Editor’s note: When we published David Savage’s “The Intelligent Hand” we were under a cancer-imposed deadline to finish the book, and so some aspects of the production got shorter shrift than I like. One part was this section on the Cable Street Mural, which David had begun painting in the 1970s. We tried like hell to get some good photos of the mural for the book, but could locate only one small photo before press time.
This fall I taught a couple classes in the East End of London, and one of the students mentioned that the mural was a quick train ride away. So we went during a meal break and I took these photos. Below is David’s text about the mural. Please note that this story is a little out of context outside its book. It is not about politics. It is about failure. Please don’t drag our blog into the political muck in the comments. We’re better than that.
— Christopher Schwarz
When I tell this story to students they always say the catastrophes and failures have been the best bits. Each time I tell the story I get the courage to look a little closer at what went wrong. It helps to see each failure not as a falling down, but as a stage of personal development. It’s how you get back up that matters. Creatives are good at failure; we do it all the time, and we know there is no good work without it. But it helps in the telling if the blood and gore gets drippy.
The Battle of Cable Street happened in 1936 when Oswald Moseley attempted to lead a band of the British Union of Fascists through the largely Jewish East End of London. They were prevented by a large crowd from going along a main route, so they were diverted down a smaller parallel road, Cable Street. The group was so deeply provocative that this road, too, was blocked and the march was prevented from proceeding. Hurrah!
This area near the London docks has always been where immigrants would first settle. It had been the home of Huguenots and, in turn, Jewish people fleeing pogroms in Europe. As immigrants settled, gained stability and a little prosperity, they would all move to other areas of London. (In the 1970s and 1980s, the new Bangladeshi immigrant population was threatened with fire bombs and daily racial intimidation from a small but vocal far-right political group in the same way that the British Union of Fascists had done to Jewish East Enders in 1936.)
Remembering the Battle of Cable Street seemed an important thing to do. Especially as the side wall of the Stepney town hall on Cable Street had a public garden in front of it and seemed to have PAINT ME written all over it.
I began the selling process all over again. I made drawings and large watercolour designs, showing as much as I could what the wall would look like. The proposal had considerable local support, but most people, quite reasonably, couldn’t see the sense of spending any money on art, especially this art. Going against a majority opinion for what seemed to be right was becoming a silly habit of mine.
The local authority was the Tower Hamlets Council, and as owners of the building, they were responsible for its repair (rendering the wall paintable). Getting this done took years. In my proposal, I asked for two assistants to speed up the job. This never happened. I was on my own. The scaffolding was nearly 80′ high. My plan was to work from the top of the wall down, which may have been foolish. At some stages I would put a projector on top of a nearby tower scaffold and project drawings onto the wall. Working on the top of it meant my work was obscured from view by the scaffold board I trod upon. To see the area I had worked on from the ground meant removing the boards and climbing down, spying the errors, putting the boards back and making the change. And on and on. I was running up and down those ladders all day long. It was exhausting and dangerous work; twice I fell a short distance.
But the wall was going well; I had spent two winters and a summer on it, and most of the top part was near finished. The image was beginning to emerge. I didn’t realise it, but this was the dangerous time. This is when the wall was comprehensively vandalised.
That and the exhaustion got me. My body told me that if I went on that wall I would probably fall again, and this time I might die. It was a move I am not proud of, but I pulled out. I quit. I knew the mural would be finished, as the political will (and the money) was now there to do it.
A team of three, including my old mate Des Rochefort, along with Ray Walker and Paul Butler, were commissioned to finish the job. Well done fellas. Hurrah! This mural, unlike the “Royal Oak Mural,” has been protected from vandalism and become a well-loved part of the area.The repair and restoration has been periodically and lovingly done by Paul. Well done, Paul.
— David Savage, “The Intelligent Hand“