Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Walking Encyclopaedia: an exhibition

I have completed writing the introduction text to the exhibition The Walking Encyclopaedia which will open on 7th February at Airspace Gallery and run till early March. I'll publish the text online after the opening and I'd encourage anyone who can, to make it along to the exhibition, it looks great.

This is the catalogue for the show and the text is basically an introduction to walking and art that can serve as a frame for the exhibition. There's some history and a few ideas I've had recently about the relationship of the image and word to walking and the recent rise of interest in walking within the visual art sphere.

Monday, 27 January 2014

The Secret History of Street Food Tour

In the name of diversity (and a healthy dose of self interest) I was able to take another first for the blog here: a food tour.

My guide Emma from Coutours met me beside the West Cornwall Pasty Company Stand, outside of Liverpool Street Station. It was an easy to find, food related meeting point for this private tour which would take me around the East End and introduce me to some of the foods and stories behind the varied culinary cultures of this part of London. 

We soon came to Spitalfields Market and the adjacent Fruit and Wool Exchange. This building is one I must have seen many hundred times yet I don't recall ever noticing its title up on high. I was told about its former purpose and how it had been turned into offices more recently. We talked about the market and its former dysfunctional days with some affection; produce and people spilling chaotically out onto the streets blocking the roads. The tour's focus was upon history, on what had been there, so we went further back in time and I heard about its Victorian period and the class distinctions which meant the middle and upper classes did not shop for food but rather sent their staff. This focus upon history is of course a very typical one of guided tours which often aim to bring to the surface the invisible or hidden aspects of an area which the visitor might not know or be able to see by themselves. A tour that focuses not on the past but on the present is less common but there are a few locally such as the, the Shoreditch Party Pub Crawl and the Street Art tours. Tours that imagine the future are the least common. These are tours that might be made by a property developer in order to win support from financiers and planning officials. It is these future focussed tours, private tours with glossy CGI brochures, that preceded the transformation of Spitalfields Market, an act of corporate vandalism that has been honoured with awards. My guided Emma expressed mixed feelings about the new Old Spitalfields Market, while something had to be done to arrest the place's freefall during the 80s and 90s, and that something would almost inevitably mean City expansion, it was not as bad as it could have been and enough of the fabric of the market remained for it to still be recognisable as one continuous structure. 

The idea of a food tour immediately set off my salivatory imagination, however the tour took us not only to places where food is served but also to some locations where there was no food to be sampled, such as this site of a former dairy. It was then that the precise nature of the tour became clear to me. While there was food to be had on this tour, as you shall see, the emphasis was far more upon using the history of food as a vehicle to talk about the area's history more generally. Given that food is a very specific expression of a culture and that this area has had many waves of immigration there was plenty to talk about. What's more by approaching this history through the frame of food, there were may original angles on stories that I had heard in other formats on previous tours of this part of London.

An example of local food history is fish and chips, one of the few British signature dishes. Emma explained how the tradition of deep frying fish in batter was introduced into Britain by Portuguese jews. When cooked in this way, the fish preserved well and made it suitable for cooking in advance and then being eaten on the sabbath. The chips, I was told, were popular with Irish immigrants and these were originally the off-cuts of potatoes which were very inexpensive. Inflation being what it is, chips from Poppies could no longer be described as cheap, but they sure were tasty, on a par with Happy Days, which I visited while taking the Queen Mary East End Tour.

This sign 'Your Mum Ate My Meat Porn' was never going to speak to me as I don't eat meat. We passed, in fact, by a great many unexceptional sights such as this and the character of the tour was that we rarely stopped at them but rather they were referred to in passing and the conversation continued as we strolled further through the neighbourhood. This leant the tour a more free flowing atmosphere, it was certainly not a tour of 12 impressive sites that came with tightly rehearsed description of them from the guide, as can happen. Instead observations and details came at a steady pace and every now and again we'd stop so there was time to talk a bit more about what was in front of us, though often as not the conversation continued afterwards as well. This is partly the result of this being a private tour for one but I noticed that Coutours deliberately keeps the tour groups small in number so something of this flavour of personalised and conversational walking is retained. I felt I was being treated like an adult; big tour groups can often have the resonance of being on a school trip.

