diamond geezer

 Friday, July 14, 2023

In 1995 Pulp wrote a song called Mile End about a particularly horrible flat Jarvis Cocker once lived in. It was released as the B-side to Something Changed (off the album Different Class), but you might know it better from the Trainspotting soundtrack. [YouTube]

But where was the flat?
We didn't have nowhere to live
We didn't have nowhere to go
'Til someone said:
"I know this place off Burdett Road"
Burdett Road is a fairly major thoroughfare in Tower Hamlets, coincidentally one mile long, which runs between Mile End Road and Commercial Road roughly parallel to the Regent's Canal. Jarvis must have been living somewhere off the first half, north of the railway, otherwise his song would be called Limehouse rather than Mile End. Further evidence is required.
It was on the fifteenth floor
And that very much narrows it down. Burdett Road has plenty of flats but very few highrises and only one tower that's sufficiently tall. That'll be Elmslie Point, a 1960s council block about halfway down with 19 floors, so perhaps we're done. The problem is that Elmslie Point is on Burdett Road, not off it, so it can't be that (and indeed it isn't). Instead we need to look deeper into the residential wilderness to the east, where there's only one suitably-sized tower so it must be that (and indeed it is). If you've ever wondered how far "off Burdett Road" Jarvis was living, this photo is your answer.

This is Lewey House, another isolated council block, which was built during the final flurry of tower block construction in 1966. It's named after a former Mayor of Stepney and you'll find it a short way down Bow Common Lane - a bit further than the shops but not quite as far as the cemetery. It has 23 floors so it definitely fits the lyrics, and that means Jarvis wasn't living quite at the top, merely high enough for the lift to be an important part of his life.
It had a board across the door
It took an hour to prise it off and get inside
It smelt as if someone had died
The living room was full of flies
The kitchen sink was blocked
The bathroom sink not there at all
And he wasn't living here legally, he was squatting along with his bandmate Steve while studying at Saint Martin's School of Art. This was in 1989, several years before the band even sniffed fame, back when an East End tower block would have been a squalid hole rather than an unaffordable luxury. Jarvis recalls that the plumbing was so poor he had to wash in a washing-up bowl and do all the actual washing up in the bath. The smell of the "hydrochloric acid-type drain cleaner" and the "horrible stinky pink mushy stuff" is best not imagined.

Ooh, it's a mess alright
Yes it's
Mile End
I might have to disagree with Jarvis there. Technically this is Bow Common rather than Mile End, one of Tower Hamlets' lowlier backwaters. Go back 200 years and it really was a common, originally known as Furseyheath, a strip of open access grassland lying either side of precisely this part of Bow Common Lane. These days the name applies to a wider sprawl of bypassable housing, of which the area around Lewey House is historically the epicentre, but I fear a song called 'Bow Common' would have been less catchy, plus it wouldn't have scanned properly.
And now we're living in the sky
I'd never thought I'd live so high
Just like Heaven
if it didn't look like hell
The fifteenth floor would have been high enough to get a really good view of an East End skyline that no longer exists. We don't know which side Jarvis's flat was on but the options would have been a mucky gasworks to the east, some slummy terraces to the north, the drab flats of Stepney to the west and as yet only the stump of 1 Canada Square rising in Docklands to the south. The nearest greenspace would have been Tower Hamlets Cemetery and that likely didn't have the same attractive connotations back then, and Mile End Park wasn't even an idea on the drawing board.

The lift is always full of piss
The fifth floor landing smells of fish
Not just on Friday
every single other day
Back in 1989 anyone would have been able to walk into Lewey House because that's how things were with blocks of flats back then. Since then security's been ramped up considerably and not only is there an entry keypad but also a concierge, or whatever the housing association equivalent of that is, keeping a close eye on all the comings and goings. The lift is likely much better maintained, if still temperamental - I couldn't get in to check - and anyone stinking out the landings with fish would face retribution from a much stricter list of tenancy regulations.
Below the kids come out tonight
They kick a ball and have a fight
And maybe shoot somebody if they lose at pool
Ooh, it's a mess alright
Yes it's
Mile End
Recreational space remains limited and even the grass at the foot of the tower has been planted with scattered trees to make a decent game of football impossible. Younger kids can always head to the Wager Street Play Space, while their older siblings have been gifted a green metal cage with hoops and goalposts in front of Aariz Supermarket. Pool is off the table since The Britannia pub was demolished in 2012 - it's now more flats - but I bet Jarvis spent some hours here propped up across the bar from Ronald the landlord.

Nobody wants to be your friend
'Cos you're not from round here
As if that was something to be proud about
Bow Common Lane's more of a melting pot these days, but also the divide between two very different communities. To the south is the high density social housing of the Bede Estate, which is pretty much all the result of large scale postwar redevelopment, so not a garden in sight. But to the north are the Victorian terraces they never swept away, now immensely desirable and home to a wealthier demographic in one of E3's nicer conservation areas. Over here you're more likely to see an Ocado van whereas on Jarvis's side, judging by the number of mopeds, chugging around dropping off pizzas is much more common.
The pearly king of the Isle of Dogs
feels up children in the bogs
Down by the playing fields
someone sets a car on fire
It's nowhere near that bad round here any more, which I can say with some confidence as a semi-local resident. Over in Mile End Park they have organised football and gokart racing these days, plus the kiddy-fiddling issue has been solved by closing all the public toilets. Meanwhile there genuinely was a Pearly King of the Isle of Dogs, who I assume Jarvis only included because he rhymed, but who had the good grace never to sue Pulp for defamation.

I guess you have to go right down
before you understand just how
how low, how low a human being can go
Jarvis says of his time in Lewey House "we ended up spending nine months there which, without any question, were the worst nine months of my entire life." But he bounced back spectacularly, aided by an unerring ability to turn lifestyle lows into hit songs, and six years later his band would be wowing the crowds at the Glastonbury Festival. And Mile End itself has followed a similar trajectory, from undesirable blackspot to estate agent hotspot, and anyone who bought a property round here while Jarvis was squatting on the fifteenth floor could have banked an absolute fortune.

            Ooh, it's a mess alright
            Yes it's
            Mile End

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