A client saw a quick watercolour I did of Electric Avenue in Brixton on Twitter and requested a full version. As I trundled down the Victoria Line to begin work, it occurred to me that I have seen Electric Avenue in so many guises over the years that in an odd way I know it better than any other street in London. Or any other street anywhere come to that.
I lived in Brixton for a few years in the late 90s so Electric Avenue became a very familiar site. I used to get the weekly shop along Electric Avenue and the attendant streets huddled beneath the railway lines.
About Electric Avenue, Brixton
Electric Avenue is an elegant sweep of buildings built in 1888. Its claim to fame, and presumably its usual name derives from the fact that it was the first shopping street in the UK to be lit by electricity.
Initially, it had wrought iron glazed canopies covering the paved areas for the whole length of the avenue, though these fell into disrepair, so they were all finally removed in the 1980s.
In the early days, Brixton was a prized shopping destination for South London and was said to have rivalled Oxford Street in its appeal.
After WW2, Eclectic Avenue and Brixton fell into a cycle of decline in the way that London does to almost all of its districts that aren’t Mayfair. Right now, it’s on the up again, a sure sign of this being a new Estate Agency promoted ‘Brixton Village’ which sells loads of different types of coffee. You will find similar examples in the ‘Victoria Park Village’ (Hackney) and ‘Walthamstow Village’, which to be fair was a village at one time, though isn’t now. There is even talk of reinstalling the canopies.
Brixton Market has that indefinable, energetic quality of all the best markets around the world. It is something about making every penny stretch as far as you can in the time you have to make your purchases. Also, the vendors have a tiny patch to sell whatever they wish to make ends meet. Unlike big businesses, they can be nimble in the products they sell which encourages variety. Variety at the right price that is. It’s not a leisurely experience as in a West End antiques market, it really is a bit electric.
Money wasn’t exactly abundant at the time, so I used to muscle in with the far more canny women of the Afro Caribbean community hunting for bargains. You would often get an elbow accompanied by a bit of sharp advice if they saw you picking up inferior produce. ‘Not that one dear. Go rotten in a day. You want that one!’
Since the 1970s Brixton, and Electric Avenue have been, on occasion, the focus of public disorder and rioting. The singer Eddie Grant’s song ‘Electric Avenue’ immortalises local feelings during these times.
My personal experience of rioting was in the October of 1990. I joined a press photographer friend for the afternoon photographing a demonstration against the recently implemented ‘Poll Tax’ by the Thatcher Government of the day. All things started off peacefully enough though later on, out of nowhere, the whole of Brixton Hill erupted into a running riot complete with house bricks, petrol bombs, and anything else that might come to hand.
I have to say taking photos in a riot is a damn tricky business. You are everybody’s enemy, the rioters hate you as you are gathering evidence on your activities, and the police hate you for the very same reason.
I recall getting mowed down in a baton charge right next to Electric Avenue. Bottles and bricks were raining down in a torrent. I got out when I narrowly avoided having a shopping trolley land on me. Yes.. a shopping trolley. I managed to survive the Poll Tax riots, though Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership did not.
Electric Avenue has had its fair share of bombs over the years. Its initial pasting was during the war when the Luftwaffe caught one end by Brixton Road.
As mentioned before, I lived in Brixton in the late 90s, and one Saturday afternoon, I jumped off the 133 bus early as the traffic was far worse than normal, I judged it quicker to walk. Closing in on Brixton, I could see emergency vehicles in the distance, a sea of them. Also Brixton road had been sealed off. There had been a bomb in Electric Avenue.
It turned out that some maniac placed a bomb in a bag right in the middle of the market on the busiest day of the week to cause maximum damage. Local traders spotted it, became suspicious, and moved the bag a few times to where it would cause less damage. It exploded just before the Police arrived. Forty eight people were injured, many of them seriously because of the four inch nails that were packed around the bomb.
The maniac in question went on a 13 day nail bombing campaign around London that left three people dead and 139 injured. He was caught just prior to targeting London’s Jewish community. He is now locked up for good. I was pleased to see the locals back in Electric Avenue the very next Saturday getting their weekly shop, we made a point of it.
An interesting footnote: As mentioned, the bomb was moved around the market a few times before it exploded. The place where it finally exploded was the very same spot where the bomb during the Blitz exploded. London is full of coincidences like that.
Reading this back, it looks like this part of London is a den of anarchy, it really isn’t. Many parts of London have these stories if you look close enough. It is just that in Electric Avenue they met my personal experiences.
I loved living in Brixton, and I loved visiting again to work on the painting. If you’re ever in London, get on the Victoria Line to the last stop to spend a great afternoon in the real London that is Brixton.