'In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow'
I have felt this winter, probably past its worst by the time this is read, like none before. Never have I felt so beaten by the cold, so reluctant to step through the front door (despite the, literally, icy conditions inside). For the last four months I have been living in a live/work space provided by Bow Arts Trust. This is a scheme run by the charity in which artists and other creative types can take disused council flats for greatly reduced rent, in and around Bow in East London. The idea is that having young, active people around these often deeply deprived estates lifts the community and for the artists provides a cheap way to live, and a place to make work, and it seems to work very well. The flats are provided unfurnished and usually in need of some repair, they are often handed over in a vaguely Mike Nelson-esque, spooky state. One I visited was totally empty except for a book of forensic photographs of murder scenes, another had been obviously used by squatters for some time, then nested in by (a lot of) pigeons. A concrete wall inside a fire escape inside another bore, scrawled in white chalk, the words 'I have chalk'.
Feeling self-consciously out of place in the area I'm living in is a familiar feeling, only this time, I'm supposed to be in some way serving the community I've dropped into – and, perversely, I am also directly benefiting from the death of the estate I'm living in – flats are given over to Bow Arts because they are going to be demolished and having people in them prevents them being squatted.
A while ago I walked south, from our frugally heated and extremely badly insulated house, towards the Isle of Dogs. A good six inches of snow leant the tower blocks and industrial buildings a look of Berlin, the colour palette reduced to white and grey. On the edge of Bartlett Park there is an entire block of flats that has previously been overrun by squatters. At the moment, a demolition firm has fenced it off; when I passed, men in Hi-Viz jackets and hard hats stood on balconies, throwing piles of clothes down the height of the building into skips below. Graffiti embellishes every surface of the front of the building – illegal tenants, well aware of the long process required to actually evict them, proudly proclaimed their presence: 'GOD IS SQUATTING WITH US'.
The other side of that building looks over the park, the top of the building bears (in two parts) the slogan 'CAPITALISM IS…THE CRISIS'. The words shout over the park, over the big whiteness of it, towards the steaming, shining stacks of Canary Wharf, which stares back, and does not care. Lower down the derelict block is the slogan 'ART IS NOT DEAD'. I can't help baulking slightly at the use, with such an alien and aggressive sensibility, of a word so important to me, and then hoping that the demolition men all around might mean that the art in there is in fact dead.
Being around this area makes one feel that a number of deep divides. Apparently, gangs of squatters roam around, looking for properties to 'break'; we Bow Arts tenants have been warned of this and told to be vigilant. Both groups are, in part, fuelled by an idea of art, of having a home that doesn't cost the usual amount of rent, and a space to be creative. Perhaps we are just both part of the same chain of regeneration – first the deprived part of town, then squatters who make it fashionable, then people to kick them out, then the property developers, Tesco Metro, etc, and in a few decades, the same cycle again, by which time my tenancy here will be simply a rosy, bohemian memory to me – it's a pattern that I am far from comfortable with, despite my complicity. At night, gangs of kids often roam about (one night we had bottles of petrol smashed and ignited outside our door, only to be doused with water by a cool-headed neighbour), and construction workers carry on, cranes sweep the sky over our garden wall.
Despite the relatively generous amount of time we are going to have our house for, I have never felt so transient, because the whole area is under review 'POPLAR IS CHANGING, FAST' – the cheap, miserable council flats, 'broken' by squatters or otherwise, are the past, the shining obelisks to the South are (despite the recession, still) the future, along with the blocks of expensive apartments that seem to leak out of them, towards us. Like the winter weather, this period of change seems to have descended from above, with very little to be done about it except ride it out, one way or another.