Thamesmead is a flat barren landscape near the south eastern reach of the Thames, hence the name. It is a “new town” built in the late 1960s to house people displaced from demolished slum housing, temporary prefabs and bombed streets across all parts of London. It was redundant former military land with no other purpose, a vast playground for risk-averse adventurous children. Swampy marshes, buried munitions, miles to the nearest shop, school or church, nobody wanted to come here to live. The only other recent occupants had been industrial workers at Mr Bazalgette’s palatial works at Crossness Point, living in tied houses. Supplies had to be sent out across land once a week. They never left apart from at holiday time. Centuries prior to sewage and bombs there were itinerant travellers, and monks from the nearby abbey. The monks managed to drain and cultivate the land. Some of their ditches are still evident.
The new buildings of the town were of futuristic design made of bright white concrete panels, they leaked, the soft ground made for difficult construction, and later subsidence. Elevated walkways were constructed connecting buildings and “stages” – areas zoned by use and order of construction. These had an aspirational aim to separate pedestrians from road traffic, to enable natural streetscape-like community interaction. There is little to do or go to though, so people don’t appear to hang out for the vibe. The concrete walkways also provided a safe route to higher ground in the event of the river flooding. It still threatens to today, although a system of ornamental lakes assist with storm water storage and controlled pumping out to the tide. Apparently there was a competition to select the name for the new town, although no-one knows who made the choice, why it won, or what the other entries were. Perhaps it never happened, and is all just an urban myth. It sounds like an invented place though.
What we do know is it is a failure trying to recover., trying to find its identity and its purpose. It is now in effect two separate towns bearing the same name, obtusely separated by a massive above ground sewage pipe which carries matter from much of South London to Mr Bazalgette’s aforementioned palace. This pipe forms a diagonal line visible at the right hand side of the opening sequence of Eastenders. Both towns are as aesthetically removed from the quaint Victorian square, market place and pub portrayed in the programme as any part of London could be. The newer part, to the north of the pipe, is a confusing spread of cul de sacs containing identical 1980s built brick houses, reminiscent of Channel 4’s Brookside. In spite of their young age, these houses haven’t weathered well. Many have moss growing on roofs, rotting wood, and algae attaching itself to walls. I doubt their residents have interestingly dysfunctional lives, unlike Phil Redmond’s Merseyside characters. This incarnation of the town is even more poorly connected to the rest of the world, cars being essential. Did Brookside residents ever travel on buses? I have a very vague memory of someone doing so. I only go to the “other side” on my way to the river path, or if I have to collect a parcel. The sorting office is suitably inaccessible along the pipe and past a place where the grit for the roads is piled up in heaps.
I live here because of a strange scenario. I definitely do not belong here, or even like it here especially. Some of the original properties are due to be demolished in the next few years, to be replaced by modern, fit for purpose homes which are smaller and more expensive than the current estate. Some already have been demolished, leaving pockets of vacant land, symbolic void space enclosed by plywood hoardings. As people move out, new tenancies are not granted, but dispossessed people like me are able to live in them short term, for low rent, in return for doing some voluntary activities. It seems obtuse to think that I am supposed to contribute to creating a community which will eventually reject me, and force me to move on. I feel sad to say it, but I think the place is beyond hope. I don’t think it will become a community. There is evidence that it has been one of sorts, there are friendships formed out of circumstance, but, to come back to the overriding point, no one wanted to come here. Even in the new plans, I don’t see anything additional to attract people.
Right now there are fireworks exploding for New Year. I’m inside, blocking out the world. I could put out the webcams but they won’t capture much, and it is time to do less film work. I don’t want to record any of that. That is an old existence. Just observing from within is enough for now.
I’ve been validated as an artist by being asked to work professionally again, using text in a well known public space. Text, and writing, is a more enabling medium for me to work with. It feels naturally expressive for me, and easy because I don’t have to work within the competitive world of the studio organisations and their frameworks, or, at the moment, to satisfy anyone else. A dedicated studio space would help with self-discipline and organisation and use of time, but it’s an overhead I can’t commit to at present, so the self discipline has to come from within. Previously when I’ve performed these works I found the almost silent concentration, and the close proximity to words made for a zen-like meditative level of concentration. I find it hard to achieve that routinely these days.
I seem to be producing a flowing stream of words, some less unformed than others. The idea of putting them in public, away from the conventional space of printed matter or remote people at their screens appeals. Obviously that’s what graffiti grew out of; the uncensored, uncurated, DIY immediacy. Those turquoise painted hoardings make perfect transitory gallery walls, but anything on them doesn’t seem to last long, they’re too public, too visible, too corporate. Even though they’re plain and temporary they represent a carefully homogenised corporate backed future. There are other locations which can be used though, less trodden paths. These very words will find themselves exposed in public one day probably. Writing about writing, and how that writing is to be read, I think we call that “meta”. If stuck up on paper, they won’t do permanent damage, all will slowly evolve into other forms, mould may grow, colour may fade, the whole thing will disintegrate. Nothing is ever truly permanent though.
I ended up in somewhere called Slade Green last night, a place with a train depot and an air of nothingness. I actually enjoyed the feeling of being lost in sodium lit mist for a change, and happened to find a bus which took me somewhere that I’ve heard of. I should explore by bike at night. I’m an outsider in these parts.