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Let’s Not Go to Tesco – the supermarket invasion of Brixton

28 Jan


Over 200 pubs have been converted into supermarkets since the beginning of 2010, according to the Campaign for Real Ale. By far and away the main culprit is Tesco. To be fair to them, it’s so easy for Tesco to swoop in and make a grab as soon as a local pub goes out of business that if you were a corporate grocery giant with one third of all the country’s food, you’d do it. There’s no need for the supermarket chain to ask the council for planning permission, as, absurdly, changing a pub into a shop doesn’t count as a ‘change of use’.

Increasingly unwelcome and uninvited, ‘Express’ or ‘Local’ versions of the big chains are spreading like a fungal infection across Britain’s high streets. We mutter complaints about their arrival, but still use them. It’s just that they’re there, right? Right where you need them, at the end of the road stocked with bacon on a hungover Sunday morning, or on the way home from the tube on a rainy weekday evening. The long opening hours mean we get used to being able to buy food whenever the thought occurs. We know that it’s more expensive, but grudgingly accept it as a kind of laziness tax. We shop on the hop, when it suits us, just a few ingredients for that night’s dinner, and grow used to the high prices. And so the Tescopoly continues to grow.

If you live out in the sticks, a twenty minute drive away from the nearest proper supermarket, an Express opening down the road might be really handy. But Brixton has a fantastic market and some great independent shops. We don’t need this rash of supermarkets, but the chains are making sure we damn well get them anyway.

The campaign to save the Victorian George IV pub on Brixton Hill from the clutchy hands of Tesco has been up and running since the chain’s intentions became clear last year. Then news came in last week that Sainsbury’s plan to open a new 24 hour store on the corner of Tulse Hill and Water Lane. Yes, that’s right, that’s the other end of the street from the Sainsbury’s Local store on the corner of Water Lane and Brixton Hill.

Do join the campaigns and sign the petitions if, like me, you’re not that happy about this invasion. But how about also trying to avoid supermarkets as much as possible? Ok, I’m aware that I’m not going to bring down the corporate behemoth that is Tesco by buying my onions elsewhere, but I will save myself a fortune and know that it’s not my fault if every other Brixton shop becomes a supermarket chain. And even more than that, shopping in Brixton market and the surrounds is MUCH more fun.

Here’s where I’ll be shopping in my quest to resist the mindless lure of Sainsbury’s striplights, along with some Sainsbury’s Local or Tesco Express prices, so I can feel smug at how much money I’m going to save. If I’ve missed your favourite Brixton shop, do leave me a comment…

For meat: Dombey’s has been in Market Row since a very long time. Purveyors of great customer service as well as fairly priced meat, they are very knowledgeable and always happy to give advice. A whole leg of lamb is between £8 and £12, and I recently bought a massive pork loin joint for under eight quid. Oh, and don’t miss the homemadesausages.
Open Tues-Saturday from about 7.30-5, except Wed when they close at 3pm

500g extra lean mince £2.50 vs Tesco lean steak mince £4.00 for 500g
A kilo of chicken breast £5.99 vs. £10.63 per kilo at Sainsburys

For fish: I’ve written about Brixton Village’s Dagon’s before and continue to harp on about it because it’s the best fishmonger I’ve ever been to. Like Dombey’s, Dagon’s in a longstanding Brixton fixture that deserves plenty of praise for great prices and friendly, helpful service. 
Open 8-5 Mon-Sat, early closing on Wed at around 2.30

Salmon £7.10 per kilo vs £16.67 per kilo at Sainsbury’s  

For deli-type things: A&C Continental Deli is right by the tube and open until about 7pm on weekdays, so it’s very convenient. A tiny shop, it crams in a huge range of Mediterranean goodies – like morcilla sausage, smoked pork belly and cannelloni tubes – that are hard to find even in a large supermarket. Check out their olives, cheeses, homemade pesto and hummus  and cold meats. Be warned though, their white fluffy bread is highly addictive.
Open 8-7 Mon-Sat, closed Sun

