Playing the Olympic Blues
Johnson & Jones (Sound & Music) at 66 Dalston Lane has a bright red and white signage that stands out in the dilapidated terrace of one-time small businesses. The large plate-glass windows are packed with big black sound systems, drum kits and a haphazard assortment of other musical paraphernalia; hanging above are rows of shiny new guitars in a variety of snazzy shapes – flashing white, red and black vinyl and polished wood.
This Saturday morning, John, the owner, is behind the counter with his assistant Mike. Up the stairs behind the counter, John’s son and another youngster are repairing instruments. An Alsatian dog peers over the stable door of the repair room and occasionally barks excitedly. John pats him quiet. Mike is busy looking for a crossover for an amplifier for a Jamaican pensioner leaning on the counter with the languid air of one who has*all the time in the world.
But time is running out for John and the music store that he has leased for the past 35 years. About six years ago, Hackney Council decided to sell off the land. John, whose lease was not renewed, was given short notice to raise the money to buy the property. Even when he had the £20,000 down payment, the council still sold it off at auction to a large developer. John would have liked to buy the shop, upgrade the building and pass it onto his son. He had already spent money renovating the old Georgian windows. “They treated us badly,” says John. ‘There was no real consultation. All the decisions had been made before the meetings we were invited to attend.” Now, a faceless developer is trying to get vacant possession and the music store is under threat.
The 2012 Olympics in East London and Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe’s successful four-year campaign for the East London Line extension to Dalston have both conspired to force the pace of regeneration in the area. According to Mayor Pipe (Mayor’s Newsletters July 2007): “The Olympics have not just the potential to transform the eastern edge of our borough, but also to inspire our young people and create new opportunities – the Games must deliver better public transport, jobs for local people, new sports facilities and more green spaces.”
Many residents agree with him and look forward to a smarter Dalston. But a vocal opposition – businessmen like John whose livelihoods are under threat, a motley assortment of local artists, activists and writers like Iain Sinclair whose book-launch of ‘Hackney, That Rose Red Empire’ was banned by the council because of his critical views on the Olympics and regeneration – fear the council will destroy Dalston’s unique cultural heritage.
Meanwhile back at the shop, an elderly Italian gentleman and his son interrupt to ask for a mouth organ. The son translates for him. “We only have the ten hole blues,” says John, ducking below the counter to get one. The old man puts it to his mouth and shakes his head saying ‘piccolo, piccolo’. Does he want a piccolo or a smaller mouth organ? John can get one by Monday but the old man goes back to Italy today so his son promises to post it.
A young Nigerian called Michael breezes in with a mobile to his ear and greets John cheerfully. He wants to buy some speakers for the Celestial Gospel Church in Walthamstow. He points to two on the shelf he*looked at the other day.
“They’re £395.00 a pair and 600 Hz each but only meant to be driven at half that continuous,” says John. “Professional sets give a lot more volume out”, he insists, unlike the cheap carpeted ones which are for home use only. He almost convinces him to get the ones in the window for £595.00 and 1,500 MHz apiece. Michael hesitates and haggles over the price. John plugs it in and lets him savour the sound. He likes it; he wants the sound to reach out to the congregation and up – right into heaven. Confident of his wares, John offers to loan Michael the set for the weekend, promising ‘not to till the money’ until he decides he definitely wants them but John has binned the packaging. The people at Michael’s church are fussy about stuff like that.
“What’s your best price on the other set?” Michael persists. After some Lagos-style haggling, John lowers the price and is persuaded to throw in a couple of new wireless mikes gratis. Meanwhile, on the mobile, Michael has negotiated donations from at least three churchgoers towards the cost of the equipment. He peels off a wad of notes from a roll and struts off like a sleek cockerel with his hens in tow.
The shop door opens constantly and there is a steady stream of customers and a flow of knowledgeable and cheery banter from John and Mike. Compare this to the listless staff one finds behind many a shop counter today. It’s the sort of shop locals want to keep. It can’t be cloned and will be sorely missed if it disappears. Their customers trust them; that is more than can be said of the council.
Its planning department, and its partners Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and the London Development Agency, feel they are broadly in agreement with local community groups such as LBH Streetscene and OPEN Dalston about maintaining the local character of the area and saving small, individual businesses. No one believes them; not after Mayor Pipe accused the children’s Poet Laureate, Michael Rosen, of ‘wanting to keep Hackney looking crap’.
At a OPEN Dalston meeting, there were dark mutterings about private developers from Dubai and arson attacks on buildings on either side of the music store that had threatened the lives of two squatters. John’s son no longer stays in the rooms upstairs. Now they hope the council will negotiate to buy back the land as the private owners may be reluctant to develop*with the restrictions on planning that came into force when the site was declared a conservation area. “I would prefer the council as a landlord*rather than a private developer,” says John, “because at least they are*democratically accountable.”
A tall Englishman and his slender young daughter come in for a top nut for her guitar. Mike finds the grooved ivory-coloured gadget somewhere beneath the counter; shows them how to re-fit it and takes a couple of quid for it. “How much is the v-neck up there?” asks the father, considering a new guitar. It’s £195.00. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a roll of cash from the church coffers like Michael but he may be back. I wonder if this gem of a shop will still be there when he returns.