Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Another journey we went on.

'To see oneself as if from the outside, to see oneself, as it were, in a romance' is how Keiller's Robinson phrases it, as we watch an inflatable Ronald Macdonald buckling up with laughter in the wind. Proverbially, we are living in interesting times, and yet it's as lugubrious an affair as it ever was.
We went east for this one. A long journey on the DLR takes one out through the recognisable urban landscape of zones 1 and 2, the odd forlorn grey church or Passmore Edwards philanthropic effort stands forlornly in amongst quotidian yellow terraces and post war blocks, all of which stare uncomfortably at the glistening Wharf, and the Blair-box post urban dwelling units, all mediocrity and lack of spirit, each made out of a hundred different materials, all of them cheap, all of them nasty.
Eventually though East London becomes something completely different. As the DLR proceeds along its raised path, it moves into the areas south of the Olympic joke; Silvertown, North Woolwich. Space opens out here, there are gaps between objects, factories, wastelands, sewage, the occasional outcrop of Victorian dock-worker housing. This is neither the inner London of familiar neighbourhoods, with their individual characters and attractions, but neither is it the seemingly interminable suburban London of small, identical centres surrounded by seemingly infinite stretches of disconcertingly banal houses. There is no topography out here, it is uncannily flat, and the sky seems larger, more oppressive.

You get out at Woolich Arsenal, make your way up the escalator through a terrible parody of eighties public art that might have once adorned a cocktail bar full of braying brokers. In this case the one who should know better is Michael Craig-Martin.

The first point of call, as it should be, is a caff, in this case a rather cavernous effort on Hare street. Just us at first, followed by a handful of yout' and then an elderly couple. The street itself looks rather upset, empty. We discuss the potentials of genuine Raskolnikoff-style loft-living in a dilapidated building across the street, and the appropriateness of a pound shop with a shrub growing energetically from its sign. After some food, coffee and a charitable donation of superglue from the proprietor, we're off, the route being from Woolwich, along the river to Thamesmead.

Woolwich Arsenal has military pedigree. This now manifests itself as a heritage museum, luxury flats in vintage buildings and strange old men wandering around in fatigues, looking rather camp. Not far away from us, a couple of these old queens were beseeching some young boys to 'MARCH!'. Inside the building they have a section of the Iraqi Supergun.

Gormley is the sum of all the public art ever created. It has something to say about the individual and corporeality, maybe. It's the art equivalent of a half-arsed fireworks display; ooh, aah, that's nice.

A coded message that we were entering sovereign territory. The logo has a sinister simplicity to it, easily carved into flesh with a blade.

There was barely anybody around. The whole day had the feeling of that strange over-provision of space that excites the hauntological imagination so; spaces built for ceremonies that there are no longer enough people to take part in. Rattling around in the old place when the kids have gone. There'll be a lot of this feeling soon.

Where old bikes come to die.

The Keillerian Picturesque.
A flat in the buildings to the right of the photo went on the market a year ago at £285,000. You can get one now for £120,000.

The charming prospect from a Negative-Equity Ghetto. While we passed, there were children playing nearby, the most spirited moment of the day at that point.

More anti-picturesque urbanism. This was parked in front of a square of eco-houses, all wooden framed windows, passive solar gain windows and ventilation towers. It must have taken quite a maneuver to get that into the bush in such an impressive fashion.

Everybody needs something to take the edge off it.

It's hard to quite see how a vicious monster is going to make children more likely to enjoy reading.

This mammoth warehouse was completely empty, not yet finished. And what a time to be finishing off! There's been much nonsensical chat about empty Woolworths and high street space being turned into art-space, but to find the closest equivalent to the to the riverside warehouses or the dead factories of previous generations, surely this is the unfortunate answer - gargantuan blairite distribution sheds?

The plastic sheathe containing this planning notice had filled up with water like a bureaucratic colostomy bag.

What you are now we used to be, what we are now you will be.


Where were you in '92?

We found the last remaining vestige of the snow in Britain.

This is the Ridgeway, a quasi-rural path covering Bazalgette's Southern Outfall Sewer, its blankness punctuated by the ubiquitous surveillance.

A badge of honour, apparently.

Beneath the Ridgeway there is a road whose only users were learner drivers, interminably going back and forth.

The right-to-buy in action.

Oh Corbu!

It seems that Thamesmead is losing walkways...

In fact, Thamesmead appears to be losing rather a lot of itself. This was once the health centre.

Like something from Pynchon, there appeared to be a conspiracy involving the post.

It looks like there's been nothing to report for a long time.

Except that romance can occur anywhere.

Nobody receives any messages here.


At the other side of the lake, horses roam freely.

What's all this about a new way?

