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Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus research, episode 2

Focus East 15 Visit 7th April.

I went to visit Focus East 15 again a couple of weeks ago at their street stall on Stratford High Street and joined their monthly meeting at ‘Sylvia’s Corner- the groups headquarters, named after Sylvia Pankhurst.

Each time I visit I am stuck by how blatant the irony is in Stratford. As I walked to meet the group, who are campaigning for housing rights in a borough where 1 in 25 is homeless, I see adverts proclaiming “YOU CAN BUY YOUR FIRST HOME AT THE FIRST TIME BUYER HOME SHOW!!!”

Subtlety

I met more campaigners and friends of Focus, including local residents, former residents of Carpenters Estate and several artists and theatre makers. Many more ‘gang names’ were thought up and allocated.

The Terrible Turtles

These two hatted sleuths are the ‘Terrible Turtles’, who also happen to run the Museum of Homelessness. I also met artists from Blueprint, Lung and You Should See the Other Guy- theatre makers who are actively engaged in this campaign, making shows about Focus East 15 and the wider issues.  Follow links to see more about their work.

I’ve been keen that the show should raise the profile of campaign groups and the wider stories, but that we should also directly work with groups alongside the shows, particularly if this was to tour. I’d been thinking about workshops in playful protest, creativity in campaigning, but I’ve realised that workshops, and a wider online presence also need to be vehicles for skill sharing and a way to link groups. They might also direct attendees towards legal or other support and networks.

The meeting drew links between the many, many groups in London and further afield united in the fight for housing rights. Time and time again the same story is being told, of council housing being sold off and residents being decanted and displaced. “The London clearances” was brought up as a term, linking the plight to that of the Highland clearances. Scottish people cleared for sheep, Londoners cleared for luxury flats. Both stories putting profit before people.

“‘We need more housing” is what they say, but the new housing is not for working class people and (the demolition and wholesale evictions) are destroying communities.” – Jasmine

A resident who had lived on Carpenters Estate for 30 years talked of her sadness any having to leave. ‘I was decanted’ ‘Every time I pass (Carpenters) I check to see if (my old home) is still empty.’ She has lost her community. ‘It was a good estate’. She would open her door to neighbours and friends. Now she feels isolated and alone.

I gave a short presentation about Ferguson’s gang vs the Octopus and was interested in what perceived impact this, and other arts projects about and supporting such issues could have on the campaigns. I wanted to know how Fergusons Gang could be useful. The main reason clearly linked to play. The story of Ferguson’s Gang fills people with delight. It’s inspiring and exciting. What they did, and how they did it is fun, and it makes people smile.

“Activism is serious but it needs to be fun too”

“It’s inspiring because these strong women were bold in their campaigning and did this, with playfulness all those years ago”

“They made a difference, and people can see themselves in Fergusons Gang.” “

Its tells you that you’re not alone, you’re part of a story.”

“It gives solidarity through time. It’s good to know about our history. See your part in this story. The same story of Suffragettes and Pankhurst. Fergusons are part of that story as is every campaign group today.”

As I was leaving Stratford, I saw the Terrible Turtles, in long coats and hats, weaving their way through dense crowds in a shopping centre. I had them in my sights, and went towards them, but immediately, they had gone. Lots them in a  shop full of mirrors. I wondered if I’d imagined them. Or perhaps they had sneaked off through a hidden door……

Back soon for another instalment…..

a 21st Century Ferguson’s Gang

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Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus research blog, episode 1

This is the first of my online journals about my research and development for Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus. I may create a seperate website for this writing, but for now it can stay here. I’ll be talking about my journey, both physically and creatively. I’ll refer to the project as Ferguson’s Gang, Ferguson, or just plain old FG. FG might refer to the project or the gang, but it should make sense. This is a journal and scrapbook, so forgive any muddyness in clarity.

 

I set out on my first official research trip of the Ferguson’s Gang vs the Octopus project on the 17th February 2018.

When I began designing the FG project, I new I wanted to work with housing campaign groups. I want to understand what causes people are fighting for (or against) of course, but I also want to find out who the ‘Ferguson’s Gang’s’  of today already are. What groups can draw parallels to Bill Stickers, Red Biddy and The Artichoke? How do groups use play and theatricality to serve their cause? I’ve used the word ‘reinvention’ a lot when talking about FG- “I want to reinvent FG in the 21st C housing crisis’ but I think it’s more of a matter of transposing FG onto a modern context. I’m looking at reinventing in the sense that theatrically we’ll create a narrative, new characters and be set in a different time, with different goals, but I don’t think I’m looking to invent a new campaign group, rather this Ferguson’s Gang will be inspired by groups working in the housing crisis today.

 

A group I’ve been really keen to meet is Focus East 15. Based in Stratford, London.

