Ivan Riches: Surroundings – stories of home

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Surroundings – Ivan Riches R&D project, involves live, improvised music played to recorded voices & projected imagery – telling stories about the London Borough of Southwark – through interviews with seven of its inhabitants. Review by Colin Hambrook

superimposed images of a series of flats

Surroundings window. Image © Ivan Riches

Sitting down with Ivan Riches film of his live performance with the installation Surroundings feels a bit like cosying up with a group of strangers. It is an intimate performance and watching second-hand via a film of the live happening in South London Gallery makes extra demands of an audience to concentrate and listen. As a witness, there are obvious advantages to being fully-immersed in the piece in the gallery space, but having said that creating access to the work using carefully edited footage opens it up to a much wider audience.

Through edited highlights the focus is on the storytellers talking about themselves, their families, the people around them, where they live, why they live there, how they relate to their environment and how it has changed?

At this time in history when walls are going up everywhere, nationally and politically; when it feels like the world is winding up its shutters and the barriers to being part of a community are becoming harsher, more severe and more subtle in the way they are being executed; it’s refreshing to hear these powerful pieces of oral history presented beautifully and sensitively, accompanied by a gentle improvised score on guitar, cello, viola, keyboards and iPad with projected scenes of the localities we are being told about.

The music adds a delicate, slightly melancholy feel to the project as a whole, augmenting the edited series of reflections that are the central focus. Surroundings draws you in and makes you think about your own relationship to place. There is a strong thread running through each of the stories about disability, race, class with the individuals’ thoughts on their individual sense of belonging. There are several stories of migration woven into the thread alongside one woman’s tale of her family having lived in the same house for over 100 years.

Key is our need as human beings to make meaning of our lives through the stories we tell ourselves and tell each other. There is a generosity of spirit in these individuals sharing their stories: tales of the struggle to survive and the things that give real value to our sense of place. There’s a recognition of what privilege means and how privilege can take away from community, especially when economic difference can mean that certain communities get pushed further out.

Reflections on Peckham in South London abound: “You can be successful coming from Peckham. Loads of famous people come out of Peckham. Look at one of my mates on Talford Road. He had a book out. Another one on Talford Road, she’s In Eastenders. Yep, Lorraine Chase, went to Peckham. You know, Yolande from the top of the road, from Eastenders. Great things does come out of Peckham.”

This sense of pride evoked personal childhood memories of the house my dad grew up in, in Friern Road and of playing in Peckham Rye park as a child. My grandparents house was only 20 yards away from the explosion area of a V2 rocket that landed on 1 November 1944 so memories of the area are associated with strong feelings of mortality. My nan went into service as a parlour maid at the age of 13 and brought the skills of making chutneys, jams and pickles she learnt at work to her family home. My memory is filled with the smells of the fruit harvested from the garden and the rich taste of everything she made.

Food and the sharing of food is central to these stories. The association of eating and of good times are interlinked with the ways in which people make time for each other. If there is a cohesive message that runs through Surroundings it is about looking for ways to find quality of life through creating meaningful connections with others who understand where we have come from and why we are living where we do. Just how much those connections are made through choice and how much they are thrust upon us by circumstance are blurred; what is clearer in these narratives is the value attached to making the best of what life brings in its wake.

To read more about Ivan Riches ‘Surroundings’ project go to his blog on Disability Arts Online.

Surroundings South London Gallery Event to audience Full HD.

‘Surroundings’ Transcript

Male interviewee 1:
I lived in Peckham all my life. I lived at the same address all my life. I’m still living there now. Grandmother was from St. Lucia. My mum came over in 1959 to England. My dad came about ’57, ’58. So he came to England and he saved for my mum. When he arrived on a boat, in those days these things control it. Plus on top of that, my grandfather, he was a farmer on my dad’s side. Plus they used to call it – they call it a rum bar, call it like a pub, he’s on there in those days. From the proceeds of that, my dad and three brothers all end up in England. My Mum, she was over here. She works until too late for all of us boys in the heart of Peckham.

