Undercover Positivity

From the moment the barrow leaves the workshop where it is stored, there are a stream of looks, reactions and comments. This ‘performance’ takes me past those that hang out at the bottom of Clarence Road, (a friendly crowd who are now used to my comings and goings). One regular gives me a peck on the cheek today, which although not appropriate according to my own guidelines, feels like a mark of acceptance.

I navigate the pedestrian crossing at the lights and head down the Narrow Way. I set the barrow down where the pavement is wide, north of St Augustine’s Tower, ready to engage.

The curious but unsure read one of the signs on the barrow or take a card, then continue on their way. Some ask what I am doing, but choose not to enter into conversation further, others chat. “Hackney is getting friendly,” came one view. “Hackney is friendly, but…you’ve got to watch your back”, said someone whose neighbour had just returned having had his bike wheels stolen in a few short minutes. “It depends on the effort you put in,” suggested someone, making a fair point.

I am asked for my view by someone; who then introduced me to the concept of ‘Positive Psychology’ (the scientific study of what makes people happy). I am interested to hear about it. “If you write down three positive things that you’ve done today it increases your wellbeing.” I am very aware that the ‘Hackney is friendly?’ question seems to be answered in terms of a general ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ view of life. Luckily mine is usually half full.

Six ‘chuggers’ just down the street arrive and create a net to catch a different kind of conversation. They are unusually keen and step towards their targets with a forthright, “How are you today?” I hook one of them myself, to try and glimpse something of their experience of the pavement we share. I found a young person whose passion for the charity they serve was clear. They felt that if the public only knew what was happening in the world’s crisis locations, they would donate, “I can’t understand why people aren’t running up to me.”

I watch passers by swerve to avoid the fund-raisers, shutting them out by lowering their gaze. Vying for the attention of those who might be open to communication, I relocate further north.

For charities and many of the traders in the street, there are slim financial pickings in these straightened times. Prices and the cost of housing and food are recurring themes in conversations. Someone today felt that the street needed another good value pound shop, while another saw where, “those who can afford to buy good food may choose other spending priorities instead”. We talked about the vicious circle of the greed driving corporate privatisation of services, fuelled by advertising, and our complicity at chasing low prices, at the expense of independent shops.

Despite all the reasons to see hard times, there are also many people out there in small often un-noticed ways working with good intentions. Someone today described our society as “a block of flats where a few people are cleaning up all the shit.” I guessed they were one of the ‘cleaners’.

Every day I am out on the street, I discover these undercover workers striving for the good of all, and I am often surprised by what they look like, and how they are using their individuality to bring about change.

One inspiring individual working with “sport, music, creativity, and sharing through the things that people love,” sees how “creativity has no borders,” so can bring people together. We talked a shared dream to build bridges between different groups within the community. He quoted John Lennon, “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality”.

These are a few of the people I met today:

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Peddling Conversation

The ‘Hackney is Friendly’ project is gradually building momentum. People are returning and connections are slowly building. “Everything builds from the past,” someone says today.

With total strangers topics like the weather, and Hackney are safe opening gambits but as I get to know people we range further afield exploring the “interesting times we live in.”

The pedestrianisation is an ongoing theme which continues to provoke strong views positively and negatively. The wooden boxes which have appeared, to make informal seating and planters are referred to by some as “coffin boxes”, and sat on by others. People come to ask me what’s going on. I tell one man about the planting workshop (this Sunday 11am-4pm) and they ask, “Can we plant marijuana? It would make people happy!”

Most pass by without speaking to me, but some say, “I love Hackney”, or “I shall miss it when I go back to Camden Town.”

The street seems quiet this afternoon – until a lost child stirs a great commotion up and down the Narrow Way, with women of all ages bursting into a tsunami of conversation during and after the finding of the child.

At the barrow, the art of being friendly is discussed. Someone talks about the great benefit of offering, “appreciation, being nice, kindness, simply by extending your greetings.” There is consensus that people need to learn social skills. Someone finds that “people are all so tied up with their own selfish worlds,” that they don’t have time to chat. Someone mentions lives “lived behind a screen,” where real eye contact and relationships are not developed.

Some of the friendliest people I meet often describe being regarded as mad for chatting to people at bus stops. Someone says of the project, “It’s a great idea. It might actually teach people to respect each other.” Being friendly with a stranger involves taking a risk, which can be scary. It means risking being rejected or dismissed as mad.

Someone on their way to go swimming considered the potential risk involved in going down a shute at the pool “at my age”, and someone else told me about the “great risk they had taken in their life at middle age,” which they have navigated, through being radically honest.

