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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Turning anger into action: what happened when they built the Westway in W10

Golborne Road : a heady history of social
activism, art, cous-cous, jerk chicken,
brutalist architecture and custard pies
Apologies for some of previous bit on Nine Elms. Got carried away with sheer impotent anger, and anger, in written form, is not much use unless it happens to be written by Jonathan Swift.

As a balm to the soul, and as a source perhaps of hope - what do I do? Look back to the recent past, the one made so easily accessible by the damnably clever present.

You know it as: YouTube.  I watch one short video - in this case Giusi Vittorini's excellent 2003 short documentary on London life, The Morning Song - and immediately it throws up a list of related things that look irresistibly interesting.

This was the film that featured Clapham High Street's oldest established second-hand dealer Peter, along with  eight other Londoners from a wide range of backgrounds. Peter lent me a VHS of this, so I looked it up on YouTube - and there it was.

Next  thing I know, I am watching an enjoyable documentary about the history of Notting Hill, from the race riots of 1958 to the eponymous Hugh Grant movie and all that it stood for - above all accelerating gentrification.

This film,  Grove Roots, includes an account of the (often debated) genesis of the Carnival. There are some entertaining cameos, including Jeremy Corbyn's brother  Piers on the W10 squatters and their UDI for the republic of Frestonia on Freston and Bramley Roads.

It finishes and YouTube recommends another video, and this goes back over the same ground but from a tighter focus - the Goldborne Road area at the north end of Portobello. The film was called Wild West 10 - Golborne Stories of Struggle and Resistance.

This was the film that really hit me, showing as it does how in the 70s, it seemed normal to mobilise large sectors of the local population - tenants, squatters, black people, white people, hippies, punks - to resist the destruction of their amenities and their communities.

It's a glimpse of a very different view of what living in London could be about - community, compassion and creativity - one that was nearly wiped out in the 1980s.

The residents of W10 couldn't stop the authorities building the Westway back in 1964-70, but they did manage to secure the mile-long strip of land beneath it for community use.  They succeeded in making  Powis Square Gardens a public space with a big children's playground.

They couldnt stop the clearance of  the old "slum" terraces for the building of  Trellick Tower and the estates lining the Westway, but they did ensure that the council provided a nursery. It was only  by organising and taking direct action that they ensured the land next to the canal near Trellick Tower become a public park, Meanwhile Gardens, for which my old and much-missed friend Jonathan Phipps designed and helped created a Zen garden.

Some of the people most involved in these successful, hugely influential campaigns are interviewed. For example, John O'Malley of the Notting Hill People's Assiciation: "We encouraged people like Notting Hill Housing Trust to buy houses that they wouldn't otherwise have bought" he says. There was a realisation that " people living in properties don't have to be evicted…we don't have to hand these properties over to speculators..."

Instead, they organised and resisted, at one point, "locking the councillors up in All Saints Hall, overnight" until they came to a decision…which luckily was on the side of the campaigners.

We still have protests and demos and campaigns and sometimes they succeed, but more often not - partly because there's no longer the sense of solidarity and security, of strength in   numbers that a large and sympathetic trade union movement can provide…partly because the atmosphere of society has changed so much.

But then another  group of videos rise to the surface, covering the anti-road building protests of the 1990s, notably Claremont Road, E11 and the festival of resistance in 1994. It's worth checking out the Undercurrents films as well, too see the direct line from the Mutoid Waste Company stuff in W10 - through the rave scene, Glastonbury and Stonehenge travellers, and so back to east London and Leytonstonia.

As with the Westway, the thousands of people protesting here, for weeks on end, were a mix of local people and activists…in both cases, people were losing their homes, everything they knew was being swept away. And for what? To create roads which, as was clear then and is clear now, are insidiously killing us all with their pollution.

SO now - 2015. Nine Elms. A different set-up, it's not so much a case of destroying existing homes, nor beloved woodlands…but the longer-term effects will be just as damaging. 

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