- BY MNR CONTRIBUTER, HATTIE LONG
We’ve all seen the tourist spots, the photographs displaying the wealth of the capital, Boris’ propaganda trail about the beauty and power of the UK’s largest city. What often goes unchartered is the decline that goes with the power shift from industry to offices, the marks of poverty and dereliction as swathes of buildings fall into disuse. Into this void steps Paul Talling, former music promoter and the creator of Derelict London, a photography project based around London’s largely undocumented underside.
Despite its success, resulting in two books and a TV series, Derelict London had humble origins and as Talling explains, “It was never a conscious project”. It all started back in 2003 on the way back to Richmond from London Bridge when he decided to walk rather than get a cab: “I thought ‘oh I wish I had my camera with me’ so after that that’s what I did”. After a move to Canning Town and the decision to put the images online the local and national press quickly picked up the story and thus one of the first urban exploration websites was born. Its uncontrived origins appear to make the project more resonant; it’s a straightforward concept carried out by an amateur photographer providing it with a greater sense of relatability. Talling is not trying to make any particular point about dereliction or regeneration, rather the images and stories that go with them are important in themselves. Although overtly the buildings may seem to be the focus, in reality it is the people who lived and worked in them.
Not long after the publication of Talling’s second book, London’s Lost Rivers, he began conducting tours around various locations explored in his books; these became so popular that the current tours around Silvertown are sold out until September. As well as public tours, Talling does private events for colleges and company team bonding days. He explains that “even the regeneration people around [Silvertown] I’m doing some walks with, which has a different sort of slant to the area”. These tours are not mere nostalgia for ‘the golden age’ of British Industry, if anything Talling suggests that “we romanticise about some of these areas, it was pretty rough and ready round here and just a dustbowl. There’s all these old industrial areas that are left but it’s not beautiful or anything, it’s just very dusty and obviously all the firms are just moving out now”. Descriptions of the kinds of factories that occupied the Silvertown area suggest a near constant stench of chemical and animal product fumes, meanwhile the workers’ social conditions were hardly desirable. Although we may mourn the idea of the old working class pubs in the area that played host to front-runners of London’s punk scene, many of the stories included about them in the Derelict London books and tours involve murderous bar fights and gun violence.
London’s cityscape has changed a lot in the last twelve years, to the extent that many of the places photographed in the early days of Derelict London have been either demolished or developed. Talling began taking tours around Limehouse only in 2013 but it is already so radically different that the same people are returning to view the changes. He is beginning to travel outside of the M25 to find new images, with recent visits to Epping and The Hoo Peninsula perhaps reflecting the overall trend of Londoners’ migration outwards as the negative effects of regeneration, such as rent increases, take hold. Dereliction acts as a signifier of societal change, for better or worse, and Paul Talling’s documentation of it offers a fascinating insight into social past and present. It’s a labour of love and twelve years later he is clearly as interested as ever. Put simply he says,” If I ever stop enjoying it then I’ll stop doing it”.