Female interviewee 1:
My mother lived in Landells Road all her life until the day she died, in East Dulwich. I lived there until I was 18. My father was from Majorca, a place called Calvia. My mum married in 1961. He came to England but wasn’t really getting on with living here, partly because of the language problems. They divorced and he went back to Majorca.

I have one brother, who was born in Kings College Hospital as well. We always lived in East Dulwich. He’s still living in the same house that my mum had been in all her life. Her parents must have been in there from about 1917, probably about 10 years before her. Overall, my family’s lived in the same house for over a hundred years.

Male interviewee 2:
I was born in Tanzania in 1940. I was interested in printing, so I came to London in 1966, in January. I did a short course in Elephant and Castle and the College of printing and ran out of cash. I started working as a student and then studied in the evening. Got my first job within two years in the newspapers in Kilburn. I’ve done variety of the jobs in the printing industry. I moved back to London in ’77, in Camberwell and I’ve been here the last 40 years.

Female interviewee 2:
My great grandparents moved here during the Windrush. I guess, maybe the best way to describe it was like economic immigrants because the plan was to move over here for a while, earn a bit more money because there were a lot of opportunities back home at the time and then eventually go back. She’s going through the process of retiring, but whilst working she’s was a nurse at Saint Elizabeth Hospital. I’d say, maybe even a decade before I was born, she was living in Peckham, Montagu Square. It was basically a second home for me. That’s where I would go to when school was finished with, all day long, but then going straight home a number of times.

Female interviewee 3:
I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Half my family comes from Grand Rapids, my Dad’s side of the family. I discovered when I started working here, that I knew that my great grandfather came from England. My Mum’s side of the family are pretty much all here in the UK because my Mum was born and brought up in Edinburgh.
I applied for and got accepted to Oxford, and then wound up going on an open day at the Catalogue Record Office for Oxfordshire. That was amazing, partly because Carl Boardman who was then the county archivist for Oxfordshire, is a brilliant, passionate, deeply eccentric man who can make the past interesting to just about anybody.

That was amazing, an absolute whale of a time and I decided that’s what I wanted to do [chuckles] for rest of my life, which is unfortunate because the entry to that is a master’s degree [laughs]. I spent a year living in London doing the archives course at UCL. Then moved back to London in about 2008, I think. I’ve been living here full time for about 10 years now.

Male interviewee 3:
I was born in Barnstaple in North Devon. I grew up living with my maternal grandparents. They lived with us in the house, always. My mother of course, was born in Barnstaple. My mother is actually now living in a house opposite the house that she was born in.

My father came here as a refugee from Latvia, at the end of the Second World War. In primary school, people would ask, “Where is your father from?” I would say, “He’s from Latvia. They’d go “Where’s that then?” “It’s next to Russia.” “He’s a communist then?” I never really knew what to say to that. I went with my father to a hardware shop. I would have been about 15 or 16. My father did a lot of DIY. I forget what he was asking for, but he just could not, on this occasion get the words out. The shopkeeper, he got very, very angry and frustrated with him and just said just, “I don’t understand what you’re saying. “Just get out, just leave the shop. I don’t want to serve you. I just don’t.”

I can just remember always feeling trapped. Most people associate that with living, maybe in cities, or in very built up areas. Barnstaple was not a built up area, and of course it’s surrounded by huge amount of space and countryside. Moving to London was just– When I got off the train at Euston Station, I felt very happy.

Male interviewee 4:
My dad was a professor of computer science. My Mum is a mathematician [laughs]. I have four siblings. All five of us then actually proceeded to go into computer science. My Dad was born in 1924. He studied in Munich after the Second World War. To cut a long story short, he eventually ended up involved with building some of the first computers that they had in Munich. He’s also credited with coming up with the term software engineering.

