Celebrating 500 Days of My Photo-Journalism Project ‘The State of London’

24.9.18

The most recent photos from my photojournalism project 'The State of London', 500 days since the project started.Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.

 

Yesterday marked 500 days since I began publishing a photo a day on my Facebook page ‘The State of London’ — photos drawn from the extensive archive of photos that I’ve built up over the last six years on bike rides in all of London’s 120 postcodes (those which begin SE, SW, W, NW, N, E, EC and WC), plus some of the outer boroughs. You can see all the photos to date here.

I began publishing a photo a day on the fifth anniversary of when my project started, when I first began consciously to document the capital in photos, cycling from my home in Brockley, in south east London, down through Deptford to Greenwich, and then, in the weeks that followed, cycling relentlessly around south east London, much of which was unknown to me, and also finding routes I didn’t know to take me to central London and beyond. At the time, London was beginning to be under siege — by central government and the Mayor, Boris Johnson — in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, with bikes banned on trains across the capital, and to get anywhere I had to cycle, which wasn’t always convenient, but it was certainly a good way of getting to know London’s streets.

The Olympics, of course, showed the Tory government in its full jingoistic, corporate and authoritarian malignancy. A bottomless pit of public money was opened up to pay for the Games, even as Tory-inflicted austerity was beginning to crush the capital’s poor, the River Lea was socially cleansed around the Olympic Park in Stratford, and, although I didn’t quite realise it at the time, the heavily-marketed “sexiness” and “cool” that come with being an Olympic city meant that it would be possible to establish a turbo-charged “property bubble” in the capital, even more giddily out of control than the one that had been cultivated by the New Labour government in the ten years before the crash.

Investors, it turned out, were anxious to replace the huge returns that were possible through the complex financial mechanisms that were eventually responsible for the global economic crash of 2008 with a focus instead on housing, reviving the housing bubble in an orgy of high-rise, allegedly “luxury” tower blocks, and ramping up the destruction of council estates, and their replacement with new developments from which, conveniently, existing residents were largely excluded in a process of social cleansing designed to change London’s demographic and to remove swathes of poorer people.

Six years ago, the vast Brutalist blocks of the Heygate Estate, where the modern “London clearances” began, were still standing, but generally fenced off, and I’m thankful that a friend let me know that it was possible to get in, as I spent a magical afternoon in an estate that was empty except for three determined leaseholders, and that, with its vast blocks shielding its interior space from the noise of the outside world (as it was designed to do), had become an extraordinary kind of post-apocalyptic urban jungle.

Since then, sadly, the destruction has spread. I regularly used to cycle through the Aylesbury Estate (see here and here), a much bigger Brutalist estate just down the road from the Heygate, until parts of it too began to be fenced off pending demolition, an ongoing process that is a source of great anger and sorrow in this part of Walworth. To anyone who cares about the cynical destruction of social housing, it is only recently that a demolition company has finally destroyed the first of the Aylesbury’s big blocks to be levelled, but it took many months of arduous work, because it was so well built.

It would have made much more sense to refurbish these flats, as residents voted for overwhelmingly when asked by Southwark Council (who then ignored them), but that wouldn’t have enabled a developer to make fresh profits, and nor would it have facilitated the ongoing social cleansing of the borough, which Fred Manson, in charge of regeneration at Southwark Council 20 years ago, openly described at the time as the need to attract “a better class of people” to the Elephant and Castle. As with so many of the cases outlined here, the councils in question are Labour councils, because, on regeneration, the mania for profiteering and social cleansing crosses party lines.

Almost everywhere I have travelled in my thousands of miles of cycling around the capital’s postcodes these last six years and four months, priapic towers built to extract serious money from foreign investors have been rising up without any kind of restraint (thanks largely to the laissez-faire or easy-bribe tendencies of the execrable Boris Johnson), and, in cases where these have not been built on empty land (often industrial land, because of the political and financial establishment’s contempt for manual labour and small businesses, as well as for those living in social housing), I have also had to watch the steady destruction of council estates — emptied of people not because their homes needed tearing down, but because their presence stood in the way of developers making money.

Recently, I watched, half-incredulous, as one half of the architecturally acclaimed Robin Hood Gardens Estate in Tower Hamlets was demolished (see here, here and here), even as respected architects queued up to denounce the vandalism, but the clearances and the social cleansing are apparently unstoppable — from West Hendon to Woodberry Down in Hackney, from Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth to Grenfell Tower in west London, where the disdain for these living in social housing meant that 72 people died because everyone responsible for them put profiteering and cost-cutting ahead of their safety, the cynical “London clearances” continue.

When I wrote about this project on its first anniversary in May, I also mentioned other destruction I’ve witnessed over the last six years: the Elmington Estate (see here and here) in Southwark, the destroyed Myatts Field North, and the threatened Central Hill Estate in Lambeth, the destruction of the Haggerston Estate and the Kingsland Estate in Hackney, the Excalibur Estate of prefabs in Lewisham, and the Brutalist Lethbridge Estate on the border with Greenwich, the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, neglected, worn-down estates in Woolwich, the early stages of the destruction of Thamesmead, and the levelling of Canning Town.

The tide may be turning — as was hinted at in Haringey, in north London, where the rapacious destroyer of the Heygate, Lendlease, recently got a kicking from a grassroots movement of local people in response to the council’s plans to enter into a £2bn deal with the developer that would, it was presumed, have led to estates falling like dominoes in Tottenham and beyond (see my photos of Northumberland Park and Broadwater Farm), and in Deptford, in the borough of Lewisham, where I live, I’m part of the occupation of a community garden to prevent it — and a block of council flats next door — from being cynically destroyed in an act of environmental vandalism that, although a small scale, is completely unacceptable.

The overbearing towers rising up, and the homes and communities being torn down are not all my project is about, of course. For six years and four months, cycling around the capital has become a way of life for me — involving constant exercise (though not too strenuously, as I’m not into competitive cycling), something akin to a kind of meditation, an anarchic freedom, an opportunity to be incessantly nosey, an ability to get lost and to be off-grid, and, on occasion, to be blown away by some of London’s secrets — hidden or neglected spaces, unknown to many.

When I started this project, my knowledge of London was quite skeletal. There were places I knew well, currently and historically, but entire areas I had never visited. I also had no idea how it all fitted together, and, while that’s still true for parts of north and west London, elsewhere — in south east and east London, in the City and the West End, and in much of south west and, broadly, north London — the shape of the city, its routes, and its built environment have become increasingly familiar to me, the former skeleton of my knowledge coming to life in repeated journeys that have been like the development of an entire system of arteries and veins.

I now feel as if I somehow embody London, and London lives in me, with certain routes that I’m drawn to again and again — along the River Thames, along the great canals and canalised rivers of north and east London, along south London’s hills, and to a lesser extent, those of north London, in bright sun, on days of overcast dullness, and on rainy days, always looking, always finding new angles and making new discoveries, and always thrilled by low light and shadows, by sudden views, and by the things that dwarf us — or put us in perspective — and that we often miss: London’s giant trees, for example, and often the cloud formations that tower over us like extraordinary mythological creatures brought to life.

Another wonderful result of my daily cycling has been to realise that we aren’t meant to be indoors too much, and that we’re waterproof. I’ve been throughly soaked more times than I can remember, and it’s often quite wonderfully invigorating.

Thanks to everyone who’s taken an interest in this project. I look forward to reaching 1,000 days, but in the meantime maybe I’ll finally get round to printing some of my photos and trying to get an exhibition somewhere. And, as ever, I do think a book would be nice!

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s my latest article, marking 500 days since I started posting a photo a day here on Facebook from my photojournalism project, ‘The State of London’, which I started five years before, in May 2012, when I first began cycling around London on a daily basis, taking photos throughout London’s 120 postcodes. Find out how I see my project, reflecting on its origins and its trajectory, having started in the run-up to the Olympics, and having involved, ever since, seeing the capital invaded by tower blocks of “luxury” tower blocks, while council estates are cynically destroyed to make way for even more overpriced housing. And check out my joys too, as cycling around London on a daily basis always turns up surprises.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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