Charlotta Buxton Posts

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched, looking like World War Two bombers. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.

Everyday life London Thoughts

I can smell it before I see it. That’s when it’s time to turn on the button that stops any air coming in from the outside and starts recycling the air inside the car. At least that’s what I think the button does.

For eight months we’ve been driving from north east London to south east London almost every day. We live in the north east and the studio is in the south east. The drive takes around forty minutes and it crosses the river. That means going through the Blackwall Tunnel, the exhaust-fumed Victorian tube linking the East End and the south.

On the A12 going down to the tunnel there is a lot of bad driving. Cars changing lanes without indicating, cars gliding across three lanes without looking, cars speeding faster than all the other cars which are already driving too fast in the first place.

I don’t drive, yet. I tell myself that I will learn and dare to get behind a British car on a British road sometime soon. But motorways like the A12 frighten me and I wonder how it’s possible to keep an eye out for all of those things that might go wrong. I’ve been promising myself that I will take a few driving lessons and then get behind that steering wheel, but just not this month.

Gerry drives and without the car our commute would take about an hour and a half. We need the car. We also need the Blackwall Tunnel.

A couple of months ago there was fuel spill from a faulty hydraulic crane. The northbound tunnel had to be resurfaced and was shut for 20 hours. We drove to the studio in the morning, wondering why the roundabouts were jammed, the traffic curdling on the roads. The south east seized up.

During the day each car that ventured out added to the problem until most roads around the studio were at a standstill, queues of traffic stretching from eastern Woolwich to Tower Bridge and for ten miles down the A2.

We waited and hoped the tunnel would be fixed later in the evening. Around 6pm they were still working on it, around 8pm they were still working on it, at some point someone announced on Twitter that the tunnel wouldn’t be open until the next morning. So we waited some more, thinking people would start taking their cars and their exhausted selves home. We waited until 11pm and traffic was still bad, but we had to get home ourselves.

It took us thirty minutes to drive a few miles. At the junction to the A2 a tired police officer spoke to each car that crawled toward the traffic lights. He told us there was no point continuing, that the best way to get home was to drive east, take the Dartford tunnel and continue on the M25 home. There was hardly any traffic further east. It took us about an hour and a half to get home.

We were lucky. In 1996, on my birthday, someone drove a Mercedes truck into the steel frame supporting the tunnel. The accident caused one of the worst traffic jams in the city, 250 000 drivers were brought to a standstill for eight hours.

The tunnel is stinky and slow. The sign at the mouth of the northbound entrance telling drivers how many cars have broken down in the tunnel hasn’t changed for months. It’s one of the least safe tunnels in Europe. No one talks about it fondly (“commuting through the tunnel? You’ll learn to hate it”), but without it London freezes.

And almost every morning and evening we use it to dip below the river, sometimes I count the green signs along the walls that tell me how far it is to each exit, sometimes I swear at the car ahead for swerving close to the other lane or the motorbike zipping and roaring ahead, sometimes there’s a traffic jam and it takes ages to get through to the other side, sometimes a wave of break lights turn the whole tunnel red.

When you enter the tunnel there is a wooshing sound, like the sea crashing against the shore or waves rolling overhead. The murky water of the Thames is just above us. I never think about that in the tunnel.

Image by Caleb George.

Everyday life London

Before you moved to London your name was Elisabeth Gustafsdotter. You were born in Torslanda and in your teens you worked as a maid in Gothenburg. You were arrested, you got syphilis, you gave birth to a stillborn daughter. The year you turned 22 you used the money you had inherited when your mother died and escaped to a new country. I wasn’t much older than you when I moved to London, but my city is very different to yours.

I’m sitting on the stairs outside Christ Church in Spitalfields, looking down at the pub you used to visit 130 years ago. It’s 6pm-rush-hour on Commercial Street, the cars and busses chew up the tarmac. Outside the Ten Bells a group of men are drinking pints in the sun, their heads fall back as they laugh, playtime after another day in the shiny office towers around Shoreditch.

Scratch the polished surface and stories of your Spitalfields, the old slum, bubble up. These streets are made to give up their memories of the past almost every night. Thousands of tourists attempt to travel back in time, to hear the clatter of hooves against cobbled stones, to catch the scent of manure, smoke and rotten apples when the cars and buses have quietened and the office crowds have gone home for the evening. Some of those who come here try to solve the mystery that made you famous.

You lived in a small room on 32 Flower and Dean Street. The 29th of September 1888 began like many other days. You cleaned a couple of rooms. You got six pence for the work and in the evening you and your friend Elizabeth Tanner visited one of your favourite pubs, the Queen’s Head. Later you ventured out into the autumn rain on your own to meet a customer. You wore a black skirt and a black jacket with dahlias on the right side. A couple of people remembered you from that night. You hid from the rain in a doorway near Settles Street and kissed an expensively dressed man without eyelashes. You walked on to Black Church Lane where he bought you a bunch of grapes.

At a quarter to midnight you were seen with a man, perhaps another man, on Berner Street. An hour and a quarter later you were dead. You were found in the mud outside the International Men’s Working Club when Louis Diemschutz almost ran you over with his horse and carriage. The wound on your neck was fresh and bleeding. You became Jack the Rippers’ third victim.

Today you’re a legend, bound to the place where you died. Perhaps you, like so many others, moved to London chasing freedom and a life that would allow you to choose who you wanted to be. Perhaps that’s why you lied to your friends and told them your husband and nine children had died when the Princess Alice sunk in the Thames and 600 passengers lost their lives. Perhaps you wanted to tell your own story. Your killer deprived you of that too.

*English translation of my monthly column for SvD Perfect Guide.

*Some of the information about Elizabeth Stride/Elisabeth Gustafsdotter is taken from the excellent book Elizabeth Stride and Jack the Ripper, the life and death of the reputed third victim by Dave Yost.

Photo by Mitch Rosen.

Column London

I have started a new non-fiction project. I want to write about migration and about belonging and excluding and I also want to directly and indirectly write about brexit. The topic of migration is a bit of a prism and many other subjects have been highlighted by the research I’ve done so far. I’m writing down lists of what to explore further – history, archeology, ethics, nationalism, propaganda, economics.

I’ve maybe done about ten percent of all the reading I need to do and I spend most of my spare time in the British Library. I’m not sure what shape the project will take on as it matures. I’m not even sure if there is a publisher out there who will be interested in the project, but I am enjoying the research and am happy to spend my spare time reading about these topics for my own pleasure.

But there is one question that gnaws away at me. The books I’ve been enjoying the most lately have all been personal essays about difficult subjects. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which describes her journey from alcohol-fuelled parties in London to bird watching on Orkney, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, essay and nature writing. The book has had a lot of positive publicity here in the UK and it is climbing the charts, perhaps showing there is an appetite for the personal in non-fiction.

I have also devoured essayist Olivia Laing’s impressive first two books, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring. Laing has done a lot of research and reading and she reasons intelligently about the subjects she explores. What brings it all together is her persona. These books have filled me with joy because they are intelligent, erudite and human. I feel like I’m learning something new and at the same time acquainting myself with the personality and psyche of another.

So the question is, how much of myself should I allow into the writing? How personal should the tone be? The author needs to be honest with his or her audience. It makes sense to bring that side into a piece when tackling sensitive issues like migration. Potential readers need to know where I stand, they need to know what personal bias I might bring to the project. US journalist and writer Joan Didion always put herself in her writing. Some of the harshest criticism aimed her way argued “the subject is always herself”. But Didion believed (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the only true starting point was the personal, because all we have is our own subjective perspective.

A lot of male writers write deeply personal pieces, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway spring to mind. Did they have the same criticism levelled at them? Were they sneered at for “always writing about themselves”?

I feel a certain amount of fear about bringing the personal into the project. I fear not being taken seriously. I fear criticism. I fear not being able to pull it off making the issues and the quite heavy and difficult topics I’m researching interesting and relevant. But I should know better. There is not much I can do to control the way any of my writing will be received and perceived. I can have my own private thoughts and hopes for a project or a piece of writing, but when I let it go what it becomes is up to those who read it. The only thing I can hope for is that each project makes me a slightly better and more thoughtful writer and that there will always be a new project waiting when the previous one has flown the nest.

