Through the Angel Tunnel on the Floating Cinema

The other week I did a talk and screening aboard The Floating Cinema on the Regent’s Canal. I spoke about some of the myths, legends and hidden histories of the Canal hinterland around Kings Cross, Islington and Pentonville – where we passed on the boat and allowed the talk to stray up into the Northern Heights and even down to Balham. Some swans drifting past the barge led to a discussion of Iain Sinclair and Andrew Kotting’s film Swandown and we played clips from the film I’ve just made with them – London Overground.

Finally passing through the Angel Tunnel (or Islington Tunnel) was a great experience – I lived for 4 years on an estate up above (see the early archives of this blog) and always planned to take the subterranean boat trip but never did. The lack of a towpath means you have to walk above ground through Barnsbury Estate, down Chapel Market, across Upper Street and Duncan Terrace before rejoining the towpath in Canonbury. The boat journey can take up to 20 mins sliding through deep underground, depending on traffic.

I’d read the story of the opening of this section of the Regent’s Canal on 1st August 1820 when an orchestra spread across several barges played as they passed through the tunnel. Huge crowds gathered around each end to listen to what must have been a glorious racket. I played some music by British composer Henry Bishop that may possibly have been played on that momentous occasion as Bishop was one of the most popular composers of the time.

 

Old & New Hackney and the triumph of Lyle Zimmerman

Riding the W15 west over the marshes to Hackney is like traveling on an old time stage coach. This was the forest road in and out of London. It still feels that way to me. Tonight I’m on my way to a screening of London Overground at The Institute of Light – a new cinema + restaurant in a railway arch just off London Fields. I’ll be introducing the film with Iain Sinclair and revisiting the year we spent walking the Overground circuit.

Wandering through New Hackney to the venue it surprises me how much of Old Hackney survives given all the hype. I lived on an estate here in the early 90’s. The BBC shot a documentary on the nearby Kingshold Estate during my first summer in Hackney – Summer on the Estate – I recognised many of the residents in the film from my rounds canvassing alone for the local Labour Party. There were only 7 of us who attended ward meetings and 2 of them were barely mobile so door-knocking was a solitary task.

Institute of Light Hackney

I only seem to pass through Hackney these days – or travel directly to a meeting or an event – I never really hang around there or dwell for long so my sense of the New Hackney comes mostly through popular chatter and reports from the flood of middle-class property seeking Hackney refugees who have poured into Leytonstone and Walthamstow.

The vibe around Morning Lane isn’t so different to what it was 20-odd years ago. The end of Well Street also strikes a familiar tone. Pemberton Place is timeless. The Hobson’s Choice is still a pub but under a different name. The main difference I can see is that now there appear to be some people around who have money, whereas back then everybody was skint. I consider going for a pint and stopping for a while to sample the ambience some more, but no, I don’t particularly want to go searching for that Hackney of the early 90’s and hop back on the W15 to Leytonstone instead.

I drop into the brilliant Whats Cookin ‘rockin country-fried music’ night in the Ex-Servicemen’s Club and catch the end of The Verklempt Family’s set. The lead singer is playing what looks like a curious bass mandolin, and it’s difficult not to become transfixed by it. Their set ends and is met with loud applause and a couple of people give them a standing ovation.

As I’m leaving a friend calls out from one of the outside tables to tell me that the lead singer, the fella playing the curious bass mandolin, was the person who was attacked with a knife in Leytonstone Tube Station last December in what was reported at the time as a ‘terrorist incident’. Lyle Zimmerman had his throat cut with a knife in the attack, his life being saved by a GP who happened to be passing through the station. I’d been outside the station underpass with my family stopped from walking into the scene by a police officer.

I remembered the description of the, at that time unnamed, victim as carrying an instrument – the curious bass mandolin. I don’t know if Lyle Zimmerman was on his way to play at What’s Cookin’ that evening, but on Wednesday night his performance was a real triumph of courage – and he really country rocks that bass mandolin.

