One Saturday night about nine or ten years ago, I was invited by very nice young person to attend her Halloween-themed birthday party in New Cross. On arrival, I was met by a striking young woman dressed as a mouse. She was keen to beckon me inside but, after some doorstep negotiations, I realised that I was trying to gain access to the wrong party. As I made my apologies and retreated up the street, the mouse girl remained silhouetted in the doorway and, still staring after me, let out a slow, high-pitched giggle, not unlike the sound the alien pod people make in the 1980 remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. This remains the scariest thing that I have ever experienced on All Hallows’ Eve.
What can I tell you about New Cross? Well, I can do my tour guide bit and mention that Charles Dickens wrote some of Bleak House and Great Expectations in a room in The Five Bells, which still stands on the corner of New Cross Road and Hatcham Park Rd. I could mention the V2 rocket that hit Woolworths in 1944. But today’s New Cross is dominated by Goldsmiths College. Naturally, the various pubs are all slanted towards the student population, and one of these is The Amersham Arms – a landmark pub on an unlovely corner, handy for Goldsmiths’ main campus and nowhere else. Covid-19 notwithstanding, the Amersham offers live music and comedy and is a Mecca for students and energetic young people.
I am not an energetic young person. I am a grey, middle-aged man with a limp. In my elderly foolishness, I had imagined that Amy’s party would be a gently autumnal affair, an evening of theatrical discussion and lovely girls and cheap wine served on a flat-pack table in a dingy flat. Knowing I was going to be the oldest person present, I had dressed accordingly, playing up my role as designated old fart at a bright young things’ party. But I hadn’t accounted for Amy’s wild animal needs; and so there I was, in tweed trousers, roll neck sweater and a camel-haired overcoat that had belonged to my father, standing in a queue to get into the Amersham Arms. My appearance elicited sniggers from patrons and staff (‘That’s quite a look’ was the verdict of the venue manager) but they let me in all the same, taking pity on the ancient fool who’d dressed up for a racehorse auction at Newmarket. But my real humiliation was to come. As a raucous four-piece band belted out a generic Saturday night noise, wee Amy – a lithe, kittenish yoga teacher – made it her project to dance with me. The ensuing gyrations were all on her side; I just lurched and stomped and sweated (it was an unseasonably warm night), an overdressed forty-something wreck in a frayed velvet collar. It wasn’t pretty. After a while Amy gave up and picked on someone her own age, leaving me to gather the shards of my dignity in a corner of the bar. This left me at the mercy of a swaying Goldsmiths student who thought I was a college tutor and who insisted on trying to guess my subject: ‘Philosophy – it’s Philosophy, right? No? Anthropology? Clinical Neuroscience? Creative Writing? Occupational Psychology? Sociocultural Linguistics?’
As it happens, you can study all the above at Goldsmiths, but over the past thirty years it has become famous for its Fine Art courses. Goldsmiths was the crucible of the YBA phenomenon, those ‘makers’ who benefited from Charles Saatchi’s patronage, the core members being Goldsmiths Fine Art graduates. Goldsmiths alumni from the group include Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Michael Landy, Sam Taylor Wood, and, of course, Damien Hirst. The YBAs represent an important social and commercial phenomenon but too often I find the work itself disheartening. Sub-journalistic comment decked out in art scene drag: prefabricated outrage for the tabloids and lumpen obviousness for the galleries, mediated in International Art English. (Cod-academic prose that exists to promote the supremacy of curator over artist. As applied to the YBAs, it manifests with a fey earnestness that is ultimately deadly. The ubiquity of the epithet ‘playful’ in this context has rendered the word useless anywhere else.) This has been a mixed blessing for the world beyond Goldsmiths, a world where Damien Hirst is perhaps the most commercially successful artist in history, with an estimated worth in 2020 of $384 million. For me, Hirst’s annihilating success demonstrates the triumph of marketing over content. A platinum, diamond-studded skull affects a mask of kitsch that doesn’t stop it from being genuine kitsch: a super-bling statement fit for a hip oligarch.
But bilious thoughts about Damien Hirst are really just a displacement activity on my part. I can hardly blame him for my own shortcomings, or for my own lack of contemporary relevance. And, in fact, Hirst’s bejewelled skull is fully appropriate to the season, prompting thoughts of lost time, missed opportunities, the futility of striving against fate, and how to get home if the Overground has stopped running. Behold the sad man leaving The Amersham Arms: a tweedy essay in dashed hope wandering through the wastes of SE14, hoping that he hasn’t missed his train.
That said, I am not the only one who has lost his dignity hereabouts. Opposite New Cross Gate station is The Rose pub, formerly The Hobgoblin; it was here that Hollywood star and cultural provocateur Shia LaBeouf would occasionally hang out, as he was dating a girl whose mother lived locally. (The couple were married in Las Vegas by an Elvis Presley impersonator in 2012. They have since divorced.) Mr. LaBoeuf stopped going after a while, as the response of the Rose’s patrons to an anomalous Hollywood player in their midst went from incredulous to abusive, as hats were stolen and fists were thrown and heads were butted and Daily Mail articles were written. A blue plaque is surely in the offing.