“It does look like a wedding party, a strange one, but it does have that feeling,” says Tania, my son’s girlfriend, after she’d looked at some of the footage of myself and eight friends whirling/jigging/funking/floating around the grim industrial walkways of that sprawling railway monster that is Willesden Junction. Nov 2011
Where to start?
With the raw delight of seeing Sarah – we went to Ilkley (West Yorkshire) Grammar School together, she’s my oldest close friend – standing on my doorstep at 1 15pm one glorious autumnal Saturday afternoon, dressed entirely in scarlet. Statuesque, bold, Frida Kahloesque. Long skirt and a wonderful net wrap. Oh, the potential of that wrap!
Or Jayne’s – a newer friend – suggestion that she’d like to come for a Harlesden walk with me. With Tim, her partner, and also 5 Rhythms’ (dance created by New Yorker, Gabrielle Roth where you dance your own steps through five different rhythms – strong and flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness) teacher. And me thinking ‘yes, but why don’t we dance’. After all that’s what we do together so often and I haven’t done it in Harlesden yet. 5 Rhythms is not about showing off although it can be, it’s about dancing with an open heart.
And gradually, as the summer wended through our midst, a few more friends were invited and accepted, or even invited themselves. Others understandably couldn’t bring themselves to expose themselves in this way. This dancing-in-public-way. In fact, only that morning, I received an email from a lovely friend called Howard saying: “I feel as though I’m letting you down. Please ask me to do anything except dancing in the streets on a Saturday afternoon.” I laughed out loud.
The door bell keeps going. Helen is in a sexy, maroon dress with a red flower in her hair, Tim is in a quiet red shirt and dazzling white trousers, Abigail changes into a elegant more muted red number, and Claire too. Jayne dons a lipstick pink-red, short dress with boots. Matt is rather lumberjack shirt young with jeans. And I have a flowery flamenco dress with a suitably rose mini-headdress. Of course, I want so be some sort of Queen. And so I cut the last blood red rose from my garden and add it to the headdress.
Even as we set off, we feel like a tribe.
Initially we gather in Furness Road. For a hand-holding pow wow. I explain gently (I hope) that this is one of my Harlesden happenings* but they don’t have to feel as though it is a performance. I know some of them are feeling nervous and it’s more important that we do what comes naturally to us.That we allow ourselves to dance with each other and alone. I suggest that we relate to passers-by too if that’s what happens, and that I hope they will be able to appreciate the landscape that we are about to enter as well. And thank them, of course, for their willingness. Such huge willingness. To turn up. To trust me. I feel honoured.
And then we find Duncan in a white shirt on a bench. The last dancer to appear. He looks bewildered and exhausted. He joins us anyway. After a little encouragement from us.
These fellow dancers do not know what soundtrack I have created for them! We arrive at that Not On Safari hot spot, the top of the stairs at the Harrow Road exit of Willesden Junction. Oh, what a delight. I put on ‘We Are Family’ ( the Dusty Springfield version) and we break into flamboyant dancing. Some of us are less inhibited than others. I wave at passengers on the No 18 bus, people at the bus stop look shocked in a good way. Matt, Jayne and Claire are looking embarrassed about what they’ve let me persuade them to do. Later, Jayne says she loved the realness of their awkwardness in that situation. And into our midst comes a man in shorts with a bicycle, he’s grinning widely, and the next moment, he’s joining in. He’s got the spirit, his hips are waggling like a belly dancer.
It’s the beginning of something. I can feel the air around us lifting up as if it’s welcoming our exalted intrusion. Happenings can have the spontaneous effect of raising spirits and somehow increasing the possibility of people coming together and really being together.
By the time, we get to dance down the stairs – to Bjork’s ‘Big Time Sensuality’ – my fellow dancers are realising the potential of strange objects like the alien wire fences in the narrow ratboxed walkway. And the steps – ah, yes, travelling up and down them. Avoiding passers by, welcoming them, waving them past. Some lower their eyes and rush through, others smile and want to engage. I love Bjork’s haunting voice and the way this track is so funkily nutty and sensuous. The latter feels like a contradiction here in this railway wasteland, in this industrial bleakland.
Can we be sensual here? And loving? We can, we can. We are.
Have I mentioned that my 25 year old son Marlon, his girlfriend, Tania and friend, Paul are filming us… Another kind of contradiction – the young observing the old for a change through the eye of a camera. It adds another dimension to the dance. A less immersive one. The challenge of moving in and out of totally being in it. For another take. Plus although we are being spontaneous, we are also at times being directed.
Outside the ticket office, I have a musical shock to the senses of the dancers. ‘Anarchy In The UK’. For some of us a significant part of our history. A part of who we are – still hanging on to our tendency to rebel against authority – and a recognition of how important that questioning attitude to the establishment always is. For society. For individuals.
For others of us, they just about recognise it and nothing else. We jump up on walls, throw our fists in the air, howl with derision and relish the aggression of the spiky destructiveness the Sex Pistols brought with them. The storm before the birth. There’s a central circular wall here – it becomes a go go dancer’s dream. I’m up there, and Abigail joins me for a bizarre tango. Matt jumps ridiculously high in the air, Helen snarls into the camera, Jayne who had initially been bemused by this track, is shaking her head violently, Duncan dances more slowly next to the entrance to the station, Tim runs along walls, and Clare is still her graceful self in our midst. Meanwhile two ticket office workers stand and stare. Fixed grins on their faces.