Waiting for the burning thing on the Thames

David Best Fire London

As someone who documents London I half feel I should have had more of an awareness of the burning thing they were doing on the Thames yesterday. You see, it’s the next day, I’m sat at a computer and I still don’t know what the event was called (if it had a name) but I’ll go to the trouble of looking up the artist’s name before I post this to my blog (David Best). It was only when we were lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre waiting for whatever it was to happen that a lady who pushed in next to us decided to explain how poignant it was that they would be marking the anniversary of the Great Fire of London with some actual fire – her Dad had been a fireman, it was very poignant she kept saying. I had to agree in the end although I wasn’t exactly sure why it was poignant, London had been burnt to the ground loads of times in the past, what made this one special. However, lined up on the terrace of the National Theatre we were waiting for something we weren’t quite sure what.

The real reason we went to the South Bank wasn’t for the burning thing at all – my youngest son was desperate to go on the Bumper Cars at NAMCO in County Hall the night before he went back to school – as an end of summer holiday blow-out. It was loads of fun. I actually won a race on the motorcycle game as well, which was a massive surprise to us both. My wife had chipped in that afternoon with a comment that were setting fire to something on the river at 8.30 outside Tate Modern and it looked good – so we tagged it on to the NAMCO jaunt.

Sometimes it’s interesting to be at a large event like this just to be part of a large crowd. Sometimes that makes it hell. Being there with your 10-year old son sometimes helps tell the difference. He looked at the dark river in the gap between the trees and wondered whether we’d see much and whether we’d be better off going to get something to eat instead. ‘Come on’, I said, ‘this is a special event’. ‘Yes’, he agree, ‘if we went to the cinema we’d just be watching a film, here we’ll be witnessing history’. Well a recreation of history I thought but I was too moved by his poetic sentiment I to be pedantic.

Nothing happened. 8.25pm. People started to leave.

‘Come on let’s get something to eat’, he said.
So much for witnessing history, I thought, trumped by hunger.

But then an orange glow lit the sky. ‘It’s started’, I announced to my son.
‘Really, I can’t see anything’, he replied unimpressed.

We moved through the crowds lining the South Bank as far as we could go and reached London Studios where my son was able to bag a spot beside a lamp-post on the railing – a prime position just 10 minutes earlier when the crowds were 6 deep, now oddly threadbare.

We waited for it to arrive. Was it a barge alight? We still couldn’t tell.

We waited some more. We saw more flames shooting up in the air from the Thames. It still didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Whatever it was seemed to grind to a halt off the shore of Bernie Spain Gardens. Craning our necks around the lamp-post we could now catch a proper glimpse of the burning thing we’d been waiting for.
‘There it is’, I said to my son.
‘Ah, yes’, he said, ‘what is it?’, he asked
‘It’s a, a bonfire I think’, I said, ‘a bonfire that has mostly burnt out by the looks of it’.

What had clearly been a raging inferno just 10 minutes previously was now a politely burning pile of wood. If only the real Great Fire of London had exhausted its flames so quickly we wouldn’t have had to wait on the river bank for an hour 350 years later.

‘Ah’, he said, ‘shall we go and get a Burger King at the station’, he said. So off we went to Burger King in Waterloo Station before the burning thing on the river ever reached us.

Inside the new YouTube Space – Kings Cross London

YouTube Space London

YouTube Space London

Wednesday evening I went for a look around the new YouTube Space in Kings Cross. There were mini cheeseburgers with halloumi and bottles London Pride laid on. I did an icebreaking exercise with a charming fella who produces a fashion channel full-time and then got chatting to a lad who does tech reviews, a young lady who makes cooking videos and another who does a Disney Channel.

IMG_0749 YouTube Space LondonIMG_0753 IMG_0732
Everybody seemed impressed by the space which easily outstripped the facilities we had at the small production company I used to work for where TV shows had been made. About a third of the people walked around vlogging with their cameras on selfie sticks which when you think about it makes far more sense than me talking to my camera while walking along the Pymmes Brook through Edmonton.

I started my main YouTube channel 10 years ago this October with a video called Deep Topography with Nick Papadimitriou. When I started working at the TV company the following year the telly people didn’t get it when I told them to start uploading their content to Youtube. How things have changed in those 10 years.

