Jemma Desai writes to Onyeka Igwe, responding to The Miracle on George Green as part of a series of texts commissioned on films in this year’s programme.
I am writing to you at my desk and next to me is a big tree. It is, I think, a cappadocian maple: its leaves have five whisker tipped lobes. The tree is often my company when I write at this desk, the breeze runs through it and keeps me cool even as the sun warms my face, the rustling muffles the traffic noises below and it creates this wall of viridescent movement that moves and sways and makes the outside feel near and far and real and unreal.
I think that’s how I feel when I watch your film. I feel near and far, the places and people feel real and unreal. Like you, I am not sure what I remember and what I do not about the M11 link road protests. I remember though, vividly, the shell of the chestnut tree, that sat on the green and which I walked past continuously on my way to the station, to friends’ houses, and the pub.
Sometimes I feel the story of the M11 link road is told to me most often by those that never lived there then, a kind of middle class local history conversation that people engage in when they buy houses in the area and then tell me how nice the area that I grew up in – which I felt quite lonely and isolated in – is. Did I know it had all this history?
The truth is I both knew and didn’t know. It’s something that happened around me in the area, around on the ground that I walked on but I don’t know if I had the sense to pay it any attention. And now I hungrily desire this history, feel tempted into recollection, because I have changed and my attention has changed, but I don’t always know if I can claim it.
I often feel my belonging to Wanstead and Leytonstone is loose and unstable. If I were a tree I think I would have root damage from having grown in a place that didn’t have enough of what I needed close by. The Miracle on George Green helps me understand something about how our relationships to home change. In your film you invoke the commons which invokes the idea of enclosure, which I have heard you say is not what interests you about the commons at all. Enclosure is the hinge on which so many conversations about gentrification hang, but for me it often just misses the affect of practices of land owning and land using. The right to public land wasn’t really something I was taught, but in a way I guess I lived it in the sense that my parents came from one land to another and seemed to believe, and encouraged me to believe, in the belonging that their acquired citizenship to Britain represented to them (even if, to me, that felt as hollow as the discarded shell of the chestnut tree).
At the time that the chestnut tree was being fought over, the phenomenology, if not the theory of the commons, was both my lived reality and was also being trained out of me. Common land for me was the experience of walking fifteen minutes to the local library and being able to spend hours there without wondering how to behave or feeling guilty of not having money in my pocket. Or the patch of green in front of my parents’ shop overlooked by an estate and a pub where people watched over other people’s children and a random boy taught me to ride my bike. Now when I walk around Wanstead, extollations about the proximity of Hollow Ponds, Epping Forest and other natural wonders (which incidentally my immigrant working parents rarely had the time to take me to) sit alongside conversations about “did you know that there is a Ginger Pig on the High St?”
There is this meditation practice that I was taught recently by a Buddhist teacher Lama Rod Owens which I have been attempting and failing at called the Seven Homecomings. The practice asks you to call in your benefactors: spiritual teachers, the texts that guide you, your ideas of community, your ancestors, the earth beneath your feet, the silence and yourself. Surrounding yourself with these energies you bask in them so that you can “come home.” I experience such struggle in this practice, but I think writing this letter has helped me understand why.
I feel too much longing.
I felt such longing when I watched your film – it contains so many of my imagined benefactors there. I feel longing to have sat with you to sing that day, longing to walk on the green again and experience different memories than my own. Longing for new teachers and guides, longing to connect them with the political texts and theorists that we sometimes talk about together and longing to connect that to the earth under my feet. Longing to form a community that feels rooted in a place that has all of the things I need close by.
It was important to experience this longing through your film. I wondered if the activists that occupied that tree, that fought the police even when it came down, that held strong and pulled together could be my ancestors. Could they become part of my homecoming? It feels weird to claim that, but then I read that in law an ancestor is the person from whom an estate has been inherited. After Sylvia Wynter’s Novel and History, Plot and Plantation – which you’ve shared as another way of thinking about enclosure and the commons – I’ll replace estate with plot. We wouldn’t have George Green to sing on, or the film you made, or the one that Ed made or the ones that Neil Goodwin made if it hadn’t been for these ancestors. They pass us down our plots: our secret plans, the main events in our literary works and a reminder of the small parcel of land where different things might grow.
See you there soon,
Owens, Lama R. 2020. Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger. N.p.: North Atlantic Books.
Wong, Kate. 2022. “Onyeka Igwe, the Artist Exploring England’s Social Histories.” AnOther Magazine. https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/14105/onyeka-igwe-artist-new-york-high-line-interview.
Wynter, Sylvia. 1971. “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation.” Savacou 5 (June): 95-102.
Jemma Desai is based in London. Her practice engages with film programming through research, writing, performance, as well as informally organised settings for deep study. She is a practice based PhD student at Central School of Speech and Drama thinking through the liberatory possibilities of abolitionist praxis to cultural production, with a thesis entitled “what do we want from each other after we have told our stories”.