The following is a conversation with Jonathan Barnett and Leona Flude, Portobello Film Festival director and co-ordinator respectively. They discuss a range of topics: the origins and ethos of the 23 year old film festival; the pleasures and pitfalls of independent film making and exhibition; the supremacy of European and world cinema over the current British scene; and the future of the festival.
Constantine Gras will be curating a 2 hour programme of short films during the festival in September 2019 at the Gate Cinema Notting Hill. This will be called Male Emotion and Economics: The History of British Film from Cecil Hepworth to Derek Jarman and beyond. This will also be a site specific event with actors telling the story of the Gate Cinema, one of the first electric picture palaces to open up in 1911 at the dawn of the British film industry. Short films being screened include Jonathan Barnett's portrait of R.D. Laing (1984) , Adam Ritchie's Room 1301 (1965) and Constantine Gras's The Strawberries Are For The Future (2019). In addition, there will be another programme of films drawing on our local history and includes Washing Dirty Linen in Public (2019) and North Kensington Laundry Blues (1974); the latter is a film about the campaign to save the Silchester Road bath and wash house and has never been screened before.
Jonathan Barnett: I used to be a roadie for a band called Here and Now who came from Ladbroke Grove. The big thing that they used to do was free festivals and free music. There was this free music thing happening in the Grove in the late 1970s, early 80s. At the time this whole area used to be really run down, a slum. You wouldn’t believe it now. But out of slums comes a great deal of creativity. And I was totally into all of this.
Then these VHS camcorders came out so you could actually make a film for next to nothing which you couldn’t do before-hand. What got me going was the original video for The Message by Grandmaster Flash. It was filmed on VHS in the streets of New York and you could almost touch it. It was so real. And the fact that it was little bit amateurish actually made it look better than the stuff that was horribly professional. It also meant the means of production and distribution weren’t owned by the state. It was owned by ordinary people who could make films. So I filmed the carnival in 1982 and basically that’s what I did for ten years. I just filmed anybody that I thought was interesting with my VHS camcorder. Also around the beginning of the 1990s you started to get digital technology coming in.
So this was the context for why we decided to do the film festival. It was started by these people called Massive Videos that was run by Barney Platts-Mills and Ghanim Shubber. Barney made these amazing films called Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road in the early 1970s. He was into making film with kids off the street and he wanted to have a festival. They got money from City Challenge and started the Portobello Free Festival. This was around 1996 and they didn’t charge filmmakers for showing or people for admission. The first two years we were in tents on Athlone gardens which was great. It was just supposed to be a platform for all those people making films and who had nowhere to show them. Definitely came out of the genius loci of this area which used to be a frontline for innovation and we were the place that did counter-culture in terms of film.
Leona Flude: I was born around here and I think I met Barney via Courttia Newland who is a writer and is actually doing something now with Steve McQueen for TV. I used to go to school with Courttia and there was a group of us from Ladbroke Grove who started to go to Massive Video. Barney, Ghanim and Jonathan were there and telling us, yeah guys, make a film, just make a film. So everyone just mucked in. Someone would write a script, then we would go somewhere and film it. Then it got to a stage with needing to show these films somewhere. So the idea was conceived of having a film festival and it went on from there. But I have to say that without Barney and Ghanim, the festival would never have happened. They were amazing and inspiring, giving life and confidence to young people from the area who never thought that film was in their remit.
JB: I always thought the Portobello Film Festival needed a Banksy figure. The tools are there now and anyone can make a film on a budget of nothing if they want to. But not a lot of the films are very good because they are self-indulgent. It’s the selfie-generation rather than someone who wants to tell a story. But there will be people able to use this technology and make a really brilliant film. Obviously, the documentary is the easiest one, because you just find someone who is interesting and you point the camera at them. Also it’s more intimate in a way if you are doing it yourself, rather than a great big camera crew and everything. The secret? It’s got to be interesting to other people. That’s the thing about Banksy. He is street art, but everybody loves it. We need a film maker doing the same thing, with a bit of story to it or somebody interesting acting in it with a bit of star quality. I suppose it’s only just happened. We’ve only had digital for a short while, so it will take a bit of time for people to get used to it.
JB: What are the stand-out films? Guy Ritchie had his first film with us and also Shane Meadows. Sarah Gavron who made the feature Suffragettes in 2015, we had her film when she was a student at the National Film and Television School. Arguably, the films were better in those early days.
L: They had a bit more depth to them. Nowadays they are all so self-obsessed and if you find a film has really high production values, it’s usually quite dull, which is such a shame. It is difficult sitting through those films sometimes. But the European films are amazing.
JB: Yes. The European stuff tends to be of a higher quality, more challenging. I think film is regarded more highly as an art form on the continent than it is in England. Particularly good films are coming out of Spain and Ireland and Germany.
L: And Russia. You just think to yourself, how are these people having these great ideas for films.
JB: We get a lot of dramas that can be a bit dreary.
L: Especially the one’s about crime.
JB: Yes. They are made by middle-class people who probably don’t know anything about crime. There has always been good animation
L: And The British films usually do good comedy.
JB: The whole point is you make a film and other people have to watch it. So you want to leave them in a higher state than when they came into it. That’s what a work of art is about. People have to realise that they can do absolutely anything they want and they should not be trying to conform; if they want to conform, fair enough, go to film school and get a job as assistant director at the BBC. But if you want to be creative, use these tools that are available to you and do absolutely anything you want. The whole idea of a short is brilliant, because you can distill all of your bestness into ten minutes and that’s really quite exciting and a challenging thing to do.
L: We have had a few really really good films. The one for me was German. It was an arty film about a guy smoking cigarettes. It was black and white and won best film or best art film probably over 10 years ago now.
JB: N from last year was quite good. That was a send up of German expressionist films. It was clever and it wasn’t too long.
L: And Jermaine and Elsie set in Ladbroke Grove about a guy looking after that older woman.
JB: Yes. It was about this guy who was a carer for an old lady and it turned out that she was a racist. And he was black and gay. But she ended up really liking him.
L: Cass Pennant used to submit a film every year and he’s gone on to do really good things for Netflix. The work he showed here was about football fans.
JB: Casuals was about Millwall fans and their whole culture, the clothes they wore. That film was great. We’ve had a few top directors. Julian Temple showed his London Babylon here. And Mike Figgis. The last few years we are getting stuff from the Ken Russell siblings.
L: I have to say that one of the best stand out evenings was the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc that was made in 1928.
JB: That was fantastic. In The Nursery did the soundtrack live with synthesisers that had these sound effects like bells. The actress who played Joan of Arc was amazing, her acting, her face. And to think they found that print in a can that was dumped in the back of someones house.
L: For me that is the best. I didn’t need to go to another film festival after that.
JB: One of the most exciting evenings we had was with Chris Cunningham. He used to do adverts and pop videos for people like Bjork. He was obviously the darling of the advertising world and we had this weird film of his, Rubber Johnny, a Frances Bacon type film. One minute there was nobody there and then about 500 people turned up and we could hardly fit them into Westbourne studios.
L: The queue went all the way around. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he was that big. And it was like what the fuck! We also had another great evening with Ladj Ly and he won at Cannes this year.
JB: Yes! From a film called Les Miserables but I don'’t know if it was the original book. Ladj Ly came from one of the Paris suburbs. Whatever you say about England, it's far more integrated than France. Anyone who is ethnic minority they just whack them out to the suburbs, to the ghastly ghettos. So that’s where he’s from and they had a year of riots there and this guy filmed all the riots.
L: And we brought their production team over here to the festival and had a great evening. I'm wondering if things were almost more exciting back then.
JB: Culture has got very standardised of late. But one thing you do get at the festival, because we are kind of street level, is you get things when they are just starting out. The mainstream pick up on those good films that you first see at Portobello.
L: And also I think from the film festival being free. There’s so many more free film events around London.
JB: It’s inspired other people to do the same thing, which is great. Free is terrific. We have to thank the sponsors over the years for that including the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and The Westway Development Trust. We have this organic festival. It goes where it goes. We are not leading it anywhere apart from the fact that we are trying to keep it free. The foreign side of it which is programmed by Raymond Myndiuk will always be there because the foreign films are so good and they send them to us in droves. This year, we are doing three weeks at the Muse gallery with non-stop foreign films every evening.
JB: Tim Burke who sadly passed away recently helped start the Pop Up Cinema under the Westway. It started when the Mutoid Waste Company did a thing there one Christmas. They turned a Wessex helicopter into a spider and they had all the top graffiti artist there. Chris Bailey from the Westway Development Trust brought in Barney who then involved us. I wanted to get in a cheap projector, but Tim said - no let’s do it with a professional one. He got that in and a giant screen, The containers were our idea. The top one being the projector booth. And so we started the summer after the Mutoids had been there. Tim was putting on stuff throughout the year. We had Dave Pitt from Inn on the green doing the bar and on a nice day it was a great place to hang out. We were at the Pop Up from 2010 to 2015.
L: We would love to go back.
JB: It’s hard not being there. We are trying to make film a live experience and that was the perfect venue. They say it’s location, location, location. We got twice as many people at the Pop Up because it’s on Portobello Road and it always used to be full at 5.30 before we start at 6. There was an excitement in the air. So the last three years have been a bit of a struggle.
L: With us not being at the Pop Up, it's like we don’t have a home.
JB: Yes. We need the Pop Up. And when Grenfell happened, we decided that we didn’t want to exploit it, which is what a lot of people were doing coming into the area. We wanted to do something for local people. So we’re putting on these shows at the Maxilla which is called A Song For Notting Dale and it's not making a big political statement or everything. It’s for locals telling them they are respected.
L: In the future we want to secure funding, so that we don’t have to stress every year about paying the rent. Also getting the Pop Up back would be brilliant.
JB: It would be great if someone said, here’s thirty grand a year. We’re not asking for a fortune. That’s cheap for a big festival that lasts three weeks. And then we could really go for it and put on more special events. And we have lots of old films in the office we want to digitise.
In conclusion, some tips for film makers thinking of submitting to the festival:
L: Get someone else to edit your work. When you edit, your just too emotionally involved and will end up trying to keep everything in. And don’t forget sound quality which is just as important as the visuals.
JB: I would say keep it short and get someone interesting to act in it. There is nothing wrong with filming on the street. If your camera's in close, with a good built in mic, you’d get a good picture and this will save you having to light it. And do something interesting and original. If you have fun that will come across in the film. That’s what the original Shane Meadows films were like. He was obviously having a laugh doing it, even though a lot of it is complete nonsense, And when your film is on, come along and bring a load of mates. That’s the whole point. It’s a party. This is your version of Cannes even if it's the only film your ever going to make.
1862. Irish washerwoman at Counters Creek watches a turd floating downstream to the Thames.
A 16 year old laundress at a workshop on Latimer Road, 1890. Dreaming of better pay and romance.
1924 and a depressed char lady, thinks about going to a birth control clinic that has opened in the area.
V-E day in Europe and women at the Silchester Road bath and wash house sing:
“We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line!”
Testerton Road, North Kensington 1967:
West Indian sisters are flooded out of a slum house and seek sanctuary at the bath house.
1970s: the building of Lancaster West estate and the campaign to save the Victorian bath and wash house.
1980s: residents of Grenfell tower look down on the bulldozed bath and wash house.
Dirty Linen washed on 12 pages
Artist's book, 6x4"
Oil pastels, ink, pencil
Project blog post: To marry an ironer is as good as a fortune
Washing Dirty Linen in Public was performed as part of Serpentine Galleries Hito Steyerl: Power Plants
And also during the Portobello Pavilion festival of arts.
It will be screened during the Portobello Film Festival in September 2019, date to be confirmed.
Jackie Blanchflower: I can't tell you how pleased I was that I gave up my Saturday morning to come to the Power Walk last Saturday. It was great to have the guided walk and performances and lovely to hear from locals who remembered the Silchester Baths and the campaign to save them. It is really good to make history come alive and of course it does repeat itself! It would be great to expand into discussions on power and powerlessness and speaking to power.
