Grenfell Tower fire protest and march

Two men stood with their backs to the police cordon across Lancaster Road, the burnt out shell of Grenfell Tower behind them. They both held large laminated photos – one with three small girls, the other their parents and grandmother. “I am the Uncle to these three girls”, he told me, Mierna Choukair, Fatima Choukair, Zainab Choukair, “here’s my sister Nadia, that’s her husband Bassem, and at the end is my Mum”. He had received no information from the authorities about them, he still doesn’t know if they survived the horrific fire that as of 4pm on Saturday 17th June the police are saying has claimed 58 lives. The crowd that had gathered earlier on Friday evening at Kensinton and Chelsea Town Hall put the death toll much higher. The BBC’s legendary reporter John Sweeney told me that 100 people had died, when I approached him with my camera on the march between the Town Hall and Grenfell Tower, described by some local residents as “the scene of the crime”.

Justice for Grenfell Tower protest
The man’s brother holding the photos of Nadia, Bassem, and Sirria read out the text messages Bassem had sent from his flat while the fire consumed Grenfell Tower. “At 1.15am Bassem sent a message to his workplace saying ‘Morning guys there is a fire in my building on the 4th Floor and I’m living on the 22nd Floor we are not able to leave the building and don’t know what is going to happen. Sorry guys for letting you down.”
“At 2.41 my sister sent a message to me, a voice message saying ‘Hello Nabil there is a fire in our building we are sitting in our flat, ok bye’, and that was it”. He hasn’t heard from them since and the authorities and hospitals aren’t telling them anything.
Grenfell Tower missing persons
The sense among the crowd that had gathered at Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall was one being abandoned, not just in the face of this horrific tragedy, but over years. Of being ignored and maligned. But although there was a sense of anguished grief and anger there was an overwhelming message of unity and togetherness. We stand together in our call for answers and justice, was the popular refrain.

Making our way along Kensington Church Street, Holland Park Ave and Ladbroke Grove, cars and buses trapped in traffic brought to a standstill beeped their horns in support, bus drivers reached out to shake the hands of passing protestors calmly walking up the street. One person directed my camera towards the stalled 328 bus bound for ‘Chelsea World’s End’.

Flowers and candles at Notting Hill Church

As the crowds gathered at the end of Lancaster Road with Grenfell Tower looming behind a lady handed me a bottle of water. She returned a couple of minutes later with a Tuna and Cucumber sandwich. A teenage boy worked through the throng handing out cartons of Capri Sun. Looking at the photocopied pictures of the missing persons taped to the walls and doors of Notting Hill Methodist Church I had to choke back the tears. What has happened here is too terrible to comprehend.

Exploring Old & New Barking – Abbey Ruins to Barking Riverside

There’s yet another new London taking shape on the edge of Barking at Barking Riverside:

“A brand new neighbourhood is being created alongside two km of Thames river frontage at Barking Riverside, one of the most ambitious and important new developments in the UK. Outline planning permission was granted in 2007 for 10,800 homes on the former power station site.”Barking Riverside website

The excursion out to Barking Riverside began wandering through the footprint of the ruins of Barking Abbey, that great powerhouse of early medieval London. I then followed the banks of the River Roding down to Barking Creek and Creekmouth Open Space, before continuing along River Road to the huge Barking Riverside site, finishing at Dagenham Dock Station.

Wetlands Trail – Woodberry Wetlands to Walthamstow Wetlands

The approach to Woodberry Wetlands from Harringay Green Lanes was dominated by the, to put it mildly, ‘controversial’ redevelopment of Woodberry Down Estate. The blocks, old and new dominate one side of the horizon around this urban oasis created by the London Wildlife Trust out of an active reservoir. It was only when talking to London Wildlife Trust staff, here to celebrate the first anniversary of Woodberry Wetlands, that I learnt of how this reservoir drew water from the New River and fed it down to the Walthamstow Reservoirs via an underground culvert. It seems incredible that the New River, opened in 1613 to supply London with drinking water still fulfills an important function in the city’s infrastructure.

 

Woodberry Down Estate Woodberry Wetlands

Once the Klezmer Band started to wind down I exited the Wetlands onto the New River Path and slowly followed it down to the edge of Stamford Hill carving a trail along the path of the culvert down to Walthamstow Wetlands at the other end of the pipe.