100g olives  70p–£1 vs £2.45 for 180g at Tesco

For wine:You will almost certainly be ripped off buying wine in an express supermarket, as this Guardian column explains.  Far better to pay a visit to Market Row wines and ask David, the owner, what you should drink with you dinner/pour down your throat to get shitfaced.  The shop’s selection is thoughtful and reasonably priced, and will make buying overpriced Jacobs Creek from Tesco Express seem ludicrous. There’s also wine available by the glass, which’ll make the rest of the shopping trip more interesting. Now that’s not an option at Sainbo’s Local….
Open  12–6 Tues and Wed; 12–9 Thurs, Fri, Sat; 10–4 Sun, closed Mon

2011 Spanish Tempranillo £6.50, 2011 Chilean Sauvignon Blanc £7.99
Or, from Tesco, how about a Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay for £7.49 or Hardy’s Cav Sav for £7.99. No? Ok.

Nour-Cash-and-Carry from the Brixton Blog

Cupboard stuff: The Brixton Blog have written often about the excellent Nour, to which it seems unnecessary to add. With entrances at the top and of Electric Avenue and in Market Row, it might be slightly tricky to find the first time, and thanks to the odd shape of the premises, not easy to get into, but it’s full-to-bursting of all sorts of hard to find ingredients. I mean, they’re pretty difficult to find in Nour too, but odds are anything you want is in there somewhere…
Open 7am to 7pm everyday

Can of chick peas 35p vs 79p at Tesco
Fresh coriander around 50-70p a large bunch vs 85p for a few stalks at Sainsburys

Fruit and veg: Brixton is full of cheap fruit, veg, herbs etc, at prices sometimes a third of what the supermarkets charge. That first stall on Electric Avenue has been there for over fifty years, and is the perfect place to grab some fruit on the way to work. For me, wandering around Brixton market after work or at the weekend is one of the best things about living here. It is Brixton’s centre, and there’s not a self-service checkout in sight.

Five peppers from Brixton Market for £1 vs two for £1.25 at Tesco

And if you want to read more about how the supermarket chains are working their way into our high streets, there’s a good article here.

The Opening of the Astoria – Brixton’s ‘wonder cinema theatre’

1 Nov

ImageIn the evening of Monday 19th August 1929 Brixton was in a state of excitable chaos. Despite the special parking that had been arranged for guests arriving by private motor car, Stockwell Road had become completely impassable. (I like to imagine laconic 1920s road rage, flappers gesticulating with cigarette holders etc).

The first to arrive had been a group of schoolboys, who took up residence on the steps at 8.45am. Through the course of the day they were joined by as many as 10,000 others in a queue that wound around the block and beyond. Some waited with the hope of securing one of the limited tickets to the gala opening night. Others just wanted to see the celebrities due to appear. But despite the crowds and the inevitable disappointment for some, the South London Press cheerfully reported that, ‘the greatest good humour prevailed’.

The management of the self-proclaimed ‘new wonder cinema theatre’ had been expecting, and no doubt hoping for this reaction from the locals. The Astoria had taken two years and £250,000 to build, and would be in competition with around nine other nearby cinemas. But Wall Street hadn’t yet crashed, the twenties were still roaring and the people of this popular South London shopping area were ready for a bit of West End glamour: 2.3 million tickets were sold in the Astoria’s first year.

When those who had been queuing all day were finally admitted they can’t have been disappointed. In the centre of the marble-floored foyer, flanked by huge bouquets of flowers, water flowed from a mosaic fountain into an engraved glass trough. The glamorous celebrity guests ascended staircases that climbed the foyer walls to reach their seats in the circle, passing an elegant tea terrace furnished with low wicker chairs. It was all thrillingly modern.

ImageThe previous Friday the Brixton Free Press had printed a special (no doubt paid for) supplement that listed every last detail of the new cinema. ‘It can safely be said that the directors of the Brixton Astoria have left no stone unturned in their endeavour to produce the cinema du luxe’ they gasped. But even four pages of gushing 1920s advertorial weren’t equal to the splendid auditorium in to which the first night crowd now flowed.

