The Ballad of Larner Road

I’ve been working on a long commissioned poem about a housing estate in Erith that is being demolished over the next couple of years. Larner Road is comprised of seven tower blocks. It has a bad reputation in the town. Orbit, the housing association that commissioned the piece, weren’t looking for a puff piece about them. They gave me a free reign. I went to Larner Road and met some of the people who lived there and based my characters on the things they told me.

While writing this poem I’ve been reading Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book Estates. If you’re interested in British social history I really recommend it. She makes points I wasn’t really able to in this poem and makes them very well. The modernist tower block was forced on the British working class in the second half of last century and it has help create fractured, broken communities with huge social problems.

We rarely hear the phrase “council estate” without the adjectives “rough” or “dodgy” in front of it. I hope my poem goes beyond the cliches and shows some of the real people. I hope it does them justice. I hope in the future the people of Larner Road, and other estates like it, are given the housing they deserve.

THE BALLAD OF LARNER ROAD

Bodie: You’re talking about steel and concrete man. Steel and fucking concrete
Poot: No man, I’m talking about people, memories and shit.

The Wire (S03.Ep01)

You know, Cassandra, from this height … you could really huck a lugee on someone.”

Wayne’s World

*

The Ballad of Larner Road

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

So, picture it, the brave, bright past
of nineteen-sixty-four
a Technicolor future waiting
just behind the door
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
two decades clear of war.

Now shake those swinging Soho thoughts
and cross the filthy Thames
and track her east through smithereens
adhering to her bends
till Dartford in the distance signals
London’s dirty end.

And there just shy of Kentish lawns
beyond the City’s pull
in dangerous proximity
to Royal Arsenal
lies Erith’s smashed Victoriana
grotty, tired and full.

But just as mop-top teenagers
had cleared away the old
and brought the boiled cabbage folk
complaining from the cold
so councilmen from Bexley sought
to make their future bold.

They planned a clean and modern world
where cars and commerce reigned
where homes would kiss the clouds and sky
and new electric trains
would bring the world to Erith’s streets
where everyone would gain.

And by the time that Geoff Hurst’s third
was in the German net
the thing was typed and stamped and so
the Mayor’s hammer met
the glass of Headley Mitchell’s window:
Goodbye past, forget.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

Let years like thirsty petals fall
and sadly spiral down:
Profumo Affair, three day week,
Black Wednesday, Gordon Brown
and fifty shades of British rain
to water-stain this town.

And now the fifteen-storey blocks
that loom on Larner Road
are crummy sixties sci-fi things
that groan beneath their load
of JSA and apathy
and Social Service code.

It’s here in Sara House that Rita
scuttles round her flat
she’s eighty-four and widowed now
without an ounce of fat:
the three bar fire, the TV times
and flanked by photos that

betray a life that peaked when men
wore trousers wide as trees.
A lifetime told in wedding portraits
christenings and Cheese.
They’re so familiar to her now
she passes them with ease

to fetch the post (it comes so late),
a winking sales pitch
but in amongst the gaudy junk
there’s one from Orbit which
states simply that the moment’s here
a forty-six year itch.

These flats are coming down and soon
they’ll have to move her out
a clean and modern future which
they’re keen to shout about
but Rita’s heard that one before
besides she’s not one doubt

that when they do she won’t be here.
She gazes at the blocks
this place was always rough and drab
it’s reputation shot
but no point getting maudlin now
these towers were her lot.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

In Hamlet House there’s indecision.
Dennis rattles cup
and saucer, taking nervous slurps.
They say it’s looking up.
They’ve got a place in Margate for him,
Dennis blithely tuts:

I’ll never make it out of here!
You move me and I’ll die!
The housing women raise an eyebrow,
smile: Dennis, why
not take a little look at it?

Defeated, Dennis sighs.

He looks around his boxy flat
the walls are lined with bags
and orange boxes stuffed with junk
the ceiling buff from fags -
a manky masterpiece of thirty
years or more, he drags

half-sagely on his latest one:
Alright love, you win.
He props his saucer on some books
and serves them up a grin.
A fortnight later they come back
the great spring-clean begins.

And it feels great to sort him out,
to help the old boy breathe:
Now Den, how many ashtrays
does a single fella need?

They’re shocked to learn this broke-backed codger’s
only sixty-three.

Then Dennis, in an Margate caff,
salt, sand and endless blue
speaks nodding to a flip cam lens
about the things he’ll do
- the walks, the pints – it’s not long now
perhaps a week or two.

But Dennis never made it out
no happy second act
his heart and story stopped dead in
that room of musty tat.
The plywood coffin do was sparse.
They boarded up his flat.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

Medina House, Sue likes to think,
is nicer than the rest.
She still says things like: Lovely spread
and Wear your Sunday Best.
A glass near brimming kind of girl
she’ll tell you she’s been blessed.

Tell anyone who wants to listen
Larner Road’s alright
that “drug and violence” rumours can
be chalked to local spite.
This world’s more good that bad, she tells
her plump cat every night.

This afternoon she’s here then there
perched primly on settees
her neat and pushy patter pricked
with tidy sips of tea,
she’s building up an army
for the Diamond Jubilee.

She’s picturing the trestle tables,
bunting, cakes and scones
with Rule Britannia proudly blasting
from the gramophone.
But Sue’s a realist too, y’know.
she’ll gladly make no bones

that everyone should have their say,
she’ll cater for the young.
The purpose of a day like this,
of course it should be fun.
A festival to show how far
the residents have come.

She’s marches to her modest flat
as twilight sweetly sighs
excited by the weeks ahead
and hoping for blue skies
she scarcely glances at the youths,
greased palms and bloodshoot eyes.

