Category Archives: British writers

Complete control/Working for the clampdown

I went to an event hosted by the redoubtable community organisation Open Dalston at Cafe Oto in Dalston, way back in May. I feel bad that it has taken me so long to report it but I do have some excuses, whether anyone will think they are valid, I have no idea. The main one was the app I used on my phone to record it, AudioMemos was so damn fiddly, awkward and almost impossible to use, really, really hampered transcription, never my favourite (is it anyone’s?) part of journalism. Bent over my iPhone, trying to gently coax the scroll bar along to where I had last left the recording, I felt like I was Gene Hackman in Francis Ford Coppola’s  The Conversation. It has taken much too long to get this post ready. And for this I apologise.

But lame excuses apart, Open Dalston is a wonderful community organisation, which “campaigns for excellence in the quality of the built environment and public realm, the provision of transportation and amenities, and to ensure that changes to these have proper regard to the needs of local residents and businesses and the maintenance of a sustainable residential and business community”. I have attended a couple of their meetings at Cafe Oto which always feature immense talent –  the Laureate of Albion Road, the writer Iain Sinclair  being an honourable regular contributor.

This evening at Cafe Oto featured various fascinating speakers and presentations: an evocative film composed of footage taken of Dalston in the ’70s and ’80s by the photographer and filmmaker Alan Denney to a dub soundtrack, a reading by Iain Sinclair from his latest book on the 2012 Olympics, Ghost Milk, followed by a discussion lead by the founder of Open Dalston and local solicitor, Bill Parry-Jones, on the implications for east London of the Olympics, which, among many things, touched on the historic toxicity of the Olympic Park site, the nomenclature of clouds and what is casually dismissed as an east London “wasteland” (ie the Olympic site) was nothing but. The evening was concluded by an extract of short film  Imagine That which is in the process of being made by Sasha Andrews  about the Save Leyton Marsh campaign and protestors, some of whom were present to discuss their campaign.

However, the main focus of the night of was the book and research of ex-FT journalist turned writer, Anna Minton whose book Ground Control, which concerns the stealthy privatisation of our streets and public places and its new chapter on the legacy of the Olympics which Anna added post the book’s first publication. And as the Olympics are commencing this week, whatever one’s opinion on this spectacle, I thought its relevance was somewhat appropriate and timely.

Again maximum apologies for the delay in posting.

Anna began by explaining why she wrote Ground Control, which was  “because I am a frustrated journalist.  I also decided to write a new chapter about the Olympics. As a journalist, I constantly felt I wasn’t able to get the stories I wanted to into the newspapers. I was very frustrated by the time pressure of the job. I wasn’t really doing anything. So I left journalism and began writing longer pieces. I stumbled onto this theme  when I started looking at ghettos and gated communities in the US and began questioning whether or not there were coming over here. Then I started writing about another trend that I noticed, which was the growing privatisation of streets and public places.

Writer Anna Minton at Cafe Oto.

“While I was doing this research, I was still trying to get these stories in the paper and I had a lot of difficulty getting them published and I had this body of work which I thought could be the basis for a book. I was lucky enough to get  a book deal with Penguin and I wrote the book. Suddenly all these editors who hadn’t been interested in my work were suddenly really, really interested in this theme. (Anna goes on to talk about the constraints of the mainstream media and the difficulty in trying to get a lot of stories published which is also a difficulty that a lot of campaigners working with issues around the Olympics face on a daily basis.)

“The book essentially is about the growing segregation, polarisation and privatisation of our city and environment. I am going to concentrate on the privatisation of public spaces. This was a trend that really began in the 1980s (1985, ’86) with the emergence of these very large out-of-town shopping centres like Bluewater Metro centre and Westfield Merry Hill in Dudley, all over the country. Apart from this, we had the Big Bang in 1986 which deregulated finance and created this need for enormous banks with very large floorspace to accommodate their enormous trading floors and that wasn’t suited to the city of London – with its nooks and crannies of mediaeval streets.

“So a new space was needed for London’s burgeoning finance industry. This was the seed of the Broadgate Centre and Canary Wharf to create premises to meet the needs of these emerging financial industries. When Canary Wharf and Broadgate were built in the mid- to late-’80s, they were controversial places. They were very unusual places. They were the first large-scale, entirely privately owned, privately controlled parts of the city. People were very concerned about this. There was huge opposition in Docklands, lots of concern that this was going to segregate the environment. That this was going to create high security, gated communities, that it was going to do nothing for local communities. Even that it was going to create this divided environment. This is rather prophetic as we now know as this is exactly what happened.

Anna Minton: "This is more like a gig."

Anna Minton: “This is more like a gig.”

“But the point I’m trying to make is that all this high security, highly protected architecture, were side by side with areas that were completely untouched by the citadels of wealth. The whole justification of this approach is ‘trickle down’. The idea being that wealth will trickle down from these places down to the poorest parts of the community which need it the most. Of course, we know how manifestly that has failed. Not only in Docklands, but all around the country. The point is that these were exceptional places – they were finance centres. They were built to specifically meet the needs of business. They were created in the image of business. Now the big change started to come about over the next 10-15 years (actually this model pioneered in Docklands became the template for all new development all around the country).

“The template for all the regeneration sites across the country – large and small – now all of them rolled out on this privately controlled model. Seeing that streets which had been in public hands ie local authority democratically controlled hands for the last 150 years. (By the way, a democratic achievement which came about from local protest against the aristocratic gated landlords of the 18th century and early 19th century.)

“Now we started seeing this democratic achievement going to reverse and this has become the template for all our city centres such as Liverpool 1, Bristol and High Cross in  Leicester. I used to talk to people and ask if they knew of a single scheme that didn’t follow this template, please, tell me. I wanted to point out some of these trends and the consequences of those as it is central to the  arguments I make in the book that this high security environment is in fact is creating a far more fearful and paranoid society. And in fact this is one of the reasons we have these soaring fears of crime – though crime itself actually continues to fall. When I first started the book it looked as if this was an inexorable trend and really all I could hope to do was point it out which I think, in and of itself is an important thing to do.

However, while I was in the process of writing the book, it all started to come apart and actually the first line of the book (before I wrote the new chapter) was this book was conceived in a boom and written in a bust. So actually by the time I’d finished it and the time it came out the economic rationale for this privatised model of development had entirely collapsed, fallen apart because of course what underpins these places is very, very large  amounts of debt – borrowing –property companies have to borrow huge amounts of money,  raise the finance on the market. I like to simply use the word ‘borrow’ of course with the financial crisis they were completely unable to do that.

“All these schemes, all around the country, earmarked for development, such as the centre of Bradford. Westfield were planning a 23-acre private open-air shopping mall in the centre of Bradford and now that’s just a hole in the ground. It’s not just Bradford. It’s also Edinburgh, Preston, Leeds. All of this has just come to an abrupt halt.

“So that brings me onto my next point. So why do I want to write the new chapter of the book? Well, of course it’s all come to an abrupt halt bar one development  that some of you might be aware of – the Olympics.