We then entered the food markets and took a look around at the many stalls from all over the world. To my surprise there were quite a number of Ethiopian vegetarian stalls, they seem to be the latest thing. I settled in front of this Japanese stall and was set off wondering about the etymology of tempura, whether it was also of Portuguese origin or if it was developed quite independently. Answers welcome.

I found myself starting to look at the place as a United Nations of food as the stalls all had their little flags and logos clearly showing where the dishes came from. However, with this international history of fish and chips in mind, I should not have been surprised to to see that the people working at the stalls did not necessarily reflect the flags they were flying. This Japanese stall was run by an Indian man, for instance.

Then we came to our old friends the Dutch who, I was told, introduced some technical innovations in British gardening such as the use of fertilisers, which had a revolutionising effect on the produce and thus dinner table. Nowadays, of course the country is more famous for its tomatoes without flavour and the stem cell burger launched here in London last year, an artificial burger made from growing stem cells in a laboratory.

We stopped in Nude Espresso to warm up, drink coffee and see a local eatery from the inside. Since this was a solo tour I was able to ask questions not only about today's theme of food but also about my preoccupation of tours. Emma was most forthcoming and told me how she became interested in giving tours after having taken one herself in Jordan that came perilously close to falling apart in the desert. I thought this was a rather beautiful and personal beginning which she built upon through a great deal of hard work: giving as many as 2000 tours in a year. That must surely be a truly immersive sink or swim training on the job. Her perseverance has paid off and she has developed a business out of it and created a number of tours angled around different themes and set in various parts of London. She told me she continually develops new tours and is working on a 'scent' tour of Central London right now. We talked a bit more around the process of constructing tours and with our coffee cups drained stepped back out into the fresh air.

Almost inevitably we made our way to the two bagel bakeries, spelled beigel as they are of Polish origin, at the top of Brick Lane. They had sizeable queues snaking out of them since, it being a market day, they were doing storming business. That said, they seem to have a healthy flow of customers at all times of the day and night. Thinking back to what I was told earlier in the tour about shopping historically being for the lower classes I could not help but notice how it has grown in popularity and become a  major form of entertainment for people of all positions within society. While Brick Lane is not Portobello Road, it is a popular street market that is as much about selling the idea of itself as a market as it is about selling any particular goods. People come here to hang out and will not necessarily leave with purchases. The one thing they do buy however is food, as that has become part of the identity of the market, and an integral part of the market experience. This transformation from being a market of good to a market of lifestyle must be one of the main reasons behind the huge growth of street food on Sundays.

Because it was a Sunday many of the cafes and restaurants outside of the Brick Lane were closed and I was told that the East End food tour is more commonly held on a Saturday, when places like Kelly's is open. Having already tried jellied eels and mash (with liquor) before I did not feel I missed out on too much this time round, if anything it was something of a relief not to have to repeat that particular East End delicacy. This got us going on, if and how pie and mash shops could or should be rejigged, as they are something of a dying breed.

Our final stop on the tour was Pellicci's in Bethnal Green, famous for having once been the Krays' local cafe. Once again then, the twins who lived round the corner on Vallance Road made their way into a tour of the East End. I heard about a Kray tour from the point of view of someone who used to drink in an East End pub that would be periodically invaded by a tour group who'd be told, "The Krays shot a guy in that corner" and with that the group would shuffle out. Fortunately for Pellicci's the place was not the scene of a murder or stabbing, as far as I am aware, but rather the scene of many a lunch that was a result of Italian cooking meeting British tastes. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Denis Severs House Tour: a candlelit tour of an artist's installation

Having stumbled across Denis Severs House on Folgate Street on the Spitalfield Stories Tour back in December, I had the occasion to take a tour of the property. I was however slightly early so I had a pint in The Golden Heart, round the corner on Commercial Street, as advised on The Sound Map Tour. It was suitably eccentric with a scatty, opinionated and welcoming landlady, random music, a man reading 'The History of History' and that increasingly rare thing in this part of London: the presence of artists.

