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

Nook

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The Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art finally has a rival – artist Lizzie Hughes’ ‘occasional project space’ Nook.
I went along on Sunday to have a gander at the inaugural show – Constellations, featuring the work of Ian Bourn, Matt Hale, Robert Ellis, and Pat Naldi and I spent more time in the Tardis-like gallery than I have in many of the rooms at Tate Modern.
Leytonstone may yet reclaim its place as London’s Left Bank.

Opening times and info about Nook here

What I’ll talk about on Lost Steps on Resonance 104.4FM

Going in to doing a pre-record with Malcolm Hopkins and Nick Hamilton for their show on Resonance fm on Monday. I’ll be talking about this blog and some of the things that have inspired it and arisen from ideas that I first noted down here. Below are a collection of tags that I’ll mostly focus on – probably

caledonian park, claybury, derive, finsbury, gordon s. maxwell, iain sinclair, ian bourn, islington, john smith, landscape film, leyton, leyton marshes, leytonstone art scene, locative arts, marsh lane, michael bentine, moblog, patrick keiller, penton, placeblogging, pleasure gardens, psychogeography, river fleet, situationism, spa green, spb mais, topographical film, topographics, urbanism, video blog, virgin of aldermanbury, claybury, derive, gordon s. maxwell, iain sinclair, caledonian park, finsbury, leyton, leytonstone art scene, marsh lane, michael bentine, leyton marshes, patrick keiller, penton, psychogeography, river fleet, situationism, spa green, spb mais, pleasure gardens, topographical film, topographics, urbanism, video blog, virgin of aldermanbury, walking, walthamstow, walthamstow marshes, wanstead, wanstead flats, will self, william kent, william margrie,

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Waves of Disappearance: cinematic topographies of the North Eastern frontier

Writing about the Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art reminded me of the essay I wrote at the end of 2006 about the films of Leytonstone and the Lower Lea Valley for UEL’s journal of East London Studies. This was when I first became more aware of the significant community of artists that lived in the area before the M11 Link road was built. As artist Cornelia Parker said of the mid-80s:
“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.”

As the possibility of an arts centre being established in the old Woolworths building is being discussed it’s timely to remember this E11 avant-garde, the Leytonstone Left Bank.

You can read the rest of the article here

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John Smith – Hotel Diaries

Legendary Leytonstone film-maker, John Smith, is screening a selection of his sequence of Hotel Diary videos at Tate Britain today – followed by a Q&A.
This also gives me an excuse to plug the essay I wrote about John Smith and Ian Bourn’s films for UEL’s ‘Rising East’ journal of East London studies.
I’m hoping to organise a retrospective of John Smith’s Leytonstone films for the Leytonstone Film Club at some point next year

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Leytonstone Fest Film Night


The film night was a great success. The thrill I felt seeing the Black Tower flickering on the screen in the upstairs room of the Heathcote then looking over my shoulder at the same E11 roofline, the room packed the audience enthralled. The Q&A with Ian Bourn and John Smith lasted over half and hour and could have gone on longer if we all hadn’t been in bad need of a pint (at some point I’ll transcribe the recording and post it here). What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? seemed to really strike a chord and it was satisfying to test my thesis that you can draw a line through from Black Tower, Lenny’s Documentary, Keiller to Mervyn Day. It was interesting to discuss this with Ian and John. I even managed to find an audience for my propaganda film about Marsh Lane Fields in an effort to drum up some support to save this corner of the Lammas Lands before it’s too late.

It was great to meet some of the readers of this blog – John Heron and Inspector Juve and members of the L&LHS (sorry John for missing your call on Tuesday – I’m not sure what happened there). It looks like we may have the momentum to build this into a regular event and form a Leytonstone Film Club, if anybody is interested please get in touch email:jmrogersit@yahoo.com
Thanks to John, Ian and the Mervyn Day team (Paul, Andrew, Bob, Pete), and big thanks to Philip Wray of Leytonstone Festival – a gent.

Out to Claybury


The plan was simple and quite ‘unplanned’ – return to Wanstead to check out the ominous gothic building at the end of Nightingale Lane then make my way across to find the River Roding and follow it up to Claybury Hospital. I’m taking some advice from Ian Bourn’s seminal Leytonstone film ‘Lenny’s Documentary’ (1979): “cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”. I’ve been feeling the pressure at work lately, under a bit of strain, so I’m going to reverse the process, I’m going to Claybury to avoid cracking up.

Once back in Wanstead, only a 10-minute walk from Leytonstone but you get the feeling that you are now in Essex. Maybe it’s the small boutiques and Webb’s Gastrodome with its menu of “Moules and Frittes, Chicken Curry and Rice, Sausage and Mash”. Nightingale Lane is a step back in time, the newsagent has a hand-written sign advertising for a “Paper Boy/Girl”. The view up the narrow lane rising to a redbrick gothic building instantly called to mind a mental image of Edinburgh or Glasgow, in the way that you have impressions of places you’ve never been to but just seen on the telly and in pictures. As I reach the top of the lane the pub on the corner goes by the name of The Duke of Edinburgh (as do hundreds of other pubs outside the Scottish capital, I know).
 