“The development associated with the Olympics and Westfield Stratford City, the Olympic Park, of course, this, like the banks was considered too big to fail. And in 2008 at around the time we were bailing out the Royal Bank of Scotland to the tune of £76 billion, we also had to bail out the Olympic project. So at exactly around that time the taxpayer also funneled £6 billion, almost, into making sure that the Olympic development would go ahead. And actually, according to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, the private sector which is the rationale for this way of doing things, they are supposed to raise the money, the private sector has in fact contributed 2 per cent to the entire Olympic budget, which is now £10 billion and increasing.

So that really was the spur for wanting to write about this. This economic case that has completely and utterly fallen apart, and yet, we still have got this mind-set where we can’t do things in any different way at all and our flagship developments to the world,  our mirror, our reflections globally for 2012 is this.

“So I felt was the high point, the pinnacle of all the themes I was writing about. And of course it’s the high point in terms of the trends that I was discussing as well. So in terms of privately owned, privately controlled places, that’s exactly what we have here with Westfield Stratford City which is an open-air private estate. But the Olympic Park, the first public park in Britain, the first Royal Park since Victorian times for 150 years we were promised. And it’s called the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. But in spite of a campaign, a very vociferous local campaign, which was even supported by the Mayor of Newham, that the Olympic Park should have royal park status, that is not the case. The Olympic Park will not be a Royal Park.

The convenor of the night’s event and the founder of Open Dalston, Bill Parry-Jones.

“Incidentally I should point out the royal parks are in fact public parks and only owing to a quirk in 1850, or thereabouts the Crown Land act actually gave all the Royal Parks over into public hands. This was part of the trend I briefly alluded to earlier, where private gated estates were in fact when fact opened up at around the same time as this, this period of sort of growing democracy and the great civic achievements of the Victorians, which are so often referenced by our politicians, Royal Parks became public parks. So there was a campaign that the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park should be like the parks we used to and we have long enjoyed.

“But it’s not. It’s a privately owned,  privately controlled estate. It will be in the ultimate hands of this new mayoral development and corporation, which, if it resembles anything it’s very  similar to the London Docklands Development Corporation of the 1980s and 90s. The developments within the park, those which are completed I might add in this economic climate I think the aspirations of what they hope to see there very unlikely to happen. But we already have the Olympic village with 3,000 extra homes – that’s actually quite a lot of housing – that is already passed over into private ownership. That is, that was bought up by the Qatari royal family in a consortium with a property company called Delancey. This would be an entirely privately owned, privately controlled space. And every development in the  Park will follow that model.

“At least that is the plan. But we have all seen the debacle that followed over the stadium, as very often these things very rarely work out because we can’t agree who to sell something to. There is no overall control, no overall vision for the area. The Olympics is also the highpoint of another of the trends that is central to everything I write about, which is this growing security of the urban environment and the consequences of that and I don’t think any audience could be more alive to those issues, having heard of local missiles appearing on local roofs. I’m not going to talk about security that much as I know Iain is going to address that issue. He lives here and has actually seen the missiles. I’ve not yet seen them. Yes, you can take it as read that this is an incredibly high security environment getting into the Olympic Park during the Games is going to take you hours, in an airport search type process.

“The question is what will remain after that, that is also always the question after the Olympics. I think the best is going to be a sort of Dockland Excel Centre type of environment. I also was keen to highlight another couple of aspects that came to my attention – the Ethical Olympic Pledge, if any of you have come across that, which was signed before the Olympics, local support for the Olympics is always vital, and in order to get local support Lord Coe, then head of  the bidding committee, signed an agreement with London Citizens then known as Panco – the East London  organisation and they promised various promises on local jobs, housing, affordable housing, construction of an academy in Leyton worth £2 million, various pretty good things which actually got community groups which were very wary of the Olympics behind the project.

“And when Sebastian Coe signed the agreement he told the Evening Standard as a result the games were ’eminently more winnable’. So this pledge was signed, and then, of course, when we won the bid the pledge was very swiftly reneged. And why was that? Although Seb Coe signed it, Ken Livingstone signed it the London Development Agency signed it – it was a binding agreement – the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA)  came into existence – the quango responsible for delivering the Games – they said, well, because they hadn’t been in existence when that agreement was signed, they didn’t have to honour it. So that’s what happened to that.

The author Iain SInclair reads from his book, Ghost Milk, and went on to discuss the Olympics

“And the other things I really wanted to talk about in my chapter, and I went into this in a lot of detail was housing. Because housing was at the centre of the promises about the Olympics. You must have heard about all these promises about what was going to happen to the four Olympic boroughs. All these convergences and promises about how standards of living were going to magically rise and converge with Kensington and Chelsea over the next 25 years.

“This is the whole sort of trickle-down idea. And housing is right at the centre of this, so what I wanted to do here was to spend some time and actually look at housing. I was lucky enough to meet someone who worked in housing, at one of the local authorities, who basically gave me his side of the story. He told me on a typical day’s work, he would going to a house sort of normal looking house in an average terraced street. And he will find between 30 to 40 men sleeping there in a two-bedroom house ten to room. Illegal sheds in back gardens.  I was told by someone who works for Shelter, he even had a client who was sleeping in a commercial fridge and paying rent for it.

“This is the reality, actually of the third world housing conditions in Newham, in this part of London, which is just sort of a world away from the promises which are being made about the level of affordable housing being provided. So let’s look at that affordable housing.  About half of the Olympic village is apparently going to be affordable housing. And that’s 3,000 homes. They might be in a private estate, but it’s still 3,000 new homes coming onto the market, that’s the relevant phrase, available, allegedly, for local, affordable housing.

“But you know that’s the thing. What does ‘affordable housing’ actually mean? This very slippery definition which has been impossible to pin down since we effectively got rid of council housing as a policy. Affordable housing now means according to the Coalition, in parallel with the changes in housing policy and the cuts  to housing benefits which are being introduced this year, affordable housing now means up to 80 per cent of market rents. Well, you know up to 80 per cent of market rents around here is not going to be affordable to the vast majority of local people.

“So really that puts those  promises in context. When I spoke to Shelter they just said to me when the Olympic executives talk about affordable housing, they are just living in a different world. They are  on a different planet. And actually that’s the point. Because these developments which are going up just around the corner from here, they are in a different world, on a different planet from the lives of local communities here. And that’s the theme that we first saw begin in Docklands. These entirely separate lives being led in the segregated parts of the city. And it’s reached its high point with the Olympic development. Yet at a time when there is no economic case for it at all.

“So I’m just going to stop there!”

Anna went on to read an extract of her book Ground Control. Her reading ended with her making points about social silence, the process of privatisation with its multiplicity of competing companies and quangos ensures that what happens is too complicated for most people to challenge.

“This is fun. I feel like I’m doing a gig. I’m going to put my pint down. It’s not normally like this for me,” she comments as she rests her foot on a monitor on the stage.

