Creators: Anna Morrissey and Tristan Kajanus
It was once said that your schooldays would be the best days of your life. This self-guided walking tour of Paddington Basin, once the site of North Westminster School, seems to agree. Listened to through your phone, and as you gaze upon the shiny new tower blocks that have been built where once the school stood, old pupils and teachers discuss the good old days
So lovingly do the pupils and teachers remember their time there it would seem that the school had become an academic utopia. Even the fact that it was built so close to the Westway – the elevated part of the A40(M) – is recalled with fondness. It may have been noisy, and yet another student remembers how footsteps would echo down a corridor. All agree that it welcomed a diverse student population.
Looking at the buildings now, all in various stages of construction, it’s hard to imagine a school there, although the wind curling along the roads, all perpetually in shadow, seem rather at odds with the otherwise smart development. In amidst the apartment bocks is a garden. With its fences and gates, which must put off a weary passer-by, it looks private. However, it is a public space and is built upon North Westminster’s playgrounds.
The playground evokes more memories from the speakers: football, first crushes and fags. The teachers seemed more interested in smoking their own cigarettes in the staff room than catching the pupils at the end of the yard, huddled together in their own telltale fug.
The nostalgia continues as you head to the corner of the gardens where the Studio Theatre used to be, but it’s here too where the tone darkens. Ex-students now mention violence outside the school gates while others discuss government cuts and creeping pressure from developers who believe that the demographic of the school doesn’t quite tally with their prospective customers.
Ex -students Anna Morrissey and Tristan Kajanus with their mixture of testimonies and music tell an intriguing story, and the intercutting voices ensure that the narrative comes from different perspectives. But for a 50-minute show, perhaps these stances are not different enough and some views are repetitive and even the walk doubles back on itself, rather than going to the canal where, despite many of the voices’ protestations, there is some beauty in the new design.
But for sure this aesthetic comes at a price, and we can see gentrification in action. The few remaining hoardings show an artist’s impression of what the area will look like once it’s finished. The artist – or perhaps a computer – has drawn people engaging in this new space, and tellingly most of them are white. One ex-student proclaims that the Paddington Basin development is ‘whitewashing’, and looking around it’s hard not to agree.
North West can also be experienced online, but for those who can take a tube there, the show feels like a pilgrimage to times when money didn’t control everything. But rather than stand still listening, perhaps wander around a little more than the instructions suggest, to get more of a feel of what has been lost in the pursuit of profit.
Runs here until 23 May 2021