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

Discovering the London of Sherlock Holmes

 

sherlock holmes

 

Sherlock Holmes is fiction’s most famous detective and has been immortalised through literature, stage, and screen. The characters Sherlock Holmes, Doctor John Watson, and Moriarty are known worldwide. Yet there is one character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories that is often overlooked while also playing an important part in many of Sherlock’s adventures: London.

Joshua Hammer writing for Smithsonia Magazine states that “Conan Doyle’s other alluring creation was London… [which] takes on almost the presence of a character in the novels and stories. As fully realised – in all its fogs, back alleys and shadowy quarters – as Holmes himself.”

Many of the locations Conan Doyle used in his stories can be found today. Unfortunately, 221-B Baker Street is a fictional address on a real street. The street has significantly changed since the time period that the Sherlock Holmes stories are set in. Sherlock Holmes.co.uk informs “[that] No. 109 is one of the few three-story red brick flats on the street dating from 1900, looking also as No. 221-B might have in Conan Doyle’s day.” A bronze statue to the famous sleuth sits outside the Marylebone exit of Baker Street.

 

sherlock holmes baker street

 

The Langham Hotel on Regent Street holds an important place in Sherlock Holmes law and is one of the few buildings that still stands as it was in Conan Doyle’s time. It was here that the author was commissioned to write the second Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four. At the same meeting was Oscar Wilde who was also commissioned to write the Portrait of Dorian Gray. It is believed that after meeting Wilde, Conan Doyle decided to make the character of Sherlock Holmes the darker and more complicated character we know today.

London seen through the eyes of Sherlock Holmes has been presented on the screen many times. The Guinness World Records details that the character has been depicted 254 times on screen. In recent years Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. have played Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch shows a modern London while the recent films of Sherlock Holmes have been set in the London that Conan Doyle wrote about. One scene in Sherlock Holmes (2009) has Holmes pointing out the construction of the Tower Bridge. Such is the standing of the character as a British icon that he has appeared across a multitude of entertainment platforms including trendy gaming site BGT Games which has its own dedicated Sherlock Holmes title. The feel of the Sherlock games are very much influenced by the feel of Conan Doyle’s London.

 

westminster bridge view

The city plays a significant part in many of Conan Doyle’s stories and his descriptions allow readers today to get the feel of Victorian London. Interestingly Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t spend much time in the city and wrote the stories from Edinburgh. Yet he knew London well and Sherlock fans can eat at the famous London haunt Simpson’s in the Strand that both the author and his characters ate at and it is still open today. For Sherlock fans willing to look for the London that Conan Doyle wrote about, it is still there to be found they just have to take their imagination with them on their travels.

London Overground world premiere trailer

The world premiere of London Overground is on Sat 2nd July at the Rio Cinema, Dalston screening in the East End Film Festival. I’ve been working on the film for almost exactly a year now following on from the interview I shot with Iain Sinclair about the book. Shortly afterwards we shot the first section of the Overground walk with Andrew Kotting – strolling from Rotherhithe Station to the Thames shore then down to Surrey Quays through Andrew’s old memory grounds. We stopped in the same cafe they did in the book, La Cigale near Greenland Dock.

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Overground film

From there we dropped by the Cafe Gallery in Southwark Park where Andrew deposited a found object from the Thames shore, and passed by the New Den to Queens Road Peckham. The walked ended with possibly one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever filmed … but you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

The next shoot with Bill Parry-Davies of Open Dalston picking through the horrors of regeneration around Dalston Junction and getting to the heart of the Overground loop and it how it gave birth to a new model of property development in London underpinned by overseas investment.

Iain Sinclair Wapping John Rogers

In autumn and early winter Iain and I walked alone in two stages from Haggerston back to the Thames at Wapping. Here we traversed key landscapes in Iain’s life and writing – the East End, Truman Brewery, Anti-University, Hare Marsh, Whitechapel, St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East, Narrow Street, Wapping.

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Overground film

I was back out on the road with Andrew and Iain early this year as they reprised the Overground walk in full but in reverse – starting in the evening and walk counter-clockwise through the night arriving back in Haggerston at 10am the next day. I only stayed the course as far as Hampstead Heath but strapped a GoPro to Andrew’s head to capture highlights of the rest of the circuit.

Iain Sinclair Chris Petit overground film

We headed to the northwest quarter with legendary Radio On director and noir novelist Chris Petit to explore Willesden Junction – which confirmed Iain’s idea that the Overground was a ghost railway.

The rest – oh, there’s loads more including great contributions from Marcia Farquhar and Cathi Unsworth, a brilliant soundtrack from the likes of Standard Planets, Bill and Adam Parry-Davies, Free Seed Music, and Rosen.

John Rogers Andrew Kotting Iain Sinclair

Hope to see you at the Rio on Saturday.

Building London’s airport at Heath Row

This is a fascinating newsreel of the building of London Airport in the fields on the edge of Hounslow Heath at Heath Row.
There’s something slightly terrifying about watching the coming of the jet age to London, “And the landscape was changed and the past obliterated”, the voice-over declares in a cold, officious tone. The past wasn’t really obliterated as much as they’d like to think, the rivers Crane and Colne will continue flowing through the terrain long after we’ve moved onto teleportation as the best way to get to Marbella.

It’s interesting that no mention is made of the archaeological finds of neolithic settlements excavated during the construction of Runway One. Maybe they were too high on jet fumes to notice.

london