by Lucy Cash
In an emergency time speeds up. Or it slows down.
Or it fractures and splinters and sticks somewhere in the body as memory.
Sometimes the, ’bringing to light’ of emergency can lay hidden in the dark, in memories that silently loop: their signs felt, but unheard. Memories that are less archives and more re-imaginings of experiences, subject to change during each time of recall.
My Mum’s elder brother – my Uncle Brian – remembers as a small boy holding my Grandma’s hand and running through the streets in Camberwell in south London whilst German bomber planes fired at them during the 1940 ‘Blitz’. My Grandma tried to pretend it was a game, but my uncle wasn’t fooled.
One night in the middle of the eight month long attack, my Grandma’s (dead) younger sister appeared to her in a dream. Grandma took this as a sign – that her body was trying to tell her something. The next night, for the first night in some weeks, she took my uncle to the air raid shelter, whilst my Grandad carried out his turn of fire watching duties. That same night the house they rented received a direct hit. Everything gone. Nothing left.
I’ve only recently come to know this story. Whilst my Grandma was alive she didn’t talk about it, although it marked her in many ways. When my Mum told it to me, she added that when Camberwell housing office appeared unable to provide any form of alternative shelter, my Grandma offered to smash their windows, in order to help them find something. My Grandma, eldest daughter of ten children, school-leaver at fourteen, evoking, in an emergency, the gesture of protest – the Suffragette’s retort.
This memory is not my memory but in some way it shapes me too. Not least, because I am named after this same Grandma.
As a writer who is driven by a recognition of the importance of thinking with and through the body, I’m drawn to collecting and remembering responses which are acts of embodiment and which connect people to place and to each other. Acts which use time, space and energy as material to choreograph moments of transformation and translation.
In 2015 -2016 I was lead artist for a year-long project in the Nine Elms neighbourhood of London. Commissioned to work with local communities caught up in the advance of gentrification, I developed a project, (with Composer Fraya Thomsen) to commemorate local history and contemporary lives through creating a film and a song cycle. Interested in song as a gesture – of defiance, consolation, commemoration, joy – we framed the film through a series of songs written with and for community members.
Two of the women that I came across during this year – Charlotte Despard and Hadas Hagos –have responded to different but related emergencies, (things ‘coming to light’), at different times, in the Nine Elms neighbourhood.
This piece of writing is a little gesture towards them: two women who are both visible and invisible and who have immersed themselves in the work of improving the daily life of the communities they were /are part of.
The first of these women – Charlotte Despard, (1844 – 1939) has been commemorated in a biography and in a street named after her on the Doddington and Rollo Estate, off Battersea Park Road. She is also present as a figure in a mural by local artist Brian Barnes – ‘Battersea in Perspective’ – on the end wall of a local pub.
Despite these acknowledgements, local residents would like a commemoration that brings Charlotte herself to light – that gives her a physical presence in the form of a sculpture. Perhaps a sculpture of Charlotte making a typical gesture:
As a filmmaker, unable to oblige with a three dimensional version of the activist, I asked various community members to remember her gesture as a kind of living memorial.
The story of how Charlotte came to live in Nine Elms is an example, (before the interconnected world of the internet) of parallel, but invisible, worlds becoming porous to one another. Until she was forty-six, Charlotte was a novelist, married to a wealthy husband – Maximilian Carden Despard. They travelled regularly and led a protected, middle class life. When Maximillian died, Charlotte was overwhelmed with grief and her concerned friends suggested that she take up some ‘charity work’ to distract her from her grief. Accordingly she joined a group of ‘horticultural missioners’ – women whose task it was to provide the poor of Victorian England with some morally elevating inspiration, (in the form of flowers) taken from the well-kept gardens of London’s suburbs into inner city slums.
Whatever she might have been led to expect, what greeted her on arrival was beyond what she had imagined. Confronted with the reality of deprivation in Nine Elms in the 1890’s, Charlotte was so affected that she almost immediately uprooted herself – giving up the comfort and security of her suburban house – to go and live side by side with the residents she felt compelled to help. Over a number of years Despard tackled different aspects of the inequality that residents revealed to her, culminating in ‘The Despard Club’ which offered youth projects, a health clinic, nutrition classes and subsidized food for new mothers. Alongside applying herself practically, Charlotte educated herself in social reform in order to pursue unscrupulous slum-landlords for their negligence and against the injustices of the Poor law. (Link to https://vimeo.com/221189595)
In 1901 Battersea adopted an official coat of arms – a shield with a dove bearing an olive branch. Underneath was a motto in Latin, which read, “Not for me, not for you, But for us.”
‘Regeneration’ has recently become most readily associated with the renovation of inner city districts – usually by an outside force of developers. Unlike this passive aspect of the word, its original meaning includes another sense: ‘the formation of new animal or plant tissue’.
If Charlotte Despard embodies an outside force, (all be it of good), Hadas Hagos typifies the kind of internal transformation that this other sense of the word incorporates and that glimmers under the surface of Battersea’s community motto.
Hadas lives on The Doddington with her daughter. Her parents having arrived in London, in the 1970’s as refugees. She is, by her own admission, not good at filling in forms, disorganised and chaotic. Yet this same disordered energy enables her to juggle six different things at once and to contribute in many different ways to the people around her. She is a member of the estate’s rooftop community garden committee, which has, over the last ten years, turned the roof over the DRCA business and community centre into a vibrant and creative space open not just to Doddington residents but also to communities outside of the estate. (https://vimeo.com/223882588)
Hadas is also the force behind SpaceMax an innovative grassroots project to help residents struggling to live in housing too small for their needs. SpaceMax supports the best use of their space (hence the name) with support from a local architect, (Phil Pawlett Jackson) and a carpenter, as well as volunteers.
Each SpaceMax renovation is individualised with Hadas informally finding out the particular needs of a family and then putting together a team of people to realise the necessary transformation. Projects have ranged from creating storage, providing solutions for non-permanent room division, making bunk beds to fit an irregular space and creating a small homework station, so a child, ‘doesn’t have to do their homework in the bath’.
SpaceMax is able to reach people who are unable to seek more formal help or lack the resources or knowledge to turn around the inherent difficulties of their space. Hadas knows that what the service provides is radical: a quiet, yet far-reaching intervention to radically improve daily life using a minimum of new resources.
On the surface, it would seem like a logical extension of the generative creativity of SpaceMax to roll it out on a bigger scale. However that’s where the difficult and tactical nature of form-filling has so far proved problematic. SpaceMax has had small amounts of adhoc funding but in order to make it a regular service the financial support it would need would require substantial and continual funding applications – something that Hadas herself doesn’t have time or inclination towards and that would require a whole panoply of reporting and benefit measurement.
When I first met Hadas, I felt convinced that such a great idea should be available more frequently and to a greater number of people, but in this particular moment of emergency perhaps it feels more relevant and useful to help hold it up to the light, for inspiration, for consideration of what other new responses it might generate.