Refreshed and diligently ten minutes early for the tour's start time of six, I knocked on the front door, it half opened and I was told to wait and not go anywhere. As I stood on the pavement a group of three arrived, also looking for the tour, I reassured them they were at the right address and then, at the stroke of six, the door swung open. A rather serious man took our names, checked them against a list on his ipad and explained the rules of the tour. We were not to touch anything, we should not talk, phones must be turned off, we should follow the route from the basement to the top of the building and we were not allowed to take any pictures. This picture above is of a subsequent group being given the same briefing at the entrance to the house, all of the pictures below are from the website of Denis Severs House.

My group descended into the basement and our eyes slowly adjusted to the candlelight. Looking around a house lit by genuine candlelight is a rare experience now in this age of health and safety and while the texts were a strain on the eyes the flames illuminated the space with a soft, warm, shimmering dance. Shadows were so much darker than they typically are this made the paintings that featured contrasts that Rembrant would be proud of, look far more understandable. That is not to say all paintings were like this, far from it, there were also more conventional portraits also adorning the walls.

The house is presented as the work of artist/curator Denis Severs who lived  in the property and designed rooms in order that they should capture the feeling of different periods. The objects and arrangements are therefore not strictly authentic but rather convey an atmosphere of the past which in practice means that the decoration can in places look somewhat camp, even flamboyant. A central conceit to the tour is that the occupants of the various rooms have just left as you stepped in so you should be able to sense their presence through the various clues left behind. The fire is still burning, there are smells of food in the space, a broken saucer lies in pieces on the floor as if the occupants had fled in haste. Sounds of footsteps around the house and the exterior sound of church bells chime to give the space an added sense of life. 

Scattered around the building are small slips of paper with advice for the visitor written upon them such as, "you either see it, or you don't" and warnings that the property is protected by hidden security cameras.  I had a sense that the space had been very deliberately arranged over a long period of time by first Severs and subsequently, the curators. As such, a detailed rationale for the building and the lives of its imaginary occupants must have been built up layer by layer. This interior story remained somewhat invisible for me and what I saw was an accumulation of details and an interplay between the paintings, texts, objects and rooms. It was like Poirot with the crime removed. It may even be that they slips of texts instructing me to look more carefully and absorb the situation had the dual effect of both drawing me in and, at the same time, keeping me out. It was as if they had been written with the presumption that the visitor would not understand which left me wondering, what was there precisely to understand? Placing it within artforms it is most close to an immersive installation yet it sits somewhat outside of the contemporary art discourse and neither does it look like it was made to be of historical or heritage appeal only. It is a product of its own unique circumstances.

The house is being run as a serious business and due to its proximity to The City, must have a relationship with the financial sector. Some of the other people on the tour were clearly city workers, though this was not uniformly the case. From Trip Advisor I see it is also popular with tourists as well as with a broader cross-section of Londoners. When I was walking around I could see that more visitors could have been squeezed inside, but the house was run with the idea of preserving the integrity of the experience. With timing and numbers strictly managed, there was no excess of visitors in the building at any single point in time so it was possible to take the tour at my own pace and have quiet moments alone in the rooms. This was quite in contrast to standing in queue after queue and feeling like you are on a tourist conveyor belt, as some similarly structured tours can be, such as the tour of HMS Destroyer that I took last year. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The No Trousers Tour: underwear on the underground

Today is an special day: it is Global No Pants Subway Ride Day. I'd like to cover it as a tour, an underground party tour, but I simply lack the time. If you have the time, however, and would like to take it, the details are on their website and on Facebook

The picture is how the idea is sold; I expect the reality is a little less chic, but that's nothing new. I think the aspect I find attractive is that it is a tour in which you see nothing of the places you pass through if you remain in an underground tube train (different in most other cities). There used to be parties on The Circle Line in London, but the alcohol ban introduced a few years back put an end to those. 

The underground aspect of it is interesting as it reminds me of a tour I took of the Paris Catacombs, the unofficial part that is, not the tourist section. Down there you see a mirror image of the city above. There are the road names from above on the dark passageways so while your surroundings are much like any other tunnel, you can locate yourself as being underneath Boulevard de l'Hopital and turning left onto rue Jenner. The geography is at once imaginary and real. 