During a conversation about the benefits of travel – to learn about other people and other ways of life – someone from Tooting arrived. One woman described London’s north/south divide, “like crossing the Berline Wall, going south of the river for the first time when I’d just retired.”

Another conversation about the society we live in, and the democratic process, explored where we may be “losing our rights”. One determined and informed person said, “If it matters to me I’ve got to stick up for their rights.” We talked about the spread of corporate space. Someone else talked about shopping centres, and their popularity, “I hate those places”, they said. It was pointed out that in standing on the street with my barrow I am technically peddling, engaging with people, and exchanging ideas.

These are just some of the people I met today:

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Weaving Threads

Across the whole of London, the Hackney Empire is known and respected for its pantomime. I suspect there is something particular about Hackney that welcomes and enjoys this lively art form with all its brash colour, humour and audience participation. Panto is the offspring of Victorian music hall entertainment that also blossomed in the east end was thriving when the Hackney Empire was built in 1901.

We have a lively chat with someone from the Empire about the sponsored ‘Dame Dash’ (yes you can join in on October 27th). There is teasing talk of wigs and thigh boots. By chance someone involved in legendary community pantomimes in Hackney over the years, also came to chat today. I remember one many years ago, which has lived on in my memory for its extraordinary panache and the social glue that it created.

I am probably more Dame than Principal boy, in dress at least. Over and over again people come to see, “what’s all this then?” because they are “attracted by the colour” or the “flowers and smiles”. Someone who “loves to chat to people,” has “a wardrobe full of colourful clothes,” but has to “dress plain for work”. Many of those who admire my colourful attire are also people of style and colour themselves. We notice people dressing more brightly in this warm weather.

One of the threads that wove through today’s conversations was creativity and the making of things, often my apron or the banner as starting point. I met people who like to crochet, make jewellery or want to do some sewing; and I had my photo taken with a Lomo camera that had the gentle click of a non-digital gadget. “What do you like making?” I asked someone, who without hesitation replied, “noise, mess and out”.

Two friendly policemen were up for a chat, and I asked them about their experience of working in Hackney. “it’s like Thunderbirds: anything can happen,” one said. We discussed some of the topical issues around policing, and I asked what they thought the biggest problem in the area was. “Gang on gang crime,” they answered. Playing neither heroes nor villains in this piece, it was interesting to hear about things from their vantage point.

I was delighted to meet more genuine stars; people who bring a huge positive attitude to their interactions, and share stories, and friendliness. Lots of people are also returning to say hello and see what’s going on. Someone who has come from Blackpool, “where everyone talks to everyone” finds it different here, and is working on improving things in their community.

Someone pointed out that the sunshine will be increasing our vitamin D levels, making us happier, and that it takes a lot more muscles to frown that to smile.” There was a lot to be said for the smile, and the effect that it can have. its use as a way in to communication.

One inspirational speaker gave me some advice on winning the trust of the young, who are likely to want to know, “what’s in it for me?” He suggested giving them space to “let them talk it out, and then pounce”, to motivate them positively.

There was playful joshing with some who come to chat or are getting to know me. Someone suggests that someone else does a striptease, then leaves giggling. Some fabulous gold patent shoes – which have been sitting with potatoes in for 3 days for moisture to help wear them in – are out for a short walk. They pose for me on the dance steps (tango and some swing steps apparently). The temporary paint designs have a Marmite reaction – love it or hate it.

Someone else says, “You’ve calmed me down already,” after trying to deal with forms at the post office. “I am not a paperwork person”. We wonder at the world’s current complexity, and we share something that makes me feel good. A man approaches but is confused by being offered a cup of water without any further expectation. He is waiting for the catch, the “it’s behind you” moment.

There is an ongoing exchange of ideas in these short dialogues. Someone who sees a broader pattern emerging said, “People are waking up to the fact that they can do things. There’s a lot of interesting things going on, (and there’s a lot of awful shit going on at the same time), but people are starting to come together.”

Hackney is friendly. Oh no it isn’t . Oh yes it is!

Here are just some of the people I met today:

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Ways to Connect

Each time I take my barrow out into the street, I make a journey into the unknown. It is always different, and always fascinating. Today it was an incredibly rich experience.

Someone wanted “to moan”, and we discussed the needs (rather than the wants) of older people to have the bus stop nearer the shops, but somehow, against the odds, this conversation opened out into a more free-ranging exchange of views, and I was left with a satisfying sense of having really met one another.

Conversations grew up spontaneously between a relay of different kinds of people. Someone pointed out that “mankind will always find something to complain about, in a coconut shell.”

