Neighbours uniting to improve their community is what makes London great — so get organising


The phrase “community organiser” is a serviceable little one, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s a young Barack Obama in Chicago, agitating for change en route to the White House, and sometimes it’s me, in my pyjamas, filing in the council’s online survey about bin collections while eating baby biscuits direct from the treat tin (don’t tell my daughter). I’ve also recently tweeted in support of the local independent book store and pledged £20 to a new café and therapy garden. If that sound less involved than Obama’s efforts on the South Side, then clearly you’ve never experienced the drama of an east London regeneration project.

What’s happened here over the past few decades has been a “regeneration” as complicated as that time the Doctor stepped into the Tardis and came out a woman — and more controversial too. Back when I could still afford to live in my home borough, some local artists set up the “Keep Hackney Crap” campaign, complete with snazzy badges. It was an ironic response to the claim of then mayor Jules Pipe that critics of Dalston’s redevelopment were part of the “keep Hackney crap brigade”.

Ten years on, and Hackney is a lot of things but it’s definitely no longer “crap”. Pipe has since moved on — he’s now Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, presumably aiming to repeat the trick citywide — and I’m in Newham, still in my pyjamas, wondering how best to respond to the council’s trickiest poser yet: “What could we do to improve the high street?”

If you’ve lived in London long enough to experience gentrification as both victim and perpetrator — it comes to us all eventually, my friend — then you’ll appreciate the predicament. It’s often said that the capital is a collection of villages, and that’s true, for better and for worse. London localists can be just as nimbyish and parochial as any village green preservation society, but we’re also genuinely invested.

Of course we want to improve our local area, but not so much that it’s no longer recognisably ours. Of course we want to smarten up the streets, but not if that involves treating poverty like an eyesore, instead of humans in need of help. Of course we want prosperity, but who is all that prosperity for exactly?

"East London’s regeneration is as complicated as when the Doctor came out of the Tardis as a woman"

One answer is community-led schemes, such as the “Big Local” initiative that is behind the café and therapy garden I donated to (Mind, Body & Soul Food, Ours is one of around 30 such National Lottery-funded areas in Greater London, selected by the Local Trust for investment. Not that local people doing things for themselves is anything new. Indeed, lively community-run arts and enterprise was one of those things that really was worth keeping about the “crap” pre-gentrified east London.

For proof, go and see the Women on Screens exhibition about Lenthall Road Workshop, on at Hackney Museum until August 31. My mum used to do screen-printing and photography there in the late Eighties and I would sometimes tag along. You see, I told you I was a committed community organiser.

I can see the shape of your sauce bottle, Ed

Whether it’s Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé , carrying a sauce bottle in your bag is bad manners.

My sympathies to any chef still smarting from the blatant disrespect of Ed Sheeran’s new ketchup ad. In it, the Shape Of You singer visits a posh restaurant where “the food looked good”, but sadly “there was something missing”. He whips out a bottle of Heinz and douses his plate. Could the famously nice pop star really have behaved so rudely? It seems unlikely. Until, that is, you consider what a bad actor Sheeran is. This could only be 100 per cent documentary truth.

We could blame Beyoncé. She was the one who first sang “I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag”, leading to a flurry of sauce-smuggling “confessions” (apparently Hillary Clinton took her Tabasco on Air Force One: super-swag). Fewer were paying attention when the full Lemonade album dropped, revealing “Hot Sauce” was the name of Beyoncé’s trusty, infidelity-avenging baseball bat.

Ridiculing high-society pretensions has been the business of pop since The Beatles, but this ain’t that.

A real anti-cuisine crusader would march into the kitchen to demand sauce directly. And it wouldn’t be ketchup. It would be mayonnaise. No, this is the act of a condiment coward who dare not expose their unadventurous palate to new flavours. If that’s you, why dine out at all? Stay home and eat baby biscuits like the rest of us.

*While technically I grew up in Hackney, I also grew up in an upper-middle-class Los Angeles suburb, because that’s how much time I spent watching The Hills.

Mischa Barton (PA Wire/PA Images)

Now it’s back — The Hills: New Beginnings, starring Mischa Barton, starts on MTV next week — but I’m not. This despite the fact that there’s now a plausible answer to the question, “Why do you watch this rubbish?” In the peak TV era, wasting precious viewing hours on a show in which nothing ever happens to interchangeable nobodies is a delightful decadence. I just wish I still had the time.