Mapping a Gentrifying London with Laura Grace Ford’s ‘Savage Messiah’

The artist and psychogeographer discusses building on the protests of the past

Laura Grace Ford, Savage Messiah (interior spread), 2019. Courtesy: Verso Books

Originally printed between 2005 and 2009, the Savage Messiah zine by Laura Grace Ford (formerly Laura Oldfield Ford) captured London in a state of transition, or more accurately, of rapid gentrification. The first issue came out shortly before the 2012 Olympic Games were awarded to London on 6 July 2005 and the 7 July bombings, which brought the War on Terror to the British mainland for the first time; the last in winter 2009, a year after the financial crash heralded the end of the New Labour government and the start of austerity, enacted by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in May 2010. The zines – a combination of Ford’s drawings of urban spaces, collages, handwritten notes, and type-set monologues – were produced in small print runs, gaining a cult following. I first encountered them in 2011, the year I moved to London, when Verso Books collected them into a book, with an introduction by Mark Fisher. Ford, like Fisher and other writers such as Owen Hatherley and Douglas Murphy who were interested in brutalism and legacies of post-war social democracy, provided a distinctive framework through which I could understand and move through my new home city; the collection has now been reissued with a foreword by cultural critic Greil Marcus, and a new edition of Savage Messiah, produced in June 2018.

Laura Grace Ford, Savage Messiah, 2019. Courtesy: Verso Books

Savage Messiah documents the ways in which the possibility of working-class counter-cultures similar to punk or rave emerging from London has been closed down, both through acts of law, such as the coalition’s ban on squatting, passed in 2012, or the removal of free higher education, and through the decline of social housing and the ruthlessness with which property developers have taken over every available space. These processes, said Ford, have ‘intensified’ during the decade since the financial crash – which is reflected in the latest edition. While the original series often focused on the ‘massive corporate land-grab’ in the Lee Valley before the 2012 Olympic Games, this one returns to the Westway in west London, one year after the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in June 2017, which had been predicted by its residents’ group as an inevitable consequence of the affluent area’s local government neglecting unwanted council housing.

‘In some ways,’ said Ford, ‘the area was the same, still ignored, with disinvestment in social housing, difficult to negotiate. In 2006, there were still glitches that harboured moments of protest, or counter-cultural elements. There were traveller sites under the Westway, parties in scrapyards, pirate radio stations. By 2018, that had gone, although extensive private investment was clearly visible – despite the atrocity of Grenfell, it still felt like the gentrifiers were in the ascendancy.’ (Indeed, Kensington and Chelsea’s Conservative council was re-elected in May 2018 despite widespread criticism of its housing policies and handling of the disaster.) ‘I used to go there and there was a big squatter community called Frestonia that had parties under the A40. Now there’s a huge office block with [the chain furniture store] Cath Kidston in it, called Frestonia – full of types of people who called for towers like Grenfell to be cladded. That cladding, on which the fire rose up the building, is still on numerous blocks around the UK – including the one I live in.’

Asked why she chose this form, rather than producing a graphic novel, Ford said: ‘I like the immediacy of zines. I’ve always been part of those counter-cultures, going right back to the late 1980s – Mark Fisher said that more than comics or zines, Savage Messiah was influenced by mixtapes with their cuts, jumps and breaks, that articulate a sense of vexed temporality, which you can see in the collage method. I was squatting in Leeds with anarchists, getting into rave and jungle when it hit West Yorkshire, interacting with environmental protests and Reclaim the Streets, going to clubs like 1 In 12 in Bradford. Zines were part of the texture of those scenes, allowing people with no money to make something cheaply. I wasn’t considering a book in the mid-2000s – the publishing world was completely remote. I could put the zine together at work, photocopy 40–50 copies, organise a couple of launches in East End pubs or radical bookshops – I could create a situation, like putting out a message in a bottle.’

Laura Grace Ford. Courtesy: Verso Books

Whilst each zine feels intensely engaged with its present moment, its narrator often cuts back to the past, both through her memories of the space and her evocation of radical traditions, in a manner that recalls Patrick Keiller and Chris Petit’s travelogue films. In his foreword, Marcus positions Savage Messiah in a genealogy of writing that encompasses Walter Benjamin, the Surrealists and the Situationists, but also references Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985–86) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006), with its stark depiction of urban decay, as spiritual antecedents. ‘I use psychogeography as a strategy to destroy walls and fences, and to show gentrification as a reworking of the Inclosure Act 1773, done by stealth,’ says Ford, referring to the legal creation of property rights to land that traditionally had been held in common, placing her work into a history of resistance to capitalism that goes back centuries. She mentions Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers who occupied privatised land in 1649–50, and then draws a line between the J18 Carnival Against Capital in 1999 and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Her use of hauntology and dérives is ‘less about the psychic effect of space on an individual’ but rather ‘a collective activity that separates psychogeography from its literary incarnation’. Her work ‘maps flashpoints of contestation, not in an attempt to archive, but to recreate them,’ said Ford. ‘I’m interested in spaces that sit between abandonment and speculation, which allow me to reimagine the city in a way that is future-oriented.’

In Savage Messiah, invocations of the past always aim to suggest radical ruptures, be they protests or cultural movements, might be built upon in the future – for example, in the use of ‘1979, 1981, 2013’ in one of the zines to draw a line between the intense creativity of post-punk music scenes in the late 1970s, the riots against Thatcherism in 1981 and a possible insurrection against austerity and gentrification that never happened. (Instead, ‘capitalist realism’, as Mark Fisher called it, was disturbed by a series of votes a few years later: Jeremy Corbyn capturing the Labour leadership in 2015, the EU referendum in 2016 and Labour’s surprisingly strong showing on a social-democratic, redistributive platform in the 2017 General Election.) Despite having to ‘fight to stay in London’ due to its ever-spiralling rents, Ford is still working in the city, collaborating with musicians such as Jam City on audio works, and is currently writing fiction – ‘all of which are an extension of the Savage Messiah project.’ Ford concludes that ‘even when you’re observing this process of enclosure, gentrification of social housing, even when it feels like the forces of reaction are dominating, the terrain can shift very quickly. It can feel hopeless, then suddenly there’s a shattering of the social. It’s not a bleak analysis, but it’s alert to the danger of what could happen, there’s a sense of vigilance as well.’
 

Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London, UK. Her most recent book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015. She co-hosts Suite (212) on Resonance 104.4fm, which looks at the arts in their social, cultural, political and historical contexts.

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