I won't be able to take my trousers off and party, alas, as I am on a deadline, having to write up the tour of Denis Severs House and produce an introductory text for the exhibition The Walking Encyclopaedia, opening shortly at Air Space Gallery. This looks like a great exhibition that surveys contemporary artist's approaches to using walking within their practice. Given the choice between that and a 'no pants subway ride' I had to decide to keep my trousers on. Expect the text here soon then, after the exhibition opens in February.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Meet the 1% Tour

This tour is something of a relative of The Occupy Tour in that both its theme and core audience were practically identical. The form, however, is different enough to make it worth covering as a separate tour.

It was a one-off event that took place on the 12th May 2012, a day that was marked in 350 cities, spread over many countries, with similar Occupy style events commemorating the start of the Spanish Indignados Movement. It was advertised in London with colourful posters, such as those above, and publicised through the network left behind by Occupy London, even though the tents had been cleared away by the police some months earlier.

I learnt about it over a cup of tea at Richmix when someone who was there that day kindly took the time to explain a bit more about it to me. This is, therefore, a historical record of a tour, though one that belongs in the recent memory rather than a historical tour such as Daniel Defoe's A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26) which I am also currently reading, since he was also walking around Shoreditch and The City. 

This is the map that was produced for the event and which you can download HERE. It has been quite nicely produced and one aspect of it that I like is that it makes The City of London clearly visible, highlighting it in green. This should make a circumnavigation easier, which incidentally, is what Dafoe did in his tour, walking around the perimeter of built up London as it then stood, a city then creeping some distance outside of this boundary but not remotely like today's sprawling metropolis that spills out in all directions and has its contemporary circumnavigations, like Ian Sinclair's London Orbital, set upon the M25 ring road. This map highlights different addresses around The City but it does not prescribe a route that connects them. People coming on the 12th May were encouraged to print out a copy of this map and follow the Twitter feed that would, amongst other things, supply suggestions on where to go. The open-ended nature of the map is part of its design; the designers state, "Our map for Meet the 1% is an essential tool for finding your way around on Saturday, but we also see it as a resource to move beyond our own programme of events. We’re deliberately leaving plenty of opportunity for those who attend to determine their own course of action on a more autonomous basis. It doesn’t take much to make a statement. When “urban exploration” is classed as “extremist activity” — as the City of London police did last year — walking the streets you live in can itself become a political act."

The organisers did not know how many people to expect and thought it could be just a small gathering making a tour around The City but in the event some 500 + people turned up at St Pauls where the day began with speeches. These covered a range of topics as you can see in this video of the day, the first half of which was focussed around St Pauls before the tour headed off around other locations.

Many of the people on the tour were veterans of the camps and meetings that characterised the 4-month occupation of The City. It was, therefore, a bit of a get together for this network which had been scattered as a result of the evictions. I was told that the demise of the camps had come as a significant blow to many who had invested a great deal in Occupy, leaving homes, jobs and even partners to participate in it. With a Summer of flags looming, this was to be the last show of numbers of the protesters on London's streets. 

The tour did not have any clearly identifiable leaders. Different people had prepared self-contained actions at various points on the map such as describing the company's activities  over a megaphone or various other peaceful direct actions. The rationale here, I suppose, was that even if an organiser/activist were identified and arrested, the tour could still continue. The Anonymous mask was worn by some in line with this. This reminded me of The Critical Mass Tour which I recently covered, which also had a diffuse organisational structure to avoid individuals being singled out. It strikes me that there must have been an organising team all the same, as you cannot get 500+ people on the street without an effort, so they must have done a pretty good job at covering their tracks and working in cells. Unless of course they have been infiltrated by police spies, which is a distinct possibility, given the widespread practice of doing this against all manner of protest groups in the UK. In which case, the police did a good job at not blowing their spies' cover.

Naturally, the police were out to 'protect the peace' and whilst they were originally outnumbered, they came in increasing numbers as the day went on. They started to 'kettle' the marchers on Fetter Lane but relented after a while and let them continue. The marchers were aware of the likelihood of this and the route they followed avoided too many narrow streets as these spaces aid the police in forcibly containing the marchers. 

This is the reverse side of map which carries the key to the sites. The categories that are listed are: banks, hedge funds, financial services firms, stock exchanges, lobbyists, crisis profiteers and crisis profiteers - health. It was prepared with the assistance of Corporate Watch who are located over in Whitechapel. It struck me that while the Occupy Tour was somehow caught between being a political narrative tour and a political site-seeing tour, this Meet the 1% Tour was closer to being political sightseeing cum protest carnival. The narrative elements were less significant and the size of the crowd made the group an entity in itself, and one that seriously changed the nature of the space and consequently the face of the 1% they were intent upon meeting. Walking in such numbers, the police inevitably come out in response.