The next stage is less public. We don’t see passers by any more. A transition in terms of how we are with each other. The pathway wends up behind the 1960s ticket office to the other side of the station. Whoops, we’re going too fast. Our director asks us to go back and walk the last bit again. No-one complains. We find Willesden Junction blackberries to feed us, grimacing at their bitterness. Abigail puts on Sarah’s scarlet net wrap as a veil and becomes a bride. She’s picked a little bouquet-bunch of buttercups and buddleia. We become a wedding procession inadvertently.
And find ourselves wandering down an unplanned tunnel. Dark, dank and stinking of urine. We don’t notice the ‘No Pedestrian Access’ signs. I turn on the exquisite juiciness of Al Green singing ‘I’m still In Love With You’. Can we be this tender in this tunnel? We’re dancing alongside each other softly. I notice Sarah – who has recently lost her darling mother, Stella – has tears just held on the rim of her eyes. She looks so fragile and so broken open in love. I go over to dance with her, a sister in support. Tim and Abigail are holding hands like a couple in love.
When suddenly everything changes.
Our attention is diverted to a single figure two hundred yards away. In high visibility wear – he’s funking out on his own by the buses. He’s going for it. Totally. An echo of us. Inspired by the great reverend. Helen who has Boudicca tendencies, lays chase. He runs away. The dance takes on a farce-like quality. Caught by the idea of a chase, we all run over the the buses and find ourselves dancing in the aisles of one of them. The driver simply turns on the hazard warning lights. Sarah hangs upside down and Abigail cradles her as if she’s in a cocoon. Tim lies down and four of us lay across him. There are poles and seats to play with. The driver waves. We can’t believe no-one is telling us to leave. It feels like a surprise gift.
We stop again. Waiting for our camera crew. “It is undeniably ugly this landscape,” says Helen, “but walking and dancing it like this, is making me think and feel differently about it. Like I can find the beauty in it. Or at least textures that are fascinating.”
We go up more steps to a narrow nineteenth century iron bridge. It’s a strange little channel over a wide, wide vista of railway lines and the almighty Powerday recycling plant. Marlon shows us the small stretch of it that we are allowed to dance in. ‘Precious’ by Annie Lennox is playing, and suddenly we’re crawling over each other. There’s no room, so we find a closeness with each other. The red wrap which became a veil is now something that moves from hand to hand, that both unties us and ties us up. That unites us and individualises us. In my hands, it becomes a man net. I have Matt’s head twisted in it, caught, distorted and oddly exciting. Then I cast it over both Tim’s head and mine. The space changes and we have a hidden place to have a quieter moment.
The view is spectacular in the opposite to an undulating hills kind of way. Trellick Tower is in the distance to our left, and Old Oak Common to our right. The signal box which was here when I came with railway expert, Ian Hunt, has disappeared. Dismantled, probably. I remember the Victorian wooden adornments that looked as though they belonged to a spinning wheel.
“Oh, the pleasure of restraint,” I declare as we sit down for a mini-picnic of water melon and fruit bars. I mean that sublime freedom that comes confinement, rules, restraints, structure. The bus aisles with the poles and the narrowness of the bridge pushed us to use our imagination more. We felt the momentum of restriction giving a boost to our creativity. An excitement.
Now there’s a little walk along a path I wouldn’t walk alone even in the daylight. I just wouldn’t want to feel trapped there. The piles of refrigerator rusty bits accompany it. “Oh, I would walk here,” says Jayne and she probably would, because she runs in dark, lonely places that I’m afraid of. “No, I agree with you,” says Claire to me. And I’m aware of my own fears around personal safety and where I would and wouldn’t walk as a woman.
I lead them into the nearby industrial estate – Bi-cafe with plastic orange gerba outside, Lebanese nuts in a warehouse, an ice-cream factory – and we spot a three-legged regal chair that is looking distinctly abandonned. Helen sits on it and I realise that we have to adopt it, take it with us. It has a faded red seat and the right attitude.
And at this very moment, we feel like a nomadic travelling dance company, that will carry on. I like that feeling.
Just ahead of us is the Grand Union canal and another bridge. The film crew run ahead to set up. There’s something about this scene that speaks of another world, one where nature is managing to survive, to struggle through the concrete barriers. Where wilderness confronts the man-made. I put on the melancholic strains of ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is sung by urban ‘castrato’ Martyn Jacques from the Tiger Lillies. And there is a serenity and sadness and fragility that manifests spontaneously amongst us. We move slowly and tenderly. Abigail embraces Matt as softly as a mother. I stretch and float with Claire in an elegant physical conversation. Duncan has the wrap that has turned into his objet de danse. At the end, there is a silence that joins us together as one. It’s a profound stillness and I personally at that moment want to stay there quietly looking at the water forever.
We dance some more at the other side. A passing family on bikes are fascinated by us. We even do a jubilant salsa outside my flat finally. But for me, the end was on the bridge. I know I want to do it again. To dance Harlesden again. Differently. That was one of the most bountiful days of my life.
*Someone said – ‘You mean like a flash mob’ – but I don’t. Happening is more my generation of word and has a pre-social networking meaning. Allan Kapow first used the term ‘happening’ in the spring of 1957 at an art picnic at George Segal’s farm. The key components for me are the combination of structure (the music, the route, the red, the friends) and spontaneity or improvisation with regards to contents. Happening also has more of an art precedent whereas flash mob relies entirely on the spontaneity. And I like the idea that in my case the ‘audience’ were the passers-by or the ticket office workers, the bus maintenance man and the drivers, and that they were also participants. Also that breaking down the wall between participants and audience dissolves the wall of criticism.