About a year and half ago my news feed on Facebook was cluttered with alerts that "so and so and has joined the group "Secret London". It seemed that almost every time I logged on another one of my friends or family had joined this mysterious group. I can be quite contrary when it comes to such things and resisted the urge to look at the group, my reasoning being that if everyone was joining it was bound to be overrated and quickly fade into obscurity. I'd taken a similar obtuse stand against mobile phones, Mac products and olives (all of which have been spectacularly successful....especially olives if you think about it) and like with all of those I quickly crumbled at the thought that people might be having some kind of fun without me. I joined and I was underwhelmed. The group worked as a kind of message board where people shared tips on less well known eating and drinking spots across town. To me it felt like thousands of Londoners futilely shouting out names of nice restaurants they'd been to into some massive dark void. No one seemed to be listening to each other and anyone that did get listened to was essentially destroying the secret of their favourite place. If I find somewhere good to eat or drink the last thing I'd want to do is to invite the entire internet down to join me. They'd never fit.
A friend of mine had felt the same as me and as a joke between us I started a group called "Shit London" and invited him to join. The idea was that we'd get people to talk about the very crappest places in London. I stuck up a few photos that I'd taken of run down shops, council estates and weird signs for a bit of content and left the it at that. After a couple of days 400 hundred people had joined and people had begun posting more pictures of London looking at it's shabbiest. From there things just snowballed. Each day there was a steady growth in members and more and more photos being uploaded. Some of the photos were really funny too and drew comment threads of epic proportions. It's maybe a peculiarly British trait to complain about your surroundings and yet also revel in them. There was a certain amount of oneupmanship over who could have claimed to have lived in the shittiest area and who could provide photo evidence to prove so. All of this was done with the greatest of affection for the city.
I'd been taking photographs of weird bits of street ephemera for years and had quite a collection of the stuff so the group was great place to show off some of my weirder finds. The best thing was that other people were now out on the street actively looking for this stuff and finding some real gems. If you care to look there is a whole universe out there of poor design choices, obscure shop names, bad english, freestyle spelling, opportunistic graffiti and plain weird sights. This shit surrounds us everyday but most of us are too busy to notice it.
I've made special pilgrimages to exotic locations like Leyton High Road just to go and photograph a shop called "Peculiar Unisex Hair" and it's really made me realise what an astoundingly sprawling and varied a city London really is
Getting a digital camera for me meant the start of a bit of an obsession. Not having to worry about film meant that I could take my camera with me everywhere and shoot as much as I liked. For me, taking pictures of signage and other random bits gives you as much of a sense of a place as a beautiful view, perhaps more so as it gives you a glimpse into the mind set of the people who wrote the signs. This can be bloody annoying for friends though, especially on holiday, as I'm always stop starting down the street and crossing roads to take a picture of a single sticker or something. I have to do it though. I still live with the regret of missing a great picture outside a pub in Tooting. The sign had read "Pub Toilets for Customer Use Only" but some enterprising soul had changed the letters so that it now read "Pube Oil for Customers Use Only" which brought to mind people stopping for a post work pint and calmly ladelling some gently warmed, complimentary oil down their pants. I came back the next day with my camera but the sign had been put back to normal and surprisingly, given the other far more important things in my life I was happy to let slide, I felt gutted.
I carry around a camera at all times just in case I spot anything but now I also make special trips to areas I haven't been to before to try and spot new things. It's almost like an urban safari in a way. I've made special pilgrimages to exotic locations like Leyton High Road just to go and photograph a shop called "Peculiar Unisex Hair" and it's really made me realise what an astoundingly sprawling and varied a city London really is. It's been a bit like doing the knowledge but instead of being left with an intimate knowledge of the city's layout I'm instead in possession of a fairly useless A to Z of fried chicken shops, pockets of bleakness and the best place to spot knob graffiti.
The Facebook group now has almost 9000 members and has an archive of around 4000 photographs. Shit London is just about to hold its third exhibition of oddities spotted in the street. What started as a bit of a joke has now got a little serious with a sliver of the archive being made into a book which is to be published on July the 7th by Portico. The group on Facebook, alas, is too close down soon as Facebook overhauls it's groups so have a look before it's gone forever. Shit London's new home is at shitlondon.co.uk.
Next time you're walking down the street keep your eyes open for this kinds of thing. You'll be surprised how much there is out there. I remember at the first Shit London exhibition a woman approaching me and saying " You know, I used to really hate where I lived but then I joined your group and now I look around and think "You know what...this place is great!". So have a look, it might make you feel better about where you live.
For daily photos of a city on the edge, visit Shit London
For more details the launch party click here
Shit London is published by Portico at £8.99, follow the Amazon link below to buy a copy.
Click here for more stories about Life
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook