To the small and simple cafes of London, quietly ticking over. Overalls, formica tables, a portable calor gas heater in winter, small cakes in colours no longer seen elsewhere, stainless steel teapots.

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Viv

One of my favourite artists Viv, has transformed her council flat in South London with her art.

I don’t know where anything goes, it ends up as something else, it evolves. I dont know when it’s finished either, that’s my point. If I start something and I dont finish it then I’ll reinvent it again.

To me it’s pleasure, my brain is always ticking over. I’ll be lying here and I’ll look at something and I’ll think maybe it needs to be this way or that. But it never ends up like that. I have a problem sleeping, I can’t keep still. The worst thing on God’s earth is insomnia. Not being able to sleep when you want to sleep. This is me. I go to bed at 2, 3 in the morning and get up at 5.

Even though I have carpel tunnel in my hands and my needs are bad I just have to keep going. I go from one room to another and it’s like I’m starting to redecorate in my own mind. I don’t know what it is. This thing cost me £2.99 and it is for holding casssettes, but I see it as a saxophone and so there it is. I love jazz you seen, I don’t rarely listen to it but when I see the word ‘jazz’ the music starts to play in my mind.

When I first moved here the council told me that they would stop putting fireplaces in these flats so I thought what can I do with my fireplace? So I created all this. I bought mirrors and put them behind it, I added the little things and then it evolved. I bought these sun shields with tropical images on for £1 each and from that grew the underwater sea theme I have. I thought I have to keep it going so I imagined it as a shipwreck, say the Titanic and these are the ghosts of the people who were on board enjoying the jazz music. It’s just my way of thinking but I had to keep the theme going. It spread out into the bathroom, nothing gets done because I’m forever doing things. I have a fear of the ocean though but yet all of my work is about water. The thing is, I have to have land under my feet.

I don’t measure things up, I just use what I have at hand. I made my own juice bar. I don’t throw anything away and I just up-cycle them. Two days ago I decided I was going to paint the ceiling, it was totally different two days ago. It’s like my brain doesn’t stop working. I started applying silicon and it’s spongy, once it has started and then it evolves. I can’t help myself. I think it’s a bit dangerous because nothing gets finished.

I enjoy doing this though, it helps me avoid people. People to me equals pain, they always let me down. I feel that if you are going to do something for someone then do it with a willing heart, don’t do it half heartedly. I’m forever willing to help people and offer my time but other people make me feel like they are doing me a favour. They aren’t grateful, the more I give the more they take. I’ve come to the point were I avoid people because to me people equal pain.

When I had my new kitchen fitted, when the whole block was getting them, they ripped out all the old units that I’d transformed with my work. I didn’t mind though as it freed up lots more new space for me to start all over again fresh. The builders would take pictures of my work, but some people aren’t nice about it. A friend of mine came here and said ‘What the hell are you doing to this flat?’. It was negative you know and this is another reason why I avoid people. I would never visit someones home and say something like that.

I want to do stuff but I don’t want to be under pressure to do it. I don’t think of myself as an artist.
I’m not one for praise I suppose. My sister is always saying oh you should take photographs and send them out. The builder’s who came here said oh you should get them on the computer, but I don’t know about computers. I suppose I am an artist in the sense that artists get obsessed and artists make a mess. I don’t think what I am doing is special. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People appreciate what they appreciate.

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I used to worry about what others think. Anyway, I have always hated having something other people have. Even when I was a teenager I made my own clothes. I am an individual. I buy something like a picture frame and then then I transform it. I don’t throw anything away I just keep changing things. I buy things for a £1 and then transform them with gel and glue. I don’t have any money so I’m forever in the £1 Shop. I buy these pebbles, bags of them, they’re usually for the garden.

I see doing all this in here as work. I’ve only been over the road to the park three times in all the time I’ve been here. I used to be a nurse and then I was in child care at a local college for 20 years. I suppose this is like child care all over again, making mess. So no sooner have I finished than I’m starting over. It’s like I have a hundred and one things to do. I’d like to do lots of things I have in my mind, like adding blinds to the flat but I’ve got no money. I’m always borrowing out of my food money to buy the glue to finish my work.

….

People look at me and say, you don’t look ill at all. But that’s because I don’t give in to it. I am a simple person, I’ve got to the stage were I don’t think everything has to be in it’s place.

When I’m outside I walk fast and avoid people. I just want to get back here. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I’d do. I do get a buzz from going from the £1 Shop and getting something great. The best thing I ever bought from a £1 Shop was a picture I’ve put at the back of my display. If I see something broken I want to fix it and use it. I find I can make things about of the most simple things that people usually throw away. My brain is forever ticking over.

…..

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Saad and Salwa in their living room in Plaistow, London and their grapes in the yard they turned into a garden.

In the garden is an apple tree. It’s tethered from either side with string to keep it upright. Saad bent the branch towards his chest “last year we had eleven apples”. He pointed to the ground where the paving stones in his yard had been removed to make a garden. Spinach and celery grows amongst the weeds. An Elder grows in the corner.

A apricot tree stands in a space between two masionettes. The building is from the 1960s, it’s right angles and shadows have been softened by the take over of plants. Their home is on the ground floor and through the privets you can see the pavement and a nearby bus stop.

“It’s always raining and the the sun comes HERE” he spread his arms across the gap. Along the gable end of the block is a grape vine. It runs along a makeshift frame. It goes as far as it can and then tails off around the back. “At the back there is no light, the soil is no good’.

