28th September 2010
Nine Tree Hill, Bristol, UK
Hazel Nut tree
This was a conversation with Chis Chalkley, a character instrumental in the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft. (PRSC)
A self declared independent region within Bristol, UK. Not recognised by the city council of course… yet.
Seemed fitting we were up a Hazel nut tree, (I think it was anyway)
Here’s an extract of the conversation…
Chris: …But what we’ve had historically is a situation where cars have become king. They actually, or vehicles – cars and bicycles, so we have to redress that balance. So the way that it’s happening on Jamaica Street, is that we are deliberately walking in front of vehicles all the time to slow them down because it is illegal to run people over, so I have no qualms about stepping straight out in front of a car and making them stop…
…A little later…
Chris: …Yeah, well, you know, we start from that position of visions and…
Henrik: You’re being realistic.
Chris: …The direct and concrete things that we have been doing, you know, we are working with Henry Shaftoe and the University of West of England Urban Designers and we’ve drawn plans for the way the whole of up here could be, gardens, etc, etc. so that’s all been done.
Henrik: Wow. That’s cool.
Chris: And we’ve pushed but not one single council officer came to any of those exhibitions.
Here’s the PRSC website… www.prsc.org.uk
…and here’s the conversation we had.
Henrik: O.K. Chris
Chris: OK, it’s the 27th of September is it? 2010
Henrik: Or is the 28th
Chris: It might be the 28th. It’s a Tuesday. We’re up a tree, just off Nine Tree Hill on the Dove Street Apartments. My Name is Chris Chalkley, um, and I am from the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Stokes Croft.
Henrik: Excellent. Very Thorough. That’s the most thorough introduction I’ve had.
Chris: I’ve done it a lot. (Laughter). I think it. You’ve… I’ve just done lots of interviews yeah.
Henrik: Yeah. Who from? What sorts of people?
Chris: Lots of academics and students…
Henrik: Oh really?
Chris: People who want to know what’s going on here… because what’s been going on in Stokes Croft with the PRSC has been, um, ground breaking in terms of regeneration.
Chris: The whole, um, bottom up regeneration. The fact that it is completely grass roots and its costing no money at all and the um political implications of that have excited a lot of (telephone ringing) younger people in particular, so yeah, I’ve done it a lot and, um, it’s a habit that you get into. Excuse me. One second (on phone) Leigh, I’ll ring you back. I’m up a tree doing an interview. Lee (pause, laughter)
Henrik: Must have thought he got the wrong number or something.
Chris: No that’s Lee, he’s one of the street artists doing DHS Plumbing. Um, I’ll switch my phone off. Yeah, It’s also a habit that you get into as a… If you don’t document everything then you’ve got no evidence. So in all the battles that we have had with the council, it has always been important to keep a full record of emails and photographs so my camera goes with me everywhere. I have it with me right now
Chris: But, you know, I shoot every day and I’ve now got four years of archives of photographs of what this place was like before and every single thing that we’ve done in Stoke’s Croft
Henrik: Wow! Cool.
Chris: Yeah and um that’s going to get turned into a book early next year.
Henrik: Is it?
Chris: Yes. Which will be again a polemical tome really because, um.
Henrik: Of what’s possible?
Chris: What’s possible? With no money?
Henrik: Yeah. With will and energy and, um, vision
Henrik: So when did this start roughly?
Henrik: I want to ask you first. What’s your vision for this? I mean… OK… I’m going to interrupt you again ‘cos… the mug, one of the mugs. The um Bristol Bloom. the winner of the, what was it?
Chris: Britain in Bloom.
Henrik: Winner of Britain in Bloom, twinned with Saint Ives on the mug.
Henrik: I found that really inspiring. I want to get one of those mugs.
Chris: Well that sign is on actually Stoke’s Croft at the bottom. We put that one up completely illegally and Bristol City Council’s logo is on that sign.
Henrik: Oh, really?
Chris: And they had no notion of it until it went up so um…
Henrik: How have they responded to that type of thing?
Chris: They don’t know which way to turn because, because this is outside their…
Chris: I think it’s outside their comfort zone. That was… Everything we do is planned and has a reason so I’m glad you’re inspired because it was; the whole point of that sign is to be aspirational.
Chris: Um, for me it’s the last invitation for Bristol City Council to join in, and to get on the program so that’s why we put our logo on it. The idea of, um, twinning the Saint Ives, that’s a reference to the fact that Saint Ives became a centre for the Arts because a group of artists evolved there because of the fantastic light in Saint Ives.
