Floods, riots, and pirate radio: Exploring Lewisham's forgotten corners

Updated: Oct 12

by Thomas Chambers

 
"I spent a lot of my childhood trudging through the river, finding all sorts of treasures–from crates of discarded pirate DVDs to lumps of rusty iron"
Wild fishing in the River Quaggy swamp
(Image: Jack Thurgar)

Wildcornerz opens this Saturday 8th October at 6pm at Satellite Store in Peckham. The exhibition brings together work by Jack Thurgar, Andrew Finch, Ed Carter and Tobias, presenting a collective response to the mythologies, archives and social geographies of Lewisham’s wildcorners.


The turbulent history of South East London undercurrents the work, referencing tower block architecture and pirate radio, the 1968 Lewisham floods and the 2011 London riots.


Presenting collage assemblage, video, photography and screenprinting, the exhibition challenges notions of privatised urban space whilst celebrating the singular acts of individuals who traverse these sites.


There'll also be a screening of The Love Below. Direct by Andrew Finch, this documentary explores the South East London waterways and their dwellers.


The film follows those who venture into these rivers searching for something below their embankment walls and depths. It's a journey of early-2000s cultural homage, graffiti culture, train networks, ecology, urban fishing, folklore and the joy of wandering off the city’s beaten track.


I sat down with Andrew, Jack, Ed and Tobias to talk river rewilding, speedway racing, Amazonian adventures and nighttime excursions in the South East.


How did you four get involved with each other and begin working on the exhibition?


Tobias: I first discovered Jack’s work when I came across his Wildcornerz online blog many years ago. Several years later, I met him in person at my Welcome to Lewisham exhibition in 2018. Since then, I have shown a lot of my friend’s his interesting work documenting South East London. Ed Carter I believe I first met at a jam I organised at the abandoned Lethbridge Estate on Lewisham Road. Later in the year I visited him in the River Ravensbourne and have been good mates since.


Andrew first contacted me through Instagram a year or two ago and expressed his interest for meeting people connected to the river. I put him onto all the unusual and obscure South East London characters that have a connection to these ancient tributaries. A few months ago, we all met up for a pint in the best pub in SE London, the Dacre Arms, and Andrew told us of the exhibition he wanted to plan.


Andrew: I encountered Jack’s film from 2011, Internal Networkz [Vol:1: The Quaggy], in which he explores secret markings left by the fabled Lewisham Natureman in the waterways. During lockdown, I bought some wellies, jumped over a fence and started exploring the River Ravensbourne and River Quaggy.

Like a lot of hidden spaces, I found wading through the rivers to be an incredibly peaceful way of seeing the city in a totally different way. Tobias’s generous spirit and encyclopaedic knowledge on South East London was a huge resource in researching people connected to the river. That was how I came to meet Ed, if I remember correctly.


While making the film, it dawned on me just how much these wild spaces mean to everyone involved, from ecological, archival, creative and personal perspectives. From that point, I knew I wanted to curate a show with everyone involved. Making The Love Below was a series of calling on favours from filmmaker friends, dropped cameras, tequila, wringing out trousers, nighttime excursions, getting lost, dead ends and entrances uncovered.


Why do you have an affinity to the river? Is there some special presence the Quaggy has or, does it have more to do with the way public space is used and managed in London today?


Jack: There is something particularly special to me about the Quaggy as it runs behind and underneath so many places I or family members, have lived, worked, played and attended school. So there is a real nostalgia about it for me. But yes, also with other urban rivers, it's another relatively unregulated space.


Most local people don’t give it a second thought and certainly have never gotten in it, so its a lesser walked path. Its a bit of a wild corridor and feels and smells old when you walk in it. Graffiti doesn’t get removed and things from above get washed down and tend to hang around. 


Tobias: I guess the concrete-encased Quaggy is the closest thing us South East Londoners have to the big drainage ditches they have in the States. Ever since watching Grease Lightnin’ as a kid I’ve been fascinated by those big banked empty man-made spaces.


I spent a lot of my childhood trudging through the river, finding all sorts of treasures, from crates of discarded pirated DVDs to lumps of rusty iron. It felt like an Amazonian adventure to a 7 year-old me.


As I got older, I’d find bits of the river to cycle my BMX through (when it was dried out in the summer). Then in my later teenage years, I came back to river to use it as a place to create artwork in peace, undisturbed by anyone.

Lewisham's River Quaggy is as 'close to an American drainage ditch' as London gets
Lewisham's River Quaggy is as 'close to an American drainage ditch' as London gets (image: Tobias)

Ed: The river is a quiet place. Everywhere you go in London, you will see people up to all sorts, but you can spend all day down in the river not see a soul. After you spend a lot of time there you start to feel an ownership and a kind of maternal/paternal thing happening over it. 


Andrew: I grew up next to the sea on the South Coast so perhaps it has something to do with my love of water. Sussex is naturally quieter, perhaps weirder, so it’s natural that the never ending flow of these rivers is reflective of the life of London. It definitely has a presence of magic too, you just have to watch and wait for it...


The exhibition is going to take place in a shop in Holdrons Arcade in Peckham. This is a slightly unusual space for an art exhibition but I think the location fits in with each of your creative practices in what could be considered marginal spaces. How do you view your artistic activities and how do they relate to each other, if at all?


Tobias: All of my artistic hobbies keep me engaged and motivated in life. They provide a past time for me to explore and create things, whether this be through my painting or photography. All of my work revolves around South London and the crustiest, smelliest, most hidden corners of the city. Something that all four of us like to explore and be present in. Certainly not areas most people would like to visit!


Ed: The way Jack talks about his work and how it has mythical stuff happening to it, I think that links all of our work, its all left field and maybe not for everyone but people who like it, I think would like it a lot.


Andrew: There are definitely clear overlaps in all our practices. Just in the way the four of us drift in and out of each other’s work, they also come from their individual sources too.


Jack’s interest in myth and storytelling is just as interesting as Ed’s work on river rewilding as is Tobias’s archiving of the urban architecture and motorcycle speedway racing. Everyone has these kind of outsider, singular passions and my hope in the Wildcornerz exhibition, is for a moment they coalesce in the public eye for our friends to see.

The exhibit also features a screening of Andrew's film 'The Love Below'
The exhibit also features a screening of Andrew's film 'The Love Below'

Andrew’s film, The Love Below, ended with footage of some people having fun messing around while fishing in what is essentially a concrete tub. I liked the balance in the project between what’s considered these radical acts but which are ultimately banal/everyday; someone painting a wall, walking down a river, playing music, or simply fishing. Do you consider what you do to be somehow radical or just a normal part of your lives?


Tobias: I’m just enjoying my surroundings. If I lived in the countryside, I’d do the same! I’m just out in the urban nature of London, seeing what cool things I can find, if few people venture down there, that’s even better of course!


Ed: I don’t consider it radical, but I don’t think it needs to be, its just a normal part of life but I think all of us go back to the things we do even though they may seem banal because there is something more taking us to do it.


Andrew: In the film, Jack speaks about how graffiti writers sometimes will later gravitate toward urban fishing, almost as an act of rehabilitation, or retribution, depending on how you look at it. Woolwich Dockyard was originally constructed in 1514 during Henry VIII’s reign and much later used as a hall of fame by legendary London graffiti names such as COS, TAKE, REGRET, CONDEM, SER etc.


Throughout this history gap, people fished in it and it’s basically derelict now. It goes to show that nothing in a city or in life generally is fixed, everything is for the taking to be reused according to different outlets and passions. Everything flows. There is something radical in that, if even on a small, personal level.


I think ultimately, these individual acts can lead to stories, which in turn can inspire others, whether through creative documentation or archiving. When you aren’t lucky enough to have a pen in your pocket or a camera to hand, you best hope your day is interesting enough to be able to tell people you meet about it.


What are you going to do next?

Jack: I have a few projects on the go. Some new work about the sea, radio and a goblin. I’m also aiming to make more work from my swamp project and a book about the original legend of the Lewisham Natureman.


Tobias: Another book! I documented behind the scenes at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre in its final year before demolition. I’d like to release these images in an informative book about the area’s history. 


Ed: After not making work for a while, I’m glad to be asked to do this show as it has motivated me to start working again. So I have brought some print ideas back out to work on, and the river has endless jobs and ideas to improve.


Andrew: I’m going to be giving a talk in Brighton on making of The Love Below in mid-November, then it’s screening at a film festival there the following week. Before Christmas, I’m travelling up to the Isle of Skye with my friend Sonny to stay with another friend of mine, Vinca, who travelled with and photographed sound system crews in the 1990s. Combining worlds together gives me a lot of inspiration. The new year is unwritten.


Wildcornerz opens this weekend at Satellite Store, Units 15 & 17 at Holdrons Arcade in Peckham. It will run from Saturday 8 October from 6PM until 15th October.

 

Thomas Chambers is the editor of The Graffiti Review