Mary White: It was fascinating. There was a good sense of flow through the ages and it was inspiring to hear how women have worked together to be empowered in various ways in the area over the course of time. It made me proud to be a North Kensingtonite, and reminded me how so much of what we have today has been hard-won by those who have been activists in the past.
Judith Blakeman: Well researched and beautifully acted, with a space at the end for older residents to chip in with their personal reminiscences. A very interesting and intriguing afternoon.
Flora Cornish: I loved the walk and performances and social history and artworks yesterday! After building the sense of layers of history and continuity, to find there were women in the room from the laundry campaign and hear from them was the icing on the cake!
Dominic Carey: I enjoyed the walk - it’s good retracing exactly where things were before the changes that I remember and things before my time like the site of the creek. An enjoyable afternoon. Well done.
Edward Daffarn: It was very empowering to learn about the laundry protests from the 1970s.
John Whelan: I thought it was a wonderful introduction to a story that really related to the local area. It was fantastic the way you set the scene and used the wider history as an anchor with the piece. The performances really captured the everyday lives and story of the laundry. And the music and earphones worked really well.
Yvonne Allison: I was born in a family of ten children and one of the reasons for that was that my mother did not have access to birth control. And when she did go to a clinic, she was turned away because she was black. Your scene set in the house of Margery Spring Rice really brought it home to me. And the last scene as well. The one in the slum house. When my father did come to London, it was the Rachman era. It didn't matter where migrants came from, even if they were well spoken or educated. It was all the same experience for them. Watching this encapsulated the whole thing for me. Thank you so much!
Washing Dirty Linen In Public was commissioned as part of Hito Steyerl: Power Plants at the Serpentine Galleries. It was a guided walk enhanced by theatrical performances and also a related art exhibition. The latter took place at Latymer Community Church on 27th April 2019.
The story of women's labour and activism from 1860-1970 was set in the world of laundries and the bath house at Notting Dale. A guided walk set the scene for actresses who performed in the park at Silchester Estate, before moving on to Freston Road and finally ending up beneath the elevated A40 Westway. Once upon a time this area was known as soap-sud island. At its peak, in the early 20th century, there were over 300 laundry workshops and factories in North Kensington. Despite the long hours and hardship, many women were able to establish new modes of self and collective identity, as well as economic independence.
The research was conducted via online archives and related literature; there is however, only one book on the subject, English Laundresses, A S0cial History 1850-1930, written by Patricia E. Malcolmson and a fine one at that. In addition, I interviewed Jenny Williams. She was one of many activists in North Kensington during the 1960s-70s who tried to prevent the demolition of the Silchester Road bath and wash house and was then involved in the running of a community laundry. This all culminated in the writing of five short scripts that were performed by Shelagh Farren, Nina Atesh, Rachele Fregonese, Rebecca Hanser, Mina Temple, Michelle Strutt and Rawleen Evelyn.
The aim of the project was to bring a hidden story to light about women's labour and to explore its contemporary relevance for the #MeToo generation and the conflict over equality in our increasingly fragmented and polarised society. Washing dirty linen in public is a metaphor for social and artistic struggles that are needed to renew the body politic.
1840s map of North Kensington, showing the Hippodrome race course
Narrative overview of Washing Dirty Linen In Public
Counters Creek is an ancient stream that runs from Kensal Green Cemetery into the River Thames. By the middle of the 19th century, the creek becomes an open sewer and is in the process of being culverted. Today it flows under the elevated Westway and down the middle of Freston Road. During extreme weather conditions it can flood to the surface and damage basement properties.
The northern part of the parish of Kensington was still semi rural. The colony of pig farmers and brick workers that had originally settled here and were the focus of public health interventions, are in decline. People, dogs, pigs and poultry all lived together in poor housing. There was no church or school in the area. With men out-of-work, women establish a cottage industry taking in washing from an expanding upper middle-class. This became the dominant form of women’s labour in Notting Dale.
Jane - wife, head of the family, mangling woman
John - husband, turns my mangle
Laundresses used manufactured soap that was dissolved in water to form a jelly. Notting Dale was one of the few places in England where local soap was made. It used recycled raw materials from the pig farms and brick works. Food refuse was collected from the well-off houses and boiled down to make fat and this was combined with ash from the brick making industry to make the soap.
Performances by Shelagh Farren and Nina Atesh at Waynflete Square on Silchester Estate
And the SPACE (Supporting People And Community Empowerment), 214 Freston Road
Performance in Waynflete Square on guided walk: Shelagh Farren as Irish migrant, Kathleen Doherty.
"I’ve done eight hours solid bent over that wash-tub. The skin on my hands is all raw. Mrs Peters will do all the ironing, thanks be to god. Good luck to her with them frilly shirts. Gowns in fancy colours. And those blooming bloomers! Someone’s got a right royal arse. They belong to them rich people down Notting Hill Gate. They like to buy the best from Paris. I can read you know! Well, a few words on them labels. They want nothing but the best and when they’re soiled, they want it cleaning. And they expects the likes of us to do it for a pittance."
Third Mother’s meeting held in the drying room of a laundry in Latimer Road.
The opening of Latimer Road Mission as the first community building in Notting Dale.
It offered a pioneering creche facility for the laundresses who worked in the area.
The Latymer Community Church is the direct descendant of the original mission.
Latymer Christian Fellowship Trust (formerly The Latymer Road Mission)
Leaflet celebrating 150 years of loving and serving the community, 1863 – 2013
There is a growing urbanisation and industrial expansion of laundries. The working conditions in workshops are unhealthy, with long hours (10-18 hours a day are the norm) and poor pay. But new found economic status for working-class women as the bread winner.
Laundresses had a reputation for hard working followed by drinking and brawling. Pubs in Notting Dale were open on a Sunday in defiance of licensing laws. There were often more women to be found in pubs then men. Laundresses could be paid by beer that was consumed on the job. Theft and crime from the laundry industry was rife. Many laundresses saw an opportunity to abscond with linen and clothes.
West London Observer, 1884 and 1892
Newspaper image © Successor copyright holder unknown.
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive
Harrow Mission Church opens on Latimer Road and is converted into the Harrow Club in 1969. It is a Grade 2 Listed building.
Opening of Silchester Road Baths & Wash House at a cost of £51,168 (today £6.5 million).
There were 3 swimming pools and 74 baths classed for use.
The water from the 1st class baths was recycled and used by those in the 3rd class baths.
The public laundry had 60 separate washing compartments.
Washers could earn as little as 2 shillings and 6 pence for 12 hours a day (with breaks).
Ironers earned 3 shillings and 6 pence.
3s 6d = £15 in today’s money.
Performance in The SPACE by Nina Atesh as Florence Smith, 16 year old laundress.
Supported by Shelagh Farren and Mina Temple.
"We’ve been working about four hours solid without a break. But it’s better to be here than at home.... or at school. They treat me like a child. But I’m the first in the family to earn a proper wage. And here I can make six shillings a week. I have to give half to mother mind. But the other...... half..... well it goes in the....piggy bank. And I hide that under the floorboard. Otherwise father will drink it all up."
Sayings and thoughts of women (and men) in Notting Dale:
“A shilling you earn is worth two given you by a man!”
Men: “To marry an ironer is as good as a fortune.”
Women: “The best ironer gets the worst husband.”
To wash on a Monday is to be virtuous.
But who washes on Friday is half a slut;
And who that washes on a Saturday is a slut to the bone.
The washing week:
Collection and sorting on a Monday,
Marking, soaking, washing and mangling on a Tuesday
Wednesday is ironing and airing
Thursday is folding and packing
And Friday is delivery of the snow white linen.
1888 Kensington Directory
Amalgamated Society of Laundresses and Working Women is established and campaigns for better safety and wages. However small laundries run by women fear going out of business if their work is regulated by the Factory Acts.
Estimated 200,000 attend a Labour Demonstration at Hyde Park including the Amalgamated Society of Laundresses.
249 laundry workshops and 58 laundry factories registered with Kensington Council’s Medical Officer of Health.
First woman factory inspector to be employed in London is appointed by Kensington authorities. Miss De Chaumont, Inspector of Workshops, will visit over 200 laundry workshops in North Kensington during 1907.
Sylvia Pankhurst, suffragette campaigner, addresses a meeting for women at the Silchester Road and Bath House.
Narrative storyboard of the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, 1924-74
The third birth control clinic opened in England by Margery Spring Rice and friends.
Performance in the SwimFarm under the Westway by Rachele Fregonese and Rachel Hauser.
Margery Spring-Rice has just opened a birth control clinic for working-class women on Telford Road and encourages her depressed cleaner, Freda, to pay a visit.
Freda: I wish I knew about those things before I got married.
Margery: It’s easy to learn. There are a few methods and we need to find what suits each woman. In most cases, that will be the use of a cervical cap. It is really simple to use when you get the hang of it. I don’t think Mrs Jenkins or even the daughter for that matter, fully understood what we were talking about. She then got angry and shut the door on us. After that we heard her throwing out their...what is it....food waste...hopefully nothing more. Out of the window and down into the yard. It nearly fell on someone’s head.
Freda: I spose, she’ll be wanting to throw out her daughter now.
Margery: Hopefully not out of the window.
West London Observer: “During the sale of the effects of a German laundress who died from hunger recently at the age of 80, a diamond of superb quality valued at over £3000 was found in the pocket of an old bodice she used to wear.”
Photo display at Latymer Community Church.
Mrs Joan Hales doing her Monday wash, circa 1946.
Reproduced from Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Performance at Latymer Community Church by Mina Temple.
Victory in Europe Day and Joan Stewart, with a heavy heart, goes on her weekly visit to the wash house.
Joan: I wonder who’s washing today when the whole of London is celebrating the end of the war? I knew it! Only us old timers. Hilda and Nessie and the others. They’ve had their tea and sarnies. What a racket! Just listen to their false teeth. Ah. Here’s a space for me, right at the end, where it’s a bit quiet. I can see them looking at me, wondering what I’m doing over here. Silly cows! Don’t they know it’s my Wednesday wash!
Flood Havoc in Notting Hill for 60 homes as families wade waist-deep in sewer water.
Cinema Poster: Leo The Last
Orange sequence shows the revolution moving from the laundry to the street.
The film, Leo the Last, is made on Testerton Street just prior to its redevelopment into Lancaster West Estate. In the penultimate scene, an aristocrat, played by Marcello Mastroianni, incites women at the bath house to join the revolution against poverty and housing.
Performance at Latymer Community Church by Rawlene Evelyn and Michelle Strutt.
Grace Augustine is visited by her sister, Jackie, in a slum house on Testerton Street.
Jackie: And why the wall all damp under these cracks?
Grace: I was gonna hang up a few posters. Beaches and sunsets. They add colour to these grey walls.
Jackie: You cann add colour to this slum. Me no joke. You no notice round here, how all the houses painted black.
Grace: It’s for the film.
Jackie: It like you live in fantasy world round here.
The North Kensington family planning clinic closes down on Telford Road. The land is being redeveloped and contraceptive services are finally being taken over by the NHS.
Local resident's comment at the exhibition Q&A:
"I was there as a teenager. We had a big picture of a bra and it said.
How can we wear our bras if we have nowhere to wash them?"
The closure of the Silchester Road Bath and Wash House as part of the Lancaster West estate redevelopment. Women campaign to save the building and its laundry facilities.
The council open a laundry under the Westway and after more campaigning, local women, take over the running of the laundry.
Demolition of the Bath and Road House and closure of the Westway Laundry.
The last of the large family-run laundries, White Knight Laundries, closes its North Kensington branch with the loss of 75 jobs. It had been providing domestic and commercial services since 1933.
Notting Barns as framed by the Westway flyover and the Circle and Hammersmith and City Railway.