I moved to London because– it was five years ago basically because of my then girlfriend who is now my wife.

Female Speaker 3:
There’s about 100 flats in our building and we know the names of exactly three people. Besides ourselves, we know the names of the concierge, but we know the names of three other residents because those are the people who’ve knocked on our door for some specific reason. Everybody else is just a mystery. It’s a little bit isolating, and it’s a little bit soulless. I mean the vibe that you get walking down one of the corridors in our block of flats is a hotel.

Female interviewee 1:
I can remember my Mum saying, when they first came there, her parents said it was covered in ivy. It had no electricity at the time. I think my granddad had some put in downstairs. I remember as a kid, that we only had plug sockets downstairs and none upstairs. It had an outside toilet, no bathroom. As years went on the landlord put a bathroom in when I was about 19.

Female interviewee 2:
In Montague Square with both Mother and then opposite Peckham Police Station, I lived with my Mum. There’s a garden to play in. We didn’t have in Mum’s flat. Mother had the garden. I enjoyed just having, essentially an extra place to play and to feel safe and extra family members to spend time with, to the point where I spent more time with Grandmother.

Male interviewee 2:
It’s a very small housing estate. Only 250 houses. Only three blocks of flat. There’s a tall blocks of flats and the two lower ground. I wanted to make sure that my children mixed with everybody, so I went and joined the committee of the tenant’s residence association and worked with them quite a long time. That way, my children could join with everybody and go and play football, went swimming, and went to school, and met a few friends. It was still segregated with the grown ups. The grown ups didn’t seem to talk to anybody. If you went to the Christmas party, it was a group of cliquey people standing around, talking to each other. This has changed a little bit now.

Male interviewee 1:
I can remember great days and great times in my parents’ house. My parents would have parties regular. Police would come, neighbours would complain about this and that, having these parties because it was always wild around. Always complaining because they were always white around and can’t understand black people and all that music. [laughs] It was like, “What?” The police will come around, they’d come in; It could be that there were Africans in there, it’d be Asians in there, there’ll be whites in there, there’ll be Caribbean’s in there and they all just had a good time. Curried goat in the mornings [laughs]. At three o’clock in the morning, curried goat goes around, black pudding and stuff like that. It was nice times.

Female interviewee 1:
Gone to work, split up my husband. We divorced. Looked after children, mainly on my own. I did get married again but didn’t work out, to an Albanian. I’m still living in the same place with my youngest daughter and her baby and her partner. With six, no five cats.

Female interviewee 3:
On a personal level, a lot of my job is just interacting with members of the public who are interested about the past. About a third now, more like about 40% of whom – I know that because I actually sat down and worked it out the other day, are locals. Southwark locals are very, very friendly. Lacking in an inside voice, if I can put it that way. I don’t know whether that’s something about London in particular, or Southwark even more particularly. It’s almost like the history of dock working means everybody just got used to yelling, and it’s never quite stopped.

Male Speaker 2:
When I moved here in the ’70s, everywhere they used to say “It’s a working men’s borough.” Historically, it’s really rich. If you look back at the whole of Southwark, it’s very rich and people never realize that. If you look at it, Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first picture gallery in England. You got history there.

Male interviewee 3:
Peckham had a very bad reputation. It was seen as, in parts, a bit of the no go area. Of course, that’s only a partial story. It is where is. It’s always had a large amount of artists, creative people, particularly comedians. And it’s equidistant between two of the UK’s major arts schools between Camberwell College of Arts and Goldsmiths University of London.

Male interviewee 4:
Southwark has a very large Latin-American population and overall has a lot of non-British culture, and that’s too much strong accents, than you would find in Munich. There’s a lot more cultural diversity that you can find here. This is one of the things that I genuinely enjoy about living here. That being said, I’m of course in the very privileged position, that I am white male, reasonably well earning, I’m in the demographic that suffers the least from all of the issues here.

Female interviewee 1:
It’s not a bad area. We had our fair share of trouble with youths and knives and things but I suppose that’s because of such extreme differences in backgrounds, there’s such diversity. There’s a quite big divide as the years go on, between the richer and the poor people.

Male interviewee 3:
Somebody I worked at Southwark Learning Centre, a black single mother. And I was having a moan about something. And we always got on very well but she pointedly said to me, on this occasion that “Simon that’s not your world and you have no connection to it” and she was right. My world in Peckham is a very different world, than if I was a black teenage boy because growing up in Peckham, would be a very different situation and I can’t put myself in that situation because I have no experience of it.

Only today, I was talking to my partner and she had literally just left the library. It must have been less than half an hour before Damiola Taylor was stabbed. It’s about when you’re in places where you’re so close to where things are not right and where people are not getting on and where there is violence and aggression. It wings you literally.

Female interviewee 2:
Since my Tourette’s became more prominent and start to occur a lot more frequently, the way that people react to me has changed significantly. I think I’d say that 7 times out of 10, I do get very negative responses to it but none of that deters me from traveling and speaking to people because I just have to do it anyway. I have to get on with it.

I was out shopping. I saw a leaflet laying on the desk on a table [laughs] for Art Block. I was half and half on it because I was thinking, I already know what to do. I’m interested in artistic things, and I’m into fashion. I’d have things that I could share and things I could draw in on for inspiration from. I arrived finally. I thought I’ve never seen a space like this before. Eventually Jack and another worker called Elijah, they both saw me at the door and I opened up and I just explained why I was there. I had them for interview and then my tics went off and Jack explained to me that I shouldn’t feel discouraged for having it and that if they like me, that won’t stop me from getting a position. I was just feeling really assured after that. I was a lot more confident during the interview. I eventually got a position.

Female interviewee 1:
Where I live, there’s a pub called the Nags Head. Sort of, really quite a traditional sort of style pub, a lot of characters. Just typical South Londoners. Men from work, going for a drink. They seem to know each other quite well. They seem to accept anyone that are in there. They can be a bit temperamental at times. It feels quite relaxed.

Male interviewee 2:
I think the pub is 100 years old. They had to fight recently, to keep it open because it was going to be knocked down, where the Camberwell and the E5 Society fought to keep it open.

We need places like that in the borough, where people can go. If that closes, I don’t know what they will do, the people who are regularly coming there. We got lots of houses going up. I would say, I haven’t seen anybody from new build who come there because it’s probably below them. I find it very hard. I’m waiting to see, when these new people move in.

They’ll build 400 new flats around there. One I can look at from my front room, and the one is only five minutes walk. I would just see what people moving in there, and if they’re moving in there, are they contributing local economy, meaning they are using local shops, local restaurants, and are they mixing with local people?

Female interviewee 3:
It’s more a bit like a lot of places in London, what you have here is a privately built block of flats that is meant for the, if I can say, yuppie demographic and then across the street, or half a block down, or something is a set of council flats, that may or may not contain a large number of yuppies. Because the flats, some of flats anyway, have gotten into the private property market. It’s much more mixed I think, outside of our specific block of flats.

Male interviewee 1:
I decided to start working in the catering trade and then I swept down Liverpool Street, Stripe Street. One day he came in and I was doing cooking and stuff like that. My manager said, she can’t do cooking no more.” I said, “All right.” She said “Tell him the truth.” She was my friend and looked at me, then when he saw he said “that was the reason why because you’re black”. They don’t want no black man touching the food. I was devastated, I was. They were so stupid, they’ve done the best thing for me. I didn’t leave, I stayed on pretty much down the line, then the company folded up.

I went to work with the Royal Mail. I went there for about a year, where I was meant to be a trainee chef. And I got there, you know, the usual tricks. They made me a catering assistant, serving food and stuff like that. You know what I mean. Rolling overtime, was what I’d do, I would try to do the tables and stuff like that. Yes, so I do that. And I was going on courses here and there. Going to Liverpool market and stuff like that. Going for week and learning about watching and all of that stuff. Then I started working on breakfast. Then from there with the veg, then I did fish. Then from there, I went on to pastry. Then from there, I went on to mains doing meats and sauces. That was good. So I learned everything.

Female interviewee 1:
I got a job as a care worker. And I used to work Monday to Friday. It was a job where I could take the children to school, and be there to pick them up. It was mainly shopping and cleaning then. As the years went on, people wanted more personal care, so the role changed, so we ended up doing more personal care, which we never did before. Washing, feeding. Everybody’s different and everybody varies. The clients are all different nationalities. We’ve got carers from all the different nationalities. The job has changed a lot. You got less time with each person than you used to have.

Sometimes you’ve got like 45 minutes. And in that 45 minutes, you’re meant to get someone up, give them a wash, give them their breakfast, change them. And it’s quite a rush. You moved around a lot more often to different people and you don’t spend as long with one person like you used anymore. They wish they had more regular carers.

Male interviewee 2:
There are certain changes that are coming up. Me personally, I’m not happy. Gentrifying the word they kept using because if you gentrify everything, where would the local people go who can’t afford it? So you should still have it, certain things as it is. I know a pie and mash shop, I don’t eat much pie in my shop but it’s there, but it’s got a history behind it. You got East Street Market, it’s got a history over 125 years old. You got Peckham Market. We should never lose those thing because if we lose that, then you will lose the ethic of the people. When people talk about community, I don’t talk about the community where you go for a prayer. I talk a community where you live.

My community is in SE5, where I live in SE5 and Peckham got their own SE15. If you start introducing to say that is a community because you belong to certain religion or certain sect of a region, then you’re breaking up the community. Community should be everybody together.

Some places who were not welcome in some ways, but you just didn’t go there. You have to make an effort, and so many people just didn’t make an effort to go there. They’re segregated themselves because on their belief. But I think you can still mix everybody even if you don’t need the food or you don’t follow the same religion, you can still go and be in a club member. That’s how the community happens. But If you divide the community up by religion or race then you’re breaking up the borough.

Female interviewee 2: I’d see maybe five friends on a regular basis, others I speak to you over the phone or in texting. I’d say that there’s one completely English, one who have Irish ancestry, but was raised over here. I’d say two Jamaicans, but with but from different parishes to the ones my family’s come from and two Ethiopians.

Male interviewee 1: The people coming, believe it or not, their people can afford to buy. You could call them middle class or call them whatever you want to call them. Their people that can afford to go out and get a mortgage, but one thing I will say though, they’ll get the mortgage but my colour, they don’t really look at them. It’s a true fact. What’s going on out there, they’re coming in already buying up, right you buy up, not even mixing with people here. You have your own little coffee shops for yourselves. You have your own little nursery up the road for yourselves. Yes, you’ve got this, you’ve got that for yourselves. It’s great, having all these things to yourself. Something you always got to realize in life, you get older, your kids get older. So, when your kids get older, how are you going to be able to think that they’d be still? They don’t want to come into that environment because they’re unknown.

Female interviewee 1: It used to be full of big shops, and now there’s none left. None of the original ones, we used to have British Home Stores, Walworth’s, all of them were up there. There’s a lot of multicultural shops down there now, so it’s very different. Under the arches in Peckham, there seems to be lot of bars for the young students. A lot more restaurants, every type of food you can buy, they’ve all opened up over the years. You’ve got charity shops, betting shops in the area, apart from if you live on the estates or flats. All the houses are going quite upmarket and middle class. People that can afford to buy them because otherwise the price property in London is so high. That really if you’re not in social housing you haven’t got any chance. If you’re poor, to rent or buy, so the richer people are buying all the, properties. There’s lot of a new-builds. Some of them are for social housing, some for private rent but then a lot of those social housing ones and unless you’re on benefits, the rates are still quite high, if you’re in just an average working job or average employment.

