From William Morris’ Walthamstow, to John Ball’s Colchester: how placemakers are co-opting the dead

The William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow. Image: ProfDEH/Wikimedia Commons.

Heritage has long been a hot topic in the UK, expressed both in the love for old buildings and in the business of regeneration. Less attention has been given to the complicated relationship between historical figures and place, particularly how placemaking makes use of them.

This goes further than the Blue Plaque scheme; the dead both etch their ghostly presences on the character of localities, and can be self-consciously chosen to help retell a story of place.

I want to look at how the dead and place interact through the two case studies – William Morris in Walthamstow, and John Ball in Colchester. I’ll be looking at how the dead intertwined themselves with place, how history becomes contested as they are made use of by placemakers, and what works.

Ghosts of place

The psychogeographical tradition in urban life directs our attention to the relationships between person and place. Prominent individuals leave traces of their selves and their legacy on the local vernacular.

One such relationship is between William Morris (1834-96), socialist and artisan, and Walthamstow in east London.  Morris only spent about seven years of his youth in what is now the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park, E17; yet Walthamstow has claimed him as its own.

Both Morris's arts and crafts movement, and his socialism, are now closely aligned to the character of Walthamstow itself, an area of community-based socialism and thriving hipster artisanal businesses. Morris might even be claimed as the first hipster (minus the beard oil, of course), combining radical politics with autonomous entrepreneurialism.


Remaking place

The relationship between the dead and place becomes even more interesting when ghosts are called upon to reshape space. Campaigners in the Essex town of Colchester are currently evoking the long forgotten figure of John Ball (1338-81), radical priest and one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt 1381, into a symbolic representation of equality and diversity.

The campaign itself began as a result of a press campaign and petition to get a "piece of bronze" representing John Ball erected in Colchester. It has evolved into an interrogation of the town's historic legacy, and its identity today as a nascent zone of feminisation, equality and diversity. It may even seek to become a Sanctuary Town.

The reframing of place in Colchester is something that resonates in its cultural and alternative arts communities. Essex. Colchester and nearby Wivenhoe have seen a sizable “punk poetry” renaissance, all John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell. The area is also celebrating its historic rebels, with Castle Museum devoting a whole section to Boudica, who led an uprising against the Roman Empire around AD60. More recently, Gee Vaucher, a female artist in Crass, had her own Introspective in Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery.

What gets left out?

Inevitably, calling on the dead to remake place involves some falling away of historical realities. In Walthamstow, the Willam Morris Gallery, renovated in 2011-12, focuses on Morris’s status as an artisan, rather than as a socialist (though there is some representation of “soft socialism”). This mutating focus is also characteristic of a locale which could fall victim to a loss of community cohesion through gentrification. Is Morris shifting uncomfortable in his grave? Perhaps, but he might have been excited by all the craft beer.

Similarly, the figure of John Ball is imbued with very diverse aesthetic and even political values. Will he be carved out in bronze, his religious non-conformity absorbed by the very active Colchester churches? Or will he be etched into the nascent contemporary arts and politics scene of the new Colchester?

That this ground is contested is a point acknowledged by Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite, the key partner in promoting John Ball Day on 15 July and a plethora of related arts activities in Colchester. “But that’s what makes it interesting,” she says, “and very much representative of the broader cultural struggles facing UK society today.” 

What works?

Placemakers always try and prove historical figures lived in a place, but that link can often be quite incidental – a matter of a few years in the case of both Morris and Ball.

But there is a creative relationship too. In the case of Morris and Walthamstow, there is a natural congruence between the well-processed history of Morris, his ideas and artistic practice, and how the locality has evolved.

Much less is known about John Ball, which makes sketching a pathway to the contemporary values of feminisation, equality and diversity something of a tricky issue. But Shaw suggests that "creating lines of connection between Ball and the present is an ongoing and inclusive creative process, about remaking meaning”.  In other words, the John Ball project will be a way of imaginatively rethinking place, both past and present.

“We are the dead” said McCrae, Bowie, and Orwell before them – referring to the exhaustions of the present. But the dead are also helping us think about our culture and shaping the landscapes of place. We are the dead, but they are us.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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