The Modern Babylon

London – Past, Present & Future

Deptford

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Last year a mystery gripped Deptford so puzzling it brought the whole community together in unified head scratching and brow furrowing. The once monolithic anchor at the mouth of its high street disappeared in a flurry of yellow JCBs and hoarding, a scar from an ongoing urban facelift. Suddenly, Deptford’s metal doorman had stood down from duty and no one could fathom why. Lewisham Council promised it was safe and well, being kept in a storage facility near the somewhat controversial Convoys Wharf site (more on that later).

The anchor saga reflects a larger narrative. How do we balance emotional ties to the past with future practicalities when designing London’s social architecture?  For Deptford, this is a particular concern given that the area is one of the oldest areas of London with a tangible, geographically distinct history.

Deptford began life as a ford of the Ravensbourne, part of the the Celtic trackway later paved by the Romans and developed into Watling Street in medieval times, part of the pilgrimage route in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. During Tudor times Deptford developed as a modest fishing village, that was until Henry VIII developed the site into a royal dock, a practice which continued well into the second half of the nineteenth century. The docks played an important role in Elizabethan exploration, vital for international trade and home to the East India Trading Company for over a hundred years.  In 1858, the Royal Victoria Yard, now the site of the Pepys Estate, was established. This was a massive facility which included warehouses, a bakery, cattleyard and sugar store.

New and more easily accessible docks at Plymouth and Portsmouth meant the ship building business began to slide as early as the eighteenth century. The docks were then used primarily to provide ships with food and supplies. At its peak in 1907, over 200,000 animals were imported through its market. During the World Wars, the docks were used as reserve depots, but were subsequently left unused until they were purchased by newsprint importers Convoys Wharf, later under the ownership of News International.

The closure of the docks led to much economic decline in the twentieth century. This, coupled with extensive bomb damage, led to high unemployment in an area whose pre-war high street has been painted as ‘the Oxford Street of South London’.  This, coupled with an aggressive so called ‘slum clearance’ policy changed the face of the community. In the post-war period, terraces of Victorian homes were pulled down to make way for high rise council housing, with some families being relocated much further out into south east London’s new orbiting suburbs. This decision was either a travesty or an inevitability, depending on who you ask.

These days, I would argue that, despite its widely reported social problems with issues associated with being the 31st most deprived borough in the country, Deptford is still very much a thriving community, albeit in a different way to how it was back when when the docks transported other items besides newspapers.

Which brings us back to the anchor. Presumably Lewisham Council are planning to reinstate the anchor in its Convoy’s Wharf development, the site of the docks and the proposed location for a £700m 3,500 home development scheme. But the site is of such huge historical significance that flogging it for investor bait (there’s no evidence yet that the developers have committed to making any of this housing ‘affordable’, though the perimeters on that legal distinction remain laughable) seems a real shame. A campaign group formed to oppose the proposal, but unfortunately Bojo has since approved the application, with a somewhat weak pledge to support additional heritage projects.

So herein lies the key issue. In the case of Convoy’s Wharf, it’s a shame that the area has found itself in this position, in a David and Goliath battle between profit and providence, but the fact that it was always a place whose raison d’être was capitalism, one can’t help but feel there’s some ironic historical determinism at play here.

A rather more modern example is the recent outcry over the newly opened Job Center pub housed in, you guessed it, the old Deptford job center. The original facility closed in 2010, amidst much protest from the local community. Antic Pubs decision not only to open an establishment in the building, but to also retain its namesake, has been met with criticism in the press.

True, on paper the name seems a little like a joke you’d tell at a party that’s met by silence and unison glass sipping, but part of me thinks this goes some way to address the elephant in the room. Antic also own The Catford Constitutional Club, whose name is modified from its previous guise as the local Conservative club. You have to ask, why this did not provoke a similar outcry, seeing as there isn’t much constitutional about their business model, or indeed their drinks prices. The unit in Deptford has been empty since its closure, bar a handful of pop up events. At its very essence, calling the pub ‘The Dog and Duck’ or similar would merely be papering over some very visible cracks. The fact that a pint inside will set you back a little under the current minimum wage for 18 year olds isn’t changed by the sign that hangs on the door.

Over the years, I’ve found it’s reductive to attribute these sorts of changes in premises to a seismic shift in how we define a community. Although I agree that the previous example is unfortunate, it’s really a case of an empty or filled unit, and it’s better that its filled than standing vacant, or worse, turned into Convoys Wharf style housing. The issues that arise from our opposition to its semantic attribution are more deep seated and need to be addressed separately, looked at in a national context.

Whether Job Center or job center, I love Deptford. It’s one of the only places I’ve experienced in London that feels primarily reflective of its people, rather than its investors or a transient visitor population. The market thrives among all the odds, and, mums the word, it’s got one of the best independent coffee shops in the whole of the city. Regardless of what the historians say, I think it’s still the Oxford Street of south London, but only really if Oxford Street had shops where you could pick up bargain fruit and veg, vintage clothes, furniture and homeware (spoiler alert, it doesn’t).

So, whether the Job Center is part of the problem or part of the solution, the key word here is balance. We should certainly prevent this sort of business model taking over, but we can do that by continuing to use our market, support local businesses and raising our concerns. As a community we have more power than we think, but it’s primarily based in our feet not our voices. Each time I walk past the foot of Deptford’s high street, I do find myself missing the familiarity of its iconic anchor. It’s easy to long for the past and easier still to rationalize it through historically tinted spectacles, but our power now is in our feet and our future, anchor or no anchor.

Storytime

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London is full of stories. Some of them are contained in people’s heads, others in diaries or letters or latterly, locked up online, others are considered good enough to be made into plays, films and documentaries. I believe the best stories about London are in books, where the city’s true heterogeneity can be fully captured. We see our city every day, the landmarks only a Google search away, but the impressionism of the city is where novels bring the sense of the urban to life, what joins up brick and brain, place and personality.

There are the classics; Oliver Twist, Dorian Gray, Sherlock Holmes. Timeless for good reasons, stand alone for capturing the public imagination of periods of London’s history, its infinite possibilities and in the latter case, its exoticism and mysteriousness. Here is a small selection of the novels I consider the best.confessionsofanopiumeater

Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822)  is the semi-autobiographical story of De Quincey’s crippling opium addiction and his experience being ‘down and out’ in London. The author was later accused of glamorizing or encouraging use of the drug and coerced into revising a later edition, which critics conceded spoilt the tone of the original. De Quincey’s book is largely considered the first urban wanderer or psychogeographic novel, due to its emphasis on the imagined surroundings. De Quincey’s London is monstrous, evading and secretive. In this sense, the novel should not be read as an account of drug use in the city, of which there are many later examples, but as the first example of ‘the imagined city’. That is to say, a locality which exists not just physically but psychologically, an environment which invades our psyche and shapes our behavior and personality. The novel delves deeper into how this affects one’s base understandings of space and time, De Quincey claims to live whole decades in one night. The footloose author is also considered the prototype for the obsessive wanderer, which influenced many London writers still meandering today.

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Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker is most famous for introducing it’s omnipresent literary namesake, and although Stoker did not invent the vampire, the novel did define its modern form as the cloak wearing, quiff bearing, erotic bloodsucker we know today. There are two reasons why I believe this should make the shortlist. The main one is that despite its subject matter, the book reads as an allegory of London’s contemporary history. In addition, the fact that its written in the form of letters gives a key insight into communications of the time and how some of the more secretive activities would have been conducted pre-email, pre-Tindr. This is further explored in Henry James’ In the Cage, which tells the story of a telegraphist who finds herself ‘in the know’. However, what the novel also explores is the geographic and economic divisions of London at the time. In the book there is a clear division of East and West, England and Transylvania, and this disparity was reflected in the city at the time. Over in East London the burgeoning ports shipped in goods and people at an unprecedented rate. The West was considered the center of government, a place for wealth and leisure, while the East End was more chaotic uncontrolled, full of the ‘unwashed’. Dracula’s very character is the embodiment of London’s fears of disease and of promiscuity (always related to ‘dangerous’ female sexuality). At the start of the 1800s, 1 in 4 Londoners died from tuberculosis, or consumption as it was then called, while sexually transmitted infections like syphilis were equally rife. This is London at its scariest.

Report Reveals Living Standards Of UK Council Estates

J.G Ballard’s novel High-Rise (1975) encapsulates a new urban psychological identity, a novel of disengagement, of boredom, but most importantly, of the city. Ballard sees the high-rise structure as the logical conclusion of society’s penchant for convenience in an individualized world. High-Rise tells the story of a new and exclusive set of tower blocks, self-contained and self-regulated, to the point that they ultimately descend into Golding-esque vigil ante rule. Much of the proliferation of the high-rise had roots in Le Corbusier’s designs in France, asserting that the structure provided an important antidote to the modern, jaded mentality. He suggested that the problem was one of adaption, that society was filled with a violent desire for something it may attain or not, that everything depended on the attention paid to these ‘alarming symptoms’. These symptoms manifest themselves in Ballard’s novel with murderous and illicit consequences.

So there are some of my favorites. What are yours?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brazil 2014

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It’s been nearly two years since the end of London 2012. Now the job of hosting the Olympics is passed on to Brazil, but there’s one small problem. They’re also expected to host the world’s largest football tournament as well, all the in the space of two short years. For a country ranked in the top 20 most financially unequal in the world, a rapid influx of private capital in the country has unsurprisingly ruffled some feathers, in the same way that the carnival of commercialism and money grabbing rubbed some Londoners up the wrong way back in 2012.

Often these events feel less like a nationwide shower of wealth than it does global capitalism leaping for fistfuls of cash in one of those gameshow money booths. As serious accusations of Qatari corruption begin to tarnish FIFA’s reputation, Brazilians are marching through their cities with placards declaring, ‘We want schools and hospitals. Fuck the World Cup.’ This, in the wake of FIFA Secretary General announcing publicly that “less democratic countries make better World Cup hosts” has only served to reinforce these existing tensions in a country that has seen nine new entries on the Forbes World’s Billionaire List since the sporting announcements, one of whom is also responsible for building Rio’s Olympic Park.

“But it’s the legacy of these events that’s important.” For many Brazilians, the legacy of the games is far from their minds, as they struggle first of all to understand how their government could invest so heavily in transient international sports events, when the country lacks sufficient state provisions for its vast population. While Brazil’s economy remains the seventh largest globally, its illiteracy level is ten times that of the UK, and a woman is six times more likely to die giving birth in Brazil than in England. Despite the fact that its socio-economic suituation has improved somewhat in the past decade, 16 million Brazilians still live in poverty. So if Londoners were irked that their government agreed to host the world’s largest sporting house party, then you can see why Brazilians are concerned that theirs has volunteered them for hosting two, back to back.

The problem with these events is that the capital-with-state led model for planning and preparing the games does not always intersect very harmoniously. In London, we saw rapid rent increases drive out local communities and render their rented houses fair cop for a good old fashioned screwing over by landlords. So, while the British government used London 2012 as a chance to push vital anti-obesity public health agendas, they were also approving plans for the world’s biggest McDonalds restaurant (incidentally a key sponsor of the event) a mere stone’s through from the Olympic site. Confusing, no?

Brazil has spent $11 billion on the World Cup alone, 40% over its original budget. Both the Brazilian and UK governments have justified their spending with promises of a ‘trickle down’ effect for its citizens with jobs, tourism and investment in civil infrastructure. For London, Mayor Boris Johnson has announced the government continues to ‘defy the sceptics and doom mongers’ with an estimated trade increase of £9.9 billion and £120 billion in contracts subsequently won by UK companies for Brazil’s event in 2016. But herein lies the fundamental problem, how do we implement an emphasis on benefiting local people when the whole thing appears to be wide open for global capitalist tender? Add into this the fact that corruption costs Brazil $41 billion a year and you start to see why the protestors aren’t envisioning much in the way of tangible long term social or economic benefit. Speaking of long term benefits, two years on from London’s Olympics, a group of British NGOs have expressed anger that £425 million worth of lottery funds intended for small community groups and charities used to pay for the Olympic stadium is unlikely to be reimbursed for several decades, if at all.

With just weeks to go before the first of Brazil’s international sporting soirees kicks off, fewer than half of the host country’s citizens are positive about the event, while around a quarter think the spending has been ‘terrible’ for the country. Organisers seem to be resting their laurels on a sense that come the hour, ‘football mad’ Brazil will get behind the event and join in the party. Arguably, this is what happened with London 2012. A high-spirited opening ceremony seemed to reduce cynicism, but the disgruntled grumbles of British newspaper columnists and TV pundits has not matched the level of the Brazilian’s widespread protests. However, both events raise important questions about the relationship between state and stake run programmes, the impact on the wider community and who should really be deciding the value of these civil legacies.

When a man is tired of Puerto Rico…

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Photo by Miguel Luciano from his Pure Plantainum project

Puerto Rico is Spanish for “rich port”. In the late 1400s, the island and its riches were claimed by Columbus and its Taíno people were enslaved. In 1898, Puerto Rico was handed over to the Americans, but it wasn’t until 1917 that the US granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, a bill the Puerto Rican House of Delegates voted unanimously against, seeing it as a means to draft men from the island into the US army as WW2 loomed. By 1948, it was illegal to display a Puerto Rican flag, sing a patriotic tune or even talk of independence. By 1952, a constitution had been established, the island was known as an “associated free state” and entered a period of post-war industrialization. Today, political support for the Puerto Rican Independence Party represents between 3-5% of electoral votes.

These days, you are more likely to hear the island referred to as a ‘US territory’ than as a “free state”. With rolling mountains and rainforests that fall dreamily onto palm fringed beaches wrapping its coastline, and the ancient fort at Old San Juan like a old sepia photograph of the distant past.  While there I spent a week working in the vast, bullish Sheraton hotel (one of two…) that sits among its peers forming a topographical chain across a large chunk of the capital’s coastline. When the day came to fly to Culebra, one of Puerto Rico’s shoulder islands, I felt less like I was escaping than I was returning to reality. A small eight seater plane flew us half an hour across the island’s coast to the island, which allowed for a breathtaking bird’s eye view of Puerto Rico and its more organic landscape. At the airport, we spoke to a middle-aged German couple, who had lived on the island for two decades and seemed both happy to share and protective of its secrets in equal measure, “it used to be just for us”, the wife lamented.

Formerly inhabited by Carib Indians, Culebra was municipally left abandoned for centuries and acted as a refuge for fishermen, sailors and pirates until it was formerly settled on in 1880. The US Navy began to use the island in 1903 for a gunnery and bombing practice site, but by 1975 the islanders had successfully protested for their removal. By the end of the visit, Culebra felt more Caribbean than Puerto Rican, “we’re actually closer to St Thomas’ than we are to Puerto Rico'” explained one ‘Culebran’. I asked him what the relationship was like between the small resident population on the island and the much larger American and European nomads that passed through it on a semi-permanent basis: He seemed a little reflective; “I mean, Culebra is the kind of place where I can be mad at you and I’ll still help you if you’re in trouble.” On the island we snorkeled with turtles and stingrays, swung in hammocks and drunk frozen rum cocktails next to leathery American yachtsmen emblazoned with t-shirts saying BAHAMAS or ST KITTS, worn like geographical Scout badges. The faint sound of portable reggaton drifted across the pristine waters of Flamenco Beach.

We returned to the mainland and stayed at the Gallery Inn in Old San Juan, a sprawling colonial mansion built into the very walls of the old fort. Here, guests share their space with bi-lingual parrots and are encouraged to lose themselves among the labyrinthine corridors filled floor to ceiling with art and sculpture. Old San Juan was an odd but not entirely distinct blend of old colonial luxury and cruise ship kitsch. We dodged showers in junk shops and ate waffles with goats cheese and sipped loose leaf teas, walking along the old fort promenade at the mercy of the Atlantic rain which cleared the area of all but the fort cats who slinked out of the jagged rocks. The cats were only outnumbered by the souvenir shops, which sold Made in China memories to the crowds of tourists who negotiated up and down the town’s wet and slippery cobbles. As the day progressed, the rain persisted heavier and we enjoyed less and less time between downpours.

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Los turistas by Lorenzo Homar

We left Old San Juan for the metropolitan area of Condado and Ocean Park, several miles down the coast. The following day, we headed inland to the Museo De Arte De Puerto Rico, where we visited the Interconexiones exhibit. The project galvanizes Puerto Rican artists in finding a new thematic and autonomous approach to exploring the island’s cultural identity. It was here that I felt many of my questions were, if not answered, reflected in the images and installations we saw, particularly in the installation En la barbería no se llora (No crying in the barber’s shop) (1994) which explored the identity of Puerto Rican New Yorkers.

On our last night, we were traveling back in a taxi when the driver asked where we were from. He told us he was from Puerto Rico originally but had moved to New York as a child. I asked him why he came back, “I came back for a holiday, went to the beach and never left.” You can see why.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postcode Wars 2

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A few years ago I proposed that London’s postcodes were arbitrary and fundamentally devoid of meaning. One of London’s joys is the symbiosis of humans that coexist within it, that you can pay £20 million for a townhouse and still live less than 20 minutes-walk from someone wondering how to spend their last £20 before payday. This economic diversity is now under threat from spiraling rents that may eventually drive most working people, predominately renters and first time buyers, out into the city’s orbiting suburbs. Now we walk a fine line between geographic cultural identity and postcode tribalism.

To fully understand the arbitrary nature of the London postcode, you must look at its raison d’être. By the 1850s, rapid growth in London’s metropolitan area meant the city could no longer function as a single post town without a differentiating system for distribution. By the middle of the century, one fifth of all post sent in the UK was destined for London, and over half of these items originated within the city itself. To solve this problem, the Post Office produced an almost perfectly circular diagram of 12 miles radius from the central post office at St. Martin’s Le Grand, an area taking in six English counties. By subdividing into two central areas and eight compass points, London’s postcodes were set. Later on, the NE and S postcodes were abolished, with S being split in SE and SW to cope with further urban expansion. The E20 postcode was added to cover the Olympic Park in 2012. Little has changed in the past 160 years.

I’m sure you’ll agree, that paragraph was not at all interesting, but believe me when I say there really is nothing more to say on the methodology behind postcodes. Whether you are in SW1 or SE1, N20 or E5 has nothing more to do with civic reality than the postal subdivision by which your mail is delivered, and by which postman happens to be on shift that particular morning. This hasn’t stopped residents, some of them in my neighbourhood, getting bees in their bonnet about which particular numbers happen to sit at the tail end of their address, citing insurance or council tax reasons behind their gripes. I can just about understand that paying extra for car insurance would be irritating, but the rational among us would suggest this is a matter for the insurance companies, not the humble Post Office. I also fail to see the substance behind claiming that one local authority are vastly better than another, as if they don’t largely do the same job with the same budget. Tampering with postcodes for your own ends removes the point of having a universal system in the first place.

Owning a property in the central ventricles of the city has become one of the most objectively ‘secure’ investments you can make in the varying economic climate of the past forty years, but it does not come cheap. Postcodes can act like badges of honor, certifying the recipient with a lifetime of topographical boasting. This, in turn, fuels the sense that an area is ‘affluent’, ‘upcoming’ or everyone’s favorite estate-agent buzzword, ‘vibrant’. For my part, I live in a ‘vibrant’ area, in a postcode that has little to do with where my house is located. It’s as far away from the attached loci as it is from every other neighboring postcode, some of which command much higher regard from the type of people who reduce their city to a veritable Argos catalog of urban geography. My area, however, is now ‘upcoming’, in the sense that coffee shops are appearing where corner shops used to be, and we now have artisan bread stalls in our market. Hundreds of debates on so called ‘gentrification’ have revealed little in the way of solid conclusions, except that there are benefits and drawbacks both ways, depending on who you ask.

The other kind of postcode war, the kind which results in the wasteful death of young people as a result of simmering social and economic tensions, is equally arbitrary and serves to reinforce again the obvious problem with imposing objective bureaucracy onto our wholly subjective landscape. City Hall recently commissioned a ‘most stylish postcode’ competition (W9 and W1 won, although the author expressed surprise that E1 ‘hipster central’ or SW3/SW10 as ‘the birthplace of punk’ hadn’t won), as though the apparel choices of millions of Londoners can be summarized by the location of the wardrobe they are housed. Other London publications have also offered insight into ‘how people perceive you and your postcode’.

I relish the prospect of living in a city where the only boundaries are environmental, fences and railway lines, locked doors, rather than those we impose on ourselves. Hyping arbitrary postcodes for reasons other than the fact the mail delivery is particularly efficient places an invisible cage around our streets which has no grounding in reality. It is heterogeneity, not homogeny, that we should strive for in a city of infinite voices. A good place to start would be to stop dictating our impression of cities by how the Post Office delivers your mail, but how it informs and shapes your own imagination.

Gangs of Old London

According to the Metropolitan Police, there are approximately 171 gangs currently operating in London. The Center for Social Justice defines a gang as a group of young people who see themselves as a group, usually with an identifying feature, who engage in criminal activity and violence while claiming ownership or control over territory in conflict with other gangs. The members tend to be males between the ages of 12-25 years old and involved in a wide range of criminal activities. The Center also make a direct link with gangs forming in areas with high levels of deprivation, unemployment and lone parent families. They also suggest that the majority of London gang members tend to be Black or Asian. The negative connotations of gangs are apparent, associations with poverty, social alienation and moral degeneracy are reinforced through centuries of historical and literary narrative and latterly, the advent of television and film, the latter of which goes some way to glamorize the gang lifestyle.

But the history of documented gangs in London shows a definite pattern which details both continuity and change. Ever since there has been money to be made in pocketbooks, weapons or drugs there have syndicates which seek to profit – whether it be the highly organized, hierarchical sub-societies or small groups in even smaller geographical localities. Most gangs are more readily identified with sub-cultures driven by music or fashion but they do of course have an obvious economic and political raison d’être for their members. Still, arguably the beginnings of London’s relationship with gangs had less to do with hairstyles and garments than it did with abject poverty, the absence of a welfare state and the means by which many survived and died.

One of the earliest documented examples of a London gang came with the Damned Crew, a group of young gentlemen in the late 16th and early 17th century who were famed for staggering through the streets, assaulting passers-by and watchmen while inebriated. In his sermon at St Paul’s, Stephen Gosson proclaimed these were “menne without feare, or feeling, eyther of Hell or Heauen, delighting in that title”. Leading member Edward Baynham rose from the Damned Crew to fight alongside and become knighted by the Earl of Essex before falling back in with the group and being arrested for brawling, fined £200 and imprisoned.  Baynham would later be implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. It was rumored that all members of the Damned Crew later drowned when a boat in which they sailing had sunk near Gravesend. Later on The Hawkubites terrorized 18th century London by beating up women, children, watchmen and old men in the streets after dark, prompting a pamphlet of the time to compare them to Gog and Magog, depicted in the Revelations as symbols of evil darkness.

By the 18th century an evil darkness had indeed descended on Georgian London. As the city swelled, stinking from plague and fire, it became a desperate and dangerous place to be. No less than 115,000 people were said to be involved in some sort of criminal activity but no one was more feared than The Mohocks. Taking their name from the Mohawk Indians they assaulted both men and women, leading poet John Gay to implore, ‘”Who has not trembled at the Mohock’s name?”. Such was the furor that a £100 bounty was placed on their head by the royal court, though unsuccessfully, few were ever caught due in part to their wealthy and well-connected nature. The Mohocks needn’t worry, they could buy their way out of any legal action brought against them.

Thief-takers began operating privately in the city, a role similar to that of the modern bounty hunter. These were individuals hired to capture criminals, bringing them to justice and appeasing the moral panic created by the new readership of newspapers. Unlike bounty hunters, who are usually hired by bail bondsmen, thief takers were paid by the victim or their families, often at a pretty price. They became known for their corruption, extorting money from criminals in order to evade capture while also accepting Government-funded rewards for their conviction. Jonathan Wild’s story has gone down in Georgian infamy, a man who led a gang of thieves, arranging the ‘return’ of stolen property and even handing over members of his own gang to be hung at Tyburn Tree, a fate he himself would eventually face after being tried for perjury in 1725.

By 1829 Sir Robert Peel had established the Metropolitan Police force, whose aim was to restore law and order to the city where criminal anarchy and corruption had previously reigned. Known as ‘Raw Lobsters, Blue Devils and Sir Robert’s Bloody Boys’, they were not received well by the gangs of London. But the implementation did force them to become more cunning in order to evade the various pledges for their eradication. Notoriously evasive were the Forty Elephants, an all-female gang who were based in Elephant and Castle, specializing in shoplifting luxury goods from the West End. Working as tightly organized group with outposts across London, the gang would dress in specially tailored coats, cummerbunds, muffs, skirts and bloomers with hats sewn with hidden pockets, raiding and plundering items worth thousands of pounds, benefiting from the prudish notion of women and criminality at the time. Using getaway tactics that involved disposing of stolen goods quickly using trains and cars the women were notoriously clean when stopped by the police. They were also well-known for blackmail, extorting hundreds of pounds from wealthy men as a result of being seduced by one of the Forty Elephants. Known for throwing lively and lavish parties, the later lifestyles of the early 20th century Elephants were glamorous and decadent, reflective of the 1920s aristocratic living of the time.

The 20th century was a fashionable one – or at least, famous for its a la mode approach to culture. Approaching the inter and post-war period, rivalry on London’s streets became more about sartorial identification than it had before – confrontation between mods, rockers, teddy boys, skinheads etc. became more commonplace, as did purely territorial conflict. But for those for whom gang warfare remained less to do with scooters or braces it was still primarily about making plenty of money, or indeed enough to survive, during the hardship of Thatcherism. The representations of film and television had little in common with the hardship of the gangs of this economic landscape, leading to incidents of ‘steaming’, descending on victims en masse to rob, preventing capture or identification and ensuring maximum material gain. This was far from Hollywood’s depiction of the finger-clicking West Side Story or the be-leathered T-Birds of Rydell High – it was a landscape of social and economic alienation to whom for some, gangs became the remedy.

 

Urbex

In April last year a group of urban explorers released pictures of themselves atop the then incomplete Shard building. The dramatic images brought urban exploration out of the dark recesses of university cliques and onto prime time news screens, inviting us to question our relationship with our surroundings and asking us to make a clearer distinction between what is unlawful trespassing and what is rightfully ours to traverse.

Urban exploration, or urbex, is the reconnaissance of abandoned or otherwise off-limits buildings or localities, primarily documented through photography, journalism and written historical testimony. Manifesting itself at the extreme end of these pastimes, urban exploration on the level of the Shard incident presents many obvious hazards – imprisonment, injury or mortality.

So why do it? Urban exploration is not primarily about taking black and white photos of derelict warehouses with ivy growing through long-smashed windows, it is bipedal protest against the idea that certain places should be ‘off limits’, i.e. the Shard, which looms over the city like a plutocratic Tower of Babel, but remains private property only accessible to those who pay extortionate amounts to use it as a viewing platform or dine in one of its exclusive restaurants. Despite its prevalence in the London’s peripheral vision, it isn’t a building you can just meander into.

The capital is a patchwork quilt of Exclusion Zones, places where you cannot drink alcohol, walk your dog or drink alcohol whilst walking your dog. It is also a subterranean city, the bustling surface the mere epipelagic zone of the great urban ocean. In his book Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, Troy Paiva writes, ‘hike far enough and you will find yesterday and tomorrow is right next to it, time is a landscape.’ Urban exploration lifts the lid on the narratives and visions of the architectural past, but also says a lot about where we are today and where we can and cannot go.

The Shard incident was newsworthy because it was extreme in its aesthetic qualities, the fact that the group were able to reach the top without detection in one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by London’s property developers was nothing short of a momentous achievement. The image of the explorer atop the teetering edge reminds us that in its essence, the city belongs to the people, who either nurture it or let it burn.

(N.B. – Photographer Paul Talling as undertaken an impressive project documenting derelict buildings and areas in London, see his website for an impressive selection of images and potentially some pointers for your own urban exploration. As Talling says, ‘there are no rules’…)

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