Streets in the Sky: Art & Music Magazine
Interview with Author Zoe Fairbairns & Artist David Hepher discussing how collective memory utopias & dystopias shape London's landscape
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Converging landscapes in memory and politics
The tower block was a beacon of hope, introduced as a solution to housing that turned grim. Pennie Quinton talked with artist David Hepher and award winning author Zoe Fairbairns about their work in response to this dominant force of urban architecture and questions how they chose to blend fiction, illusion and reality to reflect the social landscapes around them.
“It was a tall, wide structure, and it stood like a pack of chewing gum upended in a grudging square of grass on the side of a hill. It was made of glass, grey metal and rough brown brick, and had a depressing but all too familiar history. It was one of the last tower blocks to be built in the sixties for London families to live in. By the time it was up, planners builders and social workers were already losing faith in tower blocks…”
So Zoe Fairbairns introduces us to Collindeane Tower the central structure of her dystopian novel Benefits, published in 1979. David Hepher has painted tower blocks and in particular the Aylesbury Estate in South London since the 1960s. Though their work is motivated by entirely different ideas, the London landscapes they describe and depict provoke similar questions about poverty, social problems and how the grand plans and utopian ideas beloved of political elites’ impact on the lives of ordinary people.
The derelict cityscape of the East London where I myself was born in the nineteen-seventies often invades my dreams: I find myself wandering the now-bulldozed streets of a landscape still broken from World War Two bombings, despite the hopeful visions of the welfare state promising a safety net ‘from the cradle to the grave’. That welfare state is often blamed for failing to solve in just sixty years the many problems caused by centuries of inner city poverty and overcrowding following the industrial revolution, as is eloquently observed in Fairbairns novel.
“…the curtain came down on the era of affluence that had spawned and nurtured the British welfare state. The international oil crisis brought inflation that galloped through dreams, slashed welfare budgets. There was no money to rehabilitate Collindeane Tower. The council closed it, rehoused its inmates, nailed wooden planks across the doorway and tried to pretend they had never built it, indeed had not noticed it was there – one of the biggest, most embarrassing statutory nuisances on the London skyline. Soon after, Collindeane Tower was spotted by a group of women looking for somewhere to squat and establish a feminist community. One of them chopped through the planks with her axe, and they moved in while the council averted their eyes.”
Leaning against the wall of David Hepher’s studio is a stack of paintings depicting in fine detail the windows of the Aylesbury Estate. One painting in progress is around two metres long, half of it shows window after window painted from top to bottom of the canvas: the other is a textured grey concrete - and - PVC under-layer evocative of the bleak architecture of military installations.
Graffiti incorporated into the surface of the paintings captures the enigmatic signatures that kids tag imp-like across the city. “This,” David says, indicating the left hand corner, “had a lot more on it – and I took it out. A bit stayed down there, then there was a great big jumble in the middle so I removed it. I don’t want to over-do it so it becomes a bit of a theme…what I try to do is a mixture of what you might call the real with illusionism. The painting is illusionistic, but by using the concrete and the graffiti it is a kind of dialogue between the actual and the representative.”
Zoe describes a process of using fiction to explore political hypothesis rather than creating a manifesto: “I realised very early on that I needed a building because this was going to be a novel that would cover the present, the near future and the distant future, as it was then, with lots of different people in it: a novel as wide-ranging as that needed a central building to which people would come back.” Benefits was a response to some ‘leftish’ men who, although they were of course totally in sympathy with feminism, did feel it was a distraction from the main struggle, the class struggle: “I simply wanted to reverse that and write a story in which the main struggle is the gender struggle and all other struggles though important, were minor, were sidelined.”
Where Zoe lived at the time there were a lot of very beautiful large Victorian buildings that were being squatted. “I thought of using them, because they evoked some of my favourite Victorian novels like Jane Eyre and The Woman in White – but the contemporary image had to be the tower block. My train to work took me through New Cross, past all those very tall tower blocks... It is interesting that those blocks are still there but they have been painted, as if an artist has been commissioned to make them look less grim on the outside.”
As I peer in through the windows of David’s paintings I notice a naked lady waving at the world. Who is she? “Well... she’s any lady really – my wife Janet when she was young, just a bit of romance, not that I actually saw it.” He laughs gently.
I want to go into the flats, I tell him.
“I’m not sure I that do,” David reflects: “People often say they want to. Then, inevitably political questions come up and I just say that I am a landscape painter and I live in the city and I paint what’s there. Tower blocks are a dramatic part of the landscape,” he says. “If I lived by the sea I’d paint the sea. Though it is impossible not to see these with a political overtone, I don’t do it for that reason.”
I ask David if he thinks tower blocks were an attempt to erase the scars on the city from the Second World War. “I think they were a very utopian idea which started before the war with Le Corbusier and so on – a very Continental idea.” David replies. “On the Continent people in the cities have always been apartment dwellers, and the apartments have gone upwards. In this country it is much more ‘every Englishmen has his house and garden.’ Here it’s been more of a spreading thing, much more then a vertical thing and I don’t think the British really are apartment dwellers they are really used to their patch.”
