday is Remembrance Day” it said. “Always remember” it said. Ironic, really, as the pub had forgotten to leave enough room to fit all the letters in. Later, instruction gave way to more random messages and images. The last I recall was of some long-stalked poppies, drawn under the simple legend “Vera Lynn”.
That tribute has now been replaced by unchecked fury.“Open pubs now, give us back our pubs, only pubs and hairdressers shut, all shops open.” The lights don’t come on anymore. Someone parks a car on the pavement in front, a MkII Golf with a Union Jack sun shield on its back window. Sometimes you see people sitting at one of the tables outside with tins of lager bought from the Nisa opposite, but that’s about it. London 2021: Union Jacks, mad pubs, cheap convenience-store lager to shut it all out.
The pub, called Sir Robert Peel, is on a northwest London street called Queen’s Crescent. I’ve lived near it for the past 15 years. Queen’s Crescent, or Crack Crescent, as some witty locals call it, is one of those roads used to signify the surrounding area, which is a wedge of old working-class north London between Belsize Park, Kentish Town, and Camden Town. It has become known as a centre for gang violence based on the drug trade. Last year, the Guardian ran a long feature about it. “They emerge at dusk, gathering on the corner of Queen’s Crescent and Weedington Road,” it began. “Lookouts are stationed to the southwest on Malden Road, while to the north youngsters on bicycles deliver pre-ordered cocaine and heroin. This is the home turf of QC Blox, one of the most notorious street gangs of Camden, north London.” It was quite a shock to read because most people live here thinking it doesn’t seem so scary, but it has to be said that the level of violence and crime is shocking when you look at the figures: at the time of writing, about 4,000 crimes per year in the area, five murders in the previous 18 months and, in the summer, a drive-by shooting on the crescent itself. It’s said that the drive-by, by a rival gang, was to mark the anniversary of one the same gang carried out the year before.
The Peel is untouched by any of this, but you can see why being deprived of your normal networks and routine could drive you a bit mad. The vast majority of people here are great and some of my best friends live or have lived, within two minutes walk, but you do feel the crime getting in your face sometimes. Earlier this year, I was woken at half-eight on a Saturday morning by the sound of about 20 police chasing and catching someone directly outside our front gate; as he helpfully threw a machete away while he was being pursued, the police then had to search my and the neighbours’ front yards and bins. I watched them with my next-door neighbour, who was finishing off his breakfast tea as he stood on the doorstep.
In pieces like this, you’re now meant to say something like, “And yet, in spite of all its problems and griminess, I love my street and its people and wouldn’t change them for the world.” I, however, often feel that I’d swap my street and its people for a squat in downtown Aleppo, so I’ll spare you that one. When I trudge through the little silver canisters to the cashpoint and find the annoying junkie next to it trying to sell the booze he’s just nicked from Nisa (“All right, boss, you want two bottles of wine? I can do them half-price”), I don’t muse that if a man is tired of London he is tired of life. I think, “I am fucking sick of this shithole, I wonder how much it costs to live in St Albans.” When some twat gets arrested outside my house and tries to hide his machete in my wheelie bin, I don’t appreciate the teeming diversity and unpredictability of an old London that is gradually being squeezed out by property developers, I think of all the advantages of living in a gated community with its own security and a minibus to the Tube every 15 minutes.
However, there is one good thing about junkie harassment and mad pubs, and that’s that they give you something to talk about. If you bump into someone you know on Queen’s Crescent, or if you’re just making conversation in the pub, you don’t have to talk about the weather, sport or, worse, work. You can talk about who the machete chucker was, or how the Old Bill found some intestines in a lock-up and went to
Neil who works on the meat counter at Franks minimarket to ask him if he thought they were human (this is a true story. Neil recognised the liver as being “out of a pig”). I realise that, written down in a fashion mag, this will make me sound like a voyeur, and to be fair, I suppose I am a bit. All journalists are, it’s part of the job.
But then you also have to understand that, on Queen’s Crescent, the cheery community aspects of life are interwoven with the grimness. That’s why people in the areas in question get annoyed by the way newspapers and the telly depict them; life’s always more complicated than that, and when you pick up a thread, you never quite know what will unravel. For example, last summer I bumped into a friend called Tam, a Jimi Hendrix obsessive originally from the east coast of Scotland, outside the Caraf community centre. It was a week after the last shooting, and I asked him if he’d seen the air ambulance land on the football pitches. “Aye, I did,” he said. “It was my stepson got shot.”
Tam is really not the sort of person who you imagine being caught up in shootings. I could see him reading my expression, which must have said, “I don’t want to stereotype people but I wouldn’t have thought Tam’s stepson was a gangster. Tam’s a vegetarian hippie with a ponytail, what the fuck?”
“It’s ’cos he does MC-ing at gigs,” he said. “When they came, they just wanted to shoot somebody well known in the area to make a point that they can just drive straight in and do it if they want. He was standing there, they recognised him and shot him in his arse and legs. It was a shotgun you see, so it fills you with loads of lead shot. They got most of it out at the hospital, but it took three hours.”
We talked for a bit more and then I carried on to the shop. That’s the reality, really: you talk about a drive-by shooting, you curse the few twats who do it and make everybody suffer, you point out that the drugs trade is fuelled by middle-class professionals buying coke, and then you go and get the milk. That’s what home is. It might be different if you live in Chipping Norton or Bath, but for most people, it’s defined by a few happy memories, mixed feelings and an unspoken sense of fellowship based on coping with day-to-day shit. It’s the bad things that bond us; the good stuff is more individual. That’s why Covid brought Londoners together and made a lot of us feel a bit disappointed by people who just fucked off to their second homes.
It’s also why I disagree with the modern idea that your home is where you choose to make it, and your family is the people you choose to have around you. “Home” is a big, old, deep, complicated word for big, deep, complicated feelings, and we should embrace that, rather than trying to chase some kind of Insta-perfect ideal. Home isn’t meant to be straightforward. To paraphrase the great Katy Perry, real home is up then it’s down, and wrong then it’s right, it’s black and it’s white.
Photography by Zac Apostolou. Taken from Issue 53 of 10 Men – NO PLACE, LIKE, HOME – is out NOW. Order your copy here.