Brixton in the eighties – shabbily splendid

Black and white picture of Brixton in the eightiesNick Buglione begins a journey through time with his recollections of Brixton in the Eighties

Nick Buglione in eightiesNowadays it’s easy, marvellous Mark Zuckerberg can remember it for you wholesale. Real memories are so last century. My journey back to 1980s Brixton predates Tim Berners-Lee and Facebook, so I have to delve into old shoe boxes of photos, concert tickets and, that most analogue of tools, the human brain. Nick Buglione’s excellent adventure.

To a kid growing up in leafy white middle class Dulwich, Brixton was a scary, exciting, crazy home to most of the kids I went to school with.

For I was sent to the long gone and not too fondly remembered Tulse Hill School, an eight-storey glass and brick comprehensive monolith with, in its heyday, almost 2,000 boys, an unhealthy slice of racial tension and one of London’s worst disciplinary records.

Thankfully I wasn’t there for the running street battles with the also now demolished Dick Shepppard and the mass pupil walkouts.

Still, it boasted Red Ken (more or less my political hero warts and all) among my predecessor alumni. I think I survived by having decent trainers and being in the football team which gave me a degree of protective cachet.

So Brixton’s infamous 1981 riots and Lord Scarman passed my innocent 11-year-old schoolboy more or less by, and my introduction to the place where I now live was the end of term treat where I was given a couple of pound (notes!) to wander down the hill with my footie teammates to go for a Wimpy.

I remember getting lost in Brixton Market and having to go into the police station to tearfully beg 10p for the bus home.

Fast forward a few years and Brixton had become a kind of voyeuristic playground to dip, and eventually immerse myself into.

The Dogstar was but a twinkle in Lawrence Merritt’s eye and was a dubious pub called The Atlantic. The Fridge wasn’t yet embedded in the old Ace Cinema (Electric Brixton to the new arrivals) but was a bijoux club down towards the Wimpy over the Electricty Board showroom – hence the name – where we bopped unconvincingly to Frankie Goes to Hollywood holding cans of Red Stripe.

Legend has it that Joe Strummer bankrolled Andrew Czezowski and Susan Carrington’s move to the “big” Fridge with a bag of contraband tenners. Little did I know that one day I would work for them.

In between, it, along with The Wag (RIP Vaughn Toulouse), became a weekly home from home, for Launderette with Andy & Ben Boilerhouse and, most wonderfully, every Friday night for Soul II Soul. The Friday after Back to Life went to number one was amazing and Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper introduced me to Run DMC, EPMD, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy.

They, along with The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, Red Guitars, Human League, OMD, The Clash and Teardrop Explodes were purchased at the excellent Red Records, in its earlier vinyl persona (and of course occasionally Woolworths – remember Woolies (now H&M) – for the chartier stuff). And so was kickstarted a lifelong expensive devotion to vinyl (with a dispiriting forced 1990s detour down the compact disc cul-de-sac).

And, of course, everyone played the magnificently scuzzy Academy. It was there I saw the Smiths twice (out of four times, the others being Glastonbury and the glorious Save the GLC fest at County Hall), The Clash circa Combat Rock (from which I returned with a Red Brigades T-shirt?), Siouxsie & The Banshees, the Bunnymen and, in the era of the warehouse party, those epic Westworld extravaganzas.

Back then we drank at the gothy-tinged Prince Albert (still there, but just “refurbished”) and the gloriously unruly George Canning (now Hootananny) which, in the era of 11pm pub shutdown, for some reason stayed open till 1am.

Perhaps the most obvious paradigm of old school Brixton and today’s regenerated, gentrified and some would say ethnically cleansed version was the Tube.

A late night Tube journey home to Brixton was an exercise in increasing solitude as no-one came here. We often were the only ones left in the carriage by Brixton. And getting a black cab to take you home from town was almost impossible. Compare and contrast with today.

The Ritzy was massively important, not just for the discovery of amazing films, but back then it denoted the borderline between “do go” and “don’t go” Brixton.

