Paul’s Deptford Journey

This text was written by Paul Clayton who is an IT trainer, occasional gardener and artist. Images by Paul Clayton. ___________________________________________________________________________

 

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It’s been an interesting reflection of my activities here as a journey. I’ve recounted a story as much to place some factual bias, alongside my own subjective bias. All are stories, all are narratives. We’re all blow ins, but the ones that love being here join in and make more stories that are retold. All are accepted. Deptford does this if you let it.

Cue video cut to London in 1997, wanting to set up an Internet cafe, finding that there was no money in it. After moving around various parts, the starting in Notting Hill, then to well-heeled Docklands and settling into SE London as The Millennium started. This is where I found things really interesting, my northern sensibilities warmed to the area’s lack of pretension, but having place to be odd and creative; especially around Deptford and New Cross. Always interesting and fun, especially as an old rocker that was at home hanging out in pubs with live music. I’d already been an occasional visitor, making an internet radio station (archive link to Meantime Radio) with a friend and publishing event listings of what was going on in Greenwich, New Cross, Deptford and Woolwich.  A labour of love with fun. It was great moving from Charlton to Deptford in 2002, but getting knocked over in 2003 celebrating my first wages as an IT trainer certainly made things traumatic.

Standing as a ‘champion’

As part of Meantime activities, we attempted to host ‘It’s your News’ in a couple of venues; the idea stuck, my sensibilities intrigued by the possibility of getting involved in the area more. The Council of Champions appeared. Part of the early noughties trend for parish councils, the idea was coordinated by a local consultancy, based on New Cross Road. A local marketing company created their outreach materials for the project – one-word postcards, banners and posters (e.g. demo-crazy), which were impenetrable, almost as if the whole exercise was a means to just show ‘community engagement’? I did wonder what this was, and joined in. My pitch was to host regular News Parties to get people talking about the local news as well their own.  This promoted some interest, with 80 or so votes, a result in my view – didn’t make the council though.

Afterwards I noted that other parish councils had websites inside their local council, which would surely have been a possibility? The council of champions outreach evidenced no such liaison, apparently the youth council lasting a little longer than the adults, but not very long; the link to the Wayback machine shows that the site disappeared in 2005, which reflected the apparent lack of real local power. Demo-crazy, huh?

The consultancy seemed to be riding a wave of Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) money and this showed more an infrastructure approach than supposed community development – my naive view of the initiative was preparation for regeneration, giving the area some cushioning to the shock of change. The consultancy worked with developers it seemed to me. The Ha’penny Hatch was built, a return of a local pass through to Greenwich, and the town hall was sold to Goldsmiths University (where are the details of that purchase and public access?).

Around the same time, Broadway Fields was created in exchange for the Seager building converted to flats, or so I was told. A loss of a huge artistic and creative space.

Pepys estate at that time was a place unexplored, though there was plenty of apparent activity there on a community level. I interviewed Malcolm Cadman in 2018 for a Lewisham heritage project which later filled in some gaps of knowledge.

Cut to my next scenario. Kicking around and wanting to get away from computers and get gardening. I found the McMillan Herb Garden near the McMillan Nursery School and all of a sudden was chair of a gang of volunteers wanting to make an interesting and peaceful community space. This was reclaimed waste ground turned into a community garden. The artist and caretaker of the space had trouble communicating his vision, but it did transpire and indeed it was a great place to get into some nature. The man is a great artist and a good gardener, but not always the easiest to collaborate with. It could have been me, granted. After a few years it meant a moving along to a different scenario, still keen to get into community gardening.

A wonky Prong, space by St. Paul’s and a garden hidden in full view

Community gardens started popping up around the centre of Deptford after 2010:

The Wonky Prong – a Crossfield resident took the initiative and got funding for a great little garden backing on to a nature reserve, installing some table tennis tables nearby. This was great. I knew the venerable guerrilla gardener, a wonderful and magnanimous human being if there ever was one. He ensured more trees in the area, a great attitude. My involvement was especially marked with a riding an ice cream making tricycle from East Greenwich and back. We made ice cream with fruit from the market because things weren’t quite in season.

Thames Tideway developers provoked a response by locals to get together in solidarity and plant some raised beds in the space by St. Paul’s Church. This was a bit of a landmark moment for me as I then noticed the real speed of change in term of the development in the area. If there was a metric, it surely was the amount of big trucks moving building materials and black cabs that suddenly decided to go south of the river.

Hidden around the back of Tidemill school was a garden in plain sight.

The Tidemill School has a narrative starting with Mark Elms who infamously was reported earning more as a headmaster than David Cameron. I’m wondering what comparisons are to be drawn other than wealth for an educator and a politician. My narrative would be to make Mark Elms poorer than the Prime Minister of any time. Much poorer.

The school had been left to its own apparent devices after being decanted of pupils. Lewisham council strangely bought in a North London Guardian company accompanied by a gang of artists, musicians and other creative people.

It was interesting to note that another local gang of artists (Utrophia) that I knew and supported (I did try to rent a studio space from them, but was foiled by an internal politic) were at that time inhabiting the Jobcentre space, which is now the bar. The Job Centre is only, what 100 steps away? Utrophia artists came to the opening night for the new artist’s residence and walked out not very happy; could understand completely. From my own view, the Utrophians provided a humorous, inclusive and very local set of situations, which the council didn’t seem to be interested in, yet these new people didn’t seem to offer anything in the same vein, inclusion was not on the agenda. This is a form of story telling when you ignore local artists.

The squatted Social Centre Plus at the former Job Centre on Deptford High Street in 2011

Hidden by fencing was the Tidemill garden leased by Assembly, a creative bunch of artists and gardeners.

The gardeners however did have a local agenda. I got involved. We talked, fell out and yet the proposed scenario was pushed. My goal: an event to bring all of the community gardens together, but this was not to be. Instead my work was facilitating an event hosted by Madcap Theatre Company in 2014, in what was called ‘Deptford Gardens’, or DIG for short. This was a promotion of local community gardens in a garden fenced off and directly experienced by few. The hope was to bring more to a garden, no matter where it was. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and a friends group formed as a result; which didn’t get appropriate support from the gang of gardener artists constantly seeking funding. As the narrative of the council continued, there was a campaign.

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I’m still here.

There are many activists with a community passion that Deptford does foster, but the shiny shoe brigade of smartly dressed people in suits and the well-heeled young couples investigate and look up (cough, bring money) but don’t want to integrate – businessmen (yes even councillors) and community integration for rich people is very simple. Just support local business of all kinds. Even the ones that went to Kent, after all this area was part of Kent apparently. As a firm believer in keeping economics local:

Support the street markets, the high street – talk as well!

Ask how long that barber/hair stylist has been in the area.

Loving the interaction of people in a place with a great diversity. Everyone is a blow in.

Say hello to the guy that sells coffee on the second hand market, he has a great attitude.

Talk to the lady emptying out snails into a bucket, talk to the cheeky lads at the fish stall.

Say hello to older folk slowly making their way down the high street and give them space.

What I do see with these young folk on the street that are insular yet seeking interaction, is a sort of shyness mixed with the arrogance of privilege? Mental health issues, poverty, and homelessness have been themes of the Deptford / New Cross area for some time. Yet as an exercise in saying ‘I live in Deptford’ is some cachet of cool then the new faces have to be accepting of others. Artists seek patronage and sponsorship, local business needs to be encouraged – to fill a gaping maw of emptiness. People that make just make money, just make money, just make money. No inner world to cultivate, so culture fills a void. Voids in housing associations and councils are empty houses. Not sure if that’s a metaphor for anything.

It is interesting to note that the work in Neighbourhood 1 (according to the council) is all about development of building flats, rather than negotiating proposed change. Instead there were (and still continue to be) supposed consultations as token presentations, ‘This is What You’ Getting’. Nothing about working with churches, charities, services and businesses providing a network for the vulnerable folk; promote a sense of dare I say, community coherence? If that is a dialogue, then I’ve never heard about it. This area has evidently been a hub for homelessness and associated aspects for many years, more than three generations? Building expensive flats must alleviate those ever present themes for not including vulnerable people? Surely that’s a strategy I’ve never heard of in housing planning documents. Although Lewisham Council once promoted the housing of students and graduates in the 1980’s on Crossfields Estate, next to a stinky summer creek never mentioned by letting agents. Amazing.

So, regeneration.

I wander around taking photos of trees, bushes, walls and gates and make them into simple kaleidoscopes, also painting jobcentre signs and streets. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this. The everyday is in front of us, and without any form of nature around it becomes boring. Imagine walking around with concrete everywhere. Just concrete. Really boring, just like privilege trumps being poor generally.

daisy faces tyre plants

Paul Clayton’s Mirrorplants project, which consisted of photographs taken of plants on walks around the area and then composited and mirrored into a form of mandala. The project was a response to the amount of building going on in Deptford.

The faces and characters are changing in the area as people die, get sick, tired or move away before they get sick and tired. Tired, then sick too? Integration with services and people has fallen by the wayside in Neighbourhood 1 in favour of developers and building – with associated traffic.

So much going on in the town centre of Deptford; yet there are community efforts from Pepys and Evelyn estates promoting open space for community use in all sorts of ways. The best safe spaces for public use are generally green and given some wildlife, especially in urban areas. Gardens are great places to share a good chat, pick some blackberries, make seed bombs, get creative, catch a newt and so on. People are definitely calmer in a garden, no doubt about it.

Planning an offset to increased local pollution and working with local networks is definitely a building block for community development, promoting healthier living to everyone, especially when joggers are around – another metric of change? Gangs of joggers (instead of lone lycra wearers) would go and be happy around the parks rather than the streets, cutting up old people and buggies with their bad street style? I just don’t know. People in the area talk to one another, it’s a basic form of respect, something to be perceived as ‘old school’ and depreciated. Something that used to happen, like nostalgia, a form of utopia, a place that doesn’t exist.

Buy my book?

2016 was the collection of some Deptford photos as a social history colouring book. Copies available from The Word bookshop. Colour in the pages with whatever you want, make your mark if you’re interested.

Artwork by Paul Clayton in his book Colourful Deptford: A colouring book of local social history

More reading:

‘Regeneration in Deptford, London’ by Dr Gareth Potts, 2008

The Deptford Charrette

Lewisham Business Profile 2013-23