SOME BRICKS: Seeing
Our starting point is Huberd House where we used to come some time ago. We never knew what a Huberd was and don’t want to know now. If we did know, then this Friar was now more likely to be making Margheritas as a ghost at the newly demolished Pizza Planet on Weston St than anything else. Knowledge? It’s a contradiction, we know.
We used to gather at Huberd on a Thursday night to watch the television show Six Feet Under invited by our friend the resident tenant. This was not so long ago but now seems effortlessly in the past.
In the twilight one night, we watched a man taking bricks from a decayed wall below the flat. It wasn’t the first or last time he would do this. Old bricks in good working order have a resale value whether they are London Stock, Red Mixes, Gaunts, Wire Cuts or Rubbers and the rest. Such is the business of talking bricks. Anyhow, taking bricks with your bare hands realises an economy of scale and value at about a quid a brick. Touching this windfall for a windfall, getting his hands dirty at the end of the day, he would then sit on the grass and chip off the mortar which either added or detracted from the night air depending on who you ask.
This act of taking things one at a time repeats that brick buildings are built one brick at a time. They are not mass form poured concrete around steel erected frames. They rise on a horizontal and vertical plane one by one. Just as our economical man takes one brick at a time.
A Brickmakers Conference held in Southwark in 1879 found that Mssrs Eastwood & Co posited a few years earlier that the number of bricks sold ‘in ordinary seasons’ at that time in London was about 700,000,000. Thus anyone taking bricks for whatever reason plugs into a series of futures and pasts – what was and what will be – from the simple constructive unit of the brick. Not to mention that such bricks may have also been second-hand in the first place. Such a complicated pattern of build, demolish, build, demolish echoes as a haunting refrain in these times around the Tabard. Such a pattern is once again at the doors.
Stepping out of Huberd House and down the stairs, well, unusually for us we have somewhat resisted our usual accompanying research for old documents, architectural histories, antique photographs, ground plans, aerial views, building contract tenders and Board of Works minutes. We have relied solely upon past experiences in the great area and the standard pedestrian view of two eyes looking around from a height of, in our case, 5’ 10” and through (new) spectacles. Such public peeking and peering undertaken during a two-hour circumnavigation of the blocks at hand propelled us to find our own value in seeking a hidden brick or two. We thought about it a bit. Under the ground, the future!
Hidden once more, backing ourselves up and in the yore days, in a twenty year period from 1914-1934, there were three (male) figures alive around this landscape that interest us for what they can project into our life and times now. Always taking from the past to situate it in a plane of equivalence, we try for a biography for all times in common.
Across another aspect, we reach Marcus Garvey at his rented home at 176 Borough High St in 1914 where he has travelled from Jamaica in his early days of black awakening to read at the British Library but also to visit the docks and see how sailors from lands long colonised by England are living. Study is good but walking the streets can teach us a lot more when we need it. ‘This Negro Has No Fear’ was a later placard of Garvey’s own Universal Negro Improvement Association, held aloft in celebration and political confidence by black Americans against their lot. Garvey, much maligned and much of this self-inflicted, can still teach us something of the world we desire to inhabit but also what might need to be asked and by whom to have this world made by all. There are no clues in this question, only learning. He ended his days in London where he died from reading his own obituary in 1940.
Our resident artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare moved onto the estate in the early 1920s to 52 Beckett House declining the trappings of the celebrated artist on his uppers but still having his milk pinched by shit neighbours. Anyway, he was happily going down in the world and his Guinea Exhibition in 1932 in the flat attempted to avoid the ‘parasite’ of art dealer and sell to locals who would not venture to galleries in the West End to have a crazy Spare painting over the mantelpiece. He helps us with our search for what is Tabard. We looked up from the street to see his old door, some tea towels and pillow cases were on the railings drying. At the other end of the block, two sheets were hung out in the space between the right angle formed by the staircase and the flats. There is a rainbow at this other end of Beckett House that ends up where? He ended his days in Wynne Rd, Stockwell in 1956.
The poet David Gascoyne, who did much to attempt a home-grown English surrealism, came in 1934 to briefly live in a small flat North of here at Great Maze Pond with comrade Roger Roughton. From the top floor of a dilapidated Regency house they wandered the warehouses of the area from London Bridge to Tabard St in search of a ‘trancendental realism’ or some such other thing. Not from a posh family and happy to tramp the world and with what that takes, Gascoyne could be described as ‘having had adventures’ that can only stem from how you choose to look at and feel the world. Here we like him as someone who helps us re-look at what we have seen a thousand times. Like how we try to have a poetry that is more than just poems on paper, in books. He ended his days on the Isle of Wight in 2001.