Once I find a way into the grounds of the gothic beast on the hill the inscription above the door tells me that the foundation stone was laid by Albert Prince Consort for this home for the orphans of British Merchant Seaman on 28th June 1861. It’s a grand building, must have cost a bit, maybe the Victorians weren’t as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Like a lot of places it seems to have mutated into Clock Court ‘luxury apartments’ – one of the most over-used combination of words in London (I’ve been in some and they’re just apartments, no gold taps, marble worktops, no bling, nothing that the residents further up the Roding Valley in Chigwell would recognise as ‘luxury’).
Thomas Archer wrote glowingly of the Orphanage in his 1870 ‘The Terrible Sights of London’. “When that sweet little cherub who is traditionally amid lyrically represented as sitting up aloft to look out for the life of poor Jack, is relieved by the next watch, and makes a short excursion for the purpose of stretching his wings, it may reasonably be inferred that he hovers lovingly over the neighbourhood of Snaresbrook, in Essex, and perches occasionally on the tall spiral tower of that magnificent building, where 136 children, the orphans of merchant seamen, are maintained with loving care.” What he describes is far from a terrible sight: light and airy dormitories, varnished pine, good ventilation, harmonium music drifting through the hallways, the children free from even the smallest ailments, a healthy supply of good food and water. It is as if the children have been compensated for the loss of their fathers at sea by being transported from the squalor of Victorian London dockland slums to Xanadu.
One of the apartments is on the market. The Rightmove website describes the interior of this supposed ‘des-res’ (£524,995) in far less glowing terms than Archer’s asylum:
“FEATURES
Split level apartment
Converted Orphanage
Mezzanine bedroom
Bedroom with en suite
Many period features
We are delighted to offer for sale this two bedroom converted apartment which we believe is part of an old Victorian (1860’s), orphanage for the children of merchant seaman. The property which forms part of a listed building, has a wealth of fine features which have to be seen to be appreciated. Communal Entrance”

From here I wade through a quagmire of suburban banality to get to a footpath that takes me into the Roding Valley Park. It’s about 100 yards wide, has a motorway overhead, pylons, and at this point no sign of the eponymous river.

I move on along through spindly Birch trees buffeted by the wind and the motorway noise – something I won’t escape for the whole four hours walk.
 
Instead of coming to the river I emerge at the centre of a knot of motorway flyovers with an enormous metal pylon rising in the centre – a Ballardian wet dream. Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. I commit my second climate crime of the day when I buy a pork pie from Tesco (not the pie, the shopping in Tesco. The first crime was buying non-rechargeable batteries from Poundland – 12 for a quid!).
 
The river at last.
Two hundred yards on from the mayhem I get a clear view of the Claybury Asylum water tower above the scrub. Iain Sinclair came out this way when writing ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, as the disappearing Jewish Hermit had a sister committed to the asylum. I think he posited somewhere that Rodinky’s annotated A-Z used the tower as its central reference point.
There’s a moment in every walk when it takes off and transcends the familiar and banal. The motorway was behind me for the first time. All there was now was a path snaking into bare trees and the top of the tower poking from a wooded hill in the distance. Carrier bags fluttered from branches like an ominous warning sign, adapted spirit catchers.

I cut across sodden marsh and round a muddy cricket pitch where snoozing sightscreens are buffeted by the stiff breeze. My denim loafers had been doing so well (don’t talk to me about walking boots, I’ve been having all manner of problems in that department – do footwear manufacturers sponsor topographical ramblers?). Now they are more like water-skis than anything else as I slip and slide over the mud into Claybury Park.

The view from the top of the hill is one of the finest in London, even surpassing (just) the one Nick showed me from Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead. It’s like the vista of Florence from Fiesole. A perfect place for a mental hospital. I’d been pre-warned about the inevitable conversion into luxury apartments when I’d checked ‘London Orbital’ for references last night (I’m figuring – mental hospital near the M25, got to be something in there). On page 167 Sinclair describes how he turns up at the gates the day the diggers moved in. Still, I’m determined to get a closer look. I plunge through the muddy tracks into the woods of hornbeam, oak and beech (natural habitat for a child of Bucks). Water runs in deep rivulets down the bank form small brooks and streams. Chigwell (which is where I am as it transpires) means ‘Kings Well’ and S.P Sunderland reports that there was a medicinal well here in Saxon times (maybe that accounts for the asylum). Now the tower is oddly elusive. I’m right below it but it is out of sight. I stop to ask directions from a lady walking a black Labrador who used to work there when it was a hospital. But for all my exertions I fail to breach the perimeter fences which I bet are far better secured now it is the private domain of Repton Park executive homes than in its asylum days.

When I emerge, mud-splattered on Tomswood Road I’m greeted by a sign that says, “Welcome to Essex”. Not more than 10 yards later I’m engulfed in a mock Tudor nightmare, more security gates, 4x4s at rest waiting for the school run, even a Ferris Bueller red Ferrari. The Prince Regent Hotel proudly advertises its Abba Tribute Night on 3rd March for £28.95. This Georgian hotel, when not hosting corporate ‘away-days’, is the venue for boxing bouts.
There is a W14 bus in the lay-by that would shortly be heading back to Leytonstone and as I’ve achieved my target I consider hopping on, but no, my metronomic stride won’t stop, clearly my mental health has not quite been revived.
A Victorian water pump has been restored and given a plaque by the local Woodford historical society, marking the point of the Saxon bridge that crossed the River Roding. I see the River beneath the beast of the M11 and rejoin the path. In the dip of the embankment you are shielded from arterial roads either side and the motorway above. The noise is migraine inducing and unrelenting. Crossing at Charlie Brown’s is a near death experience, either they run you down or you wait so long on the roadside that the pollution gets you.

The pylons hold hands over the water and the cables elegantly curve to the river’s bends. There’s no mobile phone signal. It’s a world within a world.
As I reach the castellated pumping station at Wanstead I’m pushed into an underpass system that seems to mirror the gyratory above. My legs have gone numb from the knee down. It is only at this point that I realise that I haven’t broken my stride since leaving home four hours ago, not stopped or sat down once, not even for the statutory pint. I allow the underpass to guide me away from the Roding and onto the Central Line instead.