Clare Qualmann: Footwork through things

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‘The thing is the real that we both find and make. The thing has a history: it is not simply a passive inertia against which we measure our own activity. It has a “life” of its own, characteristics of its own, which we must incorporate into our activities…’

The Thing, Elizabeth Grosz, in ANYthing, MIT press 2001, p240

 The first thought that strikes me on the walk is that there are very few things – that is objects – to find. Having decided to look for things this makes me a little worried. I don’t want to search for things, or go out of my way to get things, I want them to present themselves to me – I want them to be in my way – on the path – unavoidable. This is the way I have experienced the finding of objects in the past. I’m uncomfortable with making a decision to do something different. After a little while (contemplating picking some flowers, rocket, grasses – then rejecting the idea) I forget to worry about it and just walk. So it’s quite a way in – perhaps an hour and a half – when the first object appears. We are in Woolwich town centre, we’ve just come out of Sainsbury’s. The bright bright sunshine makes it look lovely – not how I remember Woolwich from past visits – not how it manifests in my imagination. It’s a burst balloon, red, on the pavement near the road. It looks as though it has burst spectacularly – it’s not shrivelled at all, but has torn in the line of the explosion. I bet it made a bang. Picking it up reveals it to be a McDonald’s balloon – the distorted icon of Ronald printed on it front and back. I imagine a child, in a pushchair, holding it on a string or one of those sticks, and crying when it burst. I indulge in a little judgmental prejudice of the imaginary parent of the child in the pushchair for feeding them McDonald’s food.

For sure, Woolwich is one of London’s most ethnically diverse areas. The borough is home to numerous faiths – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. And to a kaleidoscope of different nationalities: Nigerians, Congolese, Nepalese, Gujaratis, Tamils, Vietnamese, eastern Europeans, and many others.Tensions are rising. Hours after the murder, supporters of the English Defence League pelted the police with bottles and chanted anti-Muslim slogans, a response both ominous and predictable.

Woolwich killing: residents reflect on murder of Lee Rigby, Luke Harding, Guardian, 23rd May 2013

The second object is a leaflet, a religious leaflet handed to me on the river path. Actually I have to sort of make clear with my body language that I’m going to take a leaflet – even though the woman is holding them out she seems slightly tentative – like she would easily allow me to not have one if I just walked by. This very familiar interaction feels strange and out of context here. This is a near-deserted river path, not a busy high street. Apart from our group only the odd cyclist has gone past. The leaflet’s cover shows a very poorly photoshopped pixelated image of the earth seen from space, held in a hand with rays of light emerging from it. The thumb of the hand is foreshortened and discoloured so that it looks more like a cinnamon stick than a thumb. It took a few goes for me to see that it was definitely meant to be a hand. Below this image red and white lettering announces ‘The Time is NOW’ NOW is in capital letters. Below the lettering is another image of the earth, with pixelated clock face discs firing out from it, and the strapline ‘Tomorrow may be too late’. The inside of the leaflet contains a call, an invitation to repent and to find Jesus, along with several biblical quotes. The reverse of the leaflet includes a suggested prayer for the reader to say, which ends ‘I reject every works of the devil and I say bye bye to satan and their agents, I confess I’m saved in Jesus name’ (multiple sic).

Contact details for the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries International give the address as Unit 1, Crown Industrial Estate, Thamesmead, not far from where we are walking. I wonder how many leaflets the woman will be able to get rid of today, here on the empty path. Perhaps she is just on her way somewhere else and has chanced upon our group – a lucky find.

The first family moved into Thamesmead in June 1968, a few more moved in by the end of that year, and by 1971- about a year later than planned – 1000 families were in residence. About 20,000 people now live there instead if the 40,000 forecast at this stage. Compare to the general population, less than half of the people are over 65 and there are nearly twice as many children under 15; 6% compared to 22% in the general population are of professional or managerial status. Few private developers have so far been attracted. The town centre has not yet been built, and a shortage of jobs locally compels many residents to travel to work in inner London. Building continues, though slowly because of economic reasons, and proposals for a river crossing at the eastern end of Thamesmead may hasten development of the centre. The Greater London Council’s policies on the rate of development , on rents, on services, and on the balance between public and private housing varied with the four-yearly changes in political control of the GLC. Community spirit is good however, fostered by a lively local newspaper Insight and by radio Thamesmead.

