:: Article

kebabylon and the urban night

By Dale Lately.


The law of promiscuous consumption

It could only be called Kebabylon. The strip of pizza parlours, minicab ranks, donor huts and takeaways that graces any British high street today, central pillar of the burgeoning night economy, its burgers tossed by Afghanis and Turks, its cabs driven by Kurds and Pakistanis, its floors mopped by Nigerians and Koreans…

Kebabylon. A teeming, screeching slice of deep-fried chaos. Proof that the high street is far from dying – it’s just staffed by migrants and keeps much longer hours.

Walk into the centre of any British city and you’ll see Kebabylon. I glimpse it around the student village of south Manchester. A weary Palestinian yawning behind the counter as he checks his phone. A middle-aged Indian tapping his fingers on the wheel as three girls in nano-skirts bundle into his car. Chips, booze, pubs, clubs, pills, thrills. Mark Fisher called it “depressive hedonism”: student life as a carousel of thuggish stimuli. Watch the streams of undergrads that flow past the chippies. Watch the kids on the lookout for carbs, alcohol, taxis. On the wall of one of the takeaways jostle dozens of photos of the students who’ve come in here, pissed-up guys with baby faces, pissed-up girls with smudged lipstick and open cleavage. Be a kebab-shop star. There are dozens of other identical joints up and down the length of the road. I guess they need some kind of unique selling point.

A century ago those setting out into the city night might fuel themselves with a splash of gin, a dram of bourbon. Today it’s vodka and Red Bull and cheap takeaway that propels people through the sodium-lit hours: pumping dance tunes on taxi stereos, the ping of texts, more shots. The night belongs to Kebabylon – or at least in most places it does. But Kebabylon is not so very old. The neon corridor of cheap food and minicabs stretches back no further than the first real Asian migrations (Kebabylon would be nothing without kebabs). Even then it only really got going with the boom of the leisure economy, as it expanded beyond its previous curfews to service the new guests of the urban night, the two or three a.m. crowds: lagered-up youths looking for cabs and kebabs; pale night workers on the way to offices to clean; wired bartenders and DJs returning from late-night shifts. Added to those the existing outsiders – the homeless, the sex workers, the dealers, the mad. Kebabylon sprang up to service them, and they’re the ones who keep it going.

And students. Because if there’s a template for the relentless hedonism of the modern high street, it has to be the life of the modern student – a loosely-timetabled onslaught of alcohol-fuelled pleasure seeking, or at least that’s how the stereotypes would have it. But while the shish and fries takeover of the late twentieth century happened messily and slowly, with only tacit acknowledgment from local planners and authorities, student life is a place of manufactured hedonism . Just come and take a look at Fallowfield.

The tarmac of Manchester’s student village has been braced for the streams of vomit that will grace it, its planning laws deregulated to promote the bustles of kids, the pub crawls, the fist-fights and virgin tussles. The students – vacuum-packed into one of the halls across the road or buy-to-lets in the brick terraces – are let loose upon the bars every evening fuelled by fries and alcohol and hormones and whatever else they can get their hands on. It’s a messy pissed-up version of conspicuous consumption. It’s promiscuous consumption.

And it’s everywhere you look. Over here, the students staggering out of the 24-hour Tesco, laden down with six-packs. Over there, a migrant taxi driver trying to break up yet another fistfight or wipe away the puke from the back seat of their rented cab. Leisure and pleasure, Unilad style. The student corridor runs all the way into town, walled in by the huge brands on either side, forming a high-pressure retail tunnel – Subway, Sainsbury’s, Costa, McDonald’s, with a quarter-mile break for the Asian fast food joints of the Curry Mile. Being means spending. Community means consumption. The crowds surge on, the minicabs roar off into the night. Here, a bunch of mini-skirted girls squealing for a selfie. There, a boy in a Roman toga at the cash point. Everyone’s off their face, everyone’s making money. Hedonism works. Further up, a 24-hour pizza place announces itself as a Panic Spot for anyone fleeing violence or sexual assault.

*

We’ll never know precisely how much the expansion of the student population across Britain has changed our cities. What we do know is that it’s led to massive spec-renovation, to the gutting and facelifting of squat terraced houses across the formerly depressed cities of the industrial North. Jerry-built back-to-backs that once saw soot-stained labourers bathing in fireside tubs now ring to the sound of stripping and hammering, of Romanian or Polish labourers installing boilers and cavity insulation and superfast broadband. Student economies are a new form of colonization: knowledge industries imposed on the ruins of industry.

Half a mile to the west I watch a house being put on sale. It’s a grim terrace job at the bottom of the market, a skeleton of a house, walls crumbling, paint cracking and peeling, due to go under the hammer. There are no families looking round. No hopeful couples, no nervous young dads or flush-cheeked young women cupping their bulges. The only people here are men in suits. Investors. They stride in wearing impeccable suits armed with iPads, flash-photographing the rooms, barking into mobiles. Doing sums in their heads…

The student village is expanding. Even to places like this, to Hulme or Moss Side, a place that was legendary as recently as the 1990s for drive-by shootings and heroin gangs. The kids who’ll be moving in here may never have heard of that. The men fire gruff questions, upload photos that are beamed back to offices somewhere. Men on the job, men on the clock. One or two pause to stand still and examine a corner or a bit of flooring, take a moment to re-imagine the house, what it’ll be like. A big plasma screen where the filth now swallows the floorboards. A Breaking Bad poster. Three undergrads wolfing down fast food on a padded sofa…

A burly local bloke sent by the estate agents’ stands yawning by the doorway. I ask him who’s selling.

“The bank.”

“The bank?”