Anna reads from the new chapter of her book which is called “the Olympics and the Public Good” which develops  most eloquently and passionately the themes she discussed early at Cafe Oto and have been outlined above. She concludes:

“What is marked about the Olympic regeneration, that despite the financial crisis, there has been no pause for thought in the changed economic climate and the debt-fuelled approach to property finance, which privatised the public realm in its wake, and which is at the heart of the Olympic project. Despite the series of crises which have defined the last few years, there has not been a corresponding shift in the way that the political and media elite operate. Instead there is a strong sense that it is business as usual.

“And that we are just waiting for a return to normal. When it comes to Olympics, that raises serious questions. Not just about the economic rationale for the project, but about  democratic accountability. The significance of London 2012 is not just about, or even mainly about sport – it is all about the legacy. It is what this legacy will that be and what, perhaps it could have been. This is the focus of this chapter.”

She stops that this point and opens the floor to questions.

Questioner 1: I am interested in the use of the word “park” as we understand it.

AM: I think that parts of it are more park-like than others, but when I say it’s going to be run by a development corporation, which is going to be a facsimile of the London Docklands Corporation. The park is not going to resemble the Canary Wharf estate, a large part of the park is going to be an expensively landscaped green space within it. My point is that it is all going to be under this privately controlled regime that I think creates a very different culture, a very different atmosphere, a different sort of environment. But there will be substantial areas of parkland in it.

Questioner 2: What is the likelihood of there being a public outcry this summer?

AM: We had our riots last summer. I am very interested to see this new film by Plan B, Ill Manors, apparently it makes a direct link between last summer’s riots and the Olympic developments. I think there are direct links. It comes down to the city environment I was trying to describe which is so totally separated and segregated. Two separate worlds and obviously this breeds huge discontent, fertile ground for social unrest. In terms of having riots this summer, I think the huge clampdown on people who took part in the riots and the enormous sentences that got handed down that’s obviously part of the thinking behind all that, to prevent anything like that happening. I’d be interested to see if anything like that does happen in terms of the activist groups that are planning actions. I couldn’t predict it.

Questioner 3: Someone tells me who works for the Olympics indirectly, that to enter the Park, you have to go through Westfields shopping centre to get in.

AM: That’s right. That’s our gateway to our Games.

Questioner 4: I just want to do a plug and ask a few questions. I am involved with the Counter Olympics Network. We had a conference in January, that you attended, that was able how not to get arrested while doing civil action. We have been doing leafleting, legal picketing. Hopefully, there won’t be rioting this summer, but we will be defending our right to legal protest which is incredibly important.

AM: What I talked about in January, and I do generally like to end my talks on an uplifting note, but didn’t tonight as  it came to natural negative end. My uplifting note, and this is a really important point, maybe because I really didn’t want to praise Boris Johnson it to this audience. I always feel uncomfortable at this point as it comes to say something good about Boris, and am really pretty upset that he was re-elected.

But Boris has done one amazing thing which, of course, he didn’t do himself, his advisers did it. But still, in 2009, Boris published the Mayor’s Manifesto for Public Space in which he states he wants in London all new developments to ensure that all the city’s streets and public places remain under local authority control. He wants an end to the privatisation of streets and public places. This has the status of legislation and this is a really, really important point. Because development in London and everywhere at all but ceased – bar the Olympics development and King’s Cross, all of which got planning permission before his 2009 manifesto.

It is very difficult to know if this had had any impact at all. But for people who are interested in the issues around the privatisation of streets and public places, that manifesto should really start to get known and talked about and referred to, because people still don’t know about it. But it is there. It is something actually really, really positive. That’s the positive campaigning point I usually end my talks on.

Questioner 5:  This whole thing is a massive wealth transfer. What is your comment on that idea that public money is eventually going to end up in the hands of private pockets of corporations. Secondly I keep getting media requests for voices of opposition. But I’m not getting any response from anyone. Where is the voice of opposition? Where is the organised response?

AM: First point of course you are absolutely right and Lend Lease oversaw the massive transfer from the public to private sector. This was exactly what we were doing with the bailout of the banks. Lend Lease was the property company responsible for developing the Olympic village and was supposed to be raising, borrowing, the money to build the Olympic village. And obviously they were unable to do that following the crash. The government bailed them out they were and employed Lend Lease to manage the project. So Lend Lease have done absolutely fine out of that. The whole project is a transfer of public money to the private sector. Your point about protest – you are getting media requests to be the voice of opposition  but … you …

Questioner 5: Yes, we are being asked to put them in contact with people who are protesting, but we are not really getting the response.

AM: I find this one of the frustrating things at the moment is that there are all sorts of  people doing really interesting things but they are not all connected up. We are  talking specifically here about the Olympics but I do stuff on regeneration. I was interested in what Occupy, what Heygate was doing. And that all these groups are not connected up and this is a big, big frustration. And what I am feeling at the moment is that there isn’t any central focus for dissent and protests and that’s really big problem. I don’t know what to be done about it apart from discussing it in forums such as these. There isn’t the central focus.

Questioner 6: How will you be protesting during the Olympics?

AM: I said I don’t think I’m going to be doing anything much different to what I’m doing now, unless someone suggests something to me that I’m particularly attracted to. I’m not planning to launch any major protests myself – that’s not the sort of thing I do really. I’m very supportive of Occupy and other protest movements so if  something comes up that is in tune with what I do, then I hope I’ll help out.

Photographer and filmmaker Alan Denney introducing his film of 1970s and ’80s Dalston

Questioner 4: Because the state is all over us and repression has been so intense and people are receiving anti-Olympic ASBOs  for nothing, we are feeling quite circumspect. I’d be really happy to just leaflet with counter-Olympic flyers in Stratford for the next few months –  just getting out there and talking to people. I just want to get the message across. I’m not going to riot, but leafleting would be quite good.

Questioner 7:  Do you think outside of the private areas, there will be regeneration in the local communities which will extend beyond the Olympics? Or do you think outside of the private realm, it won’t extend and people will be worse off or all in the same place they already are?

AM: My view is that this is the role model and we shouldn’t be pursuing it. This model doesn’t work. We have seen  it doesn’t work all around the country. We now have a more segregated and unequal society than we have ever had before. Social mobility is at an all-time low, the lowest in Europe – nudging America’s levels. Our young people are amongst the unhappiest in the world. That is the direct result of this sort of approach which I think is completely wrong.

Questioner 8: What you think of the Olympics as a marketing campaign to the corporate world and the whole world? The government is prepared to take private capital’s interest over the public. The government is demonstrating its willingness to crush public opposition in favour of corporate interests by saying this is great for the corporate world and it will also maintain our image in the world. Because we are so desperate to hang on to some kind of credibility and they are doing anything which is basically crushing the population.

AM: You are right without a doubt. This is a global PR opportunity. And I think the story of the London Marathon is a pretty good illustration of that. The marathon was supposed to run through east London and now has been rerouted to go past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the Mall. Because that’s what the global networks are going to see – not parts of east London. Without a doubt you are right. Because that is basically is the Olympic Games.

