The East End on Film

Various directors, East End Film Festival, London

OK, so my girlfriend and I trundled along early one Sunday afternoon to a little cinema on a quiet Kingsland High Street in Dalston, Hackney. There was none of the week-day bustle. The market was deserted. And with just half an hour to go before the commencement of this particular instalment of the ‘festival’, the shutters were down at the Rio. When we eventually got in, we felt like we were making up the numbers of what director Bev Zalcock jokingly referred to in her introduction as the hardcore avant-garde. We sat in eager anticipation of the visual delights to come.

An hour and a half later, we couldn’t have been happier to stumble wearily back out. As my girlfriend put it, they may have been short films but they weren’t short enough for her liking. But as a dedicated Culture Wars reviewer I am obliged to explain why I could only too readily agree. My trawl of the festival website – a last ditch attempt to make sure I wasn’t missing something – didn’t offer any insights into what the suite of films had to say, or why BAFTA nominated director (and here curator), Carol Morley decided to put them together in the first place.

The festival, I eventually discovered after an aborted search of the ‘about’ page, is something to do with ‘paying tribute to the diversity and scope of artistic endeavour coursing through our streets’. But I could only conclude that if anything was still coursing through the streets of the East End, it hadn’t made its way into the cinema. Not recently anyway. These particular films, explained the blurb, were an examination of ‘the East End’s heritage as told by local artist filmmakers’. Which explained why ‘Heritage Shorts’ was printed on our tickets and why they harked back to 1987, 1985, 2004, 1994 and 2004 respectively. The organisers were clearly using the words ‘new and contemporary’ rather liberally, to describe films made in the past twenty-odd years.

Which would have been fine if the material had been of a consistently good quality, or if it held together better. But the quality was variable and the ‘hanging’ failed to convince. The organisers predictably enough had fallen back on tired rhetoric about transcending all sorts of ‘cultural, political and artistic boundaries’. No doubt I am just not suited to such difficult and challenging work. As ‘artist filmmakers’, perhaps they don’t take kindly to bourgeois constraints on their creativity. But surely an attempt to ‘visualise the experience of living and working in the East End of London’ wasn’t a big ask. And yet only a couple managed to do this.

The fourth in the series, A13, directed by William Raban, passed the Ronseal test as it were. It begins with the journey made by traders to Billingsgate market in the early hours, as the newspapers roll off the presses and the traffic begins to roll along the main road past Canary Wharf. There is a poetic quality to it. Perhaps akin to the classic Night Mail, featuring the verse of WH Auden, there is an insistent sense of movement throughout. There is also a rare optimism, an excitement about city life. And there is variation. The day progresses, the light changes. Men out fishing in the shadow of the early morning metropolis, and the scattered orange boxes and dismantling of stalls, as the sun sets.

The other four films, as Zalcock indicated in her introduction, were surreal treatments of their respective subjects. She too seemed to be struggling for a rationale for the showing. But was nevertheless on to something here. The second film, East End Underground Movement, directed by Zalcock herself was easily the weakest though. She got her excuses in early claiming lack of funds. Somewhere between a bad music video and a grainy al-Qaeda call to arms, the title is a play on words taken from a graffiti scrawl. A woman on the tube to East Ham make believes that she is a freedom fighter or the ‘war child’ of the Debbie Harry soundtrack that accompanies it. This is intercut with the mundane reality of travelling eastbound on the district line, staring out at the desolate backdrop of the outerlying boroughs as they recede from view.

The best of the bunch, and the only other to do what it said on the tin/website, is Black Tower, by John Smith. This and Stalin My Neighbour, directed by Morley, both feature a disoriented, and unhinged first person narrator (complicated slightly by the split personality of the latter). Black Tower is also intensely claustrophobic, as the imposing and sinister-looking building of the title appears and re-appears, wherever he goes, crowding out his senses, and obscuring even our vision. His despair is concealed by a slightly comic monotone delivery. This articulates the repressive banality and sheer ordinariness of, and the melancholy induced by, the ‘unfashionable’ (according to Zalcock) and ever-so suburban Leytonstone with which I am all too familiar. It is a highly original work mixing abstraction and lingering still shots of the local area. For me it stood out as both technically and conceptually inventive. It too, however, was overlong.

Stalin My Neighbour features a deceptively straight ‘to camera’ guided tour of the old East End by an increasingly agitated young woman. Her psychogeographical leanings tell us of the lodgings where the Stalin of the title once stayed for an International get together, inform us of the Ripper’s prowlings, and hint at the gentler ambience of Gandhi’s wanderings, for instance. Indeed, just when I thought the East End itself was starting to take shape (if only through the trivia of criminal infamy and the accidents of residence of important historical figures) it turns out that her idiosyncratic historical journey is an expression of what her alter-ego describes as ‘depersonalisation’, a distraction for a troubled psyche trying to avoid a guilty secret. Shame. I was just beginning to find my bearings.

Thankfully, Fisticuffs, by Miranda Pennell, set in a Hackney working men’s club, was a bit of light relief. The film might have reflected on the passing of the political culture that gave rise to these now tired institutional hangovers that like Butlins continue to stumble along. But perhaps nostalgia for past leisure pursuits past isn’t the best response. Fisticuffs ignores all of this anyway and avoids poignancy and social comment altogether, preferring the absurd. The club is no more than a backdrop for a kind of saloon bar ballet. A neatly choreographed cowboy brawl ensues as old ladies chat and knit, blokes play pool, and the line dancing – perhaps the inspiration for the piece – goes on oblivious to the slapstick violence.

Fisticuffs and A13 share a balletic feel and wear their light touch well, but there is something missing. They seem to celebrate the banality of the everyday that is so brooding and arguably more effective for it in the Black Tower. They are as hollow as East End Underground Movement is barren. If there is a unifying theme this is it. The films, with the exception of A13 and possibly Black Tower, said very little if anything about the East End of London. I couldn’t help thinking that the supposed radicalism of such ‘underground’ film making is more a bunker retreat from the people actually ‘living and working in the East End’. A near-deserted auditorium was perhaps testament to this curious absence at the heart of a festival ostensibly dedicated to celebrating the area. Fortunately things had perked up outside. It was Sunday after all, so we went shopping.

The Anxious City

From the nervous nineties to the even more nervous post-9/11 noughties, we do indeed appear to live in anxious times. But neuroses have long been connected with urban space and living in the metropolis. And for Richard Williams, lecturer at the Department of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, there is more to our anxieties than fear of crime or imminent terrorist attack. He is interested in the more fundamental anxiety about where society is headed, crystallised he argues in the uncertain status of the post-War city.

Certainly, despite excited talk of urban renaissance, the city has struggled to find itself of late, a problem perhaps best exemplified in the distinctly English new urbanism of the Prince of Wales’ recent pet project of Poundbury in Dorset – a biscuit tin village of an ‘urban’ development if ever there was one. To Williams’ credit, he is careful not to underestimate the pervasiveness of this profoundly conservative outlook. Despite the rantings of HRH on the subject of carbuncles and suchlike through the 1980s and beyond, it is the work of the supposedly arch-‘modernists’ Richard Rogers and Norman Foster that have brought a very English restraint to the very heart of the metropolis.

English architects have sought refuge in what Williams calls the ‘architecture of civility’, primarily in the forms of the public squares and street cafes familiar on the continent. For Richard Rogers, these are the places where ‘citizenship is enacted’ (and, he forgets to mention, enforced). The transformation of Trafalgar Square into the centerpiece of a newly urbane urbanism – with CCTV, wardens, and GLA-approved festivities included – is indicative.

The problem with public life is not so much that we lack public spaces anyway, but rather that as the political sphere has narrowed there is little intellectual room for manouvre. For this reason, the imperatives of mobility and civil renewal are not – as the prevailing view would have it – opposed.

