In 1991, a Becontree-based woman called Desiree Ntolo built a seven-foot high, 54-foot-long hut from 20 tonnes of mud in the garden of her house on the estate. Under intense scrutiny, the ‘34-year-old mother of six’ told the press she wanted to remind herself of her childhood home in Cameroon, and to have somewhere ‘to escape from her children and to practise her religion’. ‘Nice Hut With All Mud Cons’, went the headline in The Sun. The Associated Press reported that Ntolo was homesick, and also defiant. ‘No one will lay a hand on my hut,’ she said. ‘I will lie down in front of the bulldozers.’ Her neighbours had apparently complained. She was told by the council that the hut was ‘not a pleasant sight’. It was not safe as it could collapse under the wrong type of weather, they said, despite it withstanding torrential downpours. But, above all, it had to go because it did not fit into the ‘local vernacular’.
Chris Tarrant, who would later go on to host the popular television game show Who Wants To be a Millionaire, stuck up for Desiree Ntolo’s hut in his Sunday Mirror column. Under the headline, ‘Sounds like a really great erection to me’, Tarrant compared the back-garden addition to other renovations that became commonplace after the people of Becontree began to buy their own council houses: ‘consider some of the atrocities that others get away with – the most appalling blots on the landscape in the name of conservatories.’
What is the vernacular of Becontree? Perhaps ask Verity-Jane Keefe, but you’ll find no stringent loyalty to the pretensions of a fancy design guide. She’s more about the vernacular of Becontree’s spillages and its hidden crescendos. In her work for Living Together, the project that marks 100 years of the Becontree Estate, Keefe overlays details that the casual observer may miss. In her second film work, Virtual Walk #2 East to West, a girl on rollerskates is pulled along by her mother with perfunctory smoothness. The blossom is ‘on fire’, the bag is hanging from the tree. Pargetting-style plaster adorns houses ‘like cake decorations’.
Keefe’s association with Becontree is a decade and a half in the making. Work that turned into an (almost) obsession that turned into more work that turned into love that turned into Living Together. It isn’t meant to be a history of Becontree. More, it’s an evolving story, sometimes of nothing more consequential than a walk through some streets to a park. But look closely and LT is revealed as the culmination of years of engagement. Keefe has set up community groups, musical initiatives, accessible shared meals, a reading group, an internet TV channel, an upcoming series of billboard artworks, a writer’s residency, The Becontree Collection, and much of it through a pandemic.
I suppose Living Together could be interpreted as an attempt to interrogate what Patrick Keiller called ‘old space’ in his essay and film, The Dilapidated Dwelling. ‘The dilapidation of old space seems to have increased in an Orwellian way, with the centralisation of media and political power – by the disempowerment of local government, for instance. At the same time, experience of dilapidation is tempered by the promise of immediate virtual or imminent actual presence elsewhere, through telecommunications and cheap travel.’ Old space is the flipside of new space, such as the gleaming business and commerce districts of east London, gargantuan projects a short train ride away from here that have sprouted eastwards from the City Of London since the 1980s. Broadgate and Canary Wharf forewarned the recent luxification of Erno Goldfinger’s London County Council-built high-rise solution to slum clearances, Balfron Tower. The Olympic Park brought with it the Westfield megamall, which has become a popular destination for young people. This kind of new space often acts as a panacea to the worst struggles of old space, shiny air conditioned offerings where work and leisure merge, providing an optimistic counterpoint to the plaster cracks and damp patches of old space. It was recently reported that Becontree is the second ‘best’ postcode in the country for buy-to-let yield, i.e. how much investors, those denizens of new space, are liable to make by buying former council stock and slicing it up for rent.
However, for all the drama of Right To Buy, the way it ripped assets from local bodies and took communitarian consensus with it, the estate’s design continues to hold the line. I read that Becontree had recorded some positive results about Covid transmission levels compared to the areas around it. ‘The estate’s low-rise design, with its large open spaces, and individual council houses, meant vulnerable older residents and those shielding were able to isolate more easily and were less exposed,’ reported the Evening Standard.
Becontree squats above the Thames, a patch of post-industrial, partially socialist England jutting up against the seemingly less complicated small and big cee conservatism of Essex. That Becontree was so big a poster child of the 1919 Housing Act – the biggest council estate in Europe! – meant it was expected to answer questions that had only hitherto been posed in the realms of theory. When somewhere becomes so demographically unusual, it attracts attention, and encourages both snobbish asides (‘“I love Karen, I love Sharon” on the windscreen / With never the need to fight or to question a single thing,’ sang Morrisey on ‘Dagenham Dave’) and wanton claims of authenticity, with Becontree pitched as the Red Wall drooping southwards. Seldom do the political chancers and cracked media actors speaking on behalf of places like Becontree ever talk about how local working-class people helped fight off the BNP.
Living Together responds to this kind of attention, not by fighting fire with fire, but by asking what it takes for people to navigate their lives through such fierce yet fleeting political winds. Keefe is concerned with how the many elements that make up such a distinct locality can be recorded as an artist, creating work about, with and for a place and the people who have made their lives there. She tunes into the plurality of the commons, rather than the more performatively derogatory notion of what may or may not be considered common. She is interested in the beauty and everydayness of living, of sharing. In Becontree, palm-like trees grow in front gardens and driveways like tropical guards, to such a degree they have become a motif of Living Together. On a walk with the artist, we met a man called Amir who was standing outside his house. We stopped and Verity asked him about his tree. It wasn’t a palm exactly, he said, but it had fronds that were giving off a lovely scent of vanilla essence each evening. He encouraged us to come back later and smell it for ourselves.