Image by Dmitrij Paskevic.

The book 2 Thoughts

September. A return to routine. Time to re-focus as the year prepares for the curtain to drop. The beat speeds up and the days rattle along. The nights fight back. Nature knows what’s coming, the trees drop their leaves and pulls energy back to the core. Autumnal storms whip away the dead weight of summer. I look at the calendar and realise I have to do the same. Only a few months and so much left to do.

I’m looking at all the plans in front of me, wondering where to find any dead weight. We’re moving to a new house. We’re going up to Scotland to walk the hills. And then there is the new writing project. Slim, trim, cut away to make space for all of those things that matter. But I thrive when the focus narrows, when life switches on tunnel vision and there is only one thing that matters. That’s one of the perks of my job as a journalist. The deadlines allow me to dig deep into one topic, to focus on one task and allow everything else to fade. The deadline of a new year sometimes help me to finish the projects I started on lazy spring days when there was so much time and wholesome summer months to look forward to.

I like to think seasonally. To sow the seeds in the spring, toil, relax and allow things to grow in the summer and harvest in the autumn. It never really works out as perfectly as that, because living is messy. But I enjoy the rhythm underneath it all. I did start the new writing project in the spring. I’ve worked throughout the summer. I will keep working and perhaps there will be something to harvest in about a year.

ps. You might have noticed the new layout. Thought it was time for a change.

Image by Andrew Small.

Everyday life The book 2 Thoughts

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework over the summer. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.

Everyday life London Thoughts

I’m sad and tired. Tired and sad. I’ve been writing about the Jo Cox tragedy for the last two days and the shocking murder of a person who seems to have touched so many lives is eating away at me. Many things have been written over the last few days. There is the personal tragedy, heart-breaking and raw. And then there are the many narratives and political opinions swirling around in the papers and on social media. At the heart of it, at first, there seems to be the random pointless tragedy of life. The bad timing, the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time, the referral for treatment that took a bit too long, the person who forgot to look in the wing mirror, the raging mob taking things too far. Another narrative sits there as well, the vulnerable lone wolf, radicalised by fever-pitch hate and intolerance in the echo chambers of the web.

The closer I look the blurrier the picture becomes. There, at the heart of it, is also a darkness, a sinister and frightening current pulling us backward in time, erasing the lessons history should have taught us. What happens when a society fans the flames of xenophobia, fear and hate? The more intense these feelings become the harder they will try to find an outlet. At some point there will be an eruption. This kind of fear-mongering has been going on for a long time in a lot of different places. We might laugh at the demagogues on TV in the US, but the same kind of hateful politics exist a lot closer to home. We see it in all of the movements in Europe who suggest that one set of people are better than another and in groups who believe they have a monopoly on the truth.

This is a beast with many heads. There is not just one kind of hate and intolerance out there, each monster emboldens the one next to it, but the core is the same. Fear. Fear that turns into hate that turns into action.

Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this the type of society we want to build for ourselves? I pose this question to you because in the end the world we live in is created and shared by all of us. We are all a part of it. The person in their bedroom hiding from it is a part of it, as is the politician and the agitator with a million followers on Twitter. What we consume, how we talk about things with our friends, how we choose to or are able to educate ourselves, how we speak up for or mock others, it’s all apart of it.

We have a choice. We can take a step back from passionate, heartfelt conviction and embrace common sense. We can choose to listen to all kinds of opinions and thoughts, to attempt to bring our heads and not just to our hearts into political debates.

In my day job I write about current affairs. This means I spend a lot of time thinking about the way hate and intimidation has started to dominate our political discussions. I don’t see myself as a political animal or a polemicist. But enough is enough. We need to look at each other, to listen to each other, to see a human being and not a label or a stereotype. Then perhaps we can start having some sensible conversations about where we are and where we’re going.

Image by Oscar Keys/Unsplash.

Thoughts

In my apartment block there is a girl who always sits outside her flat with her laptop. She has a desk set up on the balcony and that seems to be where she works. No matter how early I get up in the mornings she’s there. Today London is cold and she’s wrapped up in a jacket.

I’m a bit envious of this girl. In my head she gets up at six, does yoga and then meditates for a while. Then she drinks a green smoothie and starts writing her morning pages on the balcony. When she’s done she moves onto working on her next novel. Or perhaps she works on some big commission about that year she spent living in a small cottage on a remote Scottish island. Maybe she’s writing a gonzo piece about working as a cleaner in the City.

All of these things of course say more about me than they do about anyone else and writing them down feels a bit embarrassing. But there you go. I’m comparing myself to virtuous-writer-girl because my own daily routine has been a bit messy this year. I feel like I’m lagging behind and trying to catch up. My days have been shunted forward. If we commute into the new studio at rush hour we end up stuck in traffic so on many days we sleep in and leave at ten. Then we work late, because there is no point leaving at rush hour in the evening. We come back late and the cycle repeats itself. For a morning person this is frustrating. I imagine all the people I work with noticing my emails arriving later and later each morning and a big chorus tutting “well, she gets up late”. I know this is totally irrational.

We’re planning to make a final move south of the river, to find a house or an apartment somewhere nearer the new studio. This move will happen at some point in the coming months. Before then it’s difficult to settle on a routine. I used to think I liked change, but the move is making me nervous. It will be like moving to a new city. Further away from friends and places I know.

As I was running these things over in my head a few nights ago the silliness of it all struck me. I’ve been doing that thing again where everything becomes heavy. Events in the past and the future bubble up and turn into big mountains, casting large shadows over everything else. I start putting a lot of weight on certain things, like balancing elephants on the top of a pin. Life is supposed to be light. As I laid awake that night I realised all I had to do to make things easier was to change my perspective. There is no script to follow to the letter. Most of the time no one decision or thing will cast as long a shadow as I think. Wait and see, wait and see, is all I have to tell myself. I don’t have to be perfect.

I’m working from home today. When the sun hits my balcony I’m going to take my coffee outside, close my eyes and breathe.

Image by Lauren Mancke.

Everyday life Thoughts

I’m sorry it’s been a bit quiet here lately. The truth is I’ve been a bit unsettled, slightly more unsettled than I thought I would be, by all this change. I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Of moving and getting to know a new part of London. I’m trying to prepare myself for some of the other changes that are coming. But I’m still in-between. So I’m focusing on the details, the small things.

We’ve moved to the studio next to the river. When we arrive in the morning the banks along the Thames are muddy. In the afternoon the tide flows back and the waves lap at the flood barriers. The water is silty and a muted brown. There are three ducks, two mallards and a hen living somewhere near the studio. Every time I’ve walked down to the water they’ve been there. Sometimes they jump up on the platform further out where the London Port Authority’s boats dock. Sometimes one of the mallards chases the other one and nips at his tail feathers.

On the other side of the river big ships bring sugar to the Tate & Lyle factory. The current one is flying a Maltese flag. Gangly cranes swing over it and back again with the cargo. It’s a calm and peaceful dance. Planes take off from London City Airport behind the factory. The sound lags behind the plane. I notice them when they’re already on their way. When the tail has cleared the factory and the plane is climbing steeply toward the clouds.

I spend a lot of time scanning the water, hoping to one day spot a seal. I’ve been reading about wildlife returning to the Thames. Pods of dolphins have been seen further west and seals have been spotted near the skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. London is showing me its wild and industrial side.

It’s a over month since we moved to the new studio. I’m getting used to it. London twists and turns around me. Everything radiates from the places we call home, all the routes you know lead to the areas where you live and work. My center has been north and east. Slowly it is shifting to the south. London turns around me and I’m learning to see the city from a new perspective.

Everyday life London Thoughts

On March 3 the developers will lock the doors and we have to leave. We found out on Saturday. The rubbish is already taking over the hallways – old chairs, shelves, books, tins of paint, plastic bags and various wooden sticks and metal bits. The people next door left this weekend. The building is quiet. The bathroom and the corridors already have that cold, slightly metallic scent of abandonment.

Soon there will be no more artist studios on Cremer Street. The developer called us an “eyesore on Hackney Road”. And perhaps he was right. This is a crumbling sixties warehouse with graffitied walls, dirty windows and family of stray cats. It doesn’t fit with the new wine bars or the brand new apartment blocks with their straight walls, small windows and box-like flats selling for £600,000.

Soon this asbestos roof will be torn open and the walls chewed to pieces by bulldozers. I’ve seen it happen to the old council blocks up the road. I watched as the front of one of the buildings came down and a bedroom or living room with bright green walls gaped out over Hoxton like in some disaster movie. That was once someone’s home. In a winter the old buildings were gone and it’s been a year since people started leaving plant pots on the balconies and bicycles outside the new apartments.

This was always going to happen to the studio building on Cremer Street. The pub with the English flags in the windows was turned into a wine bar. The boarded up one that used to stand on the corner was demolished before I came here, but is still there on Google Street View like a digital ghost. Small shops selling wholesale bags and shoes are being turned into cafes. The gay club has been shut down. The derelict Georgian terraces have been renovated and decorated to smug perfection. The old hospital is being turned into expensive apartments. The boards around the building site show photographs of the people that might one day live there. Pretty, shiny haired people hanging out on Brick Lane. Aspirational people.

I sometimes wonder if these people are the new Londoners. The politicians talk a lot about “aspirational hard working families”, although no one seems to know who or where these people can be found. London itself is aspirational. The tallest buildings are reaching for new heights, the house prices climbing upward with them. Whoever you are there will always be someone with more money than you, a car more expensive than yours and an apartment more expensively furnished than yours. In this city we’re often reminded that the ladder stretches far above us.

But this aspirational London is not the town I want to live in. I’d like to call this place transitional, always changing, always in motion. London has been burned down, bombed and demolished several times over the last 2000 years. It’s always being rebuilt, the old torn down to make way for the new. But like a magic trick, the city never changes. In the midst of all of this turmoil some buildings have managed to escape the bombs and the bulldozers. Cremer Street and Hackney Road will still be there when the studio is gone. The map will look the same. Some of these roads were built by the Romans.

When this building is gone the stray cats in the studio car park will move on to another spot where people will feed them. The people who move into the new apartments will go to the same cafe we go to for their coffees. The trains will rumble along the tracks on the bridge over Cremer Street. The huge psychedelic graffiti eye on one of the tower blocks further into Hoxton will keep looking out over it all. We will move our studio south of the river and everything changes and nothing changes at the same time.

***

But just so I remember there is a sticker next to the door that says “Do you wear enough black to be an artist?” I don’t know who put it there. Next to it is a stack of framed prints and screens and then the table which used to be used for screen-printing, but we now mainly use for eating lunches and packing web orders, although not at the same time. On the wall opposite is the fridge and the microwave that should have been cleaned four months ago.

There is a shelf with tea and mugs and the plum vodka Gerry’s brother and his wife gave us and I swigged out of the bottle, whilst sitting on the printing table, one day after we’d had some upsetting news (it’s very tasty, thank you!). There is a shelf on the floor full of water-based paint and spray cans. Underneath the table are stacks of vinyls and screens. Next to the table there are two large and solid plan chests.

Underneath the barred windows there is the Ikea sofa I accidentally broke when I bounced up and down on it after I heard that my book had been accepted by the publisher. Then there is our desk where Gerry and I face each other, it’s covered in papers, printers, random hard-drives and cables. We’ve scribbled messages on it. There is a sleeping fish that Gerry drew on a sticker and placed next to my laptop.

Behind him is the year planner from 2015 and a huge Wall Street print that was damaged when it fell in front of the door and we had to bash the frame in order to get into the studio. Next to him is the Ikea shelving system with clothes rails stacked precariously on top of it and stock hanging below. Then there is the corner crammed full of stock boxes, hiding all the stuff that’s been forgotten about and kept out of sight. Behind that there are paintings, not ours, they were left here by the previous occupant who uses the studio for storage. This is it. The studio. Soon it will be empty and all we will have left are these memories.

Everyday life London Plane Clothing Thoughts