The Other London Perambulator: John Rogers
By Adam Scovell.
John Rogers has been one of the most prominent psychogeographical writers and filmmakers of the last decade. Fiercely independent and with a strong DIY sensibility towards his creative responses to London, his work is a vital component and documentation of a city still in a phase of hyper-development and gentrification. Ahead of his adaptation/response to Iain Sinclair’s most recent book, London Overground, I met up with him in the surreal dystopian zone of the Olympic Park for a chat about his filmmaking, psychogeography and London. (A version of this interview was published at the Celluloid Wicker Man site)
AS: So John, tell me a bit about where we are.
JR: There was something around here, a deep freeze cold-storage place and the train used bring in the freight and load it into these freezers. Iain Sinclair worked there and there was a big industrial dispute there too so it was interesting. Iain did casual work in the railway yards, there were various industries here. I didn’t really come down here much before actually but it was that kind of area that you wouldn’t go to because, though there were access roads, there wasn’t much access in general. If you want to see what it was like, there’s one bit left actually on the outside of the park; if you go past the stadium towards Marshgate Lane, go towards that orbital sculpture and turn in off Stratford High Street, walking west toward the River Lea, there’s a bit of old industrial land still which they’re trying to get rid of. That was what most of this was like, low-rise light industry.
AS: That sounds a bit like Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside. Is that east or west?
JR: That’s mainly west I think, heading out of London. I mean he doesn’t state fully but my understanding is more Coln Valley towards where London meets Hertfordshire. I grew up on the south Chilterns near the edge of London and he’s from that sort of terrain anyway but yeah, over west. He might have written about it here and it’s that kind of landscape, although it’s quite toxic here. I’m sure you’ve heard it before; this was where plastic was invented, where the first nuclear fusion reactions took place. So the land is ridiculously toxic and contaminated.
AS: I think Iain’s written about this quite a bit hasn’t he?
JR: Yeah, he’s written an essay about it and in Ghost Milk too. I’ve not actually read Ghost Milk, that’s one of his that I’ve yet to read though I imagine it’s in there. Also, in London Orbital, he writes about Enfield and the toxicity of the land around the armaments factory which is part of the same ecosystem, part of the Lea Valley. You can walk and end up in Enfield in about two to three hours.
AS: Yeah, the connections to these places are surprising. I went east to Robin Hood Gardens in Blackwall for the first time last week for some photos for an article, and it’s the first time I’ve been to this part. I’d never seen Canary Warf properly: it was a full culture shock, like a faux Manhattan. I went to compare the Smithson architecture and went to the Economist Building in central London too. I went back there though because it’s so alien and strange, like the opposite of a high-rise, like a long-rise; it’s like a high-rise on its side connected by gardens and it’s all boarded up even though people are still living there.
JR: These types of conflicts used to be isolated. Similarly, the Carpenters Estate became well known because the E15 mothers did their occupation there after the Olympics. They want the poor people out of London, basically. And they’re doing it systematically and brutally. There may be exceptions but I’ve seen places where they run down the estates by not spending money. You know about this sort of thing; the lack of funding for inner city areas. Then they say, “Oh we can’t afford to do this stuff up, we’ve got to do something, these houses aren’t fit to live in.”. So they say they’re doing them a favour by housing them in new homes and then, “Oh, by the way, we can’t afford to house them in London: we have to house them all over the country”. So they’re moving those people out and then privatising the land. I do try to look for an optimistic slant. There’s a slight change in tone now where the buy-to-leave thing to overseas investors is acknowledged as a bad thing for London. You’d think it would be bloody obvious.
AS: It’s starting to click in general, at least in the public consensus.
JR: Yeah definitely. Personally, I think you can do anything if there’s a political will there. So the developers go, “We’re just dealing with the realities of the world, we need to take the money from wherever it is, what can we do?”. But anything can happen if there’s a will to make it happen and I think the seeds are there. Whether it’ll be too late to do anything about it is another question.
AS: So where does London Overground fit into this then?
J: Part of Iain’s genius is, in the book (and I hope it comes across in the film), dealing with a really unwieldy idea and set of issues to get your head around by addressing it with such a universal idea. I’ve been documenting various campaigns around London over the last few years, starting off with the E15 and even before. And where you look at it on a case-by-case basis, there are economic patterns that underpin this and ways which different local authorities deal with this. But, if you try and find a universal narrative, something that links it all together, it can be quite difficult. Also, from a campaigning pointing of view, you deal with specifics. So London Overground takes the simple device of walking in a day around the Overground, looking at that circuit, which is newly completed (before you had fragments) so we have a new circuit from disused track that ran from Dalston Junction to Whitechapel and other bits to complete a circuit that didn’t exist. In doing so, in a microcosm, it tells you the story of what’s happening in London today. And Iain just looks at what is happening around the newly completely and branded route. So they gave it this identity and Iain really nails it. He talks about it being a spin-dyer of international capitalism, you throw in dirty money and it comes out clean on the other side of it. In the same way that London Orbital really gets to the heart of the period of grand projects and the middle England that he gets to in The Edge of the Orison. So he has a knack of finding a journey which tells you the story of what’s happening at that particular time. And Overground really does tell the story of now. We didn’t really look to properly adapt it because of that.