Male interviewee 3:
The demographic is changing and changing rapidly because everybody was leaving Southeast London to go to work and then obviously coming back again. And Peckham is only, on a good day 11 minutes on the train to London Bridge. And what seems to have happened, over the last 15 years, is that people are working that out that this place is very central. It’s changed. Transport links have made a huge difference. The arrival of the over ground a few years ago has opened up, its connected up all parts, parts of South London and Southwest London that were very difficult to get to.

Peckham’s actually very nice place to live at the moment because it has a mixture of everything, and everybody seems to be rubbing along okay, but my assumption is as a tipping balance at some point. And a population that has made its home there will slowly be edged out and replaced by, it’s very obvious to see it, a much younger, I think I would say, I don’t like like using the term white, a younger European population. There are a lot of people from a lot of places. 30 years ago, it was quite difficult to use Peckham because there wasn’t really anything there. Now there’s plenty to use Peckham for. But f or me, I have to say that the thing I use it for most is buying food. Food that I haven’t seen before and I have to work out how the hell I’m going to cook it and that’s just joyful.

Female interviewee 3:
The one time I have felt actively unwelcome due to being an immigrant, in general, it was actually being an American in particular, was about the first year I moved over to the UK. One of my then partner’s friends, we were having a discussion and we’ve both been drinking, and he was a bit drunk. I can’t even remember why he came out with the comment, but he came out with the comment, “At least I come from a civilized country.” Which was a little bit below the belt, but he almost immediately recognized that what he’d said had crossed a line and apologized.

What I find completely heart warming, is after the election in 2016 when I would have expected there to be an uptake in commentary about, “You’re an American. How can you be such idiots?” Instead, there’s just been this enormous outpouring of support for, “Yes, we understand that like this is an aberration, and we will help you protect your democracy.” Bernie and I went on the march the day after the inauguration. I think there were about 150,000 people in that march, nowhere near all of who could possibly be American.

Male interviewee 4:
My colleagues obviously, they are very nice people. At work, there is an incredibly white cultural background. And in London overall, there are I think, a lot more immigrants. Then that is, I think what helps a lot with avoiding these kinds of intolerance. The contrary example to that is in some parts of Germany, which have much higher instances of racism and just generally see the folks sentiments. Those are, in fact, overall economically weak areas of the country. They also are, interesting enough, the areas that have a very, very low number of immigrants as well. People don’t actually see any of the immigrants, so it is much easier to demonize the, dirty, dirty immigrants if they don’t actually interact with them and get the chance to see that they are nice people.

Male interviewee 1:
You can be successful coming from Peckham. Loads of famous people come out of Peckham. Look at one of my mates on Talford Road. He did a book out. Another one on Talford Road, she’s In Eastenders. Yep, Lorraine Chase, went to Peckham. You know, Yolande from the top of the road, from Eastenders. Great things does come out of Peckham. But I think the generation needs to know that. But there is great things coming out, there’s also good and bad people coming in. I got my white friends, call them middle class call them whatever you want to call them, there great people. But also, you got the little ones that come in and they don’t even want to talk to you. So there is some good that comes in. But do you know what? We’ll always get change whilst we’re living. But it’s for us, whether they accept it or not, And as long as they change that, you can’t do nothing about it. You got to accept it and you got to work with it. If you don’t work with it, you’ve lost, the system’s beaten you.

Female interviewee 1:
I’d like to think I’d most take most people as they come, some people, you can feel a little threatened by but I think when you get so many cultures, you’ve got different ways of life and style and different mannerisms. Some people even I find seem a bit abrupt, but once you start talking to them and get to know them, you realize they’re not as abrupt as you thought. That it’s just their way.

Female interviewee 2:
On the whole communication and just being able to share what you’re thinking and feeling despite other people agree or disagree is really important. I think that we shouldn’t be scared to ask other people questions when we see something that we’ve never encountered before.