The past weekend marked a year since the passing of my friend Pete Pope, community activist, custodian of local memory, merry prankster, cyclist, leaflet distributor, ale-quaffer, kind soul, and free man of the parish of Deptford. Pete was one of the first people I interviewed when I started out as a researcher at the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, as part of the Creekside regeneration programme evaluation. I’ve spent hours interviewing him, most often in his regular haunt the Dog and Bell, where the half the interview below also took place. He was incredibly kind and generous with me, and I know he was to many others too. I miss him.
Here are some edited extracts from the transcript of an interview with Pete which I conducted on the Pepys Foreshore and in the Dog and Bell on 16th March 2004 as part of Cacao’s Pepys Portrait Project, a life story/portrait project conceived by Simon Rowe and Francesca Sanlorenzo, from which the photo (by Simon) also comes.
“I grew up down Surrey. I grew up in Farnham in Surrey. But I knew from an early age that the only way to get on in Farnham was to get out of Farnham, you know. And the kind of social world is split into two camps, which became the stayers and the goers, as it turned out, so I sorted that one out very quickly.
I came to Deptford in ’82. Okay I’d been at Rose Bruford Drama College in Sidcup. I was living in Kilburn. I was living in private rented accommodation and the landlord just decided to double the rent. “No way, no!” And because I had been to Rose Bruford, it had the kind of student grapevine basically. And through the grapevine I discovered that Pepys Estate, which at that time was a GLC estate, was officially classified as hard to let, and you just have to go to the GLC office down on the Old Kent Road and say crudely I want to get a flat and I’ll take Pepys, and you get “Oh yes, great fantastic, bless you”. So that was it and at a fraction of the rent.
I had to have a low rise because, as much as I’m fascinated by the geography and love views, I’ve actually got no head for heights on a long-term basis. If I was up at the top of a tower and I woke up one morning with a hangover and the wind was blowing, I’d just be walking over the ceiling howling, you know. So I got myself a second floor flat and that was it: I’m stuck there.
I just felt very secure there, very settled, very at home, in a way that I’d never really had in my entire life before. Yeah, I think the thing that really kind of swung it when I came was I had a pet ferret – a pet that I would take around on a lead. It was great, used to go on the Tube or on the buses, trains. He was up for anything. And so I’d been wondering around Pepys Estate with this ferret on a lead and then I had a kind of rat’s tail on my hair, it was just the same length as the ferret’s tail. There was a lot of kind of petty crime, aggravation, suspicion. I was up for talking to anybody and I was The Guy With The Ferret. I quickly got him started drinking in the Vic, the local pub. I just didn’t get any hassles. That caused me to feel that kind of security.
It’s the old South London character which I think is all down to the geography; it’s all down to the fact that the Tube didn’t really penetrate. Before, I was living in Kilburn but I was doing a lot of stuff in the West End. I kind of thought, at the centre of my world is being in the middle of London, the West End, whereas here because it took that much longer to get in and because I discovered that there are a lot of interesting people locally (through the ferret), it just kind of got me to identify with the area in a way that I hadn’t done anywhere else in London before. And then I kind of started to realise just how amazing it was.
At the time, there were still quite a few of the original residents, but a lot had moved out, so it was quite deserted – like the scene in the Westerns where the tumbleweed blows down the street. The week before I moved, there had apparently been an attempt to lynch a gay guy because some child had claimed to be molested. “Obviously it must be the gay guy”. And literally a couple weeks after I came someone was shot. The shooting was down on Deptford Broadway but it was all part of a brief “God where have I come?” My first night in Deptford, in Lanyard House, in the morning I went out to what’s now Mo’s Café to get my breakfast and paid for it with a spanking clean brand new £10 note that had just come out of a cash point, no £20 note, that’s right. You didn’t see that often then. The girl kind of looked at it, smelt it, licked it, called the dog, got the dog to look at it and then she kind of reluctantly put it in the till and then went “Got any more of those mate? I’ll give you eight quid each for them.” There was a flood of funny money in the country at the time and folklore said that a lot of it came out of Deptford. This was a real one, and she offered me eight quid!
It was getting quite tense. There was a particular family who easily intimidated the whole estate, who kind of owned it. But at that time, a more bohemian crowd was arriving, students, mainly from Rose Bruford (Goldsmiths students went to Crossfields). One of the things that kept me going was Co-oPepys. When I got there, it was a year old I think, and it was putting on these big shows, and I got involved because I had been involved in acting and directing.