But the idea of apartment dwelling has been around for 2000 years: “They had tower blocks in Rome. A guy called Crassus built them. As you probably know Le Corbusier had this principle that everything should come from human proportions: the span of somebody and their height should determine the scale of the room. After the wars when there was so much bomb damage anyway they had to rebuild. A lot of the 60s buildings were quite good examples of following the Corbusier style – but the bad press is all to do with lack of maintenance, and leaving out the concierge system.”
I ask David if he thinks the planners believed that when they cleared all the little terraces they would clear the problems. It takes a long time and a lot of education to mend the humiliation and damage that poverty does to people. I suppose right wing forces don’t see it that way. The poverty that came out of the industrial revolution, the 200 years of poverty, it can’t be put right in 60 years. “You’re talking about class,” David says, “aren’t you?”
I am, yes.
“When there was no welfare state and there was no support,” David continues, “ you can understand the fear, you could starve, very easily.”
Zoe recalls the disillusionment with high-rise living that was brought to the surface with the collapse of Ronan Point block in the London borough of Newham in 1967. While writing Benefits she had been researching a Shelter pamphlet on housing issues called No Place to Grow Up – and this influenced the novel, with its descriptions of broken-down lifts and the long dark corridors that became places of fear.
But at the same time, the Barbican project in the City of London became the Docklands designer new build of the Seventies. “Those high-rise flats were very highly sought after,” she notes: “You can’t demonise tower blocks as such: it just depends on the circumstances of the people living in them. To put a family with young children on the twentieth floor is perhaps not such a good idea.”
The tower block setting in Benefits appealed to her “because it had probably been put up with good intentions, saying ‘here are all these people living in pretty slummy conditions in very old, very run-down properties, let’s put them into these flats which will be clean and modern and easy to manage and take up less space’ – but without enough thought as to what that actually means in terms of people’s lives.”
“The origins of the welfare state,” she reminds me, “were in the Beveridge Report which was first published in 1942. It is interesting that the welfare state was actually devised while the war was on, and the government was in a coalition.”
In many ways the welfare state “was wonderful, admirable and excellent. We are all better off for it. But it was very much built on the idea that employment benefits were for men, and women had other duties – being at home and raising the next generation of the British race, whatever that might mean. The Report said explicitly that married women’s attitude to paid employment will not be the same as men’s, nor should it be.”
“So,” Zoe concludes, “if you are working on the basis that women must expect to be dependent and to just have the one occupation of housewife, mother and homemaker – and not expect anything else – then if a generation grows up expecting a great deal else, you are going to have trouble, and you’re going to have novels like Benefits.”
And you’re going to have a women’s liberation movement, “because that generation of girls – particularly those born just after the war – have grown up with National Health, for some of us free grammar school education, and for some not just free university education but being paid to go, with maintenance grants, and all those good things – then suddenly we are confronted with the fact that we don’t have equal opportunities and are expected to give it all up and go home. This,” Zoe notes, “was not going to be well received.”
As the plot of Benefits moves into a fictional future, a lunatic fringe political party appears under the leadership of a Mrs Travers: “a delight to interview, always blond and cool and pretty and respectful”. Travers’s catch-phrase is “The true liberation of women will never come about until proper respect and value is placed upon their role as nurturers”: she advocates that a woman’s place is in the home where she will be paid ‘Benefit’ to remain there, to rear her children. ‘The Family’ is introduced to the reader in a grotesque pageant of homely virtues parading through the run-down London streets.
When Benefits was translated into and performed as a play at the Albany Empire in 1980, the actor who played Mrs Travers played her as Thatcher – “handbag, blonde hair the voice, all of that... and it was hilarious, it brought the house down. It was a sort of rambunctious political satire.”
But “it is really important to me that people realise that that Benefits was finished and handed in late 1978 and Thatcher wasn’t elected until May 1979. It was purely coincidence that Mrs Traver’s name began with the same letter as Thatcher and had the same number of syllables. It was never my intention to equate the two.”
A lot of people did, though. “You bring to the book whatever you bring to it and you see in it what you see in it. But at the same time it did feel that a point had been missed. This was never meant to be a book about class warfare. It was meant to be about gender warfare and about sexual politics rather than class politics. That made a lot of lefty men uncomfortable, because they never felt that gender politics was as serious. I did and I set out to write about gender politics spread over the whole area above politics.”
David Hepher’s Aylesbury estate series explores the humdrum human effect on the building exteriors, which act like the slow action of lichen on rock - with the windows facing out becoming the mirrors of the souls of the inhabitants.
“But” says David, “I wouldn’t want to go too far down that path because you could say an indication of the actions of people is what they have hung on their washing line but for me it’s simply something found it was there that day when I took the photograph or made the drawing.
I think it would be dishonest to say I am painting these buildings because of the people in them, that is not the case.”
David’s work is hugely influenced by the landscapes of Frank Auerbach. “I was brought up with very much that attitude, and I think that that underlies the gritty choice of subject matter that I’ve always been drawn too. That’s why I can never see myself painting office blocks. They are about surfaces that are very much about light and reflections but I could never get into that…”
In David’s work, the sky is completely absent and the viewer observes the paintings from the position of the sky surrounding the high rise.
