Water and Cities

by Les Back

15 October 2019
Originally published in our Old Blog.

In this month’s edition of Street Signs podcast Les Back meets Sophie Watson at the launch of her new book City Water Matters: Cultures, Practices and Entanglements of Urban Water and explores the relationship between water and cities.  The launch took place at Parliament Hill Lido in north London with many staff and students attending from Centre of Urban And Community Research where Sophie Watson is a visiting academic.

Dr Alison Rooke from CUCR gave a wonderful poolside appreciation of Sophie Watson’s book and in this podcast she offers her appreciation of the significance of the book from her home in Lancaster. Alison comments: ‘Since I have read the book I am thinking about water all the time… You can’t really turn the tap on or put your washing machine on, take a shower, get you car washed, water your garden – you will never do that in the same way again.’

Sophie Watson argues that ‘Cities, and their inhabitants, without water will die, and so will their cultures.’ One of the message of this very human and human story is that we need to care about the meaning and politics of water more and the cultures that are formed in and through it.

We learn that thinking about the place of water in cities makes us ask different questions about the nature and quality of city life. This accessible and beautifully written book covers a wide range of themes ranging from the forms of social life enabled by public bathing, the changing meanings of Thames steps and the businesses that have sprung up to enable the votive ashes of members of London’s Hindu community to be scattered in the river.

The relationship between water and cities is particularly relevant for urban studies at Goldsmiths because since 1994 CUCR has been based in an old washhouse and swimming baths in Laurie Grove, New Cross. So the issues raised in Sophie Watson’s book about the relationship between water places and social life is very close to home for us.

The main baths in winter were boarded up and turned into music venues and dancehall with a capacity for 800 dancers. So cultures thrived literally just above the water. In 1936 the Baths provided the venue for the South East London Dance Band Championships with black American swing musician Benny Carter present as the judge, although he decline to take the bandstand himself (Melody Maker 11th April 1936).

US rock’n’roll pioneers played there in 1964 although the sprung floor suspended over the water posed problems. Exuberant jiving Teddy Boys and Girls spilling their drinks and covering the floor with beer. One of my favourite stories of gigs from this time is when the rhythm and blues legend Jimmy Reed played at Laurie Grove in early 1964. I just love the image of him walking through the doors of the baths with his Kay guitar with its signature tiger stripe tortoise shell pick guard.  Sadly, he played to just a few people because the promoters miss-spelled his name REID. The considerable numbers of rhythm and blues fans just didn’t realize that one of the people who had inspired the British blues boom – from the Rolling Stones to The Animals – was performing in New Cross and he played his signature blues shuffles to an almost empty room.

The baths were also a female public sphere, but not just for washing clothes.  Attendances at the wrestling matches were largely working-class women. We have received several accounts of the bawdy fun, had sometimes at the expense of male wrestlers in the ring. Acting out on Saturday night pushed the boundaries of femininity in these alternative public spheres – where gendered norms of working-class respectability could be stretched, carnivalised and even transgressed. All of these themes fit very neatly in to the ways in which Sophie Watson encourages us to re-imagine the relationship between water and cities.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of CUCR.