Clearing out the family home after almost 50 years of the accumulation of small things well cared for and neatly kept has been a fascinating job. The tiny associations with things that seem almost insignificant were overpowerfulling. The candlewick bedspread that was used for dens, mums ‘little kitchen knife’ sharpened to fragility, moustache scissors…
I have kept Mums sewing box and some material. Her velveteen pincushion, with worn large eyed needles still slip, even in my cack-handed control, the needle flowed through fabric with an ease and elegance that I remember as mesmerising.
She made her own clothes. The flimsy paper patterns are filed in original Butterick pockets with adaptational notes in her neat round hand on each one. Teensy swatches of once-upon-a-time snuggled dress material evoke deep vague memories and sharp astute childhood insights. She made every thing. She was a war baby. It was what was done. Save everything, waste nothing. Remember for all you are worth because tomorrow may never be here.
She was accustomed, as was my father, to the miracle that is having an idea, working out how to do it and making it happen. If dad wanted to make a piece of furniture, he did it. If he wanted to have a star crossing the church during the nativity play he was producing, he invented the mechanism. If she wanted a green floaty dress she found the pattern and the material and she made it. Stitch by stitch she brought her vision into being.
A child on a project we did a few years ago was helping us clear a piece of wasteland to prepare it for play. He was thoughtful and stopped his hard work and said to me ‘ so you came past here. You saw this place. You thought we could play here and you went ahead and made the thing in your head happen?’ it was a revelation to him and to me. I had never stopped to think before that this was such a miracle.
Today this happened again, this sense of the miraculous. For ages I have lived next to an estate that is ugly and not at all playable. For years the places in-between have appeared to me as a different set of possibilities offering beauty and play enticement and relaxation and respite from the perceived horrors of Mile End.
This is how the area was represented by Pulp a few years ago
We didn’t have no where to live, / we didn’t have nowhere to go
’til someone said / “I know this place off Burditt Road.”
It was on the fifteenth floor, / it had a board across the door.
It took an hour / to pry it off and get inside. / It smelt as if someone had died;
the living-room was full of flies, / the kitchen sink was blocked,
the bathroom sink not there at all. / Ooh, / it’s a mess alright, / yes it’s
Mile End. / And now we’re living in the sky! / I’d never thought I’d live so
high, / just like Heaven / (if it didn’t look like Hell.)
The lift is always full of piss, / the fifth floor landing smells of fish
(not just on Friday, / every single other day.)
Below the kids come out tonight, / they kick a ball and have a fight
and maybe shoot somebody if they lose at pool.
Ooh, / it’s a mess alright, / yes it’s / Mile End.
[mumbled mutterings… you love it…]
Oo-ooh / Nobody wants to be your friend
’cause you’re not from round here, / ooh / as if that was
something to be proud about. / The pearly king of the Isle of Dogs
feels up children in the bogs. / Down by the playing fields,
someone sets a car on fire I guess you have to go right down
before you understand just how, / how low,
how low a human being can go. / Ooh, / it’s a mess alright, / yes it’s
Mile End. / (don’t do that! Leave it out!)
Now major regeneration works are taking place in this area. The years of neglect and ugliness, overcrowding and depression are being addressed through major changes to the fabric of the estates. But that is not enough. The community also needs to be rebuild and regenerated. This is a place of tight caring community. The people have known each other for all their lives. They are warm hearted but suspicious of the outsider.
We have built a playspace on a road known as a drugs hotspot There is a fruiting plum tree lit with fairy lights, picnic tables and benches, rolling hills, a natural wood climbing tree crown and a life sized wooden cow. The perifery is planted with soft native species and there are growing beds. Local police had designated this as a dispersal zone, actioning dealing and antisocial behaviour. But the policeman on the area beat says there has been no increase in ASB since the play garden was built . From an ugly scrap of dog turd strewn nothingness, this play garden is now filled with playing children and relaxing parents . It has become a community space. The Big Lunch, Bengali independence day celebrations, royal wedding and umpteen small/huge family happenings have sprung up here in the first year of it’s existence.
Seeing the success of this other community members want similar spaces for their families.
As part of the planning of this, we listened. Then we reported to the landlord, then we met the landscape architect who was almost unable to believe his luck. The estate houses are name for the Lakes in the lake district. ‘Gods garden’ the landscape architect called it, after a cycle tour through it recently. So when he heard local people wanted hedges, not fences, wanted to hear the birds, wanted flowers and trees and hills, wanted to link the Mile End Park on one side of the estate to the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on the other in a Bee Road, he was overjoyed. He designed in all of this and more.
The estate will be like a set of country houses nestled into their own grounds. The children and their parents will have nature on their doorstep.
I learned from my Dad that it was possible to make stuff .
I learned from my mum that I could have an idea which I could make a reality.
They are learning these things are true for them on this estate.
The kids, little and big will be able to make their own play structures and dens and find their own place in nature on this estate . Their parents will see what their children are capable of while they grow their own food. The elders will see something beautiful from their window… Children playing out in the spaces by their front doors. Violets blooming on hillsides. Community growing again.
The inspiration for this work comes from the buried desires if the people who live here. They will never own the chocolate box country cottage they dream of, but perhaps they can have roses around their door and a pleasant view.
For images of the area and quotes from the residents….