A sketch for the centenary

My paternal grandfather Mikhail Gefter was a historian, philosopher, intellectual.
As an adult, years after his death
I learned of his pupils throughout the world, 
of his philosophical and historical writings, 
and of the www.gefter.ru platform for social sciences and intellectual thought named after him.
Many called him МЯ (Михаил Яковлевич – Mikhail Yakovlevich).
I called him Misha.  I kept a couple letters from him and a couple of recollections of our time together.
 
I never asked about his childhood when I was little, when I had a chance.
When the question popped up in my head, he was long gone.
I asked my father and my uncle.
 
They never asked either, and МЯ never talked to his two sons
about his pre-war childhood in multi-cultured Crimea,
about his grandmother who adored him,
about growing up without a father,
about losing his mother and cousin in the Holocaust, and his uncle in Stalin’s purges.
 
I knew none of it when in April 2015, out of the blue, an email from my uncle popped up.  Attached were the scans of four postcards sent by my great-grandmother shortly before she was killed in the mass-murder of Jewish population in Crimea in 1941.
It was the first time I heard about her. She had a name. She was a piano teacher.

Two days later at a friend’s birthday party in London I met Olesya Zdorovetska, a musician and composer from Southern Ukraine who now lived in Dublin. We talked about families, politics, arts, languages. Crimea had been annexed in 2014. The war was on between Ukraine and Russia. Many sensitive subjects came up.
 
Olesya invited me to visit her in Dublin in September. 
When September came, Olesya suggested I came with her to Lviv, to the annual Book Forum.  I agreed without a slight hesitation. Those postcards were on my mind, even though Lviv and Crimea are 1000 km apart.  I also felt the urge to revisit my childhood places in the Carpathian Mountains, near Lviv. But most importantly, after years of wanderings, I felt like I was getting closer to finding the right doors.
 
With Olesya and alone,
I explored the cobble streets,         
peeped into Lviv courtyards,     
climbed onto the roofs,
wandered in the cemeteries.
 
At the Book Forum Olesya bought a collection of poetry by Debora Vogel, a female writer, art critic and intellectual, who perished in Lviv ghetto in 1942 and remained in obscurity for a long time. We learned that between the two wars Lviv was this inspiring metropolis for modernist thought in philosophy, mathematics, literary theory and arts, as well as a place of social and ethnic conflicts. It was among Lviv intellectuals and artists, during the period of rising chauvinism and anti-semitism, that the idea of an inclusive and open culture was formed. This redemptive and progressive vision was brutally squashed in the Holocaust, and yet not entirely extinguished. Fragments of it survive to be discovered through scavenging, collecting and juxtaposing.

What emerged was a patchwork of fragments, leads, innuendos and images in my lost and elusive family stories. Fragments of Memory brought me back to those postcards from 75 years ago. Lviv prompted me to recognise similar patterns centering around the figure of my grandfather, a scholar whose life was largely impacted by war, revolution and genocide, the details of which were suppressed. 
 
МЯ was born 100 years ago in Crimea, where he grew up before travelling to Moscow to study History in 1936 and where he met my grandmother, born also in 1918 in Mariupol on the Azov Sea in Southern Ukraine. Neither did she talk to her sons and granddaughters about her childhood. 
 
What about their families? Who were their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins? Where and how did they live? What did they do during those cataclismic times of Enlightenment, Zionism, Pogroms, Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, World War I, Russian Civil War, raise of Communism, World War II?
 
The online search took me to Kerch and Simferopol in Crimea; Odessa, Kherson, Kharkiv, Zhitomir and Rivne in Ukraine; Moscow, St Petersburg, Vologda, Tomsk and Irkutsk in Russia; Lublin in Poland; Berlin in Germany; Lausanne in Switzerland; Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington in the US. 
 

In this piece made for my grandfather’s centenary on 24 August 2018, I reflect on the intergenerational connections, inherited silence, on life and living in places of extinction and mass murder. The original text in Russian is below. 

