Walking the murals of London

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Our most recent urban ramble outing was around the murals of southeast London† – based on maps created by The London Mural Preservation Society, a volunteer group who since 2010 have been working to identify and preserve community murals around London (if you’re inspired to check some of these out, I’d encourage you to make a small PayPal donation to the society for bringing them to (y)our attention and trying to bring attention to the ones that are getting neglected).

London walks almost inevitably cut through the strata of London society and history, if only architecturally. It’s more unusual to contact social (and socialist) history so directly. The first mural we saw was Riders of the Apocalypse – depicting Thatcher, Reagan, Heseltine (apparently the defence secretary when the mural was painted in the early 80s) and a rather effete Gorbachov as the four horsepeople of the apocalypse, riding cruise missiles around the world opposed by the forces of peace, agriculture, and I think womanhood and civilisation, but it could just as easily be “nuclear disarmament” and “doves”.

Murals in Poplar and Shadwell reflect more local stories, in the form of the Poplar Rates Rebellion and The Battle of Cable Street. I think that technically, the latter is the most impressive, depicting the confrontation between Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and the local Jewish/non-fascist populous in a Guernica-like tumult of sound and fury. These stories feel rooted in their locale, a permanent fixture, like an oral history, but painty. Not having gone to a school which is in London*, or remotely socialist**, and having not even got as far as GCSE history, these events from London’s recent past were new to me. And they’re rousing socialist tales of people standing up to violence and oppression, and by opposing, ending them – I can see why residents would want to remember them, especially in areas still affected by poverty and racism. For me, it was really interesting to see these stories told in the places they happened.

Some of these murals are “purely” decorative, as rambler James Coglan commented “London has too many grey surfaces – it needs brightening up”. Even these are reflective of their location – the playful His and Hers in Deptford stands next to a clothes market, and dresses up a chimney in a tie, and another in a string of pearls. The Deptford Marbles makes a landscape from an otherwise dull end-of-row with elements which incorporate the wall’s buttresses into a simple but dreamy trompe l’oeil.

Once you start looking, public art is everywhere – a mural here, a mosaic there, a totem pole somewhere else, a hidden jukebox tucked away by a railway bridge – all of which creates a storylike and fantastic quality to walking the city. They break up the relentless chatter of that other public art – advertising –  with an alternative narrative about where you are and who you want to be. Looking at London’s murals, I don’t worry about the state of my teeth or what car is shiniest – that’s replaced by story, place and playfulness. It might even have the by-product that I learn something.

†thanks to Alice Bell for spotting this and routeplanning


**how does “Serve and Obey” strike you as a school motto? No, I am not joking.

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