The four tower blocks of Silchester Estate and Grenfell Tower at Lancaster West Estate.
Photo early 1970s, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Archives
Our guided walk and performance navigated around railway lines, across Silchester estate and under the Westway.
At the launch of the Power Plant exhibition at the Serpentine, Hito Steyerl outlined her visionary art that connects technology with the discourse of power; she also addressed the (Sackler) elephant in the room. For me, I've got more of a swine complex. One that oink oinks in North Kensington. The roots of our land here are connected with pig farms (and potteries) and these gave rise to the first of many public health issues. The Victorian authorities prohibited this form of labour in the 1860s. This is the point at which my current art project, Washing Dirty Linen in Public, that was developed as part of Hito's exhibition, comes into play. As that land was being urbanised, laundresses and industrial laundry work, took root. This was later connected with the building of the Silchester Road bath and wash house that had extensive cheap laundry facilities. These female-centred modes of work lasted until the 1970s with the building of the estates (with hot water, baths and central heating!) and the advent of consumer appliances that minimised the need for laundries; the so-called sexual revolution also freed women to enter the wider workforce and not be tied to the demands of large families.
All these historical elements are being woven together for an exhibition and guided walk on 27th April 2019 at Latymer Community Church. My collaborators, actresses from the People's Company, have been bringing historical scripts to life drawing on their own memories of parents and distant ancestors from Ireland to the West Indies. We are thinking about how washing is being exploited in today's society with domestic home workers and in the hand car wash industry. In the background of our project is #MeToo and the recent Gender Pay legislation for companies. This liquid history is ripe for creative reinterpretation and has a contemporary resonance.
Landscape for Colin MacInnes:
"Out of this road, like horrible tits dangling from a lean old sow,
there hang a whole festoon of what I think must really be the sinisterest highways in our city...."
(Text from Absolute Beginners describing the streets of Notting Dale, 1958)
oil pastels, 16x20, 2012
High Rise living with ceramic creature comforts
Oil pastel, 16x20, 2012
Top photo: Shelagh Farren at the Westway graffiti wall.
She will be playing the role of Kathleen Doherty, laundress in 1860.
"Pat doesn't like me working, but I'm not going out begging like some tinker and I've seen what it's like in the workhouse. If I have to, I will wash all the clothes in the Dale to put food on the table and pay the rent."
Bottom photo: Rawleen Evelyn as Grace Augustine, resident of basement flat at Testerton Road in 1969:
"The council change everything round here. One day a house is here. The next day, gone. But maybe the bath house will survive."
Washing Dirty Linen in Public
A performance based walk and exhibition about women's labour and activism in Notting Dale
Saturday 27th April at Latymer Community Church, 116 Bramley Road
Exhibition display of archive images, drawings and short films from 11am - 5pm
Performances also taking place at the church hall throughout the day
Guided walks at 10am and 2pm, booking via Eventbrite
Walks sold out - please contact us to be added to reserve list
Commissioned as part of Hito Steyrl's exhibition at the Serpentine, 11 April - 6 May 2019.
When I was visited by Hito Steyerl and staff from the Serpentine Gallery last year, I took them for a walk around the streets of Notting Dale. I explained how housing issues and community activism were captured in a map made during the Latymer Mapping project.
Fast forward a year, Hito was preparing for an exhibition at the Serpentine and kindly asked me to recreate the dynamics of the map as a walk. I didn't want to revisit the politics of housing. I thought about using lost or forgotten spaces. Counters Creek that is buried under the streets. A cinematic narrative of historical voices. Each coming together to shed light on contemporary issues; but I needed a focal point.
One detail on our original map highlighted the history of laundries in the area. At its peak, there were over 300 workshops and factories in North Kensington supplying cleaning services to the working class households and their more affluent neighbours, as well as hotels and restaurants. As I dipped my toes into the research, the idea formed of connecting the first laundresses of the 1860s with the Silchester Road and Bath House that was built in 1888; and then relating these to the post-war slums and the building of the social housing estates. I envisaged a series of working-class women characters, including recent migrants, who created and then carried on a tradition of women's labour. Many of the original businesses were family run, perhaps with a woman at the helm. Washing could be a capital business and the advent of steam powered machinery was rapidly employed to maximise profit. For the laundresses the work was hard and poorly paid, but could be relied upon at times when extra income was needed for the household. The gathering together of women in this mode of labour created a new social dynamic inside and outside of the home. Becoming an ironer of silk was one of the more specialised roles that entailed better wages. There was a local saying that men of a certain temperament flocked to the area in the hope of marrying and being kept by an ironer. In the archive, there are also early examples of women organising themselves into unions that wanted to improve the working conditions for laundresses that were not fully regulated by the Factory Acts. And also accounts of laundresses taking part in the large labour demonstrations of the 1890s, travelling on a processional float to Hyde Park and getting joyously pissed, dancing and singing, effing and blinding.
From this schematic outline, I penned the following characters and they will be performed during the guided walk and at the exhibition on the 27 April:
Kathleen Doherty is a migrant from the Irish Famine, who, for a pittance, washes the clothes of the prosperous class in Notting Hill. Looking across the open fields of Notting Dale, she has a comical vision of the future.
Florence Smith, 16 years old, already a veteran of the steam laundry workshops, contemplates her adult life as a silk ironer.
Freda Palmer is the charwoman who befriends her employer, Margery Spring-Rice and contemplates visiting a birth control clinic that has just opened.
Joan Stewart sets off for her weekly visit to wash clothes at the Silchester Road Bath's. It’s no ordinary day: the country celebrates victory in Europe while Joan contemplates the fate of her family.
Grace Augustine is a West Indian mum, living in a damp, unfurnished flat, on a road that is about to be demolished for the building of Lancaster West estate. She is visited by her sister Jackie and both are forced to seek sanctuary at the bath and wash house.
The monologues and dramatic sketches will be performed by Nina Atesh, Rawleen Evelyn, Shelagh Farren, Rachele Fregonese, Rebecca Hanser, Michelle Strutt and Mina Temple.