Chris: And what we have here in Stoke’s Croft and in Wider Bristol is precisely that. Eighty years on, we’ve got a school of artists, a school of graffiti artists who paint on the street who are of equivalent quality and equivalent value, and that needs to be recognised so there’s a little message about that, and the twinning with Montmartre in France makes reference to the nineteenth century where there was a school of artists, a school of creativity that took place there, and in Waan Chi in Hong Kong a similar thing applies so…
Chris: It’s planned
Henrik: Yeah, Yeah. Is the sign still there?
Chris: The sign is still there.
Henrik: When did it go up?
Chris: About two months ago.
Chris: And it’s also deliberately designed to look extremely boring so that nobody notices it, like all those signs of that ilk, so it speaks the idiom of signage. Um. Signage is very important. Signage is about social control. You know, you look down from this tree and you see double yellow lines and you and I both know that it means, that that means that the state says that you may not park your vehicle on it. It’s a coded message that is everywhere.
Chris: So the state is telling you what to do.
Henrik: Would you like, then, for there to be no yellow lines or no kind of signs and rules and those things?
Chris: When we did our first fence, I wrote “We are all artists”, that’s was the first thing I wrote; then, three or four months later, we did a fence where I put up…
Henrik: O.K. When you say a fence, you mean a, like a…
Chris: The sixty foot fence, the tumble down fence that is next to the PRSC HQ. That was the very first thing I wrote, and then, four months later, I erected loads of rectangular signs that looked like picture frames along the wall, and when people ask me what it was for; what and where they could paint and whether they should paint, I just said to them, the only rule is that there are no rules, so people could have decided to trash them, paint outside the frames, inside the frames, ignore them completely, rip them off the wall…whatever. And what actually happened is that people came in the night, in the day, and within two days every single frame was filled beautifully and we had an impromptu outdoor gallery and that was a confirmation that if you give people the opportunity to make beauty and to do the right thing, then they do so. Um, this is not to say that we don’t need to have some notion of, you know, organising ourselves, but that needs to come from within rather than from without. Even the distance from here to Bristol City Council is already too far.
Henrik: Right. Um, Do you mean that you want more autonomy?
Chris: Yes. We need more autonomy, local…
Henrik: How would you run that in a place like this? How do you decide… Like, let’s say somebody is stepping over the line of like… I don’t know what the line would be but, some kind of line. How would you deal with it?
Chris: I don’t really think in terms of lines.
Henrik: OK But
Chris: I really don’t.
Henrik: Let’s put it down. Let’s take it to the furthest point. Murder or something. OK, we’re talking about society. Like, how do you run society in a way…
Chris: Yeah, I can go into all that if you like… Um, for me, all of the rules that we make, we make up our own rules so there have been societies in which murder has been perfectly legal. If you look at the conquest of most of the third world; there were periods in history where it was perfectly acceptable to shoot Red Indians, for example, and to kill… the Aztecs were routinely slaughtered by the Spanish in their conquests, so there have been periods. Feudal Japanese societies it was perfectly accepted that the Samurai warriors were allowed to kill…
Henrik: Whoever they want.
Chris: Peasants. So we do make up our own moral codes
Henrik: So what do you think? I don’t imagine, well I don’t know… you’re not the sort of person that would kill. Are you the sort of person who would have a Samurai sort of law?
Chris: No. Not at all. Not at all. But I do think we need to make up our own laws. So, you know, if you look at, you know, I’m going to pick on stuff that is pertinent to this area, like the graffiti which is a metaphor for social control. It’s kind of quite interesting and, for the longest time, we’ve had a situation where a dedicated team of police officers and council officers have been routinely painting out the graffiti in this area, at great public expense, and replacing it with rectangles that are uglier than the graffiti that they wipe out. So what we’re trying to do is come to an accommodation whereby the people that paint the graffiti and tags are not criminalised and get them to up their game so that actually there is no criminal activity there. Um, and I can foresee that there is going to be a period when the tagging gets worse and worse and then it will get better and that seems to be the phase that we are going through where people are taking possession of the visual amenity in their own area, and we are now seeing all the businesses buying into it because they can see that it brightens up the area and cheers up the area, and expresses the local aspects…It expresses the local culture which is what attracts people ‘cos everywhere in our world we see monoculture. We see the “Tesco” brand in every city. All of our high streets are dominated by corporations which push a world view and have certain… and visually are defined from the centre, whereas, what we have here, is an eclectic visual mix, which is why it’s so attractive and so, um, the only way that we can really start to effect change for the world which absolutely desperately needs it at this point, is to do it here because we can lobby parliament and beg them for this, that and the other, but I don’t see any change coming very fast from there. So the only way that we can do it by doing it here and now, and doing it ourselves, which is what we are doing and that’s throwing a fright into to centralised government and even Tesco are worried about what is going on here with this branch. You know, I can see that we will end up with a crew of people who will fight for planning reform so that Tesco’s, even if they manage to land grab here, and get a space here, we will have a crew who will work toward planning reforms so that they no longer do this everywhere, because If we allow the corporates to run this world, we are going to hell in a hand cart.
Henrik: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the fact that there is no argument against um… I’m sure there is – surely there’s an argument against, um ,setting up a rival business. There isn’t is there? It’s something that’s going to challenge… Like the guy who, um, I can’t remember his name. The carrots, he talked about carrots.
Chris: Rich from Radford Mill Organic Food shop.
Henrik: Yeah. You know, he talked about um. He’s been running this thing for thirty-one years and his business is under threat by a Tesco.
Chris: Yes and um…
Henrik: There ought to be some sort of legislation, or that…Isn’t there? That you can say, “Well look. These people have been there this long.”
Chris: No. There’s no legislation. We’ve had, you know, if you talk about it in economic terms and philosophical terms, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we’ve had the debate between free- trade and protectionism. The argument for free trade is that it generates more wealth. By exchanging goods that you don’t need for goods that you do need, everybody becomes wealthier and this has increasingly grown as container shipping and transport has become easier and also incidentally more polluting, it has meant that we can shuffle stuff around the world in order to be able to consume more goods and be wealthier. But what that has brought in train, is vast wealth differences and use of resources in an industrial fashion which is leading to the planet becoming completely fucked –up. So we have got to find a different way. That means that we’ve got to get back to being simpler and more local, even if that means less cameras, less recording machines, less fancy stuff, less experience… or different experience.
Henrik: You mean like global travel?
Chris: Global Travel. Yes. Actually, the situation that we have at the moment is that air travel, which is the most polluting, is the most subsidised. All of the major national airlines have been historically subsidised by government and there’s no fucking tax on air fuel, whereas, there’s massive tax on car fuel. So, that’s why it’s cheaper to fly from Bristol to Glasgow than it is to catch the train because of the massive fuel subsidies.
Chris: Even if you just look in economic terms… The trouble is that the guys, the “Free Trade Brigade”, the neo-classical economists say that competition, free competition leads to the optimal outcome in terms of output and wellbeing. Now, unfortunately, we have a situation where free trade does not apply because, um, the likes of Tescos, Wal Mart, Sainsbury’s, etc., etc., are in a monopolistic position and they have sufficient wealth reserves, that they can move into any area and trade for the longest time without making profit, so, there more in a situation where they’re like robber Baron’s: They land grab. As they do that, they squeeze out local business and then they become even in a more monopolistic position than they are already, and since they have, um, found it no longer possible to expand in the green belt, with their large shopping centres, they’re now mopping up the last little vestiges of local culture by moving into all the corner shops and taking those over. This is completely going in the wrong direction for what we need to do – for food security, for survival, for, um quality of life and, it has to stop. It is incumbent upon all of us to fight this; not just because, um, it is aesthetically unpleasing. It’s about survival. It’s about survival of our culture and it’s about food security and we need to be getting ready for when the oil runs out.
Henrik: Are you involved with, have you got any links with The Transition Network?
Chris: Um, I just tend to…Only in the very broadest terms. When we’re doing the ‘No Tesco in Stoke’s Croft’, we’re now, you know we’ve got Gus from er, who’s er, standing as a member of the Green Party and I know he is probably into Transition Montpelier. What I am trying to do is find solutions. You know it seems to me we need to find solutions here so I am hoping that the church next door to us will use their semi-derelict warehouse to start a food hub. So I am trying to find ways using the skills that I’ve garnered over the last… Did you wanted to say something?
Henrik: Yes, Could you tell me more about what you are doing, because there is obviously… There is the artwork and there is the museum that is inspired by what the Tesco Museum…Sorry
Chris: That’s alright.
Henrik: The Stokes Croft Museum. That’s been inspired by what’s going on, and probably, The Canteen. I don’t know. Do you think that’s come out of everything that’s going on as well hasn’t it? Or I don’t know. You tell me.
Chris: It has been said that, um, Martin Connelly and all those guys who own that property were inspired to actually open on the back of what they saw happening in the area so I don’t want to take any credit.
Henrik: No sure.
Chris: It’s all actually about ideas. The metaphor, the means of communication, has been the street art and the art but, for me, it’s all about ideas and message so I’m equally excited about Danny Cushlick’s “Transform” group, which is about controlling and regulating drugs because it seems to me that its essential that we completely rethink the way we deal with, with um, substances that change our, um, psychological state. You can include in that tea, sugar, coffee, fags, drink… You know, actually we live in a chemical society and human society has always been drawn to mind altering drugs. So, they are a fact and we need to bring them into the fold and we need to legalise, control, regulate. Because, the way that it works at the moment, criminalising vast sections of society, just doesn’t work.
Henrik: It’s not working is it?