A lot of people would find David’s subject matter claustrophobic. “But,” he says, “in a way I intend them to be. There is a claustrophobia about these buildings, which is important to get across. Considered as paintings, I think that a lot of people might prefer a bit of air in them. I understand, that but I think it would be wrong in a way to put that in-- because, the nature of this subject is its density and its flatness and its façade-like quality.”
David “completely understands if a lot of people don’t like the paintings – if their predilections happen to lie somewhere else.” But he finds this interesting, “because a lot of artists I know and have met don’t seem to be able to see a painting free from its associative values. Really they should be able to, but if they see it is tower blocks and they don’t like tower blocks then they don’t like the painting. I think anybody with eyes in their head, who sees themselves as an artist, should be able to get beyond that – but a surprising number don’t.”
The Aylesbury Estate is one of the biggest in Europe and they’re pulling it all down, block by block, just having spent an awful lot of money redecorating it to maintain it. David wrote to the Independent newspaper, in response to an article about this, saying he didn’t understand it. “It seemed to me that it was just to build something up pull it down and rebuild it. How was that going to solve the problems that were kind of inherent anyway?”
He continues, “Next thing, I got a phone call from the local paper, the South London Observer. They asked me when I came here, how much was the house worth, what did it cost when I bought it, and so on. This house cost two and half thousand pounds when I bought it in 1961 and they said: ‘so what do you sell your paintings for?’ I said they vary. In the last show I only sold a small one. They went away. Then they phoned my gallery and asked how much my paintings go for: “Oh,” the gallery said, “he sold the triptych for £70,000.”
Then this article appears, saying that David Hepher paints these run-down Aylesbury Estates and sells his paintings for £70,000. “I don’t sell them, I only make them, I paint these buildings because I’ve always painted buildings.”
David keeps his political opinions separate from his motivation for creating his paintings: believing that art that attempts to be political rarely succeeds in addressing social issues, only skating the surface of political complexity.
I observe that there is a genuine fondness, a lot of love in what David is doing. “That’s because I enjoy painting. It’s to do with the act of painting. To me the kind of physical, textural contrast between the rough concrete areas and the delicate wispy, transparent curtain layer it's beautiful.”
A common criticism of David's work almost accuses him of being a kind of voyeur of poverty, I used to think David’s paintings were exploitative when I was a student. Talking to him now that seems a very ‘young’ or naive assumption, a very immediate response.
I do get a lot of stick about that,” he responds, “and not just from young people. I think that people who come to the pictures with maybe a kind of political axe to grind can easily see them that way. Christopher Lowe, who is a poet in his eighties or nineties gave me a hell of a time: ‘you live in this Regency house in Camberwell, how can you justify that?’ I said ‘well, you don’t really demand that Constable has to be a farmer in order to paint a landscape’.”
“Collindeane Tower does appear in another of my novels,” Zoe says: “Closing … and that’s in a different incarnation in the Thatcherite era. I think if I were writing a Benefits type novel today, I’d write about the politics of age. That’s the big one. I’d look at the situation of twenty-somethings coming out of university now. With the cost of tuition fees, they’ve got huge debts, they are invited to work for free as interns, the cost of housing is enormous. Presumably some of them are starting families. I don’t know how they survive financially. Compare that with how it was for the baby boomers coming out of university: we’d had grants, we had no debts. On reaching old age, some baby boomers are living in poverty, but others have done very nicely out of things like house price rises, final salary pensions, that sort of thing. I think this is going to lead to a lot of difficulties.”
Benefits had a profound effect when I first read it at the age of fifteen; it introduced me to the many challenges to traditional attitudes with which feminism was prepared to grapple and is still wrestling so to meet an author whose work I borrowed from the local library while still at school was, for me, akin to being able to interview George Orwell.
A few years later as an art student at the Slade I was assigned David Hepher as a tutor: impressionable, full of questions and opinions I was attracted to David’s work but sceptical of his motivations and I am grateful for the opportunity to have interviewed him about these. Some twenty years on I remain in awe of David's dedication to his subject matter especially when I consider he has painted inner city landscapes longer than I have been alive.
Making art, working as a photographer and journalist in conflict zones and most recently photographing the summer riots in North London, have brought these two very personal influences full circle.
In the current climate of government cuts and the privatization of the NHS we are witnessing the erosion of the safety net we have come to take for granted.
The welfare state is not perfect anymore than are tower blocks; but when parts of the media seize upon its every flaw they are acting as cheerleaders for this government's ideological agenda that is designed to make ordinary people lives more vulnerable to market forces.
While the banks who caused this crisis continue to be rewarded for their catastrophic actions.
This Summer having witnessed the riots in North London I have to ask: are we beginning to see our society breaking down as we lose these essential safeguards?
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This artcle was originally published in the 2011 Winter edition of the Art & Music magazine print only edition as: " Sreets in the Sky "
& is reproduced here in from pdf page proofs online for the first time with permission of A & M editor, Gemma de Cruz.