The New River Harringay

There were plenty of people passing over Clapton Common and I exchanged a few words with some Hasidic Jewish gentlemen about the fate of Tower Court Estate. One landmark that remains is the Church of the Good Shepherd, now a Georgian Orthodox Church, built by the curious Agapemonite Victorian sex cult.

Tower Court Hackney

New signage indicates the intention to create a trail linking the two wetlands. When I next follow this path, after the formal opening of Walthamstow Wetlands, I fully expect to see clumps of backpacked urban hikers schlepping the couple of miles between the two waterscapes.

Woodberry Wetlands Walthamstow Wetlands

Springfield Park is the perfect place to sit on a bench at sunset and watch the world drift by looking across at the dark wooded hills on the eastern flank of the Lea Valley. Revived, I passed Walthamstow Marshes in the fading light to the closed gates of Walthamstow Wetlands due to open this autumn. It took me back to standing at the spot just after sunset in January 2013 when I walked a wide loop from Leytonstone across Leyton Lammas Lands to Wassail the fruit trees in Clapton and Springfield Park before walking back through Walthamstow. With that in mind I made my way along the deserted market for a couple of pints in The Chequers to toast north east London’s new Wetlands.

 

Old West Ham to Stanley Kubrick’s Beckton

Here’s some footage from the walk I did for Chapter 2 of my book This Other London in the summer of 2012, just before the London Olympics – starting in Leytonstone then going past West Ham Church and the site of Stratford Langthorne Abbey onwards to the site of Beckton Gas Works where Stanley Kubrick shot much of his Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket.

Beckton Gas Works

I’ve been sitting on over 4 hours of footage shot on the 10 This Other London walks slowly filtering out a few short videos but much of it remains unseen. The video footage, photos and notes took on an almost entirely different form once processed into a book, they’ve served their purpose and can stay in the bottom drawer. But every now and again I’ll dip back into that archive and release some of those raw video notes back out into the world.

You can download the audiobook of This Other London here

Back to Birmingham – City of Surrealists

Screening with the brilliant Video Strolls has the added bonus of a chance for a wander round Birmingham. I’ve blown through a couple of times before on tour with Russell Brand but those occasions were restricted to backstage views of venues and a quick dash through the Bull Ring searching for gifts for the family.

The occasion this time was a screening of London Overground at the Flatpack Film Festival and despite my best intentions I arrive with only an hour or so to explore. Instead of searching out new sights/sites I want to pay homage to the Birmingham Surrealists and somehow connect them to Birmingham’s Edwardian arcades.

King Edward House Birmingham

The crowds are out enjoying the sunshine pitching into New Street. There’s something about the architecture that reminds me of Downtown LA, the fading grandeur of former times. Could Ridley Scott save himself a few quid and shoot the next Blade Runner movie in the midlands, bounty hunters pursuing Replicants along the corridors of King Edward House.

Trocadero Birmingham

I stand outside the Trocadero pub in Temple Street, one of the haunts of the Birmingham Surrealists. I know the Kardomah Cafe is nearby but can’t locate the exact location until Andy Howlett takes me back there after the screening to point out the ghost sign still visible above the entrance to Hawkes and Curtis menswear shop.

Emmy Bridgwater Night work is about to commence

Emmy Bridgwater Night Work is About to Commence (1943)

I move on to the Birmingham City Gallery and Museum to find the surrealists there. The entrance is dominated by Jacob Epstein’s bronze statue of Lucifer (1944-45). After touring the galleries I find a painting by Emmy Bridgwater  Night Work is about to commence (1940-43). Bridgwater, born in Edgebaston in 1906,  was a key member of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox and John Melville. It’s Melville’s Aston Villa that I spot next, painted in the year Villa won the cup, 1956.

The Victoria Birmingham

Time is moving on as it has a habit of doing when you have somewhere to be and I advance to the venue of the screening, a beautiful art deco boozer behind the Alexandra Theatre. The screening is packed and the film seems to go down well in its first outing beyond London. But once again I depart Birmingham vowing to return for more thorough exploration.

 

Walking the River Stort Navigation

I’d previously noticed the River Stort Navigation on the OS map snaking around the northern fringe of Harlow. Comments on my YouTube videos had suggested sections that I would enjoy walking. So one day in the Easter holiday I set off on the Lea Bridge Line (celebrating its first anniversary since re-opening) to Broxbourne to see whether I could make it all the way to Bishop’s Stortford.

