This is a collection of a zine created, written, arted, put together by Laura Oldfield Ford that chronicles her travels through and stories about London 2005 – 2009 with memory jaunts back to the 80s and 90s and up to the dystopian future of 2013.
In a way, reading it reminded me of reading the Beverly Cleary books as a kid. The state and place of my fucked up childhood made me approach those books with the eye of an amateur anthropologist. “Tell me of these things called suburbs. Show me how children have neighborhood friends.” In the case of Savage Messiah, I’m a dweller in the post-urban ahistorical sprawl of Los Angeles. So Oldfield shows me what it’s like to live and move in an old, layered, compact city. A city where you can move around on foot and discover all the hidden ways, the forgotten paths, the overgrown lots in the middle of one of the world’s modern capitals.
She stands at the opposite psychogeographical pole from Iain Sinclair, the other chronicler of the streets of London. He’s established, an old guy. He’s got books, columns, appearances in documentaries. He’s a face. Oldfield’s just a young person wandering the streets and paths of London, from squat to rave to demo to couch. And always watched by the cameras and the cops and the cops with cameras. The pall of surveillance and power drapes her every movement and it’s a testament to her skills as a flaneuse that she can sometimes find the hidden and forgotten ways and places to take her out from underneath that oppression. She has nothing but the precarity of all those her age.
Using nothing more than collaged photos, sketches, and text laid out skewed in chunks over the images, she evokes her London with a skill that makes the reader feels the streets, the heat, fugged out pubs, the rush of the drugs coming on as the DJ drops the beat.
I first ran across a mention of this collection in Greil Marcus’ Rock and Roll Top Ten (and I pay special attention to anything he says, one of the most influential writers in my life), and the Mark Fisher wrote about Laura Oldfield Ford and Savage Messiah in his collection, Ghosts Of My Life.
Overgrown old brick buildings, canals, the hidden, unknown, forgotten parts of London. The parts that have avoided the commercial neoliberal rebuilding of London into a plastic city. And walking, always walking (again, no one walks in LA). A city revealing its secrets to the pedestrian, the pedestrian who’s fleeing the fears and pressures of the precarious life.
Ballardian collages of parking lots, brutalist tower blocks, and courtyards. Mainly empty. She chooses her shots so that there are very few or no people on the streets, on the stairs, on the estates, in the hallways, in the doorways. The presence of people come from the sketched portraits pasted, taped, glued over the photos. Laying claim to the abandoned territory. Ghosts.
Alleys, back streets, the gaps in the fences, all the hidden ways known to only the few. All illuminated in the orange sodium glare of the streetlights, the glowing urban night sky (tuned to a dead channel? loglo?).
And the trees. And the bushes. And the vines. The lushness of these hidden places, lush and green and growing even in the black and white photos. Another difference between here and there. Urban jungle vs desert sprawl. Again, showing me different ways, places that people live.
The pictures and sketches frame stories of the lives in these places. People going from pub to apartment to party. Bad decisions made in bad boozers because there are no good decisions to be made. But at least those bad decisions give a person a momentary freedom. People trying to live their lives, trying to figure out how to live their lives, bashing up against the bars.
Stories of the past. Past struggles: riots, demonstrations, all in the past. Past events: raves, gatherings, parties, industrial gigs blasting noise out of the all important and necessary sound systems, speaker stacks. The reverberations still echo in the streets, in the abandoned buildings, in the estate courtyards where the ghost noises bounce off the concrete buildings.
Use Savage Messiah as a map. Ford’s the cartographer making the map become the territory because she brings it to life. Keeps the city alive in our minds. She makes sure that this city and these people who live in it will never die because they’ll never be forgotten.
Next up: Injection Vol. 2 by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire.