May 2nd, 2004


A Second Cup of Coffee

Before we continue our creative look into Peckham, let's take a few minutes to sift out a few ephemeral memories of recent days.

Friday evening was spent down at Tapestry [Updated! There's some stuff about the Wild West event last year and a very grainy b&w shot of me on a beach with my back to the camera]. MGHN was there, as was the Manageress and the whole cast of the Johnny Cash Kids, or whatever they've decided to call themselves. Barry has shaved off his recent tache, which is a scandal as I hoped he was going to spearhead a revival. It (the evening, not Barry's lack of facial hair) confirmed some of what I've pondering of late about the (alt-) country scene in London. I can't speak for elsewhere in Britain. To be honest, I can probably only speak for Camden and North London. No, to be honest, I can't speak for anywhere at all aside from this flat in Stamford Hill.

The second band were a sort of pastiche band. I only listened to one song really, a fast verbal tirade about about partying in Vegas. The sort of song that wouldn't get any better on second listening. Not for me. As for the first, they sounded alright, but not enough to get me out of the bar and into the live room. Later that evening a man sat down and asked for a light. Aside from his slight that I was a plastic paddy, which I think he realised was a bit over the mark shortly after making it. No, that's my name, I said. What does plastic paddy mean exactly, I asked. Second generation Irish from London. Mmm, I thought, that's not exactly it. I didn't rise to the bait. Did I see the first band? No, not really. Weren't they fabulous? They were alright. Alright? Yeah, they were okay. Not fabulous? No, not fabulous. They were good (If they'd been fabulous, I would have heard it and I would have ran into the room with tears streaming down my face that such music could exist within the world). He looked a bit miffed by this and the conversation was interrupted. As it transpired, he was in the said band. It's a bit sad, fishing for compliments for your own band. Oh well.

MGHN and myself were joined briefly by a couple who claimed to train animals for TV commercials. They'd done the PG Tips ones. This wasn't a bad conversation for a while, except it became obvious after a few minutes that not enough preparatory work had been put into the facade. We're not really. Shame. I'm not sure whether I fall for this stuff easily because I'm stupid or I just don't care. Possibly the latter.

In both these instances, I blame DRUGS. And now back to Peckham. We'll get to the actual bus journey next time. I just have to get this Peckham stuff out the way.

There's precious little of the Lido remaining. But what remains is indeed precious. You'd be foolish to try and obscure its purpose. The curious blue tower is in fact an aerator. There's a very similar one still in operation at Brockwell Lido. I'd been living in the area for a few months before I first spied it. A delicious crisp Sunday at about seven in the morning. What was that thing rising above the frost? There was a thick mist that obscured the suburban background. I walked towards the tower. Although it was only about thirty feet away, it seemed that it might have been further. No, I wanted it to be further. I was hoping that I would shrink as I approached and it would rise like a giant ziggurat before me. I was to be disappointed.

Isolated from its origins, the tower was entirely incongruous. At first I suspected some regrettable outbreak of art that had spilled over from Camberwell, but this was something different. It was permanent and fixed to the spot. It had a function, although I had yet to divine it. It was turquoise blue. It wasn't art. I sighed with relief.

It's probably time to come clean about my art campaign during that period. What I enjoyed and loved about Peckham was its lack of pretention. It didn't pretend. Well, I suppose the local Fools and Horses crowd did, but I thought of that as mental illness rather than conscious choice. There were various attempts at civic beautification. Along Rye Lane, you can see these lamposts with coloured flags, as well as a stained glass representation of the Blake event. Some local authority department must hand out cheques for this sort of thing. I'm slightly jumping the gun, but what Peckham needs is beatification over beautification. It doesn't need to be made over. It needs to be worshipped.

I'd been to an opening for Gillian Wearing around that time. I was fairly unimpressed, not by the work as such, but all that accompanied it; the commerce, the PR, the interpretation, the cocaine dusted toilet tops, the people, the emptiness of the journey home. I only realised later that one of her pieces was in fact called Dancing in Peckham and was filmed in the Aylesham shopping centre. In it, Wearing exuberantly dances around to the sounds in her head. Whatever her intent was for the piece, the work seemed like a slap in the face for Peckham. What it said to me at that time was that people in Peckham were stupid white/black trash. Wearing could jet in (possibly on the number 12 from the Elephant), film her piece and flog it. The gains for Wearing were many and those for Peckham negligible. She did a not so dissimilar work along the nearby Walworth Road called Homage to the Woman with a Bandaged Face Who I Saw Yesterday On The Walworth Road. Enough is enough, I thought. She won't get away with it next time. Peckham will not be recuperated into the metropolitan artistic discourse. It needs to resist.

