One year ago, I lost my reflex camera in Barking, where the Metropolitan Police has arrested 12 people this morning after the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market.
It happened suddenly, during a day-trip I made to Barking and Dagenham, nearby.
Barking is in East London, zone 4 on the District Line. It took me a 75-minute tube ride from where I used to live, Hammersmith.
I had gotten out of the tube station and had sat on a bench to eat a sandwich. A homeless man came to me. He looked rough, with torn clothes. But he was young, he must have been in his early thirties. He had bright blue eyes.
It was late July and it was hot. I had £50 in my bank account. I gave him a pound and asked him what had happened to him.
“I just got out of jail mate,” he told me. He sounded as though he felt the need to make excuses. “I was into drugs for a long time.
“I have made mistakes, mate, but I’m no criminal. I’m a good man who’s struggling.”
I don’t remember his name.
I took a walk around, and went to see the new town hall and the new library – brand new buildings amidst desolation. I found a bean bag and opened my laptop – shit, low battery. No charger. An unsuccessful trip.
It was then that I realised my camera wasn’t with me. I looked around. I looked under desks, near the entrance, outside the library. Nothing.
You’ve probably never been to Barking. It’s not the sort of place you would go to.
It’s a sparse expanse of council housing, suburban life and post-industrial decline.
Barking and Dagenham – which perhaps surprisingly comprises the two areas of Barking and, well, Dagenham – is one of the London boroughs with the biggest council housing population – over 70,000 of its 197,000 residents lived in council homes in 2015, a whopping 36 percent.
Over half of its population lives on the same estate – the Becontree Estate. After World War I, the London County Council decided to embark on a project to improve East London slums. Here, it built about 26,000 council homes with toilets in every household, between 1921 and 1935. They became the biggest council housing area in Britain, the Becontree Estate, hosting some 100,000 people.
Many people used to work for the same employer, too – the Dagenham Ford Works factory – today a melancholic shadow of itself. It has 10 percent of the workforce it had in its early days.
Barking is poor. The unemployment rate is twice the London average.
It’s one of the only places in London where you can still buy a house for less than £200,000. Yet it’s the borough with the highest eviction rate in London.
And if you’ve seen London’s East End, Barking is shockingly white, although this is changing.
Barking hardly ever makes the news, or pops up in the memories and discussions of Londoners. When was the last time you heard or read something about it?
As John Elledge wrote on a local guide to Barking for Londonist: “Worst of all, nobody seems to care. The only time Barking warrants a mention is when the locals do something regrettably stupid.”
Like the four years in which Barking and Dagenham made the British National Party the second largest party in the area (until 2010) – the press dubbed it the “race hate capital of Britain“. Like terrorist attacks.
The new library and town hall buildings look fancy. They are nothing like the century-old council homes in Dagenham. Walking away from them, a few hundred yards away, there were discount supermarkets, tower flats and a dirty, quiet market.
I must admit it: the first thought I had when I noticed my camera had gone missing was the homeless man.
I ran back to the tube station and tracked him down. I asked him if he had seen my camera.
“I haven’t taken no camera mate. I’m just a homeless man,” he said.
“I didn’t ask if you have taken it – I asked if you’ve seen it,” I replied
“No mate. I’m clean. I’m clean mate. You can search me if you want.”
I did not want to search him. I went to Dagenham to see the Becontree estate – quiet, sparse, grey – and then went home.
Two days later, I got a phone call from Transport for London, Lost and Found office. Someone had found my camera, and I should go pick it up in Baker Street.
This is the story of how someone found my camera in a tube station in one of London’s most deprived areas, and decided to return it. I thought the stakes would have been low.
There is not really a point in this story. I decided to tell it when I heard police arrested 12 people in Barking for the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market. I decided to do it because I remembered some words I had read back them.
It was again John Elledge, same article, right after saying nobody seems to care about Barking. He wrote: “But we should care. Despite what both of them seem to think sometimes, Barking is a part of London.
“London and Barking alike would benefit from knowing each other better.”