One summer’s morning back in 1971, my Dad, my brother Stavros and I set out by taxi from our home in Burnt Oak to spend a week by the sea in Essex. At 13 I knew far less about the layout of my region than I do now; that my desire to understand the layout of London was burgeoning was evident from my interest in the route we took—down the A5 Edgware Road to Paddington and then left along Euston Road towards the City. I still recall the red Post-office vans lined up in ranks outside Mount Pleasant as we passed by in the early morning light. Liverpool Street station was dark and smoke-blackened still, despite the disappearance of the steam trains some years before. The green and yellow electric locos, so different to the familiar underground trains, their pantographs down, brought to mind a train journey to Greece made in 1963 and this lead me to assume that on this occasion also we needed passports to travel ‘inter-city’, or at the very least the filling in of complex legal documents by my father.
I still recall the curious cab arrangement in our locomotive—the driver’s compartment was contained within less than half of the train’s frontage, as in a modern-day London bus, enabling this enthusiastic boy to watch as the rails up ahead twitched and crossed one-another before passing beneath and behind us.
On our way to Clacton-on-Sea we hauled into Ilford. As the station’s name-plaque slid into sight and we juddered to a halt I took stock of the place, staring at the sullen backs of the row of brick houses alongside the up-track, their gardens packed with the grey roofs of collapsing coal-sheds, weedy borders to ill-defined and spartan flower-beds; bare light bulb windows granted glimpses of unhappy bedrooms with peeling 1950s wallpaper. Narrow as my sense of the world was at that time, I had actually heard of Ilford, probably through radio reports concerning fatal fires, the only news that ever held my attention in those days. The very name of the place, with its suggestion of eels (and, by association jellied eels) and that slovenly and dull schwa at the centre of the final syllable of the name suggested dismal and dulled minds, common people and general misery.
Then we were off, through a flat landscape that would occasionally manage to attain the status of countryside before giving way once more to town—concrete Chelmsford, or ancient walled Colchester with its elephantine water-tower. Pretty little Thorpe-le-Soken slipped by and we reached Clacton and had our seaside holiday.
Recently I returned to Ilford along with my colleague John Rogers to make a field recording for our radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography. The reason why we chose Ilford was that both of us were bemused by the bad press the place has received from numerous commentators. Ilford seems to be particularly unfortunate in the far from common tendency of English place-writers to besmirch the suburbs.
John had recently visited the place and, moved by what he had discovered, looked up Ilford in The Outer Circle: Rambles in Remote London by Thomas Burke and dating from 1921. He was intrigued by the disgust which Burke felt about Ilford, which he describes as ‘like tepid soda water.’ Neither does Burke stop there; ‘Not only does Ilford distress the stranger’ he growls, ‘having caught him it does its best to hold him in its chill confines.’
Equally as damning were the remarks made by the Ilford-born poet Kathleen Raine in her autobiography Farewell Happy Fields (1973):
Ilford, considered as a spiritual state, is the place of those who do not wish to (or who cannot be) fully conscious, because full consciousness would perhaps make life unendurable. What if some Mr and Mrs should wake to find that they are strangers to one another’s souls? What if some ambition, “forgotten” … should stir too painfully into consciousness the desire for some skill or craft or knowledge inaccessible?
Harsh words indeed and, as we shall see, ones that Raine unwittingly contradicts elsewhere in her book
Being exploratory topographers with an eye for the overlooked John and I were not prepared to take this lying down. Besides, I had my own agenda, knowing as I did that not only Kathleen Raine, but also the poets Ruth Pitter and Denise Levertov came from Ilford. If, as our commentators claimed, Ilford was so undistinguished, how come this triumvirate of poets all originated there?
We met at Woodgrange Park station and made our way eastwards along the Romford Road towards the much maligned suburb, echoing the steps taken by Burke on his visit and entered Ilford’s margins via a muddy River Roding and a pylon-straddled North Circular Road. By the end of the evening we had discovered a visionary landscape, a place with its own gentle and understated beauty.
The haul over Ilford Hill took us into what looked like a boom town emerging mushroom-like out of the alluvial Essex flats; new office blocks and a vast skyscraper towered over the dinky and easily-missed old lepers’ hospital (now apartments); the whole area spoke of a kind of semi-crazed yet democratic sexiness. There was a pulse clearly evident in the car-movement, the busy crowds heading for the shops in the High Street, the shoppers nattering on mobiles, prams pushed, cash delivered up by holes in walls.
Ilford suffered severely from Hitler’s vengeance weapons and both the doodlebugs and the rocket bombs caused carnage in the centre of the town. Much of the High Street therefore dates from the early to mid 1950s. The rational and large windowed buildings redolent of that time lend an aura of optimism to the place and a type of nostalgia, knowing as we do that the optimism was misplaced.
Intent as I was on basing at least some of the radio show on researches I had carried out into Kathleen Raine and her relationship with Ilford I tried to drag John up towards Barkingside, to the north, where Raine spent her early years.
John wasn’t having it though. His ambition was to visit Valentine’s Park first and, unprepared to argue it, he grabbed my arms, twisted them behind my back and frogmarched me up through some suburban streets towards that place.
