Tune in to Resonance 104.4 FM on Tuesday 16th October at 5pm for the second episode of Raft, my new radio programme in which we explore real and imaginary landscapes of the city.
Credits for this month’s episode:
A walk in Trafalgar Square, featuring the thoughts, words and musings of Sukhdev Sandhu.
“Hounslow Moon” written and narrated by Chiara Ambrosio with soundscapes by Bird Radio.
“Wilderness” written and performed by Bird Radio.
You can listen again to the first episode of Raft on Resonance 104.4FM here.
Credits for this month’s episode:
“Dawn over the city” written and performed by Bird Radio.
“Dig” written and narrated by Chiara Ambrosio with soundscapes by Bird Radio.
A walk in Haggerston park featuring the thoughts, words and musings of Gareth Evans.
“Raft” is my new monthly programme on Resonance 104.4FM (London’s vital independent radio station), broadcast every 3rd Tuesday of the month at 5pm.
It will be a living lab in which ideas for “Raft” the movie will take shape and grow, a chronicle of my adventures and discoveries as I set off into the city- sometimes physically, sometimes in dreams- joined by a host of characters searching for redemption in an urban landscape of alienation and loneliness: independent artists, city flaneurs, cultural advocates, witnesses whose very physical presence within the changing city is an act of subversion, the guardians of alternative narratives and local forms of culture.
Raft is a dystopic fairytale of London, an evocation of the city’s past, present and future, a gathering of voices, a call to arms; the celebration of collective action and alternative narratives, and the proposal of a new poetics of space that celebrates the marginal and eccentric as a powerful agent for social change within the context of urban life.
This month’s episode will be broadcast on Tuesday 18th September at 5pm and I will be joined on the Raft by Gareth Evans, writer, curater and cultural advocate, and Bird Radio, singer, songwriter and composer.
The Horse Hospital, home of the Avant-garde scene in London for over two decades, a haven for all outsiders and radical experimenters, underground filmmakers and late night urban drifters, is under threat of losing its mythical abode- once a Victorian horse hospital, then a printing press, and now a dark and cobbled fort that rises defiantly in the very heart of London’s Bloomsbury, as though conjured straight out of David Lynch’s dreams. In the careful hands of its guardian, Roger Burton, the building has grown into a temple for national and international subcultures and has hosted everything from seminal Punk exhibitions to independently run alternative MA programmes (The School of the Damned, whose meetings happen on a Sunday like the best of services) to all night underground film-benders.
Like its spiritual brother The Chelsea Hotel, that housed and nurtured generations of artists in NYC, The Horse Hospital welcomed me to its fold as a budding filmmaker and introduced me to its secret networks of devout radical thinkers and idiosyncratic dreamers, shining lights on uneven trajectories through the most outlandish practices that have at once inspired and daunted me.
This urged me to embark on journeys of my own, to step into the exciting unknown armed with the irreverence, daring, fear and ecstatic bliss that comes from getting to witness the freedom and absolute commitment that can bind an artist to his vision.
Crucially it offered me space, that elusive commodity that is so scarce in the city today, and without which nothing can be born. As a recent graduate I was in desperate need of a physical platform from which to share my work, the space to experiment and fail, so that the next time I might fail better.
It made me aware of my role and responsibilities as part of a community much wider and more complex than myself, and awoke the desire to burst the dangerous illusion of lofty isolation that often distances the mainstream arts from its independent practitioners and their daily struggles.
Why should the Horse Hospital remain where it is? Because physical presence is a radical form of subversion in the city today. Because the fabric of London is being uprooted and its culture erased in the name of progress and at the expense of community and continuity, and a single room could make the difference between cultural survival and annihilation.
Because urban spaces are not merely deluxe properties, but constitute the scaffolding over which culture spreads and communities may thrive or decay, and therefore weave or unravel the narrative of the city.
Because the weight of continuity is a gravitational centre towards which, sooner or later, all parts of the stories that we tell will converge and collide to create a story that can transcend us all and grant a safe crossing into the future.
A room of brick and mortar, with its draughts and musty scents, with its leaks and cracks, is all we need to stay afloat even as the waters rise.
Some time ago I was invited by Gareth Evans to step into a hole in the ground of the Old Rectory gardens in Hackney Central. The hole had been dug out of the soil by the Dig Collective, as a poignant intervention and an act of resistance against the imminent loss of yet another free space to the spoils of redevelopment.
Together with another handful of writers, I was asked to read a piece of writing from within the hole, clutching a rusty old handle while breathing in the damp, perfumed scent of the earth. It was a moving and unsettling experience to lower myself, unaided, into the ground, and from there look back at everyone I had left behind, albeit temporarily- the distance between us suddenly swelling to an existential, unbridgeable chasm. I felt cradled by this bare soil, contained and absorbed by it, a sacred home- place of origin and of convergence- that I think of uneasily, or neglect altogether in my hurried days.
No amount of damage or erasure will ever sever us from this compassionate earth.
Every night I fall asleep to the sound of helicopters circling the milky sky of Hackney, tearing through a darkness diluted by the myriad streams of electric light that pour into it like a swollen estuary discharging into the sea. That low rumble decorates the white night, saturating it with a tension that accompanies me in dreams. The city grinds relentlessly, chewing up air, space and time, feasting on the things that we need the most to survive: daily we struggle to reclaim a morsel of that nourishment, gathering the crumbs that spill out of its greedy mouth.
Every night, while the helicopters rattle through the dense sky, I practice my silence with rigour and hope. I summon it to my room, sow it into the pale night and tend to it, so that someday I may harvest real darkness, that thick, star-studded fabric of dreams. There may be others like me who farm this unusual crop: a quiet multitude of night-harvesters, who tend to the silence like shepherds to their flocks. The city winds itself around each one of us, pulling us apart through space and time, and yet the soil that we churn is one and the same, and our solitude but a distraction. The labour of our hands and our minds ripples through the many singular nights that we inhabit, and chimes in unison. One day we will harvest our crops as one.
The soil of London is moist and hidden. It lies under layers of concrete that make our steps faster, keep the dirt from spoiling the neatness of the surface, keep us from falling. The pavements on the street where I live are being replaced: their worn-out surface marked by trapdoors, ridges and cracks- uneven and hazardous- is being ripped from the soil and replaced by clean, white slabs of concrete. Hackney is not inscribed on them, nor will the fast treading of light feet leave on them the same deep traces that time and habit had etched on the old one. As the pavements are lifted from the ground I can see the soil beneath it glinting like moist flesh, hinting at the subterranean rivers that flow through it, unseen and unknown, yet furious and vital.
The new concrete slabs are laid, their whiteness sealing the pulsating ground within, ironing out an even surface saturated with a smoothness that instantly erases the memory of everything it conceals. Over this white concrete, structures are built on shallow foundations: towers stretch so far into the sky that from the top it is impossible to hear the perpetual churning of the city’s entrails. The facades are sleek and impenetrable, their mirrored surfaces reflecting our image until we are blinded by our own speed. The hollow spaces and interstices are filled in for us- each nook and cranny, each gap in thought. Forever instructed to mind these gaps- those dangerous moments of intense possibility- that problem has now been solved for us entirely.
I stand on a patch of freshly laid white pavement. Around me rows of Victorian houses huddle together like sooty orphans, their dirty rags sticking out from under the layers of ill-fitting new clothes. They hold their ground defiantly, their toes in direct contact with the edge of the new pavement, leaving dirty marks where they touch.
These homes were shelters before they were money, and their bare bones groan each time their guts are wrenched out and a new layer of paint sets on the walls.
The last house on the left is plunged in perpetual darkness, its skin a darker shade of grey as though time had settled on it like moss: the front door has been replaced by a sheet of corrugated metal and the windows are blinded by thick layers of dust.
A pale, bent figure sometimes tends to the overgrown garden, moving through it like a crooked ghost. Her presence in the garden is as evanescent as her figure: sometimes she slithers through the leaves, or drapes her awkward body on the dirty stoop. I have once seen her step across the threshold of her home onto the pavement, wearing a green recycling bag as a scarf tucked in her neat black coat, a bonnet pinned carefully to her unruly white hair, whiskers framing her plump smile. When she disappears for long stretches of time she leaves behind her a great emptiness, an unfillable gap at the bottom of which one can see the moist earth tremble. In the shadow of tall new buildings rising all around her forgotten story, her physical presence, whether visible or invisible, is an act of resistance, a point of continuity in the timeline of the city.
I stand on the pavement and I begin to dig. At first the ground is so hard and impenetrable that the shock form the impact ricochets through my body like a stern shiver. I inspect the spot where I have struck and I can see a small dent, hardly a mark at all but undeniably there, right in the middle of the slab. I strike again.
It is morning when I begin, and by nightfall the mark has grown to the size of a hand. The helicopters tear through the white nights of Hackney as I continue to dig, sweat pouring from me in steady streams. By dawn the hole in the ground is wide and deep enough for me to step inside. So I remove my shoes and socks and enter the crack. The soil is damp around my feet and it envelops them instantly, appearing to absorb them like water. I stand on the spot as people walk past me on their daily commute. As they rush by, they don’t seem to notice me plunging deeper and deeper into the soil. I am now knee-deep inside the hole and it is twilight, the in between hour. I watch the same people return to their homes, wrapped in their clothes like armours, their downcast eyes willfully missing the curious sight of a woman sinking in the white concrete slabs of their new pavement. The streetlights flicker on and I am now neck-deep, as the helicopters resume their nightly rides through the thick sky above me. The soil holds me like a mouth, warm and soft, wet and quivering.
One deep breath and I am under.
I follow the riverbed, black soil under my feet: the water glints and shoots arrows of light through the pitch-black air that envelops me. I advance confidently, listening to the sound of the river beside me, its steady gurgling tearing through the fragrant darkness. I admit that it is an act of faith, this blind progression through uncharted territories that appear to exist beneath everything that I remember: and yet as I turn around I can discern a pathway unraveling behind me, lit-up by a mysterious glow, and further back, in the distance, the sound of footsteps following along the same path. I am ploughing this black earth, but I am not alone in my pursuit.
Each step expands the space around me and makes it breathe.
The river is ancient and wild, strewn with sediment it has dragged along with it through time and space. It is filled with life and death and all stories in between. It is divine and infernal at once, a perpetual flow beside which I appear like the small, temporal being that I am. I continue walking. Sometimes I become so scared of my loneliness that I consider forsaking the path: I agonise at the thought of the many white roads I have renounced when I first began to dig, pushing through this unformed dimension underground. But the river beckons me forward, unmoved by my faltering.
I look up, and the air is glowing faintly now, lit up by a beam of light that seems to originate from somewhere above my head. All around me the silhouettes of numberless staircases loom like strange totems, all of them rising out of solid foundations, all of them interrupted abruptly in mid-air. They look like trees, mythical weeds that stretch up to the sky, falling just short of the surface. They oscillate ominously, creaking like rusty hinges, impossible thresholds that once may have bridged great distances. I look up at the surface above my head, a thick membrane, milky white and opalescent. From within this hole I’m in, moist and fragrant, I consider the distance that separates me from the other side: it seems to be at once imperceptible and insurmountable.
The earth is warm and comforting here, it holds me together, it contains me, and I don’t want to ever leave again. But the tide is rising, and the river is swelling: I can hear it gaining force and pace, and erupt from the riverbed that cradled it. If I am to save myself from drowning I must build a raft. So I tear off pieces of wood from the ruined staircases and I tie them together with my hair.
It is a humble vessel, but it is all I need to float.
It is nighttime again when I emerge. Above me I can see the helicopters tearing through the white night, but I can no longer hear their low rumble, erased by the sound of the water that rushes me forward over the white concrete, past glass towers and council flats and though the empty streets of the city. I sit on my raft as the waters continue to rise. Now the tall buildings are submerged, and when I look into the dark waters I can see their mirrored facades refracting the light into a myriad shards as multitudes of people walk in single file along discarded train tracks. Above them I continue to rise until the sky is below me, and the helicopters are engulfed by the current and disappear instantly, like fish in the deep. In the black, star-studded night that now surrounds me I can see other scattered vessels, curious rafts cobbled together with great imagination. I nod at the passengers who nod back at me, as we all slide along, steered by the current. Bound to our vessels by hope, we have dug into the heart of the city and risen again with its tidal blood. We hold on to the leaky planks that support us, and we tell each other stories as we sail on: although we cannot see each other’s faces clearly we cast our words into the night with intense conviction. The journey ahead may be perilous but we are many: with soil under our fingernails and windswept hair, we gaze into the water at the city, glowing like a mythical wreck under the surface- secret, majestic and obsolete.
We know that as soon as we hit land, we will have to build again.
photograph by Mark Peter Wright