We needed to rest, so we popped in for a little bit of milk-plus. Just to take the edge off of things. Although inside the bar certain unfortunate truths about East London became clear; that we were a long way from Kinsgland Road.

Welly welly welly well!

There was a demon spectre at the window here.

Note that on the wall of this community centre, the artist has depicted various different phases in the housing history of the area; The Brutalism, and the two methods in which it has been exorcised; Thatcherite reaction and Blairite apologetic eclecticism.

Nearing the end of the journey, awaiting our train back to Kansas, we were confronted with this poster, two unseemly characters who have been living on the walls for the last year or so, smugly staring at each other in satiated consumptive bliss. Laura depicted them at her last exhibition; they're probably estate agents.

And then, we left, to be injected back into the familiar city.


Roy said...

Cracking essay, Mr Vergeht! Did you happen upon the clockwork orange set purely by accident? - must have been a nice surprise if so!

Interesting also the 'Right to buy' photo - is the incongruous exterior finish a common effect of the right to buy I wonder?

Paul said...

The poster seems to be saying: "after half a glass of Bordeaux, you will be unable to support the weight of your own head."

A marvellous essay. I had forgotten how bleak things can be Out East.

Top floor view said...

Nice exotic touches, but you forgot to mention the part about how we're all, without exception, teenage pregnacy offspring, have bare-knuckle fisty cuffs beneath the walkways, listen to bach while dreaming of white supremacy, scream at grannies at bus shelters until their hair flys off, and have generally so perfected the art of scrounging that even Engels wouldn't have felt sorry for us.
In all, thanks for renewing my chip for another 15 years!
Former Thamesmead inhabitant.

Murphy said...

Roy: a) No. The Clockwork Orange connection was well known before.
b) The incongruous exterior finish is very much a right-to-buy thing, making your ex council home a quasi-castle, and not anything like your neighbours!

TFV: I'm not sure I understand you- who's 'we'?

I hope you're not aggrieved by the tone of the piece, I struggle to see why you could be.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

I must say I find the highlighting of right-to-buy modification sneery to say the least. Are you the sort that thinks people shouldn't have had the right-to-buy, as they weren't capable of it?

Paul said...

Buying social housing is not a right but a privilege. The stone-cladding which buyers add to their properties, like the Georgian-style doors, are merely evidence of aesthetic impoverishment. It is particularly poignant to see one flat of a multi-storey block given a facade to make it appear as if it were in Gloucestershire.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

Aesthetic impoverishment eh? I've heard some nasty ideas on right to buy in my time, but this is a peach.

So what's your criteria for this priveliged class of council house tenants? I can see the right to buy application form:

-Are you or a member of your family a stone cladder? YES/NO

-Do you know who Rodney Gordon is? YES/NO

-Do you own Taschen coffee table books on Berlin interiors? YES/NO

-Are you likely to put two lion statues outside the front door? YES/NO

Go and knock on the door of that house in the photo, ask them what they think of right to buy. I'll bet you an Adam Smith they think it was the best damn thing that ever happened to them. Then tell them that they don't deserve it, and hopefully you'll learn an important lesson.

Paul said...

I expect they will say that they bought the place for a song at a mortgagee sale, and that the stone-cladding was added by the previous owners, who bought the house from the Council but could not keep up the mortgage payments.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

Nice assumption: that the people who can't afford mortgage payments are the same people that desire stone cladding.

You're a case study in leftie hatred of the working classes, well done sir. Evidently Kingsland road the is the new Bloomsbury. How's that for an assumption about you.

Paul said...

Back in the Seventies, middle class folk would complain that some council tenants could perfectly-well afford to buy their own homes and did not deserve to have council houses. So, when Mrs T got into power, she solved this problem by allowing those very people to buy their houses, thus depriving people in need of state housing.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Murphy said...

Oh well, I guess some people wouldn't know irony if they were hit with a rusty bar made from it... do you really think that if I unproblematically self-identified with hipsterdom I'd have made those bloody Wizard of Oz references?

Anyway, it's nice to see people fighting over who is allowed to truly empathise with the genuine desires of the working class; see a more recent post above.

Personally, I think that the right-to-buy was a very clever attempt to destroy social housing and get the working class voting Tory. What's done is done, if you want to stick stone lions in front of your house that's up to you; snobbery or not, aesthetics isn't the main issue in this situation.

Fiend's Brave Victim said...

Sorry, it's been a while since I watched the Wizard of Oz, never been one for hip references ; )

Just joking about the Kingsland road stuff, but it is like sitting in on a Fabian Society meeting around here. You know, one of the ones before they stopped talking about who to kill.

juliejjulie said...

Ahhh bless. I do like people who look on the brighter side of life.
Anyway, you missed out one of the high lights - the gypsy site opposite the pub you went into...