Like most people I could give you a long list of movies I’ve enjoyed over the years. And although I’m not good at remembering song titles, if you pressed me, I could tell you a few good songs that I like (just don’t ask me to sing them!). I could recommend bundles of books and the same would be true of TV programmes.
Without doubt my all time favourite 70s TV documentary is Ken Ashton’s ‘We Was All One’ - I know it’s a bit ‘niche’ even having a favourite 1970s TV documentary but honestly it’s so good that I’ve put it on here in full. It’s an amazing portrait of the old communities that lived around the Bermondsey docks. It gives some insight into the personality of the place in much the same way as meeting someone’s mum and dad helps you understand that person a little bit better.
In the opening scenes there’s an emphasis on community and togetherness. A working class solidarity. But there’s a wind of change blowing. The beginning of a new Bermondsey landscape as shiny new estates are built to replace the old streets of Victorian terraces and tenement blocks. The irony is that those new blocks, built to replace dilapidated, sub-standard housing, have quickly lost their sheen and are now themselves being demolished to make way for posh flats for posh people. Further destroying that sense of community that was already being lamented in the documentary.
In the second part, we encounter a great gaggle of old girls in the Marigold Pub just off Tower Bridge Road. There are scenes of the world famous boxing gym upstairs at the Thomas A’Becket on the Old Kent Road. Here the point is made that the poverty of the place makes ‘fighters of men’. As one of the fighters says: “Bermondsey has won more Lonsdale belts than any other district” whether that is true or not, it highlights the battling qualities of a tough community - poor maybe but proud. Like it said in the opening credits, the boundaries of Bermondsey are drawn in feelings rather than lines on a map.
The theme of poverty is explored some more, with people talking about their need to turn to the pawn-broker just to pay for the most basic things of life. The so called “good old days” weren’t always good. But even in the 1970s, ordinary working people were still living in rat infested slums with three households having to share one toilet. The homes that replaced them may have had all ‘mod-cons’ but the people sitting up in their bright new flats missed the community aspect of their previous life.
“They broke the community when they closed the docks”. People continue to feel the effect of a community fragmented by the loss of such an important industry.
‘Hopping’ (not jumping with one foot!) the labour intensive activity of picking the hops used for making beer is another lost community activity reminisced about in the next section. It seemed like almost the whole area went away for a working holiday on the hop farms of Kent. “In Bermondsey everybody was hop picking”.
Life is changing fast but is it better? They were hard times but they were mostly good times – why were they good times? Surely it’s better now? People are better dressed now, they live in better homes, they are in better health, no one need go without medical care because we have the NHS. People are supported by the welfare state if they need it. It’s certainly changing fast but is it better? Is it progress if it’s at the cost of community?
“I will not cease … till we have built Jerusalem, In England’s green and pleasant land” is sung over images of new flats being built. Flats that are today themselves being demolished. Did they build ‘Jerusalem’ back then – Its safe to say they did not. What they did achieve was to cripple a community. Politicians, architects and local authorities would all do well to learn from the mistakes made back then. We can’t turn back the clock but we can learn from the positives demonstrated by the people of Bermondsey. People who share resources and lives. People who have learnt how to fight for the things they need, people who look out for one another, stand together and laugh together. A people to whom a ‘sense of place’ is still important.