Celebrating Seven Years of My Photo-Journalism Project ‘The State of London’

12.5.19

The most recent photos posted on the Facebook page ‘The State of London’ (All photos by Andy Worthington).

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Seven years ago yesterday, on May 11, 2012, I set out from my home in Brockley, in south east London, to take photos on a bike ride to Greenwich and back, passing through Deptford on the way. It wasn’t a long journey, but the conscious act of recording what I saw — what interested me — was the deliberate start of a photo-journalism project that I envisaged as a kind of cyclists’ version of ‘The Knowledge’, the legendary training whereby black cab drivers are “required to know every road and place of interest in the main London area; that is anywhere within a six mile radius of Charing Cross”, as a cabbie described it on his website.

That same cabbie explained how it took him four and a half years, which, he said, was about the average. Another website explained how cabbies need to “master no fewer than 320 basic routes, all of the 25,000 streets that are scattered within the basic routes and approximately 20,000 landmarks and places of public interest that are located within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.”

I can’t claim to know London in this kind of detail, but I can truthfully state that, after my first journey on May 11, 2012, I gradually began to travel further afield, soon conceiving of a plan whereby I would visit and photograph the 120 postcodes — those beginning WC, EC, N, E, SE, SW, W and NW — that make up the London postal district (aka the London postal area), covering 241 square miles, with, when possible, additional photos from the 13 outer London postcode areas — those beginning BR, CM, CR, DA, EN, HA, IG, KT, RM, SM, TW, UB and WD — that make up Greater London, covering 607 square miles in total.

Fully undertaking this project — which took me until September 2014 to pay at least one visit to each of the 120 postcodes — required me to begin to build my own knowledge of the capital, because, although, in 2012, I had lived here for over 25 years, my knowledge of most of this vast city was pretty sketchy. I had spent almost all my time living south of the river — in Brixton and Brockley, with a few years in Forest Hill and Peckham, and, in the late ‘80s,a brief period squatting in Hammersmith — and I knew the West End well, and parts of the City, as well as areas like Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, but much of the capital was a mystery to me.

The early days of the project involved me getting to know routes into central London, because I started it in the run-up to the Olympics, when there was an absurd ban on taking bikes on trains at any time of the day or night. I also began to explore the routes along the Thames, east and west, on both sides of the river, which are largely publicly accessible, and are one of London’s great joys. 

Also of note are the canals that head out north from Limehouse Basin in east London — the Limehouse Cut, which branches off the River Lea at Bow, and the Regent’s Canal, which passes through Hackney, Islington and Camden, eventually joining the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice, by Paddington. This then heads west through Westbourne Green, Kensal Rise and North Kensington. The routes by water inspired me and continue to inspire me — although I also, of course, had to get to know a various of key road routes.

Within a comparatively short amount of time, I was conversant with the whole of my neighbourhood — not only Brockley and Crofton Park (SE4), but also Deptford (SE8), Greenwich (SE10), New Cross (SE14), Peckham and Nunhead (SE15), Catford (SE6), Lewisham and Hither Green (SE13), Charlton (SE7), Woolwich and Plumstead (SE18), Rotherhithe and South Bermondsey (SE16), and the vast sprawl of SE1, which runs from the river at Waterloo, Bankside and Borough up through Bermondsey to the New Cross border.

After south east London, east London was a magnet for my journeys, accessed via the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and leading me into all manner of urban environments that I had never fully explored before, via some of the capital’s main east-west arteries — the Commercial Road and Mile End Road, for example, and smaller but no less significant routes; Bethnal Green Road and Roman Road — and the great roads north, including the A10, which heads north from Shoreditch as Kingsland Road, up through Stoke Newington and Tottenham, and Cambridge Heath Road, which becomes Mare Street, and heads up to Clapton via Hackney. Further east, the grittiness of Canning Town and Plaistow drew me in, and Stratford (the epicentre of the Olympic overkill), reached via the River Lea, also led on to Leyton, Leytonstone, Wanstead and Walthamstow.

Further west, I also got to know other routes north — the A1 through Islington to Highgate and beyond, the A502 from Camden to Hampstead, and the Finchley Road, heading north west to Brent Cross and Hendon, and south of the river I have regularly travelled from Brockley to Brixton, and on through Clapham to Battersea, Wandsworth and beyond.

The tens of thousands of miles I have cycled in the last seven years have been transformational. I began the project not just because I’m a lifelong cyclist (I think I started when I was four), and have loved photography since I got a Pentax ME Super at the age of 18, but because, in 2012, I had emerged from a major health scare (I developed a rare blood disease in 2011) and, after several camera-less years, was given my first digital camera — a little Canon Ixus that I used for the first 15 months of the project — by my wife at Christmas 2011.

I then got through a number of Canon PowerShot SX270s until, this February, I upped my game with a Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II, which is a dream come true. In those tens of thousands of miles, I’ve also taken tens of thousands of photos, which, at the very least, constitute an archive of London from the Olympics to now that will stand as a testament to how, when vision was needed after the banker-led crash of 2008, what we got instead was the crappiest Tory government imaginable, interested only in pandering to the global super-rich, and pampering wealthy Brits, while hacking the state to a bloody death like a deranged serial killer via the implementation of a cynical “age of austerity” that was designed to destroy the state provision of services, and, with it, any notion of civil society, and to punish the poor as much as possible without actually — yet — bringing back the workhouse.