Rivers Stort Navigation

The Stort Navigation runs from Feildes Weir, just to the south of Rye House, 14 miles to the Hertfordshire town of Bishops Stortford. It was completed in 1769, with the intention of linking Bishops Stortford with the lucrative malt trade working its way along the Lea from Ware. The 15 Locks that break up its course became waypoints for my walk that day, when we were blessed with early sunshine that only just now seems to have returned at the end of May.

Lower Lock

The appeal of river and canal walks is not only the proximity of water but the removal of decision making and navigation – the canal engineers have done the job for you. The downside is maintaining the discipline to stick to the path resisting temptations to wander off along beguiling side routes.

River Stort Navigation

I was drawn into Parndon Mill on the edge of Harlow by a poster for an exhibition by Graham BoydThe New Hampshire Grids – from the early 1970’s. I saw potential parallels with my own walking practice in that title, especially when on a contrained hike following a pre-ordained route carved out of the landscape by 18th Century navvies.

The gallery space occupied a small white cube on the ground floor of the old Mill (this version built in 1900 following a devastating fire but mills have occupied the site since at least the Norman Conquest). The framed pictures and 3-dimension works sat on a plinth seemed to be presenting an intrincate code. I bought an exhibition catalogue and went to sit on a bench by the towpath. The last sentence in Maxine E. King’s intrductory essay reads;

“This is the character of Boyd’s work, a restless searching, stretching out through an immense space, sometimes taking up the grid to orientate himself, like a sextant for navigating the stars.”

I contemplated this over a late lunch of Chicken Club Sub washed down with a pint of San Miguel in the garden of the Moorhen pub near Harlow. They had Minnions toys behind the bar and a kids softplay inside the pub – I’ve never seen that before.

River Stort Navigation

Pushing on into the sunset leaving behind Harlow’s riverside sculptures I finally allowed myself a detour, through Sawbridgeworth, an ancient village once owned by an Anglo-Saxon brilliantly named Angmar the Staller. I think we should restore the Anglo-Saxon naming system. The village is like a period film set – a collection of Tudor to Georgian buildings spanning out from a 13th Century Church. After a look around I refueled at the newsagents for the final push into Bishops Stortford.

Tednambury Lock 4

Tednambury Lock 4

A wise man, Tim Bradford, once told me the pub trade is run on people forever trying to recreate that glorious first sip of beer, with each successive pint becoming increasingly less satisfying until you’re pissed. I sometimes think a similar dynamic applies to walking – I’m forever in search of that euphoric final stage of a schlepp, bathed in sunset crossing a field or rounding the bend of a river, cresting a hill, traipsing through an industrial estate, the rump of the city behind you, awash in the experience of the fugue. Counting down those last few Locks in the last burst of Spring sunshine on the approach to Bishops Stortford were one of the finest walk’s ends I’ve ever known – one I’ll be chasing for the rest of the summer.

 

A People’s Manifesto for the Arts

Last Saturday out on the South Bank with artist Bob and Roberta Smith to create ‘A People’s Manifesto for the Arts’ with passing members of the public. Bob had already written his own manifesto that he intended to harangue politicians with but he wanted to gauge what interest there was amongst the public to advocate for the arts during the election campaign.

Bob passionately defends the Arts and Education – seeing Art as central to free expression and a core component of democracy.

“Before we vote in June’s election we must consider what kind of culture we want to live in.”Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

I’ve heard him point out that tyrannical regimes always target Artists and Writers – and this Tory government has aggressively attacked the arts by withdrawing funding and eroding the place of creative subjects in the school curriculum. If your intention is to create a servile nation of worker drones the last thing you want to do is encourage them to think for themselves. Art and Culture requires you to see the world through your own eyes and encourages you to express your own feelings about the world aroud you.

In the 2015 General Election Bob ran for Parliament against Tory Education Secretary, Michael Gove in the ultra safe seat of Surrey Heath. He ran a spirited campaign which provided a great platform to advocate for the Arts and highlight how Gove’s policies had damaged the teaching of Creative subjects in schools.

“Post-Brexit, we face a dissolution of our museums and galleries comparable in its devastation to that visited on England in the 1530s, as philistine politicians slash budgets. Art schools and the arts in schools will be further diminished in a wave of manufactured disdain for so-called elitists.Bob and Roberta Smith, The Guardian

In a post-Brexit Britain the situation for Art, Culture, and Science looks uncertain so Bob’s campaigning is ever more vital.

You can find out more about Vote Art here