Coldharbour Lane was decidedly murky after sundown and our forays down there, and occasionally along the famous “Frontline” (daytime only) were only ever in search of herbal contraband. We usually got the Schwartz variety.

Having alluded to “don’t go” areas, despite the reputation, we remained unmugged, unrobbed, unscathed and more often than not, unstoned.

Unlike today’s shiny middle class multiplex, the Ritzy back then was a glorious single-screen fleapit palace, home to Pat Foster and Claire Binns’ carrot cake and tea all-nighters and even gigs (Billy Bragg, the Sid Presley Experience).

We would go to squat parties in Bonham Road, dodgy bits of Stockwell or the sprawling arty mega squat Cool Tan building and pitch up at the Ritzy at ungodly hours to catch Bladerunner, Alien, Body Heat, Subway, The Shining, Blue Velvet et al. Where everyone knows your name and you were almost guaranteed to find mates already nestled down for the night, having popped down Coldharbour Lane. Shabbily splendid. Much like 1980s Brixton.


  1. apart from I am not rich and I have lived here for getting on for 20 years on and off and bringing my three children up here and contributing to the local economy. I understand there are frustrations with the social and ethnic distilling of Brixton but this is another example of knee jerk blanket hostility. Do you want me to pretend I know about poor bits of stockwell in 1985 – this was a personal piece about my experience and I acknowledge that i am not a working class black man (that is something out of my control) – but if you think that bans me from talking about how and where I grew up, its a free country but perhaps you could write something from your perspective for the Blog? Different views should be welcomed I think

    • Nick, I liked your piece, it actually strikes me as more of a genuine experience than the comments from John.
      Tired of this “I’m the only one entitled to comment” shit. Everyone’s experience is real.
      Before u comment John, I went to primary off acre lane and have been in and around Brixton for 40 years. “Meh”

  2. Meh. How many more of these ‘white safari’ pieces on Brixton do we need, I wonder?

    We get it! Oh what jolly japes was had bravely venturing into Darkest Coldharbour Lane to trade grubby fivers with the exotic natives for weed.

    Such riveting Boys Own excitement!. ‘dodgy bits of Stockwell’? What you mean is ‘poor bits of Stockwell’! Nothing about how life there in the 80s was often difficult and miserable for the working and poor people who actually lived in the area because of poverty and vicious racism.

    No, it was just an adventure playground for rich white kids to have some excitement and enjoy the frisson of rubbing shoulders with the natives before going back home to clean and safe Dulwich or wherever.

    Well now the rich white kids have moved in and are taking over. So I guess their kids will have to find somewhere else to have their fun now.

    Maybe it could be whichever ‘dodgy’ area the original Brixton inhabitants have been priced out to?

    • Well, that would be Thornton Heath or Norwood (which is already on the way to being gentrified along with Tooting).

    • Nick, I liked your piece, it actually strikes me as more of a genuine experience than the comments from John.
      Tired of this “I’m the only one entitled to comment” shit. Everyone’s experience is real.
      Before u comment John, I went to primary off acre lane and have been in and around Brixton for 40 years. “Meh”

    • Tired.
      I don’t remember the Brixton I grew up in being a playground for rich white kids but maybe we’re from a different generation.

  3. My favourite 80s memories are the trips to Kumasi Market (so glad it is still there in Brixton Market) and driving up Coldharbour Lane with my Dad and seeing the Nuclear Dawn mural coming into view. I gather Carlton Mansions is under threat of redevelopment. I pray they do not get rid of that mural. It’s iconic.

  4. Hi Hermin
    You pre date my arrival!
    I’m pretty sure the corner shop on Trent road also used to be a bakery – i recall lovely smells of fresh bread as we trundled home from the Fridge
    Do you live here still?

  5. I also grew up in brixton and the olive Morris house use to be a bakery and as a student at sudbourne school, I went there on a school trip and every one received a loaf of freshly made bread.
    My mum would get my sister and myself toys from the inside market. I have a lot of knowledge about Btixyon and seen so so many changes.

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