Questioner 9: You said the model is clearly broken. Any trends to find alternatives to that.

AM: No not really. I wish there were movements to having some of these empty sites turned into urban parks and there’s some guerrilla gardening here and there. Some interesting things pop up. But I think the really big difficulty is that local authorities are the crucible for local democracy and all this activity should be coming from them.

But local authorities have been leading the way in trying to get these big private estates to go ahead in their towns and cities. I think local authorities are in a strait jacket. As I said in the book and it hasn’t really changed since then. It’s still let’s get back to business as usual. That’s the way our politicians are pursuing policy at the moment.  No, sadly, there aren’t any big moves to look for alternatives but I think they are going to have to come.

And I think London is in quite a different position from much of the country, where if you walk down a provincial high street, half the high street is shuttered up. You know there are places in real dire straits and they have to look for alternatives. So I think something is going to have to give. And there are the groups around the country which are looking at doing different things on these sites so I’m hopeful that something might start to happen.

Questioner 10:  I am one of those mainstream editors who does publish your work, over the years in the Guardian. You say the model is broken, but as long as we have got the Qatari Royal family buying up whole swathes of London. I  had no idea that Spitalfields was owned by them. A management company runs it for them. I was chatting to a guy from the management company recently and he said, yes look around and it’s all lovely cafes and shops but is just part of the Qatari royal family’s portfolio.

AM: I should say Alison you’ve always published my stuff. You are the honourable exception. Alison is the editor of Society  Guardian, a really great place to publish. Your point about the Qatari royal family is completely right. And of course, they are behind the Shard as well, another flagship development for 2012. There will be probably other money like that, pockets of it. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese are going to start buying up our city centres. But that is not a sufficient base for our economy. And I don’t think anyone could really build a big argument that it is. Those are the pockets of global capital which are still provoking these places.

Questioner 11: What about when we’re going to be charged for using public property that is built by us and paid by us?

AM: Logically that could be a development further down the road – toll roads are an example of that. I think there would be a huge, huge outcry if you started charging people for parks. But the use of parks for commercial purposes is arguably part of that trend to some extent. But is that is already happening.

Questioner 12: It’s not a total fait accompli as at the end of September, we will find out if the Lee Valley Park will be returned from being a temporary basketball courts for the Olympics back to common land. If not, that will be a major breach of promise. If people want to come down and make themselves heard, please do. It’s not a done thing yet.

AM: I think there are all sorts of things that can be done although I think the weight of the trends is going in this direction. I used to live in Brixton and there was this little development a new square was created and the whole community thought it was going to be a nightmare. A privatised disaster. And actually it’s not. I don’t talk about this in the presentation as is not a large open-air shopping estate. It is just a little square.

But there are  pockets of genuinely public space which are still being created and as I pointed to the Mayor’s Manifesto, that is a real boost for that sort of thing. And Exhibition Road, in South Kensington, is going ahead on the shared space model, which is actually the total opposite to the high security model we’ve been discussing.

So I think there is all sorts of hope for this not to be the trend. But it’s a debate/battle really.

Questioner 12: I’m part of the Save Leyton Marsh campaign and I think it’s about process . We’ve lost the first part of our battle with the temporary basketball court it’s been built on the common Lammas land. But for myself and local people and people from Occupy that are supporting us in the campaign. The process of the local campaign and local people working with the campaigners in Occupy, working with people who came along through, but might not identify with Occupy, in order to support us to protect our free space.  This has raised all of our consciousnesses and that of the neighbours too.

Some of the Save Leyton Marsh protestors.

AM: I think you’re absolutely right and you have raised a really important point. What really strikes me, though, is that people have to try so, so hard and what you are doing is taking up at least half of your life, if not your whole life.  For people who are really, really committed, you can do these things. But local democracy doesn’t work with you it doesn’t make it easy. You have to really dig and find and search and fight. And you won’t be told about meetings. You won’t be told about key dates in consultations.

But it actually can be done and people do it all the time. But you have to put so much time into it, which brings me back to my earlier point about there being all sorts of really, really great things going on all around the country. And yet it’s so diffuse and disparate and that’s my big frustration and probably a lot of other people’s as well. That somehow it needs some sort of focus. It needs some kind of pulling together. But the people need to be paid to do that and that’s always the difficulty.

Questioner 12: We’ve learnt from local councils, the ODA, the Lee Valley Park etc, the courts of justice are not going to be open to us and are not going to tell us about their meetings etc. But fighting for a very local issue that is important to lots of local people  – like kite flyers, dog walkers, environmentalists and locals who love green spaces etc – builds up a power that makes you want to fight on, and opens people’s eyes who weren’t very political at first. They see the forces of repression come up – how members have been beaten up, the ASBOs and so on. And it’s not stopping us. And hopefully lots of you will be around Leyton Marsh, around the date of October 15, when we hope we might be beginning to get our land back and if we’re not we want but is a very, very slow process not a quick government short-term targets.  And working with, for me the absolutely fantastic members of Occupy. It’s a very very powerful experience. It takes a long time you have to give up a lot of your life.

Anna:  That’s exactly right that’s really good to hear.

Another woman from Leyton Marsh group adds, “That’s ultimately how we win the Olympics struggle, and the struggle against capitalism the struggle against oppression.” This was the conclusion of a fascinating, informative, thought-provoking evening. If you have any interest in east London local politics or the environment or culture, or a general interest in these matters at all, I highly recommend that you can get along to an Open Dalston event.

Bill Parry-Jones thanks Anna for her contribution and reminds, or warns the crowd that the police are making pre-Olympic pre-emptive arrests and that the Police are constantly scanning social media for information about subversive activities and that it is highly likely that they are present in the audience tonight of  Cafe OTO.

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Filed under Alan Denney, Anna Minton, British writers, Broadgate Centre, Cafe Oto, Canary Wharf, Docklands, Environment, FIlm, Hackney Riots, Iain Sinclair, Life in London, Literature, London, London Citizens, Luke Howard clouds, Occupy London, Poetry, Politics, Sasha Andrews, Save Leyton Marsh, Science, The Mayor's Manifesto, UK Banking crisis, UK banking crisis, Writing about London

This must be the place – an interview with writer Stephen Thompson

I first met author and writer Stephen Thompson when we were both living in a rehab for young drug addicts, called Alwyn House, in Notting Hill Gate in 1990, which seems a very long time ago now. This was Notting Hill pre-Richard Curtis when the area was still a reasonably interesting place in which to live. The rehab was a large gently dilapidated five-storey house, with the tang of the institution about it, and situated in a beautiful stucco terrace, off Colville Terrace W11, and facing the building where the precocious pop-starlet Wendy James lived  – a fact that generated quite a lot of animation in the male inhabitants of our household.

Stephen was a resident (ie a recovering addict) and I was on the other side, not staff, but a member of the support group, who were a collection of young people, all under 25 years old, as were all members of Alwyn House, and who were in regular employment and could act as sort of role models for the residents. Well, at least that was the idea.

