Walford, Running, Nandos and more…

Associates in Conversation, February 2018

Verity-Jane Keefe: I asked you all to come with a three-minute idea in your head; something connecting to the city — not necessarily your work, not a project:

So I’ll start. I really love Eastenders, and over the last nine months, it’s finally caught on with what’s happening in London. I think one of the things that I’ve historically really liked about Eastenders is that it doesn’t represent London at all. It seems like this microcosm. It doesn’t reflect the kind of people that you’d find living in a beautiful Victorian square anymore, drinking in the pub on the corner. For the last year, this storyline has started to creep in. There’s been various indicators, all starting with Tracey being fired from the Queen Vic. She got fired, basically, because they wanted to change the clients out — so Tracey kind of becomes this emblem of gentrification.

Then there’s the decanting of the towers. Walford is a fictional tower block that’s been there for about 35 years. There was a storyline that the tower was being decanted — a whole raft of new residents had moved to the square and had been decanted there.

A fictional property company came about called Weyland & Co. It soon rolled out a fictional takeover/take-down of Walford. The pace really picked up — eviction notices were served; everyone got shafted; properties sold. In this scene where they break the ground of the
local community centre, they say not to worry if this doesn’t happen because they’ve got a big master plan happening over in Dagenham Dock. So real-life things that are happening in London permeate Eastenders; permeate the fiction.

Lois Stonock: Okay, when I’m not working every day, I’m generally running or cycling like a maniac. I wanted to talk today about this visceral experience of the city that I have when I’m running around the city; running through the places I’m staying or living in. So this is a quote from Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: “It doesn’t matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop”, which is my mantra for when I’m running.

I think for me, I have a weird experience of the city: I put on my running shoes, and it feels almost like I become invisible and start to see the place where I’m running in a completely different way. I’m looking for paths that allow me to go a certain distance; paths where there’s less people; I’m trying to see interesting stuff otherwise it’s really boring… It’s a way for me to start to find places I wouldn’t go to if I was just on my way to the shop or on my way to work, a kind of meandering way to understand places and think about different routes between places. With that there’s a physical understanding of the city versus a mental understanding of it. I’m thinking about how my knees, ankles, legs are hurting… It allows me to see places in a different light.

It’s the first thing I do in places I travel to. I stayed in Singapore for about eight months, and I used to run out to the docks in the West, where you can smell the oil, to a really quiet part of the city. Last year with Associates I was running in Eastbourne, Hereford, Folkestone, and Torbay last week. I’ve run in some places I shouldn’t have run — it was a really bad idea to run in Sudan, I wish someone had told me not to do that… Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand… What I’m constantly thinking about is this physical relationship with a space I have when I stay there, versus an academic way of thinking about place, which involves reading papers, for example.

Tom Keeley: I am an Architectural Historian but I don’t normally write about buildings in the way that a traditional Architectural Historian might. I write, I teach, I do a PhD, and generally that work has always been about looking at the specifics of a place — how you can begin to understand or experience or document that place. Sometimes that has been to do with the formal methods of the text, sometimes it’s been to do with the process or practice of how and what you gather to form that text — that could be a building, a critic, a point of view, or a route, or a moment in history.

At the moment I’ve been thinking a lot about how you could begin to pull that experience of place into some kind of — and I’m not an architect, I’m not a designer — but about how a history or something about a place can become an architecture.

Mostly my brain is full of the Irish border, which is what both my teaching and PhD are looking at. And I’ve been thinking a lot about what that border — or it could be any place — is made of, physically, structurally, socially, politically, materially. And how you can begin to take all these things that you look very closely at and build up a palette of what a place actually is; one that could be used to then consider built form. It could be in terms of architectural form or the physical nature of the building; in terms of the method; the programme, or probably some combination of all those things. Tarmac, moss, crazy
paving, signage, tarp, water, river, white lines, bungalows, yellow lines, hedges, wind, wet… Just thinking really carefully about how you can put together some kind of pattern book of a place and what that resulting building or the history of that place in architecture might be.

Hadrian Garrard: I am more interested in architecture these days than art and culture. I’ve become really interested in buildings. I read that Rowan Moore book Slow Burn City: London in the Twenty-First Century, which I would highly recommend— it’s a sort of less annoying than Ian Sinclair walk around London, and it’s from a historical perspective but also contemporary issues that he’s interested in. I suppose that’s led towards the organisation I run being involved with building things, so we’re working with MUF architecture at the moment and we’re building some housing in Barking.

