Working River: An Oral History of London’s Boatyards

In 2018 I managed the project ‘Working River’, documenting the living history of London’s boatyards, from the Thames Barrier up to Teddington Lock. The project was run by the wonderful Thames Festival Trust, in partnership with the Museum of London, supported with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. To help make this project happen, 25 fantastic volunteers worked with me to interview 28 men and women who spent their lives working in, or with, London’s boatyards and shipyards. Ranging from aged 18 to 87 years old, we recorded their memories of these yards, their training and the development of their prolific boatbuilding skills, as well as the significant changes to this Thames industry during their working lives. 11 of the audio oral history interviews from this project have become part of the collections of the Museum of London, and another 15 are part of a film, made by Digital:Works, about this history. As part of the project we also had four exhibitions along the Thames, as part of Totally Thames festival 2017, attracting over 10,000 visitors to engage with this history. The project was recorded by contemporary photographer Hydar Dewachi, whose beautiful photographs captured the people and the yards today.

HD_170602_4143 © Hydar Dewachi
South Dock Marina. Photo © Hydar Dewachi
HD_170525_0206 © Hydar Dewachi
B J Wood & Son, Isleworth. Photo © Hydar Dewachi
HD_170614_2624 © Hydar Dewachi
Ted Leppard, Eel Pie Island Slipways. Photo © Hydar Dewachi.
HD_170621_5059 _ed © Hydar Dewachi.jpg
Bill Colley, Richmond Boathouses. Photo (c) Hydar Dewachi.

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For more information about the project, interviews, film, photographs and the book, go to www.thamesfestivaltrust.org.

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The Birth of Architectural Salvage

The Birth of Architectural Salvage in 1977:

The sometimes savage salvage of architectural features, monuments and materials has a long history. From nomadic architectures, to ancient ruins, and recent revivals such as Classicism with architects such as Sir John Soane’s own eclectic collections. However, as it is understood today, the terminology of architectural salvage can be pinned-down to a specific period in 1977, when a confluence of political, environmental, aesthetic and urban interests made the recovery and reuse of architectural features not only economically but also morally significant.

The birth of architectural salvage sits at an important intersection of architectural history. As part of the conservation and heritage movements. It can be viewed as a symptom of the demise of architectural modernism; from its totalising, utopian conception of architectural progress, to a more regressive postmodern stance. This Janus-faced turning of tides typified, especially in London, by a shift from the dreams of middle-class suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, to an increasing move to inner city living. A concern with renovating and converting older urban housing stock and industrial warehousing for residential use. While the salvaging of older materials from demolished buildings was certainly nothing new, it is in this period that changes in architectural and aesthetic cultures developed an industry for architectural salvage leading to emerging markets for those who could salvage and sell pieces which would be installed in these newly revived urban heritage homes.

In Britain the roots of the architectural salvage movement were crucially encouraged by a campaign launched by The Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, in the spring of 1977. A collaboration was initiated between the architectural journals and the new salvage firm Hutton & Rostron Ltd, establishing a marketplace for the obvious demand between available salvage and new customers looking for salvaged pieces. It was a novel and popular idea, with these early market place pages including listings for items like ‘wrought iron Edwardian Street Lamps’, ‘Victorian highly decorated iron spiral staircases’, ‘Oak beams from the 15th and 16th Centuries, £3-£5 per foot’ and ‘stone corbels and gargoyles c.1840’. They display an eclectic mix of architectural salvaged pieces, from a wide range of historical periods, which are both unique and considered worth preserving. [1]

Whether as a result of this campaign, or a mutually concurrent enterprise, many other companies set up over the next few years, including the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co. (LASSCO), founded in Shoreditch in 1978. LASSCO’s own foundation points to this important role of architectural journalists in the development of architectural salvage. They even go so far as to claim the earliest use of the term ‘architectural salvage’ to a piece by Dan Cruickshank in Architectural Review. While the real history of the terminology does predate this in these journals by nearly a year, this terminology is important in suggesting this early role of the journals, and also the interrelation between these new salvage companies and the types of demand being met. Dan Cruickshank himself, probably did play a key role and was a formative innovator in this movement, being both a contributing editor to both journals and also as a founding member of the Spitalfields Trust (est. 1977), which was squatting and renovating the Huguenot housing in Spitalfields at this time. Indeed the Spitalfields can be seen at the forefront of the conservation movement in East London, and it can be no accident that LASSCO’s first office was only round the corner from Spitalfields and within spitting distance of these areas of historic renovation.

