The Secret History of our Streets

Last night, BBC Two broadcast the first in a series of documentaries about streets in London. It was The Secret History of our Streets: Deptford High Street.

It was truly excellent – up there with what the BBC does best. Starting with the sociological maps of Charles Booth, it moved to the present day with vox pop interviews of residents and those connected with the history of Deptford High Street.

The centre of the programme was John Price, whose family have lived in and around Deptford High Street for 250 years. His was the arresting voice of a community that was forced into a diaspora by the well-meaning, but ultimately ruinous, city planners of the 1960s.

It was riveting television, that, as Lucy Mangan writes, prodded your brain awake as it broke your heart. Do read the comments on her article, and the comments on the producer’s blog of the programme, they are worth it.

I was close to tears at several points, and moved to white-hot fury as the programme revealed that one street in Deptford had been saved from the city planners’ bulldozers. In a final irony, it turned out that the street that survived was of housing stock that was at the absolute bottom of the pile. Better streets, one of which contained John Price’s family, were flattened. And now, this street, consisting of tiny terraced houses built for the poorest of the poor in the 19th century, has properties that are on the market for £750,000.

We were treated to the spectacle of an oleaginous estate agent showing a well-to-do couple around one such tiny property. I have never come closer to wanting to hurl something through the television as at that moment. It made me sick to the bottom of my heart.

And while the programme showed some of the new life that has come to Deptford High Street, including the (to me) rather questionable evangelical preacher, I couldn’t help feeling that the programme makers had made the right choice by using the song and words of the evangelical choir to close what was a brilliant example of a documentary. The  choir sang ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’ – a bitter comment on how a community was shattered for ever by the Council’s bulldozers. The chorus, ‘There’s a better home a-waitin’ – in the Sky, Lord, in the Sky’ was perhaps a cruel, but knowing, joke about the highrise apartment blocks the Council built. The new slums to be marked as such on the map of a 21st Century Charles Booth, whilst the original community has been scattered to the four winds…

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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