Thursday, March 10, 2011


I stepped off the crowded platform into the slightly less crowded train, book in hand. Adjusting my rucksack I rested it on one of the padded cushions mounted between two hand rails - a place for leaning. I managed a few more pages of my very addictive novel before the train arrived at its next stop, the stop at which I was to get off: Deptford, an area I actually know quite well. It was ages ago when I first came to attend what I thought was an interview for a job. It turned out to be an interview for volunteer position in a poorly managed and thought out art program. I made this journey several times for a few months, finding the overground trip slightly jarring. Entering London's suburban sprawl is always an adventure.

On the Deptford High Street the feel is similar to Peckham Rye but the crowds are smaller. Hair stylists advertise Afro Caribbean expertise. Two £1 stores run by Indians compete with each other side by side. On the corner a fish market makes itself known long before your see the sign. I duck inside a Vietnamese restaurant, something abundant in Calgary but practically non-existent in London. The man behind the counter smiles, addressing me with a simple, "Eat in or take out?" In this way the restaurant is much the same as any Vietnamese place in Calgary.

"In," I say, slinging my bag onto a chair and settling into the seat next to it. He bobs his head, darting behind a counter to get a menu. Behind him on the wall an extremely large flat screen TV blares loudly, a Vietnamese news channel giving updates on a place which seems like a whole other world to London. I peruse the menu, choose my meal and settle in with my book.

I'm killing time until I have to walk the very short distance to look at a gallery space. In the back of my mind I already feel that it won't do. Deptford has a reputation and Londoners are disinclined to travel long distances and walk winding directions to get to to their destination. This city, for all its opportunity, lacks something I find almost necessary - spontaneity.

I understand it completely, having been invited to a few things in the spur of the moment. The Londoner brain immediately begins working out the commute. When you meet someone new you question which station they live near, how many buses they take, how long their commute is. This is quickly calculated and it determines the viability of a sustainable friendship. When it takes an hour and half to get to someones house, what are the odds that you can 'pop by for dinner'?

I finish my very delicious meal, express my gratitude to the waiter as I pay my bill and head out into the growing dusk. As I suspected, the outlook is not good. The walk from the station is under ten minutes but it passes by a run down, sketchy apartment block and around what can only be counsel housing. In the dim light I'm acutely aware of my phone in my pocket, the wallet in my bag. I keep my head up, face neutral and mind calm.

Rounding the final turn I am upon a street of warehouses. I've no idea what they might have been for originally but now they have been commandeered by the creative. The buildings advertise galleries and studios, a few with open doors which display people working on strange and interesting sculptures within. I am instantly put at ease, my earlier apprehension replaced with a sense of belonging. Here is a place which has been claimed, staked out by painters, sculptures and installation artists.

I quickly locate the one I'm there to see, pressing the button to be let inside. The doorway is dark and there is no way of telling if anyone is within. The high walls of the former factory are solid brick, stretching far to my left and curving around the corner to my right. I press the button a few times before a voice finally crackles through.
"I'm here to see someone," I say. "I have an appointment"
"I'm the only one here but I'll let you in," the man's voice is difficult to understand but the tone is friendly. The door buzzes and I pull it open and step inside.

Up a winding staircase I come to a foyer where a white door is being held open by the man. A salt and pepper beard and hair frames his friendly face, his cheeks round as he smiles and lets me in. I tell him who I'm there to meet and he promises to ring them. In the mean time I can wait.

I sit in what is obviously a tiny office space used by the volunteers who run the studios and gallery. There is a table covered in pamphlets. I take a look at them, seeing if any might be of use to me.

My tour guide arrives, apologising for making me wait. I was early and I tell her as much. Then we do the very short tour of what's available. The warehouse has been divided into several studios. Plywood walls and simple doors set out boxy rooms for artists to rent. The resulting corridor is considered the gallery, the white painted plywood and doors a blank canvas to display work. The lighting is good and the wall space is abundant. The price is even right. But still, the subject of location nags in the back of my head.

I think of my friends and family in Calgary, the people who would unquestionably put in every effort to make it to a gallery showing should I hold one in that city. In that context this space would work. Even the sketchy neighbourhood wouldn't matter because it wouldn't be important. Most people could drive there because parking wouldn't be an issue. If you didn't drive you could take transit or catch a ride with someone else. Either way, I know that I could advertise it well and expect a decent turn-out.

London seems to drain me of my confidence. This massive city is like a strange organism. It swallows you up, turning you into one of the faceless millions. I think of the people I know over here. Who could I invite? How could I convince them to come to Deptford?

I ask for a few more details before shaking hands with my guide and departing, promising to keep in touch. The walk to the train station gives me time to think. It is a really good space. Not ideal for what I want to do with my cards, but workable. It's a reasonable price and the two people I've met who have affiliation with it are really friendly and helpful.

I have a few other places to check out, a few more options to consider. In the mean time I'm going to think about how to overcome the lack of spontaneity, the resistance of going out, and the odd reclusiveness which most Londoners seem to live by. Without spending a fortune by holding it in central London, how am I going to put on a gallery showing which people will attend?

All part of the game, I suppose.

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