Porous Gateways: The London Docklands on Film and as Archive

The past opens onto the discontents of the present through the Docklands in The Last of England (Jarman, 1987)
Anna Viola Sborgi explores the varied history of London's Docklands as a vector of threats to the empire, the loci of gentrification, and a space where the past opens into the present
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In this post, I want to reflect on the London Docklands as the location of the city’s former port, the “urban pore”, which, as Sabine notes in her introduction, evidences the “janus-faced aspects of porosity”. In the shifting discourses on urban regeneration in this area, porosity has had a double meaning at different historical moments. While the concept still retains some ambivalence in contemporary debates, depending on the different agendas and subjects involved in regeneration projects, between the 1980s and today the area has attained a more widely accepted and positive meaning. This is because ideas about planning as a form of sanitization, which greatly stigmatized the Docklands and the Thames in the past, have given way to architectural debates on the future of the area (and of London more generally) that advocate permeability as a strategy, especially in response to both environmental and social challenges.

The contemporary receptiveness to porosity as a deliberate strategy is especially striking when viewed in connection to the concept’s long history as a “threat” to this part of London. Porosity as threat is rooted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century discourses on the Docklands (and on the East End of London more in general). In literature especially, the Docks were configured as a conglomerate of vice and disease. This aspect of the area was a source of fascination for some. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, detective Sherlock Holmes is often drawn to the docks to follow his investigation’s trail and, at the same time, get lost in the area’s opium dens. These places were perceived as different from other parts of London and, crucially, this ‘othering’ was strongly characterized by racial overtones. After all, it was the port itself as gateway and “nodal point in a […] global traffic infrastructure”, which, in the late Victorian imagination, allowed “contamination” by other people and places to enter the heart of the Empire. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the threatening quality of the area was blatantly associated with the ethnic difference that characterized the Docks, from the Chinese community in Limehouse to the Lascar sailors abandoned to their own devices in the streets of the Isle of Dogs by the East India Company  after exploiting them as cheap labour. However, this sense of threat later came to be associated also with war damage and, later, deindustrialization.1On the history of the Lascar sailors, see Rozina Vizram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700-1947 (London: Pluto Press, 1986).

With the Blitz first and the decline of the Port itself later, the debris of the war accumulating onto the ruins of the factories and the abandoned warehouses, this area became a disturbing presence in the cityscape, an open wound and an element of perceived disorder. The LDDC (London Docklands Development Corporation) regeneration plan of the 1980s, with its invention of the term “Docklands” itself, sought to tame spaces that were perceived as fundamentally unruly. At the same time, this unruliness made the area particularly attractive to filmmakers – who, for instance, appreciated the shooting freedom these fluid spaces granted, but also understood this location as a key space where the identity of the city itself was constantly being shaped and reshaped.

Charlotte Brunsdon notes that the River Thames is “perhaps the most generative of London landmarks”2Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema: The Cinematic City Since 1945 (London: BFI, 2007), 182. and indeed some part of its span appears in virtually any London-set film. In considering the Docklands from the 1980s on, however, its representation takes on the linked qualities of hybridity as well as thematic and formal porosity. A series of films from that period make the history and state of the city (and more widely, of the nation) the focus of their inquiry. All of them feature recurring images of the Docklands and the River Thames, which become a nodal point for the history of transformations of the overall city. All of them are characterized by porous genre boundaries. Many of them fall between the documentary, art film, the city symphony and the essay film. All make use of archival footage.

For example, William Raban’s experimental documentary Thames Film (1986) sets us on a journey from the heart of the city outwards to the open sea, alternating contemporary takes of the river with archival materials and pictorial images. Thematically and formally, therefore, the film prompts us to interrogate this location as a pore in relation to the rise and decline of British imperialism. Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987) invites a similar reflection through the association between the images of the derelict docks in the mid-1980s and archival footage from different sources, from the Brixton riots to the Super 8 family movies his RAF officer father filmed during the family’s stay in Pakistan. The element of post-industrial decline is also in evidence in Jarman’s apocalyptic vision of Thatcherite Britain. These tactics also allow the film to excavate the past and connect it to an imagined future through extra-filmic references. In a shot that alludes to the Ford Madox Brown painting that gives the film its title, a group of people hold tight to one another as they are held hostage by violent military officers off the docks. The image renders the bleakness of the current historical moment in England under Thatcher.

All these elements come together in the BAFC (Black Audio Film Collective) essay film Twilight City (Auguiste, 1989) whose richness of textures evokes the multi-layered nature of London as a whole and this part of the city in particular. The archival footage of the Lascar sailors on the Isle of Dogs or of 1924 Pennyfields Chinatown combine with images of the Blitz but also with contemporary footage outlining the LDDC redevelopment of the docks, still ongoing at the time. Weaving together a narrative where the different phases of destruction and reconstruction of the city are tied not only to the histories of imperialism but also to waves of racialized displacement, the film is more evidently structured as an interrogation and rewriting of these processes from those who were wiped out by them. The porosity of the archival image and the possibility it offers to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning is of course one of the main preoccupations in the BAFC’s whole work. As John Akomfrah himself argued in a 2012 interview: “It’s important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and openendedness”.

Formal and thematic porosity is evident even in more recent films of this kind. Julien Temple’s approach to the archive material in London – The Modern Babylon (2012) can be considered porous. In an interview packaged with the DVD edition of the film, Temple compares the archive to a sea of images, where the filmmaker can dive in. This water metaphor is reiterated via the external voiceover at the end of the documentary, which invites us to “drown into the archive”. However, as the director notes, the end product must result in “a very ordered set of images” even if they emerge “from chaos and chance.” As Temple explains in a BFI interview, this process is meant precisely to “make the meaning of the film come out of the archive and the voices of the people we talked to, rather than pre-asserting some already determined approach to the film.” Crucially, while the overall film is a collage of London’s locales across the city’s history, Temple comes back repeatedly to interrogate the Docklands area and the river, its history and transformations. Meaning is thus based on a porous associative process that opens gateways to previous histories of this part of the city and the communities who inhabited it at different times. Like the previous films, which appeared at a moment where the area was invested by a project of radical redevelopment, this later film appeared at a time where the overall shape of East London was again at stake due to the Olympics regeneration.

Collectively, therefore, these films trace a wider history of the area, from its dereliction to its regeneration. At the same time, image fragments emerge from the archive and are re-assembled to trace the past history of the area as point of entry. The archive in film works “porously” by opening gateways to earlier moments in the past and the communities that inhabited them and were expelled by these areas. This formal and thematic porosity implicates the Dockland films as one answer to the question Sabine posed in the introduction: they function as pores and absorb the archival material, which is then reassembled in the wider organism of the past history of the area. At the same time, they also provide a gateway to future representations of the city, opening up further questions on the place of these images, their narratives and histories and the communities they represent, in the projected imaginaries of future London. More widely, the Docklands as the site where histories of migration and the empire are written becomes a key node for the interrogation of London’s openness as a whole, a question which is still urgent and relevant today.


1 On the history of the Lascar sailors, see Rozina Vizram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700-1947 (London: Pluto Press, 1986).
2 Charlotte Brunsdon, London in Cinema: The Cinematic City Since 1945 (London: BFI, 2007), 182.
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