Review: Paul Hawkins, Place Waste Dissent
Place Waste Dissent commemorates the resistance of an alliance of residents and eco-warriors to the M11 Link Road, site of one of the major 1990’s road protests. Paul Hawkins was an active participant in the struggle to defend the working-class community around Claremont Road, Leytonstone, from the kind of accelerating class cleansing that has since become all too familiar in the capital. If ever there was a time to make some green noise it is now. And that is what this book – at turns chronicle, free verse poetry, scrapbook and book of scraps (with the bailiffs and riot police) – does.
Place Waste Dissent is an insider’s account of a process that forcibly reconfigured a place with homes and a green into a transit space. It is also an affectionate tribute to lost residents, such as Dolly Watson, and lost squatters, such as Old Mick and ‘Flea’, who made the ordinary East End neighbourhood of Claremont Road into an extraordinary place. Nonagenarian Dolly Watson had lived in the street through the Blitz and post-War austerity and had no intention of being bullied out of her home. She found a new family in the squatters who came to defend the street; they in turn revered Dolly’s indomitable spirit, dubbing her the ‘Queen of the Street’. These human stories are a reminder that what was at stake was not just the erasure of some lines in the A-Z of London but an assault upon a living community.
Alice Nutter, of Chumbawumba renown, supplies a forward in which she celebrates the protesters’ creativity, idealism and dynamism. At the same time she reflects on the endemic dysfunctionality and anti-social tensions in such a scene:
On CIaremont Road it seems there was a lot of having to deal with people who were casualties of the system the occupation was trying to overcome.
This was because, Alice Nutter shrewdly points out, the road protest movement was made up of human beings not saints. This would also hold true for other countercultural habitats such as the free festival circuit and Occupy camps, equally made up of human beings; a cause of worrying concern but much reassurance too. Such scenes have two mighty foes. First, of course, they need to deal with direct hostility from the state and capital; their lackeys, spies and mouthpieces. Second, there are more nebulous foes within in the form of burnout, excessive booziness and drugginess, conflict and internal contradictions. How might we respond to our own alienation in inevitably alienating circumstances? I agree that Paul Hawkins does not flinch in portraying the less heroic side of the struggle, the dislocation as well as the solidarity. In the present day critical celebration and re-examination, not apotheosis, is what is demanded of our radical histories of the recent past.
There were two distinct varieties of anti-road protest camp during the 1990’s, the rural and urban, each with their own character and strategies of resistance. More of a bumpkin myself, I spent some of the same years opposing road construction in the heart of old green Wessex, at Twyford Down and St. Catherine’s Hill where Keats had mused and penned The ‘Ode to Autumn’, at the foot and lower slopes of the hillfort at Solsbury Hill, in the woods and fields in the path of the Newbury Bypass. It is immediately apparent that we are in a different territory here, defending an urban East End community, but, nonetheless, still a precious ecosystem. The underlying battle was the same.
The form of Place Waste Dissent is suited to its content. It has been said that the enjambed lines of Romantic-era poet John Clare are perfect for describing and enjoying the open countryside in a kind of typographical resistance to the end-stopping of the land by enclosure. It is also appropriate that the jagged edges of Hawkins’ verse collages express heated moments of collision and confusion during the opposition to evictions which turned out to be a foretaste of the kind of Neo-Liberal urban enclosure that blights London today. Its shadowy textual overlays, full of movement and perverse juxtapositions, entirely capture an urban ruckus. While not always visually accessible, the text captures the sound of breaking communities and smashing localities through Gee-Vaucher-style visual cut-ups. The cut’n’paste aesthetic is also a reminder of a countercultural expression that was unmediated by the widespread dissemination of mobile phones, digital cameras or social media.
The legacy of the No M11 Link Road and similar campaigns continues to define a significant strand of the environmental movement with echoes in Occupy and camps against fracking and airport expansion. While the book’s black-bordered pages signal an obituary note to a precious place that is lost forever, this is a tale of resilience rather than defeat. The M11 Link Road was completed in 1998 and has since notoriously became known as one of England’s most congested roads. Despite the waste, however, we must also fight against the idea that dissent achieves nothing. In the face of determined direct action and a storm of public outcry, the Thatcherite Roads for Prosperity programme was substantially downsized and decommissioned. There are places out there that, without the road protests, would long have been under tarmac more than two decades ago, notably Oxleas Wood (threatened by the East London River Crossing) and the Harnham water meadows near Salisbury Cathedral (threatened by the Salisbury Bypass known as the Brunel Link / Harnham Relief Road). It may be that, as Hawkins’ puts it, ‘the world is upside-out’. But it is still a world worth fighting for.
Stephen E. Hunt
Photography by Howard Lee