There was a lot of self-recording of the march and pictures posted online as well as some videos like this short one, set rather appropriately to London Calling by The Clash. When the tour came to Bank and The Royal Exchange a significant group stayed behind there while smaller splinter groups scattered around the city, visiting other points on the map. In this way it was very difficult for the police to contain everybody. The tour was therefore more of an invitation to make your own journey rather than to follow a prescribed path. Some took the initiative and started putting up Occupy sticker tape on buildings while others stayed behind at The Royal Exchange. It is here that the main clash with the police occurred following a contested issuance of 'section 14', a police order to disperse the crowd. This is caught on video here. Another instance of police surrounding the protesters/tourists and 'kettling' them took place and this dragged on for hours with snatch squads pulling people out but failing to charge them with any offence.  

As a memento of the day, I saw some of the tape used on May 12th now adorning my guest's laptop. It seems like this was a tour that was fondly remembered and seen as one event amongst many coming out of ongoing political activism based in London and connected to an international network that is as widely spread as the financial and political networks that its supporters oppose.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Occupy Tour: an anti-capitalist tour of The City of London

Finally I have got round to taking The Occupy Tour, a tour that is based upon the financial crisis and London's role within the historical development and current state of global capitalism. If that sounds like a lot of digest, you're right it is, but it all boils down to an anti-capitalism tour, more or less, and one that proved to be very well attended too.

The tour started on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, the site that the Occupy protesters took after being prevented from occupying the London Stock Exchange back in 2011. I remember standing on these same steps back then and listening to the geographer David Harvey speaking to a large crowd on the relation of capital to city space and how he strongly supported the Occupy initiatives that were taking place worldwide. I think his writings should be worth looking at in relation to both this tour and The Tour of Tours more generally as he does go into the contested functions of public space quite considerably. This tour began not with a reading from Harvey, however, but instead with a reading from the letters of St Paul about possessions and money, a reading that addressed, rather aptly, the church's compromised role in finally supporting the eviction of the protesters.

The tour made its way from point to point taking shelter whenever possible from the rain. It should not be a shock in London to have to deal with a bit of rain when on a tour, but it has been a particularly damp time recently and I have the feeling I been enduring one sodden tour after another of late. Between stops we were encouraged to play "Spot the Tax Dodger". Predictably enough Starbucks was on the list and so too was Boots who, we were told, have assigned their corporate headquarters to a post office box in Switzerland, a move detailed in the UK Uncut campaign. 

We stopped outside many buildings that belonged to the different people and institutions who, we were told, were in their own ways responsible for the crisis. Our two guides took it in turns to explain the roles each of these different institutions played such as here describing the evolution of the Lord Mayor of London's office. This was quite interesting but what gave the tour an extra twist were the responses of the people inside the buildings. Here, we had someone opening the door and asking the tour to move away. We did... about 10 meters to the right, so that we were now assembled in front of another of their doors. The man then banged futilely on this other door from the inside to show his displeasure, but the street belonged to the crowd so the quotes from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2006 and 2007 on the wisdom of light touch regulation of financial services, kept on flowing.

We came to the headquarters of the Rothschild family's businesses in London and heard how they built their empire, in part, through acting as the financier of national war bonds. Their present status is less important, we were told, as they had relaxed into being merely super wealthy and producing hyper-expensive wine in their vineyards in France. Now I think of it, I was once shown a large number of bottles of their wine whilst taking a truly surreal tour around the Reignwood Wine collection in Beijing. I might have to repeat that wine tour this spring when I will again be in Beijing so I can cover it here on the blog.

Once again we came across disapproving security guards speaking into their radios and not quite knowing what to do with us. Finally a colleague of his emerged and said, "No photographs, private property." It was the best he could come up with, a symbolic way of saying, "We don't like you, you are not welcome."  

