diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 03, 2016

Observation 1: Draw a straight line east from central London, from the City out to Thurrock, and the percentage of "Leave" voters increases with every borough you pass through...
Observation 2: Ride the c2c train from Fenchurch Street to Southend, and each of the first six stops is in a different borough...

Fenchurch Street
City of London (vote to Leave 25%)

London's financial hub requires only a five day week to make its fortune, so the weekend's not the best time to get the flavour of the City, with all the suits at home and most of the business outlets closed. Instead most of the inbound traffic is from Essex, pouring off the train for a day out in the capital, with a stream of taxis queued outside to whisk them on their way. The station's brick façade is the sole 19th century survivor hereabouts, with 21st century office blocks and towers of glass the only other buildings which can be seen. Large ground floor windows reveal sealed-down Spanish restaurants and bunkered banks, while a small kiosk in the middle of the plaza remains open to dispense necessary coffee. A few tourists wander by, wondering where the action is, while a security guard lounges on some temporary seating beneath a cluster of implanted trees. If anyone ever dares push the button on Article 50, will parts of the City look more like Saturday throughout the week?

Tower Hamlets (vote to Leave 33%)

Two very different sides to Tower Hamlets meet outside the station, divided by the railway viaduct. To the north on Commercial Road is a parade of boarded-up shops, of more ancient vintage then you'd imagine possible in almost-central London. The sign for J.F. Brothers Fishmongers is artfully painted, above a corrugated iron shutter, with an 071 dialling code on the side and no code at all on the front. The only business to continue trading is a cab company, itself of 0171 vintage, which can't have many journeys left before it becomes flats. At the neighbouring bus stop a brightly-wrapped mother waits with her young family of five, while an older longer-term resident rests on a zebra-patterned wheelie bag, both highly likely to be living in the terraces beyond. Meanwhile on the Thames-facing side are once-modern flats, merging into a wealthier enclave overlooking the marina, from which those with jobs at Canary Wharf can easily walk to work.

West Ham
Newham (vote to Leave 47%)

East Ham would be more typical of the borough, if only the train stopped there, whereas West Ham's station is an accident of connectivity located nowhere very important, and seemingly intent on remaining so. Opposite the entrance is Memorial Parade, which consists of a mere four units, bookended by a fish bar and the delightfully cheery Rial Lifestyle Cafe. A steady drip of bus garage staff waits for collection by the flowertubs, while a mixed race couple snog passionately in front of the newspaper racks. Only the handful of streets closest to the railway are proper Victorian terraces, in typical Newham style, while less desirable flats and townhouses fill the remainder of the space down to the park. Here a diverse team of local youth is enjoying Saturday football training, and only one of the young families walking past is speaking a European language more East then West.

Barking & Dagenham (vote to Leave 62%)

Crossing the River Roding finally flips the Leave/Remain ratio Brexitwards, in a borough that now has a very different make-up to that at the turn of the century. Where once white faces would have formed a comfortable majority, the centre of Barking now looks like much of the rest of inner London, exemplified by the cosmopolitan bustle of the East Street market. A reputation as London's most affordable borough has encouraged many to move in, and many to move out to larger properties further out into Essex. Now money transfer services line up opposite the pawnbrokers, and a more Caribbean-friendly line-up of dresses billows beside the glittery high heels on the shoe stall. But bullet-headed clusters remain, for example grabbing a pre-football pint outside the Wetherspoons by the station, and undoubtedly rather greater in number over on the Dagenham side of the borough.

Havering (vote to Leave 70%)

In just one hop, so much changes. Upminster is the most well-to-do part of Havering, a hub of leafy avenues focused on a high street that's far more Brentwood than Barking. I've never consciously considered the background of its inhabitants before, but I was surprised to get three minutes down the road from the station before spotting a non-white face, and she was selling the Big Issue outside Caffè Nero. That relative rarity continued throughout my visit, with bottle blondes far more conspicuous, outside a run of shops that has yet to evolve into anything international (unless you count gelato and pizza). All perfectly pleasant, indeed attractive, if comfortable homogeneity is what you seek. Some have wondered why Havering remains part of the capital when it often acts so differently, indeed many residents would happily transfer en masse to Essex, but I suspect more useful to stay and act as a reminder of the wider world that exists outside London's metropolitan bubble.

Thurrock (vote to Leave 72%)

Although it voted much the same way, South Ockendon is no Upminster, more a Harold Hill. The ancient village has grown up in waves of housing estates, much of it London overspill, and with rather less money to throw around (especially since the Ford factory closed down). A few older dwellings exist by the station, one with a word-processed poster in the window which reads WELL DONE NIGEL with four exclamation marks, and patriotic flags flutter over the allotments. Down at the playground the racial mix is that of Grange Hill circa 1977, and happily so, while the main pub by the shopping centre has a surfeit of merry gentlemen in West Ham tops. If money's tight then the double-fronted bazaar of Pound Ockendon may suffice, with Nana's Continental Market (Specialising In Afro-Caribbean Food Etc) the sole hint that other communities might now be mixed within. Fenchurch Street feels a world away, but is in reality less than half an hour, along a journey of unpredictably complex change. [16 photos]

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