But at the lift, a thought returns:
she’s at last summer’s fayre,
the children peering from their flats
a sad, mistrusting stare;
in darkness as the sun beats down,
their televisions blare.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

In Norvic House they’ve sprung a leak,
a rancid liquid runs
down walls and pools on kitchen floors.
A stubby plumber comes
he shakes his head and sucks his teeth
exposing ruby gums

then climbs the dirty concrete staircase
to the 14 floor
where he suspects the river’s source.
He taps an open door
to find the culprit on her couch
slack-jawed and watching gore:

Suppose you’re here to fix the leak?
Did you call me? No!
I didn’t have no numbers, did I!

Well, I’ll have a go.
You know there’s dirty water leaking
on the flats below?

He finds a brand new dishwasher
the waste pipe unattached -
S’not my fault, I dunno.
My boyfriend put in that.
Hey, aren’t you gonna clean this up!?

He leaves the filthy flat.

Then back down stairs to Dragovic
and Stenka and their children,
six and eight and TV cute,
relays to them the problem.
They sigh and swap a weary glance,
of course it’s not the first time.

They’ve seen that woman’s children
kicking bins on this estate
short sleeves in snow and snotty nose,
they’ve seen her dodgy mates
and often wondered how that poor girl
got into that state.

Back home they witnessed evil
of the type The Hague brings down.
Dark waves across their countryside,
the fled lest they be drowned.
Much harder comprehending
what engulfs these British towns.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

So to Verona House and Dan
a grin of gold and grit
he chats with postie by the bins
then hobbles to the lift.
It’s rank with piss and caked-on dirt,
his flat’s the opposite.

The Welcome on the tidy door mat
positively beams;
the neat plates on the drying wrack
are fresh from Stepford dreams;
the three piece suite, the aztec trim
are decked in tasteful creams

and whites and offset by the black
of hi-tech gadgetry.
You half expect some Pauline Prescott
type to have his tea
prepared and steaming on the side
perhaps a chilled chablis.

But Dan’s not hitched, nor planning to,
this flat’s his only love.
A five-year decorating plan
and he’s the only Guv.
An antidote to endless months
spent living over pubs.

He ended up in Larner Road
as often is the way
when no one else would have him.
He never planned to stay
but found he’d settled down among
the layered shades of grey.

And Dan’s got friends from Belvedere
who never come to visit.
Too lofty, scared for Larner Road
they quip and snipe and diss it
he laughs along but knows one day
the chances are he’ll miss it.

The stark panoptic dream of men
who’d studied modern art
and tried to make a whole by
adding tiny, clever parts
it turns out you can love a thing
without hearth or heart.

Steel and concrete
glass and brick
they go up slowly
come down quick
from building site to demolition zone
the ghost of memories, the dust of home.

So picture it, the muddled future – twenty-seventeen.
The Larner Road of horror flicks, now lower, sweeter, clean.
There’s Dan, he’s much the same, except he’s shed a couple of stone
His chivalry’s still limps on though, he’s helping Rita home.
They briefly pause to talk to Sue, as ever prim and neat
a Coronation Bash her latest project for the street.

At Rita’s flat she finds a note, it’s from the housing folk
a kind of chirpy questionnaire, it gently prods and pokes
in sunny, inoffensive prose and asks about the move:
Is her life much better now? Has the place improved?
And yes it has, and sure that’s helped, she’s home on Larner Road
she glances at her wedding snaps then goes to light the stove.

5 comments to The Ballad of Larner Road

  • Anonymous

    Spot on I know the residents love it

  • Steve G

    It’s pretty good, I like it. I’m from Erith and used to deliver papers for a short while to Larner road (at the tail end of my round) and I’d wander down there when pushing the boundaries of Frinsted road estates with my mates. It’s always been a dirty, smelly place with a lot of “problem” families (like so much of Erith, Belvedere, Slade Green, Thamesmead). It wasn’t so much about drug dealers and drug dealing when I was a kid, but you still had to watch out for older-youths and drunk adults. It was always grey, reeking of urine and a sink for social problems, but I think societies problems are worse now than then – or maybe age and experience has opened my previously-naive eyes. Who knows?

  • Cliff B

    This is really good. I grew up in Erith and remember the old rubbish dump at the side of the road somewhere near these flats. A friend of mine moved into one on the top floor and the views across the Thames were unbelievable given the grotty town and factories. As I remember you needed 2 children to get one of these flats. From memory there were 6 blocks x 13 floors x 6 flats per block. Thats over 900 kids – a disaster in the making. I watched the Mayor smash Mitchell’s window (seem to remember a large brick)and waited for the town to rise from the ashes. Unfortunately there was litle reason to go to Erith. Bexleyheath, Woolwich and Dartford were not far away by bus. (I regularly walked to Bexleyheath bowling alley when I was on apprentice money). Although it was quite a hard place to grow up and it was always filthy there were a lot of good people about. The real scum infested Burton’s billiard hall and hung about near the Running Horses pub. You knew where to avoid and when to cross the road. There were few drugs except the odd Mod (not a wise way to dress round there) who was puffing weed and popping purple hearts. My escape was a motor bike and the world of Rockers and Johnsons caff but it was freedom. I left a long time ago and never missed the place. My Brother went back some years ago and walked up West Street and described it as ‘walking through Hell’. Keep doing the good work, please. For all its faults the place instilled me with socialist values, so I am grateful for that. Best wishes. Cliff

  • Gemma

    Your poem is not a true picture of Larner road! Negative people only see negative things! Such a shame :(

    • admin

      I don’t think the poem is all negative. It’s subjective, it’s the truth as I saw it, taken from stories that residents told me.

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