It’s a very different way of working. It’s much slower, in four year cycles, and it’s really interesting to go through that process of making decisions which will have an impact for the next 15 years. The parts of the city I know are all changing really rapidly and what Rowan Moore argues is that a city needs to burn and change, but people are getting shoved out of the city as a result.

Charlie Timms: Well, I don’t really have anything particularly clever to offer, and that’s largely because I have a daughter now, and the experience of parenthood alters what you can see. But walking has become a bit of thing.

Initially when she was quite small I’d just walk her around outside the house to get her to go to sleep, and as she got a bit older it became possible to take her to different places in the time between feeds. And this is when it got quite interesting because it meant that the window to go somewhere became this fixed unit of time – I ended up going to places I wouldn’t normally go.

Now she’s a bit older its more about where you can get to in an hour. If you travel for more than an hour it starts to feel like you’re doing a bad thing to her, like it’s not fair. What’s kind of interesting about this is that the bible for people who want to go walking outside of London is Time Out Country Walks. If you look at the map at the start, in all the 56 walks, you’ve only really got one in Hertfordshire and three in Essex, but they’re right on the far side, like basically there’s nowhere to go just outside of London.
So that’s kind of what we’re doing now. Like, can you walk from Harlow to Epping in 5 hours? I think there’s a book in it somewhere…I don’t think it’s really teaching us anything about the contemporary urban experience, but it’s just trying to escape a bit I guess, and how you can do that when everything changes quite fundamentally.

Steve Moffitt: My thoughts about the city are to do with my work, which I can’t really separate. I think of London as a place where you just work. I suppose I’m intrigued by London Borough of Culture. I don’t mind who wins, but there are interesting things emerging as a consequence of the idea of it. That’s actually really exciting, because I live in Lewisham, and I did a thing a couple of weeks ago, and the local authority guy — the part time head of Culture there — said ‘we have no money, we can only enable and support.’ But I thought that was good. Like okay, it’s going to be a do-it-yourself version of stuff.

The other thing is, because of what I do, I think I have to deal with the more local aspects of the cultural sector in terms of children and young people.

Their myopic experience of what children’s experience of what arts and culture is is quite damaging.

And a third thing: I’m anxious. My anxiety is about Arts Council’s next 2 years is going to be spent thinking about their next 10 year framework, and the amount of energy that’s going to consume and waste. But the thing I’m excited about is, I’ve got this thing about archiving the stories of how people make stuff happen. I’m working with a group of people to try and look at how arts education, creative education, cultural education, has emerged and who’s led that over a number of years. I’m really interested in recording the people who are about to die. I know that sounds awful, but people who are in their mid to late-80s, who made stuff happen, and I’m quite excited about that. A lot of it is in London, a lot of it is to do with the things that happened here [Toynbee Hall]. 

John Holden: Well I’ve got the opposite issue — I left London 35 years ago to go and live in a house with a dirt floor and a wood burning stove, in search of rural bliss… Night skies, the seasons, growing my own vegetables, all that. And what I’ve seen — my daughter now lives off Brick Lane — is that the city has got a lot more exciting since then. It’s actually done a really good job of importing the things I went looking for. You can carve spoons on the Hackney road; you can go to farmer’s markets; you can have localism; a sense of community; you go running and cycling in an urban environment; there are green spaces that people take care of. It’s not so brilliant at recycling and solar power — these things we do better in the countryside.

What’s exercising me, now, is transporting the virtues of the city into the rural. What we do very well in the country is a great sense of community. It’s a different way to live — not a better one. It’s much more trans-generational than you get in the city. But how do we get the kind of cultural life the city has to the country? I don’t just mean importing the ballet and the opera, I mean things like cinema. You cannot see anything the way you can see it in London — we don’t have venues, we don’t have enough touring stuff, we have a lot of amateur stuff that could be an awful lot better than it is. There’s a lot going on but it’s not just about forms of culture, it’s more about things that come with city life like tolerance, diversity, unexpectedness and the quixotic variety that you get in urban life that’s missing from country life. I think it’s quite an interesting question that doesn’t arise enough in these creative-cultural strategies that everybody seems to be looking for. I think it might be worth, in thinking about creative strategies, considering this tension between the rural and the urban.

Actually where it really fails is the big space in the middle — there are loads of virtues in the deep countryside and loads of virtues in the city. Sometimes they’re contradictory, but they’re there. But the bad state, the Daily Mail, suburbs, Brexit, in-betweens, where people aren’t interested in culture, aren’t interested in diversity… What do we do about them?

John Newbiggin: I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the Winter Olympics. One of the things that struck me is the immense difference in culture between skiers and snowboarders. It’s intriguing that the culture of snowboarding — which is a very serious Olympic sport — is so different from skiing. With skiing there’s this intensely competitive edge. Of course, skiing’s been around for a long time and they’ve brought a lot of historical baggage with them. I thought, this is exactly like the relationship between television and video games. The culture in the video game world is so different from that of the TV world. There are still hangovers from the whole Oxbridge thing, that attitude of “I think what we’re making is shit but the people we’re making it for are shit so it doesn’t really matter.” It’s incredible how that attitude holds. But in the video games world, that really isn’t there. It’s a much more collaborative process. People compete with each other but they collaborate; they engage their audiences in a completely different way. And I think it’s because they haven’t got all of that accumulated baggage.

With Clore Leadership I’ve taken to, on the short courses, reading them chapters out of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes [by Jonathan Rose], and I’m particularly stuck about the Welsh miner’s institutes, where in the 30s, in the depths of depression, they had huge libraries with hundreds of thousands of books, they had theatres, poetry circles, string quartets, reading clubs. People really taking themselves seriously because, it seems to me, they wanted to be able to look anybody in the eye and say I am your intellectual equal, I am your social equal.

How have we lost that? How do we create a new culture where those kind of things are taken seriously? We’ve allowed this kind of culture of not caring to evolve. It’s like the skiing culture, and here comes snowboarding with a radically different culture, there’s video games with a radically different culture. How do we get back to this culture where it’s not about being pompous, but it’s about taking things seriously, and taking the arts seriously. In a multicultural diverse society like this, what are the agents that are going to enable that new perception of what the arts can be doing to break through? Like what you were saying about the London Borough of Culture, I think some really interesting stuff is coming out of that. It’s cutting through a lot of the crap.

John Kieffer: I’m going to talk about Nando’s, which I’ve been doing some research on over the last six or seven months. I’ve always been fascinated by spaces that seem to achieve some kind of real inclusion unintentionally. I lived and worked in Johannesburg for a year and when I was there Nando’s was one of the only places where everyone would go, despite race or class or whatever. It’s the same in London. In the last few months I’ve been to Kensal Rise Nando’s, Stanmore Nando’s, Brixton, Hammersmith, Finsbury Park… It’s been very interesting, a bit of amateur anthropology really! There’s something about how it’s laid out that works. There’s far too many big tables, so people always end up sharing tables. There’s something about the queueing systems. It’s good for children, too. It’s just a very neutral environment.

But what I’m also aware of is that it’s often used in really pejorative terms. People saying, ‘if we do this development we need to keep Nando’s out, we need to get some upmarket craft bakery instead.’ And I think actually we need to look at places like Nando’s and see why they work, these convivial spaces. For me, if you’re looking for places that facilitate a different kind of culture, it’s not going to be some over-designed hipster place, it’s going to be somewhere like Nando’s.

John N: Imagine if you had a Nando’s at the top of Tate Modern instead of a Jeremy King restaurant… They’re all getting angsty about their profile and I think you might as well put a great big sign out at the door saying “only white middle class people with big wallets need enter” — because look at the food!

Verity: To follow on from Nando’s, I actually want to talk about Wetherspoons, these new models of civic spaces… anti-civic spaces, I guess. They’re a catch-all for everybody. You can go in from eight in the morning and have a cup of tea for £1.20 and stay there until 11 at night. You can hot-desk, there’s free wifi, you can use the toilet — nobody will look at you. And interestingly, they also become local history galleries. Each of them is named after somebody, so there’s this question of provenance. The Lord Denman in Dagenham has a kind of heritage gallery with lots of frames and bits of local history. I was in there the other week and you have lads in there drinking pints and reading these local history panels. I think there’s something in that intersection and why they’re successful. You know, I would personally and professionally be lost without them!

So, whilst everyone was talking I wrote down some words, and there were some points of similarity in what you were talking about: duration, change, pace, time, slow-burn, having a need to slow down — that’s the basis of my practice anyway, taking a really long time to mine the city — the way we read the city, by foot, by running, through the lens of something else, like television. And then this idea of the mobility of culture, the imported rural condition. Is it possible to export the urban condition, and how could that happen? Could we import the Nando’s/ Wetherspoons context into formalised cultural conditions? Then there’s another way of reading the city, maybe thinking of Colin Ward’s The Child in the City a radical rereading of the city through the child’s eyes, and how time has become even more important, giving you windows in which to do things. It adjusts, hinders, dictates the way you move through the city.