Cans Festival

‘In the space of a few hours with a couple of hundred cans of paint, I’m hoping we can transform a dark, forgotten filth pit into an oasis of beautiful art – in a dark, forgotten filth pit.’

–Banksy

On a sad, dirty little forgotten street near Waterloo Station Banksy has taken over, flying in graffiti artists from other countries for a stenciling extravaganza on Leake Street, which also entailed coercing the homeless men who normally live there to move temporarily. A Daily Mail reporter has jokingly noted that Eurostar wants the street back in the exact condition the artist found it in originally– so they’ll have to find those men and “also have to painstakingly urinate on the walls and bring back all the used needles.”

Which says a lot about how property developers estate moguls and ad men see our public spaces. And it’s a savvy move by Banksy to lease the street temporarily. Freedoms granted are not easily taken away.

It’s an all-stencil event, and anyone can contribute. When the street originally opened to the public, the queues to see it were an hour long. But on the day we went it was like a florid secret hinting at the possible, and if the rest of us have our way in shaping our world, the probable.

A Piss-up for Boris

Image from BBC News, Revelers at Liverpool Street Station.

Revelers at Liverpool Street Station. Image from BBC News.


Earlier in the week I steamed my black satin cocktail dress and dusted off my fascinator because this weekend I was going out to the Circle Line Cocktail Party. I even considered bringing my absinthe gear to the Last Orders Party happening on the 31st of May, before the drinking ban went into effect. I’d never gone to a Circle Line Party, and I was making up for lost time. This one was in protest of Boris Johnson’s (the new conservative mayor of London) attacks on personal liberty which begin with banning drink on the tube, and will continue to legislate other drinking behavior to the point of absurdity.

I never put on the cocktail dress, and the absinthe bottle remains unopened on my shelf. One of the pitfalls of living most of your life in your head is that reality never really matches up. By the time a few friends had agreed to go with me, so had several thousand other people via the “Last Orders” Facebook page. My friend Aaron texted me to say that on Friday night it was on the front page of the evening papers. What I thought was going to be a nice piece of semi-political street theatre suddenly became a full on street party. I remembered the sloppy and abrasive British stag nights I’d seen in Amsterdam. This would be like that but multiplied by thousands. And then I remembered the World Cup– since I don’t watch football it was just a drunkfest of macho bullying to me.

Lads rampaged the cyclical-tube-car-cocktail-party in my head. I stayed home.

Liverpool Street Station was shut down, as was the Circle Line itself. Chances are I wouldn’t have been able to find my friends in the chaos, anyway. The awful mess left on the tube this morning only makes an argument for Boris’ ridiculous policies, and this is unfortunate. It’s interesting that in the news today emphasis was made on the “exclusive” neighborhoods the Circle Line serves, inferring that it would be unacceptable to have the drink-addled masses partying in posh postcodes. London has become too exclusive for even the people that live in it. Except of course for the ultra rich, but I digress.

To miss-paraphrase the NRA, it’s not drink that makes people antisocial, it’s just that anti-social people drink. When I first came to London I was shocked that people were allowed to drink on public transport. My first real experience with this was the World Cup, as I have mentioned. I witnessed one element of British drinking culture– a bunch of raving louts bullying people around them and eventually passing out or being sick. The testosterone-and-lager-fueled spectacle was punctuated for me by a woman dragging her wasted man slowly up the massive tube staircase at Bank, one step at a time.

That was probably one of the more pleasant public-drinkng drinking problems I’ve witnessed. Once, on a sweltering day in August on a double decker bus which actually still had the heat on (I later learned that is how some buses here cool their engines. In the days of global warming this is just cruel, but I digress). Next to me was an old man with a face full of broken capillaries and a wool coat that had seen at least one World War and pehaps had been unwashed for as long. Each coat pocket was distended with a can of Guinness. A fight broke out in the front between an Arab off-duty bus driver and a Jamaican woman and the bus driver pulled the bus over like a disgruntled parent so that we were all trapped inside, umoving. Some people started to scream at the fighting pair, at the bus driver, at each other, and an explosive noise issued from the old man next to me. He’d shit himself.

Another occasion on the 70 Bus, a scraggly man sat in the rear with a can in a bag, admonishing an invisible companion. I looked down at the aisle where a copious river of his urine was coursing down the length of the bus.

And once on the 607 I sat beside a man and his little son who was maybe six. The father cradled a four pack of Stella in his lap. Taking one out and cracking it open, he handed it over to his son silently. No doubt if this little boy is lucky, when he grows up he will find a girl to drag him up the tube stairs when he’s obliterated himself.

But of course Boris’ measures are going to stop all this.