However, Stephen seemed different to the other residents who, even at my callow age, I recognised were the products of extremely neglectful and abusive backgrounds, and, were, in the majority, from very under-privileged families. Middle-class users were cushioned by their family connections and money and didn’t end up in down-at-heel state-funded institutions so early on in their addictions. Residing in Alwyn House was a bargaining chip with the criminal justice system – a way of sidestepping a custodial sentence for someone whose habit, and the attendant need to fund it, had given them cause to appear in front of a judge.

Imposing a relatively unstructured routine on the residents, and not adhering to a 12-step therapeutic framework, or intensive group therapy, Alwyn House had a different character to most rehabs at that time and was, therefore, regarded by the addict community with some suspicion – Alpha House and Phoenix House being the rehabs of choice due to their employing a more macho approach to rehabilitation, admission to Alwyn House was seen as something of a cop-out.

However, I’ve got sidetracked here. I’m sure there’s a PhD, or at the very least a couple of books, to be written on UK rehabs in the late-20th century, but this is neither the time nor the place, and I am hardly up to that task.

Despite my callowness (did I mention that earlier?) I instantly pegged that Stephen was not like the other residents – he just didn’t have that air of heavy duty chemical devotion about him that they did. I strongly intuited that, despite his crack use (hey, Stephen – you were an early adopter!), he just really needed to get away, fast, from a bad situation going down in east London and was looking for a place to lie low in for a while.

And what could be better! An anonymous safe house, a far cry from the boisterous, unglamorous streets of E8. A residence patrolled and policed, however light their touch, by a team of social workers (with questionable degrees of eptitude and experience). There were certainly no brass plaques or signs outside Alwyn House to identify it.

Coincidentally, the rehab was around the corner from the house in Powis Square where the Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell film, Performance, was set – where another Eastender, Chaz, sat out his exile, under the radar in W11.

But anyway, enough of these ruminations. Stephen and I hit it off instantly. I think we recognised one another’s somewhat distant mien – two people slightly apart from the other inhabitants of Alwyn Houes, and who also shared a predilection for solitude – observers rather than participants.

And after spending some time with Stephen, I discovered that he was trying to make sense of his life on the streets and was writing it down (or out). As I had been participating in a young writers’ workshop led by Hanif Kureishi at the Riverside Arts Centre in Hammersmith, I invited him to accompany me.

Residents’ outings were heavily monitored in the first few months of their stay at Alwyn House (if they managed to clock up even that minimal amount of time – some were out of the door within a day). However, in this instance, the social workers were in favour. Stephen would be in my, a trusted support group member, company, and so apparently, would be carefully supervised and monitored. What could be better! An improving evening class!  From those early tentative days, Stephen began writing seriously and, now, 20 years later, three novels and numerous articles published widely in The Observer and Scotland on Sunday, just a couple of examples, Stephen Thompson is an well-established writer.

Coming full circle – it’s Stephen who is living on Ladbroke Grove now, and I’m the one who resides in Hackney, E5, just a few minutes away from the streets he grew up in.

I thought it might be interesting or fun, even, to invite Stephen back to Hackney and accompany him while he revisited his old turf – to find out through his eyes what has changed and what remains the same since he lived here.

Welcome to Hackney Downs! Back to your old yard

Welcome to Hackney Downs!

ST: First of all the front line … That block of flats looks quite posh used to be derelict and was where we used to play pool, hang out and take the piss out of the Old Bill. We used to steal sweets from that newsagent I was 15. We would run in, stuff our pockets and run out. The whole row was derelict but the shop is still the same. It’s funny because some things have changed and some things are exactly the same. Of course, there is no one at all around here now, but before, every one of these corners had clumps of people – youths mostly and every five minutes, you’d see the Old Bill, either a van or a car – sometimes both at once patrolling very slowly. This place here used to be a drug den – it was a council house at the time but it was squatted.

A drug den once upon a time

That pub there used to be one of the most notorious in Hackney.

This was one once of the most notorious pubs in Hackney – now it’s the venue for fashion shoots

FS: It’s not a pub anymore it’s used as a venue for fashion and film shoots locations.
ST: Classic! It’s no longer a pub! It’s a venue for film shoots that sums it up in one sentence! I think it used to be called the Kingsland Arms or something. That estate over there is called the Cromer Estate which is where I spent most of my childhood. We were known as the Cromer Possee. Another thing I forgot to mention is that there were always cars parked up here pumping music with people smoking weed, shooting the breeze, loaving basically.

Cromer Terrace estate –the home of Stephen’s old possee

My mum and I were living in Colvestone Crescent, just a few streets away. When they rehoused us, as that place was unfit for human habitation, they moved us to this place, 158 Amhurst Road which is this red door here. The one with the window open was my mum’s flat and I had the one above it. There is a scene in Toy Soldiers which takes place when the central character Gabriel has a freak out after smoking crack. He tries to open the window and jump out but his friend restrains him …

Stephen’s old home 158 Amhurst Road – the setting of some of the scenes in Toy Soldiers

Here we are at Downs Park Estate. This was quite a bad estate. It was known for dealing. The police were always in there. Very poor working class families, mostly black, lived here. I spent a lot of time in there. It looks very quiet now – almost abandoned.

FS: There is your old school hoving into view …
ST: Hackney Downs Secondary, now called Mossbourne Community Academy, formerly the Grocers Company which as a grammar school in the 1940s boasted amongst its former alumni Michael Caine and Harold Pinter no less. Of course, when I went there in the late 70s, it had moved on since those days. Truancy was at the highest in the entire country. Sometime in the 90s, it was dubbed the worst school in Britain. It was closed down long after I left, but there it is.

Stephen's former school, Hackney Downs Comprehensive, now the Mossbourne Academy

Stephen’s former school, Hackney Downs Comprehensive, now the Mossbourne Academy

FS: You did your bit!
ST: I made my small contribution to the statistics. But there it is. It’s reopened as the Mossbourne Academy. There is Hackney Downs Park where I spent a lot of time after school playing football and also during school hours dreaming of going over there to play football. As soon as the bell had gone, we were out of the gates and into the park. It looks now like a gated school like you see in The Wire. The funny thing is the same basic structure has been kept – the playgrounds were always at the back. It just looks brighter. Before it was just a grey slab with the train lines running next to it which we used to hate.

Hackney Downs itself

FS: Because it was noisy?
ST: No, because it seemed to encroach on the space. We would much rather have been able to go over that side of the wall but we couldn’t – “be careful of the trains”. It was always high fences and stuff. There were a few near misses as people ignored that rule.

There’s the Pembury Tavern. I don’t know what kind of pub it is now, but in the early 80s it used to be full of East End villains.

The Pembury Tavern

FS: Just white people?
ST: Yes, it was a no-go zone. If black people went there, it was because they had been incorporated into a villain family – they would be Cockney black guys.