It was a pleasure to meet up recently with Jenny Williams who told me about her involvement in the laundry narrative. She was raised in North Kensington, worked for the Greater London Council's Women’s Committee and managed children’s services for Lambeth and Camden. She became involved in many of the local community campaigns from the 1960s-80s that addressed the chronic lack of child care facilities and play spaces.
As we will discover in the following interview, there are strong parallels between the 1890s laundresses and their 1970s counterparts who saw their beloved Victorian bath and wash house demolished for redevelopment. As a result of effective campaigning, the women were able to get RBKC council to open a new laundry under the Westway. The unglamorous world of soap and suds was the setting for dissent and collective solidarity at a time of profound social change, especially for the elder residents of the community.
One of our battles in the 1970s was to try and save the Silchester Road baths and wash house. It was really well used. Mothers who had large families, tended to load up their prams and go to the wash house. You took everything in a great pile and when you came out it was all folded, ironed and you pushed it home. You had your time and day for going. You could be there for three hours and it was very cheap. While you waited, you could buy tea and coffee and bacon rolls. There was a real community aspect to it. That was why there was such an outcry about it. We’re talking about people who had practically been going there all their lives and suddenly the council wanted to close it down. It wasn’t just about losing the laundry. The building had 3 swimming pools at one time: a ladies pool, a gentleman’s pool and a public pool. There were also individual baths and a medical baths centre.
When the council announced the closure in 1974, for the continuation of the Lancaster West development, the local women were furious. So it wasn’t difficult to get their support. We even had Max Hastings come to one of our laundry meetings and he wrote an article in the Evening Standard. There were meetings with Cllr. Middleton who I believe was chair of Libraries and Amenities at the time. He said it was rather like Livingstone meeting the savages. We didn’t take very kindly to that sort of remark. The local MP, Sir Brandon Rhys-Williams, was very supportive considering he was a Tory. Also the dust men and Tony Sweeney, the trade union shop steward.
I know it wasn’t terribly appropriate, but we got hold of a lorry and took part in the Carnival. That’s me in the middle with the large hat on!
Alongside the campaign for retaining a laundry, we got a preservation order on the baths building. Mainly because it was designed by architect Thomas Verity who didn’t usually do municipal buildings. Also it was a nice building. Then various other people got interested in it and put forward these different proposals about how it could be used, including putting a stables in there. Our view was that it should be a community centre and there should be different facilities including a covered market. Then we went to a public inquiry. But the council won in the end. It was pulled down.
The council were struggling to get their head around what was happening. Our campaign was just part of a lot of community activism taking place in North Kensington. And we kept telling them we didn’t want a laundrette, we wanted a laundry! The council finally agreed. After the baths closed, they built us a new laundry under the Westway, right next to the Maxilla nursery centre.
So we had our laundry which lasted about 5 years. Then in 1980, the council again decided to close it down, So we had another campaign and what the council did was classic. They said to us, why don't you run it! They hand things over, so as not to have anything more to do with it. So we set up a laundry company. Residents wanted to continue to have sinks that they could wash things in and to have access to irons. This service lasted for another 9 years until the machinery started to break down and became too expensive to repair. To be fair to the council, they had actually put in very good quality Miele machines.
At this point, the Greater London Council Industry and Employment Committee gave us a grant and we put in a brand new laundry. It was a steam laundry and we had to have a rota of women who managed the boiler. The new laundry was opened by Mike Ward who was the chair of Industry and Employment at the GLC. We told him to bring in his washing for the opening. They supplied us with very expensive machines, the cost for the washer extractor was £5,980 for ten which was a lot of money in those days. Good old GLC! We even had heat exchangers put on top of the dryers, so it was quite economical. The GLC were very interested in green projects. It really was a super service. That lasted for another 5 or 6 years, until again, the laundry machinery broke down. And it was also the time when residents stopped using the service.
So our laundry campaign and business started in 1974 and went on into the late 1980s. A lot of us spent many years looking after the laundry, as well as doing other things in the community.
Photographs kindly reproduced by Jenny Williams ©
Come, my dear referendum
Go deadly cat > apps < bleed the VHS signal
The night I buried my passport (in 1973)
A suitcase for the deal
Euro sting in the Scorpion's Tail
The torture of Article 50
What have you done to Therese's voice?
Whiplash for the body politic
The killer rubber dub (out of sync)
Brexit - My Giallo
10.5 x 15cm, oil pastels and pencil
2019 (going on 1973)
Reproduced from Radio Times, 2 November 1934 / BBC Genome
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle was made in collaboration with John Whelan and People's Company. It told the dramatic story of the Coronet as theatre, cinema and night-club. The project had a curious genesis. It started in 2012, when I tried to remember a film I had seen as a 14 year old, a horror film screened at theABC Edgware Road. The film with its visceral supernatural murders, inspired by Dario Argento's influential shocker, Suspiria, made a deep impression on me at the time. However, over time, I completely forgot what the film was called; while still being able to vaguely recall certain scenes. Decades later, I tracked down the film at Westminster Archives, looking through back copies of newspaper listings. The recovery of that memory as a film called Terror (1978, released in 1981), emboldened me to artistically connect with the lost cinematic spaces and experiences of my youth. My Terror ABC had long been demolished. But I discovered the Coronet in the Elephant and Castle was once an ABC cinema and was being threatened with closure. This was a perfect opportunity to explore my love affair with cinema.
The Melodramatic Elephant art project was initially framed around the actor-manager Tod Slaughter, noted as one of the greatest (and greatly under-appreciated) stars of melodrama. He provided a more obvious link to my interests; the intersections where theatre and film, horror and melodrama, meet and diverge. However, I deviated from this focal point when I unearthed the poignant story and medical records of Victorian actress, Marie Henderson. Her life and death, were so poetically linked to the Coronet and her ghostly presence in the building was a perfect medium for threading time across the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. She was also a completely unknown story, while Tod Slaughter was already a minor footnote in film history. I handed over these schematics to John and the People's Company and they created a spectacular last-ever theatrical event for the Coronet.