Visitors from Bristol asked those present to “tell us about Hackney.” They admired the Narrow Way’s “proper ordinary shops”, and we discussed the proliferation of betting shops where those who still believe they will be lucky “lose every penny.”

Someone later likes the fact that “Hackney is a real place where real people live. Once you allow expensive shops to move in, it will sterilize the area.” Another writes in the comments book that, “the love is here, but quite hidden at times”.

There was an organic ebb and flow of conversations. One sprung from a moment where sunglasses were deliberately removed to offer “eye contact”. The disconnection of people in head phones, aloneness that people can feel in the city and London as “a hostile environment,” all came up, and we talked about ways to connect, and the emotions or “material and financial issues” that people may be carrying unbeknown to us. “Looking in someone’s eyes,” is the way to initiate or read the friendliness of a stranger.

A young woman and I talked about the use of “how are you?” as a greeting, rather than a question that expects an honest reply. We thought this might be a “post war stiff upper lip” British legacy? Do the young have a different experience of friendliness or its absence? Does age and going through ‘the troubles’ make connecting with others easier? Or does it just “depend on who you are”?

One enthusiast of the project observed that, “being weird gives you the freedom to break the rules.” Today, the leap of faith, to break unspoken social rules in the street really worked well.

Something happened in some of the group conversations that took a mundane starting point, but dived into deeper philosophical enquiries. From gardening we talked about “the natural way of things, that persons need to understand the earth, to show more respect for it.” We talked of the benefits of multiculturalism, “the English language being enriched by immigration”, the rise of “the consumer individual”, at the expense of “the collective”.

We talked about how small connections can offer a “feel good factor”, as well as helping us to meet ‘the other’. In exploring together it felt as though we deepened each other’s thinking, and had a small but meaningful collective experience. I am once again in awe of the people who took the plunge with me.

These are just a few of the people I met today:

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It was another beautiful sunny day, a day that was not enjoyed by everyone as pleasant. Cups of water were received as a welcome offering. Someone was looking for a good shady route to cycle, and we discussed the benefits of a pace that allows stopping to chat, rather than hurtling from A to B, perhaps missing the kind of unexpected encounters that the project hopes to kindle.

A companion today helped me to open up conversations, and weave interactions between those who dropped by. When someone is talking to us it allows others to come and investigate and perhaps join the conversation.

Each day returning visitors say hello, or stop to give me an update on a previous topic that we have shared. Friends come to see what we’re up to, and strangers choose whether to engage, or not.

A young man today made a very definite point of coming to express his opinion, that, “Hackney was not friendly, because of things that have happened to friends and other people,” but he chose not to take the conversation further.

After making a connection with someone, and usually after we have shared a verbal interchange, I say that, “I am taking pictures of some of the people I chat to for the blog.” At this point the relationship with self-image, being recorded, the potential use and ownership of their image, their trust in me, and my skills with a camera enter our conversation.

Some people are keen to be my subject and are happy to pose, some are willing, but like to dictate where I should frame them from, or how. Others want to make it more fun, or want to be photographed with me. Some agree but suggest that they are not photogenic, or haven’t done their hair.

Others decline because they “have just been to the gym”, don’t like being photographed, or want to keep their image private. Sometimes I just forget to ask, or it doesn’t seem appropriate. The photos that appear after each post are just a few of those who may have engaged with the project. They are snap shots of a moment rather than considered portraits.

Some small quiet interactions are very moving, and the person may have declined to be photographed, but their participation is just as valued and often has an impact on us. Someone today shared a song, which was very special. An admirer of the project both entertained us and spoke from the heart, “Wear your frown upside down,” he suggested.

I spoke about the marshes and the passage of time with one elder today. She spoke of the “four generations of her family that have grown up in the same house here,” and told me that her mother called the Narrow Way, “Mad Man’s Walk”, a name that described locals walking home at closing time.

The need for “public realm engagement spaces” arose today. Increasingly public space is being privatised, and we need places in our communities to be communities in, to hang out and to socialise. The Hackney is Friendly project aims to do just this, to provide public space where people feel that they have permission to talk to willing strangers.

We also spent time today considering why people may choose not to engage. Someone observed that when you enter into “a relationship, it tempers what you say. If you don’t have a relationship, you can just dump your words, and any consequence is not your concern.” I appreciate those who have chosen to engage in these sometimes fleeting relationships.

Others throw negative remarks from offside, not wishing to engage; but these anti-comments on the project also reflect public opinion. One disparaging remark today described our activities as “village.” (Slang for useless, and perhaps I am the village idiot).

At the suggestion of a returning visitor, we tried out the dance steps stencilled on the pavement. We did a funny jig, but couldn’t make it flow. “Life’s a dance,” someone reminded us. Another person who sees the value in the intentions of the project commented, “I see it as a very generous gesture.” The dance continues, a dance of words, of human connections, or choices made to avoid these here.

