PHOTOGRAPHY Wanda Martin (when noted)
WORDS Julian de la Celle
394 years ago this year the Halfway House opened its doors in London, now known as The George Tavern. The site has been mentioned in texts by Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens to name a few and has recently been the site for a handful of music videos, photo shoots and concerts. For the past 15 years, owner Pauline Forster has taken care of keeping the space running, along with her sons, as well as fighting to keep it from being demolished by the city. So far, her efforts have kept them from being able to do so, but every day gets harder and more expensive for her to ensure it's safety. We spoke to Pauline about her struggles, how she acquired the building and what we can do to "Save The George Tavern".
JULIAN: How did you end up discovering The George and what made you decide it had to be yours?
PAULINE: I moved from a farm house in the Slad Valley, Gloucestershire, where I brought up my five sons. My first introduction to London was when I did an art performance outside of the Tate Modern at its opening celebrations. The project was named DOG ON and used a Ford Capri with the number-plates which read “DOG ON” or “NO GOD” backwards.
Below is the press release which I sent out the night before. I arrived at 6am the next morning.
"GUERILLA ART: PUTTING UP A MIRROR TO THE TATE MODERN
In an unofficial bid to get the cozy world of Establishment Art to change gear and rev its ideas up, a breaking artist will be ram raiding her way into Tate Modern's opening celebrations on Monday 8th May, 2000.
Driven by a desire to take artists out of neutral and put their hands back on the power steering, she will be joy-riding into London on the fast lane this Monday.”
I slept in the Capri for 3 nights, being visited by hundreds of people, the story was written up by several of the broad sheet newspapers and on BBC national news.
I got a taste for London. The following year in 2001 I had another show under the umbrella of GUERILLA ART: LONDONS BURNING. For this piece, I returned to London to squat in a large building in Brick Lane.
LONDONS BURNING was an installation of a bakery shop where all the bread products, including hundreds of Bagels, were carbonized. Fire projected up the walls and a haunting sound recording of the word “burning” on repeat. This was inspired by my visit to Poland and Auschwitz - Birkenau. Brick Lane is where many Jewish people settled, bringing bagels and bread to the East End. The site was perfect for my show, the rest of the building had different installations, including pin hole light projections.
I stayed with this show for 12 weeks, meeting many artists. This is when I made up my mind to move to the East End of London. I wanted to live and work alongside like-minded creatives. I returned to do another performance and then in 2003 moved to London.
Renting a flat for 3 months I started cycling along the canal and streets of east London looking for a non-domestic building or site to live and work. A picture of the George was sent to me in an auction catalogue, which I had requested. I saw the picture on Sunday evening, visited on Monday morning, and was showed inside on Wednesday along with many others. I decided there and then I wanted this building, it was love at first sight.
JULIAN: The space is family owned as well, correct?
PAULINE: I am the mother of five sons and like me they are also creative beings. Painting, design and music are their passions. They all moved to London to help out. Two of my sons work full time at the George and all of them have helped with the restoration.
JULIAN: Do you have any favorite stories to share about things that have happened at the George since you've had it?
PAULINE: When I had John Cooper Clarke and Ben Drew of Plan B and Faith the Beatboxer do an unplugged all day session at The George. It was amazing because it's so great to have people like that in your home and venue. They were practicing upstairs throughout the day and I filmed it all. It was a whole weekend party and we even had Roger Penrose turn up to do a talk, it was incredible. It was a great honour to have them all.
JULIAN: Tell us about how Amy Winehouse got one of your kittens.
PAULINE: When my cats Spider and Professor had kittens, Amy Winehouse had one of them, she called it Bleeder... I often wonder what happened to it.
It was Amy who helped me at the beginning of my "Save The George" campaign when I received notification of the planning application to demolish Stepneys, an old night club that adjoins the George. It had been part of the George Tavern before I came to London and both had the same owner. The application was to build flats on the site, which would be a death sentence for the George.
When contacting the planning officer in Tower Hamlets, I was told that they would be granting the planning permission. "OK we'll see about that!" Something the planning officer should not have told me. What happened to the democratic process? The next day I went to visit Amy to ask for her support. She was at home with her hair stylist and told me to get t-shirts printed.
The very next day a friend of mine, Duncan of Illustrated People, got on it immediately. The next day he delivered a huge bundle of "Save The George" t-shirts. The first picture I got was of Kate Moss, who just happened to visit the George for a photo shoot. This went straight to press with the story. It was published and my "Save the George" campaign began.
There was no time to lose as you only get a five week window to put all your objections in from yourself and supporters. The council got it wrong, the planning application was turned down, the campaign went on, the appeal by the developers was turned down. The first round was a victory.
The developers came back with a fresh application and new plans. Round 2 began.
JULIAN: What bands have played there?
PAULINE: We've had so many amazing artists come through the George, from Nick Cave, Grinderman, Clean Bandit, Grace Jones, Duran Duran, Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse, Plan B (Ben Drew), John Cooper Clarke, Pete Doherty, Grand Master Flash, Kate Moss, Ian McKellan, Ian Hislop and many many more. The Rolling Stones album cover was shot upstairs as well.
JULIAN: Tell our readers what they can do to help the George continue to run successfully.
PAULINE: Come to the George for your birthday, to listen to the live music, enjoy a pint and the vibe of this wonderful building. Home from home in the middle of London.