Waves of Disappearance: cinematic topographies of the North Eastern frontier

This is an article I wrote at the end of 2006 for University of East London’s Journal of East London Studies – Rising East 6. Tonight’s Ian Bourn programme at Close Up seems a good time to republish.

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“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
—Lenny’s Documentary’, Ian Bourn (1978)

Leytonstone Houses

Not long after I moved to Leytonstone I found myself transfixed by the view from the small window in my bathroom. It was a fairly non-descript panorama of the red-tiled rooftops of terraced houses, chimney pots, and in the distance, poking out from behind a tree, a large slab-like tower block. At times I found myself gazing at it for long periods. It felt somehow both exotic and familiar at the same time. Eventually the penny dropped.
John Smith’s film The Black Tower charts a man’s mental collapse as he believes he is being pursued around his neighbourhood by an ominous black tower that seems to appear looming above the roof-line as he goes about his daily business. A detail in the landscape leads to an odyssey, an obsession, and ultimately oblivion. As his tries to escape we traverse the streets of workaday Leytonstone. The humorous, laconic narrative guides us through the man’s psyche whilst we see the seasons change on the street outside, hear ice-cream vans, kids ride tricycles along the pavement, tree surgeons lop a lime tree. Smith establishes a steady rhythm of locked-off shots, lush and perfectly framed. The tower ultimately consumes the narrator, trapped inside its black walls.

The film is a testament to the power that fine details in the landscape can have over the imagination. As a filmic dérive, it achieves the aim identified by Greil Marcus of revealing “the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, innocence in the face of experience”. The Black Tower’ produces a mental topography of Leytonstone that colonises your imagination.

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite, a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues Home Suite presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet, then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in Twickenham Road where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

All that remains of the side of the street where Smith lived in Colville Road is a long brick wall half-heartedly buffering the deafening drone of the Link Road. At one end the motorway signboard showing the way out to Chelmsford, casts a shadow over a row of newly built hermetically sealed bungalows of the sort that would make John Prescott beam. Claremont Road exists only as a street sign where a large billboard above advertises the new Ford Ranger 4×4 as if to rub the road protestors’ noses in their defeat.

Colville Road Leytonstone

Colville Road Leytonstone

The dying days of Colville Road are also captured in a more formal piece of work, Blight. Still using the style of lushly composed static shots, Smith collaborated with composer and fellow Leytonstonian Jocelyn Pook to create a soundtrack of residents’ reminiscences. We watch the house next to Smith’s being carefully, almost gently demolished, as bricks are dislodged by hand, wooden beams lifted off, the house is forensically dismembered.

This act of disappearance offers a brief moment of revelation as exterior walls are removed to lay bare a private realm, an Exorcist mural revealed on a bedroom wall. The pile of rubble that is left is reminiscent of images of wartime bomb damage – this peacetime blitz accounts for more houses in Leytonstone than the Doodlebugs that landed here. With the mood music this film becomes an elegy for a dilapidated dwelling, a more meditative form of protest than the barricades and tree camps in Claremont Road round the corner.

John Smith’s films not only capture this uncelebrated landscape in loving detail but are also a product of the spirit that prevailed in Leytonstone at that time. Cornelia Parker met Smith in 1984:
“Leytonstone at that time was a great place to be. A thriving community of artists lived in dilapidated houses that were due to be demolished for the promised M11 Link Road…..The cheap rents and abundance of space created a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Cross-pollinations and collaborations abounded, ground-breaking works given birth to – creativity thrived under the threat of imminent eviction.”

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

The hub of this E11 avant-garde was The Northcote Arms on Grove Green Road. Whilst similar bare-knuckle boozers were the haunt of East End ‘faces’ and Saturday football firms, The Northcote played host to Smith, Parker, Graeme Millar and Ian Bourn.

Like Smith’s, Ian Bourn’s films are rooted in the psychogeography of Leytonstone. His first major work, Lenny’s Documentary, is an acerbic, drink-fuelled monologue on the nature of the area. The film opens with the caption: “11pm, Leytonstone…..” Lenny lines up a row of beer cans on his desk, cracks one open and slurs out: “Gateway to the East”. He abuses imaginary people off-screen. Captions read “5 minutes later…”, “2 minutes…..” Each time he appears progressively more drunk. He talks of taking pot-shots with an air-rifle at old ladies and arseholes from the top of his high-rise block. “This is where my friends and I have tolerated our existence for far too long. Where small changes have devastating effects”. Pre-empting Smith’s tale of E11-induced insanity, Lenny informs us: “…people here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”

Lenny finally escapes; we share his windscreen view as he drives up the High Road to the strains of Sinatra singing ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, and fades out at The Green Man Roundabout.

