Black Totem

'All the skin is falling off my lips, I have deep wounds in my back and arms.'


I've been walking with artist Laura Oldfield Ford. She knows the city in ways that I don't. We decided to walk along the river, and down to Deptford, where she will be making work in the summer.

We walked towards the river from Whitechapel and Laura told me about a boy she knew who was being sentenced for getting involved in the riots. Four years for burglary, for wandering into a booted out shop. He wore a hood, but his shoes gave him away on the cctv - purple brogues.


After Tower Bridge we turned east, into the reconfigured landscape of mid-height residential blocks. Waterside hutches with port-hole windows. Everywhere we walked we saw these banners.


The font on the banners faked an analogue look, fuzzy at the edges like an under-inked screenprint. 80s activist font. Stolen aesthetics for nimbys.

The Super Sewer they refer to is to supplement the ageing Victorian system of the northern and southern outfall sewers, designed by Joseph Bazalgette. At the moment, whenever there is a high volume of rainfall, raw sewage is forced back up out of the sewers, and into the Thames. Untreated effluent, bobbing in the water. Downriver from these flats, of course, but not too far.

The choice is between a forever polluted Thames, or several years of discomfort for those living along the proposed route of the Super Sewer - 24 hour drilling, dust clouds, a year round stench. Of course, you'd have to wonder why a council allowed new housing to be built alongside the proposed route for the Super Sewer in the first place. The solution to a housing crisis; an infrastructure crisis.


We stopped by an empty square, one of those regulated public places, in between two blocks of luxury flats. There was a huge concrete obelisk in the middle of the square, covered in black paint. It looked like someone had thrown a few big pots of emulsion at it, coated it from top to bottom. As we approached, we could see that the paint was still wet. A violent, basic attempt at graffiti. A black totem.

While we were marvelling at the sight of the defaced obelisk, a tradesman approached us, heading towards the block of flats on our right. "Nice day to look at the river. Go and look at the river." We turned and smiled but recognised the tone. We moved on.


Further down the Thames path, still inside the developed area, but with patches of fenced off rubble and bare land starting to encroach upon the regeneration, we found this black circle.

The same person who covered the obelisk? The paint was dry and it looked older. A budget magic circle.

And then this shelter.

A place for public drinking. Near the water, sheltered but visible. A dome under which to perform for passing crowds. This was a place for real ritual to occur.

As I was taking this photo, a helicopter came up the river, and then stopped in front of us, hovering low above the water. We played out an absurd staring contest with the muzzle of the machine, and then we turned and walked away, heard it lift up from the water and head towards the city.


Finally we crossed the line, no more regeneration. Raw streets. Track marks of tarmac along the road where cables had been laid, pipes fixed. But no attempt at coverage. No cosmetic overlay.

We found a boarded up estate pub covered with nationalist graffiti.

And next to it, a rusting crane, from when these were working docks.

Like the body of a giant, propped up on concrete stilts. Covered in pigeon bafflers and bird shit. Rusting. A spider hulk.

Everything was out of date here, even the heritage.


We got into a tower block and went up to the 24th floor, looked south from the fire escape. Picked out blocks of uni-coloured homogeneous new builds and a KFC that looked like a self-storage playschool.

Then we went back downstairs and found a pub.


Deal or No Deal was on the telly.

A game with rules so meaningless that it doesn't actually need to be played. The results could be read out, it would save everyone the trouble of having to watch it. But gaming theories abound. Noel's "cosmic ordering" within such an environment is a beautiful synecdoche of human reasoning - nonsense versus chaos.

There are tales of the superstitious contestants not changing their clothes for weeks while they stay at the production warehouse waiting for their chance to play, or cadres forming - with 'bad energy' contestants being shunned by the group. There were even rumours of a ritual sacrifice, but they were quickly buried by Endemol with court orders and lawyer's letters. But, still, those contestants implicated were cut from the final edits of the season, costing the company hundreds of thousands of pounds for re-filming missing episodes. Even the people who made Big Brother weren't going to stand for black magic vibes rubbing off on the positive energies of Noel and his followers.

We spoke about how Deal (she calls it this, just the one word, no need for further expansion) is the perfect program to be on the telly in day-pubs. They should market it as an entire channel for commercial Sky subscriptions, edit it seamlessly - no ad breaks, and no end, just the constant expression of meaningless theories about how to win the game, whilst the real game carries on outside, beyond the walls of the studio/pub. A perfect analogy to day drinking. Wistful and hopeful, bathed in impotence. With success and failure defined by the context, which in reality means just gradations of the same feeling. Aimlessness pared down to a room with no clock faces, and the possibility of salvation offered up but never received.


Once we got into Deptford proper, Laura told me about a Vietnamese restaurant she had been to the week before. She had gone to the bathroom, and as she walked down the stairs, she was met with a thick fug of tobacco smoke, and the anachronistic sound of MTV from the early 90s. Songs you wouldn't hear now outside of local radio. A group of Vietnamese men were slouched on sofas, fucked, wailing at the music that blared from multiple flat screen TVs hanging off the walls. Not singing, but crying out at the melodies. Flat eyes and gumpted mouths yelling hoarse.


We had a drink at an estate pub. No punters, just two Mums and their kids running the place, watching Sky News with the volume right up. I tried to get a pint, but the Mum that poured it made uncertain noises about the possibility of draught lager, and when she pulled the tap, the beer came out soft and milky, like calcium sick. It was yellow and white like an infected eye. She offered it to me, unsure as to whether this was what I wanted, and I said maybe I would have a bottle of Becks.

I went to the toilet

Ad hoc porthole windows where ventilation fans had been knocked out by forward thinking punters. DIY regeneration.


We wandered around the Peckham arcade, and then headed back towards town. I kept talking about the black totem that we had seen earlier. We spoke of tagging as instinctive street behaviour, or OCD nihilism - like tamed dogs pissing. The only possible tattoo would be inking in a section of your body black. Imageless image. Maybe this was the final stage of graffiti - just painting things out to remove them from the visual landscape.

We were walking a slightly different route, but we ended up back on the river, almost at the obelisk. It was starting to get dark, but across the water we could see a bare patch of grass, a green mound amongst the development, and on the mound we could see a wooden cross. Painted black.