This blog will provide some context to the original ideas for the project and a sample of art work that was generated. In the process, we doff our cap, to the achievements of Tod Slaughter's 50-year career across theatre and film, radio and television. He seemed to be born with melodrama in the blood and was still performing it with relish and abandon, when he died of coronary thrombosis in 1956. Tod had an-end-of-career swan song, impressing the critics and a new generation unfamiliar with the creaky trappings of stage melodrama. A short performance on BBC TV, prompted over 3000 letters asking where Tod's plays could be seen. They recognised the sincerity of his quaint performance in an era that was shifting gears from the Method to the Kitchen Sink.
I want to also track-back to Tod's theatrical heyday. We can pin this down to the year, 1927; the last of his three-year tenure as actor-manager of the Elephant and Castle Theatre. He mounted what should have been a routine production of Maria Marten, scheduled to last for one week. Maria Marten or the Murder in the Red Barn was well known to Victorian theatrical audiences and was based on a sensational real-life murder, trial and execution that occurred in Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827-28. Tod's production became one of the hits of the season and was seen by over 100,00o people across 115 nights. The West End audience flocked south of the Thames to witness this old-time drama being presented in a fresh way. I particularly like the reviews that describe the audience: a mixture of the local Southwark working-class, eating oranges and drinking stout, boisterous in their interaction with the performers; while seated cheek-by-jowl, with the mannered ladies and gents, using viewing glasses to scrutinise the on and off-stage shenanigans. You can imagine a humorous culture clash. This was a moment of significance: melodrama being resurrected in a theatre that was on the brink of conversion to a cinema. All this research was percolating in my mind, unlocking a range of cinematic ideas and storyboarding.
The West London Observer, 1943
Newspaper image © Successor copyright holder unknown. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Set model box for Sweeney Todd, 1993
Sketch 1 from a storyboard, The Elephant in the Haunted Castle
Tod watching Hitchcock's The Lodger (1927) while being stalked by a serial killer
22 x 30 inches, Oil pastels, 2013
Sketch 2 from a storyboard, The Elephant in the Haunted Castle
Tod as William Corder in Maria Marten being directed by serial killers
22 x 30 inches, oil patel, 2013
Sketch 3 from a storyboard, The Elephant in the Haunted Castle
Tod, seated, watching the burning of the Elephant and Castle Theatre
16.5 x 23 inches, oil pastel, 2015
Narrative storyboard for The Elephant in the Haunted Castle, 2015
Tod became a minor British film star of the 1930s and early 40s, often appearing in adaptions of his stage plays. These "quota quickies" were made on shoe-string budgets. Modern audiences would grudgingly call them camp but cheerful. Film scholars have analysed certain films in terms of their social dimension, the themes of capital and labour. In terms of performance, Tod is ripe and fruity in his portrayal of villainy. One moment, the patriarchal squire, lusting after a country wench. The next, with his yeast in the bun in the oven, he chuckles before "polishing" the wench off to an unmarked grave. This is all set within a narrative that has basic motivation and plotting; however, this brings me reassuringly, full-circle, to the Terror I witnessed at the ABC that exhibited similar tropes.
I'm not sure how accurate the press releases were in describing Tod as Europe's first horror star. The Face At The Window (1939) is a rare example of melo with "horror" motifs. I don't think the conventions of horror meant anything to Tod. He was not the director of any of his films, whereas he was fully in control of all the theatrical productions. You get a better sense of the quality of these when you listen to a radio broadcast or a vinyl pressing. The films are also more truncated and diluted for the Board of Censorship: at the end of the film version of Maria Marten, the hanging of William Corder is off-camera; a more explicit sequence had been shot but did not find its way into the final print.
Also of interest is Tod's theatrical productions of Spring-Heeled Jack. In the play, Tod plays the villain lurking in the trees of Epping Forest. He then swoops down to plunge a hypothermic syringe into the leading lady and chuckles over "Two and half pints of lovely blood." I'm not sure what Jack was planning to do with the blood. Is this a plot where our beloved NHS is transfused by the private sector of blood merchants? We have comic accounts of Tod wearing a harness under his costume, attached to wires and being yanked up into the fly loft by the stage crew; springing in and out of scenic trees and occasionally just left dangling in mid-air when something went wrong. Melodrama, horror, comedy - all rolled into one!
Let's leave the final image and word with Tod as Sweeney Todd. In total, he played this role over two thousand times. At the end of most productions, there would be a speech and then an invite onto the stage for anyone who was tired of life. Does anyone want to try the murderous barber's chair for comfort? Tod was ever the practical joker. Not many took up the challenge. However, one day, as recounted by Tod, a man came forward, saying he had a row with his wife and was sick of life. So he sat in the chair and was about to be thrown under the trapdoor and onto the mattress beneath the stage, when his wife shouted out from the auditorium. No, don't do it! The quarrel was settled and their relationship patched up (we would like to think!). This is almost a comic form of melodramatic therapy. It also neatly illustrates how the audience had a very direct emotional connection to the world of Tod.
"It is grand to be playing at the Hackney Empire again (in 1954) before I pass into the limbo of forgotten things."
Tod is in the limbo of things. He is not forgotten.
At the Battersea fun fair, the crimson sun hangs over the big dipper.
Do not stand up. Hold tight.
The rush of sky against land, holding hands, giggling.
Toffee apples and candy floss; pocket picked as the Mod-Rocker's brawl.
A child, lost and found as their balloon floats across the river.
Wetting yourself with joy at the water chute, then hiding your peed crotch in the Ghost Tunnel.
The coconuts are all shy of their targets and prizes: goldfish or doll puppies.
Too old to hold hands in public: the lip stick on the glass, the cross necklace is thrown away.
The haunting sound of an Irish harp, busker, with no pennies in a cap.
The power station pumps out smoke that slowly drifts across the park.
Good night sweet memory, tinged with sadness of the fun fair.
The Fun and the Sadness of the Fair
Artists book, 21 x 10 cm
Oil pastels, pencil
This is an abandoned film that was being shot from the Mourne Mountains to the city streets of Belfast from 2003-2008.