Trees and vines climbed the elaborate façade of the huge proscenium arch. Mock-Renaissance statues stood importantly in alcoves, among columns and urns, beneath a mini Rialto-style bridge from which singers would perform. The auditorium itself was crowned with huge copper dome, (large enough to cover the centre of Leicester Square! – the management jovially declared) on which lighting produced a ‘morning, noon and night’ effect. In her memoir of growing up in 1930s Brixton, Dora Tack remembers a ‘moon’ in the night sky that moved across the dome over the course of the picture. Even the carpet was designed to look a bit like a lawn, complete with crazy paving.  It was the start of Hollywood’s romantic golden age, and a replica of a classical Italian garden probably seemed an entirely suitable setting for watching its films.

ImageThe enormous safety curtain was raised at 7.15pm (it weighed 8 tons! – some murmured) to the South London Music Club singing the national anthem. Conservative MP Nigel Coleman took the stage to a fanfare, something I’m sure many modern Tories would love to see reinstated. He thanked owner Arthur Segal for choosing Brixton for the first of his Astoria cinemas (four more would follow in Streatham, Finsbury Park and on the Old Kent Road; all beautiful, but none so grand) and praised nominatively determined cinema architect Edward Stone for his remarkable design.

The main picture was Al Jolson in The Singing Fool. The film was a year old, why had they not shown a premier? – the South London Press wondered. Perhaps it was chosen as a guaranteed hit, or maybe the Astoria didn’t want to be upstaged by something new on opening night. As the follow up to The Jazz Singer, the first real ‘talkie’, The Singing Fool was actually quite an appropriate choice for an era perched between silent film and synchronised sound.

ImageThe gala night concluded with dancing by the Brixton Astoria’s Hudson Girls and music from the Astoria’s own in-house orchestra. ‘It is probable that no orchestra in the world has ever enjoyed playing to an audience in so magnificent a stage setting’ sighed the Brixton Free Press, a little ridiculously. The last 45 minutes of the performances were transmitted on the wireless by the BBC, the first time a broadcast had ever come live from a cinema, which was quite a coup for manager Charles Penley.

For the first few years of its life the Astoria would continue to show both silent films and talkies, alongside a variety programme. Odeon stopped most of these live performances after taking over in 1939, preferring to concentrate on the more lucrative business of showing films. The building survived both German bombers (nearby Quin and Axtens department store was almost completely destroyed in 1941) and the 1950s trend for ‘modernising’ that led to the ABC (now the Electric, formerly the Fridge) and the Classic (happily restored as The Ritzy) losing much of their original features.


A trolley clatters past in 1950

But, of course, the Astoria was too big to go on as a cinema forever. It was closed by its owners, the Rank organisation, in 1972, by which time only the circle was open anyway. There was talk of demolishing it, but fortunately it was awarded listed status. Various doomed projects came and went  – mainly based around live music and nightclubs, with even talk of an indoor skatepark at one point in the early eighties.


The Astoria in the 1960s

In 1983 the Astoria opened once again as the Brixton Academy. Rather than dancing girls and black and white movies, the entertainment on this occasion was reggae band Eek A Mouse. Live music had always been a part of the Astoria, even in its cinema days. It has seen performances from Shirley Bassey, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, among many, many others. Carling’s sponsorship in 2000 led to the brand’s name being affixed, then replaced by O2 in 2006.

There’s still often queues along Astoria Walk, alongside the right hand side of the Academy, where those Brixton cinema goers waited to see get a glimpse of the first ‘landscape cinema’ and watch their favourite Hollywood stars on the big screen. About which I’m sure Mssrs Segal, Stone and Penley would be pleased, even if a little unsure about the musical style of the entertainment, and probably the lager in plastic cups.

Many thanks to the Minet Library Lambeth Archives, and particularly to Clive and Rachael at the Cinema Theatre Association who are brilliant. Any errors very much my own.

How Does It Feel To Be Loved at the Canterbury Arms

1 Jun

How Does It Feel to Be Loved is back at the Canterbury Arms tonight for one last time before a three month hiatus, while they play at festivals and go on holiday. So why not grab the opportunity to start the weekend as you mean to go on and head down for a bit of a dance to an eclectic mix of cheerful tunes at this essential Brixton night.