Number 238b was Ozzy’s – as you can see it’s changed now – it was where we used to hang out, kill time, smoke weed, play pool and arcade games like Space Invaders.

What once was Ozzy’s – now Chase and Sorenson, a cafe and furniture store

FS: It’s a posh Scandinavian cafe now.
ST: Ozzy’s now a posh Scandinavian cafe! I can’t believe it! Chase and Sorenson.

That is the biggest change I’ve encountered today.

(Our walk now progresses along Clarence Road, the location of the most sustained of last August’s riots that took place in Hackney. We pass two men hanging out by the end of the street, at the junction of Dalston Lane.)

I recognise those two guys.  I left Hackney in 1989, think how long ago that was 23 years ago! I recognise them but they didn’t recognise me! They are still here.

(We walk towards Pogo, a vegan cafe on Clarence Road.) You can see why they say Hackney is now trendy.

FS: I don’t think they are very trendy there. Pogo is more full of crusties.
ST: Pembury Estate has not changed very much. It’s just got more satellite dishes!

It’s bit prison-like with all those grills.

We reach my flat and our walk concludes.

Foggy Sapphires’ interview with Stephen Thompson:

FS: What would you say are the high points and low points of your writing career?
ST: The high point was getting Toy Soldiers  published in 2000 and it being so widely publicised and widely reviewed. Although I have some regrets about how I conducted myself during that time.

Toy Soldiers – Stephen Thompson’s first novel

FS: What regrets?
ST: When you are getting a lot of publicity for your first novel you are prepared to do and say almost anything. I regret a lot of the imagery that was used to publicise myself as an author

FS: Like what?
ST: Almost every photo portrayed me as a thug from Hackney.

FS: Ghetto?
ST:  Exactly. I wanted to smile more (I would later satirise this in a novel). Photographers would say “no smiling, no smiling”. They wanted me to look serious and I think I should have been a bit more determined to make a distinction between my life and  the book, which was a heavily fictionalised account of my own experiences. I didn’t do myself any favours. I didn’t promote myself enough as a creative writer and that is a regret. But overall the book coming out was a high point. The low point was when my follow-up fell into the world still-born. The publishers did nothing to promote it.

Missing Joe – his second novel

FS: Missing Joe?
ST: It was almost the opposite of Toy Soldiers in terms of review and publicity. I’ll never forget the night Courttia Newland and I drove around in my car with posters I had printed up at my own expense, putting them up around Ladbroke Grove so that people would be aware of the book.

FS: Why didn’t the publishers push that book?
I don’t know, exactly. It did get reviewed. I also did radio interviews. However, there were no big features on me or the book. And the sales were disappointing. If I’m perfectly honest, and this isn’t easy to prove, I think it failed to get attention because it wasn’t as incendiary as Toy Soldiers in terms of the storyline, I would consider it to be much more a work of literature, much more a work of imagination, although it deals with my parents and my parents’ generation. Toy Soldiers has a lot of drugs and crime set in the black community, which, let’s face it, is more interesting to the media.

FS: I really liked Missing Joe. I thought it was ambitious and I thought it was good that you got out of the comfort zone – the stereotype zone of guns, crime and crack. What inspired this ambitious move?
ST: As you just mentioned, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and prove myself to be a diverse writer. I wanted to move away from myself and talk about my parents. If Toy Soldiers is about me and my generation, Missing Joe is about the so-called Windrush generation. I didn’t know very much about that group of people and I wanted to see if I could examine them through fiction.

FS: I liked the book’s menacing sense of what happens in small town England, those nasty spiteful crimes that no one talks about – and people get away with.
ST: That’s what my publisher said to me as well.

FS: They came out quite consecutively.
ST: I had a very embryonic version of Toy Soldiers when I was at rehab in 1990. I really began it in 1991, when I had left. Then I worked on it off and on for 10 years. Once she had placed it, my agent managed to secure a two-book deal in 1999 so I had to write another one. Thus the pressure was on. I had a bit of money left from my advance and I went to Thailand to celebrate and think about the book. After that, I went to Jamaica to spend some time with my mum. It was while I was there that I started to think about Missing Joe.

I started making notes there in 1999 and more-or-less as soon as Toy Soldiers came out. I knew what the next book was going to be, although I hadn’t told my agent or publisher. I moved to Paris in the summer of 2000 to begin work on it. I initially went there for six months but I ended up staying there for three years.

It didn’t take me that long to write Missing Joe. It’s actually a shorter book than Toy Soldiers. And about a third of the story had to be grafted on. My original manuscript was more like a novella. My publisher said it was really good but it was too small and that I had to make it longer. It was the first time I came up against this notion of writing to length as a novelist, how commercial considerations come into novel writing. For instance, if you are going to buy a novel for £10, you clearly want value for money. Only the very, very successful authors can get away with publishing something short for that kind of money. However, I wasn’t in that category, so I had to make my story much longer. That’s how I came up with setting part of the story in Jamaica. I spent five years of my childhood growing up in rural Jamaica, so most of that section of the book was done from memory.

FS: I think it is very successful. I love the sense of mystery and menace.
ST: I wanted it to be a page turner as well. In retrospect, there are a number of things I was trying to pull off in that book. I wanted to write about my parents. I wanted to write about their lives in London and in Jamaica. I wanted to write something “literary” but also a gripping page turner, a psychological thriller, for want of a less clichéd definition.

FS: So we turn to your next book Meet Me Under the Westway.
ST: It came out a full six years after Missing Joe. Actually, this puts me in mind of your earlier question about what was the low point of my career. That was probably after I had published Missing Joe and it hadn’t done very well. I went from that to losing my agent and also being out of contract. So that was a deeply insecure and worrying time. Because I was almost back to square one.

They always say you are only as good as your last book. So I felt really under pressure to write something very quickly. Again, I wanted to write something different, which ended up being Meet Me Under the Westway. I wanted to go back to my experiences but I wanted them to reflect the new me, if you like. I wanted to write about my time in Notting Hill, when I joined the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and was exposed to a different world to the one I’d been used to, namely, a white middle class theatre set.

Meet Me Under the Westway isn’t a so-called black book, in fact it’s non-colour specific. It’s not clear what race the narrator is. Again, I was deliberately trying not to get pigeonholed into being a so-called black writer. The upshot was that my agent at Curtis Brown turned it down – which was a shock to the system.

Stephen’s third published novel – Meet Me Under the Westway

FS: Did she give you a reason?
ST: Yes, she said that it wasn’t a patch on Missing Joe and that she was sorry to say that she just didn’t like it. She thought I could do a lot better. Which was not just a shock to the system but to the ego. This was a time when I had started to think I could do no wrong, that whatever I wrote would be published. If you don’t have an agent in this business, you can’t get your manuscript in front of a publisher, even though I had a good relationship with my publisher. I scrambled around trying to find a new agent without success. In the end I bit the bullet and took the book to the publisher myself. When she turned it down, my world collapsed. It felt like my career was over before it had even started.