They used a lot of laminated A3 pictures to illustrate their stories, such as this one on the founding of the stock exchange. I'm quite familiar with this use of cards having seen it on many other tours but the one thing that was more novel and which I rather liked was their hats. The rest of their clothing was relatively normal and would not attract much attention but their hats gave the whole tour a theatrical, not to say sartorial, lift. Top hats function as historical references that reminded me of the Victorian and Georgian eras, which was quite appropriate with this tour in which the past and present constantly intermingled. This mixing of time frames was, in fact, both the tours strength and weakness. It allowed them to make connections and explain how we got here, however, it was at the same time so scattered that it was impossible to extract a clear argument or thread from the tour, which instead felt like a catalogue of annoying and unjust things about the City of London.

The two of them performed well as a double act; here they are talking about Monty Norman the Nazi sympathising Governor of The Bank of England. What's more, they didn't just rely upon each other, they also brought members of the audience into their act by asking them to answer questions, translate phrases and even sing songs. Compared to the last time I took a tour with two guides who were at crossed purposes, this was a very harmonious duo. 

The tour came to The Guildhall, a site already known to me from The Machiavelli Reinterpreted Tour and here they made a gently provocative gesture through writing on the wall of The Guildhall in chalk. This diagram explains the medieval system of representation in The City of London which today ensures the mayor remains a person appointed by the banks.

We then stood in front of Chicago University's European Campus located in Woolgate Exchange but were cleared off this spot by another zealous security guard who had a contented 'job well done' look on his face when he managed to get us to the other side of the street. I can only think that these men have a very poor understanding of public relations as these actions only heightened the sense that these institutions had something to feel ashamed of and were embarrassed by this attention. Security guards and those who manage them tend to see things differently.

Chalk was again used to good effect to produce this table showing the income of the top 1% and level of public debt in an effort to debunk the free-market theories of the Chicago School of economic thought. The apparent failure of these economic theories and policies to behave as predicted has not yet made any apparent dent on the prestigious university campus located in the heart of the financial city. I would have liked one of their economics professors to have come out of the building and defended the theories, but that was not to be. It was a Saturday after all.

We then went over to Deutsche Bank where the topic was the consolidation of debt and the financial products and instruments that were behind the collapse of sub-prime mortgages. This was made a little more entertaining by including a rap composed by a former employee of the bank on the subject of the Collateralized Debt Obligation Market.

"CDO Oh Baby" to the tune of Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice

Yo vip let's kick it!
C D O oh baby, C D O oh baby
All right, stop, collaborate and listen
Spreads are wide with a technical invasion
Home Eq Subs were trading so tightly
Until Hedge Funds Bot Protection daily and nightly
Will they stop? Yo I don't know

Turn up the Arb and let's go
To the extreme Macro Funds do damage like a vandal
Now, BBBs are trading with a new handle
Print, even if the housing bubble looms
There are never ends to real estate booms
If there is a problem, yo, we'll solve it

Check out the spreads while my structurer revolves it
C D O oh baby, C D O oh baby"

The guards looked on unimpressed as usual but did not intervene. In the background there is some of the bank's substantial art collection on show and I noted that they offer tours of their art collection, I might just have to take one to see things from that point of view. 

The last stop on the tour was the Moorgate branch of Nat West, a bank that is owned by RBS. There was a whole lot more talk about the government bailout of this bank and its unethical investments and as I was listening to this I looked around and saw the sentry box that marks the 'ring of steel' the security checkpoints installed in the 90s to tighten police control of the city's entrances and exits following IRA bombings. It was striking how it seems to more or less follow the old Roman Wall of London which, incidentally, is a tour route as well. This city within a city, or even state within a state, as some consider it, is essential to any understanding of what is going on elsewhere in the city and well beyond. The tour concluded with many thank yous, a steadfast refusal to accept money for the tour, encouragement to get involved with the issues raised and current campaigns such as that to remove the post of The City Remembracer and a final near ubiquitous gesture that I was not expecting. They said, "if you have enjoyed the tour then rate us on Trip Advisor!" It seems like this company and its website is the glue that connects people with tours in London today. 

The tour finished in the Red Lion where the bar staff kept trying to pour short pints, ie not fill up the glass completely, even though it was an over-priced generic city pub. On second thought that might precisely be why they were pouring short but that, in any case, didn't deter a significant tranche of anti-capitalists mixing and talking about the tour, about Occupy and much else besides. I've come to notice that the tours that generally finish in the pub are the ones where there is already a greater degree of connectedness between those taking it: tours around a very specific topic or political tours, like this one. The more general tourist oriented tours rarely have this social dimension. While most of the tours I've reviewed so far that have ended this way have been lefty tours, I would be shocked if this were not also the case with other groups and different political persuasions. I don't quite have it in me to test a BNP or EDL tour, if such a thing exists, but I can well imagine it finishing in a pub too.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

The Undiscovered East End Tour

I managed to squeeze in one last tour for 2013 and once again it was a tour of London's East End. I should admit I was even tempted to turn New Year's Eve into a tour using one of the self-guided architecture tours as a starting point but the weather had other ideas.

And indeed it also had other plans for this tour; it was, quite simply not a guided tour sort of day. Unphased, Luke our guide waited at the statue opposite McDonalds sporting an orange umbrella, exactly as I was told to recognise him. Since Easyjet don't bother with East London (an oversight I feel) there was no confusion of corporate colours. Having found him I ducked back under cover, the station's ultrasonic 'Mosquitos' were preferable to the rain. 

We were a small but hardy group made up of South Londoners, friends from Cologne who had reassembled for a London visit, two Australians and I. The tour was from a company called Undiscovered London and yes, while the name is a bit of an oxymoron for a company giving guided tours, the East End is off the main tourist piste so it can be thought of more as meaning undiscovered by you. This is a daily tour that starts at 11AM so it is probably fair to say that it is one that is geared principally at visitors to the capital.

This tour was in a certain respect refreshingly traditional in that it did not try to tell a single story or focus upon one theme exclusively, but rather, made its way through the East End stopping at one point of interest after another. In this sense it was in the best way generalist: one moment the evacuation of jewish children, the next 16th Century hospitals then a bit of street art. In the crowded market place of London tours there is a tendency for tours to carve out a niche for themselves by having a unique angle to mark them out and while this can result in excellent tours there remains a need to simply show people around an area and talk about the various things that can be interesting to different sorts of visitor. When done well this sort of generalist tour becomes a collage of places and stories that can give a taste of how complicated and open-ended the place itself is. Here for instance we were told about the medieval psychiatric hospital that stood on what became Liverpool Street Station. What's more, we heard how Bedlam, as it became known, offered visitors self-guided tours of the wards where visitors could witness inmates in distress and so on. The health service has been looking for additional profit making activities for a while then. 

For the first time I was taken to the Charnel House on a tour. The story here was of the hospital fields (Spitalfields) and how the dead were temporarily buried then exhumed and the bones placed here to save space. This is probably the more interesting story from the visitor's perspective yet from the point of view of someone who knows East London the more present narrative is that of The City's aggressive expansion eastwards in the form of Norman Foster's 1 Bishops Square. Incredibly, this won London Planning Award's best new public space. It is important to take stock of just how conflicted various interest groups (stakeholders in today's corporate parlance) can be: local residents, city investors, tourists, hospital authorities, the dead. 

We passed the public toilets in Spitalfields Market which were recommended for being both clean, publicly accessible and free to use, a rare thing today following the wholesale closure of public toilets by local authorities. There is an unusual London tour that caught my eye which comprises of a tour of toilets led by Lootours. Unfortunately they don't stray this far East, they focus on the West End's commodes so I won't have occasion to be reviewing that tour anytime soon.

Where a fortnight ago there stood Santas quaffing mulled wine following their city running tour we now sat and listened to a summary of the Jack the Ripper story. I suspect we stopped here not because it was on the ripper route but because it offered us a moment of reprieve from the elements. With the essentials of the murdering spree covered we were told that we had saved ourselves the three hours of going on a ripper tour. This was a nice little gag that got me thinking about how much time going on a tour of tours would save you. "Take this tour and save yourself two and a half days" might make a good tag line. This reference to the ripper tours also made me realise that I was getting a bit of a tour of tours having already heard about the Bedlam tour and now getting a potted ripper tour. I now see that many tours are developed from recycling existing tours, adding some new details or combining some previously separate information and putting a new spin on them. Completely original tour research is more unusual and almost inevitably gets sucked into other tours, unless it is too geeky. This leaves a tour of tours in the paradoxical space of being both a properly original focus and at the same time an ultimately parasitic form of tour.

