Category: Blog

Brutal Beauty

[update – Ashley Wales, one half of former music producers Spring Heel Jack, was a resident in Nightingale. He kindly shared his memories with me, I’ve included them at the bottom of this post.]

I grew up in Islington, North London, but used to hang around the more deprived neighbouring borough of Hackney, getting up to no good like many teenagers. One of many memories that stand out is running around Hackney Downs with a couple of friends at dusk, trying to come down after taking too much LSD. It was the early nineties.

The cold air hit my face and I felt better at once. Although still hallucinating heavily, I was grounded by my closeness to nature – grass under my feet, the open sky above me. Across the park, spaced evenly apart in the distance, stood the towers of the Nightingale Estate. As the sun set, twinkling lights festooned the tall blocks as one by one, the inhabitants illuminated their homes. To me, this sight was every bit as beautiful as the sun setting over a forest.

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

The Nightingale Estate seen from Hackney downs

Nightingale was built in 1968 and comprised the six towers seen above, plus a surrounding sprawl of medium-rise terrace blocks. Even without the influence of drugs, I always found these buildings captivating from nearly every perspective – standing at the base of one tower and looking up, then across the wide open space toward the other towers, or on the few occasions I was inside one, contemplating the view from high up. The blocks sat on a large, raised plateau and were arranged in such a way that no tower stood directly in the view of another. I was impressed by the scale, the uniformity and the repetition – of the towers relative to each other, of the twenty-two storeys in each tower.

I wasn’t alone in this aesthetic appreciation – throughout the mid to late nineties, Nightingale served as the setting for music videos by numerous bands including Travis, BlurSuede and more. It featured on several EP covers by experimental drum and bass outfit Spring Heel Jack. My musical backdrop for this period wasn’t indie and Britpop bands, but rather the Jungle pirate radio stations like Weekend Rush FM, broadcast from an illegal rig at the top of one of Nightingale’s towers.

Nightingale seen at night

Nightingale seen at night

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Blowdown of Nightingale towers

Between 1998 and 2003 all but one of the towers were demolished, paving the way for a wide scale regeneration of the whole estate. It’s a curious fact that these towers existed for no more than 35 years – the first to be demolished, Farnell Point, lived just 30 years. By most accounts the inhabitants of Nightingale were content, at least in the early days. Many came from cramped houses and were very happy with the relative large size of their new homes and the high-rise views across the city. I remember an interview with one delighted family who’d moved from almost uninhabitable council housing in a neglected industrial town in the north of England. Residents had everything they needed, including local shops and a youth club.

As time went on however, the estate fell into disrepair and crime levels rose. The sprawling, labyrinthine nature of developments like this, many built in the 60s and 70s, became an argument for discontinuing them. As one resident elegantly put it, with its masses of buildings and walkways, by its very nature Nightingale was ‘designed for skulduggery’. The estate’s demolition set a country-wide pattern, with local authorities deciding that packing council tenants into vast blocks and stacking them vertically in high towers didn’t work well, and so across the UK, these mighty structures crumbled down elegantly upon themselves in carefully controlled detonations.

Of course high-rise blocks are anything but consigned to the past, especially in major cities like London. The difference is, the kind now being built are expensive, luxurious, and available only to those who can afford them and the panoramic views they provide.

wide angle shot of Nightingale estate

Designed for skulduggery

Nightingale was the inspiration for the fictional housing estate Broadlands in my forthcoming novel The Release. Without my very real memories of a place that impressed me so strongly, I doubt I’d have been able to describe the setting for this story in quite the same way.

Ashley Wales of Spring Heel Jack shares his memories of living in Nightingale and his feelings about its demolition.

“It’s great to see some pictures of the Nightingale Estate. I lived in Rachel Point from early 1987 until its demolition in 2002 and was one of the last residents to move out before its blowdown. That was the reason we used photos of the estate for our sleeves, the cover of the Sea Lettuce was the view from my front room on the 15th floor facing east. The photos we used were all taken by Steven Parker, an old friend of ours.

I have great memories from my time living on the estate and still have dreams about it after all these years. Every time I walk across the downs there is a big gap in the sky where the six towers used to be, the view is just not the same anymore.

It was not all great though and was a fucking tough place to live, lifts breaking down, people using the communal areas as a toilet, and anti-social residents making your life difficult, basically the same as the rest of Hackney. But on a sunny day it was beautiful and majestic. The downs was just across the road and you could have been somewhere exotic, and you didn’t mind that the council had basically given up on the estate by the 80s.