From the Smiths to Dusty Springfield, Hole to The Temptations, via Aztec Camera and Dexy’s Midnight Runners; How Does It Feel is essentially an indie and soul night, although the music policy is hard to define exactly. The emphasis is on indie pop rather than indie rock with northern soul, Motown and a load of sixties stuff thrown in. Requests are encouraged.

It’s £6 on the door, but if you email them this afternoon with your name there will be a PERSONALISED, LAMINATED membership card waiting for you on the door, which will earn you admittance for the valueous price of £4. The lamination alone wins me over. Oh, and seeing as how the Canterbury Arms is a pub, the drinks are pretty reasonable too.

Brixton resident Ian Watson first brought How Does It Feel To Be Loved – named after the closing lyrics of ‘Beginning To See The Light’ by the Velvet Underground – to the Canterbury Arms back in November 2003. I always thought that the pub’s deco was a hundred percent unreconstructed 1970s, but this photo from the first Brixton HDIF proves that that its current look is in fact an update! Bring back the green flock wallpaper and illuminated New York skyline I say. (The year-round Christmas lights are still there of course, contributing the essential Phoenix Nights factor).

These days Ian also puts on HDIF at the Phoenix in Cavendish Square, Central London, but he says that the combination of having a bit more space to throw some shapes on the dancefloor, and the fact that people seek out the Canterbury Arms, rather than stumbling on (and into) it makes the atmosphere at the Brixton night particularly great.

The uninitiated might associate Brixton exclusively with reggae or punk, but How Does It Feel’s long tenure at the Canterbury Arms means it’s right at home here. Ian says, ‘I remember on the first night someone saying that they’d never danced to Simon And Garfunkel in Brixton before, and that made me really happy. It feels good to be putting on something in Brixton that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

‘The night’s perhaps not something that people would expect from Brixton, but that diversity is what makes Brixton so exciting for me. It’s somewhere where anything can happen. And we’re living proof of that.’

So head on down tonight, or you’ll have to wait til September.

And to get into the extra-long weekend spirit Ian has kindly recommended some appropriate songs to listen to as you get ready to head down to How Does It Feel tonight:

A Sweet Summer’s Night On Hammer Hill by Jens Lekman – upbeat, feelgood … and people singing and dancing in the background 

Let’s Dance by Jimmy Cliff –  Jimmy Cliff might be more familiar from reggae classics like ‘The Harder They Come’, but this is a supercharged northern soul dancer

A Summer Wasting by Belle And Sebastian – a carefree start with a big, euphoric end. Very summery indeed.

Sunday sunshine in Brockwell Park

23 Oct

Well what a beautiful autumn day. If only autumn could always be like today, sunny, clear, mild and colourful. Like summer with knitwear really.

I took my hangover for a gentle bike ride around Brockwell Park. If your hangover did not permit you to leave the house, this is what the outside looked like today.

Did you know that Brockwell Park has been open to the public since 1892? Thomas Bristowe was a local stockbroker turned Tory MP who led the campaign to buy the land in order to create a public park. The 6th July 1892 – the Whitsun bank holiday – saw the opening ceremony of the new park, and is also the date Thomas Bristowe died: he suffered a fatal heart attack on the steps of Brockwell house.

In Praise of the Lido Café (and the Village Debate goes on)

19 Oct

On Twitter today The Lido Café declared that autumn is the best season for food in the UK. While I’m not sure I totally agree (surely nothing beats the arrival of the first proper tomatoes of the year?) their October dinner menu does make me think they have a point.

It might be the end of the season for the Lido itself, unless you are a hardy wetsuit owning-type with masochistic tendencies, but it’s still well worth wandering through the park for a visit to the Lido café. Open for breakfast (brunch at weekends), lunch, and dinner on Wednesdays to Saturdays, they also run occasional events, like wine tasting.

AND as it’s Wednesday a delicious burger and drink can be yours for only £9 this evening. And every Wednesday evening in fact. Good, eh?

Not only are the Lido team big fans of tasty seasonal produce, they’re pretty proud of where they source it all from. So even if you don’t enjoy winter outdoor swimming, you can still leave feeling pretty smug. If you don’t already.

