Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Walk The Line Tour

The Walk The Line Tour is a free audio tour that you can download from London Transport Museum's website. It comes as five separate walks and the one I took is the Shoreditch to Whitechapel walk. The Overground is the name of the line, or more precisely network, that this walk nominally follows and this network is a consolidation of a string of separate tube and rail services that were notoriously unpredictable. I remember one part of it being called the North London Line back in the 90s when it was a joker service that came and went pretty much when it felt like it. It changed hands and became known as The Silverlink Metro for a while, and under new management was only modestly better. There was something about the line that seemed intrinsically slack. This section of the overground, around Shoreditch, a section previously known as the East London Line, was always slightly different from the other tube lines; taking it was like entering into a parallel tube service. When I studied in New Cross I took it often and I remember the train announcements were sometime so informal that it was like being on a mini-bus with friends with the driver chatting and saying hello to everyone as they got on and off. It was smartened up for the Olympics and there is no chat now. There is, however, a community engagement policy and that is how, I suppose, this audio took came about. 

Shoreditch High Street Station is where the walk begins. The tour guide is a woman from the Boundary Estate Womens' Group and she tells you about the new station and she seems to be very happy with it saying they have regenerated the neighbourhood. She even expresses her hope that Starbucks can move in.

This is the map that comes with the walk and which you can either download onto your phone or print out and follow off the page. With the title 'Walk The Line' you might imagine that the newly spruced up line might feature as the defining element of the walk, but not a bit of it. As you can see, the walk first visits the The Boundary Estate then heads South down Brick Lane, goes by way of Spitalfields Market and Petticoat Lane Market, before heading along Whitechapel Road to its end point Whitechapel Station. The train line follows a very different route and heads first East above Allen Gardens crosses Valance Road then heads South into Whitechapel. This walk does not follow the line at all, but rather, uses the two stations as its bookends.

Following the map's suggested route I saw a long line of people queuing to get into this building. I tried to guess the purpose of the queue asking myself which celebrity was inside or what sort of audition was taking place but could not tell, so I asked one of the people. It was a discount designer clothing sale, which came as an anticlimax.

Round the corner I passed the local coffee shop, Allpress, which seemed to be doing a steady trade. I can't exactly see why Starbucks would be an improvement upon it, but then again, I'm not so into global tax-dodging brands in general.

I arrived at the first stop on the tour, the Boundary Estate, and I can only guess the tour took me there because the commission for it had fallen on the Boundary Women's Group. This is a way to say the estate was not on the route at all, quite the opposite, and there was conspicuously little to see here. The guide gave a very personal impression of what the area was like from the point of view of a local resident. She neither went deeply into the history of the place, just a few dates was enough, nor into her relationship to the place. In this respect local residents often know very little 'visitor information' about their neighbourhood and their knowledge is often more practical along the lines of where to go to top up your Oyster card without having to wait in a queue. On the other hand, while we all have relationships to the places we live in, transforming these into a tour requires a very specific set of skills that are not always sufficiently appreciated. I don't know the exact process by which this tour was put together, but something was clearly lacking and It may well be as much the fault of London Transport Museum for commissioning this group and not supplying adequate support to help them turn their stories and impressions into a half-decent tour. It could also be a case of me expecting more from a community project than either the community involved in making it or London Transport Museum, who commissioned it, ever did.

Leaving the estate and following the route I next passed Richmix on Bethnal Green Road. This is going to become a central spot on my tour of the area as this is going to be the starting point of The Tour of All Tours which will be presented by Richmix next Summer. Something I noticed that never struck me before, is that they have their own blue plaque beside the door. The Heritage Lottery funding plaque has copied the basic design of the English Heritage blue plaque and then squashed it a little so that it becomes oval shaped. This must constitute the second unofficial blue plaque spotted on these Shoreditch tours so far. More will no doubt reveal themselves. A final thing to mention is that I will be doing something in this venue before next Summer: on 31st January, Chinese New Year's Day, I'll be giving a performance of The Customer Is Always Wrong, in the studio upstairs.  

Making my way down Brick Lane I saw two artists at work on a side street. My interest in their work had been awakened from taking a street art tour, so I decided to take a closer look.

On that tour I was told that a significant aspect of street art is the legality of the work. Having heard how a street artist was sentenced to 2 years for defacing a train recently and how 5 years had even been handed out by a Sheffield court, I figured the two young women would not be taking their time to spray so openly if they faced similar treatment. That's why I was interested to take their picture and that's how I got talking to Lee Bofkin who was watching them approvingly. Lee, it turns out, has been instrumental in getting the site owners' approval for a great quantity of the street art in the area to be made legally, and for then promoting the artists' work. Lee said he was not, however, involved in street art tours at all.

A curious omission on the Walk The Line Tour was the old Shoreditch Station, just off Brick Lane. This nondescript brick building that sports some less consensual street art was the end stop on the East London Line. It represents the bad side of the neighbourhood and so was, I am guessing, not included in the Walk The Line Tour, a tour that had practically zero interest in the railway line. The park behind me in this photo is one that I remember hearing a funny, though wholly unverified, story about. The artists Gilbert and George, who live just around the corner, were walking through this park dressed in their identical suits when a gang of skinheads spotted them and shouted, "Oy! Get um!" The two conceptual artists knew the neighbourhood well enough to know this was no idle threat and had to sprint, high-speed, out of the park and back onto Brick Lane to avoid a good kicking. The scene somehow reminds me of the closing sequence of The Benny Hill Show, though through a more violent East London lens.

The walk took me past the many vintage markets and food stalls that thrive in the area and which contribute to the current Camden Town-ification of Brick Lane.

The audio tour stopped somewhat short of the Mosque and talked about it having been a church and synagogue in the past, a line that is repeated in virtually every other tour, no matter what the subject of the tour may be. Even street art tours, like the one I stumbled across here, go over this history.

Next stop was Spitalfields Market. In the Spitalfields Stories Tour I mentioned how it had changed and become more corporate. This was an observation echoed in this tour, however, it was also one welcomed and it was described as a trendy place and one of the best markets in London. What was strange is that the guide went onto say that the things on sale were also very expensive no longer affordable to local residents. It was as if she was celebrating being priced out of her own local market. That's when I started to suspect that she perhaps had an idea of who I the listener was and that she was showing me the most up-market version of the local area that she could, in the belief that that is what I wanted to see. Today the market was hosting a vinyl day for independent record labels. There were a great many stalls selling records and quite a crowd of people milling about.  

Then I noticed Doug from The Alternative Tour bouncing up and down to keep warm beside the goat statue, the COSTA charnel house in the background. What's more Doug had a friend who, with beard, leather jacket and cap, also looked the part to give their tour. Later in my tour I did in fact notice Doug's colleague giving their street art tour. 

I then made my way to the next point, Petticoat Lane, where I noticed they have put up street maps that are oriented so that the top side of the map points in front of you as you stand facing the map and the bottom of the map indicates what is behind you. I have to say I dislike this sort of map and much prefer those that have North at the top and South at the bottom. I'm guessing that these sort of maps are more easily read by people who have never learnt to read conventional maps as there must be some reason why they are springing up right now; I saw then in Glasgow city centre recently too.

There was a short description of Petticoat Lane Market, again from the point of view of a local shopper, but what was more captivating was the film that being made on the street. It looked like a low-budget film as there was not the usual paraphernalia of the film set, but the director and cameraman were planning their shot carefully and rehearsing the movement of the steady-cam.  

Then the street came alive with a bike gang. At first I wondered if this was a flashback to the Critical Mass Tour from a few nights before but no these cyclists were in fact the extras for the scene: a gang of 8 young men on BMXs. They cycled at speed towards the council estate and then charged up the stairs. I was then taken back to the idea of the image of the city being fashioned more through movies than reality and was reminded that the image of the city is not consistent, people in the area sometimes have access to professional quality equipment and also participate in the generation of images too. The identity of the city is multiple and contested, not the sole property of Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes.

The walk then took me on a long stretch with no audio along Whitechapel Road. There are two tours that this dreary trudge brings to mind. First of all, the blue paint on the road indicates CS2 the 'cycle superhighway' upon which four cyclists have been killed so far, with more deaths seemingly inevitable. One indeed was killed at the junction in the background. I wouldn't advise anyone to take a bike tour of CS2 unless they were a TFL executive. This story of the failed transport strategy was very much the subtext of The Critical Mass tour I recently took. The second tour that I had to think of was the Whitechapel Gallery First Thursday's Tour. This is a free bus tour which you apply to by lottery and which takes you to a number of gallery openings in East London on the first Thursday of the month in the company of a curator. I added my name to the lottery and am pleased to say have just been offered a place on the tour this week. Review to follow soon.

And so I finally came to the Starbucks that has been denied Shoreditch. I did not dally.

A little further along Whitechapel Road I saw a Tesco supermarket set back from the main road. This brought to mind something I heard about a coach tour recently. It was a coach tour to Stonehenge and Bath and one of the passengers was a girl who particularly liked shopping at Tesco because, she said, they have good meat and dairy. Apparently, for the whole tour, she kept on commenting, "Oh look a Tesco" when the coach passed one. Not information that the tour guide included in his commentary, but something that the other people taking the tour got anyway.

There was a brief stop by the East London Mosque and a few comments about the Citroen Garage on the side which apparently was the site of a no longer used station. The guide said she herself did not know about this lost station until recently either and this gave me the impression that she had done a little bit of local history research prior to recording to tour so that she had enough to say.

Final stop was Whitechapel Station which she described as a place, "we all know and use." This again thew me as to who this "we" was. Was this a tour by and for local residents, or for whom exactly? I couldn't exactly say. Anyway, Whitechapel station and market was its usual unruly self and this brought to mind the Olympic Marathon route change that I mentioned on a previous blog. Despite official assertions that the reason the race would bypass East London was not because the area is poor and would give a negative impression of London to the global audience, it is hard to see the snub in any other way. The marathon is, after all, a tour of the city that presents it in a very specific way through the interaction of sport and architecture. 

Thankfully POPLAR TV was at hand to cover the 2012 race in the satirical McMarathon report.

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