And then at a certain point this family kind of decided to try and take the manor over, to take over the social club on a sort of racist ticket. Dave, the lead worker at Co-oPepys, which was still very much an outreach project at the time, got a group of us together and basically pulled some political strokes at the AGM of the community centre. We just drew up a slate and said “right we’re just gonna go for it, get elected onto the committee of the community centre”. And we pulled that stroke off, and the family moved away not long after. It was amazing, like it broke their grip. And that kind of cemented my engagement with Co-oPepys really: it wasn’t just being like a little arts project, it was taking on a much wider social remit, actually making a difference. I think that was a really key point in my starting to get really involved with Pepys and Deptford, from being part of that.
When I came here, the docks were closed or closing. Around Deptford Creek there were just like scrap yards. And things just felt really bleak under Thatcher, you know, the buses didn’t work, nothing worked and it was like they don’t care, nobody fucking cares about any of this. And, yeah, I looked quite hard at that and how that reconciled with the fact that I felt really comfortable when I first came down to Deptford: somehow I just had to kind of live with those contradictions, you know. The Creek by the way, was the old Surrey/Kent border, so technically I’m still living in the county of my birth, and technically I’m a South Londoner. But after having lived here over twenty years, I’m not sure I’d say I’m a South Londoner. It would depend on who I was talking to I think really. It’s not a corner I’d fight. No, once a middle class kid from the suburbs, always a middle class kid from the suburbs really, you know.
Anyway, at that time, the social club was basically a white space. Not, after that family left, in an aggressive or threatening way. It was windowless, in the basement, pretty enclosed and introverted and reactionary. But it wasn’t a space that anyone would particularly think “oh I wish I could get in there”. There were two sort of basically black pubs. The Mechanics, which is now Tomi’s Kitchen. And the Centurion, which sadly just closed on Saturday, forever. The Centurion used to have a black landlord called John. He had a picture of the Queen behind the bar with a sash and whatever, the famous post-Coronation portrait, and he was a devout Thatcherite, thought she was absolutely wonderful. But he was a black landlord so black people felt comfortable. So that was the choice. The Vic, on the estate, I think, certainly in the ‘80s, if I’d been black I wouldn’t have felt very comfortable in the Vic, would have made sure I didn’t catch anyone’s eye if you know what I mean.
I don’t think you could say Pepys was multicultural then. New Cross Road was always very black, and Milton Court estate. But in the early days of Pepys there was some system where tenants could select who else could live here and that system was, you know, always sort of racially abused. By the time I came here, we still had this kind of working class elite, although people were desperate to get out which is why it became hard to let. No, I think it was kind of late ’80s, into the ’90s it started to change. And as it changed, the old guard were even more desperate to get out.
By the time I lived here, there weren’t many people that had worked on the river living here. I know there’s a big enclave of ex-Deptford Power Station workers in Eltham, and when I came here the aspiration was to try and get out to Bellingham, to Downham. Downham was like the paradise for the older working class people. The myth was that it was lovely on Pepys at first and then they started moving in single parents. Single parents, the gays, the blacks and the Vietnamese, that was the myth at the time. And there was just the same sort of failure of cultural adaptation that led to the rise of Thatcher. I do remember, as I moved in, on the rubbish bin at the end of the corridor someone had scrawled “this is a bin boaties”. “Boaties” meant the boat people – i.e. the perception was that the Vietnamese didn’t throw their rubbish out. It actually took me several weeks to work out what that was: I thought please put your commas in, punctuate it!
But it was never seen as a racist estate in the way that Silwood was. I think that it had a lot to do with Mickey Hamilton, who is in one of the statues on Aragon. He became the senior worker at the Riverside Youth Club on the estate, and kind of showed to the world that you could have a stable and respectable black organisation. I think that really just changed a lot. I mean a lot of people, white parents, would swear blind that there was no room for their kids because it was “all kids from Peckham”, you know. And I could produce registers to show you they all came from Pepys, but they’d say “No, no, no, they all came from Peckham.” Just like all the bad things that happened on Pepys Estate are done by people from Peckham, you know. “People from Peckham” basically meaning black people, outsiders. Michael Hamilton arrived around 1986. The previous leader at Riverside was kind of the conventional white sports oriented youth leader, alright, but having a drama based black youth leader just brought a completely different sort of dynamic. There was now a place for black young people in our world, and apart from the odd snipe about “they’re all from Peckham” and things, it didn’t cause any sort of unpleasantness that I know has occurred on Silwood. You know, considering its fearsome reputation, I have found it a very benign place in 22 years.
The graffito just outside this pub, where it says MILLWALL FC, that was there when I arrived, so it’s been there perhaps a quarter century. I found this pub, the Dog and Bell, almost as soon as I arrived in Deptford. It didn’t take me very long. God it was tiny then, about the size of a postage stamp: you could get seven people sitting down unless Simba, the dog, if Simba wanted to sit down that took up five seats and so two people could sit down and four or five standers. And it used to have beautiful fan pattern cobbles on the street outside. The first time I found it, it actually had Morris dancers dancing on these fan pattern cobbles, and it was like it’s just too bizarre for words, I thought I have just got to stick my nose in here.