Which is why Milton Keynes – infamous 1960s ‘new town’ – is the most striking of Williams’ case-studies. It towers above the rest despite its low-rise and fundamentally suburban credentials, because it is unashamedly urban in outlook. Milton Keynes was built for the car, for vast and sprawling living, and it continues to be the fastest growing urban area in the country. The reality might not match up to the original plans, but that isn’t the point. In the not so distant past, this could have been the future.

Instead we have restoration and memorialisation. Williams cites Liverpool’s Albert Docks as an example of our anxious fixation with the past, and what it represents, to the detriment of building something that might endure in the future. The ossified ruins of the city’s merchant past weren’t ruinous enough for some mawkishly nostalgic commentators. The only way that this particular instance of the urban could be made acceptable was by denying itself and inhabiting the debris of something less fleeting or insubstantial than today’s confused culture.

This romanticisation of glories associated with more robust times is less evident though in the other Docklands – or ‘America, E14’, as one critic dubbed it. And it has invited the venomous hostility of the English architectural establishment ever since. Canary Wharf’s association with the rhetoric of the free market individualism of the 1980s partly explains this. As does the anti-Americanism that Williams also identifies. And there is more to it than financial deregulation and the suspension of planning law. The shiny new development starkly represented the kind of brash ambition and Wild West optimism that is anathema to a profession intent on purging itself of such hubris.

But even beneath the Pelli tower – Canary Wharf’s seemingly ballsy icon that so upsets its reactionary critics – anxiety abounds. For Williams, Docklands’ ‘super-modernism’ is as disorienting as it is impressive, its towering buildings and wide open spaces only exaggerating its uninhabited ‘alien’ ambience. The area is hermetically sealed from the rest of the city a few stops down the DLR or Jubilee Line, its stifling surveillance infrastructure ostensibly a reaction to the IRA bomb in 1993. America, E14 may not be as inward looking as Poundbury, but if Williams is right only, the buildings have sharp edges. It represents a hollow urbanism that is just as intent on disciplining those that enter its enclosures.

Despite the visual transformation of our cityscapes, punctuated as they are by these ever-more spectacular buildings and developments, there remains an underlying continuity with the typically parochial architecture of the past. Williams is impressive on the way that architects have articulated a culture informed by fear. What he doesn’t do is ask why this is happening now and – just as important – why we are more receptive to it than ever before.

Turning out the bright lights in big cities

The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics (LSE) describes civil society as the ‘arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values’ (1). In today’s individuated society, however, the notion that civil society is defined by its independence from the state is sadly lacking.

The London Civic Forum is perhaps more in vogue with its vague-sounding concern for promoting ‘civic literacy, civic space, civic cohesion, civic leadership and civic pride’ (2) – phrases that slip easily from the mouths of government ministers attempting to ‘connect’ with voters.

These different takes on civil society were interrogated at ‘Civil Society and The City’, an event organised by the Future Cities Project at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, on 30 November 2004.

For David Petch, commissioner with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the ‘homogenising tendencies’ of government initiatives are actually more likely to stifle civic pride than to stimulate it (3). Though it may appear odd to hear somebody like Petch talking about civil society, he is by no means unusual among the crime-fighting fraternity in taking an interest in the subject.

‘Civil renewal is at the heart of the Home Office’s vision of life in our 21st century communities’, or so says its website. The Home Office has invited local authorities to volunteer themselves as ‘civic pioneers’, and Birmingham was the first to be granted the title ‘civil renewal city’ (4).

Significantly, it was the industrialist and mayor of Birmingham Joseph Chamberlain who transformed it from a mercantile to a municipal city – the first of its kind, according to historian Tristram Hunt writing in BBC History Magazine. The idea that new municipal authorities would concern themselves with the welfare of their citizens represented a profound political shift.

But today’s public spirit goes under the guise of the law and order agenda. Chairing the debate, Austin Williams, technical editor at the Architects’ Journal and director of the Future Cities Project, recalled the last Urban Summit, when prime minister Tony Blair was beamed in by satellite link to herald a new ‘urban renaissance’. Instead of boulevards, cafes and warehouse conversions, delegates were treated to a sneak preview of the ‘crime and grime’ agenda of abandoned cars, litter and spray-cans.

The Home Office recently announced the publication of its White Paper ‘Building Communities, Beating Crime’, with the emphasis on neighbourhood policing, local teams of police and community support officers, and a commitment to customer service (5). Soon after came the ‘National Policing Plan 2005-08: safer, stronger communities’, prioritising the creation of a ‘citizen focused’ service intent on reducing fear of crime (6).

Panellist Rob Allen, director of the campaign group Rethinking Crime and Punishment, argued for new ways of involving communities with criminal justice – the group’s recently published report, ‘Crime, Courts and Confidence’, advocates ‘community involvement in community based sentences’ (7). Allen pointed to schemes of ‘restorative justice’, where members of the public are involved in sentencing and offenders make amends directly to the community. Ben Rogers, speaking as associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) agreed, supporting anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) on the basis that they are ‘citizen-centred’.

Tim Donovan, political editor of BBC London, was more critical. ‘We are told, left, right and centre’ that participation is an inherently good thing, he said. However, rather than representing a ‘flowering of civic identity’, this is a patronising attempt to engage with ‘you lot’. He lambasted the growth of what he termed the ‘apathy industry’.

But Rogers was unmoved. As issues like unemployment have waned, people have genuinely become more concerned about their neighbourhoods and their quality of life, he said. In his pamphlet for ippr, ‘Reinventing the Town Hall’, Rogers made the case for ‘involving the public, fostering civic pride…building trust’ and creating ‘animated public places’ (8). He elaborated in the debate, arguing that as political parties, trades unions and other institutions of civic and associational life wither away, the state, he said with chilling understatement, must ‘occupy those spaces and intervene’.

And, in this sense at least, public space is all the rage. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is charged with ‘creating sustainable’ or ‘cleaner, safer [and] greener’ communities, and is committed to ‘liveability’ (9). The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA’s) Clean Neighbourhoods initiative is similarly intent on ‘foster[ing] a sense of civic pride’ and ‘improving public space’ in communities up and down the land (10). Mayor of London Ken Livingstone has spoken of the improvements that a better environment will make to appreciation of the city, and launched London’s 100 public spaces programme (11).

According to panellist Dolan Cummings, research and editorial director at the Institute of Ideas, the cumulative effect of this is to encourage a sterile and parochial view of city life. While New Year’s Eve parties were once informal drunken affairs in which people paraded through the streets, in recent years they have been replaced by deflated official events put on by the powers that be, according to the whims of health and safety officers and the local constabulary’s concerns about loutish goings on. Today you just ‘show up and get shuffled around’, he said.

When you put this together with the Home Office’s rationale for citizenship ceremonies and identity cards, concluded Cummings, it becomes apparent that officialdom is busy ‘reconstructing the public as a membership organisation’.

And arguably, nor do we need more of the ‘small-scale, do-able, viable, publicity-friendly projects’ that were promoted by one member of the audience. We are already surrounded by these ‘projects’ and they fail to – as David Petch noted – ‘inspire [us] with a more wholesome vision’. Perhaps the civic buildings of the Victorian era give a sense of what we’re missing.

The elusive ‘vision thing’ plays its part today in the service of illiberal campaigns. In the run-up to the ban on smoking in public – as proposed in the recent Public Health White Paper (12) – local authorities competed with each other to impose their own bans. Their eagerness to appear modern (in the New Labour sense of the word) and look like trailblazing, smoke-free zealots, betrayed an acute recognition that they desperately needed a cause of some sort, an issue behind which to rally the troops and engage their respective constituencies.

In Scotland, first minister Jack McConnell presented the passing of the anti-smoking law as a matter of national pride and progress, insisting that tobacco is a ‘cultural trait’ that ‘holds us back’ (13). Welsh secretary Peter Hain soon after pledged to follow suit. Manchester’s representatives, following a fact-finding mission to smokeless Dublin, were moved to rhetorical flourish in a report agreed by the council’s executive: ‘The smoke-free city is an idea whose time has come: Manchester should be in the vanguard of this change.’ (14) Liverpool City Council, determined to put Manchester in its shadow, was set to petition parliament following a landslide vote in favour of a ban and a £1000 fine for transgressors (15).

London’s ever-liberal mayor wrote asking that the government allow him to impose a smoking ban in the capital, claiming the support of 65 per cent of Londoners (16). On another letter-writing campaign he ticked off 300 companies for allowing their workers to huddle outside smoke-free offices (17) – and in the spirit of his anti-congestion campaign, pledged his support to put-upon cabbies intoxicated by the spiralling fumes from their inconsiderate passengers (18).

Yet there was little resistance to this barely restrained moralising, beyond the inconsequential gestures of a few pro-smoking lobbyists. The appeal to the patronising notion that we need protecting from ourselves and each other trumped the urban ethics of anonymity and personal freedom. The smoking issue is emblematic of the rise of the suburban curtain-twitching perspective on cosmopolitan life and those of us vulgar enough to enjoy it.

The chaos, fumes, and bright lights of the big city are out and a new decaffeinated smoke-free miserabilism is in. There are some lone voices, though, and in the case of Tom Oliver of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), almost literally in the wilderness. Speaking from the floor at the debate, he was surprisingly enamoured of the ‘blissful anonymity’ that comes from living in London.

Dolan Cummings argued that the concern with ‘fixing communities’ rather than ‘transforming society’ betrays a politics of low horizons. The narrower terrain of defending the neighbourhood and local community are a poor substitute for the bold and transforming visions that characterised past ideological conflicts. Anyway, you can’t rebuild a sense of community feeling around ‘tenants with a grudge’, he said.

The crusades against envirocrime and anti-social behaviour in the name of building a new civil society, are sanitising city life. Fundamentally, what lies behind all this is the instinct to re-legitimise government, and other state institutions, by finding a new role for itself in society. For all the talk of involvement and participation we’d do well to keep out of it.

(1) Introduction, on the Centre for Civil Society website

(2) Policy and projects, on the the London Civic Forum website

(3) Civil Society and the City

(4) Civil renewal, on the Home Office website

(5) Building Communities, Beating Crime: A Better Police Service for the Twenty-First Century (.pdf 2.93 MB), Home Office, 9 November 2004

(6) National Policing Plan 2005-2008: Safer, Stronger Communities (.pdf 1.96 MB), Home Office, 24 November 2004

(7) British public keen on role in sentencing finds new poll for rethinking crime and punishment, Rethinking Crime and Punishment, 16 November 2004

(8) Reinventing the Town Hall: A Handbook, Ben Rogers, institute for public policy research, 2004

(9) Cleaner, safer, greener communities: further background (.pdf 14.9 KB), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(10) Clean neighbourhoods consultation, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 24 September 2004

(11) Mayor announces next phase of his 100 public spaces programme, Greater London Authority, 16 December 2004

(12) Public Health White Paper, BBC News, 16 November 2004

(13) First minister’s speech in full, Jack McConnell, BBC News, 10 November 2004

(14) Manchester blazes smoke-free trail, Helen Carter, Guardian, 14 October 2004

(15) First city votes for ban on smoking, Helen Carter and Sam Jones, Guardian, 21 October 2004

(16) New poll shows huge support for work-place smoking ban, Greater London Authority, 2 November 2004

(17) No butts, says mayor. Put your fag in the bin, Hugh Muir, Guardian, 30 September 2004

(18) New move to stop smoking in cabs, BBC News, 2 November 2004

Commuting: The life sentence?

The one aspect of the daily grind that is guaranteed to provoke an opinion is the commute to work. Congested roads, overcrowded trains, packed buses and sweaty tubes – it’s been said that if travel broadens the mind, commuting shrinks it back.

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as one in four of London’s commuter trains fails to arrive on time. Trade unions criticise bosses for stressing out their employees by expecting them to commute too much. Some go further, linking what might otherwise be regarded as a relatively innocuous activity with high blood pressure, heart disease and blood clots in the leg.