At least we can be certain what it will stop, and that’s anything sensible and joyful involving drinking on the tube. I leave you with a video of the Central Line Dinner Party.

Leafing through the streets

Yesterday was May Day, and a lot was going down in London. We started out at Green Park where Space Hijackers, a group of trickster anarchists, were holding a May Day street party to commemorate the forgotten, carnavalesque and radical roots of the day. Some people had dressed up fully OTT– a glittering mermaid did a tailed cheesecake pose for photographers, a tall man sported an abbreviated 18th century gown that showed his suspenders. There were peasants and pirates and a couple V masks. But many people failed to dress up for the occasion– some “cake-eaters” street theatre. They were in lame ironic tee shirts or typical anarchist black hoodie and bandana get ups. I made the effort in a corset, bustle, bloomers and 80’s acid wash bolero– with matching parasol.

I was handed a verbose pamphlet entitled WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE ARRESTED by a scruffy dude in a brown, moth eaten sweater. Buzzkill. There were more cops and photographers than revelers but they seemed like a fun bunch– even the police were laughing and smiling. I suppose supervising us would be a preferable assignment to, say, dealing with the aftermath of certain football matches. I shared grapes and a pie with some other corseted women and then we were off to a small square– the exact location escapes me. I did notice though that every lane out was lined with cops and they had two vans with them, ready to close in and cart people off. It felt like a set up. Now, cops in Britain (at least after the Thatcher days) are mild and good spirited compared to the armed, robocop looking riot police I was used to seeing at LA demonstrations. Even still, I felt a bit nervous, having never done anything with these organizers. I thought maybe their intention was to get arrested, as there were a cadre of black-hoodied anarchist teens already mocking and baiting the police and it just didn’t seem in the spirit of things. Plus there wasn’t any drumming or musicians– just someone with a boom box blaring dub. I didn’t want to wait around to see what would happen. (Later I met up with some other revelers who stayed for several hours and they said everything went down peacefully– dancing and eating and singing– and they actually felt protected by the large police presence.)

The night before I had gone out with my friend Hadyn to see the greening of the Jack at the Market Porter pub. This Jack-in-the-Green is an old May Day custom, revived in Hastings in the mid 80’s by a troupe of Morris Dancers. The greening started rather late and we were already drunk and ready to go home, but a few people were busy putting leaves and flowers on a wire Jack. Basically, this leafy giant is attended by “bogies” or men in green-man suits, and a troupe of musicians. Everyone gathers around the Jack and goes from pub to pub on May Day, and since the bogie inside the Jack can’t see, everyone must shout directions and help him, and as the day goes on and people get more drunk, this becomes more…interesting.

We met up with the revelers at the Charles Dickens in Southwark. They arrived very late, headed by a guy in a bear suit who proclaimed to us “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON” as the band tumbled in, the bogie was helped out of the Jack and everyone started drinking. Again.

(the crazy man in the center with the fresh scab on his face kept trying to follow me into the bathroom at each pub but one of the guys was really graceful and effective in dealing with him.)

I confess I have a thing for the green beards– these men who are willing to embody an archetype and maybe even make a fool of themselves for a day. They all befriended us as if we were one of them, buying us rounds and inviting us to the celebrations in Hastings and telling us about the history of the custom. One bogie shared a swig of single malt out of his silver flask, another bought me a pint of wonderful bitter. And another who played the accordion actually knew something of Portland beer culture! And he we laughed about the looks on all the commuters faces as the Jack-in-the-green swooned down the streets– how surreal and subversive joy can be, especially in black-suited London.

National Gallery Grand Tour Catalog

From the book’s flyleaf:

“One warm(ish) night in June 2007, while most people were tucked up in bed, paintings from the National Gallery were being ‘set free’ in London. The streets of Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden were turned into an open-air gallery…”

This catalog for the National Gallery Grand Tour captures perfectly the street life of the paintings: “instead of the public seeking out its art, the art sought out its public.” And this was like the dream-scene in Will Self’s Book of Dave, where all the statues in London come to life and flock to Trafalgar Square.

Plus, this blog is quoted (liberally and prominently) in it– which is a thrill.

I am now a marketing demographic

No doubt many a Londoner has seen these billboards around town. Knitting has hit the mainstream. The other day I was in a pub wearing a scarf I’d made and this beefy punter actually turned his attention away from the footie long enough to admire it and say, “Why, that’s a lovely scarf.” and then with a knowing, conspiratorial wink, “I wonder who made that.” When big rugby-player looking guys knit-flirt with you, you know knitting has reached some kind of pop-culture pinnacle.

