In 2008, I was commissioned to write a play for the Write to Ignite Festival in Hackney. I was given the preliminary title 'Hackney Streets' and it set me thinking about my own connections with Hackney in contrast to the plans that the borough had for 'regeneration'.
I had known Hackney since I was a child because it was where my grandparents lived and I had lived there since 1978. So my link to the place dated from the 1940s, when the area around Dalston had been settled mostly by a Jewish population who had moved out of Whitechapel and Stepney a generation before. Now that I was living in Dalston it had diversified hugely with communities originally from the Caribbean, Turkey, Vietnam, Nigeria, Bangladesh, the countries from the region of the Congo and indeed from almost everywhere in the world.
While all this settlement was going on, Hackney followed the convulsions and pressures all inner city boroughs experienced with various kinds of instructions and directives from central government about 'maximising assets', planning, development and the most recent nostrums about 'regeneration'. In Hackney, as with many other parts of the UK and all over the world, you could see very easily how these ideas impacted on the place. For many years, there were roads and corners which had belonged to some public body or another - the rail authorities, the council etc - which were derelict. In some cases these were squatted, in others people were on short-term leases trying to make a living doing a combination of retail, arts, or 'community action' of some kind. Under pressure from government, the council was trying to push the council-run estates into the hands of housing associations. Various ambitious but nebulous plans circulated about major road and/or rail and/or shopping centres. Under New Labour, there was much talk of 'partnerships' which boasted of arrangements between public and private, between council planning and big private developers which would 'benefit the area'.
In the midst of all this, as with all urban areas, there were sites of great historical interest, whether that was in the buildings themselves or held as history by the people who had lived in the flats and terraces for decades.
So, I wrote what was in effect a kind of radio play - a mixture of monologues, poems,songs and pieces of documentary, weaving in and out with voices telling stories about their lives and something of these plans for regeneration. The kinds of thing that were in my head as I wrote were Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood, Ewan MacColl's Radio Ballads, David Hare's documentary plays and Edgar Lee Masters' 'Spoon River' collection of free verse poems set in one town.
I have to say here that what was happening in Hackney as I wrote was making me (and plenty of other people) very angry. 'Regeneration' was emerging out of the Blair years as not much more than an illusion and a con. The illusion was what they were calling 'retail-led' regeneration - the idea that a whole area could get better on the basis of stuffing it full of multi-national chain stores. The con was the idea that such a regeneration - if it happened would address the desperate housing needs of most inner-city areas. What was becoming clear was that the dwellings such projects created were mostly flats and houses which were too expensive for the people facing the most need. Indeed, more often than not around the country, such people would be moved out of the development area in order to make space for the flats and houses which would make the project profitable.
Clearly, this was marking the end of the idea that it was the job of local authorities to provide quality social housing for people with need - an idea that had informed the Labour movement and social democracy since the late nineteenth century. It remains one of the great scandals of the Labour years of Blair and Brown that they completely failed to address the question of housing. Instead, they bought into private-public regeneration - another matter altogether.
Sometimes in some parts of Britain this meant riding roughshod over very old communities who were told that their housing was sub-standard and that they had to be decanted into new estates. In others (like Hackney) it meant telling people from newer and diverse communities that the streets where they had come to make a living - more often than not centred on tiny shops which reproduced their special cultural needs - were redundant. And when communities asked for the right to develop these old buildings themselves, they were being told they couldn't because 'there were plans' - that is, some kind of major development project, a profit-led, top-down plan.
So I wrote this:
Write to Ignite, being run by Chris Preston and Nathan Penlington had programmed the play to be performed by sixth formers at BSix College, in Lower Clapton in Hackney. Chris directed them and it was put on in the Lower Clapton, Round Chapel. He staged it in such a way as the cast was broken up into groups around the outside of the audience. We stood in the middle and the voices of the performers criss-crossed over and through it.
He felt that it was worth another airing, so he collected together some professional actors and put it on as professional show in the Rosemary Branch - a pub theatre on the borders of Islington and Hackney for a short run. I was over the moon with both productions, each had their strengths and I was particularly pleased by the way in which the solo and chorus pieces worked together. But that was just my view.
Both times, Emma-Louise Williams, a radio producer I had worked with on 'Word of Mouth' came to see it and then said that she thought the piece would make a film. So, then over the next two years, she recorded the actors and musicians, filmed in Hackney, researched archives for film and stills and put the whole thing together ready for the East End Film Festival where it premiered as "Under the Cranes" at the Rio Cinema, Dalston in April 2011. Since then, the film has been finding audiences at film festivals, independent cinemas, university conferences on Urbanism, poetry and book festivals, pop-up events, curated site-specific events, Left events, local history groups, National Trust and gallery spaces etc. Emma-Louise and I have taken part in Q & A sessions at all these screenings.
Emma has made a blogspot for it here:
and if you scroll down through the pages, you can see where it's been on and the reviews it's collected.
I think it's wonderful, but I'm biased. I think it's become something quite different from what I wrote. In effect, it's now a double montage - one on film, one in sound (not just 'voices') and these two montages seem to rotate alongside each other, sometimes in sync, sometimes in contrast to each other. It seems to me that this creates a way of space for the viewer to see and hear film in ways that are different from the dominant aesthetics of our time: the one being a kind of realist or naturalist fiction and the other a narrated TV documentary which tells a story with the authority of that TV company or journalist. Instead, this montage method (which of course has a long history going back at least as far as people like Vertov and Eisenstein) offers the viewer an active space in which to make connections between voices, sounds and images. Sometimes these might be the same or similar to the ones in my or the director's head but at other times not. There would be no narrator's or leading protagonist's voice directing you to do so.
I'm not for one moment going to make a case for saying that this is superior in any way - just different. And if you create artistic experiences that are different from what people usually see, this in itself is sometimes an experience that gives you a bit of a jolt or surprise. One ambition behind the film, after all, is that people watching the film, ask questions of the buildings and streets they live in. What kinds of voices and experiences live (or have lived) there? What kinds of plans do people in town halls and developers' offices have for these buildings and streets? Whose space is it? This double montage method seems to me one way to get these questions asked..
Anyway, the film is available for hire. If you're anything to do with an art centre, local cinema, college or university, some kind of community action or a forum, political group, looking at local development, or something to do with local history and change, then please do think of booking the film, perhaps putting it on with other films.
The quickest way to get in touch is to write to:
and we can go from there.
PS: A review of the film from the poet, Paul Farley:
‘Under the Cranes’ is a wonderfully life-affirming film-poem of place, full of lost time and effacements, reefs of street markets and shop fronts, painted in stock-brick yellows, steel shutter greys and silvery monochromes; and full of people, always people, the voices who have passed this way and called this home. As a collage of the city at its most quick, it has the ache and tug of what has been and gone; as a moving study of resourcefulness, resistance and resilience, it collapses time and returns each story to its street.
Paul Farley, Professor of Poetry, Lancaster University