Chris: And all of my discussions of the street people lead in that direction. My discussions with the police lead in that direction.
Chris: My discussions with the politicians lead in that direction. My discussions with the, ah, drug workers lead in that direction, and it’s just about having the balls, politically, to actually stand up and do it. So, you know, you asked me earlier about a vision for Stoke’s Croft, and I think, if there is a vision, if there is something that we need to be doing, and not just the Croft; everywhere. We need to be exploring ideas and the way forward and that’s what we’ve been doing with the street art, using that as a way of pushing forward those ideas. You know ‘Stokes Croft Cultural Quarter’. If we can’t, using the area that was seen by the “Powers – that – be” as the shittiest area; a real no-hoper; if we can’t actually use this area, which has always been an area of subversion of alternative thinking to pilot different ideas, if we can’t use this one little are, then – where can we?
Chris: If it can’t work here, where can it?
Henrik: So where’s it come from? You say it was a pretty shitty area. Now, where’s it at? Where do you want it to go?
Chris: Well um… It wasn’t a shitty area. It’s always been an exciting and vibrant area culturally – always has been. But, it has been blighted by shocking planning decisions, certainly since the Second World War and if you go back into the history of the area… Up until the eighteen thirties, there was a regular market, St James Barton Fair, which took place just outside the City Walls. The Council couldn’t tax it, um, so they closed it down. Um, galleons used to come from all over Europe to trade at Saint James Barton Fair and there is a long, long catalogue of the state suppressing independent action and it’s time that we redressed that balance and it seems to me….this is the area that Banksy came from and for me… he’s a bit like a prophet. You know, the ideas that he’s expressed from his position of anonymity have helped to rally people into that way of thinking and if you look at the exhibition that took place last year at the museum, at times there were six hours of queuing. Now if that isn’t a manifestation by the people, of a desire for change and a, err, discomfort with the way we are going, then I don’t know what is. It seems to me the logical next step from that kind of protest and that queuing which is the demonstration of a deep-seated unhappiness with the way we are going. It seems to me that the logical step is to take control of your public spaces.
Henrik: So this is a kind of a manifestation of, in actual lifestyle, of, in the way of some of those ideas?
Chris: It’s about political change. That’s what it is. It’s about political change. It’s about doing things differently as if people really mattered. There are so many people who have written on these subjects. Schumacher – “Small is beautiful”. That’s one of the books that I read at university and it had a deep impact on me.
Henrik: So, what’s your vision then? I mean aside from the art – aside from the street art?
Chris: We just do the best we can do. Just do the best you can do and you explore alternative ideas. I have every confidence that we will have a wet house where alcoholics in this area can go. That we will have the community looking after its own area. That we will, you know, begin to have an effect on, um, how our food is delivered. We’ll open a wholesale business because, if we can’t get it to happen any other way, then we’ve got to make it happen ourselves. Actually, by doing those things, then you make these things reality and everything we’ve been doing in the first four years is to attempt to build an infrastructure so those things can happen, so we now have a yard from which we can curate Stokes Croft as an outdoor gallery; we’ve got a gallery space. We need to actually, since we live in a system where property ownership determines what, um form of control you can have over your property, I think it is incumbent upon us to make sure that local community starts to own property. Coz currently it’s all owned by Bristol City Council or private developers and they can decide what they want to do. So we to actually establish a power base. The only place I know, the only alternative place I know of in Bristol, that has that kind of independence is Kebele in Eastern, (Bristol) because they own their property and so, no matter what happens, they can’t be thrown out because they legally own that property and that’s what we need to do. That needs to be the core basis. So somehow, we’ve got to generate our own income to do that. It’s a big, big ask because, if you look in the arts, the conventional route is funding. I.e. Suck up to the state, suck up to the Art’s Council but then you get art that is directly influenced by that process. So all of our art, most of our art is exhibited in white cubes and its direction is directly dictated by those who curate, and those who own the system.
Henrik: So… you’ve got… You talk about kind of alcohol… Creating a, what did you call it? A wet house?
Henrik: Um, Are there any other sort of… You must have hundreds of ideas for how to… I mean, you are talking about self- sufficiency and rethinking society? Aren’t you?
