Bill Pearson.

Sad news: Bill Pearson, a sometime contributor to The London Column, died suddenly at the beginning of March. By way of a tribute, we present here some of his atmospheric photos of the vanished hinterland of riverside London (Bow Creek, Surrey Docks, Erith, etc.) from the ‘8os and ’90s. RIP. DS.

All photos © The Estate of Bill Pearson. (Thanks to Felicity Roberts for passing on the sad news.).

See also: Two Men And A Dog, Last Voyage of the Princess Alice.


Two Men And A Dog.

BridgeSmoke-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

Late August ’87 by Stephen Watts:

Saturday. Afternoon.
Thunder on the Greenland Dock.
A few kids. Wet sand. Fishing.
All of us feel the vatic lack.

Girders. Cranes. New roads.
Bright sciatic colours. Cans.
Concrete. Cables. Coiled wire.
Flesh still curt to our bone.

Autumn thunder on the Greenland
Dock. Suddenly – houses rearing up.
That pall of human indifference.
Heart of the heart ripped out.

Yellow air. Pipes of cloud.
A sky that’s been lifted from Bihar.
Houses with archways of walled wood.
Our lives. A crushed heat of air.

Cranes. Wet sand. Girders.
The kids laugh. And then scatter.
Dear body. The poor in their lack.
The rich in their whorl of languor.

© Stephen Watts

Bill Pearson writes:

I moved to New Cross Gate over the Easter weekend, 1981. My only previous experience of living in the big city had been a few years at Kingston upon Thames, very different in all respects to inner city south-east London. Exploring the new area I discovered empty, desolate docks and rundown industrial areas that reminded me of my homeland in the North of England. It was the early days of Thatcherism, before the Falklands War, before the inner city riots, and before the Miners’ Strike, when Thatcher was still the most unpopular Prime Minister there had ever been.

emptyDock-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

My local Desolation Row was Surrey Docks – re-generated as Surrey Quays – but on walking and cycling trips I discovered the run down warehouses of Shad Thames (which still smelled of the spices they had once stored), Limehouse Basin, Wapping and the Isle of Dogs, which looked like a war zone. I remember rummaging around a warehouse in Wapping one day and hearing a roaring noise on the floor below. I rushed along to see what it was and discovered that the place had been set on fire by some local kids.

Swimmers-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

The absent other in all of these photographs was Mr. Charles Fox. A Battersea Dogs Home graduate, selected for his fetching smile, his hairy ears and his endearing determination to escape from the Home by digging through the concrete floor. His name was chosen because nobody in our shared house was prepared to have the utility bills under their names, so Charlie the dog ended up taking responsibility for everything. He never seemed to mind. At the Post Office I would occasionally be asked, “are you Mr Fox?” – and when people from the utilities phoned up wanting to speak to Mr Fox and we would invariably say “He’s unable to speak at the moment”.

CharlesFox1-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

Charlie and myself covered a lot of miles on our walks. Sometimes I would carry my Canon AE1 and sometimes I would take my Bolex movie camera and sometimes I wouldn’t take either because I couldn’t afford any film. On these urban forays, I often encountered a fellow rambler who turned out to be another newcomer to south-east London, a political exile from Soweto who had wound up living on the Pepys Estate in Deptford. Not that I knew this at the time: I only learned the identity of Chief Dawethi a quarter-century later, when Chief and I found ourselves sharing an office. Sharing our reminiscences of living in south-east London in the early 1980s, we discovered that we were the ghosts on each other’s travels. I mentioned that I took a lot of photographs back then, and it was Chief’s suggestion that people might be interested in those images, as the area had since changed beyond recognition. Chief’s insight encouraged me to dig out the negatives and study them with fresh eyes.

DocksideTowers-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

Looking at them now, they appear as remnants of a lost world. ‘There is nothing more recent than the distant past’. It seemed unthinkable in the early 1980s that the purlieus of east London could ever become desirable, let alone exclusive. Yet the areas seen in these pictures is today the playground of those who profited from the sale of England; those inhabitants of the soulless apartments that are ruining the London skyline. Even Chief’s old stamping ground, the Pepys Estate, is home to Aragon Tower, one of the most up-scale of all gentrification projects, a block of high-rise council flats sold off and transformed into luxury riverside dwellings for the few that can afford them.

BigMoney-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

What of Mr Charles Fox? He moved away to York with one of my housemates. We reasoned that he would have a much better life there than on the mean streets of south-east London. I saw him a few times after he moved and he seemed far happier in the North.

Text © Bill Pearson 2013.

ArchWrecks-LC

© Bill Pearson 1982/85

 Heart Of The City by Stephen Watts:

Grey sky. Fifteen cranes swing
between the road and the river.
A darkened ribcage of girders is
Fleshed out with granite slivers.

Slow bursts of cars stream past
and lead rises up to our rooftops.
It eats the aortas of our babies.
Wee kids who spiral at hopscotch.

We have savage material hearts.
Mine hangs just under my shoulder.
There are reds, yellows and ochres
if I think of colour in some order.

It hangs and pumps at my ribcage
as if a blue bag were slung there.
Full with wet fish & blae-berries.
Words – jump off my tongue here.

It is good to dream as dreaming
makes lucid our human potential …
The spiral of blood in our bodies.
Just where it pumps by my nipple.

Sunflowers. Asters. Fuchsia.
Whatever their colours they seem
held by tight and straitened stalks.
The sun will crash from its beam.

Too close to the savaged heart.
We live in the heart of this city.
Cranes that swing out on the dark
measure our hearts without pity.

© Stephen Watts.