Duncan Hay and I have worked together occasionally for the last couple of years, in and around my day job at a literary arts charity. We meet to discuss the show he’s producing – The Lowland Clearances, part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Whose London Is It Anyway? festival, inspired by the housing crisis – not far from our Farringdon work-home. It feels like a pretty appropriate place to discuss the changing face of the city. We’re close to one of the signs Islington Council put up in 2014 for the centenary of the First World War, bearing the names of all the men who lived on that road and died in WWI; it’s a moving way of connecting the city to its history, bringing those men to life in the streets they walked, and I remember seeing it and being very moved, but then also thinking: I bet not that many people live on this street now.
Farringdon is one of several areas of central London that used to be densely populated and now are basically – despite pockets of Peabody housing – just offices and Pret A Mangers as far as the eye can see. Vast swathes of zone 1 are inhabited during the working week and dead on weekends, save for a couple of millionaires: as affordable housing’s been eroded away, sold off and knocked down, the people who lived in the streets where Duncan and I sit chatting about the housing crisis have just…gone somewhere else, I guess.
“It’s the whole attitude of contemporary administration that doesn’t understand that if you don’t have a mix of people in a city, it doesn’t work,” Duncan says. “I think only really in London, where there’s such extreme disparities of poverty and wealth, does the idea exist that poor people shouldn’t live in central London – ‘why should they?’ That ideological move only really makes sense in London where the extreme cost of housing applies.”
Duncan’s a writer and researcher based at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at the Bartlett, UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment. He knows about cities – probably more than he knows about theatre at this point, The Lowland Clearances being his first foray into producing. He met Hobo Theatre’s Jamie Harper when The People vs. Democracy was running in our building, Free Word Centre in Farringdon. That show was “quite a political work” and during it, he and Harper got chatting about the housing crisis: “an obvious thing,” says Duncan, for him and for the company.
It’s a mad-brilliant-sounding show that they’ve made: building on the interactive, game play-style approach of Hobo’s previous work, the company have gone full LARP for this one, in a way that is apparently more Nordic than Elvish. LARP, Duncan tells me, is “all about shared narrative experience… In English-speaking countries, I think there’s a certain idea of what LARP is, but in Nordic countries it’s a much more accepted, artistic, mainstream theatrical form. So for example in Denmark, the Danish equivalent of the National Theatre has put on LARPs – and they are serious. This is Hobo Theatre’s first stab at a LARP design.”
That means “a co-creation phase, in which people work together to build the world they’re going to play in”, followed by a “play phase”, followed by “a debrief phase, in which everyone has an opportunity to vent about how awful they feel about it.” But what’s most interesting about The Lowland Clearances, I think, even more than the LARP, is the company’s decision to use of the history of the local area as a lens through which to view the changing city, setting the show in a world Duncan describes as “loosely Victorian”. Why Victorian?
“I think we’re living through a profoundly reactionary moment,” Duncan explains, “with a government wanting to send us boldly back to the 1850s, where the ideology of liberalism in the European sense was born. They believe in market forces – and market forces are precisely what created the Victorian slum and the whole condition out of which social housing arose… Historically, markets have never worked for housing.”
The show is “inspired by what happened in Camden at the time. My friend Tom [Bolton, author of Vanished City], who’s actually doing some walks related to the show, he’s doing a PhD at the Bartlett about historical land use around London railway stations.” Somers Town, the district in which Camden People’s Theatre historically sat, was “basically fields” in 1800 (“literally there was St Pancras Old Church and three donkeys and a cow”), until the early 19th century saw speculative developments of those familiar London squares, “the big, grand sort of houses that you see around Bloomsbury Square”, built in both Somerstown and Bloomsbury.
“The difference was, in 1820 or thereabouts, the extension to the canal was built in Somerstown… When the canal came through, industry came with it, and because the industry and the canal was there, it made sense for the three railway termini to be built along the route of the canal, for exchanging goods between railways and the waterways. And that sealed Somerstown’s fate: since then, Bloomsbury historically has been rich – I mean, it’s a bit down at heel now, but it was a respectable part of town – while Agar Town, which is just behind Kings Cross, was considered the worst slum in Britain. They used to call it Ague Town.
“So you can see historically that if certain things hadn’t happened in Somerstown, the story of what that area is now would be completely different – we’re trying to capture that idea that historical changes made way back still have an influence today, and still influence what’s happening.”
As this piece by Architects for Social Housing details, a recent housing report recommended that one solution to the housing crisis in London would be to return to the ‘former housing capacity in Inner London’ of the 1930s. This is curious both in the implication that packed slum housing is a sort of sepia heyday we should return to, and yet also in that it’s true, isn’t it? With so many empty houses all over London and especially in central London, surely the only way to fix the housing crisis is to let poor people live in the middle bit again?