Peckwater council flats, Islip Street, Kentish Town North London. This is the playing area outside of the flats where I was born.
The photographic records shown in this chapter were taken in July 2014 during a ten-day period when I returned to the United Kingdom. They document the world in which I grew up, played and worked. Although some of these areas have been gentrified over the years, there are locations that remain the same. Old hand painted street signs can still be seen if you know where to look. The landscape of memory I retrace here maybe seen as a kind of palimpsest and the decaying typographic signs (be it commercial, civic or graffiti) are the substrate of a British working class childhood. They operate not only as signifiers of social space, but also as catalysis’s for memory.
I grew up in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I lived in streets that still bore the scars of the Second World War. After more than two decades since the bombing that decimated parts of the city there had been little government investment in working class areas like those in which my childhood unfurled. In more prosperous middle class areas I passed on weekend excursions I saw the effects of re-generation. Damaged structures were razed, buildings repaired and systems put in place that turned the anguish of loss into leafy roads and comfortable reminders of urban regeneration. Class was marked by the postcode where you lived and by the buildings that surrounded you.
Many of the street signs dating back to the mid to late fifties were hand painted and have not stood the eroded forces of weather and environment. Today, they function almost as typographical ghosts, bearing the semblance of a remembered state, now grown pale and incomplete with the passing of time. Peckwater Street is the street where I was born in 1961.
In my world there were derelict places unsuitable for living, where we played. They were bombsites. The buildings eroded as time and adverse weather bore down on them. We were oblivious of the dangers of unexploded bombs and walls that could collapse on us, although stories of such events punctuated our childhoods. We knew we were not supposed to play in these places, but the walls and enclosures were haunted by a thousand possibilities. In the decay and rubble our imaginations ran wild. We played hide and seek and war games in empty corridors and vacant rooms. These buildings were not fenced off or controlled by roaming security guards. There were too many and the costs of repair were low on the government’s priorities. Small, official signs warning “Danger! Keep Out” became our invitations to adventure. We broke the law by entering, but there was adventure here that played out in the presence of neglect, imagination and loss.
The walk way next to the Grand Union Canal Camden road.
Gradually, in some working class neighbourhoods London was being regenerated. These were the first signs of the high-rise tenement blocks developed under the Wilson government. They were towering concrete boxes and a new, state solution for ‘modern living’. Devoid of mystery they held only the present, they had no histories, no hauntings of the past and they were destined to become a failed social experiment. When I think back, I realise that we were lucky that the part of London where we lived bordered the wealthy area of Highgate. Because of this, where I lived was not submitted to the high-rise concrete towers that infected the views of other suburbs.
These decades were tough on working class families. My father was abusive and my elder siblings left home. My brother lived on the streets and my sister fled into marriage. When I was seven, my mother could take no more, so she grabbed what she could carry and she and I went to live at my aunt’s. We had nowhere else to go. My aunt’s house was small so we all slept in one room on the floor. We lived like this for eighteen months until my mother finally managed to secure a council flat of her own. We lived on the ground floor of a five-story block with a shared, central playing area in Prince of Wales Road.
The Nature of Labour
When I left school, my first job was as a labourer working on a building site in Camden Road, North London. Here I renovated Georgian and Victorian houses that had either been partly damaged by the war or invaded by nature after years of vacancy. These were not the concrete monoliths of British modernism. They held the residue of past lives. The peeling wallpaper, discarded artefacts and fragments of personality were reminders of something ephemeral. Their decaying delicacy was pitched against the brutality of work.
The abandoned shops of Kentish Town. Examples of palimpsteic typography can been seen on the eroded facias of buildings. These combined with more recent political typographic commentary operate as a kind of contested social dialogue.
On the building sites in the UK at this time, there was a hierarchy and labourers were at the lowest level. As a bricklayer’s labourer I mixed sand and cement with a hopper but more often this was done by hand with a shovel. I carried the bricks in a hod up four flights of stairs (there were no lifts, hard hats or health and safety procedures at this time). Lugging buckets of muck seemed endless. When it showered I kept working, despite the lime in the cement working its way to the surface and burning my hands. There was nothing that you could do, plasters or gloves didn’t protect you. You just hoped for a strong downpour that might stop the bricklayers working so you would have a small break to wash the lime from the open wounds. In winter you mixed sand and cement in the snow, sleet, and freezing winds. This was not the glorious image of a rebuild profiled on the media. There was nothing heroic about labour. I had left school with few qualifications so for a working class kid there were few alternative careers opportunities. I thought this was my lot. Growing up and playing in vacated buildings and later working in them, has resulted in me being drawn back to unoccupied sites of damage and labour. Such places haunt me because they fuse my narratives of experience with a sense of enigma, respect and mystery. When I enter such structures today, I sense lives that were once there. I walk in silence through emptied spaces not wishing to disturb them. The poetics of loss and labour are almost tangible. These are embodied sites. As a designer I try to talk about such connections.
A distinctive example of a hand painted street sign from North London. The sign has been re painted at some point as the original wording can be seen beneath a layer of undercoat that has peeled away. Such signs are palimpsestic, because they carry references to periods of time, including in this case two separate interventions in red; one indicating the borough, and an earlier one showing the district code. This lettering reveals the effects of photo fugitive colour. I would suggest that the original sign contained the Borough of St Pancras as a blank. To this the street and district code would have been added in hand, by a sign writer. Over time the lettering of the street name faded and was reapplied. However the district code (NW5) has not been re painted. This accounts for the differing levels of typographic decay on the sign. It is likely that the lettering on the Borough of St Pancras has not decayed because the original red pigment was of a higher quality and less prone to photo fugitively.
When I was nineteen I had a chance meeting with my art teacher from high school and I told her what I was doing as a job. She was disappointed to hear that I hadn’t pursued a career in the arts and told me that I should apply to university and study graphic design. This was a totally alien concept, as working classes of the time did not enter into careers such as these, and they certainly didn’t pursue higher education. Boys like me were destined to have manual careers and trades. She helped me to assemble a portfolio and apply for a place at the London College of Printing. I was accepted onto the graphic and typographic design course. I was the first person in my family to go to university. I was ecstatic, and my mother was very proud.
When I entered the course I encountered the world of typography. I learned the conventions of leading, kerning and letterform construction. I was taught that type should be about arrangement in order to make the language it forms appealing yet transparent. But I also began to wonder about the visceral and poetic potentials of type. Perhaps this is because my induction into graphic design occurred in the early eighties when everything was hand produced.
This afforded a slower way of working. Calculating and casting-off type and hand producing the lettering onto finished designs made me appreciate type structure and arrangement. I learned about the physical ‘feel’ of type. I manipulated it by hand. I felt its weight and its behaviour when printed onto paper from pieces of metal type arranged in a chase. This physicality unfolded in a studio space of labour where men and women worked together. This dynamic has been formative in how I understand typography. Its physical nature reminds me of it temporality but also of its lived social and physical contexts. The surfaces it appears on, and disappears from, the people it speaks to, and for, and its potential for clarity and enigma are as much part of its meaning as its conventions of construction.