Going back to South Hornchurch

I come from a place called South Hornchurch, a small suburban town at the edge of the East London conurbation. My parents took the bold step of moving from South Hornchurch to Hornchurch proper five years ago which gives me few reasons to return.

However, as it was Easter Sunday and I had absolutely nothing to do, I thought I’d go back and have a look. I took the 252 bus past the site of the World War Two airfield, which still has concrete bunkers I played in when I was a child. Many people locally cling to those World War Two glory years, perhaps because it was a time when the area was of minor strategic importance, and also because  men had the chance to do a brave and good thing: defend their country.

As the bus rolled through the airfield estate I noticed on my right several flagpoles in people’s gardens. One flew the Union Jack, two others the English flag with one for the Help The Heroes charity. The four flags were in gardens backing on to each other. It looked like it was a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses exercise, with each goading the other to be as patriotic as possible. I couldn’t help but think that this patriotism was not a simple statement of pride but a banner for all manner of unpleasant, bigoted views, with Help For Heroes being charity of choice.

I got off the bus and went into the Good Intent pub, which I’d always found to be a heavily ironic name. However, there was a friendly atmosphere with the locals enjoying a diet of Sky Sports, decently-priced booze and red meat. I settled in at the bar next to a bloke who was wearing long hair, a cardigan and a Miles Davis t-shirt – the only man who didn’t look like he did most of his clothes shopping in Sports Direct.

The match, Arsenal v Manchester City, began. At one point, Yaya Touré got a heavy challenge and hobbled off the field. One of the burly, shaven-headed men pointed to Touré and said: “He’s black and blue!” which caused great laughter.

Mario Balotelli raised the ire of some Arsenal fans with a couple of late challenges. One of the men, a skinhead, said, “I’d kick him in the face.” None of his friends reacted, so he said it again. Still being blanked, he said to one of them. “I’d kick him in the fucking face. I am a racist. I don’t like blacks, jews, faggots or transvestites.” He then walked outside to have a cigarette.

A quick survey of the pub revealed the only black person was a barmaid who, despite her youth, had a long-suffering look on her face. How many gays, jews or transvestites there were in the pub who could potentially cause him offence I could not tell.

I walked out at half-time, not because of this incident, which I was half-prepared for, but because I wanted to walk around my old neighbourhood. I went to my old school, Brittons, and noticed it wasn’t a school any more – it was now one of Michael Gove’s academies, which I’m sure will make a massive improvement to educational standards. Happily, I saw that the No Trespassing on School Premises sign outside the school had changed to No Pissing.

As I walked around South Hornchurch most of the people I saw were black. This was a big change from when I grew up there, when I knew a very small number of black people.

With the Union Jacks and casual and not so casual racism, I’ve no doubt South Hornchurch isn’t particularly welcoming to these people. I hope that, like Streatham, where I now live, the pubs on matchdays will one day be filled with football fans from all backgrounds, and racists will not just be ignored but barred. But I wouldn’t expect that change to happen any time soon.

Brockwell Park: the bleak version

“O what a beautiful morning,” said Gary From Leeds

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was stood in the middle of Brockwell Park for an appointment with Gary From Leeds and photographer Susannah Ireland. It had been mild all week and not bad earlier that morning, but now the weather, in respect for a Yorkshireman in a municipal park facility, had pulled out the freezing cold and driving rain.

Gary was there, enjoying the bleak weather, in tune, as it was, with his general outlook on life. Susannah was there, a woman used to being sent out to all manner of grim and unpromising destinations for her day job as news photographer for the Times. So it was just me amongst us who wondered whether doing a photo shoot in these conditions was a good idea.

I wanted to suggest a postponement, when Gary pulled out a 35-metre length of yellow rope from his bag. “I thought we’d tie ourselves up in this,” he said with an enthusiasm he usually only shows when talking about David Batty.

Susannah, who as a brilliant photographer has a taste for the diabolical and downright weird, then wrapped the rope around Gary and I, saying, “If you want it to look good, it’ll have to be tight.”

When the two of us looked like characters Samuel Beckett might have created if he was being particularly unkind, Susannah began snapping. For the next hour, with the weather worsening, she trooped us about the park until we are both the very definition of dishevelled.

We were there because Gary and I are planning a spoken word show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and needed some publicity shots. It is called ‘The Long and the Short of it’ and will essentially be a poetical journey covering key topics such as food, fonts, ring-roads and death. It will have facts, lists and statistics and perhaps the odd limerick.

And if this photo shoot is anything to go by, it will be a bit of a struggle to create, but the end result should be pretty good.

Never knowingly unpretentious: my approach to posing.
“I’ll play Napoleon and you play Talleyrand.”