My grandfather’s voice in the video is an excerpt from the interview recorded by Lorenzo Scaccabarozzi in January 1989: “We aim to learn seemingly everything about the lives of people who lived before us, or about our own lives. But we do not know beforehand, that we would not be able to find out everything. Either way we are making a selection. And this selection is not an artifical selection, at the same time this is our choice: by choosing from what was before us, what entered us as ‘past’, we choose who we are. And by choosing ourselves, we choose our future, consciously or subconsciously.”

“Мы стремимся узнать как будто бы все о жизни людей, которые существовали до нас, или о нашей собственной жизни. Но мы не знаем наперед, что все мы не можем узнать. Мы все равно производим отбор. И этот отбор есть не просто искусственный отбор, это вместе с тем выбор: отбирая из того, что было, что входит в нас в качестве прошлого, мы выбираемых самих себя. А выбирая самих себя, мы сознательно или бессознательно выбираем будущее.”

Эти слова 30-летней давности моего деда историка Михаила Яковлевича Гефтера врезались в память и сопровождали в 2015-2017 пока я работала над Львовским проектом Пазли Пам’ятi / Fragments of Memory. Они же и привели меня в Одессу, Мариуполь, Херсон, Симферополь, Керчь и Москву. В ночь на 24 августа 2018-го, когда исполнялось сто лет с его рождения, видео ряд из этой поездки по следам предков подстроился под его голос, его слова о прошлом, отборе и выборе.

Одесса
В Одесском архиве, в студенческом деле Давида Блюменфельда (Мишиного дяди, младшего брата моей прабабушки Натальи) нахожу его диплом 1916 года – “Призовое право и великая война”. Заключение: «Пока война будет существовать, до тех пор будут существовать и стремления к неограниченному использованию средств уничтожения и разрушения. Но война, по моему, категория историческая; она исчезнет, как появилась. Государства будущего найдут более разумные способы борьбы.»

По прошествию двадцати лет юридической и дипломатической работы в Одессе, Берлине, Вене и Москве, 23 ноября 1937 года Давида арестуют и обвинят в шпионаже. Миша, студент 2-го курса истфака МГУ, отделается выговором со стандартной формулировкой: «за утрату бдительности, выразившейся в неразоблачении дяди, врага народа». 8 апреля 1938 Военная коллегия Верховного суда СССР приговорит Давида к высшей мере уголовного наказания – расстрелу с конфискацией имущества. Место захоронения – Коммунарка. База данных “расстрельные списка – Коммунарка” сообщает, что 8 апреля расстреляли еще 85 человек. 28 апреля его жену Фриду арестуют и сошлют в лагерь сроком на восемь лет как члена семьи изменника родины. Их сына Володю отправят в детдом. О муже сообщат в 1940 году, что он находится в дальних лагерях без права переписки, а в 1947, что он умер 18 марта 1942 года. После окончания 7-летней детдомовской школы в июне 1941 Володю отправят к тёте Наталье. Она будет преподавать в музучилище пока его не закроют. В первые дни сентября Володя поступит в техникум. Вместе их расстреляют в Симферопольском Рве в декабре 1941. Фрида переживет лагеря. С Мишей они потеряют друг друга из вида на 40 лет. В 1976 они встретятся в Одессе. В 1984 Фрида уйдет из жизни и Миша установит табличку с тремя именами – Фриды, Давида и Володи. Ни Фрида, ни Миша так и не узнают, что Давида расстреляли в 1938.

Одесское Таировское кладбище. Никак не могу найти могилу Фриды. Администратор кладбища рисует схему близлежащих могил. Нахожу. Со всех сторон она заросла грецким орехом. Орех прорвался и внутрь арматуры трех бетонных кубов. Живое дерево, прорастающее сквозь камень.