A Walk in Victoria Park with Travis Elborough

It was the hottest day of the year (so far) when I joined author Travis Elborough for a stroll around the eastern half of Victoria Park in Hackney to talk about his book A Walk in the Park. The heat caused dogs to wallow in the Burdett-Coutts drinking fountain like furry urban hippos.

Travis is a wealth of information and the walk drew not just on the fascinating history of Victoria Park – London’s first purpose-built public park – but on the broader history of what Travis refers to as a “people’s institution”.

a walk in the park elborough

We visited the monkey puzzle tree which links back to Victorian plant hunting expeditions to South America, and the corner of the park once known as Botany Bay – apparently as it was the hideout of criminals. We dropped for a chat at the Bowling Club and baked in the English Garden and had to resist the temptation to jump into the Model Boating Lake.

Listening to Travis explain how modern parks had evolved from the fenced hunting enclosures of Norman barons to the public spaces of today – now under threat from government cuts – it seemed apt that our chat took place in the shadow of the large green fenced area of the park reserved for a series of musical festivals.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough – a fascinating stroll through the cultural history of these beloved open spaces that we all too often take for granted.

New Mounds rewiring the psychogeography of London

Stave Hill Rotherhithe

It was on the Refugee Tales walk that we ascended Stave Hill, Rotherhithe – a peculiar recently constructed mound in the centre of an urban park. Iain Sinclair remarked that we may be entering a new era of mound builders with Beckton Alp (a grass covered heap of arsenic) the Silbury Hill of this new epoch.

Taking in the view from the summit Iain says:
“The triangulation of the Shard, the Gherkin, and this new Omphalos – it’s trying rewire the psychogeography of London and undo the great energy lines and ley lines of Greenwich from the top of Greenwich Hill – this is the alternative thing and it’s deeply sinister.”

The London Hospital, Whitechapel: seen from the northern side

The London Hospital, Whitechapel: seen from the northern side
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Iain then talks about the mound at Whitechapel beside the London Hospital.
“It was built up at the time of the civil war as a defensive mound against the Royalists and it stayed there until relatively recent times,” and although it was demolished “the sense of it is still there”.

He spoke of how the early foundations of London were based on the four principle sacred mounds of London as described by E.O Gordon in ‘Prehistoric London – its mounds and circles’, and the relationship between the mounds “and the geometric patterns that emerged. Now the Hawksmoor pattern that you could have seen from the top of Greenwich Hill has been obliterated by Canary Wharf someone’s got to set up a new system to replace it”, and the Stave Hill mound is part of that system. “So we’ll link this to Beckton Alp, which is a mound of arsenic and a few shells left behind by Stanley Kubrick after re-staging the Vietnam War”.

Iain had found traces of the palm trees Kubrick had planted around Beckton when using it as the setting for Full Metal Jacket. He was on a walk with film-maker Chris Petit from Aldgate Pump down to the sea and they found a strange park near Beckton Alp which had stubs and “dying remnants of the palm trees that Kubrick had imported from Spain to create a sense of Vietnam”.

He took Will Self to the gigantic Woolworths at the retail park at Beckton built on the site of the old gas works – apparently it reminded Self of America due to the scale of the store, “but yet you could actually could get a very good cup of coffee”, Iain laughs, “and a big collection of dvds, I liked it a lot, but then it disappeared.”

London Overground Q&A with Iain Sinclair at the East End Film Festival

After working on London Overground for almost exactly a year it was a special moment to see it fade up on the big screen at the Rio Cinema in the East End Film Festival on 2nd July. It was the first time I’d watched the film all the way through without changing it and tinkering in the edit.

I sat next to my 13-year old son in the 4th row and out of the 170+ people in the auditorium it was his reaction I was most attuned to. He fidgeted in the way you’d expect a teenager to but at the end he said, almost surprised, “I enjoyed that”.

Iain Sinclair & John Rogers

The Q&A with Iain Sinclair afterwards covered the basics of how the film evolved and then towards the end into the territory of discussing ‘the state of London’ and various responses to it. When I’m doing these events with Iain I always feel like I’ve got the best seat in the house to sit and listen to him talk – but with the added bonus that I get to contribute.

The film now takes on a life of its own – once screened it is liberated. There are more screenings planned for the autumn and winter as I start to turn my mind to future projects.