News (and stuff) from London E3

Tuesday 28 July 2009

The big topple

Rewind to Sunday, East London. Thousands of dominoes, scores of volunteers, one arty event. Part of the CREATE09 festival. A line of concrete breeze blocks running through Mile End, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. A moving sculpture. Or, as the blurb had it, "linking diverse communities in a symbolic as well as physical chain of cause and effect." Never mind that - the crowd who came to watch just wanted to see the whole lot fall down. Preferably, I suspect, by accident.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 3-ish
Approaching from afar, one lonely pallet of concrete blocks was the only clue that something was afoot. That and the lady stopping everyone cycling along the canal towpath in case they got in the way of the performance. But a hive of activity was hidden beyond the tennis courts, planned to within an inch of its life, as an army of t-shirted volunteers grappled with their unlikely raw material. 540 breeze blocks in total, laid out in a sinuous line along the footpath, across the grass and over the edge of a wall. Every 10th-or-so block had been placed lengthways rather than upright, to prevent any premature topplage causing the entire line to collapse. It rained.

Mile End Park, 3:30-ish
No sign yet of the signal for the off. A small crowd had gathered along the line, most of them near the start beneath the trees. One retired couple had brought a camera to record the magic moment, but had discovered to their cost that you can't replace a rechargable battery with an ordinary one. One of the lanky straggle-haired sportsmen hanging out on the tennis courts emerged to ask what all the concrete was for, and seemed duly impressed by the response. As time ticked by, the line was at increasing risk from volunteers and members of the public nipping oh-so-carefully across and through it. Only once did an accidental touch cause a block to wobble and fall, but the cascade didn't get far before a quick-thinking volunteer halted the flow. One especially elderly lady watched from a wheelchair, and waited, and waited, and nodded off, and had to be wheeled back to her flat without seeing a thing.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 4-ish
I could tell that the performance was finally imminent when the last gap across Copperfield Road was bridged with bricks. 'Get ready', yelled the man in the yellow waterproof, and his t-shirt army raised the 10% of blocker-blocks to the upright position. I had a good position lower down the line with a clear view of the snaking line. Or at least I did to start with. Once the first brick had tumbled and a merry cheer been raised, the crowd spontaneously followed the ripple downhill [video] [video]. They charged towards me, like a human tsunami, enveloping the phenomenon they were so keen to see. It was easy to outrun, so I could only work out roughly how far the topple had reached by observing which way the joggers were looking. At last it passed into near sight, each brick precisely knocking the next ...click click click click click click click... and I grabbed one underwhelming photograph click.

Mile End Park, 4:01-ish
At the edge of the park the first risky bit. The line passed through the railings, then a sheer drop down to street level, then across Copperfield Road and back up onto the pavement [video]. A carefully positioned block raised the flow up to doorstep height, then onward through the ground floor of Matt's Gallery. Unseen by the crowd it exited through a window along a beam above the canal, then fell into a boat conveniently tied up along the towpath. End of part one. Everybosy rushed round to the narrow road bridge to try to glimpse the boat as a few cracked blocks set off downstream. There'd be no more toppling for a few hours - this was no long unbroken domino chain - but momentum was maintained. The organisers smiled, job well done, and within 15 minutes all 540 blocks were back on their pallets.

Island Gardens, 6:30-ish: I didn't hang around to watch this bit. However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can offer you this photo and this video.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, 9-ish: Nor this bit. Looked good though. Down the spiral staircase, along the edge of the tunnel and then (cor) up the other side.

Old Royal Naval College, 9:30-ish: Nor the finale. But I can tell it rained a lot, and it was a bit dark, and there were a lot more bricks.

A warehouse somewhere, autumn-ish: They'll be splicing together the entire performance to make a film, and then all the blocks are going back to the manufacturer to be be recycled. Ain't art fun?

Saturday 25 July 2009


This is my local pub.
It's closed and shuttered.
"All items of value have been removed"
I wonder if it'll ever open again.

King's Arms, E3

There's been a Kings Arms in Bow Road since at least Victorian times. 140 years ago its Licensed Victualler was Ms Fanny Gear, a 46-year-old widow from Rotherhithe, 100 years ago Mr Elijah Morton, and 60 years ago Mrs Alice Berry. Millions of pints have been served over that time, mostly to very local people (because you wouldn't travel miles out of your way to sup here). The pub's little more than a large room with a bar in the centre, and a choice of entrances at the front. Saloon Lounge to the left, Saloon & Private Bar to the right, each name formed of golden letters within ornate ironwork above the door. There's been an Irish flavour to the pub of late, with Kilkenny cream ale and Guinness the favoured tipples. Regular karaoke nights brought in the punters, as did various signs on the pavement advertising Thai cuisine within. On sunnier days the patrons spilled out to sit at wooden tables in the slipstream of the A11, breathing in fumes and nattering above the relentless traffic. After closing time I'd often see the interior lit up, doors firmly bolted, as the beery cheery souls inside entertained themselves for a few more drunken hours. No longer, the pub's gone dark, gone silent, gone.

I never once went inside, of course. That's the problem with local pubs these days, lack of punters, lack of trade, lack of takings. Why go for a beer in your local pub when there are more interesting drinking holes elsewhere? Why pay three quid for a pint when cans are six for a fiver in the corner shop? Why patronise an alcohol dispensary when most of those living nearby are guided by their religion to be devout teetotalers? Hell, why support your local community pumproom at all, because wouldn't it look nicer converted into flats? And so pubs die, and convert, and disappear, and our neighbourhoods become residential hideaways where nobody ever meets up socially.

Bow VillageThe King's Arms wasn't always my local pub. There used to be several closer to my flat, clustered around the medieval heart of Bow village, all of them long gone. North of Bow Church the Three Tuns, Dog & Partridge and Coach & Horses (now McDonalds). South of Bow Church the Black Swan, Three Cups, White Horse and Bombay Grab (the latter, ironically, evolving into a mosque). So many E3 pubs have been erased, and in 2009 the King's Arms appears to have joined their number. It won't be the last. Raise a glass.

Activity for local people: I thought I'd have a go at mapping Bow's pubs - living and dead. I've used various useful historical and modern online resources to try to work out where the vanished ones were, and plotted them all on a Google Map. I've used blue pins for open pubs and red pins for closed pubs (although I might have got a few wrong). And if you know more than I do, the map's fully editable... so you can add some more pubs, add some information to the labels, even move the pubs around if you think I've put them in the wrong place. I've restricted myself to pubs within half a mile of Bow Church station, so please make sure you do too. And let's see what a collaboration of E3 alcoholics can come up with. [map]