Eaton Park

Eaton Park 2006

The theme of change, decay, and disappearance is always with us. The next wave is on the way with the Olympic redevelopment just over the border in the Lower Lea Valley. The moment of calm before the storm is being captured by a new breed of topographical film-makers.

Following the success of their debut full length film, Finisterre, Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley set their follow-up in the Lower Lea Valley on the day after the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics. Kelly has described the film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?’, as being like an obituary to the birthplace of the 20th Century. Stylistically it is similar to many of John Smith’s works, a style that influential born-again flaneur-film-maker Patrick Keiller has identified in the city films of the early years of cinema, “ – the single, long takes; static camera or the phantom ride – “.

What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? uses the fictional device of a paper boy doing his rounds who allows his sense of curiosity lead him on a journey through the ruination of an area that gave the world plastic and petrol. A radio news bulletin establishes the time and place, 7th July 2005, a day of national celebration and disaster. “The Lea Valley. A river runs through it. You can catch a Kingfisher if you’re lucky. Catch it while you can, it’s all gonna go”, narrates Canning Town’s David Essex.

Paul Kelly’s camerawork frames this blighted landscape in all its rusting glory. The wide skies calling to mind more epic landscapes of Russia and Outback Australia. Aerial shots of the Stratford skyline predicting the mini-City that is to come. A Geoffrey Fletcher-esque recording of small features such as letterboxes, drainpipes, and graffiti (Fletcher was fond of gas lighting and the fittings in public lavatories). Quick flashes of street signage – Pudding Mill Lane, Marshgate Lane Industrial Area. Derelict red-brick factories manage to look like the ruins of ancient Rome as Mervyn cycles past on his rounds; paperboys themselves being an anachronism.
Mervyn Day’ neither condemns the Olympic dream in the name of misguided nostalgia, nor does it bury the past.

As Mervyn gazes across the Thames at the Millennium Dome the warning is clear enough, but as the narration reminds us “The Lea Valley has always been about change”. In calling forth the memory of the Bryant and May Matchgirls’ strike that arguably gave birth to the Labour Party, it also reminds us that these brick and corrugated tin behemoths were engines of oppression as much as technological progress. Ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide whether London’s last wilderness would be better off without the Olympic circus.

These films are united in being subjective responses to the changing topography of the city. Sympathetic witnesses to banality and dereliction; almost dutiful in their logging of the endangered landscape and culture of this end of East London.

Another instalment in the cinematic topography of the north-eastern frontier is currently being created as the towers of the Beaumont Estate that I see from my bathroom window, are now the stars of their own film; captured 24 hours a day on webcam – a real-time documentary of decay into regeneration, as they too slowly join the catalogue of disappearance.

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

Northcote Arms Leytonstone

References
1. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit


2. John Smith: Film and Video Works 1971-2002, Cornelia Parker, A.L. Rees, Nicky Hamlyn

3. In short: a guide to short film-making in the digital age, John Smith p.77-86


4. John Smith at www.luxonline.org.uk


5. Ian Bourn at www.luxonline.org.uk


6. London Calling, Frieze.com, Brian Dillion


7. Hymn to the East End, Daily Telegraph 26.11.05, Sukhdev Sandhu
© John Rogers 2006

Leytonstone A12

Edith Walks – Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair and their band of Mummers

Edith Walks Iain Sinclair Jem Finer

Ahead of EDITH: A Performance at St John’s on Bethnal Green  in the East End Film Festival I recall the day I spent with Andrew Kötting’s merry band of Mummers as they started out on their 100-mile pilgrimage to Hastings from Waltham Abbey

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The bird, a raven a rook a crow?, sits on Iain Sinclair’s arm. Iain tells Andrew Kötting it’s ‘a corpse feeder, an eye pecker’, he’ll find Harold on the battlefield, or in this case Andrew buried up to his neck on Hastings beach. Andrew’s suit is a collaboration with his daughter Eden, decorated and annotated for the Jack in the Green festival in Deptford and Hastings. Iain suggests Andrew should be barefoot, ‘What for 100 miles’, Kötting retorts.

Edith Walks Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair
I’d met up with David Aylward and Jem Finer just off the train out of Stratford – easily identifying them on the platform at Waltham Cross – Jem with his custom-built shopping trolley mounted recorded device, Dave dressed in camouflage fluro. We stop off on the walk into town to pick up some WD40 to lubricate the squeeking sound coming from Jem’s audio jalopy, now wondering about the reality of dragging this thing 100 miles to Hastings.

Edith Walks Claudia Barton Iain Sinclair
We gather around the modest stone monument behind Waltham Abbey that claims to be the final resting place of at least some of Harold’s remains. Anonymous Bosch takes pin-hole photos whilst we mooch around the graveyard. From afar the group has the look of a bizarre wedding party milling around before the service, excited anticipation, taking photos, catching up small talk. These are the final moments before their epic schlepp to Hastings retracing the footsteps of Edith Swan-neck to sort through the hacked rotting corpses on the battlefield at Hastings looking for the remains of her beloved Harold.

Edith Walks Iain Sinclair and John Rogers

photo by Andrew Kotting

My own journey will end at Enfield Lock, cut short by the necessities of parenthood, but Andrew has invited me to gather some footage for possible inclusion in our London Overground film with him and Iain as a mad side journey, ‘Treat it as some kind of crazed vision’, Andrew advises. It found its home in the film with Andrew dressed as the Straw Bear in Brompton Cemetery talking about the experience of walking with Iain Sinclair, how it alters your idea of time, the images of Andrew’s troupe of Mummers wandering through the fly-tipping beneath the M25 fly-over just south of Waltham Abbey perfectly illustrating this sentiment. Some of the footage also ended up more appropriately housed in the film Kötting made of their expedition, Edith Walks.

Claudia Barton chats idly to Jem Finer about the real historical Edith Swan-neck and her link to the shrine at Walsingham in Norfolk, ‘I like the idea of her being a little bit spiritual and a little bit nut nut. All women in those days knew the power of herbs and a little bit of sorcerey’, she says with a smile. Gliding along the Lea Navigation towpath in flowing white gown she stops to inspect the flowers in the hedgerow channeling Edith’s plant lore.

David Aylward is turning every solid object we pass into a percussive instrument, jumping onto a moored industrial barge knocking out an infectious rhythm. Passing cyclists wonder what madness they have stumbled upon, thinking better of asking and peddling on bemused.

Edith Walks Claudia Barton Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair
Passing beneath the M25 with Iain Sinclair I have to call along the path, ‘Iain, look, it’s your road’, he smiles and we stop to chat about his millenial yomp around the M25. Iain leads us up the footpath beside the viaduct to a grassy area next to the road barriers battered by London Orbital traffic noise. Anonymous Bosch reclines in the grass taking snaps and shooting video on various devices, I spot at least three.

Anonymous Bosch
I was gutted to wave them off at Enfield Lock. Iain and Andrew suggested I could rendezvous with them further down the route but it isn’t to be. Claudia/Edith picks up the hem of her flowing white wedding gown out of the Lea Valley trail dust, Jem tinkers with his audio device and off they go to Hastings.

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Edith: A performance at the East End Film Festival Sunday 25th June 8.00pm.

For 50% off ‘friends list’ use the code: EDITH

Andrew Kötting and author Iain Sinclair take another epic journey through England’s buried history in EDITH. Following on from Swandown and By Our Selves (both screened by EEFF) Kötting and Sinclair embarked on a 108 mile walk from Waltham Abbey to St Leonards-on-Sea in memory of Edith Swan Neck, the mistress of King Harold.
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Reconnecting and consoling historic lovers after nearly 1,000 years, the experience has inspired a film (Edith Walks), bookwork and this special live film-music-performance event, incorporating spoken word from Iain Sinclair, with music and soundscapes by David Aylward, Claudia Barton, Jem Finer and Andrew Kötting, set to the spectral images of Kötting’s film. A chance to experience an extraordinary project in the atmosphere of St. Johns on Bethnal Green, with EDITH as their hallucination.

The film Edith Walks is on general release across the UK from 23rd June

 

A Canterbury Peculiar – London Overground at the Full English Festival

Canterbury High Street

Canterbury High Street was heaving. I arrived on the midday train from Stratford International with about an hour-and-a-half before the screening of London Overground at The Gulbenkian Cinema on the University of Kent campus.

Third Eye Canterbury

A felt this Third Eye watching me as my baseball cap was blown off my head by a strong gust of wind. I went into the Oxfam bookshop a couple of doors down and a Third Eye was embossed in gold on the cover of a 1890’s book about poverty in London. Was this a message that I should be looking for some particular insight on my trip to Canterbury, or just a confluence of easy esoterica?

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The Cathedral spire poked above the rooftops of narrow medieval streets. In my mind I saw footsore pilgrims hobbling through the lanes weary from the road and for a brief period vowed to walk the Pilgrims Way from London.

count louis zborowski garage canterbury

I was quite disappointed that this interesting looking old building turned out to be the garage used by Count Louis Zborowski to build some dodgy early racing cars called ‘Chitty Bang Bang’.

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

Crab and Winkle Path Canterbury

The Path out of Canterbury City Centre to the University of Kent follows part of the Crab and Winkle Railway. Opened in 1830, the Whitstable to Canterbury Railway is one of the candidates for being the first railway line in Britain.

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The final stretch was across a field dominated by a large oak and then naviagting my way through the concrete cubes of the University of Kent Central Campus to the Gulbenkian Cinema.