There was a narrative thread:
A student who came from a farming background becomes a political activist and drug dealer. Under a shroud of mystery, they are reported missing. One year on, we pick up the narrative, as a family member, ex-bobby, recreates their last known movements. Murder, suicide or a staged death to start a new life?
Audio from a lecture room:
"It has been argued that there is no fundamental difference between fiction and history.
What we know about Julius Caesar - Et tu, Brute? or "καὶ σὺ, τέκνον"
Is derived from a long catalogue of narrative forms;
Storytelling about him that has been rewritten by each generation.
We know as much about Caesar as we know about Molly Bloom.
Something is real but not necessarily what the historians are telling us.
Your man, Derrida, said: "il n'y a pas de hors-texte."
There is nothing outside the text and we should add mobile texting.
All our lives are made up of texts that also function as personal anecdotes.
This is not necessarily true, as obviously, somethings are true;
That ghoulish head skating past the window right now,
The underclass who face poverty and premature death
Or the student loan and its implications for your survival;
All these represent aspects of the real world.”
Images are now presented as open-ended, encouraging the viewer to replay and reconfigure, making up their own story, characters or mood in a variation of a black and white silent film.
The Metamorphosis of Vine to Wine
Charcoal, 78" x 57"
"Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman's; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture."
From the play Semele or Dionysus by Eubulus, c. 375 BC
I never knew my grandfather, on the Greek side, but am named after him, Constantinos;
His nickname on the island was Barba Chedeli.
He cleared all the stones from the valley to grow crops that were sold at the market.
Built his own house, furnace and wine press where grapes were crushed underfoot.
Drinking in moderation, but enough to loosen the poetics of song and dance.
In the face of war and famine, he was quite simply, glass half full.
I thought I knew my father, a Pole.
But he could never talk about the war and famine that exiled him to England.
Vodka was never enough to loosen the poetics of song and dance.
He loved me but I don't know if he was ever truly contented.
No words in any language could quench his half-empty thirst.
The mist drifts down the vineyard and into the corridors of the mind.
This is the story of four bowls plus one and four.
Drinking rituals executed with no particular rhyme or reason, beginning or end.
An Existential compulsion.
Top, left to right: Ruin of house built by Konstantinos Christofis, oven and wine press
Bottom: Valley of rocks cleared for cultivation of crops, Oinousses
Musical refugee as the city of Smyrna burns
24x20" charcoal 2009
A cafe in Smyrna where a Greek lad brazenly sings about killing and raping the enemy;
And as he staggers home, drunk, after closing hours, a knife is plunged into his stomach.
He dies in the arms of his sister asking for a glass of water.
The heavens finally open to provide relief to the unseasonal temperatures.
The family are sharing a heady brew, performing the last rites with a night vigil.
Tomorrow they will gather their strength to bury the elder.
But the stomach of the corpse starts to rumble and the children laugh, contagiously.
They and the dead have not eaten any food in three days.
The radio broadcasts convey the indifference and desperation of the phoney war.
The family decide to bury their prized possessions, including a crate of wine,
Little suspecting that the Nazi's will plant a colony of new forests on their land;
At the same time, neighbours are either executed, or forced to wear a yellow triangle on their back.
Bound and gagged
23x19" Charcoal 2010
The student on the Intercity 125 has a Cold-War identity crisis.
Tucked in the breast pocket of his 1940s herringbone overcoat is a 50ml bottle of Glenfiddich
And a notebook of Ted Hughes-inspired poetry written under the pseudonym of Marian Evans.
The wonders of a comprehensive education and full-maintenance grants;
With enough left-over change in the other pocket to fund decadent posturing.
Thatcherism hasn't fully fucked up or revolutionised the country, yet.
Every time she cooked a meal, pasta alla wild fungi, cooked in red wine,
Trying to worm her way to his heart through the stomach:
His stomach ached and gassed for several hours, kiss by kiss.
Lilac Wine by Jeff Buckley was playing in the background.
There is a lone child in the other room of the flat and it is hungry.
With bottles scattered behind pot plants, cans crushed under sofa cushions,
She has had too much to drink and vomits up a meal of alphabet vegetable soup.
And now still retching, trying to divine the significance of letters in the sink...G...M...T....
Suspense with suspenders
24x20" Charcoal 2009
It's a hen cruising night at Camden, three over the clock.
Sat on the edge of a kerb stone, dress semi-hoisted, bladder overflowing,
She wants to leave her piss stain for all the zombies in town.
England have been knocked out of the World Cup.
Then. Commotion. Club-crawlers are alarmed.
But as her eyes refocus, there is a female death-metal band running down the street.
She laughs at this godforsaken photoshoot and dribbles more pee.
Instinctively. Fingers. Instagram.
He has a name in the art world for creative notoriety in the manner of Francis Bacon:
Violently bragging about who dares wins, fuelled by drink more harmful than cocaine and heroin.
Not to be outdone, his partner has left him for an Amsterdam retreat.
They are cursed to fantasise about each other in hangover and high mushrooming cloud.
The cuts and bruises still fresh on their respective bodies.
There is a trade war between China and America.
Tree as a thorn in my eye
(Set design after Wojciech Has's Saragossa Manuscript)
23x19" Charcoal 2010
Donning hat and coat and slipping on dancing shoes.
Le freak, c'est chic or is it the Can-Can?
His or her mind is shifting in time and place.
And this is the first time you fully recognise a problem with hearing and balance.
All those drunken conversations and couplings, fading to static and then silence.
The flesh, still willing, spinning you on the dance floor; until the world falls from grace.
Your life was foretold in the opening sequence of the film, Le Plasir (1952),
Where a masked young dandy celebrates life on the dance floor, then collapses.
How is that possible?
Perhaps, if we cut out the liver and rip-off the facial mask,
Everything in the spurting toxic blood will be revealed as both ancient and Science-Fiction.
L-R: Three generations: Konstantinos, Constantine and Kazimierz Gras