Симферополь
Получаю специальное разрешение на въезд в Крым от украинских властей, перехожу пешком границу и на закате въезжаю в Симферополь. Двор дома, в котором вырос Миша. Форма треугольника – улицы Одесская и углом Большевистская. Окна комнаты выходили на Греческую церковь. Об этом он писал. А еще писал о чистом, сладком, крымском воздухе. Хожу по старым улочкам Симферополя, виноград еще не поспел, а черешня и вишня повсюду, сладкая сладкая. Симферопольский Ров: “Всем поколениям всем временам” написано на одной гране памятника. Бесконечные поля пшеницы. Сижу, брожу, снимаю, плачу, в блокнот кладу колосок пшеницы. Теперь я знаю, что Давида и Наталью близкие и родные звали Дудя и Тиля. Их маму – Софiя. Возвращение имен.

Москва
Жизнь в Коммунарке. Осенние запахи памяти. 80 лет спустя. Место, где устроили расстрельные ямы, тогда было просекой. Когда закончились расстрелы, между ямами посадили деревья. Улеи, дым, желуди, детская площадка, дача Ягоды, церковные пристройки, колючая проволока на зеленом заборе по периметру территории. Самодельные таблички на деревьях в память о расстрелянных предках. Нет ничего более постоянного чем временное – спонтанность такой памяти в таком месте кажется тем самым способом помнить. Сделаю для следующего приезда и для нашего Дуди.

12 Bernstein

It was in the Summer 2016 when I first encountered the story of the derelict building at 12 Sholem Aleichem street (formerly Bernstein street). I came to Lviv to research Debora Vogel and her literary and artistic circles of the inter-war period. Wherever I turned I seemed to hear about the building – Google, resources at the Lviv Centre for Urban History, ad-hoc chats with people at the Centre.

Off I went to find the building. The door was locked. A sign БIБЛIОТЕКА (‘library’) on the adjacent building №14 was my route in – I walked in and sneaked at the back. 

14 Bernstein street, 21 July 2016 (photos by Asya Gefter)

Crumbling walls separating the two buildings №14 and №12, a relatively recent  (January 2015) communist newspaper with a picture of Lenin, some sort of a target shooting board, bits and pieces scattered around.

A couple weeks later Alena Andronatiy called and announced she got the keys to the building. The three of us – Alena, Olesya and myself – met. The world outside stopped to exist when we entered. I lost the sense of time. But we live in the digital age when everything is recorded. The first photograph was taken at 16:30:08, the last one at 17:27:47. It lasted less than an hour what seems a century. The building became a character in our project and film. 

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The Lviv Jewish museum was opened on 17 June 1934 in the building of the Jewish community on 12 Bernstein street. It immediately became a noticeable phenomenon in the cultural life of the multiethnic Galicia. Its collection included religious artefacts of the 17th-19th centuries (Maksymilian Goldstein Judaica collection) andmodern art.

The custodian of the museum was Ludwik Lille, artist and connoisseur of Jewish relics. He joined Artes, an avant-garde art group which tried surrealism, symbolism, abstractionism, cubism, constructivism and other movements which were in fashion in the European art of that timeheld exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Vogel wrote about matters close to their area of interests; Henryk Streng, another member of Artes, illuminated Vogel’s prose collection Acacias Blooms well as her poetry books Day Figures and Mannequins.

In early 1940 the communist regime liquidated the Jewish Museum, and its holdings were transferred to the collections of the Industrial Museum and other museums in LvivDespite all the efforts of the Museum administration to save Goldstein and his family, thewere murdered during the Aktion of November 1942.

The same fate as of Debora Vogel and her family.

Ukrainian employees of the Industrial museum saved the artifacts by hiding them in the basement. In 1944 they visited Pavlo Zholtovsky, the director of the newly created Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts, and presented him with the antiquities. In 1948, after the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issued the resolution “On the Struggle against Rootless Cosmopolitanism,” Zholtovsky received an order to destroy all Jewish artifacts. The Ukrainian scholar, risking his freedom and life, issued to the NKVD a false certificate attesting to the destruction of the antiquities, and then hid them in the attic of the museum.