These are some of the people we met today:

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Real Mix

As I take my barrow out into the street someone jokes with me, “Hackney is friendly, it’s just the people in it…” It’s that “real mix of people” that some visitors from Scotland comment on and I enjoy talking to.

Hackney is an area that holds extremes, “you walk along the road and in one direction there are expensive houses and the other way there’s an estate.” These economic polarities form the background for some of the personal situations that people who talk to me are dealing with. Someone struggling with the issue of the ‘bedroom’ tax said, “I thought about moving, but at least here people stop and talk.

I also met extremes of view, from the casual opinion thrown off-hand as someone passes, “Hackney’s crap,” a warning given to “Just be careful, Hackney’s not really that friendly, you might get stabbed,” to “It’s a lovely place,” said with conviction.

Someone who hasn’t been here for a while was surprised to discover that “Suddenly it’s humming. Hackney is the place to be.” Another recent convert said, “I do find it friendly. I used to live in West London, and it’s not better or worse, it’s just a very different experience.” Someone else told me, “Hackney is a very special place. Some talented people come from here.”

I am trying to offer a window onto that contradictory Hackney experience in this blog. Some teenagers enjoying the spectrum said, “There’s someone crazy down there, and then there’s this.” Another wry observer of the project said, “I walked up the street, and I thought, this is in the great English tradition of eccentrics.”

Underlying the conversations about Hackney is a more subtle enquiry into friendliness. I hear of a project carried out in a local school to learn about other countries, and to encourage everyone to mix together. We also discuss the permission that having a baby gives to talk to others.

I know from my own experience that walking with a dog also means you can speak to other ‘dog people’. My dog people form a wide network, and one comes today and tells me a tragic tale. It shocks me, and I recognise how deep these canine encounters connect me to the people and places where we walk our dogs.

As I talk to a woman well versed in friendliness, some Swedish visitors ask for directions to Chatham Place. She kindly offers to take them the scenic route through the church yard, and returned later to say, “they were really interesting people.”

Another champion of friendliness told me, “I shower people with happiness, even if they’re in a bad mood.”

Musing with someone else, they confirm the truth that I am discovering, “We really don’t know who the people around us are until we engage with them.” Someone whose history here spans over seven decades conjures up a “pet shop with horse, monkeys and a pot-bellied pig.” They recall, “Burtons in the Narrow Way, with dancing above. Hackney went down, but it’s come up again.”

I watch the skill of a lad weaving down the street on a double-ended twisting skateboard. His friend tells me “It’s a rip stick.” A friend of mine who has come to say hello sums it up, “As a community forms, friendliness oils the wheels.”

Just some of the people I met today:

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Why am I doing this? Like many people who look at me sideways, I wonder whether I am mad, stupid or both. Someone today told me about being inspired by Michael Eavis – who apparently wakes at 4am with moments of doubt and asks himself why he is putting on Glastonbury.

I hear words of inspiration from the people I meet and it inspires me. While my intention is to encourage and champion friendliness, it is the people I meet who teach me about how to be friendly. The guardians of the street, who spend their day hanging out, have a code of etiquette and often a way of seeing things that goes beyond the surface. I still have much to learn.

“We live in a society of fear, perpetuated by the leaders because it’s hard to control someone who is free, free in mind, heart and soul,” said one free spirit today, welcoming me with my barrow. I am just a part-time visitor on the pavement, but they will be keeping an eye on things after I have returned home.

Another free thinker navigates the street on roller blades, stops for a conversation, sharing information and ideas, then rolls on his way again.

For some, fear keeps them “indoors after 8pm. Gun crime makes people scared to go out. I wish all that was gone,” said one person. Someone else I met today looks and listens for the signals of friendliness, like “the tone of voice”.

Another person today said, “People like to stereotype things. You see what you want to see.” I notice this in people’s perceptions of Hackney (good or bad), and in passers-by’s perceptions of me. I enjoy the tentative sidle that brings the curious person in to look a little more closely at what I am doing. Others reflect what they see, “It makes me happy to see you happy,” said one familiar friendly face this afternoon.

I met someone today who was just visiting the neighbourhood. After being born here, circumstances took them elsewhere. Someone else was proud to say, “born and bred here and it’s home.”

A couple of friendly ambassadors arrived. “She is the Queen of Talking to Strangers,” said one. The Queen herself tells me with relish, “I like being friendly, you hear people’s stories.” Just at that moment someone walks past waving and says hello to her. They seem to be doing a great job of spreading friendliness, and show me that I am just one of many working to be friendly in this community.