We loved Valentines: a large lake brim-full with water fowl and seagulls that swirled around a central island like a whirlwind; an isolated cluster of pine trees; a concrete-conduited Valentine’s Brook and a Dutch canal reminiscent of the one that disappeared years ago at Norwood Green in Middlesex: these spoke of generations of family days out, wild kids on bikes now passed into middle-age and parentage, regional memories accessed by John and I through the exercise of imagination. Valentines Park reminded us that, as George Harrison once said, everywhere is somewhere. As the light began to fail and the park emptied out I sat and smoked while John wandered off to take pictures and notes. I found myself thinking about Raine’s version of Ilford:
The sensibility of an artist or a poet cannot grow in a mean underworld, and in solitude. It is no wonder that in the Ilfords’ there are more who fear than who desire the stirring of consciousness.
Raine grew up at Westview, a house situated at the junction between Cranbrook Road and Hamilton Road. The house—newly completed when Raine moved there with her family—predated the suburbanisation of Ilford that took place in the period between 1900 and 1914. Raine makes much of the beauty of Ilford at that time. She mentions the ‘Essex Maidens’—the regional name for the Elms, plentiful in the area and sadly now gone forever. ‘All sky and turnips’ was the description she gives of the flat Essex landscape.
A sensitive child, Raine cleaved off her own personal zone of responses to the world she found herself in and moved within them. However, unlike most people, she persisted throughout her long life in seeing the imagination as a gateway or portal through to the eye of her God:
Going to bed by day, in summer, I passed the hours before sleep in the other world. Not in dream but in waking fantasy I would take off, from the bed where I lay, to the summits of some beautiful heavy elms I could see from my window which grew a field away, by a little stream, or ditch rather, which gathered in a pool… From the pool the water flowed away under a brick culvert into darkness and mystery; and down into that mystery, each evening, I passed, travelling with the speed of thought to “the bottom of the sea”. There my companion awaited me: an octopus. How came I by that fantasy? I know only that it was so, and that among the mysteries under the sea we travelled together in perfect identity of thought.
I was intrigued by this passage and, during a visit to Ilford in the hot summer of 2005 I’d managed to locate the pool of water, clearly visible in a hollow in the back garden of a house in Hamilton Road. The contrast between the ‘timeless’ presence of the pool and the passing traffic in the street close-by destabilised my perception of Ilford as a fixed and dull suburb: standing there, on the superheated summer pavement I saw the streets of stuccoed houses waver and threaten to fade like the passing dream of a mushroom god. Old Essex began to re-emerge, the Essex maidens towering over the car-ports, their crazed green hair billowing in the summer breeze. Wild carrot sprouted and held up its birds-nest inflorescence proudly where foreign shrubs were neatly packed into front gardens. The cars—too many of them—rusted and collapsed in on themselves and became the nests of field mice. I was happy standing there, on the edge of deep time, watching our human endeavours fail. I felt superior to it all and, like Raine, was tempted to snort with contempt at the attempt by the denizens of Ilford to put down roots and live the decent suburban life.
However, unlike Raine (who washed her hands of the place and couldn’t wait to get away) the experience left me loving Ilford more than I had done: paradoxically, the packed and cluttered streets, shops and alleyways seemed more precious precisely because of their revealed fragility. They demanded loyalty and hard work on the part of the locals in order to create bonded relations in the community. It takes courage to keep faith with this world of neat front gardens, parked cars, cats on walls, childrens’ play-rooms.
Besides, Raine unwittingly contradicts herself: She describes how, in September 1916, she rushed out into the street to witness a vast sheet of flame hovering in the sky. In fact Captain Leith Robinson was busy shooting down the German zeppelin L2 far to the north, at Cuffley on the South Hertfordshire escarpment. Isn’t that vision as good as any Blakeian angel ascending to heaven, telling us much about the ‘true’ world underlying the sleepwalking and habitual lives we so easily inhabit?
John returned from his foray and we wandered over to Valentines House to shoot films in the delightful herb garden. As the winter oaks, visible beyond the garden’s old brick walls, took on a purple glow in the evening light I thought more about the interaction between the ostensibly stable and fixed suburb and the turmoil of history, the dangers inherent in acts of God:
On the afternoon of Monday 21 August 1939 an unusually violent electric storm suddenly broke over Ilford. The day had been bright and sunny and Valentines Park was busy with holidaymakers. As sheets of rain descended on the town several of families with small children sought shelter by huddling together in a corrugated iron shack near some trees. At ten minutes to five it was struck by lightning. Five adults and two children were killed and nineteen injured.
A witness described the scene: ‘The hut looked like a battlefield. During the war I saw some horrible sights, but none more horrible than this.’
Another witness entered the shack immediately after the lightning strike: ‘A woman at the back of the shed was lying unconscious with her arms round two little children aged about three and five, who were screaming. I tried to get over to help them but could not get past bodies of other people screaming for help.’
As I filmed John emerging from some shrubbery to walk towards the sundial forming the centre-piece of the herb garden I saw him as a momentary presence, a near-intangible consciousness doomed to murmur inaudibly in the grasses and trees of Valentines. We leave traces behind us, echoes to be picked up on by deep topographers in the years to come.