The people of Lviv discovered the twice-saved collection only in 1990, when the art historian Dr. Faina Petryakova unveiled an exhibit dedicated to the Jewish material and spiritual heritage.

‘Relics of the Jewish World of Galicia’ exhibition is currently on display at the Lviv Ethnography Museum – the very collection that was housed at the Lviv Jewish Museum in the 1930s.

The building of the former Jewish Museum survived too but has become a victim of difficult politics in the Lviv Religious Jewish community in the post-Soviet independent Ukraine.

Will be history obliterated and all memory erased yet again by the recent 2017/18 controversial renovation that might result in turning it into a hotel?

‘sano-r, sana-ris, sana-tur’, 12 Bernstein street, 7 August 2016 (photo by Asya Gefter)

30 April 1978

40 years ago today – Red Saunders recollects the RAR Victoria Park Carnival:

On Sunday 30 April 1978, 80,0000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square, and danced their way through the East End to Victoria Park in Hackney for the first big Rock Against Racism Carnival Against the Nazis. RAR had emerged in reaction to an alarming rise in racist attacks on the streets, and support for the neo-Nazi National Front at the ballot box. Mainstays of the UK pop scene such as Eric Clapton and David Bowie – white musicians capitalising on black music – made statements that further inflamed racial tension. A letter to the music press, written by Red Saunders and signed by a group of fans, voicing their horror at such hypocrisy, quickly gained widespread support. RAR was part of a broader anti-racism movement in the late 1970s, but it has become a symbol of the role that people-led movements and popular culture can play in shaping and influencing attitudes.

From Pop Art to Community Arts in Hackney and beyond

If you did not have a chance to attend last week screening at the 2018 East End Film Festival, the film is available to watch online.

From memories of meeting Andy Warhol to the visuals of Chats Palace and Lenthall Road Printshops, See Red Women’s Workshop and Rock Against Racism movement, the film explores the influence of screen-printing on the Community Arts Movement in Hackney and beyond.

Ukraine..August 24

Today is August 24 and Ukraine celebrates 25th anniversary of Independence Day. On a personal note, my grandfather was born on this day 98 years ago, in 1918. Interestingly, The Ukrainian People’s Republic, a predecessor of modern Ukraine, proclaimed its independence on 25 January 1918 (simple maths means he was a 2months baby in the womb then). His grandparents were from Kherson and so was his mother and uncles. Though my granddad was born in Crimea. His mother, cousin and uncle were tragically killed, by Nazis in Crimea and by Soviets in Moscow. I will never tire of repeating my graddad’s words – Holocaust is a genocide against everyone (Холокост это геноцид против всех).

Having just spent 5 weeks in Ukraine with most wonderful people, I would like to thank all those on the pictures below and those whom I was too shy to photograph. There was no single time that my Moscow Russian dialect (accent) made anyone frown. Everyone was so patient with my misunderstandings (or often complete lack of understanding) of beautiful Ukrainian language. And so many people helped me and Olesya in our research of Debora Vogel. I will be back in Lviv in a couple of weeks and today I will go to the Armenian cemetery in Moscow where half of my Jewish family is buried. Those, who once lived in Mariupol, Simferopol, Dnepropetrovsk, Kyiv and ended up in Moscow. And I’m so grateful to be able to be here today with my dad.

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Betya Rechister and Boris Dorfman

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Alexandra Somish

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Jason Francisco

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Olga Pogribna-Kokh

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Jurko Kokh

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Pani Stefa

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Taras Beniakh

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Dana Pinczewska

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Danylo Pertsov

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Olga Kupchinskaya

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Jurko Prohasko

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in Burshtyn

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Olga Sukha and Olesya Zdorovetska

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Justik

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Edward Pastukh

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Alexandra Scherbakova

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Irina Garasinyak

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Alina Datsko

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London Pride

Bright, festive, proud, out-spoken, warm, open, welcoming..

