Remembering Occupy London on the 5th Anniversary

A small group of people gathered together on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral merging in with the crowds of tourists and sightseers. As I spoke to them on camera a bride passed by shadowed by her bridesmaids, the smartly dressed wedding crowd soon filled one half of the step behind. From a distance you would not have distinguished them from the general Saturday throng. They looked in many ways unremarkable, a reunion of sorts, of mostly middle-aged gentle-looking folk. But for them this wasn’t any Saturday – they were here to remember the day 5 years ago when they were part of the 3000 strong meeting of activists that started Occupy London (Occupy LSX). Some of them turned up that Saturday 15 October 2011 and didn’t leave until the camp was evicted in February 2012.

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Listening to their testimony it really hits home what a momentous day it was in the social history of London. A mass challenge to the power of the City of London by the citizenry who occupied one of it most important and symbolic sites. I attended on the second day and shot a short video – I had never seen anything like it, here was politics being done in a whole new way. There were no established groups, no leaders, listening to the discussions there was seemingly no ideology simply, as Tina puts, it that people had reached the point of ‘Enough’.

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As Jamie says in the interview above, many of the people who came to Occupy had never been involved in politics or activism before, many have been involved ever since. Tina now dedicates herself to activism full-time. Jamie is a regular fixture at actions around London.

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After the camp was broken up the London Stock Exchange itself admitted that the Occupiers had been right – the City and the banks had become too powerful and needed proper regulation. The rhetoric thrashed out at those first General Assemblies on October 2011 have become part of everyday vocabulary

“The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.”

“We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.”

“We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.”

These are sentiments that could come from the mouths of almost any politician today (even if they didn’t believe it they understand this is what people want to hear).

The Occupiers who’d come together on Saturday were enjoying sharing their memories of the camp – the didgeridoo at 4am, the kindness of strangers who brought food and money, the homeless City workers who joined the camp then went to work in the very banks being discussed, sleeping on that cold pavement through snow and rain, Christmas and New Year. Something powerful happened on October 15th 2011 that I think will take some time yet to fully understand, but I think, I hope a corner was turned in the quest for a better, more just world.

Battle of Cable Street 80 Years On

Fantastic uplifting scenes yesterday at the march and rally to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street when the people of the East End poured onto the streets to stop Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts marching through the Jewish East End on 4th October 1936. As Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his speech, it marked an important turning point in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930’s – Mosley had strong support among the British Establishment and had gained the sympathy from powerful right-wing newspapers (you can probably guess which). ‘The Battle’ that took place in 1936 was between the Metropolitan Police and the public defending the East End Streets – the Met there to protect Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. A Police Liaison Officer I spoke to in the march joked about how a he’d have received a very different reception from the crowd in 1936. He’d have been baton charging them on a horse most likely.

80 Years on and this was not a day of conflict but of celebration, a day to remember an important moment of unity and reflect on the lessons we still need to learn today. Nearly everyone I spoke to in the video above stressed that echoes of the rhetoric of division and hatred from the 1930’s were rearing their heads again. Racially motivated attacks in post-Brexit Britain are on the rise. Our tabloids spread fear and hatred of refugees.

The Great Yiddish Parade band soundtracked the day with interjections from a vocal anti-fascist section who chanted slogans in Italian and lit the way with multi-coloured flares. Banner of the event for me was the Woodcraft Folk – satin green hoisted on heavy-looking wooden poles and catching the wind blowing down Commercial Road. I was told how the Woodcraft Folk had lined up alongside the rainbow coalition of Jewish, Anarchist, Communist, Irish, and Trade Unionist groups who turned out on that day in 1936.

I also spoke with a friend of Altab Ali – the young Bangladeshi man stabbed to death by racists in 1978. The park where he was murdered today bears his name and was the mustering point for the march.

Cable Street 1936 is a powerful resonator in the history of London and events such as those yesterday remind us of the power of unity and community that we must never forget.

Interview about psychogeography and London Overground on Celluloid Wicker Man

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A couple of weeks ago I met up with film-maker Adam Scovell in the Olympic Park and we had a great chat about my London Overground film with Iain Sinclair, psychogeography vs deep topography, the development of London etc.

A: So where does London Overground fit into this then?
J: Part of Iain’s genius is, in the book (and I hope it comes across in the film), dealing with a really unwieldy idea and set of issues to get your head around by addressing it with such a universal idea.  I’ve been documenting various campaigns around London over the last few years, starting off with the E15 and even before.  And where you look at it on a case-by-case basis, there are economic patterns that underpin this and ways which different local authorities deal with this.  But, if you try and find a universal narrative, something that links it all together, it can be quite difficult.  Also, from a campaigning pointing of view, you deal with specifics.  So London Overground takes the simple device of walking in a day around the Overground, looking at that circuit, which is newly completed (before you had fragments) so we have a new circuit from disused track that ran from Dalston Junction to Whitechapel and other bits to complete a circuit that didn’t exist.  In doing so, in a microcosm, it tells you the story of what’s happening in London today.

Have a read of it here on Celluloid Wicker Man – and also check out Adam’s Super 8 films

There’s also an edited version of the interview here on 3:AM Magazine

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

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Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

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Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

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The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

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Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

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The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

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I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

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The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

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Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

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On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

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Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

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The Forgotten Forest of London

Hainault Forest

It was deep into the heart of Hainault Forest that I realized why I am drawn into the woodlands during summertime – I mean the urge is particularly strong in the summer months. I went walking with my Dad over the corner of the South Chilterns near our home throughout my childhood but it was in the cool shade of the beech and oak, and I can’t recognize any other trees sadly but let’s take a punt on hornbeam, that I reflected that we only ever walked in the autumn and winter as my Dad was a dedicated cricketer and so weekends from April through till the end of September were spent playing cricket and I went along to watch until I was old enough to play for the men’s 3rd XI. So summertime woodlands are an exotic treat for me. Or at least that was the idea that occurred to me this Sunday afternoon.

Like Epping Forest, Hainault Forest is a remnant of the once mighty Forest of Essex. The 336 surviving acres representing just 10% of the forest of Hainault that was recorded at the time of Henry VIII. If Edward North Buxton hadn’t led a campaign that resulted in the purchase of the forest in 1901 then even this tiny portion would have been swallowed by the tidal wave of bricks that cascaded out of London.

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I had walked across a corner of the parkland before – on a random excursion one morning when I strolled around the boating lake and over Dog Kennel Hill. Today I wanted to make my way towards Lambourne End in the District of Epping.

Hainault Forest
Sitting in the Two Brewers Pub in Chigwell Row at 8.15pm I spread out my OS map on a table in the car park and tried to work out where I’d actually been. Even by sticking to the well-marked forest trails I’d somehow significantly over-shot the boundaries of the forest. I’d assumed the beautiful meadow at the edge of the woodland was Three-Cornered Plain and took the scenic path that ran down one side past an abandoned mobility scooter. Eventually I reached a fenced in enclosure and realized my mistake. Still the views eastwards were majestic from the high ground and I made my way along the field edge path assuming I’d emerge in Lambourne End.

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You can imagine my surprise when I encountered the abandoned mobility scooter in the path – I still can’t work out how that was possible – the path even looked completely different. Was this the forest sprites at play? A lady walking her dog pointed me back in the right direction and I found my way to the beguiling named Camelot Car Park.
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I wonder if one day I’ll fathom how to properly read an OS Map or will they always remain a pretty fold up picture to make my walks more interesting.

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.