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Life in the big smoke

An intimate knowledge of the Blackwall Tunnel

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.

Meeting Elisabeth Gustafsdotter

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.

Back to the river

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.

Settling in next to the river

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.

On March 3 we have to leave

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.