So, that was the lowest point. That manuscript of Meet Me Under The Westway ended up being put in a drawer. I finished it in 2002. I left Paris in 2003. My girlfriend and I split up. It was a worrying time. I went to Thailand, where I always seem to end up when I have to lick my wounds, and stayed there for five months. This time I thought I need to write something else to get back in the game.

While I was there, I recklessly started work on another novel, this time about the slave revolts 19th century Jamaica. It was hard-going. In fact, before I went to Thailand, I went to Jamaica to do my research. I spent a lot of time with my family. I was very excited by the project, although as things turned out, the actual writing was very taxing. I think writing should be enjoyable, but this wasn’t. This was more like drudge. Now when I look at that manuscript, I see terrific passages of prose, but it’s only there in patches. Anyhow, I now had two manuscripts on my hands.

FS: What was that one?
ST: It’s called Rebellion, and it’s thematically inspired by Camus’ The Rebel.

FS: … and you haven’t published that?
ST: Not yet.

FS; And how did you get Meet Me Under the Westway published?
ST; When I came back from Thailand I moved to Edinburgh, where I met a woman who was starting up a literary imprint called Chroma, specialising in contemporary fiction. I told her I had something she might be interested in. And as soon as she read it, she said she would take it. But then I was faced with more difficulties. The book was going to published by a small press, and one that was based in Edinburgh. The publisher was confident about the Scottish market, but how to make inroads into the southern market? How do we get the book out in London? It was very, very difficult. It’s very difficult for Scottish writers full-stop to get a look in down south.

FS: Even after Irvine Welsh?
ST: Even after Irvine Welsh. But we did our best. I managed to get some copies sold down here. The Waterstones in Notting Hill Gate did a massive window display and we sold quite a few.

FS: It’s a great title.
ST: Thanks. I had a sense of vindication after that book came out because I thought it was never going to see the light of day and that really knocked my confidence. So for someone to see something in it, and to want to pay money for it gave me a real shot in the arm. It was published and people bought it. Then I tried to get Rebellion placed but couldn’t and my confidence took another knock. My agent that I found in Edinburgh just couldn’t place it with anyone. So I had to draw a line under that. So all in all, it was a very troubling period between 2001 when Missing Joe came out and 2007 when Meet Me Under the Westway was published.

After that, I started doubting myself as a writer. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue and if I did, what sort of things I wanted to write about and whether anyone would be interested. I had the feeling that I was being subtly pushed in the direction of writing about the black urban experience, whatever that is, and I just didn’t want to do it, or at least not exclusively. It was far too limiting. At the same time, I wanted to be published. There was a tension there, and I don’t think I’ve resolved it yet. Perhaps I never will.

FS: So what were you doing at the Royal Court?
ST: I was writing for the stage. I wanted to see it I could do it.

FS: You weren’t acting?
ST: No. There were two groups, an acting workshop and a writing workshop, and at the end of each term we would do a joint production. Writers would write and actors would act. But for most part, the two groups were separate. I liked it because you met up once a week. There was a tutor who would facilitate readings. We would write our pieces during the week and present them to be critiqued. I enjoyed it because for the first time since I was in rehab, I was in the company of other budding writers. Do you remember when you and I used to go to Hanif’s class?

FS: Yes.
ST: It was a similar vibe. I met a bunch of really lovely young people at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre and a couple of them, Joe Penhall and Nick Grosso went on to become famous playwrights. You could tell that there was a handful of us who were really ambitious, who wanted to succeed. But I quickly realised that writing for the stage wasn’t for me. That’s much more of a collaborative process.

“I want to be a writer with longevity”

FS: You are more reflective aren’t you?
ST: (Laughs) Playwriting is reflective, too. No, what I mean is, I’m more of a loner. It’s funny because my group used to tease me a lot because if I got any bad criticism for my theatre pieces, I would always say, “I don’t really want to write for the stage anyway. I’m a novelist. I’m working on my novel right now”. It’s true. I was working on Toy Soldiers the entire time.

FS: So where do you see your writing progressing?
ST: In 2008, after Meet Me Under the Westway came out, I started thinking about writing as a profession. It’s ironic, actually, as this predates the current debate that writers are having in the wake of the ebook revolution and the notion of free-content. I was thinking about it from the point of view of being able to make a living, but also whether I wanted to explore other forms of writing. I enjoy other forms of writing. I like writing my diary, I like writing short stories. The only thing I don’t write is poems. I’ve always written screenplays.

So in 2008, I decided I wanted to try to get into film, writing them and directing them. Someone at the time advised to enrol in a film school, but I didn’t want to become influenced by film theory. I wanted to learn the craft of film making by actually doing it, just as I learned to write novels by getting on with it. Not long after making my decision to start making films, I wrote a short, which was filmed and then I directed another short. I loved it. Actually, I say I’ve never studied film. That’s not quite true. Like Tarantino, I worked in a video store for years, which has helped my understanding of film enormously.

FS: When did you do that?
ST: In Edinburgh, off and on for about five years. I regard that as my film school. It fuelled my appetite for film making. And not only for fictionalised stories. I am working on a documentary at the moment.

FS: What’s that about?
ST: Not so long ago I got a call from a friend saying, “Stephen I’ve just got hold of a book about the black power movement in London during the 1970s, which I think would make a great film”. The book is called The book is called Black  for a Cause … Not Just Because and was written by Winston N Trew who was one of a group of four men who were arrested in 1972 at the Oval tube station in south London who were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Their case became quite famous as a miscarriage of justice. My friend thought the book would make a great TV drama, but when I read it I thought it would work better as documentary and so I set to work right away trying to conceive it my mind’s eye.

I am very excited about this project and about film making in general. I used to see myself as a novelist and now I see myself as a storyteller who is prepared to explore other forms of storytelling besides the written word. But don’t get me wrong, writing remains a passion of mine, it’s just that I no longer limit myself to writing novels. I like writing journalism for instance. I write essays, too. I like writing them too. In fact, I am going to have a piece published by Five Dials in a couple of months’ time about Marcus Garvey.

FS: Yes, you are a very good journalist. Why do you think you like writing so much?
ST: That’s a very good question! If I go way back to when I was a child, the one thing I was always good at school at was English – both written and spoken. I was always told I had a facility for the English language. And when I was at rehab, I thought this is my strength, I am not really good at anything else. How can I make this work for me, which is why I thought I would become a journalist and earn a bit of money. How naive was I!

And as you know I stumbled into writing fiction. If Hanif hadn’t encouraged me, I might never have continued.

FS: What did he say, exactly? I remember he was very tight with the compliments..
ST: You can say that again. Anyway, he told me I had it in me to become some kind of writer.

FS: I guess there’s a compliment in there somewhere.
ST: (Laughs) I guess.

FS: Why did your mother send you to live in Jamaica?
ST: For economic reasons. She was a single mum with four boys and one girl. I went to live with my grandmother in a very rural part of Jamaica for five years, between the ages of five and ten. It was just me, my gran and my imagination. The emotional and psychological effect is one thing, but it’s great preparation for a life of solitude. I was recently discussing childhood experiences and how we repeat them in adulthood and it occurred to me that the reason I go off to far-flung parts of the world for long periods of time is because that’s what I did as a child, albeit against my will. The point is that I still live a life of solitude, I am quite a solitary figure, so for that reason I’m grateful for that early childhood experience. It prepared me for the life of a writer, which is essentially one of solitude.

“I see myself as a storyteller who wants to explore other forms of storytelling”

FS; Are you an avid reader?
ST; Yes. I think it’s because I came to literature quite late. When I was growing up, there were no books in my house. Apart from the odd book we studied at school, such as Kes, books weren’t part of our existence. I only started reading books at rehab. I remember the very first novel that really made an impression on me was Love in the Time of Cholera, which I got out at our local library in Ladbroke Grove. And the other one was Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I don’t know if you remember a guy called Riz, an Asian guy who was at the rehab?

FS: I think that was after I had left.
ST: Riz had all of Rushdie’s novels at that time.

FS: Was he in the support group or a resident?
ST: He was a resident. He handed me Midnight’s Children one day and said, “Stephen you’ve got to read this”. And then I just started reading everything. And I thought, “Bloody hell, where have I been?” I felt quite resentful that I had never really been exposed to literature. Having said that, I realise that if I had done, I probably would have rejected it, since my childhood was about rejecting everything that I was forced to do, whether it be studying at school or going to church on a Sunday. I am glad I came to books of my own volition.

FS: Sometimes you have to live first, don’t you?
ST: Yes. Now I don’t read as much as before, as voraciously I mean. These days I am much more discriminating.

FS: Are there any contemporary writers you like?
ST: I don’t read a lot of fiction these days. Someone told me that once you get past a certain age, you don’t read much fiction as you are always looking for an experience which is much closer to the truth, closer to the source, you want to hear directly from a writer what they think or feel. You don’t want it mediated through the artifice of fiction.

But I do read the odd fictional work. I like Rupert Thomson who is one of this country’s best imaginative prose writers. I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I thought Half of a Yellow Sun, her follow-up to Purple Hibiscus, was terrific. I reviewed it for Scotland on Sunday. I thought it was great how she went from having potential in one book to realising it in the other because often it can go the other way. Some writers arrive in a blaze of glory and they can’t live up to it. I think it’s always better to be a bit of a slow burn. She’s definitely done that – a very talented writer.

I really like Luke Sutherland, his Venus as a Boy is one of the best things I’ve ever read. There are other novelists out there who I admire, but the truth is you’re much more likely to find me with my nose between the pages of a non-fiction book. I’m heavily into history at the moment. Perhaps at a certain point in your life, you start looking back. I like African, Caribbean and African-American history. This all started when I began researching my historical novel, Rebellion, and I’ve kept it up. And I like anything that’s to do with human consciousness, how we raise our consciousness, which can be anything from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to a Life of Buddha.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter @ss_thompson

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Filed under 20th century writers, Black British writers, British writers, Caroline Simpson, Chroma publisher, Five Dials literary magazine, Hanif Kureishi, Literature, Short stories, Stephen Thompson, UK short stories, Writing about Hackney

My interview with photo-artist Jamie Mcleod for Glass Magazine

Just a brief post. I interviewed the photo-artist Jamie Mcleod this month for the online edition of Glass Magazine. Here it is.  I’d be delighted to read any comments you have.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the very talented Mcleod has his private view for his show Ottoman Fight Club, which the interview focuses on, at Dalston Superstore tonight, January 12 starting at 7pm.

The formidable and fantastic Tiff McGinnis, aka Grande Dame, will be providing the sounds, the author Bertie Marshall will be reading and the Ginger Light, fronted by poet and writer Jeremy Reed will be performing.

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Filed under Art, Bertie Marshall, British writers, Caroline Simpson, Dalston Superstore, Glass magazine, Jamie Mcleod, Jeremy Reed, LGBT, Marc Almond, Ottoman Fight Club, Photography, Poetry, Private view, The Ginger Light, Tiff McGinnis, Turkish Wrestlers, UK fiction, Wrestling

Ottoman Fight Club – new show by photo-artist Jamie Mcleod

This Thursday a new show of work entitled Ottoman Fight Club by photo-artist Jamie Mcleod opens at Dalston Superstore, London. Mcleod is perhaps best known for his modern pop portraits, most famously with the torch singer Marc Almond, and his bold graphic work borrowing from his obsession with masks, faces, flesh, fonts,  lyrics and symbols which he composes to “create something borrowed, something stolen, something new and a lot that is blue”.

This new work, although eight years in the making as Mcleod immersed himself in the Turkish wrestlers’ culture, marks a departure and development in the London-based New Zealander Mcleod’s work which previously explores his fascination and  empathy with the outsiders, desperadoes, the forgotten and lost of the metropolis.

The images of Ottoman Fight Club were taken at the annual Kirkpinar tournament, held in Edirne, Turkey, which Mcleod visited over an eight-year period and where he established a friendship with the wrestlers. Shot in black and white, and screen-printed in a panoramic style, Mcleod examines the themes of male kinship and sexuality as expressed through the body.

The private view takes place at the Superstore tomorrow (Thursday January 12) at 7 pm and will be a very special event as the punk legend, author and mainstay of the Bromley Contingent, Bertie Marshall shall be reading and the Ginger Light, the musical collaboration of the poet and writer Jeremy Reed will perform a short set. And the magnificent Tiff McGinnis aka Grande Dame aka Crazy Girl will be spinning some maximum rock und roll.

Ottoman Fight Club

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One city, a million words – Londoners by Craig Taylor

To the launch of Londoners.

My good friend, the author Stephen Thompson invited me to accompany him to the launch party of the book, Londoners, by fellow writer Craig Taylor which was held at the Canal Museum, in the back streets of the now newly smartened up Kings Cross. Published this week by Granta, Londoners is Craig’s attempt to “assemble an oral history of London, a panoramic portrait of the city and as much about Londoners as about London itself”.

To this ambitious end, which took him five years (and I, for one, do not relish the sheer amount of grinding transcription this entailed), he interviewed 300  Londoners across everyone of its boroughs  and “gathered almost a million words of conversation” of the city’s glorious cacophony and already the book is receiving some fantastic coverage (and see my earlier post below) in the press.

A large number of the Londoners Craig interviewed were present at the Canal Museum event and Stephen and I fell into conversation with the garrulous cab-driver from Essex, and his wife, who contributed to the book. As Craig said in the short speech he gave, look around and talk to someone you don’t know.

Copies of Londoners stacked up for sale at the launch

Two authors – Stephen Thompson and Craig Taylor

Two authors – Stephen Thompson (left) and Craig Taylor (right)

The launch at the Canal Museum, Kings Cross, gets busy

The launch at the Canal Museum begins to fill up

Thanks for the invite, Stephen! It was a fantastic night.

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