In November 2015 we visited Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.
Like a hulking beast that's been pricked with a tranquilliser dart yet refuses to acknowledge the sedative, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is lumbering its way to a slow but inevitable halt. The affront to architecture was earmarked for demolition three years ago but somehow shambled on. It can't do so forever; former neighbour the Heygate Estate is now extinct. The shopping centre itself is in the sights of APG and Delancey, who are, as we speak, plotting how to dispose of it. And anyway, Southwark Council has insisted that you can't polish an (elephant) turd.
Who can blame the detractors? At the lynchpin of south east London's traffic flow — and in plain sight of countless Londoners every day — the Boissevain & Osmond-designed shopping centre came into the world kicking and screaming in 1965, ugly as sin. Vaunted as the first covered shopping mall in Europe, many thought it wasn't covered up enough. The years have not been kind; a ghetto of stalls congregate, confused, in a concrete moat. A strange, calcite substance seems to be spreading down the outside walls. Navigating your way from the train station to the Underground, you might as well be tackling the Penrose stairs.
But there's beauty in this beast, and heaps of it. A Saturday spree inside the shopping centre reveals beneath the moribund skin a healthy, beating heart. At the café bar La Bodeguita, parents sip bottled lagers and munch through plates of custard tarts, while their children jig to Latin music from a nearby TV screen. Add sunshine, and this bit of indoor Southwark could be a town square somewhere in South America.
Continuing through, up, down and around the shambolic levels of the shopping centre reveals surprise after surprise. Tesco and a 99p Store play second fiddle to an Asian supermarket, a drycleaners that looks like it was discovered here when they were building the actual shopping centre, and another Colombian — this one dishing up impossible portions of steak, avocado and plantain fritters. Not every surprise is a pleasant one: a fast food chain that somehow dodged the bullet that felled most Wimpy outlets continues to sell grey, limp burgers. The entrance to the name-besmirching Charlie Chaplin pub is half blocked by a guy so inebriated he could do with a bamboo cane himself.
But nipping out for some fresh air (probably 50% monoxide, but still), that ghetto in the moat reveals fresh juice stalls, good Caribbean food, and a place selling dried sarsaparilla and something called 'Joseph Coat'. There are also phone covers, lots of phone covers.
Back inside, you arrive at the mecca of London's cheap Polish food scene — Mamuśka! Here the chirpy staff and bantery menus suggest the outfit is part of a savvy megachain. It's not though — for now at least there's only one Mamuśka! — only one place where they'll ply you with paté and fresh bread for £2.75, gulasz and mashed potatoes for under £7 and decent vodka at £3 a snifter. The restaurant's website may describe its location as "the pit of despair", but what will be really despairing is when there are two Mamuśka!s in each Westfield, the prices have doubled and there's nowhere nearby you can get your hands on any Joseph Coat.
The shopping centre's crowning glory lies at the tip of the uppermost escalator. After fishing out your £1 entrance fee (or signing for a Palace Bingo gold membership card, which costs the same and sees you through for life) you're met with all the fun of the fair, circa 1987. A cavernous bingo hall is filled with the rancorous sighs of old and young when, time and time again, someone else gets the full house. Elsewhere kids egg each other to lay out a punch bag, and see their strength flicker up on a digital screen. Air hockey tables serve as a poignant reminder that there should be an air hockey table in every single room of every single building everywhere.
The most glorious quarter of the London Palace is its Superbowl ten pin bowling lanes. On a Saturday night the place throbs with bad music while an attendant takes a cursory glance at your footwear, decides you won't be requiring bowling shoes, and waves you on. You can't take the sport here too seriously, because the surroundings don't. As you roll your first gutter ball, you're back at a mate's 12th birthday party, only this time with pitchers of lager (and an iffier bowling technique). When you mention 'bowling at Elephant and Castle' to anyone who's been, they light up. It even cropped up as a key venue in a comedy routine we watched a few days after.
The landscape around the shopping centre is morphing at a furious rate. Much of this change is positive, like the village of shipping containers immediately to the south, which houses a makeshift library, neat bars like Long Wave, and another boozer where the owner is currently accepting Panini stickers as currency, until his ceiling is fully plastered in footballers. Places like these are a much-needed antidote to the likes of the Charlie Chaplin. But they're also reminders of Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre's impending fate.
When it's gone — and soon enough it will be — south Londoners will miss the shopping centre; at least they will if they ever visited. For all its clodhopping architecture and occasional ambience of doom, it represents London itself — dreary, colourful, ludicrously juxtaposed, and bloody well unapologetic about it. This is the London that's being squashed underfoot by glimmering artist's impressions every day. And while the likes of Giles Coren are right to deplore the dinosaurs intent on keeping London shitty, not all mess is bad.
Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is a beautiful beast; let's make the most of it before they put it to sleep for good.