From the life of Sarah Bancroft
By Erica Masserano
Sarah says she’s late because she saw a seal in the Thames. “It was like an arrow in the water”, she mimes, swimming around the room in broad strokes; it’s Kate Bush interpretive dance meets your local fisherman measuring a fictional catch with his arm.
“Sammy the Seal lives by Billingsgate Fish Market in a little inlet like this one,” she gestures to the window of the River Princess, to the muddy low River Lea. “And in this little inlet lives Sammy the Seal, and Sammy the Seal is fed by the porters, So Sammy the Seal gets the most select fish, but I have the feeling that Sammy the Seal goes to – have you been to the Channelsea Island? It was man-made in the 11th century. It’s very atmospheric, and it’s got a colony of German snails, and I think Sammy the Seal might go eat snails there.”
I ask Sarah if she thinks that the snails retained their original language and culture.
“Yes, I think so. They wear lederhosen, and they drink steins of beer, and they ferment cabbage, so they have pots of wild sauerkraut where the wild sea cabbage grows.”
Sarah tells me the River Lea was the dividing line between the Danes and the Angles; before then, the Romans settled at Old Ford. “Have you been mudlarking down the Millennium Bridge? You’re trampling all over Roman London. When Cesar came, you know, when we used to paint ourselves blue and just be tripping all the time on woad – I wanna do woad! Let’s go do woad on Channelsea Island with Sammy. How do I know these things? These things were passed down to me, when I was passing by.”
Sarah’s grandmother was from Hackney. She went to Jamaica to 1919, married a Jamaican soldier who’d spent four years digging trenches and was, as a result, extremely buff. Her son brought her back to London and the family opened a hardware shop; he was an oil and colour man, oil being paraffin for lamps and colour being paints. Sarah was born in 1960. Her parents were offered a brand new council house if they moved out of their two rooms in Streatham, and so Sarah grew up in Bracknell and Wokingham, a dormitory for London, the wave of the post-war socialist dream breaking on a reef of council houses in new town; she left as soon as she could to study drama in Leeds.
Sarah says some things were easier in her time. “It was fine in those days, it was an easy life, because you had social security, and yes you did take advantage of it. There were loads of jobs, the benefits were earnings related, so you worked six months, and then you took six months off and someone else took the job, and in that time off the creative things like punk happened. All the Young British Artists came out of that system: free education and being on holiday, signed on.”
“So I signed on, and I went to live on a women’s common, Greenham Common, just outside Newbury, and part of this land was given to the Americans after the war, so technically American territory, and they built silos there where they wanted to put cruise missiles. Originally there was a march, to Aldermaston where they were doing chemical experiments, and then gradually that came over to Greenham Common, but there were camps all over the country, and that one was a women only space, probably the first in the country. It was this incredible collection of women from all over living in benders, in teepees, in tents, in vans…
“The day to day was incredible; you had a campfire and a kitchen and someone was always preparing a meal. Showers were difficult. There were people who came and dumped off their friends who wanted to go off medication and just left them there, and there were people over there who were completely dedicated and lived there over 15 years. There was this woman who was completely covered with piercings. She had an affinity with metal. She’d drink out of a tin can, sitting around the fire with this other Swedish woman, trading insults all day. And then the local people would come round and shout insults at the windows too.
“Being in Newbury was difficult. You’d get spat at, pushed off the pavement, only served in some places. But then there were some very supportive local people who’d let us go and have a shower, lend you the car. Some would turn up and throw bucket of fish guts at us, and some with the most amazing baskets of food. You never knew from one day to the next. There were tents of money. Because you know, you’d go around with buckets, right? And then you’d have these buckets full of pennies. It was crazy. It was the most amazing period.
“The main thing was non-violent action, so we did civil disobedience and some of us entered the camp and were sent to prison for it. We’d circle the base, that type of thing, of my favourite is, we sat down in front of the main gate, and we all started snogging. They went into high alert! Obviously there was drug-taking, but not to the level there is was later, when the community suffered terribly from heroin use and that dream died. There was a feeling that there was going to be a change. Now, it’s almost as if the opportunity to live differently is being legislated against. I don’t understand why, when you consider that we need zero growth. And I can’t believe I’m living through the rise of the right again, I really didn’t anticipate that.
