We all sat down on the stairs of what used to be the offices of the Greater London Council, facing the Thames, as you do at midnight. Inua, our effervescent spiritual leader and mentor for the evening, a young and slight man with an ever-ready smile, delivered his closing remarks and last words of encouragement. Whilst he did so I could see in the murky light of a London night that across a small patch of grass, two men in their late twenties who had been loitering were, like children, pulling on thirty foot high chords which served to stabilise two giant canvas posters advertising the West End theatre production of Shrek. They seemed to be testing the strength of the chords stretching them as far as they would go. I wasn’t sure if the guys were trying to break the chords, but if they were they weren’t strong enough to do so. At some point they relinquished their grip and the chords made the most marvellous low-pitched twanging noise, quite unexpected. All of this provided a suitably non-scripted comical and semi-musical end to what had been a night of artistic surprises. The surprises all came and went so quickly that I sometimes scratch my head and wonder if the whole thing was not a dream. The fact that all of this took place at night only added to that dream like quality.
Inua founded and runs ‘The Midnight Run’ a project offering guided tours of towns and cities, usually at night, combining opportunities to engage in artistic activities. As someone who has a great love of urban walking, and who has spent many days wondering the streets of London, trying out the Midnight Run’s tour of Brixton was an opportunity that I found hard to pass up. The only barrier was my painfully introverted side, which was wincing at the all the hugging, clapping and laughing that seemed to be going on between strangers on the website’s promotional videos, much like a non-swimmer might wince at the sea when contemplating a dive from a cliff edge at thirty feet. Still I thought ‘its about time I came out of my comfort zone’. I remembered when I first came to London not really knowing anyone, I seemed to spend all my time opening up to new people and more often that not embarrassing myself with overly intense conversation or uneasy silences. Maybe I’d gotten too lazy I thought, too suburban, perhaps it was time to exercise a few social muscles.
‘The Midnight Run’ have provided tours for the last ten years all around the world, the tickets are ridiculously cheap, subsidised in part by festival and arts organisers who are keen to integrate midnight runs into a wider programme of events. And so with this one, ‘The Midnight Run’ around Brixton was funded as part of the Brixton Festival, which is also closely connected to Black History Month, Brixton being the home of the Black Cultural Archive and being home to many of the British West Indians who decided to make England their home in the fifties and sixties.
For this tour Inua had hired Kelly Foster, a Black historian, well experienced in guided tours around London, and resident of south London, to guide us around Brixton. Kelly was personable personified, to the point with her delivery. She was full of fascinating information about the local personalities who had been involved in anti-racism, specific to the Black community. There was a heavy focus on characters from the twentieth century but Kelly’s interest stretched as far back to the seventeenth century and the first registered presence of Black people in London. Kelly took us to a variety of different locations, many mundane, but was able to bring them to life by relating them to key historical figures and moments in history.
As we were guided round Brixton, at times my mind wandered momentarily from the detail of what Kelly was telling us, and into my own private relationship with the city. I realised that being in this group of thirty or so I had this privileged access to an area of London that I had always privately feared whether through prejudice or reason, in daylight and certainly in dark. In the past I wouldn’t even go there in my thoughts, now I could look at locals square in the eye without worrying how they might react, you need to be pretty stupid to have a go at someone in a group of thirty. I used the cover of the group whilst Kelly was waxing lyrical about how Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, did her work from above the offices of the high street in Brixton, to closely observe the behaviour and incredible attire of the black men who would pass in and out of the Brixton Road Barber’s at nine o’clock at night. One guy came out in the most marvellous white leather suite adorned with what looked like red and black tattoos. Another strolled out casually swinging a bottle of half drunk wine. We walked through parks, past groups of young people drinking, down back-alleys. A black Rasta on a bicycle rode past. He had a child sat on his handlebars, who was dressed in a large maroon coloured track with a hood so big it covered his face. He was gripping on to the handle bars with the underside of his legs. Later we came out on to a street where a guy in his late twenties, dressed in a smart white shirt, black trousers and black shoes hurtled down the centre of the road on foot, displaying an incredible level of athleticism, speed and endurance. With a serious look on his face he continued in search of a destination, or fleeing, and when he reached the end of the street he turned and continued running. These are the marvels of walking around London, generally, but they take on an extra degree of randomness when the bewitching hour of midnight comes close.