“We are marching because rough-sleeping and homelessness is on the rise and social cleansing is a daily reality. Luxury apartments continue to be built and council homes are being demolished.This is making people ill and it is a national mental health emergency. The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower on 14 June was not an accident but the devastating consequence of housing policies marked by systematic degrading of council estates that are being demolished or ‘regenerated’ for profit.”  focus15.org post ‘We’re having a Knees Up in the Carpenters’  7/08/17

I was initially drawn to the group because of how they use play in their activism

“a community action can also be creative and that we all have something that we can bring to a march – including our singing, drumming, chanting, political speech making, our colourful home made banners, and our commitment, solidarity and camaraderie .At the end of the march on Carpenters Estate a party took place, food was handed out, phone numbers were swapped and children’s games got underway, free haircuts were given courtesy of Fringe Movement and more plans were made to strengthen the movement for housing justice. focus15.org post ‘March of the Towers’ 15/08/17

 

So I went along to their weekly street stall on Stratford Broadway. I was a little nervous, FE15 have had a lot of profile, lots of researchers and artists having really interest in them. I wondered if I’d be ‘another bloody artist’, if they had ‘research overkill’. I was a bit star struck and just nervous about picking up to ask questions. Happily they loved the story about Ferguson’s Gang! Janine, Anna, Ruth, Jasmine and the rest couldn’t have been more welcoming. We had a great laugh talking about FG and coming up with new ‘Gang names’:

Anna Asparagus, Una Umbrella, M.T. Homes, Ruthless Rufus, Sebastian Sickle , Harry Hammer.

We talked about tactics they’ve used and there were some brilliant FG parallels. Themes of 1930’s gangster movies and spy thrillers came to mind. Lots of stealth.

Jasmine told me about how they set up wendy houses and tents along the streets, populated by children, illustrating housing in a simple, playful way. That they had lots of childrens parties during occupations, which echos the tactics of PAH, a group of Spanish activists. The elements of family, children, motherhood and play are so huge in their campaign, they filter through everything. Anna told me about police trying to take away their banners. The women simply rolled their prams onto the banners. The police didn’t know what to do with that. They know how to deal with a big man in a balaclava, they don’t know what to do with a mum with a pram. This has led to some brilliant episodes of confusion. On one demo, FE15’s table was arrested. The table was confiscated and taken away. So at the next meeting, everyone brought their own tables. The furniture was even fighting back!

There are too many stealthy episodes to document here, and I want to keep some under my hat (pun intended) anyway. It was great to meet this modern day Ferguson’s’ Gang. I can’t wait to get back and hang out with them in March and April.

 

So, from a modern Ferguson’s’ Gang, to the original Gang. I hopped on a tube at Stratford, leaving people fighting for social housing rights, walking past numerous homeless people, and popped out in a south east london suburb.. Gosh, what a contrast. Many of FG were high society, they had means to support their activism, and transposing that group into a housing crisis will always bring up narratives of rich and poor. I strolled through a village where every house was huge, gated, detached. I haven’t lived in London, but the stark contrast between rich and poor even on the same street can be so visceral. In this case, these were neighbourhoods far apart but to be hit with such a difference made me gasp and laugh out loud at this collision of worlds. So I landed in this area because I was going to visit Polly Bagnall, author of ‘Ferguson’s Gang :The Remarkable Story of the National Trust Gangsters’. She doesn’t live there, but I had to pass through this ‘million dollar avenue’ enroute.

Meeting Polly was brilliant. Again she couldn’t have been more welcoming and generous. The house she lives in was set to be demolished, but English Heritage stepped in and between a group of them they were able to save it. Another nice parallel to FG narratives. She opened up avenues of the gang that either I didn’t know, or had forgotten about. Polly is the granddaughter of John MacGregor AKA ‘The Artichoke’- FGs’ architect. It turns out John did a lot of thinking around social housing and rebuilding of cities, particularly after WWII so there were more direct links to this project than expected. Polly said that although FG’s focus wasn’t specifically housing rights, she thought they would have been very open and supportive of those causes and were part of conversations around such topics that were happening at the time. Polly reminded me about the pagan/folk element of FG. Up to now I’ve been playing with the language, narrative beats and aesthetics of 1930’s gangster novels-

Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and alike. I assume the ‘gang’ element, the gang names were inspired by 1930’s ‘talkies’ and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the gameplay of this genre. I’m continuing this thread, but also looking at the folk revival scene, the rituals the gang carried out.  ‘Right Bludy the Lord Beershop’ was their spiritual leader as as I’ve written about previously, the gamification and play in ritual has lots to be mined for this project.  Polly gave me some great leads to explore and I’ll be back to visit her again soon.

A really exciting start to this new project. Stay tuned here for more…….

Malc ‘the mouse’ Hamilton

Mufti HQ