Street life: The timeless message of the Bow Mission mural

I took a wrong turn.

Drawing a map from memory, I’d accidentally wandered down a street cutting south from Bow Road to the green wall of trees lining the cemetery. On the right, white and brown new builds; on the left, an older brick brown block dragging like a tail behind the tower of the Methodist church. On a tall windowless wall, human figures painted in fading colour are frozen in everyday activities.

Walker decided to speak in a quiet but strong voice—as if realising that life could be louder than politics, that this wall belongs to everyone.
To give some perspective, I love walking. I go on long walks, taking the measure of a place with my feet. The place takes measure of me too, tricks me, drops me where I shouldn’t be. But mostly, I’m good at finding my way. I can judge how long it’s going to take me to walk to a place even if I’ve never been there before. It reminds me of how you’re able to navigate the house you grew up in even in darkness years, decades, after you left. My feet see the way, and I can really see the city.

That’s how I came to notice the mural on the scarred wall. Like a waterfall, human figures cascade from the top—different races, genders and professions. A small door at the bottom leads to a surgery, according to the sign. On the wall, kids play, a party drinks around a table, a car mechanic tinkers with an engine, a doctor examines a patient, workers repair the road. Despite all the action, I’m struck by how quiet the painting is. There are no heroes, no central figures, no grandiose events or dates depicted. Just the normality of life.

When Ray Walker climbed a platform behind the Bow Methodist Church to paint the mural in early 1978, he saw a different city around him. Judging by photos from the time, there was much more sky, an uninterrupted horizon, long views. More importantly, he seems to have been able to see past the brick and concrete landscape.

A year before the UK held the EU presidency for the first time, inflation was in double digits for the fourth year in a row. Opposition leader Margaret Thatcher talked about many Britons’ fear of being “swamped by people with a different culture.” London’s East End, the first landing and nesting point of many immigrant communities throughout history, had one of the highest concentrations of council housing. Walker, a politically opinionated and vocal Scouser/Liverpudlian, decided to speak in a quiet but strong voice—as if realising that life could be louder than politics, that this wall belongs to everyone and everyone belongs on this wall.

That’s why the Bow Mission mural stopped me in my tracks the day I took a wrong turn. I try to make it part of my walking route whenever I can, to reread that message from almost 40 years ago. It inspires questioning, hopefully not just for me but for those who encounter it as part of their everyday landscape, or by surprise as I once did.

I’m not sure much of that London is still alive. It’s like looking at young photographs of people you only knew when they were old. It’s just the landscape you recognise, and something in the way they look. Like a photograph, the mural is also slowly fading and crumbling. I hope someone today is writing a similar quiet statement somewhere, to be read over the next 40 years.

 

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