In one of his early articles in the Architects’ Journal in 1977, laid out his arguments for architectural salvaging:

“In 1975, 59,500 houses alone were demolished in Britain, and that, according to demolition contractors, was a bad year (90,500 houses were demolished in 1971) […] what happened to the building materials from which this vast number of houses was constructed and with which they were decorated? Mostly they were burnt, buried, or crushed for hard core […] There is no real attempt on a national scale to salvage, redistribute and re-use the vast amount of ‘energy’ that is represented by the brick and stone of demolished building […] This waste is doubly criminal because not only are these materials […] of intrinsic value, but also because there are people, throughout the country who need solid, seasoned, second hand building materials and architectural features.”[2]

It was only the previous year, in 1976, that The Architects’ Journal was publishing letters which described salvagers as mere ‘floggers’; and yet Cruickshank’s article presents a new credibility to the work of salvaging. Architectural salvage seemed to have shifted from a largely working class occupation, suggested by the derogative work ‘floggers’, to a respectable industry grounded in environmentalism and aesthetic conservation. The environmental aspect of saving and re-using materials, also fits into a wider paradigm shift of inner-city living, with an increasing concern for the urban sprawl and the protection of rural environments. It can be placed within concerns for waste, for the consequences of urban expansion, and with the rapid construction and demolition of modernist architectures. As shown clearly in Spitalfields, the renovation of older housing and the growth of inner-city heritage and conservation, there was also an interesting contemporary concern with historical authenticity, and with the restoration of features which had been removed by previous occupants less concerned with heritage aesthetics. As historians like Raphael Samuel have pointed to, with his term ‘retrofit’. The irony of this was that despite restoring these interiors to a vision of the past, with their original ‘period’ features, architectural salvage also suggests a postmodern fragmentation of the historical interior, with these features divorced from their original site, and with historical appearance outweighing original context as the bedrock of authenticity.

The salvage movement was not confined to the London and the UK, with salvage initiatives springing up across the United States around 1977, particularly in New Portland, Oregon; and in New York City. In 1977 Gil Shapiro established his first New York based salvage company, Urban Archaeology, building on an increasingly vibrant movement of ‘Loft Living’, outlined in Sharon Zukin’s seminal book of 1982, and by the rapid turnover of populations in areas like SoHo and Greenwich Village. Since earlier in the 1970s, Shapiro had also been at the forefront of a self-proclaimed ‘guerrilla’ movement which called itself ‘The Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’. The society, which included members such as the renowned art collector and gallerist Allan Stone, salvaged discarded art and architectural pieces, giving them anonymously to art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum. Often humorously referred to as ‘the gargoyle snatchers’, this anonymous collective suggests a political as well as aesthetic agenda to the early architectural salvage movement. Evoking the language of ‘reclamation’ and ‘guerrilla’ tactics, the Art Reclamation Society sought, not only to rescue these works, but also to bring them to institutions in which they would have the most public visibility, rather than keeping them in private ownership.

There is something in this redistribution of material, as well as aesthetic wealth, which connects to the Socialist agenda in this period. The preservation of history for the people. And yet, there is something clearly contentious about the relationship between architectural salvage, private ownership and public museums. While the ‘Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’ was donating their salvaged finds to public museums, the architectural salvage movement as a whole seems to represent the failure, or more accurately the limitation, of museums to collect and display salvaged treasures which were being made available be demolition and rapid rebuilding. However, it is not merely the capacity of museums, but also the rapid gain in commercial capital of reclaimed materials and architectural pieces, which suggests not only the growing privatisation of the concept of the museum, but also the reconceptualization of the private space of the home as a heritage museum. In Spitalfields again, the best example of this is the Denis Sever’s house in Folgate Street, described as a ‘still-life drama’. Created by Severs between 1979 and his death in 1999, the house is a fantastical interior, both ‘retro-fitted’ to the Hugenot period, but also a complete theatrical fiction.

Any socialist political agenda within early architectural salvage was clearly not long lasting. Architectural salvage has become a multi-billion dollar industry across the world, increasingly catering for an elite minority and encouraging spin-off reproduction industries and mass produced faux heritage mouldings, chandeliers and fireplaces. Over the last decade, as architectural salvage has reached completely disproportionate prices, we have the rise of the distressed ‘shabby-chic’, bringing new, cheap furniture, an essence of age and re-use. So, with this hindsight, what is the value of examining this history of architectural salvage? Firstly, it is clear and important evidence for the shifts in architectural tastes which produced a significant market in the late 1970s. It indicates this important intersection between the rapid urban construction policies of the 1970s, and the conservative response to rapid change, with the desire to protect, restore and to retreat into the past. Domestic interiors, those womb-like private spaces, which have provided a significant space of retreat from the public space, can also be seen as a microcosm of the contemporary public perception, and, as seen with architectural salvage, themselves playing a significant role in commercial markets and public activities. The second point about architectural salvage, is that it refocused the notion of urban construction as cyclical. Of buildings and their contents as reusable, and, to coin the expression adopted by many architects at this time, ‘loose’. Unlike within modernism, which idealised contained communities, perfect design and prescribed methods of occupation; this attitude simultaneously had an increasing consciousness of property ownership, as well as the significance of occupancy as temporary, and buildings themselves as temporary. Re-occupied, or demolished and internally dissected, for new spaces, purposes and times.

 

[1] ‘Architectural Salvage’, The Architects’ Journal, 9th April 1978.

[2] Dan Cruickshank, ‘Architectural Salvage’, Architects’ Journal (January 26th, 1977), pp. 148-149.

Review: The View from the Train by Patrick Keiller

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Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) has haunted and intrigued me since I first saw it nearly five years ago. The film, a blend of documentary and fiction, presents a year in London as seen through the eyes of an imaginary protagonist, Robinson, whose thoughts and insights are related by an unnamed narrator. Keiller, through Robinson, seeks to examine London, suggesting that it “no longer exists” – that it is the “first metropolis to disappear”. This heightened awareness of absence is central to Keiller’s relationship with the urban landscape of London, as well as the critical impetus behind much of his film-making. It is still there, at the heart of his latest book,The View from the Train, a collection of essays published by Verso that charts Keiller’s writing from the start of his career in the late 1970s to the present day. Although his more recent films, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins(2010), have moved away from London, this collection of essays is clearly devoted to the landscape of the city in which he has been immersed for the best part of forty years.

In his introduction, Keiller sets out the influence that surrealism has had on his interpretation of London, in particular the exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery in 1978. Surrealism, since the work of André Breton, has been symbolically embedded in the landscape of Paris, but Keiller saw how easily it could be applied to London, by imagining the capital as what Roger Cardinal termed the “soluble city”. This notion of the “soluble city”, in a constant state of flux and revision, is present in much writing about London, such as Jonathan Raban’s semi-fictional Soft City (1974), and greatly influenced Keiller’s film-making. At a recent talk about his work around Battersea and Nine Elms at the Open University, he returned to this idea, suggesting that, while continually changing, in some ways London hasn’t really changed at all. In his early work, Keiller documented the architectural changes of the 70s and the rapid cycle of ‘new’ architectures in the era of late capitalism. His work has often recapitulated the city as having an organic – rather than controlled or wholly planned – evolution. It is clear in this career-spanning collection, possibly with the virtue of hindsight, that Keiller considers continuous change to be in some way the status quo. He does not mourn for a lost London, but takes pleasure in re-appropriating what has been overlooked.

Verso

In one essay in this collection, Popular Science, Keiller quotes Guillaume Apollinaire’s description of the London suburbs from the train as “wounds bleeding in the fog”. Apollinaire stayed in London in 1904 and 1905 and saw the city’s rapid suburban expansion as a flight from the wounds at the city’s heart. Apollinaire’s beautiful phrase seems not just to encompass the suburban ideal that transformed the landscape around London at the turn of the twentieth century, but also to foreshadow the increasingly dystopian London of the 1970s that Keiller came to as a student; a city traumatised by the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block and troubled by the decline of the post-war modernist dream. In his essay Dilapidated Dwellings, which accompanied his television documentary of the same name for Channel 4 (2000), Keiller looks at the legacy of this period by juxtaposing what he calls ‘new’ space – corporate, short-lived – and ‘old’ space – residential, degraded.

In many ways, Keiller’s perspective represents a particularly British mentality; his vision of London embodies a conundrum of town-planning that dates back to the reconstruction of the city after the Great Fire of 1666. Unlike Paris – with vast swathes of its centre straightened out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century – London remains a hodgepodge of architectural narratives. Keiller uses the term ‘palimpsest’ in one of his early essays, characterising the city as being continuously rewritten, its land and architectures reused and adapted, rather than as a modernist tabula rasa. Whereas Apollinaire’s view of a bleeding London characterises a city at the turn of the twentieth century, Keiller’s appreciation of Apollinaire typifies a longer view of ebb and flow in the old and the new.

In his essay Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: Whose London? (1999), the art writer Adrian Rifkin describes London’s streets as having this “linguistic” structure. Keiller plays with this idea in his own essay Imagining. Like Rifkin, Keiller considers his own history as a London commuter, as well as a wanderer, in a quintessentiallypsychogeographical manner, although Keiller treats this term with scepticism, lamenting its recent apolitical reincarnation at the hands of certain London writers. And yet, Keiller’s films are clearly part of this re-emergence of psychogeography in London – what Keiller calls “the current tendency”. Will Self has alluded to this in his own review of The View from the Train, in the London Review of Books, saying that the “unplanned perambulations” that make up Robinson’s cinematic narrative, and indeed Keiller’s praxis as a filmmaker, are, as Robinson puts it, “seemingly intent […] on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism”, and are therefore highly political. As Keiller states in the earliest essay published in this collection, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a numbers of ways of fulfilling it. One of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of the mood, which alters experience of the world and so transforms it.

Despite Keiller’s misgivings about psychogeography (particularly what he sees as its role in gentrification, which he describes as a form of colonialism) his vision and practice align with many of the post-Thatcher, London-based psychogeographers of the 1990s, such as Will Self. In fact, the popularity of his films, and the reason for this collection, lies in his very singular ability to consider and alter one’s experience of urban and rural landscapes in a way that many would associate with psychogeography.

This collection is a mixed bag, but it has a fragmented charm. A recurring motif in many of his later essays, evoked by the title, The View from the Train, and giving a loose sense of a theme, is the parallel development of cinema and technology, and the coinciding decline of the cinematic panorama with the growth of the railway. In both Film as a Spatial Critique and Phantom Rides: The Railway & Early Film, Keiller returns again and again to Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that the “space of common sense, of knowledge, of social practice” and everyday discourse was “shattered” in around 1910. Evoking Walter Benjamin’s formative essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Keiller looks at the changing dynamic of cinematic narrative, from the early ‘cinema of attractions’ – in which a camera was mounted on the front of a train to create a continuous, single-frame, moving narrative – to the fragmented montage of space and time in Dziga Vertov’sMan with a Movie Camera (1929). He suggests that the train had an important role in early cinema, both as a subject and as a parallel technology that eroded this idea of a shared space, and the boundaries between geographical and mental space.

Like the railway itself, this collection has an intrinsic, almost perverse linearity to it, moving through Keiller’s thinking and work over forty years and charting his changing voice from failed architect to successful filmmaker and academic. It can be repetitious in a way that is alternately illuminating and frustrating, but for fans of Keiller it brings an important critical dimension to the reading of his films and his thinking over the past forty years. In the essay Architectural Cinematography, Keiller does give some details of his film-making process, but this is all too short and there is not much said about the making of his later films or his exhibition at Tate Britain in 2010. That said, such omissions do not make The View from the Train anything less than invaluable reading, especially as Keiller’s essays are a singular companion to his films, considering the problems of his work without forcing the reader to reach firm conclusions. In that very postmodern way, they pose questions and reflect on his work without resolution. Keiller may pick holes in his own impact, but this collection solidifies his place in contemporary cinema and highlights the importance of criticality and politics in filmmaking. Here, as in his films, Keiller more than fulfills his own brief, as laid out in the first essay in the collection, “to alter the experience of the world and so transform it”.

[This review was published by Litro in Spring 2014]

London Through The Lens: The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)

sammy lee

When describing his influences for the film Get Carter (1971), the acclaimed director Mike Hodges cited two films which had supremely fueled his gritty portrayal of cockney criminality. The first being Brighton Rock (1947) the film derived from Graham Greene’s book of criminality centering on the young psychopathic ‘Pinkie’. And the second, much less well known,was The Small World of Sammy Lee, directed by Ken Hughes (1963). These three films sit in a perfect triad, oozing the ambiguous romanticism of the London gangster at this time. Each focuses on its central male protagonist, both carried along and carrying this criminal world, complexly woven as both hero and villain. While Get Carter and Brighton Rock have easily passed into the pantheon of British film classics, The Small World of Sammy Lee has passed into relative obscurity. The film recently came to my attention with a series of screenings about East London being shown at the St Johns Church on Cambridge Heath Road, this particular film screened in all its glory above the alter with a short introduction by that prophet of East London, Iain Sinclair.

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Hodges was so impressed by Hughes film that he employed the cameraman, Wolfgang Suschitsky, a figure previously associated with documentary film in the late 1950s and whose long tracking shots for the streets of London are the bedrock of the visual transience the film projects. The film follows Sammy Lee (played by Anthony Newley), a Jewish compare of a Soho strip club, as he dashes about the city attempting to collect enough money to pay the East End gang lord he owes following a bad night’s poker. One can see why Suschitsky was such a key figure in this film, as he came to be in Get Carter. The cinematography expresses this intense frenetic energy of Newley as he chases they money around London. His hunched pacing cunning ingenuity takes him across the East End, to his brother’s small Jewish corner shop, to the range of wheelers and dealers he can shaft or out-talk in a bid to escape his imminent predicament. It is a frantic, anxious movement which brings with it a sense of pathos for this shady character, and a melancholy at his ultimate doom. It is a frenzy also apparent in Get Carter, which famously also uses music to build suspense on long travelling shots. Suschitsky captures this all, expressing this tension not only with the character of Sammy, but as a characteristic of London itself. Really, while the story forms the structure of his journey, this is a film about London. As a friend who lived in London at that time said to me afterward the screening – I know you’re looking at this as a piece of visual history, but for me this takes me back to London as it was for me in the 60s. The shops, the clubs, the smoke filled cellars and derelict ruins, used to great effect in the final scene which is filmed in true film noir blackness. London is on view in all its multiplicity and visual vitality.

At the centre of it is Newley, well known for his early role as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), but also known to me as the strange ‘Irish’ fellow in Rex Harrison’s Doctor Dolittle (1967), and also from a successful songwriting career. Newley plays Lee with such a mix of comedy and anxiety that the film has this peculiar humour and melancholy which pervades Sammy Lee’s attempts to escape the inevitable. Alongside him, Julia Foster – bizarrely, the mother of the ever-present TV figure Ben Fogle – plays the guileless Patsy, Lee’s young love who has escaped her parents in Bradford with the hopes of a future with Sammy, only herself being drawn into his seedy world and eventually reduced to stripping for his clients. Foster plays the role as a perfect counter to the rough and wiley Newley, bringing a sense of pathos to his situation and motivation for his hopeful relief. As she says, he’s only really a boy, a young man in the city trying to make his way. Their relationship almost mirrors the relationship between ‘Pinkie’ and Rose in Brighton Rock, though in a slightly less monstrous guise, where Patsy’s innocence neutralizes the hard-dealing, undercutting desperation of Sammy as he resorts to anything to scramble out of his fix. Their parting has echoes of another film of the same year, Billy Liar(1963), directed by John Schlesinger, but performed as a play in the West End as early as 1960; in which the female character (played by Julie Christie) travels from Bradford to London in search of fame and fortune. Except in this case the scene is reversed as Patsy is shipped back to her parents in Bradford leaving Sammy to face his loan sharks head on.

While reduced to relative obscurity now, The Small World of Sammy Lee deserves a revival. It’s portrayal of London and London life brings with it an incredible view of the ins-and-outs of the city. Too often this period is dealt with only as the city of glitz and glamour, or as romanticized criminal underworld. Here is a more grey vision of the swinging 60s, which like Sammy Lee is tinted with a superficial charm but driven by murky underbelly. The two worlds revolving around each other. The film has a humour and warmth to it, but as Sammy’s final comic compare introduction to the slimy clients of his club shows, there is a hollowness and hardness behind this veneer of comedy which displays a stark reality. As he says, behind their smiles and guiles these women hate their customers. The act is all a façade. At the end of the film, in a dark quarry of rubble at the edge of the city, the façade is stripped and this film reveals itself in all its darkness and gritty realism.

This review was written in 2013 by Bea Moyes and originally published by Litro.