 *     *     *

In other news. The Brixton Blog asked Twitter what it thought of recent price rises and rent increases in Brixton Village, and some of the feedback they had is here.

For me, the main concern is that the rent increases will make some of the businesses untenable, and see a more commercial and less local element come into to the arcade. Yes, it is a shame if some Brixton residents feel unable to pay a bit more at the restaurants and cafes currently trading in Brixton Village. However, it’ll be a whole lot worse if existing business are forced to close and we end up with a load of upmarket boutiques whose margins mean they can afford higher rents.

The Hive. The Place to Bee? (Sorry)

11 Oct

I spent a very pleasant evening in Hive Bar  on Station Road last night. I’d not been before. I think I was a bit confused as to whether it’s a restaurant, bar, or somewhere between the two … It’s somewhere between the two.

We weren’t allowed to sit at the corner table when we arrived. There was only two of us you see, and it was a table for four. But then when we got round to ordering food we’d ordered so much that it didn’t actually fit on our smaller table. And there were two people sitting at the corner table by then. The waitress apologised and we said we didn’t mind and everyone was very polite and notminding for a good couple of minutes. I balanced the olive plate on the paté plate.

The food was very nice. There was a full three course menu on offer – starters started at about £5.50 and mains were mainly around a tenner – but there’s also a small selection of tapas in the back of the drinks menu. From the main menu we had a chicken terrine starter and mussels and chips (they offered a starter portion and a larger one). We got some pancetta bruchetta from the tapas menu and some more chips. Just in case.

I meant to take some pictures, like a good blogger. But I’m afraid I had such a nice time that I forgot. It was very cosy sitting in the Hive on an autumny Monday night. We sat there for about three hours. Which I’m afraid further complicates the question as to whether it’s technically a restaurant or a bar. As does the tiny ‘cocktail bar’ upstairs, which I had a peek at when I went up to the loo. It really is weeny, so I’ve no idea what it would be like on a busy Saturday. Confusing, I imagine.

It’s not a very good one, but here’s the website: The menu that’s up here isn’t what we picked from last night, but it’s broadly representative. If you see what I mean.

Sew Over It. Practically in Brixton.

10 Oct

Tucked away on Landor Road is Sew Over It, London’s only ‘sewing café’ run by Lisa Comfort, London College of Fashion graduate and general sewing guru. It’s a unique and rather lovely project. Walking in you can tell quite a lot of love has gone in to making it, as Lisa calls it, a ‘sewing paradise’.

Upstairs, there’s fabric, trimmings and all sorts of exciting crafty things for sale. It’s worth checking out for presents for friends with creative tendencies. Pattern sets, which contain a pattern and instructions for making something simple like a skirt, with pretty fabric included, aren’t cheap but would make a great gift. Last time I was there I bought a set of iron-on London icons embroidery transfers – buses, phone boxes Big Ben etc. I’ll let you know how it goes just as soon as I learn to embroider … I think it’s fair to say I was slightly seduced by the whole spirit of the thing.

Downstairs is the sewing studio. On Saturday and some weekday evenings, this is the location for all sorts of sewing short courses, ranging from a basic introductions to sewing, to a pencil skirt or a shift dress class. If you have/are an impractical man who looks helpless and sad when a button falls off a shirt there is even a Men’s Survival Sewing Class on 19th October (places still available).

On Sundays, downstairs is open to anyone who wants to come and use the machines. It works sort of like an internet café, costing £5 an hour to use. Best of all there are overlockers available, solving many a problem for the amateur seamstress! The idea is that it’s a space for people to work on their projects and help each other out. Having spent a considerable amount of time swearing at particularly cryptic pattern instructions, and wishing there was someone around to give me a second opinion, I think this is a marvellous idea.

So much work and thought has obviously gone in to making this a little haven for people who like to sew. Go on, if you have any remotely crafty pretentions, swing by for a visit.

In praise of Franco Manca

8 Oct

So I’ve been going to Franco Manca for pizza for as long as the place has been open. For me, the arrival in Brixton of sourdough pizza, accompanied by organic beers (usually) or homemade lemonade (more occasionally) marked a change in the area.

