Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre
I am fascinated by ugliness. In sufficient concentration, garish urban kitsch alchemizes into the backhandedly beautiful. No entity better
emblemizes this remarkable transmogrification than Elephant & Castle. Voted by Time Out readers four years ago "the biggest eyesore in London",
this architectural grotesquery from 1965 has wormed so insidiously into my brain that it cropped up in my last novel: "decked with a giant plaster elephant
like a dipso hallucination, a shopping centre of such suicidally depressing design that it was a wonder you didn't dodge customers plunging off the roof
on a daily basis."
My neighbourhood is poorly provided with shops, and I find myself in this nearby house of horrors more often than in any other emporium.
I used to dread these trips to a windowless sarcophagus of tat, as if some modern-day emperor had been entombed with an afterlife's supply of plastic.
Now I rather look forward to them. To be sure, "Elephant," as it's locally known, is an acquired taste. But I have acquired it.
The jangle of brash, gaudy trash for sale both in shops (Iceland, 99p Stores, Pricebusters, Better Ethnic and European Fashionware, the obligatory blackened
Woolworths) and in junky kiosks cluttering the corridor forms a chaotic collage worthy of Joseph Cornell, a bright, excited canvas reminiscent of Kandinsky:
bogus-brass bangles, synthetic shag bathmats, and toothy Alice bands. Giant ceramic piggy banks, off-brand batteries, and five-for-£1 exploding
cigarette lighters. Leopard-print leggings, nylon-net tutus, and fake-fur-trimmed booties. Artificially buttered popcorn, glaucous chocolate-curl
donuts, and lumpily iced "yum-yums". Cowrie-shell necklaces, knock-off watches, and chrome-studded belts. Fluffy slippers, neon anklets,
and I-heart-Jesus scarves. Rose-festooned communion dresses, sequined party frocks, and "full-size" knickers that could double as national flags. Porcelain
Buddhas, sandalwood incense, and roaring-lion carpets. Afro Sheen, hair relaxer, and "Gracious Women" perfume. Zips, wigs, sim cards, calculators,
and boxes and boxes of buttons. It's awesome to see assembled in one place so many objects that no one could conceivably want to own.
Elephant is, after its tawdry fashion, magnificent. The fact that this icon of fin de siècle tastelessness is slated for demolition breaks my heart.