I remember watching the blowdowns of the other blocks, Embley and Southerland point, standing on my balcony with my daughter and thinking “Jesus, all that concrete and it has just vanished in a cloud of dust.”

When it came to the blowdown of Rachel point I took my daughters to watch it, but Hackney Council were so pleased with themselves for getting rid of what they considered a problem estate that they held a party for local dignitaries like Trevor Nelson and council officials with champagne and cake, while the residents of the estate were treated like dogshit. It really upset me to see the block I had lived in for all those years reduced to rubble. I didn’t feel like celebrating. It was my home for better or worse.

Weekend Rush, the Downs festival, the fantastic views, friends who are no longer here and some great parties. I miss it still.”


The Power of Repetition

(This article is also published on the Honest Publishing website)

Gonna take all my money
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my fucking nose *

* from ‘Fucked by Rock’ – full lyrics here 

If I had to explain the brilliance of the above lyrics by semi-self parodying UK hard rock group Zodiac Mindwarp, I’d put it down to repetition. The message– that he’s gonna snort all his money up his nose – is reinforced with three repetitions of the same line, then turbocharged by the addition of ‘fucking’ the fourth time round, for extra emphasis.

Of course repetition in music is nothing new. Choruses repeat, as do lines within choruses. Repetition is powerful – repetition with an added twist, even more so. What better way to make something stand out than have it change while everything else around it remains the same, again and again?

Repetition is common in storytelling too. The difference is, unlike the identical repetitions of musical choruses, or that found in numbers and mathematics, stories can only really use this second modality – each repetition bringing a new nuance or twist. Stories repeating identical segments wouldn’t work. You’d get films with the same scene looping like a damaged DVD, or novels with duplicate chunks of text as if caused by a major printing error.

Stories reflect real life. Real life never repeats exactly. No two occurrences are identical, no two mornings ever exactly the same – something is always different. There are examples of storytelling exploring this theme consciously – a well-known one being the film Groundhog Day. A literary example is the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Unable to get this highly original, mould-breaking story past the gatekeepers of the UK publishing world (no doubt precisely because of these qualities) McCarthy eventually found a publisher in France. It tells the story of a man recovering from a serious accident, putting the £8.5 million compensation settlement to use trying to reconstruct a short scene from fragments of his memory in the hope that it will trigger the recollection of more lost memories. No expense is spared – he rents a large house, actors, costumes, even a project manager to ensure everything is in its right place.

With each increasingly feverish reconstruction, something isn’t quite right – a detail out of place here, an acting slip there and the whole scene is ruined, meaning he has to start all over again.

There’s a lot of truth in this. How many of us have tried to recreate a great experience we once had – for example, revisiting the same city only to be disappointed? At best the attempted recreation, even if enjoyable in a different way, just isn’t the same. Nothing can be recreated exactly.

Repetition also works well in comedy. One proponent who really understands this is Stewart Lee. It would take a better mind than me to explain how something not inherently funny at first becomes exponentially funnier after the fourth or fifth repetition – but it does. Lee knows this, and uses it again and again (and a-fucking-gain).

These are all examples of (self) conscious use of repetition, but I believe it isn’t always so deliberate – rather a device that emerges as a natural facet of storytelling. In my short story LM039, a narcissistic scientist tries to teach a lab monkey to speak. Each attempt has a different outcome, rarely the desired one. In Flap Trap, a pervert chases voyeuristic thrills on escalators with a mirror strapped to his shoe. No two outings are the same, despite the repetitive and Sisyphean nature of his chosen hobby.

In my short film Kickoff, the initial moment of quiet signifying the ‘calm before the storm’ as a protest heats up is repeated at the end, with the protagonist describing another short silence immediately before the pent-up passion erupts into violence – a ‘bookend’ effect whereby the story ends in the same way it begins.

Storytelling is filled with repetition. Repetition is more powerful even than the dramatic pause. Used together, they are doubly powerful. Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut are all writers known for using repetition.

I’m still looking for suitable homes for my two novels*. This, as any writer aspiring to publication well knows, is an undertaking filled with repetition. The repeated rejection is banal, but at least no two rejections are exactly the same (even if your submissions are). I’m confident I’ll get there because I can stomach a lot of repetition. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll make money from writing. I could spend some of it supporting struggling writers. Or I could just stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my fucking nose.

*Happily I did get this one published.