SOME GRASS: Hearing
The Garden estate replaced the backyards and gardens of these Two up and Two downs that were where the planned grass and open areas are now on the estate. Such houses, where remaining intact in say, nearby Pages Walk, are definitely now monied up. We have heard these described as ‘workers cottages’. That’s quaint but very mixed up. The old gardens and yards could be for chickens but more so for putting the washing out, a task still done where sheets, towels, trousers, blouses and maybe smalls, must now fly in a more public outing (as it should be). When they knocked these homes down, a million bricks lay in between the newly raised Rochester, Tabard and Huberd House and the warehouses on either side at Tabard St. It was this site that mostly became the ‘Gardens’ of the Tabard Garden Estate.
Unlike the old shared alleyways or courtyards of ‘the slums’, more of an open space or commons, here now is a series of enclosed and thematic spaces – playground, seating area, exercise yard, smaller playground, wilderness, etc – divvied up spaces that suggest a sharing but that’s maybe an awkward one. There are things here such as colourful footsteps, a maze, a compass, a memorial bench, a wild zone, a set of benches that have personal meaning to those who need or use them.
For us lot, we wanted to go over the top in the grass and to know what it is that enables you to dig in, dig deep to discover the subterranean and to discern the material form that connect its heavy actuality to the real shared sense of that what is now hidden. You go looking for bricks as common biography for we all have to get our hands dirty at the end of the day if we are to deal with real life properly. But with so much Roman remains cluttering up the underworld, we need something much more ordinary and valuable (to us).
This? What has been denominated as The Tabard Stone sits in the grass as an intention. It’s as if someone once famously struck their sword upon it and proclaimed something important no doubt. Or at least stopped here and put their hand upon it (as we did) to connect to what it attempts to broadcast. What they might call a Telluric telegraph. The Stone has laid down of its own accord, not just left there at all. In this it says ‘rooted, thank you very much’. Def non-monumental and nothing doing. It just is and there it can be found for use. In fact, it only reveals itself to those who are not looking for it but who might need it.
It is so unlike the four pillars of wisdom opposite Beckett House whose function we have failed to discern from time immemorial.
Unlike, once more, the two ruinist concrete remnants left by the wayside by the Lubetkin flats. What are they saying to us grubbers and miners of the landscape? Stone, pillar, concrete.
Or this? Later, the Dave Clark Five, less famous than The Beatles or Jesus, in the opening to their film ‘Catch Us If You Can’, pour out, running and ageless, from the old Church with mid-60s smiles free then from the pressure of the economy and into the Tabard Gardens. The long gone church, in aspect remarkable, but now the gap is also pleasing to the soul, removes itself from the film shot and the five boys tear the place up and head for the playground. Their group mistake was to jump from swing to swing and roundabout to roundabout and not to get on hands and knees and listen to what is under the grassy ground.
SOME ALLOTMENTS: Tasting
Something new then on this other space where the old yellow tin wigwam was for kiddies or those needing a home through the night. That’s the grassy area by Otford House where the also late lamented brick outhouse of a switched-on women’s group nursery was in situ. Now, a shadow in the earth of where the bricks were, in outline. Here at these allotments are humans engaged in the act of growing stuff for fun and bellies, their own or possibly others. Growing anything is a kind of serious play hence befitting that allotments take over the historical space of an old playground.
Can you grow community (whatever that is or makes it up) in the same way you can grow a large marrow? That might be a useful question in the allotment as a space of growing. Or more so as a space conditioned on that very question. Like marrows, it’s not easy on the thumbs to just make it happen but the hard work is necessary. Community is as community does, even then it remains people collected together united in discontents or united in disunity. Pains and pleasures come and go and we can actually be around them, engage, not engage and this is still way much better than any gated life, open prison.
The escape route at the allotments is made from hard labouring. Here we have mosaic memories of those who engaged with the names and details all made from the domestic ruins of commemorative plates and mugs. Refashion a smashed Royal Wedding to picture a community. Here a greenhouse in waiting to tell us the time. A spiritual looking decorative chessboard from tiles in the grass and overgrown by Rosemary. We saw two ladybirds on the common Sage. Red on milky white green. Four black dots, two each. Raised beds of last year’s crops back again quite self-suffi ciently or tended beds for this year’s harvest. Witnessed some fine moss on sunken house bricks. Stood in the presence of lovely rhubarbs.
As we leave the allotments, we pause to read the sign that reads ‘we have flowers’ and also ‘we have snails and slugs’. Just like any community and that’s not to say that flowers are all bad.
SOME ASTRO-TURF: Smelling
The astro-turf landed again in 2008 paid for by the developers of Empire Sq nee Tabard Sq. Its locking up proved quite controversial. Astro-turf describes well the Section 106 Community Benefit system. A scratch of money from profit-seekers is wrestled from developers to make good locally. The question remains what is left of the local from the landing and futures promised by such developments? Astro-turf is fake grass as Empire Sq is faked community behind metal gates with a difficult realm of semi-public space. Regeneration such as this is trumpeted from the heights of The Shard by those with power, that massive sundial that cannot tell us what time it is as we already know or have an inkling that it is not our time right now…not now, not yet. Looking down from above, the empty pavilion in Empire sq resembles a large cockroach or fly. This symbolically hard to read. But it does anyway. By the way, Empire Sq being described as a ‘landscape more akin to a model railway than a dynamic urban place of living’. Choo Choo!
Or the terror of the demolished nice old brick bunker on the corner of Law St as it faces off with Black Horse Court, across Tabard St (like Dick Turpin’s Betty Caught and the stern faces of The Law). This crime of demolition will see no justice save the miserly raising of crap housing on that site undoubtedly. Watch the space and its immaculate hoardings miraculously devoid of free social commentary. Back in the day, the kids would have their say on the blocks. Chalk on the bricks at arm height that’s really only a limited space between the floor to about the child’s reach of the first windowsills at ground level. Lovely though as each scrawl fades as successive scrawls crawl on top. More pleasant than the later spray paint. Too heavy, too personal.
In the twenty year period from 1994 to 2014, small 1 or 2 bedroom flat developments has been where the money is. Not much space for families in these ‘starter’ homes. On Tabard, as across this North Southwark, families inhabit and produce this life that’s too wacky to call it an ‘estate life’. Yet there is much to be said for this idea as the gamut of residents is wide and accepting of most. It tries for harmony in proximity, something that’s hard to grasp from the outside where too many harsh epithets are pushed to the fore in the battle against such housing schemes. Without any appeal to the ‘salt of the earth’, we try to say that there is the whole spectrum of normal people here. Normal being the descriptive term for those in their singular mode, where each wacky, woeful or wild person is okay. To be laughed with and not at. Those out there meriting the term ‘the real normal people’ are those who suspect the night and need to be behind gates by 11pm or those who seek organic Andulusian cornflakes but cannot find in local stores. We need a special kind of magic to ward off any soon to come Chaucer Village or Dickens Quarter lest any of our ribaldry gets airbrushed away like waxed pubes or our social commentary is lost to future mannequin characters. We remain Fagin’s children in aspiration.
Thus beneath the astro-turf is the rubble of those Two up and Two downs. The difference then between 1923 and staring out of your ‘slum’ window at the great new buildings going up and feeling is they may actually be for you whereas the knowledge of 2014 is that the new developments outside your block feel like you will never set a foot in them. Here Lubetkin’s blocks at Tabard have escaped the cherry picking of the best estates in London by the nouveau riche. Tucked away in the corner, we enjoy their large ‘1965’ entrance stones. We have managed to keep this silverware here. Well done us. Lubetkin’s Modernist 2 up 2 down and two larger blocks, ground floor flat and above stacked up 2U2D flats is marvellous living architecturally.
The mysteries of Tabard at Long Lane have given us many pleasures such as entering Empire Sq with a half brick marked ‘Aesthetics’ and its sister half marked ‘Resistance’. This was a nod to both the newly constructed space itself and for being at the sight of 1937’s massive local turnout against The Blackshirts march as this was Southwark’s own Cable St one year on. The roads were blocked to stop the aristocratic fascists and many a half brick was projected on them. Anyhow, the barricades have been dismantled and put into storage. The London Stock half-brick we held in our hand wields a power we do not wish to wield but as yet the half-brick is not big enough for us all to hold it. One day soon. One day soon, though.
LCC crosses London as do we. I saw a mother and son getting off the bus at LCC’s Tulse Hill Estate and walking with all the others into the blocks. She encouraged her son not to tarry. By her door, I saw she was carrying a biography of Marcus Garvey in her right hand. In my LCC block, the biography of Austin Osman Spare is under my consideration. And my friend from the LCC’s Elmington Estate in SE5 would accompany us on the search for Gascoyne in the back streets ‘round Tabard.