In hindsight, it was entirely appropriate to start my project in the run-up to the jingoistic, nationalist excess of the Olympics, which resurrected an absurd sense of exceptionalism that, in turn, fed into the Brexit vote, whilst also doing what the Olympics always do to host cities: increasing authoritarianism, and artificially stimulating housing greed.

In the last seven years, I have captured the rise of tower blocks for foreign investors, an epidemic that still shows no sign of grinding to a halt, even though Britain now looks like a basket case, rather than the sexy bet it was post-Olympics. Everywhere lone phalluses or priapic forests of ugly, pointless towers rise up, with the most execrable examples currently being at Nine Elms in Vauxhall, where folly after folly is finally culminating in the mega-folly of Battersea Power Station, an uber-development that looks like the set of a tragically bad sci-fi movie.

Along with the unfettered rise of the towers, this period has also seen a prolonged and ongoing assault on council housing, which I’ve also been chronicling assiduously, as Labour councils have been leading the way in cynically allowing council estates to be razed to the ground, to be replaced by new developments from which most of the previous residents are excluded because the new developments contain at least 50% of homes for private sale, with the rest being a mixture of part-buy, part-rent scams and rental properties that are iniquitously described as being let at either “social” or “affordable’ rents when they are definitely not the former and are generally not the latter either, because both descriptions only really apply to the previous council properties that have just been conveniently knocked down.

In this really rather disgusting manifestation of class warfare, the culprits are not just councils behind them (both Labour and Tory), but also the grotesque private/public partnerships involved in the re-developments — largely via housing associations, which were formerly philanthropic social housing providers, but are now largely indistinguishable from purely private developers.

For seven years I have been photographing council housing, celebrating that which still stands, while mourning — and documenting — that which has been lost, is in the process of being lost, or is marked for destruction across London. Examples are in my home borough of Lewisham, in Southwark, led by the worst of the gentrifiers, where the Heygate Estate has already been destroyed and the vast Aylesbury Estate is following suit, in Lambeth, where corruption and would-be destruction go hand in hand, and in numerous other boroughs, including Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney, Brent, Barnet, Greenwich and Bexley.

I have also covered the most disturbing social housing story of all — the neglect, by all parties concerned, of a tower block in west London to such an extent that, in June 2017, 72 people died when the tower in question, Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was consumed by an entirely preventable inferno, a disaster for which — still — no one has yet been held accountable.

These are not my only enthusiasms, of course. Although I am a thoroughly political creature, I also love nature — London’s trees, parks and other green spaces, and the changing seasons and the changing weather. As I have mentioned before, I cycle every day largely to preserve my mental and physical health. I relish cycling in all weathers, and I have remembered what our culture encourages us to forget — that we aren’t meant to be cooped up in buildings all the time. Many of my photos focus on the light, the weather, the seasons — the experiential aspects of life that I wish more people got to enjoy more often, and especially in the daytime during the week, when so much of London is so empty.

If you’re already following ‘The State of London’, I’m delighted to have you with me as I share my journeys, and if you’ve just stumbled on this article I hope you’ll join me. I intend to get my website up and running this year, and also to make prints, put on some exhibitions, and get a book published. If you can help out at all with any of this, please do get in touch.

* * * * *

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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking seven years of my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’, in which I explain how I came to go out on my bike on a daily basis taking photos in all of London’s 120 postcodes, how the project has evolved since 2012, and what it means to me.

    Follow me as I explain how I got to know London, how I love nature, the seasons and the weather, and also how I’ve recorded the capital’s housing crisis – the “luxury” towers for foreign investors rising up everywhere, and the council estate being cynically destroyed- by Labour and Tory councils – as part of a gentrification process that actually involves social cleansing.

    As I say in the article, “If you’re already following ‘The State of London’, I’m delighted to have you with me as I share my journeys, and if you’ve just stumbled on this article I hope you’ll join me. I intend to get my website up and running this year, and also to make prints, put on some exhibitions, and get a book published. If you can help out at all with any of this, please do get in touch.”

    All the photos I’ve posted over the last two years, since I began posting a photo a day here on Facebook, are here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/thestateoflondon/photos/?tab=album&album_id=127196217837206

  2. Tom says...

    Carry on.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. I certainly will!

  4. Damo says...

    I think certain parts of London are now over as in theve been eaten alive now by both gentrification and consumerism ie Shoreditch Brixton Camden hackney York way go to Shoreditch now 25 years ago when I moved to hackney was a nomans land hackney was still hackney Shoreditch was empty and free and interesting now it’s just like it’s like a retail experience everything and everyone is a cynical opportunist.. Wanting something.. I avoid now a turn off.. But where is beautiful kew hamfields, electric pie island Teddington that whole stretch of the Thames Hampstead heath.. Glorious.. Hyde Park whips cross London is still a magical life transforming place but you have seek that out now

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I find consumer London so dull, Damo – endless examples of the modern mantra: “Breathe in. Breathe out. Spend. Breathe in. Breathe out. Spend.” I don’t want to go shopping!
    Parks, the rivers, the canals – all help sustain me, but we also need our own spaces where money doesn’t rule, which is what was so wonderful about the Old Tidemill Garden in Deptford.

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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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