Review: The Good Neighbour, Battersea Arts Centre
A friend told me recently about David Eagleman’s Sum, as a trade for my recommendation of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In it, Eagleman imagines 40 possible versions of an afterlife. One, which my friend used to illustrate the format, consists of a vast waiting room that you only pass out of when all your earthly traces have disappeared. You leave this limbo when no one remembers you. Here, Shakespeare and Hitler might sit in one corner cursing as a billion Joe Bloggs pass them by. Others get recalled when their remains are dug up by architects or suchlike.
In this particular world beyond, poor old George Neighbour has just received his summons back. The plaque dedicated to his memory, after his death in a local fire in 1909, is tucked away near the Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall. It’s likely gone largely unnoticed for years. With The Good Neighbour, however, BAC have hijacked his eternity and made him the pivot for a buildingful of work by various artists.
There are three age-specific journeys. Toddlers toddle off one way to a specially-refurbished play area; older children another, in the care of Bryony Kimmings, Coney and others; while those of us over 13 tramp the streets of Battersea led by Uninvited Guests.
Split into four groups, we’re walked down Lavender Hill, once purple and perfumed as its name suggests, towards 37 Lavender Gardens. During George Neighbour’s lifetime, the red brick semi-detached house was home to John Burns, a radical trade unionist who had, in the 1880s, incited the poor to loot West End bakers, before being elected to parliament.
The link with Battersea’s recent past quickly become apparent. Minutes later we’re stood outside the nearby Café Parisienne for a retelling of its owner’s experience of last summer’s riot. Kasim stood outside his shop with an inscribed rolling pin and defended his property and those around it, dishing out Coca Cola to riot police. For one night last August, this street crunched underfoot with broken glass. Abandoned trainers from JK Sports littered the road. Famously, only Waterstones remained unsmashed. Then, the morning after, out came the brooms.
When Uninvited Guests invoke the past, they don’t do so through mere passing reference. They summon ghosts. From instruments modified into speakers come whispers of Lavender Hill’s part: sirens and speeches, breaking bottles and brass bands. With words and imagination alone, they knock down new-build estates and terraced housing, suck German bombs back into the sky and spring greenery from the ground where Asda stands. Increasingly our tour guide, Richard Dufty, stands in for Burns, in his long black overcoat and pert bowler hat, and we for his gathered disciples. As groups conjoin, that long-gone community spirit – so absent and yet so present last August – bristles back into life. As we march to the oom-pah beat, there’s a prickle of camaraderie.
The crux of the tour is to hook two fires, separated by a century, that took place on opposite sides of the street. In 1909, the department store Arding & Hobbs, now another Debenhams, was engulfed by flames. George Neighbour, working as a carver in its restaurant, would lose his life there and Jim Burns would dive in to help with the rescue attempt. In 2011, across the road, The Party Shop would suffer the same fate; the result of arson, rather than faulty electrics. It’s a ghostly sequence: figures appear in the high-up windows of the store, a lone trumpet drifts down from a megaphone above. Dufty next appears in the sacking balaclava Burns fashioned to protect himself, an oddly Halloweenish figure.
In entwining these two events, Uninvited Guests prod at our understanding of the recent riots. They do so in a way that inhabits the inherent contradictions, allowing empathy to mingle with condemnation. There are no blanket proclamations, only the friction of one event against another. It’s left to us to reconcile them.
Yet this tour does more than illuminate. It fosters some spirit of its subject and, temporarily at least, forges some community from the rubble. When we finally gather back at BAC, for mulled wine and milling around, everything’s a little easier, a little cosier, a little more communal. Like a drinks party full of friends of friends. It sends you off with speeches that call for neighbourhood and understanding, for small acts of kindness and tolerance, all of which leaves a little surge in your chest. Yes, it’s a tad golden ageist and sentimental, but The Good Neighbour leaves an urge to do and be better, both as individuals and as community.
So sorry, George Neighbour, that your eternal rest has been disturbed. It won’t be forever, but it will be for the best.
Photograph: James Allen