But not only that the tour opened up the streets of Brixton, and revealed this part of London, in a way which completely defied my imagination. I have never really been to Brixton apart from a house party once, and then on another occasion to do some work, during which time I saw so many people just hanging out on the street that I started to get a bit paranoid and silently told myself I was never coming back. So for a scaredy cat like me – with these old memories and fears in my mind – it was wonderful to see so much of what seems, at least from an urban planning perspective, a newer version of Brixton than I could have possibly imagined. There were mews like terraces, new build modern flats, tarted up Victorian terraces, with very attractive paving on the streets, you know the type where you’re not sure whether its for cars or pedestrians. At times walking through Brixton felt like walking through some of the posh parts of residential Camden. Even the walk from the station to our starting point of the Black Cultural Centre had revealed an incredibly vibrant place, replete with all the geezers I remembered from my previous trip, but also with a panoply of bars, pubs and eateries, together with quirky artistic shit of one kind or another. Probably the biggest eye opener was when our guides took us through this indoor market, still open at nine o’clock at night and packed full of restaurants and diners. I don’t think I’ve every come across anything like that in London. It had colour, a certain informality, a real mix of people, and a huge sense of well-being and bon-vivant. The spirit of the place reminded me of the Colombian indoor market in Tottenham, its just this one was ten times bigger and busier.
But the thing that made this tour extra special was all the mad artistic shit that we volunteered to put ourselves through. Every so often Inua would stop us and ask us to do something creative. First we needed to write a poem, then get in a group and combine our poem, then someone needed to read their poem out. It felt like being at school, but in a good way, in the way that school introduced you all kinds of random shit that as an adult you never come across. After the poems we had to compose a piece describing what our own personal ideal festival would look like. And Inua brought artists with him too. One, Gloria Elliot, tried to teach us how to draw (an ear in fact) after we had passed by a house in which Vincent Van Gogh had briefly stayed. We all sat down on this pedestrianised road drawing ears with HB pencils, whilst motorists, open mouthed, carefully drove past us, wondering. At some point we found ourselves huddled together in this backyard, round the back of some pretty run down flats, on Brixton’s Angell Town Estate, reciting our poems to each other. Three floors up a young man in his twenties with a baseball shirt on peered out of the open window of a well lit room and said ‘what the fuck?’ choking on his amazement or whatever he might have been smoking, and smiled down, looking both quizzical and friendly. He nodded down to us, and I was glad we had born and bred local Kelly Foster with us, she looked back up at the man and smiled with all the confidence of the local landowner.
The most amazing art experience we had was when Tinuke Craig, a theatre director, taught us all to sing as a choir, you know sing in harmony and time. By this time it was nearing half ten and we had been channelled into an old crumbly house, the Oval White House, the administrative centre of the nearby Oval House Theatre. Tinuke introduced us to Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child a song written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black American who ended up in living in London in the 1930s. Within the space of twenty minutes she had us singing and humming it in a ’round’. The fact that we were able to do this in such a short space of time was testament to her ability as a teacher, but it also presented a revelation to me about the joy of being in a choir. It was mental.
And if all this wasn’t enough at the half-way point Inua invited us back to his home for some food! He took us into this secluded courtyard built into the block of flats he lived in. There we saw three circles of seats arranged around a central point of light, and bags stuffed full of Tupperware boxes with various types of Caribbean food. There was curried goat, chicken and vegetarian options if I remember rightly. Everyone sat down and ate, people started talking to eat other, food does that to you. At that point it felt that we were as close to as being mates with Inua, to being Brixtonites, as one could be without being.
In general it would seem that people come to these events in groups, twos, threes and fours. There were some obvious extroverts there, and that type thrive in this situation. I wasn’t sure that anyone had come alone, and I don’t know what its like doing it alone, because unless you are an extreme extrovert, six hours spent with other pre-formed groups might be a little tough going. It was interesting talking to Georgina Bednar, one of the organisers of the ‘Midnight Run’ about the aspiration they have for using the tours to bring people from the local area together, and to perhaps try and counter latent feelings of racism and nationalism. In the main although there were some people from Brixton taking part it felt like the project organisers were preaching to the converted. But then perhaps that’s what you tend to get when one of your key modes of communication is a website which talks about finding inspiration in the The Situationists, a French artistic and political movement of the twentieth century! I mean to be honest even though I know jack shit about The Situationists, that cultural reference sold it for me, but I can appreciate that it might not appeal to everyone. But none of this is to detract from the fact that its a fantastic way of finding out about your local area, and I think it could really work for groups of school kids for example.
But anyway towards the end we walked towards the Thames, and at Lambeth palace Kelly started to tell us about how the earliest records of Black people in London were recorded there. She talked about Black people being represented in the imagery and sculptures of the great hall of the palace, and for a moment, when I saw light streaming from underneath the great doors of the palace I had to pinch myself. We’re not going in there are we? That would have blown me and the whole night into the river.
The Midnight Run in Brixton took place on Saturday 23rd September
It will be running again on Saturday 7th October. £5-£10.