East End markets

Bishopsgate Institute asked me to join Diane Burstein, London guide and author of ‘London Then and Now’, on today’s Sunday morning stroll around the East End markets – Petticoat Lane, Spitalfields, Brick Lane, Cheshire Street, Columbia Road. Mind-blowing how the area and the markets have changed since I moved to London 12 years ago. But then again, many people keep reminding me how different it was decades ago. London is always on the move..

Impromptu from the Carpathians

Last month I reconnected with the places of my childhood holidays – Lviv and the Carpathian mountains in Western Ukraine. This area (former Galicia) was for centuries on the crossroads between Middle and Eastern Europe, and so it is small wonder that it has become a melting pot of people and cultures – Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, Armenian, Belorussian, Lithuanian, Romanian, German.

The outbound trip started with an early flight from Stansted to Rzeszow (the most south-eastern Ryanair destination town of Poland) followed by a 2hour bus journey to Przemyśl. There I found a cozy little cafe with the titles of dishes scribbled on the wall (in Polish only) and after a few minutes of hesitated multi-lingual interaction I was presented with some superb soup followed by a much needed delicious coffee. Next leg of the journey involved a mini-bus to the Polish-Ukranian border that I crossed by foot. All that was rather emotional for me – as a 14-year old I crossed the border of Ukraine and Slovakia on my first Russian passport (Soviet template actually). It was my first ever time travelling to *Europe* and the excitement was overwhelming. Now, 20 years later, I was travelling the opposite direction on my British passport reliving childhood memories in the light of two decades of wanderings. I boarded another mini-bus on the Ukrainian side and was told that in an hour and a half I would arrive in Lviv where I was to join my friend Olesya, the very one who prompted me to come here and now.

To follow were days of peeping into courtyards of old Lviv, walking the cobble streets, climbing onto the roofs opposite the former Golden Rose synagogue in Staroyevreyska street, wandering in the Lychakivskiy Cemetery reading mournful tributes inscribed in Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Armenian, Latin. And of course there were poetry readings, music and late night discussions. Olesya bought a newly printed Ukrainian edition of Debora Vogel poetry with illustrations and that was the start of our collaboration, our voyage to explore text, images and sounds of Vogel’s work and life.

Work sample 4-6290  Work sample 4-6310  Work sample 4-6336

Debora Vogel was born in 1902 in Burshtyn (Galicia) in a non-observant, Polish-speaking home. During WWI the family fled to Vienna and later moved to Lviv. She traveled extensively in Europe and was part of the vibrant Polish modernist scene of the interwar period. It was in Lviv where Vogel wrote poems in Yiddish in the 1930s that reflected the radical and minimalistic outlook that all art aspired toward during this period in history. Her experiment in poetry was mostly about fusing poetry and art. She called this technique ‘white words’ and described it as an attempt to “create a new lyric poetry of the urban condition”. Together with her husband and son, Vogel was killed in the Lviv ghetto in 1942.

Around 1930 Debora Vogel became acquainted with the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz who was as yet unpublished. The two developed a close relationship and carried on an intensive correspondence. It was Fogel who encouraged Schulz to develop the lyrical postscripts to his letters, passages that became the basis for his first publication “Cinnamon Shops” (1934), published in English as “Street of the Crocodiles.” Half a century later brothers Quay created a stop-motion animation based on this short novel. Ironically, Vogel is better known today for her connection with Schulz than for her own unique and innovative poetic vision. Very little of her work has been translated into Russian and Ukrainian, none into English.

The first letter (survived and translated into Russian by Dana Pinczewska) Vogel sent to Schulz starts like this:

21.V.1938 Бруно! Декорация этого письма – Сколе.