The nearby presence of Camberwell College of Art was a constant threat to Peckham's art-free sanctity, not to mention the South London Gallery. If there was to be art in Peckham, it should be natural, spontaneous, accidental, ignored. I spotted an estate agent talking of Peckham as the new Hoxton. What with Camberwell Green going the gastro-DJ route and the feted new library, there was no time to waste. I'd seen what had been done to the East End in the name of art. The campaign didn't amount to much. Mostly it was a series of home-produced stickers reading Sod Off Back To Shoreditch, Keep Art out of Peckham, Are You An Artist? Watch Your Fucking Back Then, Cunt and so on. These were plastered onto bus stops and elsewhere.

The campaign was a spectacular non-event, but it was better that way. Had it been picked up on, then it would have also been swallowed into that discourse. I'd have been some wannabee looking for a paid job, trying to work out a new angle for self-exposure. Nevertheless, I did manage to be arrested during the campaign. A final year student at the college had built an installation in a school playground on Camberwell Lane. It was a large white cube with a sofa and television sat on top. The artist would sit there and watch tv. Except he didn't. His actual attendance was fairly desultory. His inability to sit on the sofa throughout the night or during the least inclement of weather struck me as evidence of just how shit he was. If he'd sat there resolutely for a week without rest, I'd have had far more respect than I gave him in the end.

One day, as I passed by on the bus, I finally spotted him in residence. Striding into the playground, I immediately started shouting at him to justify himself and his piss poor conception. There was a fair amount of swearing, mostly from me. Eventually I lobbed a chunk of brick at him. It missed, but he started trying to climb down. The idea is, I said, is that you stay there. How much is your art really worth? Careerist motherfucker! Well, I guess I must have been rather distressing the children as well for I was suddenly grabbed from behind and spent the next 18 hours in nick. I got off with a caution.

I didn't give up the campaign because of this, although I was told very strongly to desist from any such further outbursts. Peckham managed the campaign much better than I did. It resisted through inaction. I was too passionate to succeed in that manner. The murder of Damilola Taylor also made me change my mind in some ways. He didn't seem so far from myself at that age; maybe a little distant around the other children, still keen to learn, loving of knowledge. That fateful walk to the library. A pointless death. For months after, a van would drive around the area with a large billboard in the back. The slow and silent pilgrimage of an icon through the streets. Do you know anything? Can you help? No one did. As much as Peckham admirably resisted art, it didn't resist violence. That's a slightly lazy statement, for sure.

I saw the billboard van later that morning a little while after sighting the blue tower for the first time. It was parked up by St George's Way. There didn't seem anything to do. I knew nothing about it. If I was of a different mind, if I thought that epatez le bourgeois was anything other than really plaisez (or rather payez-moi) these days, if I was an artist, if I didn't care then I would have made a piece of video art out of it. Restage the CCTV footage of Damilola's approach to the library and fake some footage elsewhere in the immediate area, but include a variety of Wearing figures in the background (dancing, bandage, people holding little placards that would be unreadable at that resolution). It would conclude with these characters brutally murdering him, probably just off camera in a nod to the classical dramatic form. People might react quite badly to it, so you'd have to con some art students to do it for you, while you snuck off for pie and mash in Manze's, and then sit back to watch out the window as irate local residents assaulted all these people in Wearing drag. Maybe you get a few Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor pieces turned into wearable versions as well. The fact that this really is a viable piece of conceptual art says it all. Maybe it's already done.

But the blue tower, that was something different. It was unmediated. It was connected to real local memories. It lived here and people lived around it. It doesn't represent anyone. It isn't trying to find an angle. It's not working a pitch. It's almost pure and it is most certainly true. There are very few such objects remaining in London. That lost dog poster? It's an insurance company. That friendly stranger? Evangelising. That free gift? Come on, now. That person shouting on the corner? Loser. That the tower is situated upon the site of Blake's vision is no accident. The Lido conceals the attempt to prevent Peckham from becoming itself by withdrawing the potential of divine intercession by the angelic world. Peckham is Damilola, a child beaten and brutalised by the gates of Arcadia, never to know the lands beyond.

This unremarkable object may have been conjured as Babel, but with the closure of the Lido, it has become a Tower of Silence. Gabriel once lay upon the ground there, wishing Death upon himself. As he sank towards that oblivion, a fox came before him and looked within his eyes. Gabriel, it is not yet time. He held that stare until the arrival of the ambulance. The intervention was a success and he was discharged to the Bethlem not long after. Later, I would walk with him across the Common as he indicated the subterranean river and gathered the foxes around him. He wasn't there on my recent visit, so I stood before the tower and wept alone. Was this really the salvation of the world before me? Could I manage to break open this seal? Was I prepared to welcome the angels home? Fear not, gentle reader, I returned to the bus stop and began once more my journey to the north.