The independent London newspaper

Words on the street

28 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Customers at the pie shop – just one of the contributors to The Street

Directed by Zed Nelson
Certificate PG

THE idea is simple. Take a camera along a busy high street in the East End, and speak to as many people as possible over a period of months. Edit it all together, and use it as a reflection on the changing city.

Director Zed Nelson has trained his camera’s gaze on Hackney’s Hoxton Street. His eye for detail, for letting interviewees feel at ease and speak their minds without interruption – and of course identifying the street as somewhere he could use as a microcosm to look at social issues – has made for an enjoyable piece of social history.

Hoxton Street is a mile from the City, which focuses on the manufacture of wealth for the betterment of those working inside the steel and glass edifices. Watching these soaring buildings rise – and “luxury apartments” boasting their private courtyards, gyms, concierges being sold via CGIs of impossibly tanned and healthy-looking people setting their chiselled jaws out at the world they are conquering – creates a sense of impending doom.

And as Nelson tracks the people who live and work in Hoxton Street, you can see their bewilderment and attempts to understand the winds of change swirling round them.

There is something lurking high above the street – a political and economic maelstrom that rains onto the pavements below, but those who walk down Hoxton Street are often oblivious to the cause of their situation. Instead of understanding the forces pressing on them, it becomes evident that a fractured society breeds a hatred of “foreigners”.

Nelson does not try to disabuse such bigotry, but gives a platform to try and absorb the hopes and fears of a community, and understand what makes some feel a sense of loss.

The oral history comes from the proprietors and shoppers of the businesses along the street.

Some long-established stores co-exist uneasily with new ones. The proprietors of a pie shop, who say they were first to pour parsley sauce over their offerings, look warily and wearily at a hand-made bike shop opposite (“they’re French,” they whisper). Others do not appreciate a craft beer store with 400 brands for sale – that it is run by a man from Germany causes confusion.

There is the garage mechanic whose workshop is soon to become pricey flats. He has a sign that says “we don’t fix bicycles, pump up tyres or remove locks or wheel clamps”, but he is much loved by his customers.

Memories of the war remain: “I’m 82 and I was born in the worst street in Hoxton,” one resident says. “I remember the bombing and I remember my mum saying ‘I don’t care if we get killed, we’ll all get killed together.’ I remember thinking: ‘I don’t want to get killed’.”

Perhaps a highlight is the appearance of a hipster artist, sashaying into a new gallery to “check out the sitch”.

He’s like a Harry Enfield comic creation.

Hoxton Street is exceptional for those who live there – but it is typical for London, a city where eye-watering inequality is rife, where the superich and the very poor nestle cheek by jowl.

Nelson does not offer solutions – but he does offer a clear window into the issues we as a nation face together.


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