Sarah says some things are easier now. “Actually you know, compared to what times are past, we’ve never had it so fucking good. Back in the Eighties, Bethnal Green was fascist. You could easily go down to Columbia Road and be chased back over the road by BNP. The pubs on Columbia Road were skinhead pubs, and I’m not talking nice skinheads. When you were born, in ’85, we were still running. In Hackney, if you were a hippy it was kind of allowed, it was kind of accepted. But if you were an out lesbian, you were allowed in some Irish pubs, and other pubs would quite blatantly tell you to fuck right off, fuck off you cunt. But the Irish pubs they were alright, and they’d allow black people as well, it was the same sort of thing, if it allowed one then it had the other. It was like punk and reggae, they´d go together. You’d be running place from place. London Fields, we’d run through, and you’d have to be quite careful most places. We didn’t hide, we were quite deal-with-it. So you know, you’re going to get dealt with. It was much more violent in those times. And you had to think about how to get home, because taxis wouldn’t have you, not that you could afford them anyway, and all the buses seemed to go to the hospital. They didn’t seem to go anywhere else.
“As for coming out, it was traumatic. I went to live at the women’s camp quite naïve, I didn’t know anything about anything. I didn’t know there were lesbians there, and my God! It was just…! I had been called a lesbian from about the age of nine or ten but we didn’t have them. We didn’t have them! I didn’t know what that meant. And then, David Bowie. David Bowie happened and he said he was bisexual so I told my mom, what would you say if I told you I was bisexual? And she said, I’d be very sad. That would be very, very sad. My mom was bipolar as well, and as a person she was a fantastic inspiration and a genius, but politically probably Gengis Khan. My first girlfriend’s family cast her out of the home. It was naff. Such a waste of time. And I also upset my poor boyfriend because I did like him. I had told him I was a lesbian but when I did it he got very upset obviously. Because I did come out and I was a bit in your face and I ended up on a crazy, crazy road trip around Ireland with seven other lesbians in a van.
And I have been attacked for being a lesbian, which is horrible. In 1984, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, about half past two in central Hackney, drunk, me and the other girl who I was just, you know… So it was the two of us and and another lesbian couple. We were having a kiss and a cuddle in the street and all of a sudden this guy came out of the bushes and came over and we told him like fuck off, that we didn’t fuck men, and obviously insulted his masculinity. So we went on and we walked past this alleyway and the man comes out and he smacks my friend across the head with a brick, and then he gets his fucking meat cleaver out and starts chopping everybody. Literally chopping us up. Luckily, at that point a friend was coming round the corner and she shouted and shouted. We went to the hospital and I was sitting with my friend’s head in my hands and you could see the stuff inside. Police didn’t take any statement off us for two week.”
Sarah shows me the scar on the side of her face. On her handsome face, under her short gray locks, it looks like just another line.
“And then, there was this period in the early Nineties when Margaret Thatcher was still in power, but the Young British Artists were all coming up, there was this energy, an anger from dealing with the Tories and all this fantastic energy, and when Labour party came in in 1997 it was almost as if London went from being in black and white to being in colour overnight. People were acting differently towards us too. We were getting trouble from this little fucker down the road. He’d come in the shop and brought his mate with him and said to her, dirty lesbians. And she looked at him and said back, what are you talking about? And he said, they’re lesbians. And she said to him, so what? You’re black, innit? Shut up, get out.
“I think young people can’t be born today and not know about gay people; there will be someone with two mums or two dads. But I also think homophobic attacks are on the rise since Brexit.”
Sarah says East London has changed. “I ended up squatting in Hackney, in the Pembury estate, and very quickly the manager said look, we’re happy to have you here, because he could tell we were doing the places up. It was a terrible, terrible depression at the time, with the industries all closing down and everything; London was very empty and broken, but also full of possibility.”
“When I got back to Hackney, I got temporary work in a meat pie factory. When I was little, Fray Bento’s pie was like, this real treat, and then you go down to the factory and you were like, this is no treat. If you was black, you was sent down to the production line, and if you were disobedient, you got put at the back of the production line, so you were standing in a cage with a fork just putting bits of meat in the can and getting covered in gravy, literally going, splat, and the meat is like old meat with the stamp from 1987. If you was good and white and kind of alright you got put into the pastry room, and the pies had this puff pastry and that was the best bit, until you realised that there were these birds flying around the factory hall ceiling and shitting from above in the pastry that you just picked up and put in the tin. Didn’t last very long there. Then I trained to be a painter and decorator and worked for the council.”
“And then, a good few years later, I got a letter from an uncle in Australia I didn’t really know with a picture of my granddad, telling me I had inherited the shop that was just around the corner. I came back to Hackney, and I didn’t even know I had a connection to Hackney; I hadn’t left. That’s when I started walking in circles.”
Sarah knows the East End like the palm of her own hand. She tells me about the mermen on top of pillars in Dalston houses, Love Lane in Shacklewell and looking for the River Fleet running underground, the hidden Byzantine church of Saint Barnabas, near the house of Black Beauty author Anna Sewell. Hackney´s known as the home of dissenters, she tells me; Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism was there, she used to go to Newington Green, where Richard Price was preacher; the second President of the United States visited, before the revolution and being president. Behind her house in London Fields was a bus garage where hippies and feminists gathered for years, and she was involved in the arts and community around Broadway Market. Sarah tried to collectively purchase some of the buildings in her neighbourhood together with some others, to keep them in the community rather than them being bought by speculators.
“It was the mid-90s, and so property developers were beginning to circle around the Broadway market area, and they got influence into the traders group, and all of a sudden there was this sort of vibe, like ‘You know those lesbians? What will happen if they get the place? It will be full of Paki’s and immigrants and old lesbians and gays, we should be careful about it.’ And so in the end the traders got together, starting with these people who had a uniform business, with the help of a stooge for one of the developers, and it didn’t work out. And sure enough, this ´local´ company who bought them for nothing got a million pounds in regeneration money, gave nothing back to the community, and turned out to have been owned by Robert Maxwell´s accountant, who was now working in Russia with Russian oligarchs. So that was your local company. This is all done in plain sight, but people don’t want to know. If they see someone running up the road being stabbed, they’re just like, oh dear, please don’t do that here. I’ve literally been on meetings where this woman was banging on the table screaming, ‘I JUST WANT IT TO BE NICE!’”
“I stopped working last year, stopped doing what I did for money, and letting other people have a go at being active in the community; maybe the tide is going out on Hackney for me. There is no focal point anymore. But I’m not a person to just sit around. I went to the Extinction Rebellion protests. And I am gathering information. I am interested in building up those visual, pictorial layers of the place, you know, that sort of psychogeography.”
Sarah says that everything that has existed, exists. “It is just a matter of how open you want to be to its existence. When too many doors are opening, you might go mad. But just sometimes, when you go past, you might get a little glimmer of something, a little shadow, a little feeling. And if you wait there long enough, you might have a little message come through. From the snails, munching on sauerkraut, waiting to see if Sammy the Seal is going to come and devour them.”
I thank Sarah for sharing her stories: I am in awe of how much fun she seems to be having living against the grain, her passionate engagement, and her hard-earned experience. I leave the Cody Dock community barge, the River Princess, we’ve been having our meetings in. The sun is low and the Thames high, the reeds a compact embankment sprouting from the mud like a forest of Roman spears.
As soon as I get on the train, I whip out my phone and get on Google so that this whole Sammy malarkey, which I am still unsure about, can be clarified and reason can reign supreme once more. The first result, however, is an in-your-face size headline: HUNGRY SAMMY THE SEAL VISITS BILLINGSGATE MARKET EVERY WEEK FOR 10 YEARS TO BE FED SALMON BY PORTERS, followed by an indisputable moustachioed muzzle. The train doors open in front of me; I climb down the station stairs, my ears pricked up for the call of the snail.