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.

~~~~

“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

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent

Alan Moore Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

Down to Brighton to see Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore speaking at an event  in the Brighton Festival Spiegeltent celebrating the amazing history of Watling Street, a road so old, as John Higgs told us, that it may even predate humans, being carved out by migrating animals.
Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017
Iain Sinclair recounted his walk along the section of Watling Street from Dover to Westminster, with the footage shot by Andrew Kotting and myself projected on the screen behind. He talked of the mysteries of Shooters Hill, Andrew’s constant banter that on one occasion led to missing the last room at a Travelodge and having to sleep on the floor of a disabled toilet. He told the story of walking to Mortlake with Alan Moore to visit the home of John Dee, Moore arriving at his house with a bag laden with esoteric books.

Iain Sinclair Brighton May 2017

After a musical interlude Alan Moore took to the stage and gave a long and beautiful riff on a conversation with a scientist (I think) who’d explained the probability that we are living in a computer simulation. Alan’s own intervention on this theory was both funny, enlightening and poignant linking it back to explaining to some people in Milton Keynes how he could be their God as he had worked on the building of Milton Keynes. He also gave a brilliant explanation on the meaning and importance of psychogeography, how you can create your own epic mythology for where you live and your own place in that world. It was one of those evenings that makes you feel differently about the world around you, mind expanded, horizons widened.

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair at the Brighton Spiegeltent 24th May 2017

Afterwards I went and ate fish and chips on the beach and pondered Alan Moore’s idea that perhaps we live the same life over and over again instead of merely ceasing to exist after death – this, he posited, was a good reason to fill your life with great moments. With this in mind I bought two cans of Adnams Southwold Bitter to drink on the train back to London.

 

Walking Roman Watling Street with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting and Anne Caron-Delion

Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting Old Kent Road

Out along Roman Watling Street yesterday with Iain Sinclair, Andrew Kotting, and Anne Caron-Delion – walking from Shooter’s Hill to Westminster. The image above was taken in front of the fantastic ‘History of the Old Kent Road’ Mural on the old North Peckham Civic Centre. The mural, by Adam Kossowski (1966), tells the story of all the epic journeys that have taken in the road over its long history.

Iain asked me to pose in front of the figure of Jack Cade, who led a revolt against the King in 1450, as he saw a resemblance – must have been my beard and nose. Earlier we had passed over Blackheath where both Cade, and earlier Wat Tyler in the Peasants Revolt of 1381, had rallied their forces for an assault on the City.

Anne Caron-Delion Iain Sinclair John Rogers

Anne Caron-Delion, Iain Sinclair, John Rogers – photo by Andrew Kotting

Anne, an academic from UCA, lives near Watling Street and was a great source of local lore – leading us across Blackheath, pointing out relevant and interesting heritage. She was also channeling info garnered from spending time living intermittently with a Watling Street obsessive; David Aylward and as well as drumming for Ted Milton’s BLURT, some refer to as the King of Deptford. David was one of Andrew’s troupe of Mummers who passed across Blackheath for the film Edith Walks, and was memorably acousted by the Police for drumming on the site of ancient (some say neolithic) tumuli. Either Anne or Andrew mentioned being on the spot with Julian Cope during the writing of his epic book The Modern Antiquarian but my memory is muddled on this point.

I captured some footage along the way that will form a silent backdrop to the event Iain’s doing in Brighton with Alan Moore and John Higgs on 24th May, The Ghosts of Watling Street

“Three visionary authors – Alan Moore, Iain Sinclair and John Higgs – gather under one roof to take an epic journey through Britain’s hidden history, geography, myth and culture, as they travel west along one of Britain’s oldest roads – Watling Street – from Dover to Wales, via London and Northampton. Along the way Moore, Higgs and Sinclair reveal a country haunted by John Crow, St Alban, William Blake, Rod Hull and Emu, James Bond and stranger ghosts of its past – as they unearth an identity of Britain that transcends our current Brexit divisions.”

John Rogers Iain Sinclair Andrew Kotting

I also shot some great footage with Iain and Andrew that will form a video on my YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Filming them yomping along the busy road, stopping to attempt to gather cutaways then jogging along to catch them up, took me back to the filming of London Overground which Iain recounts in his forthcoming book The Last London. It’s always a real joy to go out on the road with these two great gentlemen.

***

Andrew Kotting’s latest film, Edith Walks (for which I shot some footage), is screening across the UK in the summer. There are two special events coming up in London that are not to be missed:

23rd June 2017 – ICA with Readings and Q&A

2nd July 2017 – Curzon Aldgate with musical performance and Q&A

Also screening at:

07/07/17 Showroom, Sheffield

09/07/17 Watershed, Bristol

20/7/17 Filmhouse, Edinburgh

19/7/17 Glasgow Film Theatre, Glasgow

23/6/17 Tyneside, Newcastle

Notes on Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins

Robinson in Ruins Keiller

Flicking back through the large notebook on my desk which has a Casey Neistat sticker on the cover, I find the notes I made while watching Patrick Keiller’s film Robinson in Ruins at the beginning of last year.

I had seen the film at a special event at the National Film Theatre at the time of its release in 2010 but felt I needed to watch it again – I watched Keiller’s London so many times I wore out the VHS tape.

Here are the notes I made in their raw form:


“The wanderings it describes began on 22nd January 2008”
– this is the same time as the Silt Road journeys began. What was I doing in January 2008? Starting work on London Perambulator. 2008 the year of the financial crisis.

Robinson communicates with “non-human intelligences” living in marginal places – shot of a sign on an arterial road – roundabout – edgelands. They (and Robinson presumably) are concerned with human survival – are they insects rather than E.Ts?

Robinson drawn to London from Berlin in the mid-60’s by the ‘swinging sixties’ and presence of so many prehistoric structures in the landscape. Footpath that was once a Roman road leads Robinson to a gasometer (mirror of the standing stone he visits?) then on to Lidl on the site of the first Mini factory.

robinson in ruins

I stop the film to check my Twitter feed – tweet from London Port Authority: “2014 port trade 3% up at 44.5 million tones: tonnage up across cargo types”
A port statistics update while watching a Robinson film – how serendipitous.

Mention of IWCA in Oxford. Quotes 17th Century antiquarian in reference to a physick well. Then on to Plato and Epicurus in relation to climate then an update on the financial situation. Footage of a substation.
Robinson is a Prepper.
Returns constantly to boarded up house with scaffold first seen at start of film – a motif?

Sets out for Harrowdown Hill – April 10th – the death of Dr David Kelly – not far from Brize Norton – physical link to Iraq.
Spends the night in the enclosure of a mobile phone mast.

robinson in ruins
Military infrastructure gets mentioned a lot – the SOE wartime comms on a hill, railway line used by military.

Broad Street Oxford – the postbox set in the wall on the street corner another recurring motif. Robinson’s disappearance in the 1990’s and his companion’s publication (the narrator’s lover – this bloke had also been Robinson’s lover or have I got confused) of a report based on their work that led to him becoming a government advisor – “transformative potential” of “images of landscape” – linked to well-being. Back to shot of lichen on roadside – grows near nitrogen pollutants. Primroses in a lay-by. Note on UK climate and primrose seed transportation.

MayDay on the Ridgeway.

Horse Chestnut imported from Turkey in 17th Century.

robinson in ruins
Greenham Common nuclear warheads withdrawn – US Airforce base opposed on basis it infringed commoners rights. Now restored to Commons and open access by Newbury Council. Remains of US base stand in the fields where now cattle graze. Declared SSSI in 1985. Natural order restored.

Robinson moves on to Roman Silchester. He is now a marginal figure – semi-vagrant – bit of a weirdo.

The U.K Rocket industry embedded in the countryside near the Icknield Way (Blue Streak) and the Government military underground fuel pipe that possibly follows this Neolithic path.
Bright fields of poppies grown for medical diamorphine.

Robinson is a surrealist who has encounters with flowers – biophilia.

Very long shot of white foxgloves swaying in the breeze.
Long shot of butterfly on teasels briefly joined by a bee.
A great example of SLOW FILM

Watching the film I realize I am neglecting the book I am working on – carry on watching the film anyway.

Robinson in Ruins is set against the backdrop of the financial crisis of 2008. London takes place around Black Wednesday in 1992. Is this coincidence or does Keiller/Robinson have a nose for financial catastrophe?

At this point I stop making notes and just watch the rest of the film.

Interview about psychogeography and London Overground on Celluloid Wicker Man

celluloid wicker man

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

Will Self on “under-imagined” landscapes and “embracing the liminal”

Earlier in the year I dug out this unused footage from the interview I shot with Will Self for The London Perambulator in December 2008. He talks about his airport walks – one of which features in the film when I rendezvoused with him and Nick Papadimitriou on the canal near Wormword Scrubs and followed them along the towpath to Perivale, an episode that crops up in Will’s book Walking to Hollywood.

He also mentions some of the walks he’d taken in the past with Nick Papadimitriou –  “bisecting the Ridgeway at the concrete works near Princess Risborough and walking up into hills there, your stamping ground in fact John” – referencing the area around where I grew up and carried out a psychogeography project with my sister between 2004-05.

The walks out to the Isle of Grain, were part of “extending that idea of the liminal out into landscapes, topographies that are under-imagined in that way – the Grain for me was the great under-imagined place even though of course it features in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it features in Celine’s Mort a Credit, even though it features in Dickens it’s the opening of Great Expectations, not actually on Grain but on the marshes between Gravesend and the Isle of Grain”.

He describes these as Interzonal Walks.

The lure of such interzones is “our willingness to abandon romantic conceptions of both the urban and the rural and to embrace the liminal …. is a sign of that we are prepared to engage with the totality of our environment”.

 

 

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.”