I've spent the last week hanging out at an abandoned asylum in the East End of London, and I've had a seriously good time of it. St Clements drew me in by its film festival, Shuffle. Curated by the throughly charming Danny Boyle it is so named because when he lived in the flats overlooking the fully operational hospital he would watch patients shuffle about the garden.
The building itself is an impressive Victorian structure, built originally as a workhouse - a place of terror to the poor. It's clock tower reigns throughout the grounds and manages to look magnificent and oppressive at the same time. By the time night draws in it is certainly more a place of nightmares. Despite the peeling paint of the windows, the crumbling chimney stack and boarded up windows, the building has retained a sense of dignity, and is by far one of the more aesthetically pleasing structures on Bow Road.
I've a great deal of time for old abandoned buildings, and have spent many happy hours tentatively making my way over rotten floor boards, climbing crumbling stairways and imaging past inhabitants. St Clements had all this plus an intriguing role as a psychiatric unit from 1936; the lure proved too much and I went over to explore. On arrival I met a dedicated and passionate team of people who between them were committed to providing support for vulnerable people in the community and making the East End a better pace to live.
Kate and her team have worked round the clock to turn the shabby unkempt grounds into the venue for the film festival, which we hope will prove to local councillors that the place has very real potential as a community space. Developers will be converting some of the listed building into flats, but what Mile End really needs is a social heart - a place other than the chicken shop or pub, where people can socialise and be creative.
It's very apparent that Mile End is an area where mental health problems are prevalent, and many cases are mishandled, misdiagnosed and result in a life of damaging medication. A common refrain from local residents is "when I came out of prison . . ." It is a well known fact that prisons are full of people with mental health issues; people fall through the gaps in the system just as they did in Victorian times, and for want of a more appropriate facility they end up inside. A lack of resources mean that even today our society tends to resort to drugs to 'remedy' these issues, and whilst medication has an important role to play, it is dangerous to rely on it to the extent that we currently do.
Common mental illness such as depression is something that can and should be handled more holistically; certainly with less severe cases of depression and anxiety for example, support in the form of having a sympathetic ear can be invaluable. In a psychiatric ward a sympathetic ear can only listen for so many hours before it need to continue with its work. Similarly, creative pursuits such as art, music and theatre have been repeatedly shown to be an effective and therapeutic outlet for inner turmoil. Think of all the money the government could save on meds in the long run, if people had somewhere else to turn. Of course this is simplifying a complex issue - we have a long way to go in regards to our understanding of mental health issues - however, as the locals of St Clements have shown, communities are more than capable of providing support to one another if given the chance.
During the Summer Shuffle I made a short documentary about St Clements. It is yet to be released more more info can be found here. Please get in touch if you are interested in the issues detailed here, or have any suggestions about where the documentary can be shown when it's ready for release.