Few would contest that the UK’s transport infrastructure is in a sorry state. But if the commuting experience is really so bad, why do so many of us continue to do it? This was the topic of discussion at the recent debate organised by the London-based Transport Research Group. (1)

David Young, project coordinator at Sustrans South-East, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical given the publication, the following week, of the House of Commons Health Committee report on the issue, with strategies to reduce people’s reliance on transport featuring prominently in its recommendations.

Continuing the theme of millennial moral panics, Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, highlighted the issue of congestion. If we all worked from home, she suggested, there would be 20 per cent less traffic on the roads. However, co-panellist Timandra Harkness longed ‘for the two separate worlds’ of home and work that she has otherwise denied herself as a freelance journalist. As Gavron acknowledged, for many of us the daily commute is the price we are willing to pay for the dynamism of city life.

The ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are arguably the essence of bustling cities. A member of the audience argued that we might even welcome the opportunity for quiet reflection that stalling commuter routes offer up, if admittedly by default. The RAC Foundation has discovered, to its evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’ (2). So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, despite our reluctance to avoid commuting in practice?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. In his quirky The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes how we take our troubled selves with us when we travel. This, I think, can only be intensified in the routine journeying of the jaded commuter.  As well as ourselves though, we carry around with us the broader anxieties and frustrations of our times.

So it is striking how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The debate about commuting tends to become a metaphor for concerns that our working lives lack definition; and the sense that the commuter routes are falling apart as well only reinforces this sense of disengagement and confusion.

Consequently, as Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. For Tony Grayling, associate director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’. Far from being a practical issue that needs addressing, transport has become an area through which a whole range of moral and political prejudices are aired. 

The policy response, in this context, makes more sense. Grayling went on to explain how he was interested in minimising the environmental and social costs of travel, and what he described as the undermining of ‘communities of place’. The deputy mayor was unapologetically intent on ‘reducing the need to travel’ altogether in the name of creating her ‘liveable city’. It seems that what might once have been regarded as a parochial, even eccentric contribution to the policy discussion has come to dominate both the transport agenda and the curiously pedestrian thinking on all things urban.

Indeed such tangential considerations as those posed by Grayling, Gavron and Young alike, are celebrated for their very joined-up-ness. Instead of dreaming up better ways of getting us from A to B, politicians and policy makers alike are increasingly concerned with engineering their particular take on society. Addressing everything from the environment, public health, and social inequality, to the work-life balance, community-building and civic engagement – it’s hardly surprising we’ve come to a stand-still.

(1) Commuting: the life sentence?

(2) UK Commute ‘longest in Europe’, BBC News, 22 July, 2003

‘Braver people’ needed to beat fear of crime

People “should be told to be braver” if the widespread and socially-damaging fear of crime and strangers is to be beaten, Miranda Sawyer, author of a book that investigated local neighbourhoods in Coventry, told a day-long conference on Future Vision: Future Cities at the London School of Economics.

“Cities are a bit rough”, she admitted, but people were capable of taking control of their lives if they were given the opportunity to do so. Ms Sawyer told a session on local solutions that she hung around parks as a child and “worked things out” with her peers. Today’s youngsters, she said, needed a similarly neutral space.

Victoria Nash, formerly senior researcher at the Institute of Public Policy Research and author of Making Sense of Communities, described the role of local authorities as that of re-establishing trust and a sense of civic pride through, for example, anti-litter campaigns. Nash subscribed to the view that sink estates were characterised by “network poverty”, and argued that if residents – and particularly children – were able to mix with a cross-section of positive people and role-models they would find a way out of their circumstances.

The debate ended with a split between the proponents of “social mix” (the goal of policy-makers increasingly interested in re-forging the social ties that define the urban experience) and “social mobility” (a hands-off approach that regards the state as facilitator of the public good). Are communities ripe for engineering? Or is the increasing fragility of informal ties already being undermined by such interventions? As a contributor from the floor argued, the narrowing of the public sphere and the increasingly draconian clampdowns on “anti-social behaviour” can only encourage the intrusive parochialism of the village and suburb from which cities offer an escape.