So much has changed since it opened, something really obvious this morning as I walked around Brixton Market marvelling once again at this new cafe or that new vintage shop. I know that some people complain that it’s gentrification gone extreme and whilst I don’t entirely disagree, I personally find the rejuvenation of the covered markets a really brilliant thing. And how nice to feel that Franco Manca is no longer a rose between two thorns but a Brixton institution and one that now faces stiff competition. Still, there’s not much that beats a Franco Manca margherita with added artichokes…

The Friday Feeling

7 Oct

Well, do a little dance, make a little love and, also, get down tonight because it’s OFFICIALLY the weekend. So, what’s everyone up to then?

I’m excited finally to be going to Kaosan in Brixton Village tonight for dinner with Mr Liz. Have had a tactically small lunch in preparation, even managing to get through the afternoon without resorting to biscuits.  Then on Saturday I shall be attempting to drag my ass out of bed for the 6am Ireland-Wales kickoff, followed by the England game. Honestly, this World Cup is killing me. I haven’t had a lie in for weeks! Did anyone see that Marc Lièvremont has a silly moustache? Apparently all the French journalists put fake ones on for the press conference today to show le solidarité. Or possibly to take ze pisse.

Sophia’s Friday evening is apparently going to be all about a takeaway curry from Bombay Inn on Brixton Hill. Tomorrow she’s off to wander the Village and put some pizza in her face at Franco Manca. Then, like the crazy party animal she is, Hootenanny is beckoning on Saturday. (I’m hoping she might invite me…)

Brixton is having a busy weekend too. It’s the second Make, Grow, Sell market on Station Road (starts at 10am) and also the We Love Brixton event in Windrush Square (midday). Organised as a community response to the August riots I’m not entirely sure what’s going down, but it sounds like fun. Some large wooden letters are featuring, there’s a timelapse youtube video of them being made here. For something a little different Brixton Windmill is open to the public for two hours on Sunday afternoon, 2-4pm. It sounds like all the tours are booked up but you can stick your head in the ground floor. It’s well worth a visit – read about our trip here.

Have fun!

Breaking News! Guardian deems the Ritzy to be ‘More than just a hipster oasis’!

6 Oct

It’s a bit odd reading somewhere you consider local discussed in a national newspaper! Sort of like seeing your road on the telly. One the one hand it’s nice to have a local institution recognised in the national press, but then I can’t help thinking, ‘don’t bloody tell everyone, I already can’t get a table out on the square’.

There’s fair bit of typical Guardian labelling going on here though! I’m not sure who Olivia O’Sullivan is, probably just a freelancer, but she’s rather snooty and dismissive of both the cliental and staff:

‘The hip, nerdy staff and the strong presence of lumberjack shirts and vintage floral dresses can make this seem like a bit of a joint for the young and pretentious’

So if you have ever worn a red check shirt or a second hand floral dress you are young and pretentious. You know who you are. Take it off immediately and stop being a twat.

In fact, the staff are called nerdy twice! Do they all have bottle-bottom glasses and thick braces? Are they World of Warcraft experts who perform complex science experiments in their bedrooms? Sophia thinks they can be a bit surly, but I’d say they’re mostly ok. Like any set of employees who have to face the spectrum of madness found within the general public for approximately minimum wage, they probably have varying levels of enthusiasm on good days and bad.

What I like most though, from the weirdy feeling that can come with seeing Brixton in the news for non-crime reasons, is the picture of the locals you get from those who comment on the piece. When Jay Rayner wrote about Kaosan in the Village someone said: ‘Please keep quiet about Granville Arcade. We don’t want everyone to know. Brixton is a very, very dangerous place to visit. It would be better for all concerned if they all stayed away from the place.’ He he! Conversely, a number of people have posted on this article to disagree with the detractors and say how much they love having the Ritzy in their neighbourhood. Ahh, I have a warm fuzzy feeling!

(However, as with many things Brixton-related there is predictably someone complaining that it was much better in the 80s. Hilarious. Oh yes, you’re right, let’s go back there then shall we?!)

And if you’re not bored yet there’s some witty outrage from the usual suspects here


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