Thamesmead: Dream to reality, P M Higgins, BMJ, Vol. 285, 27 Nov 1982 p1565

As we walk out of Erith the path leaves the river for the first time. We walk through an industrial estate, before turning down a lane that seems it will take us back to the riverside. The hedgerow on one side is bright pink and white with Hawthorn blossom, Elder just starting to flower. On the other side verbal abuse is hurled through the open door of an industrial building – at us? No it seems not – we are jumpy after passing cars shouted obscenities at us earlier. Here we come across pages from a cookery book, folded in 4 and a little worn from being in the road. Pages 69 and 70, 75 and 76 of ‘the new freezer cookbook’. Recipes to freeze, or recipes using frozen ingredients I wonder? To be frozen it seems. Fish Lasagne, Smoked Haddock Cobbler, Kipper Mousse (it seems we have the fish and seafood section) Halibut in tomato sauce, Prawn Quiche. A full colour photograph announces that we have reached the poultry and game section: a platter of chicken in a brown sauce, whole button mushrooms and shallots, small discs of fried bread? Sprinkled with a thin line of curly parsley. We don’t seem to have the recipe that goes with this image: Chicken Pompadour, Farmhouse Chicken and Chicken croquettes do not match up. Has this small extract escaped from a nearby recycling yard? Or municipal dump? Or a domestic rubbish bin? Is it a fragment of a larger collection of fly-tipped rubbish? Or the treasured favourite pages of a family cookbook?

The Elder is a classic example of a shrub ideally adapted to the disturbed and uncertain conditions in these places (as witnessed by its ability to thrive in the scratched-up ground around badger sets and rabbit warrens). It is a phenomenally fast grower, outstripping all comparable rivals provided it has a modicum of light, water and nutrients. It is able to achieve this precocious self-inflation by, as one botanist put it, ‘cheating’. The unexceptional woody exterior of an elder branch is just a front; cut into one and you will find it padded out with a spongy pith about as substantial as a cellulose slimming biscuit.

The Unofficial Countryside, Richard Mabey, Little Toller Books, 1973, p.42

Coming away from the river again, forced by the meander of the river Darent, our group divides – I am with the ones that can go no further on foot. We wait in and outside of a pub on the busy road for taxis while the others disappear over the horizon, walking along the dual carriageway, keeping the goal of the bridge in their sights. But there is more of the walk yet. After cooling off a little I decide to walk from the hotel to the pub where we are meeting for dinner. It is a strange landscape – in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth 2nd bridge, a business park, not an industrial estate like the ones we have walked through earlier. Positioned for the excellent road connections, transport possibilities, international rail links. all of the main budget hotel chains seem to be represented, a C.P Hart bathroom product distribution centre sits next to a semi-manicured small lake, large carparks, blank featureless low-rise facades. This is not a pedestrian environment. On the edge of the road, lying on the grass verge is a small red flag. It’s attached to a long metal spike, the flag itself is square and made from a vinyl-plasticky material. Later on, walking back to the hotel after dinner I see more of them – stuck into the ground, and worry that they mark out some sort of poison – an area treated with pesticides perhaps, or maybe that I have inadvertently removed an important marker.

In its new incarnation the diffuse, sprawling, and endlessly mobile world metropolis is fundamentally different from the city as we have known it…. This new city is not an accretion of streets and squares that can be comprehended by the pedestrian, but instead manifests its shape from the air, the car, or the mass transit railway. Landmarks are reduced to flashes of slow-moving traffic, glimpsed from above on elevated highways amid a glittering river of red brake lights

The Rhetoric of Urban Space, Deyan Sudjic, cited by Wilson, E, New Left Review, 1/209, 1995, p.154

My found object envy is awakened by Dee, who walked the final leg, the motorway leg, and was rewarded with the most appropriate find imaginable. Pages from a book for children suggesting performance exercises that engage with nature – make your body into the shape of an oak tree, say ‘I am a tree, an oak tree, an oak tree’. She performs excerpts from it beautifully. But we had decided from the beginning that the finding of objects on this walk was not meant to be about having them, keeping them, making them into treasures. It was meant to be a process by which to have a conversation – with each other, with the landscape, with the place. So I don’t need to have Dee’s pages to have them as one of the objects from the walk (I tell myself in a vain attempt to minimize my covetousness).

But if I’m claiming Dee’s pages as a find, can I have other stuff that I saw but didn’t or couldn’t pick up? Can I have the skeletal rusted structure of the floral ‘Grandad’ tribute washed up by the river and then displayed on a jetty? Can I have one of the perfect cake-like pieces of concrete? Or a bale of plastic waste? What about a building or a boat, a jetty or a flood gate? My handful of objects, a few pieces of paper, seem like slim pickings – but funnily enough they do seem to tell the story, or rather a story of this place, or these places that we have skated over.

The post post script to the walk comes the following morning – Mark and I walk to Asda to buy breakfast and lunch supplies. Along the 4 lanes of traffic, around roundabouts and through the car park we walk – where we find a shopping list:

Dishwasher tabs, Washing gel, Fab conditioner, tomatoes, peppers, onions, Tuna, Pasta Bake, Mince, Sweet potatos, Banana, juice, salad cream, cereal container, air fresheners.

Leaving the supermarket we walk back on the same side of the road, but of course the view is different. We suddenly notice a church tower, roofs of houses behind a line of trees. This is Stone, a village that has blurred into the business park. Oh I exclaim. I had not realized that this was a real place.