Inside the tv is on and Ireland are beating Italy in the rugby. On the wall are two boats framed in Arabic. “This is Noah’s Ark” Saad says. It is supposed to have started it’s journey from Iraq. On the other wall is a plastic dove. ‘My wifes name means bird of paradise, or beautiful bird’. The kitchen door moved slightly when he said this, and a triangle of coloured linoleum lit up the hallway.

……

In the front room he tells me about his job. He’s testing concrete on a huge tower thats being constructed in the City. He tests it for it’s quality, it’s ‘properties’ he says. He’s an engineer but can only really get these agency jobs working from site to site for about seven pounds an hour.”We put them into squares, leave them and then return to them. We put them under a lot of pressure. Concrete is cheap and quick to use, I’ve used it in Basra and Baghdad. We build low though, not high. We use white bricks, small and rectangular. When I started on the site here I had to take a dictionary. I know these materials but I couldn’t understand what people were saying”.

……

“All the houses in Iraq should have a garden. The houses should be horizontal, not vertical and the garden will smell beautiful, especially in the evening. Two flowers that I know would be in these gardens are jasmin and the rose. Iraqis never leave their garden without plants. You will see the date tree appearing over a garden wall from the road. Not every house will have a date tree, but you know, every third house or so. It’s famous, like the oak here. We like to grow and plant. I also think now of orange trees and fig trees in the north and grapes too”.

The streets smell of flowers. I played football in these streets and I remember playing until late at night, until ten o’clock. Football and mathematics are what I remember, Mr. Aden the teacher, he was well respected. I went to study soil science at the university in Baghdad, but after graduating there wasn’t any work. I tried setting up in business but then moved to Jordan where I married my wife.
In Iraq every family tries to live together. Your’e not allowed to leave the family, they never let you live somewhere else. If they don’t have enough space then they’ll think about buying a another place. They don’t like to let their sons go and they want their daughters to be living with her husband’s family. Every week they have to visit their mother and father.

When I left they were crying for years. My mother got worse and worse because of this and eventually had a stroke. She grew more and more unwell day by day as she couldn’t forget. It’s not just me though, every family that is exiled feels this. If I think of my family I will cry, straight away, I will cry.
Before I got married to my wife I was like a child that has lost its mother. I was always crying. I never slept”.

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Red seaweed in the postman’s home town.

 

 

The night before we’d driven along the coast road. I could hear the waves but couldn’t see a thing, all the same I felt like we were near the edge of something. When we arrived at his house there was short run through the rain from our van, a blue postal service issue. Entering through the cellar we took off our shoes and left them damp amongst the wellies, waterproofs and toys left by the grandkids. In the middle of the basement floor lay a the local newspaper, spread out like a blanket, it cradled about 20 purple potatoes, raw and precious like something usually kept form the light.

After dinner, lamb I remember, the old postman wondered off. I thought he’d gone to the living room but after calling his name and then seeing a light on in a small farm building from the kitchen window, his wife said he’d gone to feed the animals. The storm raged, and the rain battered the house on all sides. Though as the night wore on the sky became more clear. I headed out of the house, over a brook and up to the out building were the old man kept some sheep. Inside 5 or so rams shuddered. I was new here. A sink had been plumbed into the front part of the building and a plastic bucket that once held feed was now filled with rams horns sat like mussels waiting to be washed. ‘They’re used for ornaments’ he said before I could ask.

I stepped out into the night sky and looked up at her great body. It was hard to hold a steady viewing position with the wind blowing so hard. I could hear the waves hitting the beach and I knew they were close. That night, fast asleep, I’d walked into the bathroom at the postmans home. I remembered for a split second in the morning between reaching for the toast how I’d stood looking out of a rectangular window in the dark and imagining I was watching a scene playout from backhome, when in fact I was staring into the dark of the sea.

….

In the morning I could see where we were. It didn’t look so threatening. The storm had blown itself out and I pulled on my waterproof. As I left a young girl from the village arrived at the door. She’d come to have her hair cut by the old postman’s wife and I was shown the salon he’d built for her that linked to the basement near the wellies, the toys and the spuds.

I’d drank a lot of coffee and this heightened the moment I stepped out and felt the sea air on my face. I walked some 200 yards to the beach and was a little worried about standing on its black and beige mixed sand, it still looked charged from the previous night. A tree trunk had been washed up, for some reason part of it had been burnt. It started to rain again. I craned my neck backwards towards land, I wanted to get off the beach and so joined the road out the village. After ten minutes I walked out along a headland, an old lady watched me from the first floor window of her yellow corrugated iron clad house, but when I looked back she’d turned away. Although it was mid morning she sat by her window with the tabel light on. It was winter, but maybe she always did this.

Passing a boatshed I arrived at the small harbour, built to shelter the local fishing boats. The sea was dead calm, the kind which looks as though it is capable of unimaginable strength, in fact more like a kind of torque. The habour was empty of boats and along it’s concrete walls lay bunches of red seaweed thrown from the sea during the storm. All around it lay like an offering, a gift from the sea. At first I thought of flowers thrown but it wasn’t like this, it was more like pollen that had missed its target.

I sat there for a bit, took a photograph. I was told not to go down there when the weather was bad, the waves run right over taking whatever they want back into the sea. It was time to go to the next village. I walked back along the headland to the house and the grey waves rolled past, and the black beach waited to be hit. The house came into view. The postman’s dog sat under a street light in a light rain shower looking out to sea, a light went off in a home and the girl with her new hair drove across the valley to her young children.

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