A man with his own queens, ‘the Honey Man’ tells me, “Not being selfish, not being an individual, working as one towards a goal. That’s what the bees do.”

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Hackney is Friendly?

The pedestrianisation of the Narrow Way divides opinion. A couple of shopkeepers say hello, at a loss at falling trade, they shake their heads forlorn. “I really like it, it’s nice without the buses”, said one woman. “It’s good to see this road open for what people want to do”, said someone else. Then there are mutterings, “our tax pays for this rubbish,” said one woman to no one in particular.

My own dilemma is that I am now concerned that the statement “Hackney is Friendly” may be perceived by those who see the banner without investigating further as a categorical statement, a dividing line, rather than a starting point for exploration and a celebration of our community spirit (often found in the face of adversity). I thought that it would be a win/win campaign. If you think Hackney is friendly, great, if you don’t, perhaps you can have a conversation about it and experience friendliness here. “Your problem is you’re an optimist”, said someone today.

I have made a new addition to the banner. My hope is that it will allow a broader sense of inclusion, and allow the subtleties of more ambiguous experiences to be expressed; but perhaps I am arranging deckchairs on the Titanic?

“Why is there a question mark?” a young woman asked. “So that people can share their experience whatever it is”, I replied. I have no wish to inflame discontent, but to foster communication.

My assumptions were challenged about the people I met this afternoon. Incredible stories unravelled before me, the ups and downs of long journeys from rich to poor, east to west, and then to now.

One man remembers, “Before the war then after, this area was completely different. There used to be a market down here. There used to be shops all the way up Clarence Road.” I’ve lived around here for 25 years, but for the 10 years before that I came to visit regularly. I remember the shops on Clarence Rd, especially all the yarns and ribbons tied to the outside of “Ries Wools”. Many of the shops have now been turned into residential properties and the traders hope for more customers.

I fell in love with Hackney then, had a lot of my “first” times here. My first samosa, first bagel, first goat curry, first meeting with a rasta, first hearing of ‘Kind of Blue’, amongst other things.

One person talked to me today about the harsh consequences of loss of livelihood. “The world’s your oyster, and then it’s not.” Someone else spoke passionately about being here. “People here don’t know what it is like behind the steel curtain. I love hackney, in London I feel free!”

I am getting to know the characters who drift around the area and often hear real street wisdom. “Are you a Hackney person?” I asked in one conversation, “No, I’m a Hackney personality.” Another apologised, “Sorry, I don’t have words. Language doesn’t matter, you just need heart.”

Parked near St Augustine’s Tower, there is a band playing. People are taking turns throwing toy ducks into a toilet. A curious collection of people are dancing together – many of whom I have chatted to. I direct some Burberry shoppers to Morning Lane. A rapper jams with the band, giving us some positive flows, and he nails it, “I love this random Hackney stuff!”

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Hackney is Not Friendly For All

Today I feel like throwing in the towel. My idea to provide our community with a space to connect and chat, amplifying the friendliness that is here in an inclusive way is not working for everyone.

Although I am talking to a diverse range of people, for those who are already feeling marginalised and angry, the statement ‘Hackney is Friendly’ provokes the opposite reaction.

“Hackney is not friendly to the black community, which is over 50% of the people,” heckled someone today. Again citing the cuts to youth projects. “It’s the summer holidays and the youth have nothing to do.”

What I am doing on the street is perceived by some as “pretentious” and promoting “gentrification”. I am also seen as a representative of the council and the decisions it makes.

In the aftermath of the heckler’s protest someone came to talk to me. “What you’re doing is working, because you’re getting a reaction. Everyone has been friendly to me today. Don’t get disheartened.”

I had no idea that being friendly would be so controversial.

Later, the sound of ‘Hackney birdsong’ announced the arrival of the police in several cars, and some young black men were stopped and searched…demonstrating another flash point for local young black people.

Others talked to me today who felt more positive about Hackney’s “melting pot”, and the challenges of rising prices and people moving into the borough, “we all just have to make the most of what we have.”

Someone else said, “I moved here because it’s creative and it’s friendly.” Another person frustrated asked, “Why is it so slow to change, still one of the most run-down boroughs?”

Discussing the influx of newcomers “selling up in Islington and moving here”, I asked one man, “What does it take to become a Hackney person?” He replied, “To be a Hackney person you have to involve yourself in the activities of Hackney. You don’t have to change your accent, but be engrossed in Hackney not just sleep here.”

Familiar faces came to say hello. “I just know you as the pink happy lady”, said one. I’m not feeling so happy now, but I am definitely a Hackney person.

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