BRICKS AGAIN: Seeing Touch
In the wilder parts of the Tabard Garden centre, we found buried slate bricks cheek by jowl with wizened logs with entirely edible Jew’s Ear fungi available to the hardy amongst us. Chewy, gelatinous, like biting into a freshly dead bat’s wing. Back in the now again and we have another brick from the same day. Hand in hand, the brick is our intention to build. And this is the brick’s real value, symbolically and in actuality.
And they did build. London contains thousands of London County Council homes from the 1890s until 1965. The LCC can be read with wonder with its Arts and Crafts lovers, its actually existing Communist Party members, Swedish social democratic planning fans and the cosmopolitan formalists willing Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe in public housing design. A long heyday of intelligently felt public housing works were installed for all in London from top to bottom with elegance and with great function. The LCC’s architects department at one time was one of the biggest collection of architects on earth. There were hundreds of them at work. In fact, the splendour was only tempered by a post-WW2 cold mean act of penny pinching under the usual guise of ‘efficiency’. Pallant House is a classic of the wresting out of the hands of architects and into the hands of the valuers. It’s efficient but less great than the real pleasures of many other Tabard blocks.
And some of these blocks are unbearable in their beauty by which we mean how shapes are arranged in space. Our walk quickly shows us sheer cliff sides of red brick or a stacking up of fine rectangular columns containing then shape-breaking arches in the stairwells. Tiny then shape-breaking arches in the stairwells. Tiny metal grills, common across LCC estates, are here in the landing walls but are a little bit different, more sturdy like lightning flashes or the sign of Aquarius. There are repeated elongated 3 x 18 tiny window panes that run up a stairwell or a rising line of ships windows in side block elevations. The curves of some of the large roofs are amazing when you finally notice them. Or those high-reaching chimneys too. Some landings curve at right angles whilst the blocks they follow do not. There is a feature of letting metal railings void walls and railings in open window or arches to provide light but also depth. We found that what holds all this together across times and styles however is the LCC Block Sign, white letters on black tiles, however long it needs to fit the entrance: PILGRIM HOUSE, TABARD HOUSE, CHARTHAM HOUSE, SELBOURNE HOUSE and the more. This is the universal feature ‘cross Town.
With our brick passing from hand to hand today, it’s good to have to insist on a material quality, a material condition to all of this writing, to embody any description of say, a brick as a brick in the wider social context of its production and its use in public housing and from what idea this brick is called into being here and now on site. The anarchist and architect Colin Ward wrote a book called ‘When We Build Again: Let’s Have Housing That Works’. For now we put the bricks back to rest in the Tabard Earth and try to encourage those times to hasten.
For all of those believers in this simple idea, and against the bastards who hate us, we are here now – Catch Us If You Can!
Catch Us If You Can
In 2014 I walk the Tabard Garden estate with the writer Christopher Jones and photograph it as it moves into spring.
Walking and Looking
Away from home we photograph with eager eyes, while walking to the corner shop we miss what’s there, under our noses. Finding ways to look again at the everyday requires a certain effort, but nothing much more complicated than slowing down, walking and looking.
But sometimes the urge to document comes too late – just as the bulldozers mangle the concrete we reach for the camera. And the bulldozers are busy here in south London. The subways under the Bricklayers Arms roundabout were filled in last year, the ones up the road at the Elephant, along with David Bratby’s marvellous murals, are next in sight, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre shudders at its imminent erasure while it’s already all over for the Heygate Estate, emptied, fenced in and decimated.
In 1997 I moved onto the Tabard Garden Estate. It’s been around for a good while longer, but now is the time to document it – while it’s still here, still a place for us to live.
Martin Dixon, photographs, 2014
A Walk Round The Tabard Estate
There is a photograph taken in 1913 of the down-at-heel ’slums’ that were later demolished to make way for the social idyll of the Tabard Estate. The inhabitants stand in their doorways, moody and suspicious at this act of municipal surveying which records the slums in decay first and the inhabitants second.
Catch Us If You Can, almost one hundred years later, is the reverse of this act. It covers the same local territory but our surveying aims to reimagine living histories from the bricks, passageways, stairwells and bannisters of Tabard.
Pressure and forces exist all around that want to snatch this all away, to take it back and banish us. Present from the material details and the joy we found in the landscape is the determination that what we already have here is what we want to keep. That means all of us. Catch Us If You Can!
Christopher Jones, text, 2014