We were then treated to a colourful explanation of the etymology of the phrases "shit-faced" and "saved by the bell". These were new to me and the first in particular was based on something that could be seen in the street still: the ghost of a sewer running down the centre of the passage. We had earlier been introduced to cockney rhyming slang too and this interest in local language was very welcome as it really made the invisible visible. It even got me imaging that this topic was rich enough to deserve a specialist language tour of its own.

Moving on however we were next onto street art. I had the feeling that compared to The Alternative Tour which is a specialist street art tour, we were given a simpler snapshot of a number of works that covered who the artists were and was followed by some observations on the different styes.   

I noticed that this piece carried the signature not only of the artist but also a link to Global Street Art (top left) the company promoting and facilitating much of this work locally. Having run into Lee Bofkin from this company whilst on The Walk the Line Tour I start to see their hand more widely in the area.   

True to form we stopped, like practically every other tour, outside the the mosque and heard about its multi-faith history. I think the only tour I have taken than did not bother with the mosque was the Whitechapel Gallery First Thursday bus.

I enjoyed the way that many of the points we stopped at were quite unspectacular such as this wall. It was the small metal plaque up on the wall that was the point of interest here and which prompted a history of London's fire services following the Great Fire of 1666. Rather than this being a tour that showed us 'wow' sites, it typically used details such as these to tell stories. The balance of interest was then upon interpretation over spectacle.

We stopped at something I have passed before but never previously paid attention to: patriotic street art. I had sort of assumed that this type of art would be iconoclastic but was proved wrong here, unless of course there is a deeper irony that I am missing.

We came to the yard behind Truman's Brewery and were shown quite a number of larger pieces of street art. There was the inevitable Bansky, some other large sculptures and a piece by Space Invader. An interesting thing that our guide said about this last artist's work is that the placement of these mosaics around the city of Paris when viewed on a map creates a picture of a space invader in its own right.

This map details the pieces Space Invader left in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. I don't quite see a space invader here but I do like how the city map has been thoroughly reconfigured to suit its new purpose yet enough vestiges of conventional maps remain to remind you of official ones. In late 90s Paris I did somewhat similar but less refined work using stickers, texts, photos and maps, so this work evokes both nostalgia and respect seeing these concepts fully developed and given a consistent graphic style. What I also like is that this map proposes a tour of the various works, some of which will and some of which won't still remain in place. While guided tours of street art can be interesting and rewarding, when the artist his or herself creates tours of their own work, effectively curating their own solo show in the city/gallery space, a rather different sort of tour is offered.

Our guide stopped to tell us about The Krays and how the area we were walking through was formerly their territory, they being the senior London gangsters of the 60s. He said that the streets were in some ways safer back then, suggesting that they did a good job at keeping competing criminals off the street. It was striking that once again it was crime that made the neighbourhood famous, from Jack the Ripper to The Krays, the East End has been popularised as a, maybe even the, place of violent crime in the UK. Historically there may be something to this but how many parts of Central London haven't had a few grizzly events take place in them? Still, the idea has somehow stuck that these are dark and dangerous streets and visitors will often still come with this expectation when in fact the worst thing likely to happen is that they are harassed by over zealous waiters offering 25% discounts on meals, and even they seem to have calmed down somewhat. The Krays have only more recently been given the film treatment and maybe we'll see their status rise with time and distance from their actions. I will in fact be taking a Kray Twins tour to see what sort of story is spun, a tour that boasts a celebrity guide no less, too. Hooks a plenty. Meat hooks. 

We rounded off the tour at the bottom of Brick Lane. We were directed the various ways we were all heading, some back to Liverpool Street Station others back up Brick Lane in search of curry. Chillies was recommended and it looked like there would be a small post tour gathering of our guide and the young men from Cologne around a table for lunch. Finally we got onto the subject of Trip Advisor. We were all encouraged to rate the tour 5 stars if we enjoyed it. I'm fortunate writing here that I don't deal in stars. I find them superficial when it comes to arts reviews in the papers and don't want to reproduce a system I distrust. What I can say however is that this tour was engaging and varied, that Luke our guide was both personable and enjoyed his job and despite the lousy weather this was a fun way of introducing the area to visitors who knew nothing of it.