I have over the years painted my neighborhood, The London Borough of Hackney. Hackney could well be the most famous borough in the country and despite its often insalubrious reputation there is still something of the ‘Exciting reckless friend’ about it. Even big international brands have recognised the ‘outsider’ reputation and attempted to buy into it. In 2006 the sports giant Nike had to pay £300,000 to Hackney council after it emblazoned the authority’s logo on its products.
Of course as a resident I have a more intimate experience of the place so with that in mind I thought I would add a few watercolours and A bit of A personal view of the place I call home.
Abney Road Cemetery, Hackney
This cemetery is in a perfect state of disrepair. Nature has stamped her foot hard here and claimed it all back. The coffins beneath the rough ground have long since collapsed, making the ivy and moss clad gravestones tip and tilt in all directions. The larger monuments broken and limbless angels teetered drunkenly as though about to dive into the dense undergrowth to disappear for good.
So who would visit such a dilapidated place? The best way to discover who frequents a cemetery is by looking in the bins. On inspection I noticed empty bottles and cans of near nuclear alcohol. Digging deeper I noticed many a tissue-wrapped dog-poo. So there you have it, drunks and dog walkers my dear Watson. Sure enough as I set about my work I spy both in large numbers.
With its permanent non-living residents there are a few surprises here. At the main entrance you are met by a colossal granite monument to the ego of one William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. The old first general seems to have recruited a whole battalion of army followers to rest beside him, including his wife Catherine whose rank in rather cult-like fashion was “mother of the army”. At the bottom of their inscriptions it confidently announces that both (definitely) went to heaven.
John Swan’s grave stone waxes lyrical about him being the inventor of the screw propeller, rather bitterly lamenting that he has never been given rightful credit, nor even “received the slightest remuneration”. It goes on to say that this “ingenious and modest inventor” also invented the “Self-Acting Chain Messenger”. Well I never! He hasn’t had much luck in death either as his gravestone is in the middle of deep bushes and I happened upon it by pure chance.
At the cemetery’s heart is a sadly neglected non-denominational chapel. Its doors missing, the sturdy windows long broken, it has yet to yield to the developers and the luxury flat monsters. One day the church may be restored to its former splendour, though as it stands its only worshipers are hordes of pigeons and an endless trail of melancholic Goths.
The Round Chapel, Hackney
Walking up Lower Clapton Road in Hackney, one is always startled to come upon the Round Chapel. Situated on a road that has nothing more majestic to offer than the odd Pound shop, its bold belly thrusts confidently into the street like an autocratic lord of the manor. It is totally at odds with the inner London surroundings. One might expect to find a building of this stature in Oxford, or some true blue spa town where it would feature on post cards and tourist guides, but here it sits, and is all the better for its incongruity.
The chapel was built between 1869 and 1871 to serve the rapidly growing non-conformist population of east London. However, not long after it was completed the non-conformists decided that living in the suburbs would get them closer to heaven, so they all went off to Chigwell. How the chapel managed to survive in the intervening years only God knows, but recently it has been restored as an arts’ centre. The architectural importance of the chapel has also been recognised, now upgraded from a Grade II listed building to a II*, meaning it resides within the top 4% of listed buildings in Britain.
Lower Clapton road is known locally as the “Murder Mile”. Those being murdered are the drug peddlers and hired muscle that haplessly get themselves caught up in the ever shifting tidal sands of narcotics’ territories.
Before setting to work I asked a shopkeeper what it was like working on the mile. “No problem” he cheerfully replied, “they only murder each other,” which says it all really. I stepped outside and found a good spot on the opposite side of the road between an off licence and a betting shop; yes, the Round Chapel is surrounded by sin and temptation in equal measure.
I got busily to work, but after a short time a crocodile of children headed in my direction led by a lath thin Bengali child of about 12. I had been spotted. “We have come to watch you paint the Round Chapel” piped up the fat snotty one and I was surrounded. Nothing could be done now, I couldn’t see anything but legs of all shades and sizes, and the air was filled with chatter, comments and advice. “No one plays near the chapel you know” said a tiny white girl. She continued “Everyone knows it’s haunted”, and eyed her companions for affirmation. They all nodded in reply. “By who?” I asked. “A ghost” one said. I pointed out that it was far safer in there than out here on Murder Mile. The Bengali girl found this very amusing. “Don’t be silly,” she chastised me, “they only murder each other”
Actons Lock – Hackney
This lock is on the Regent’s canal where it passes through Hackney. Despite its grand name the canal is only a few miles long, linking the Union Canal in Paddington with the Limehouse Basin in the East End. It was part of a great scheme to give a whole new look to North London in the early 19th century, and it cost an absolute fortune. Soon after that the railways replaced the canals and this part of London became sadly neglected. It was 1940 before someone got around to giving the area a whole new look again, though he did it for free.
On a Sunday morning I sat down on a bench opposite the lock planning my picture. On Sunday mornings in London the only people you are likely to meet are joggers and street drinkers. The joggers naturally fly past, the street drinkers naturally want company. This morning was no different. The joggers flew past and it wasn’t long before a street drinker was looking for company, ambling up the tow path with a carrier bag containing his breakfast in six tins. He paused and swayed, looking down at me with a face blasted by a lifetime of frightful cider. He indicated he wanted to sit on the bench next to me, and I didn’t feel I could refuse as technically it was his bed. He sprawled beside me. I waited for his opening gambit for conversation. I didn’t have to wait long. He took a long draft on his roll up, looked out across the canal and announced: “yep…fu***d my life up!” I mumbled a polite expression of surprise and he barked back: “There’s nothing to do round here! Know what I mean! That’s why everyone gets pissed all the time!” I indicated a passing troop of joggers and said: “They’re not pissed.” “Well they ain’t from round here are they!” was the retort.
I continued with my work
Time went by and as I drew and painted he drank and smoked. I discovered he liked the bench because it was the place where he could “cogitate”. I wondered what he normally did for company. I noticed another drinker on a bench further up, fast asleep cuddling a plastic bottle. I asked him if they knew each other. “Yeah! He’s a right c**t!” He flashed an accusing thumb in the slumbering man’s direction and added: “Especially when he’s pissed!” Confused, I asked “when is he sober?”
“Never!” he replied.
We chatted most of the day, though about what I can’t recall. I do remember him being good company, even though he never once asked me a single question. After my painting was complete we said our goodbyes and I left him alone on the unmade bench…to vegetate.