He cups his hand over his mouth and stifles another yawn.

“It’s a repo.”

The footsteps of the investors clatter up and down the narrow stairwell. Polished shoes scraping over dirt and filth, broken floorboards. I look over the graffiti and try to picture the last occupants. A family? Drug addicts? Squatters, surviving from giro to giro till the bailiffs finally forced their way in…?

The investors are descending again. They’re snapping their iPads back into cases, already heading back to their cars, on to the next house, the next opportunity. I gaze at the mould eating the wainscoting, the damp climbing the wall, try to imagine it after a 5k refit with plasma screens and double glazing. Good enough for habitation. Good enough for students.

Someone takes a flash photo.

“Who lived here before?”

He raises his eyes long enough to register my general shape.

“Fuck knows.”

The bulb leaves ghost trails fading in my eye.

*

Kebabylon is changing. Like everything else, it’s in the targets of gentrification. The disposable incomes – or rather the disposable loans – that students bring are spreading out, raising the rents on other erstwhile slum terraces. New bars have opened up in the student village with expensive wine lists and dress-codes and smart bouncers on the door – bars like the Font or Koh Tao, the area’s “first Thai themed beach bar”, or “Revolution” with its Che Guevera theme, whose revolutionary cocktails cost a good fifth of a weekly student loan check.

This is Kebabylon 2.0, pimped and prettified for the young century. It’s still staffed by Arabs and Asians but the joints have got blingier – kebabatoirs blasted with flatscreen R’n’B, “fast casual” Nando’s clones. A rash of ’50s style milkshake bars bathe the street in garish pink neon. Fallowfield is seeking a new model. It dreams of a more gentrified version of consumption, like the Northern Quarter up in town, where a kind of grown-up hipster version of Kebabylon has been incubated over the last decade – a manufactured bohemia of pop-ups, fashion boutiques and pricey micro-beers: the legacy of creativity gurus like Richard Florida, paid large sums to inspire city planners to create creative spaces for creative people creatively buying things. If it was a kingdom, we might call it Hipsteria.

Kebabylon and Hipsteria: two approaches to trickle-down hedonism, playgrounds for kidults and thrill-tourists. (Manchester’s student population is overwhelmingly non-Mancunian. Walk Oxford Road and the accents you hear are from the Home Counties, London, Sussex, Mockney; affluent kids doing their stint in the North before disappearing back south for better paying jobs.) Get on a Friday night bus from Fallowfield into town and your ears will ring from the aristo-hoodlum, Bullingdon braying. Two visions of a city cleared of industry and desperately searching for something to fill the gap. And yet the night economy – the managed hedonism given new lease of life under the Cool Britannia rhetoric of New Labour – is faltering. New zoning restrictions are starting to prohibit the opening of shops and takeaways. Even all those freshers can’t drink that much beer or order that many chicken nuggets. Many of the kebabatoirs sit practically empty for much of the week: overlit white cubes with a single bored staffer waiting for an order to come in. Over summer some close down completely. The area becomes a ghost town.

And while uni life may promise a lager-flavoured never-never land of eternal, pissed fun, it’s something of a fleeting illusion. However well-off the students may be – and increasingly only the well-off do become students – the freshers currently filling the bar crawls will owe tens of thousands of pounds by the time they graduate, in hoc to banks and loan companies before they’ve even entered the world of work. Hedonism on one hand, loan repayments on the other: this perhaps is the real lesson of modrn university, the model of indentured serfdom cloaked beneath yuppie aspiration, as Owen Hatherley once observed. Watch them necking their ninth pint of the evening, staggering to yet another bar on the strip. Watch them pausing toglimpse a flash of their future – working for years to pay off their student loan, years to pay off their bank debt, the deposit on their inflated mortgage… And if they’re really lucky, one day, working to pay off their own kids’ tuition fees. No wonder everyone drinks so much.

Occasionally – just very occasionally – the young talk back and demand something more than cheap deals on student pints. In the first couple of years under the Coalition, students were instrumental in sparking some of the most vocal protests seen since the Iraq demos. In the face of swingeing cuts, punishing fees and audacious tax-dodging it was students among those who organized sit-ins, who threw up tent cities and corridor occupations – and they did it in the context of a rigorously de-politicized higher-ed system, one of centreless campuses and ubiquitous business schools, of twitchy private security and student Unions dotted with Subway and Starbucks. Walk around a place like Fallowfield and it’s hard to recall that now among all the fresher’s crawls and rugby chants.

But perhaps the manufactured hedonism of student life is not so very different from the manufactured hedonism of the wider world. Venture up into Manchester itself during the small hours after a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see the brawls, the puke, the smashed bottles. You’ll see it in the poundstretcher wastelands beyond Birmingham’s Bull Ring. You’ll see it in the market towns of Essex or Middlesex, the crumbling Victoriana of Brighton or Blackpool. You’ll see it in the blighted, fucked-off places where industry failed and the housing market never took off, the strongholds of UKIP and the EDL, where – though they might put a cross beside a White Rights candidate at the election – locals will still stand ordering doner slices, handing change to men they’ll warn their daughters to keep away from. Pissed-up hedonism’s just part of the national culture. Continental import lager followed by Middle-Eastern kebabs and American-style French Fries served by a bloke from the Indian subcontinent: it doesn’t get much more British than that.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

dale-lately-photo

Dale Lately has written for The Guardian, OpenDemocracy, LitroDead Ink, Smoke, Culture Counter and Pop Matters, as well as being shortlisted for Flashtag Competition 2013, the BIGGER Short Story Competition 2012, and published in the print anthologies From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea and Triskele’s Words with Jam.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 2nd, 2015.