Three Empires of Brixton

Brixton forms at the minor fault line where three material Empires collide. Brixton is the uneasy no man’s land owned by none of them, for the terms of diplomacy between the material Empires have yet to be negotiated, or if they have, the negotiations have been ad hoc, performed by lower-level functionaries who have been got to, gone double, thrown their lot in, promiscuously, with the others. Instead, the fault line is more an encrustation of interlocking emplacements, entrenchments, and all the original Imperial dispatches have been compulsively misinterpreted. It is the eruption where their tectonic plates meet, mingle, rub, suppurate.

The first of the Empires raises aloft banners painted with pictures of the homely, bland landscape of not-long-ago-rural South London. The oldest and least obvious of the Empires, and yet in some ways the most Imperial, the materials upon which it grounds its mythical claims to sovereignty are the sky and the remnants of a wooded or agricultural past. While others may claim Brixton as a centre of urbanity, this Empire quietly – but with unseen grit – demonstrates Brixton to be in fact a village, incorporated into suburban sprawl. Subsumed, almost unnoticed, under the urban mythology, it is one of the taproots of unvoiced discontent – for Brixton’s contradictions are unable to come to full articulation when it tempts them to acquiesce in the pastoral dreams of the suburbs, whose parade ground is the municipal pomp of the town hall.

The second Empire is the narrow Empire of the railway. Assumed, in times long forgotten, to be the dirty, industrious ally and adjunct of the first Empire’s homeland, at Brixton the Railway cannot help but present, through its vectorised nature, brought into a multiple mesh of directions, a challenge to the policed dreams of modesty that the first Empire, in its placid breadth, demands. An Empire of brick and iron structured through great engineered moves, it ruptures the skin of the first Empire, its brick dank arches plunging down into the earth, creating corners where the mind may linger thickly, and yet all this to support two shining rails, which, more disruptive still, are the pure, infinitesimal link to the Great World Beyond, evoking a distance that sets the here and now in aching perspective. This second Empire, in decline for years, is beyond care. Almost defunct, yet still bearing the vestiges of old pride, it is beyond the rallying call, it simply continues to plough its furrow. Yet it serves a symbolic function it cannot comprehend. The great distance it traverses provides a metaphorical link for the third Empire, the Empire of the Masses of People, who come from across the world to this small suburban neighbourhood and banal transport intersection, to make a living, seep into the gaps, find opportunities in those spaces carved out by those hefty infrastructures.

The third Empire’s materials are bodies, food, goods, smells and also talk. Sometimes this Empire’s name is partially formalised into Empire Windrush, but this is often just a name denoting only a new alliance with the first Empire, which the third Empire in its true lived expression always outmanoeuvres – and in doing so creates something solid: bustle, an ancient institution. The vigour with which it is daily practiced forges an iron link to the past that everyone feels on them. ‘Shit that went down’ is an invisible museum founded in Electric Avenue. Glances in the street, exchanges of words, recognitions are the bricks out of which it is built. Inside, on half forgotten display, treasures that are in fact just the moments of people’s lives, iconic but lost: new arrivals, new ventures, dances, turmoil and etiquettes we no longer know, forever to be replaced by new new arrivals, new ventures, new dances, new turmoil and new etiquettes we can’t see, because either they are still being lived – or you weren’t around to know about them.

Thickly embedded, heavily structured by passing fads and ancient industries, Brixton is formed from the intermixings and cross-cuttings of these three Empires. The instances where industrial-age volumes meet the mobile and ephemeral, where iron column and cabbage leaf intermingle, opposing plans and intentions forge multiple adaptations, mutual accommodations, the legacies and accretions of years of comings and goings, entrenched yet cosmoplitan, and then again tempered by faded suburban gentility. Brixton is the knot where the metropolitan railway lines and once country turnpikes intertwine. Atlantic Road, Coldharbour Lane and Brixton High Street are the knot’s outer edges. Between the strands where they cross each other, the market routes, full of people. At its tightest points, the nooks and crannies where vendors lean out, selling phone cards to call Africa, or sell Gospel CDs, dancing in spaces three feet across and full of racks.

Today, the old material Empires are challenged anew by more powerful Empires with greater reach: The Empires of Abstraction. Invisible territories defined by postcode delimit endz boundaries, across which teen gangs dare not cross, while estate agents fudge and redefine, annexing Brixton, too entrenched for the smoothness easy sales require, into Stockwell, Clapham, Clapham Park, Herne Hill, pastiches of vibrancy and the frontier, tabula rasa. The material Empires, unable to negotiate the terms of the new diplomacy laid down by the new Empires of Abstraction, their spies lost, their weapons irrelevant, their institutions crumbling, cannot assert their weight and become lost to shadow, beneath new horizons, which are fixed and impossibly remote.

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