Chris: Yeah. We’ve stood here. In a tree. Above a piece of grass which is around a tower block which is lying completely fallow. Now, if we were to dig this all up and put, err, sleepers and create allotments of this space, then we would be producing some food and then all of the people who are underemployed in this area could begin to… The way the state works currently is that we have an enormous amount of people on what is called “Disability Living Allowance” where they… are actually told that they are incapable of working. I know for a fact that these people are not incapable of working. We got a guy from Dave who’s very poorly now. He’s been a drug addict, alcoholic… In a fit of depression he jumped off the fifth floor of the B.R.I. (Bristol Royal Infirmary) Smashed all his legs, smashed all his ankles. About eighteen months ago, he came to our offices and said “I want to do stuff”, and we got him rollering the fence, and he said that if the DHSS saw us, saw me rollering the fence, I’d lose all my benefits. So he is actually institutionally trapped into indolence. Um, the same applies for all the unemployed people. The way that it’s set up, is that, if they start to do any work at all for any amount of money, then they lose their benefits or their benefits are at risk. So you’ve kind of got this vast group of people who are trapped into doing nothing and that is as a direct result of the failure of our benefit system. So, we’ve got to go through everything and we’ve got to… The little victories we have is when some of the street guys, you know they come and they’ll paint a fence, and they’ll do something and they’ll go, “Oh that was good, I enjoyed that, and I didn’t drink very much”. Bit by bit that’s happening but it’s extremely difficult.
Henrik: So what do you… You see, I’ve got a vision for Stokes Croft as well.
Henrik: Which is that there is no…that whole street is, there are no cars on it, right the way up to Gloucester Road, all the way up.
Henrik: And you’ve got trees and you’ve got… I mean, this is actually my vision for every street in the whole country.
Henrik: That they’re… you basically have little feeder roads when you live in a residential area. You’d have little strips of tarmac for, like, cycles and deliveries, and then as you get further out, um, the streets get slightly wider, yeah, but it’s basically… I mean, what you’re talking about is a more self-contained, um, kind of community. Well, like you are saying that you’ve got all these spaces that are used.
Chris: Of course, just doing these spaces here is not going to provide sufficient food for the density of population.
Henrik: If you took away all these, err, streets…
Chris: You’d have more but you wouldn’t have enough for the density of….
Henrik: No, no, no. But you’ve still got your delivery routes.
Chris: Yes, and the beginning of that is shared space to… Because we can’t get that to happen legislatively – in shared space for example, you know, we’ve got a nineteenth century carriage works that we work out of and there are double yellow lines and a cycle path in front of it. Now, this is a conservation area and we are actually getting back to an industrial method there. We’re getting back to making our own mugs and decorating our own mugs for sale. That means that we have to have the front yard, that bit of road as a working space also, because carriages historically would have come in and out of it. But what we’ve had historically is a situation where cars have become king. They actually, or vehicles – cars and bicycles, so we have to redress that balance. So the way that it’s happening on Jamaica Street, is that we are deliberately walking in front of vehicles all the time to slow them down because it is illegal to run people over, so I have no qualms about stepping straight out in front of a car and making them stop, so what’s actually happened then, there is a guy called Max Mondeman from Holland. I don’t think he is alive anymore. He was one of the proponents of a thing called shared space, where you have a space – there’s no speed limits, there’s no lines on the road – and what happens is that the cars slow right down. You kind of think that everybody will get run over. No, the cars actually get very nervous and they drive very carefully and it works miraculously and there’s less accidents because, um, the way our human physiognomy is that… we are kind of able to take quite violent hits up to about 15 miles an hour. So, if you are hit by a car at 15 miles an hour, you will survive. If you are hit at over 20 miles an hour, you are not going to survive or you have a risk of not surviving. So, um, what happens is, that actually the cars slow down to 15 or 20 miles an hour. The reason why our bodies are set up to take hits of up to 15 to 17 miles an hour is because the only other creatures that were around while we were developing biologically would be cows and buffaloes and creatures like that. If they attacked us, we got half a chance of surviving. But we are not designed to be hit at 40 miles an hour by a piece of steel.
Henrik: So you don’t foresee digging up the roads?
Chris: The first stage that I’d like to see is that we get rid of the lines and the spaces and it becomes a shared space. I think what would happen would be…
Henrik: Also putting no…
Chris: I’d like to see flat space all the way across.
Henrik: But I don’t think that’s far enough. One of my complaints with Stokes Croft is the lack of greenery.
Chris: Yeah… Yes. Interesting enough, greenery has never been my thing however I do recognise that that is the direction that we need to be going.
Henrik: It makes all the difference. I mean you talk about changing society. I mean, people who are ill, when they walk in the woods, its proven that they, you know, that you feel better. Or not even ill. I mean I’ve been doing this project and I’m, um, a bit like “Ugh!”. You know, I’ve been doing it for four months. I’ve got to climb a tree every day. It’s like “Oh no Not again.” Yeah. But I get up in a tree and suddenly I feel different.
Chris: Yeah, no, I must admit that it is quite a clever thing that you’ve got going on here and it seems to be, uh, it has certainly changed the tone of the conversation just by the atmosphere of the place where we are having the interview, so…good.