AS: So it’s like a secondary reaction to the route rather than a straight adaptation?
JR: Yeah, we just took the same walk. There were a few cases of consciously not recreating things in the book. For example, there’s a wonderful section in the book about Iain’s relationship with Angela Carter. She’s great. When I interviewed Iain about the book, I was really curious about that because that is another London that doesn’t quite exist anymore, a literary London. It’s kind of dead really, at least in that form. So he’s still book dealing, and she can do a profile on him in the LRB and that can have transformative effects. What I loved about it is that there’s a lunch in Bloomsbury to celebrate an article in the LRB and that just doesn’t happen now.
AS: That sort of lunch culture, pitching films and books over endless lunches.
JR: Yeah, fucking hell. This was just for an article, you wouldn’t get a lunch for your book being published now.
AS: So did Iain’s book connect to some of the activism elements of your previous projects or was there something specific in the book you latched on to?
JR: I didn’t quite want to bring that into the film to some extent. There was a point in the edit where I thought I should I edit some of it in, but it’s a different way of dealing with it. Narratively, Iain unpicks it in a more, not exactly subtle, but universally informed way. What was great about doing it was walking it in 6-7 segments – I would drop the kids off at school and then walk with Iain until about 2 before heading back to pick them up – but basically a walk and talk. Very little staged filming, just going for a walk with a camera. He’d ask me about all those things on those walks.
AS: So it’s very different to the Petit/Sinclair adaptation of London Orbital which uses archive footage to recreate say, the gangsters protests, Ballard reactions etc. whereas yours is a response film to the same walk. I like that difference. I don’t think it would quite work if you went into the archive again, it’s a very filmic psychogeography which I think is very difficult to achieve.
JR: What would be really hard to work with Adam, if you tried to, would be if you had an idea. That sounds really stupid but the idea here was already set by the book which is basically the idea of Iain and Kötting walking that journey, so that was the idea. Initially, Iain thought we’d try it again in a day, which would have been impossible to do and a very different film. We introduced it in Hackney last week and he described it as doing it like a live event and that was really what I wanted to do, but otherwise you have to provoke happenings.
AS: I was interested when you were talking about The London Perambulator film and wondered if there was any differences between the films and whether they were down to differences between Iain’s writing and Nick Papadimitriou’s writing?
JR: The primary difference is me as a filmmaker as I’d never made a feature length piece then. One of the things about Perambulator was simply making a film. So I’d wanted to make that for a number of years. I’d gone down the funding and documents route, pitching it to the BBC etc. So the form that that film takes is a biography but also one about deep topography. The two are inseparable as you have to understand Nick and see the landscape through his eyes. The format is of a TV arts profile, Arena-style, a famous person talks about another famous person and so on.
AS: Does this highlight a difference between psychogeography and deep topography or is that just wordage?
JR: I wouldn’t make that distinction personally, I mean deep topography is basically Nick. I made a video with Nick some years back and you could Google the term and that would be the only thing that would come back. There was a point where you’d get that video and bits of oceanography too. Now the word is cited in academic journals and its listed in course outlines.
AS: As you’ve written your London book too (This Other London), does psychogeography split further between the different media?
JR: It does and it doesn’t actually. It’s definitely about gaining confidence in filmmaking. When I made Perambulator, I was working for a production company so I had an obligation to work in a particular way. So that film has a more formal structure. Whereas with this, I didn’t have to come up with a device as the device was set: the walk. Now, you just have to do it for yourself and the person you’re working with. The similarity with the book, on the other hand, is that thing of documenting a live event; you might plot a path and it would go to these places, and then you would document it. Actually, I documented all of the walks from my book to put into a film but never got round to doing it. But when I went for the walk, I did the same thing as I do when I go on a walk now. You try to make that process almost invisible, the documentation shouldn’t become an inhibiting factor.
AS: So you want to remove the filmic process as much as is possible?
JR: But not so much that you don’t have anything at the end of the day. And that appealed to Iain. He does tons of filming with the BBC, Sky Arts etc. and it’s fucking laborious. You couldn’t do what we did in that sense. So it was quite appealing.
AS: And that’s more in line with his creative practice too.
JR: Yeah. So the difference between the two, to be crude, would be that, with Iain, it’s a structured form. But with Nick, it would be impossible to do that.