 

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The screening of London Overground was part of the University’s Full English Festival. The festival marquee was deserted although a table covered with empty water bottles hinted at prior activity. One of my favourite films, The Wonder Boys, is set against the backdrop of University Literary Festival, there are parties and debaunchery, affairs, a stolen Marilyn Monroe jacket – Full English seemed a far more sedate affair.

London Overground Gulbenkian

I intended to leave the auditorium after introducing the film but ended up sitting in the front row and watching the first 20 minutes. It’s great to see something you’ve made projected on the big screen, memories of each shoot coming back vividly – standing on the Thames shore at Rotherhithe with Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting, leaving Iain’s house on a cold January night for a walk to Hampstead – and at that time not being able to imagine a moment like this sitting in a large cinema in Canterbury on a boiling hot day with people who’d come in from the sunshine to watch my film. It was a really good feeling.

University of Kent CampusWhile the film played I got a surprisingly tasty cheeseburger from the University shop and sat on a grassy bank with great views over Canterbury. Students ambled about, lounged on the grass, it was a very different scene to my student days at City Poly.

There was a good Q&A after the film, the questions almost entirely focusing on the development of London and the bleak picture of where it appears to be heading. I always try and look for some optimism but in the end we discussed the weather (it rained on nearly every walk in the film) and the experience of walking with Iain Sinclair. I mentioned our recent walk along a portion of Watling Street and the footage I’d shot with plans to shoot more, what it’ll become I’ve no idea. The next film, The Zookeeper’s Wife was due to start soon followed by Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, so we moved out into the foyer.

I ambled back down into Canterbury with a friend for a couple pints before getting the High Speed back to Stratford.

London Overground goes to the Flatpack Film Festival

London Overground departs from the Capital for the first time with a screening at the brilliant Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham on Sunday 9th April. The event has been organised by fellow travellers Video Strolls who I’ve previously had the great pleasure of screening with at Flatpack in 2015, and also at the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes. I’ll be going up to Birmingham to do a Q&A and also hope to explore more of the city that beguiles me more with every visit – on each occasion for a Video Strolls event.

Book tickets to see London Overground at Flatpack Film Festival Here

Iain Sinclair John Rogers London Overground

Back in October 2016 London Overground screened at the Genesis Cinema in Stepney Green and the Q&A I did with Iain Sinclair is now available as a podcast from the Luxury Book Club – it was a good one if I remember correctly. You can have a listen below:

London Overground at the Transport Museum – photos

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Great screening of London Overground at the Transport Museum last night followed by a Q&A with Iain Sinclair. Always learning from these discussions. I have to be honest that I got an added buzz from the fact that we were showing the film at one of the great destinations for London lovers – the Transport Museum – I get a thrill every time I step through the door of that place so to be doing an event there felt special.

Sat on the floor next to my chair is a proof copy of Iain’s new book The Last London, really excited to read this.

The next screening of London Overground is at the Flatpack Film Festival, Birmingham 9th April with the fantastic Video Strolls.

Caught by the River / Video Strolls Film of the Month

caught by the river

It’s great to see my film about an expedition to Twyford Abbey with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp has been selected by Video Strolls for their Film of the Month slot on Caught by the River. I originally made the film for the Video Strolls programme in the Flatpack Film Festival in 2015.

Introducing the film, Liberty Rowley wrote:

“Starting out, rather unpromisingly, by the A406 in the rain, to find a monastery written about in a book published in 1927, John Rogers follows Nick Papadimitriou – who, as usual, seems more concerned about the route of the mains water pipe – until, quite suddenly, we follow them through a hole in a fence and we are in the dairy of the monastery.”

Read the rest of the introduction and watch the film here on Caught by the River.

twyford abbey

The film was in many ways intended as a return to a walk Nick, Pete and I did together in the summer of 2005, picking up where that journey ended near Stonebridge Park 10 years later. And with our detour to explore the remains of Twyford Abbey, the original expedition following the North West Middlesex Main Drainage scheme remains incomplete. I wonder if one day we’ll finish it, or will it always be the gateway to other adventures.

Big thanks to Video Strolls and Caught by the River for featuring the film.

London Overground on London Live and Earls Court

So I ended up talking about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair on London Live 1 0’clock news the other Sunday. The screening at Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema the following Wednesday saw the biggest turn-out we’ve ever had at the film club in the 8 years we’ve been doing it. It was a nice homecoming for the film and there was an interesting Q&A afterwards.

 

John Rogers Leytonstone

Tonight I’ll be showing some clips from the film at the Earl’s Court Fringe Film Night with an extended cut of the footage shot in Brompton Cemetery with Andrew Kotting dressed as the Straw Bear and Iain Sinclair talking about some peculiar associations mostly notably Williams Boroughs sitting atop the tombstones making strange recordings of the dead.

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The next screening of the full-length film will be at the Swedenborg Film Festival in Bloomsbury on Saturday 26th November alongside Andrew Kotting’s new film Edith Walks.