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Tom Hunter’s memory lane

‘A palace for us’ is a moving account of life at the Woodberry Down estate in Hackney. Tom Hunter’s documentary film shows at the Serpentine Gallery until 20th January.

Written by Jessica Furseth

Woodberry Down girl by Romain Lambert-Louis, after ‘Jackie 1973’ by Erica Dobbs

It’s good Tom Hunter’s film is as good as it is, because the last time I queued this long for something there was a saint at the end of it. Pilgrims wait for hours outside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela to hug the statue above the saintly remnants – last Saturday the patient patrons of a crammed Serpentine Gallery were rewarded not so much with a divine cuddle, but with a screening of Tom Hunter’s gem of a documentary film.

‘A palace for us’ is set at Woodberry Down, a 2,500-flat council estate complex in North Hackney, up by Tottenham. Going back 50 years, Tom Hunter’s film uses current day narratives and recreated scenes to tell the stories of three people who have spent their lives at the estate. ‘When we came here we realised how lucky we were,’ says one woman. ‘There was central heating and a bath with hot and cold. It was like a palace for us.’ As the woman talks, we see reenactments of when her husband-to-be asked her to dance for the first time. ‘I’d never seen eyes like his,’ she says, smiling at the memory. ‘We had a very good marriage right to the end.’

Woodberry Down dancers by Willa Gebbie

Commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery and Age Concern Hackney, Tom Hunter made the film after spending time in residence at Woodberry, speaking to its inhabitants about their lives. Their stories are lovingly told, reflecting Hunter’s in-depth knowledge of his subjects and the area. One of the film’s interviewees shares the story of how he cowered in his bed as the area was bombed back in 1944. Born in Stoke Newington, the man was among the first to move into the estate in 1948.

Woodberry Down man by Timothy Hunt

Built to meet a severe housing shortage during the war, Woodberry was presented as an ‘estate for the future’. Especially the interviewee born there has good memories of growing up at Woodberry, telling stories of playing hopscotch in the alleys, climbing the apple trees and making perfume from the roses growing around the estate. The sense of community is clear, with the early residents taking turns mopping the stairs. Now the site is the subject of a major regeneration project, which will replace the most run-down flats and add several more as well.

Woodberry Down kids by Sandra Contreras

The original plan was to see Tom Hunter talk about the film on Saturday, but the despite earlier assurances there was no need to book seats, flushed gallery workers had to turn away a nearly 50-strong crowd due to lack of space. The day’s long lines might have been a one-off, but those who still haven’t seen the film may not want to leave it until the last minute. Because it really is worth seeing, as what I remember even clearer than the queuing is how I wish the film had gone on for longer.

Tom Hunter by Kimberley Jenkins

‘A palace for us’ shows daily until 20th January at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2.


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One Response to “Tom Hunter’s memory lane”

  1. ellio100 says:

    I’m glad you posted this, I have always loved Tom Hunter’s work when I’ve stumbled across it! I would have missed this exhibition if it wasn’t written about here :D

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