AS: I interviewed some artists in a Liverpool Biennial show a while back and they’d been paid by the shopping centre, Liverpool ONE, to create this lift exploding out of the ground which disrupted the shopping route and the walkers. But I was made to censor the interview in the end as L1 had basically paid for their own protests as the piece was designed to distract the shoppers from buying things.
JR: Co-opting it! It’s interesting though. If you think about your own work and other psychogeographers too. We went to the offices in Mayfair of the guy who was the manager of this huge shopping centre and he’d looked at the work and the documentation of the site before the development. We had a lot of old archive film and photos and things. And he really liked it all because, in his view, it showed “how shit the area used to be and how great it’ll be once we’ve built it”. He said “I love this, it shows what a huge improvement we’ve made to the area”. They make the same argument here too and people buy it.
AS: You use the Standard Planets track in the film that has Iain being confronted by a suit at Shoreditch House, you know “You can have your Arthur Morrison, Child of the Jago shitheaps but you just don’t get why we need these lovely empty buildings”.
JR: It’s a debate you have to be prepared to have. I had this debate in this park at the time of the Olympics with my wife. She said “It’s all well and good what you’re saying but, you know, there’s only so many psychogeographers. Look at all these people here. They weren’t going to come here before. They weren’t going to climb over the tyre mountains to get here”. That’s why I keep coming back here in a way.
AS: I’m sure there’s a balance between questioning the space and finding the silver linings.
JR: I mean they’re very clever at what they do. What they successfully get away with is when there’s a building down there, for example the old Yardley factory, which is now an empty block of luxury flats. I mean they would have been jobs for life at Yardley. They were relatively well paid for the area. They would have been secure, trade union protected, people who fought hard for that protection, the match girls strikes, and that’s been replaced by a block of flats clearly not built for anyone living in Stratford already. The people from the Angel Lane Estate over there aren’t going to be able to afford them.
AS: It does seem quite empty. It’s literally as ghost town down there, quite surreal.
JR: It’s effectively two landlords though one owner. One is a housing association and the other is owned by the Sovereign Investment Fund Of Dubai. They call it some bullshit name but they own it, I think it’s like Get Living London or something. You go back a few stages and it’s Dubai-owned. That’s just the East Village though.
AS: Is it getting harder to film because of things like this in the city then?
JR: Well Canary Warf is terrible but what I’ve noticed is that it’s got easier, having been through a period of it getting harder. It’s gone back a bit. There was a point after 7/7 when filming anywhere with a camcorder would get you stopped. Maybe it’s linked to selfie culture but there was a point when you couldn’t film. A lot of the time though it’s fine with security guards. I was doing an occupy project about the Daily Mail and I was filming their building and then went over for a shot of the bust of Lord Rothermere who owned it, and the security guard came out and he went “Oh what are you doing?” and I went “Oh I’m just filming this thing here, can I come in?”. And then he said it was private property but he helped show me where the property ended so I could still get the shot. I’m sure he doesn’t really like the Daily Mail either. I did get stopped by the Bank of England printing works too, and I did dig my heels in a bit at that time though.
AS: It sounds a bit like that scene from Mike Leigh’s Naked where David Thewlis surprisingly gets let in to an empty building by the security guard in the middle of the night.
JR: There’s one shot in the Overground film that goes around and over the river and it goes into the tunnel to get the train coming through. I set up right in the undergrowth and I was so surprised no one came to check it out really.
AS: It’s nice optimistic point in one sense.
JR: What would be interesting would be when something like Nine Elms is finished near Battersea, as that’s huge. Twice we got stopped doing the Overground though. We got stopped in St. Mary’s Cemetery which I don’t really disagree with and the other was Ridley Road Market which is more about paying the council as you can film in both but you need the license. You need to pay them.
AS: When I did the recording with Iain, it was the day after the night time filming on one of the Overground segments and we were talking about it with Kötting and they were both disappointed that they’d not had any trouble or challenges.
JR: I mean it’s good footage! I think because there are so many cameras it’s too difficult to stop now.
AS: So where’s the film going from here?
JR: I think I might add that extra five minutes or so to give it a bit more breathing space and, I got this from Iain’s feedback, on not editing it sequentially. It might need just a touch more navigation. And then we’ve got some screenings, a good year of screenings, before it goes online and then maybe a DVD release and book next year. There’s a lot of stuff in the film that isn’t actually in the book so it would be like a book of a film of a book. But the book will have pieces from everyone involved. There’ll be a screening at the Swedenborg Institute with Gareth Evans that’ll have a performance by Kötting too which should be fun!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
John Rogers is author of This Other London – Adventures in the Overlooked City (2013) and director of the documentaries The London Perambulator (2009), Make Your Own Damn Art (2012) and London Overground (2016).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 26th, 2016.