I am an avid knitter– I knit while on the tube and while watching telly or having tea. If I don’t have a project going to keep my hands busy I often feel bereft. I am one of these “new knitters” who picked up needles again as a social activity. Even though my mother taught me how to do it thirty years ago, I didn’t actually start knitting until I saw it as a community building endeavor.

In five short years knitting has taken off– if you blog your knitting you might get a book deal– you might become famous just for casting on. I’ll be glad when all this knitting-related ambition passes and we can just make cozy things in peace without wondering who is the next big knitting star to rise from our rows.

The trade off is that more people are learning about the craft from this resurgence, and in turn they are appreciating labor of this kind. If it can get more football fans to turn away from the game for a moment to admire something handmade– why, that’s a very good reason to wink back at the punters.

Them Be the Bells of Bow, Yo.

There’s this song that’s still at number two here in the charts and it sums up everything I hate about British pop music right now. They play it all the time on BBC 6 and now it’s stuck in my head. Kate Nash’s Foundations— OK, so she’s cute– much cuter than Lily Allen whose tough-girl pose is really tedious. Even the guy in the video is cute. The sock fight– nauseatingly cute.

If you want to see the video, go here as none of the YouTube links work. (To watch the video on her oh-so-quirky-cute site you have to give up an email, name and phone number and even an address I think. INSANE. but let’s move on.)

Nash’s song is better than any I have heard from Allen but she’s basically an Allen clone. She’s taken Allen’s game and bettered it for the 20-something-new-mortgage-from-daddy demographic, whereas Lily Allen was aimed at teenage girls who don’t remember white reggae from the first time around in the 80’s. Nash’s demographic actually has some money to spend, so, even though she’s a MySpace success story, maybe the A&R people are honing their game.

On the web many sites claim Allen and Nash are Cockney and that’s just rubbish. Neither were born within the sound of Bows Bells, if we’re going to get purist about it. Nash is from Rickmansworth, a north west suburb of London. And Allen was born in West London to a film producer an actor. I would like to say that accent is put on for the American market, but their songs are hits here.

It can only mean that Brits want to see themselves in a certain way– a juxtaposition of worldly wit and (pastoral throwback?) innocence with a sprinkling of East End grit (More akin to Dick Van Dyke tap dancing than any pearly king). The fashion for faux Cockney accents is a sure sign that it no longer refers to a specific people and culture, but a fiction. Kind of like in the current popular imagination, pirates are no longer sailors who raped and robbed people but ragamuffin swashbucklers with sexy eye makeup.

But it does seem the best way to be a pop star in Britain these days is to pretend you are Cockney. (though this can work even if you are a duo from Detroit) white stripes

It’s ironic. The East End, now totally gentrified, has become the bastion of the trendy, edgy and wealthy few who have pushed out the poor there so what remains is a mythology.

Something’s dead, gone, changed in London, even if there’s no real pointing to the Cockney mask per se, which Peter Watts refers to as “Mockey”. Hence the weird theme of nostalgia that crops up in so much white British hip hop. There are many examples but I’m thinking of Lady Sovereign’s “Those Were the Days.” where she’s wistful about her days growing up on the Chalkhill estate. Unlike the others I mention above, she actually did grow up on an estate, even if it was also in the west.

It becomes even more poignant when you realize she she’d be priced out of London if she weren’t a pop star.

And here Jamie T’s “Sheila” featuring the actor Bob Hoskins who is famous for playing Cockneys among other things. Here he is lipsynching the song with his scary white teeth. This is actually one of the worst videos I’ve seen in a really long time and it pretty much ruined the song for me.

And, though it’s not hip hop, I love Pulp’s nostalgic “Mile End” It’s old at this point, and recontexualized in Danny Boyle’s brilliant Trainspotting. I have no idea if what the song refers to was closer to reality than the faux-grit on the charts now. I have heard that it is about Jarvis Cocker’s first “home” in London, but I’m sure it too is creating a myth of a gritty London up for grabs, a London for anyone. (Not just a city of estate agents and property-ladder climbers, but anyone who could find a vacant corner, anyone who could live low rent — make art or music or write. Anyone who could tend to the city’s soul, but I digress.) In a lot of ways the city of this song, or the vision of London in Kureshi’s London Kills Me or even the parallel vision of Edinburgh in Trainspotting is more hopeful than this London I live in now that is doing so “well” if you believe the hype, a London that’s polished and primed, the richest city in the world, full of high street chains.

Now there are headlines about interest rates closing out first time buyers from the “property ladder.” But all this talk of building new homes on brown sites is too little too late. We didn’t have no where to live, / we didn’t have nowhere to go / til someone said /I know this place off Burditt road…

This new hegemony of the estate agent has made me wistful for squats. Maybe I should work on my Cockney accent and write a pop song about it.