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: