Ben Helliker-Hales, one half of Chaos In the CBD, tells us why he moved from New Zealand to South London
The Peckham RevolutionWritten by: Francisco Garcia
Of all the worn out prefixes, in all the world’s cities, there’s nothing quite like the word “new” smooshed onto an area of London to really elicit a groan. It’s one of this great city’s great modern traditions, the perpetual quest for new locations and centres for burgeoning scenes, looks and trends.
It didn’t really take that long- roughly 15 years, give or take- for Shoreditch to travel from multi-coloured absurdity to the middle of the road and for Dalston to pick up the mantle, before also achieving a sense of mainstream respectability. That’s just the nature of things. Places don’t necessarily stay that exciting for long. It’s a fidgety, ill-defined concept, always moving, constantly shifting and seeking new ground.
What is new- or at least new-ish- is that for the first time it’s been heading south (or rather south-east), slipping noiselessly down the East London Line, all the way down to Peckham. Over the last couple of years it’s an area that’s become arguably the most exciting in the city, at the forefront of the arts, contemporary literature and- yes- nightlife. Think Hannah Barry’s gallery, Evie Wyld’s Review bookshop, The Peckham Pelican cafe and the variety of pubs and clubs that punctuate Rye Lane, the area's high street in all but name.
Yet it’s an ascent that bears flavours of the surreal. Ask any Londoner, and many non-Londoners for that matter, for decades Peckham had a certain kind of reputation. It provoked half-formed ideas of urban decay, street gangs and brutalist high-rises. Oh, and Only Fools and Horses.
Like any cliche, it was only ever a half-truth, at best. Beneath the alarmist headlines, the reality was an area with a slightly out of the way feeling, partially ignored and cheerfully stigmatised by the rest of the city. An unreconstituted slab of south east London, seldom visited or spoken of by outsiders, yet fiercely defended by long-term residents. Well, things have changed.
It was the 2011 reopening of the old East London Line that laid out Peckham, and south-east London, to the rest of the city. This in turn prompted a wave of southwards migration from Dalston and the E8 heartlands, prompting the eruption in trendy haunts and creative mini-hubs that characterise Peckham’s steep ascent.
It’s tough to outline just how much things have changed in the area, since. It’s a marker of how rapidly areas shift and mutate that the likes of classy cocktail joint Bar Storey and the much loved Bussey Building (a tangle of club, artists studios, cafes and music venues tucked down a Rye Lane alley) already have the feel of venerable institutions. It’s slightly alarming to think that neither are much more than three or four years old.
It’s a thought that’s soon dispelled when you consider one of the true cornerstones of Peckham’s nightlife, the pool hall/club/slurry karaoke venue Canavan’s. It’s the sort of place that straightlaced online reviews can get away with calling ‘charmingly retro’, which translates in actual language to “has a bunch of battered pool tables”.
Granted, it’s a slightly vomit inducing phrase, but Canavan’s reflects a great deal of Peckham’s charm. Unashamedly rough and ready, inclusive- one part satellite town Goldsmith students in their first bowel cuts, one part locals- and, most importantly, cheap booze: it endures as a monument to Peckham’s past and a garish example of its present. It’s metamorphosis from geezers pool hall to geezers pool hall and trendy venue traces back to late 2011, with the establishment of the twice monthly Rhythm Section Dance, witnessing sets by some of the world’s leading underground DJ’s over the past 12 months alone, including Andy Blake, Frankie Valentine and 2Bears. Where else is open until 6am and lets you screech out a Sunday night rendition of Fields of Athenrye? Now that’s a lot to love.
Rye Lane is by no means just club nights and cheap drinks. It’s one of the most brilliantly chaotic streets in the city, with everything from rouge health shops, shawarma vans, impossibly tiny corner shops crammed under railway arches, slow business bookies and exasperated looking supermarkets. It’s also home to an organic music culture that may have been birthed in clubs, but is coming to maturity on the highstreet. Around two years ago, it felt as if a new record shop, or venue, or label was springing to life every week.
One of the most intriguing ventures has to be Balamii Radio, a radio station devoted to an internationalist outlook, with its roots firmly in Peckham itself. Located in an arcade just off the main Rye Lane drag, Balamii allows DJ’s to record their mixes in a custom built studio in the heart of SE15 before uploading the set, with annotated tracklist, online. As founder and proprietor James Browning, has put it: “it’s about giving back to the artists, wherever possible.”
It’s just one of innumerable examples of the creative energy that characterises Peckham’s ascent. It might not be to everyone's tastes and it certainly doesn’t the tell the whole tale of SE15, but for better or worse, this seems to the area contributing the most exciting, most continually vibrant elements to London’s nightlife. Frank’s may have been around long enough to attract accusations of ‘yuppy-fication’, but it feels like Peckham has a while to run yet. “New” or not, you’d be hard pressed not to have a good time.