Early Co-oPepys was very important for getting me involved in the estate, and for getting lots of people more involved to make it a better place. Because of the demography of the estate – it wasn’t possible later because I tried it – it used to be possible to do these big theatre productions called Pepys Shows. Mostly, it was Dave wrote them, based on his own life. I saw a couple and was in a couple and they were great. They were a load of fun. Unfortunately they were so big, they were even staged in the Albany, which fair enough it was an Albany Outreach Project. But a lot of people on the estate had a thing about “ah the bloody Albany, no-no-no, we ain’t going to the Albany, we don’t associate with the Albany mob”. But the Shows got people going there, got them involved in either acting or making costumes or whatever.
When I did attempt to revive the Pepys Shows, I did know that I would not get the kind of mass participation that they used to get because the whole demography had changed. I did get a small drama group together. At the time, they had just started the Estate Action Programme, and the block I lived in and the adjacent block were Phase 1A, the first ones to get done in the pilot. The people who wanted to be part of the drama group, there were only four of us I think, came from those blocks. And so it was kind of pretty natural that we should do something about what was happening because it was actually quite dramatic in the sense of getting one’s windows torn out and holes drilled through these undrillable walls with great diamond drillers to get central heating put in – but appallingly, appallingly done and appallingly managed. So we did a show called The Developmental Nightmare; it was a cross between a musical and comedia del arte, masks and things. My favourite memory was we managed to blag our way into doing this show for the Pepys Regeneration Forum, in front of an unthinkable Labour councillor and the tenant organisation. And there was a scene where the protagonists were a newly married couple and, you know, all they wanted to do was get it on, and every time they tried to get it on there was another knock on the door or something would come flying through the window, just a mad farce. We’d brought a dust sheet, and a certain point in the play, we unrolled the dust sheet and we preloaded it with flour, and the councillor sitting in the front, and we just showered the Regeneration Forum with flour. It was fantastic. Just a hoot. Never got forgiven for it, but God that was one of my great Pepys memories.
I don’t have bad memories of Pepys, but there are the everyday ongoing bad things, the redevelopment, losing the fight over Aragon Tower, the long attritional process of the local authority making various promises, first “oh everything’s going to get done up”, then “oh no sorry we’ve run out of money, we’ve run out of interest,” etc. So nothing ever comes out like it’s promised. Things get worn down, and you just become totally cynical because of that.
The sense of community on the estate was patchy. There was a spread of activists around the manor. In fact they all kind of joined up. I think it makes the manor feel more joined up than in some ways it is. But certainly I don’t hear people just saying, “God I long to get out of this place” in the way they used to. Certainly I’ve never seriously thought about leaving in 22 years. Never say never, as they say, but not a priority. There are enough stressful things without moving.
It’s extraordinary, but I think the river has very little impact on Pepys. I was going to say, you can live Pepys for years and not know the river’s there, and then I realise that actually that is true, it is quite common for people I know who are doing work in primary schools and things that take a posse of primary school children to the river. “Wow what’s that!” You know, it’s like they actually live on Pepys and they’re seven years old, and they’ve been there all their life and they’ve never even seen it. The layout of the estate was never going to encourage anyway, because Millard, Marlow and Pelican and Harmon form a kind of barrier against the river for the other two-thirds of the estate, so very odd. I remember when in the early ’90s when they started formalising the Thames Path and Thames Valley Cycle Path and I talked to people about Pepys making the most of that, people would say “Well we don’t want the Thames Path!” “We don’t want the Thames Valley Cycle Path!” “We don’t want strangers coming into our estate!” “Actually dears, we don’t have a lot of choice, we’re built right next to it.” “Oh no, we don’t want that!” But I think now we have to re-connect to the river.
My clear hope is that we don’t get a luxury housing development on Convoys Wharf next door. If Pepys gets flanked by yuppie housing on this side and yuppie housing on that side then I think it just progressively becomes a gentrified dormitory, and I think that kills not only Pepys but Deptford. I hope that we can find a way to work together and live with the people who are going to come into Aragon (because that’s a given) without too much aggro, but that we don’t get a whole new set of rich neighbours on Convoys. I would love it to be a great place to live in and a working Deptford, and I think the river is the key to that and maybe that’s in the lap of the Gods.”
Elsewhere, from last year: Jess Steele had a lovely post, “Scattering Virtual Ashes“, which includes a narrative of some of the Deptford history that Pete was part of. Pete’s friend Bill Ellson had several posts, starting with the funeral notice including some wonderful photos; some more fantastic photos; another; a video of his send-off; and a photo narrative of the send-off. Transpontine had a nice short post, where I left a comment. Crosswhatfields had more great visuals.