Like a surrealist joke, a gnome dangles from a swing tied to the ‘Disabled Badge Holders Only’ sign marking the edge of the pavement and the entrance to Wayman Court. This feels like a coded sign, like those shoes you see dangling from telephone wires in Glasgow, but somehow with a wry and somewhat psychotic sense of humour. There is pathos in this dangling figure and it creates conflicting emotions within me. It instantly makes me want to laugh, yet the sort of laughter that is tinged with a deep and heavy sorrow.
Burroughs once wrote, “I don’t spot junk neighbourhoods by the way they look, but by the feel, somewhat the same process by which a dowser locates hidden water. I am walking along and suddenly the junk in my cells moves and twitches like the dowsers wand: ‘Junk here!’”
I know the Wayman Court estate well. I have lived here a long time and have a neighbourly relationship with many of its residences. It is a small estate. One 17 story tall block which stands like a counterweight for a line of Oak trees that radiate in a carefully planted row across London Fields. Adjacent to the tall block are two low-rise blocks of maisonettes forming an L shape that encloses a carefully manicured central garden. Many of the elderly residents of this estate are the original residents who first took up residence when the estate was opened in 1959. The estate is well ordered and maintained by a residents committee straight out of JG Ballard’s imagination. A strict hierarchy exists, maintaining the ultimate power of the committee chairperson, Di , an elderly but powerful women always flanked by her vicious husband Alf. This is a ruthless dictatorship that ensures a beautifully ordered, clean, well maintained estate. Everyone knows who to contact if there is a problem and everyone knows the consequences of disagreeing with her.
As I enter the estate I am taken by an unidentified feeling of unease. There is a strange ambience perceptible. My nervous system is on high alert and my mind is drawn to that quote by Burroughs. There is nothing tangible, just a feeling, a mixture of threat and excitement. As I walk past the tower block a group of shifty characters are huddled behind the wall, waiting, with perspiring desperation. A row kicks off. A guy in a dirty denim jacket and a baseball cap holding a can of Tenants Super yells at a women sitting on a concrete step wearing clothes two sizes too small for her emaciated body. The voices are Eastern European, probably Polish or Lithuanian. I walk further into the estate and see two of the local residents, standing defiantly, eyeing up the Junkies. This is an unusual alliance. Elizabeth with her bright red died hair and Shell holding the leads of a pair of pit bull terriers. Elizabeth is what you would describe as a Cockney, must be going on 70, always immaculately turned out, hair flaming red in a 60’s film star style, still likes to get down to Bethnal Green for a drink on a Friday night, heart of gold, looks after the estates’ elderly residents, decks out her balcony in Union Jack bunting for any national occasion, Royal wedding, Jubilee or World Cup and is always the first to know when anything is happening on the estate. Shell is the tough matriarch of one of the maisonettes and Di, the chairperson of the residents committee, has repeatedly tried to obtain an ASBO to stop her kids sitting in the communal gardens drinking and smoking weed. Her front door is still boarded up after her estranged husband attempted to smash it through after been released from prison for bottling a bloke in a drunken argument. As I approach Elizabeth says, ‘The Junkies are back’, Shell joins in with a tirade about the polish couple leaving needles in the den. The den been a circular structure of trees and flowers in the centre of the communal garden, under which the younger estate kids use as a den and Shells dogs like to entertain themselves by chasing each other around and through. Whilst we stand there the dealer turns up, a tattooed hipster on a white folding bike with the arrogance of a public school boy. I don’t let on that I’ve seen him before and know he lives on one of the canal boats at the bottom of Broadway market. He looks straight through his hostile audience and caries on his trade. Less than a minute and he’s off again. ‘Why don’t you lot just fuck off back to where you came from and stop leaving your shit all over the place. We know what you’re up to, you junky pieces of shit!”, a shrill voice yells from behind us. We all turn our heads to see Courtney, Shell’s 19 year old daughter, standing at the door wearing a pink velour tracksuit. Her boyfriend, an Irish traveller with gingery blond hair, cut into a strict side parting, is stood beside her with an amused, slightly stoned look on his face. The junkies make a quick exit. I assume to find somewhere les hostile to shoot up their shit. This is spatial politics at both its most complex and base.