Henrik: Well anyway I would encourage that…
Chris: But the point I was going to make about that, is that, ‘that’s great’, however, I’ve had four years of réal politíc with Bristol City Council. Now, thus far, we haven’t even managed to get the urban designer for Stokes Croft, to countenance any change in the infrastructure whatsoever of the street. So currently, the £150,000 that’s been allocated to Stokes Croft for street improvements will go directly to improving pavements as they stand. Just resurfacing them. So that’s where we’re at.
Henrik: Of course it is. Of course it is. I’m talking about visions and dreams.
Chris: Yeah, well, you know, we start from that position of visions and…
Henrik: You’re being realistic.
Chris: …The direct and concrete things that we have been doing, you know, we are working with Henry Shaftoe and the University of West of England Urban Designers and we’ve drawn plans for the way the whole of up here could be gardens, etc., etc. so that’s all been done.
Henrik: Wow. That’s cool.
Chris: And we’ve pushed but not one single council officer came to any of those exhibitions.
Henrik: Right, yeah.
Chris: You know, and were down at the last planning meeting where they effectively gave permission for Tescos to open. This is where we are at. We are in the middle of this battle.
Henrik: Are you, Are you kind of… Are you positive?
Chris: How can you be anything else? Every single little thing you do. Yes. I’m very positive because… of course there are…
Henrik: Are you hopeful? Do you despair occasionally or do you generally sort of… Do you just truck on? You’re quite sort of…
Chris: What else am I gonna do? This is the biggest most exciting adventure there can be. I have spent… You know I am really… Poacher turned game keeper. I have been an importer. I’ve been directly responsible for buying fridge magnets from the Far East. I’ve done everything. I used to race motorbikes, um, round and round fields. You know, I have been a complete aficionado of the petrol engine, a complete petrol head. I have raced rally cars up mountains, all of those things. I’ve flown all over the world. All of the things that I now say are shocking and wrong, I have done. It’s a learning curve. It’s a continual learning curve. Being involved in the ‘No Tescos campaign’: Three years ago I was shopping in Tescos. Now I’m not. So, as you start to put your ideas forward, which is a big scary thing to do, you start also, inevitably to put them in practise and then you talk to people and you find that through continually saying these things, it like ripples out, it just ripples out. So what we’re doing here, I think is extremely exciting and extremely positive and, you know…
Henrik. Was there like a moment? How did it go from an idea into, like, “We’re gonna do something?”
Chris: O.K. Well, I’m just got to go on to talk about my personal history. I ran a small china and glass wholesale business with my ex-wife. We had a, um, retail shop in Broad Mead. One of the very few, um, independent retail shops in the hightstreet. It was a difficult hard slog, made a few quid. When Tescos and Ikea came to Bristol, that was effectively the death-knell. All the way down Gloucester Road, the second hand furniture shops closed. It became cheaper to buy your glassware and your mugs and your plates from Ikea than to buy it from an independent wholesaler. The whole of Staffordshire pottery industry effectively closed over a period of five years.
Chris: Yeah. I was involved in that for twenty-five years. Um… the supermarkets and the big chains had no compunction about moving, for the sake of 5p, from British manufacture and local manufacture to the Far East. They would lie and cheat. They put their stickers over where the “Made in England” signs used to be. So, you know, they lie. They lie and they cheat. I’ve been deeply involved in that world so I understand how it works.
I retired from that business, having probably just enough money to make it to the end by living relatively frugally and I moved the remnants of my business down to the ground floor of Jamaica St in Stokes Croft, and opened the doors. I had obviously been told that this area was the worst area and it became rapidly… I used to keep looking out and looking at the dereliction and the greyness and as I used to drive into work I’d see… the graffiti writers would have painted and then the council would paint it out the next day and there was this cycle of wasted energy and I thought, this is ridiculous. What I’m going to do is, you know, start doing positive things out there because, inside Jamaica St art studios all the artists just were painting inside and the graffiti writers were painting outside and it seemed to me, you know, if we could just pull all of this together, something amazing would happen.
And I painted the fence, just before Christmas 2006. Did a Christmas mural, I had never painted a mural before, and as I was doing it, people just kept coming up saying “Do the Council let you do this? Are you allowed do this?” I said “Well, actually, it’s my fence so I can do what the hell I want with it. You know, then it became very apparent that, you know, the state was perceived as an organisation that stopped people doing stuff, just as the dole stops you working. Um, social control is such that people feel disempowered. They feel they can’t make a change. They feel they can’t stop Tescos, they feel they can’t…
So that evolved, jokingly into an idea that we need to declare independence because it ain’t working, and that was, I don’t know if you are familiar with the film “Passport to Pimlico”. It was a film, ah, I think it was about 1940 something or other. It was filmed 1947. Um, It’s about a small area of London that declared independence from the rest of London.
Henrik: Oh wow, from the 40′s?
Chris: Yeah. We thought that’s what we need to do. Declare independence. Ah, and that evolved into the whole PRSC idea…
Henrik: Um, Is there a group?
Chris: There’s five directors and there’s ah, volunteers, a crew of volunteers and then there’s lots of people who come and do stuff as and when, so there’s a planning group, there’s a group of artists who continually get involved. There’s a group of people pushing for the Stoke’s Croft China bit. It’s all a bit haphazard. Everybody’s got their own lives. Um, and we are still busy setting up the situation. That’s where we are right now in 2010, we’re just busy setting up the means of doing that. It’s true that, um, the organisation is not as democratic as it should be. It’s true that it has been… um… very heads down, just getting stuff into place. But, for me, that is necessary and we are very, very, very…. You can’t take on every battle and you do everything all at once. For four years there has been enormous change and the ideas that are out there. And what’s really exciting is that lots of people are doing similar things and pushing forward similar ideas, and I think that, what, if there has been a role, it has been banging the drum and generating a kind of confidence which manifests itself all over Stokes Croft now. The independent behaviour and positive thinking is going to affect change and that’s what’s happening and you know, we have been battling with the council for the longest time. There is the beginnings of an accommodation there so, you know, I do talk to the cleansing department and they do consult, they do consult about whether to remove certain tags of graffiti and the businesses are saying actually “Yeah, let’s work together and paint things.” So it’s actually beginning to happen.
Henrik: The dialogue is getting easier.
Chris: The dialogue is getting easier but the stakes are getting higher… Yeah.
Henrik: So what do you need?
Chris: What do I need? I need a bloody rest
Henrik: What does the project need? What’s the one biggest thing? If you could get one thing?
Chris: It would be the money to own our own properties which is about… a couple of million.
Henrik: Right. Let’s say you can’t have that. Um, you can, but…
Chris: Is this desert Island discs or something?
Henrik: …For the sake of this game?
Chris: Ah… I think we need to… I think we’re kind of… we need to create an area, a situation where we really are self-sufficient and that we create an organisation that runs off its own back and that’s what we’re in the process of doing. Um, and then people will come or they won’t. You know? We need some good luck to get through the next years because our bank balance is going down and down and down, and we need to get to a point where we are earning money and that, um, that’s happening. We need a computer suite. I need a whole set of IT people to run our web presence. We need, um, we need Elim Church to say “Yes please lets have a food hub”. You know? We need, um, the council to relinquish their hold over the Bear pit (an open space within a round about) so that we can really start to sort that out.
Henrik: Yeah, I saw… Who cut the… I noticed there was loads and loads of wild flowers and grasses growing under that… mural with bees. Was that a council thing: they chopped that down?
Chris: Well, they planted that in the first place.
Henrik: Did they?
Henrik: They planted it and then they chopped it down? What happened? Sorry, I was just a bit…
Chris: I can’t comment on that. I don’t know exactly what’s gone on there. For me it seems we need economic activity in the area and that was a masterpiece of real estate. I’m all for using what we’ve got so we don’t spend massive amounts of money on infrastructure. Everything we’ve been about is behaving gently to this area. We need the conservation officers for this area to understand what conservation is, which is looking after our area gently and not the wholesale destruction that we’ve seen over and over again. Um, so that they cow – tow to developers. Westmoreland House. We need that to be… We need our city to buy that back from the developers and then use it as a space for, a green space behind and we start to refurbish the building as it is. Which would be a radical thing to do because everywhere we see the council – our state – selling off property. Currently there is a park strategy that involves selling off pieces of land throughout the city. We should actually not be selling anything off. We should be holding onto everything we’ve got. So, those are the things we need. We need enlightened thinking.
Henrik: That’s what you need, isn’t it?
Chris: We need enlightened thinking.
Henrik: Oh well, we’ll see what we can do. We’ll see if we can find some of that for you. (Shared laughter)
Chris: A big bucket full of enlightened thinking is what we need now.
Henrik: Chuck it over the council.
Chris: You know, the argument, bit by bit, the argument is, you know, being made and being listened to and I actually think that it is a virtuous circle. What we are going to be doing will become the city’s most valuable asset because this city, you know, made its money out of slavery, and what is euphemistically called defence. That is still the case. All of North Bristol: British Aerospace: who knows what they make up there but it is all high tech aeronautical malarkey; none of which we should really be involved in.
Henrik: I have been in the Rolls Royce warehouse. It’s crazy that stuff. Those engines they make in there; it’s just the incredible…
Chris: You know, if we’re going to be going down that road, maybe we need to be building air balloons: you know, slower, gentler, taking more time.
Henrik: I’ve got a question for you. We had probably better wrap up because, um, you’ve got things to do and I’ve got to meet someone. But um… Let’s say, ah, there’s almost no oil left. You can have one oil based luxury. This is the desert Island disc bit… What are you gonna keep?
Chris: Oil is an amazing thing. Oil is an amazing substance. And currently, we’re fucking burning it. It’s ridiculous.
Chris: If there is one thing that we should be saving all of our oil for, it should be for the high tech gadgets that we use for… for computers, for, um, our laptops; all that kind of business because we can then think locally but have global consensus, because, for the transmission of information.
Henrik: Are you going to keep internet?
Chris: I’d keep the internet, I think.
Henrik: OK. Cool.
Chris: I think we need to keep the internet. We need to understand that… the wheat harvest in Russia is failing. We need to understand the massive problems that there are in Australia, um, through global warming. You know, I was there in the late 70’s and there were already massive slat lakes through over intensive wheat farming out in Western Australia and you could just see salt lakes for miles. You know, you can gather that information by going there but that’s burning up, it takes lots of energy to get there, or you can have all that information via the ‘net, so it seems to me the only intelligent way of using the little vestiges of oil that we have is to, to keep our means of communication going.
Henrik: That’s a good one. I was gonna keep having a shower, a hot shower (laughter) but I might have to change my mind.
Chris: Well, a hot shower can maybe be done using other methods. You know, simpler methods. Even photovoltaic cells are all chemical and pretty stinky stuff but we need to be keeping our technology. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently and it seems to me that we have got to go back to past simpler ways, but the positive aspect of that is that we can be more efficient because we have knowledge garnered from a period where we have moved much further on.
Henrik: It’s combining the best of both worlds isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah. We need to just hang onto that and we need to go back to simpler ways. So, you know, if it’s… if it’s wood burning, we can burn wood much more efficiently than we used to be able to. You know, I lived in a seventeenth century farm house for a while, and the fire was, twelve feet wide and you could burn, burn, you could burn trees in there.
Henrik: Whole trees.
Chris: Whole trees! And you still have to bloody, wear your thermal underwear just to survive.
Henrik: That is ridiculous, or grandiose, sort of displays of…
Chris: Yeah, but in the seventeenth century, that was the only way they knew how to generate heat. They didn’t know so…you know, we have an enormous amount of knowledge. Burning wood is carbon neutral so that’s where you’re going to get your hot shower from.
Henrik: Yeah, on the other hand though you can’t have everybody burning… every single home in the whole wide world burning wood because then you’re just… then you’re into trouble as well.
Chris: If you ask me what my um… You know I’m enthusiastic but I’m not optimistic. I think what we have done, what has happened… You look back to 1801 in the U.K. The population was 1.5 million. It’s now 60 million in the U.K. The levels of population that we have in this planet, are unsustainable and, you know, I think plague, famine and pestilence will be our lot in the twenty-first century. I reckon there will be food riots in Bristol within the next ten years… We’ve got “Just in time” food coming from all over the world. Where’s your food security there? You know, we are already having massive crop failures. The bees are nearly, you know? There is a string possibility that all of the bees will disappear.
Henrik: If that happens, then we are really stuffed.
Chris: Then we’ve got no fruit… Currently they are shipping bees around in forty foot containers in America because of the industrialised farming. In the California valleys, that’s the world centre for growing almonds, almonds only blossom for less than a month a year, so its unsustainable for bees to live there year around so they have to freighted in. The bees have been around for 20 million years but they’re on their way to being fucked, they’re not designed to be zoomed around in….
Fish; there’s almost no fish left, and we are just in the process of scraping the barrel now. So, all of those communities that depend for survival on fish are going to become refugees. So they are all going to be coming over here. There’s going to be less food; more people, less food, more people, less food. Food riots.
Henrik: Well, they are not going to be coming here because there is not going to be any food here either.
Chris: Yeah, but you look at the food here compared to the food in North Africa…
Henrik: Oh Yeah.
Chris: That’s why you have massive, massive fences between North Africa and Spain, because that is the physical manifestation of the inequality. You know, we talk about inequality within this society… Look at the inequality between cultures, between the third world and between nations. So it’s actually in our own personal interest to share it out more. So we’ve actually got to start getting used to having less. Which is a very difficult thing because human beings are greedy for experience. As we are, sat up a tree with an electronic fandangly. We’re absolutely part of the problem.
Henrik: Yeah. I mean… Yeah. I’m hoping that through this interviews… can inspire.
Henrik: That hopefully outweighs the…
Chris: Yes, of course. However, it still is the case.
Henrik: Yeah, Yeah.
Chris: Anyway, so there we go. This has been a right old ramble. I hope I didn’t sound like a complete fuckin’…
Henrik: It’s all good.
Henrik: It’s very good. Thanks very much.
Chris: Alright, are we there?
Henrik: We’re there.
Chris: Do you want another photo before you go with your fancy camera?