Bruno! The background scenery of this letter is Skole.

And here I am, on the early morning train from Lviv to the Carpathian mountains, not yet knowing of this letter, following my own story reconnecting with the places of my childhood. I doze off and when I open my eyes I am blinded by the sun breaking through the clouds, next what I see is the station building with ‘Skole’ on it exactly how I remember it when I was a kid.

The letter continues:

Твое последнее письмо вернуло мне давний образ осеннего ландо, на котором мы должны были вместе уехать в красочную страну. Запах путешествия обладает неотразимым очарованием и странным образом всегда ассоциируется с образом кого-то другого, спутника. Затем оказывается, что хорошо быть одному, совсем хорошо быть более чем одному — быть одиноким, оставленным, безнадежно отданным на милость оставленности и бездомности. Тогда «видится» хорошо.

Your last letter brought back the distant image of the autumnal landau which should have taken us to a beautiful far away land. The smell of the journey has an irresistible charm, and strangely, it makes me think of someone else, of a companion. But then it turns out that it is so good to be on my own, and what is even better is to be alone, deserted, left at the mercy of abandonment and homelessness. Then one can ‘see’ well.

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Alexandra Palace commission

During June and July 2015 Alexandra Palace commissioned me to run a photography course ‘Give Your Future a Shot” for young people 16-25 as a part of their ‘War on the Home Front’ exhibition. This project, inspired by the use of Alexandra Palace as a refugee and internment camp during the First World War, was aimed at teaching participants how to use photography to give themselves a voice, uniting and intertwining this interesting period of history with the lives, experiences, and stories of young people today. Read more here.

© Asya Gefter / Alexandra Palace, 2015
© Asya Gefter / Alexandra Palace, 2015

Tales from the Ditch

Alan Gilbey, curator/guide, BAFTA Award-winning writer and East End guru:
‘Tales From The Ditch’ is an anthology of tales less told from London’s ‘little bit of rough’, as narrated by an eclectic selection of local authors, historians, storytellers and musicians, who were hidden in all the nooks and crannies of the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall. Each of these performances is a miniature, lasting five minutes, before bells are rung and you have to move on to find the next one. It’s a bit like speed dating, except you don’t have an awkward bit at the end where London history tries to get your phone number.

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Dan Jones has painted East End scenes for four decades; writer, youth worker and human rights campaigner.

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‘Oh Mr Wu..’ In an opium den Stefan Dickers sang of the scarcity of opium dens in the real Chinese Limehouse.

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In a secret room Keith Jones tells the classified story of Tommy Flowers, the Poplar telephone engineer who played a major part in cracking the Enigma Code and ending WW2.

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Chris Lilly and Tim Smith in the musical melodrama about ‘A Child Of The Jago.’

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Tim Smith in the musical melodrama about ‘A Child Of The Jago.’

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In a dark, damp cellar Debbie Scott tells the story of her great grandfather, who saved a great many men from drowning in the docks but was never honoured for his courage.

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In a dark, damp cellar Debbie Scott tells the story of her great grandfather, who saved a great many men from drowning in the docks but was never honoured for his courage.

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In the clinic of Anna Stokes you could receive sun lamp treatment and hear of Shoreditch Councils progressive health policies in the nineteen twenties. 'More power! More light!'

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© Asya Gefter

There was a pub and a bit of a sing-song. An opium den clouded with myth. A musical melodrama about ‘A Child Of The Jago.’ A clinic where you could feel the health giving powers of electricity and sunlight.

Who created the Ditch? Perhaps Shoreditch Council just sheered the tops off a lot of Victorian houses and dumped an Edwardian Town Hall on top?  With its winding corridors and sudden dead ends, secret staircases and non-sequiter windows, it is the perfect geophysical venue for a myth defying night of Eastside stories.

All together…

‘It’s the rich wot get the pleasure and the poor wot get the rich.
All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are dreaming of The Ditch.’