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