I loved this tour by author Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was unprepared for his own popularity and expected 3 or 4 arrivals instead of the 15 or so. We trooped around the little park in a group more diverse racially, culturally, and in terms of age than I was expecting. I loved that. He is a storyteller, and I don’t want to steal his stories or recast them in my own voice, they are too good. I am looking forward to encountering many of them again in his book, which sits beside me now, though I have not yet had time to read it. Another day, another post.
A taste though. We stood on a little hill in the new Vauxhall Gardens — a fraction of the site of the old Vauxhall Gardens, famous and infamous pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I brought all kinds of knowledge of those along with me, having encountered them in my mother’s historical romances, in Dickens’ brilliant descriptions of their magic by night and their tawdriness by day — the days only revealed in a last ditch effort to maintain the gardens as profitable. I knew that Hogarth had painted the scenes and held a golden ticket. I thought back to the fairly fabulous Museum of London display that attempts to immerse you in this past with its fairy lights and sound recordings and murals of graceful ladies in their beautiful dresses. I believed them completely gone, covered up by the relentless creep of development. In fact, they were.
This piece of ground had been here and I had found it on an earlier attempt to discover Vauxhall for myself, but it was labeled as something else and not very appealing as a park space. I missed the presence of the farm all together, never connecting it to those pictures of my friend’s children amidst the animals, when I glanced in and passed it by. Redevelopment has now motivated the council to commemorate its past grandeur, but not the people who once lived there. Gbadamosi grew up in a row of houses once standing on that grassy knoll, one of them bought through toil and struggle by his father, occupied and loved by a host of Irish Nigerian children. Torn down as a plan of slum clearance by the council. He passed around a photograph showing his sister, a beautiful old car, a neighbourhood that stood where we stood that to my American eyes was quite beautiful. There is nothing left to commemorate it, you would never know it had ever been there. I think so much about buildings, ruins, the ease with which our histories are erased when the buildings that have held us are gone. Words are all that are left. Pictures. Memories. Loss. On a lighter note, where will they put his blue plaque?
And so I felt at home on this tour, the memories of a poor childhood but a happy one, a culturally mixed and intermingled one, and the anger over a home lost and the understanding of how much more that meant than just the loss of four walls. I’ve been reading Marshall Berman lately too, and wonder if everyone who loses their home carries around with them that anger, that pervading sense of loss. I suppose we, the dispossessed, often have little ability to express these things in ways that can be widely heard, nor is it something you can casually drop in conversation. It has shaped my life so much, and while it does not make me happy to find it in others, it makes me feel that I am part of a community. These are my people, because they can understand the way that this event (events in the plural I suppose now, in a way) rumbles on through my thinking, so fundamental to who I have become. There are more and more of us, victims of the slow violence of modern displacement for profit through clearances, foreclosures, evictions.
Of course, I love this community of shared experience most when it also joins a fascination with history and some good politics. We heard about the mixing of the high and the low in the gardens, references to it in literature. In contrast, there was the industry along the bank of the Thames, the potteries and factories and Blake looking out his window upon Dark Satanic Mills. Vauxhall is also of course the new(ish) home of MI6 in the obvious and not so obvious places (for some lighthearted spy geography, much of it in South London, see this post from the Londonist), the site of new embassies — and of course that is where the Americans are coming to rest. The secret services undoubtedly make them feel safe, unlike the rest of us. Where we stood was also the location for the launching of the missile at MI6 by the IRA in September of 2000.
Two things that struck me most: the homeless folks and addicts that lived in the arches under the railway, who were allowed to use the Gbadmosi’s outside (!) toilet, often given food. His Irish Catholic mother said they were angels, tests of our charity, you should always help them. His Nigerian father said they were like the dead, and so you should always help them.
I pondered that, it has not left me. The mercifully brief presence of a young heckler already drunk on our morning walk showed that some other aspects of the past had not left us. I was almost glad to see it, it means those surviving on the edges, can by can or hit by hit, still have a place among us. That there may still exist some desire to deal with root causes rather than simply forcing our people suffering such problems into the outskirts and the shadows. Of course, imagining that our council has any desire to deal with root causes is a little idealistically indulgent.
The other thing is that as children who had not lived through WWII, to Gbadamosi and his siblings the word bomb site meant only an open space to play in. I am a bit fascinated by bomb sites, how they were incorporated into everyday life for so long, how they were gradually filled in — and you can see the filling. How they opened up opportunities to build social housing across the entire city — a promise of social quality that has since been renounced. The horror of Gravity’s Rainbow, pictures of flame and death and ruin, a mystique of wartime bravery and camaraderie. A common reaction I suppose, and I digress.
After leaving the park we walked down to see the old Doulton factory, pausing to look at the tiles and mosaics under the bridge on Salamanca Street. On the way we stopped at a highly secure building I’d always wondered about, and is apparently the headquarters of the firm specialising in transporting the world’s masterpieces of art. So cool. The old factory itself is stunning, I remember wandering past it for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing of craftsmanship was built. It too was bombed, but this piece of the facade thankfully preserved.
There was so much more but I shall send you to Gbadamosi’s website to read essays and get his book, the multiwalks website and phone app to experience a much expanded tour for yourself — more on that when I get a chance to explore a little more.