You can sit around bitching about London’s problems. Or you can get out there and do something. Alexi Duggins meets six superstars who tirelessly bus their asses trying to keep our city great. Portraits Rob Greig.
The chef who’s fighting food waste
James Smart is co-founder of Save the Date, a not-for-profit Dalston eatery that cooks with food that would otherwise be binned.
‘I’d been a chef for almost 12 years and I’d seen so much food wasted. Often it was actually non-perishable, but it had to be thrown away because it had gone past its best-before date. I really hated it, but I just couldn’t see a way I could make a difference. Then Ruth [McCabe, the other half of Save the Date] came across a video by The Real Junk Food Project, who were running a reclaimed-food café in Leeds. And here we are.
‘We ask people to pay what they feel the food’s worth, and a lot of it we use to feed homeless people too – we give free meals to any who come in, and we cook for a refuge in Stoke Newington.
‘One time, a homeless lady in her sixties came in to eat, looking a bit sad. When we asked her what the matter was, she went, “Oh, it’s my birthday today.” So we secretly made her some candied bananas and leapt out singing ‘Happy Birthday’. She’s one of our most regular customers now.
‘So many people are struggling to find food at the moment due to increasing poverty. I don’t think I’m gonna feed the whole world myself, but if enough people replicate the model, we could.’
To volunteer or donate food or money to Save the Date, visit savethedate.london.
Keeping London together with cabaret
Simon Casson is co-founder of Duckie, a rude cabaret performance collective which hosts fancy flings for OAPs.
‘For 20 years Duckie’s been a queer performance club and collective. Mostly it’s just been us and our mates making up fun things for an audience that’s a bit like us. But then I started to ask myself: Do you just want to do daft shows, or do you want to use those daft shows to create a sense of community and change the world a bit?
‘So we invented projects that dared to use theatre and performance to make ourselves useful for a change. There’s The Posh Club, a regular cabaret knees-up in Stoke Newington for older working-class folk, where we get theatre designers to do a room up like the Ritz in the 1930s and give them a classic afternoon tea with a glass of champagne and three cabaret acts for £3. It’s a proper wild, off-the-leash atmosphere – we were surprised. It’s for people in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Although Nelly is 104 and Irene’s 106.
‘Then there’s The Slaughterhouse Club. For 20 years we’ve seen lots of homeless people outside the Royal Vauxhall Tavern – where we do pretty much every Saturday night – asking for money and fags. So we’re now trying to form a band and a choir with people who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. We’re hoping that if we treat them as artists, they’ll connect with their humanity a bit more and stop wanting to throw in the towel.
‘London’s falling apart a bit, socially and culturally; and on a tiny scale, we want to do something about it. We know how to get a load of people in a room having a right laugh. So now we want to do it with people who never go to the theatre, who struggle with being alive. I feel like it’s utterly worth doing.’
For more info on Duckie’s projects, visit duckie.co.uk/events.
Shaming tax-dodgers at street level
Natasha Adams co-runs Tax Justice Walking Tours, pointing out the big companies avoiding tax in the City.
‘The injustice behind tax-dodging is fairly simple. But for a lot of people, it feels like something they don’t understand and therefore something they don’t have an opinion about. So Tom [Barns, who also runs the tours] and I decided it’d be good to do something interactive and fun around taxdodging and how it works.
‘We’ve now done 11 tours. They take place in Mayfair as that’s where a lot of the big companies who are evading tax in emerging countries happen to be based. So it’s a great place for it because you’re surrounded by such opulence and wealth while you’re telling stories of tax-dodging and inequality. We’ve started getting people to spot how many yacht shops they can see en route.
‘We dress in bowler hats, carry umbrellas and wear suit jackets. The general idea is to take the mickey out of City workers’ garb. Afterwards, we invite people to come to the pub with us.
‘While we’ve had lots of media interest, journalists can’t always cover specific companies for legal reasons. But on the tours, we can say things you can’t get away with in print. As people understand things more, they get more outraged. Hopefully that means they’re also more likely to act.’
To book a place on the next tour, visit actionaid.org.uk.
Bringing disused spaces to life
Jess Brewster, co-founder of Theatre Delicatessen, reclaims developer-owned buildings and fills them with fresh talent.
‘The cultural life of central London is becoming entirely about shopping. You look around the streets and it’s just shop after shop. We wanted to change that, and back in 2008 we noticed there were lots of spaces lying dead and empty across London because property developers have enough money to just do that. We realised we could create something inside those buildings that reached out to people.
‘When we first approached developers, they didn’t get it. But once you start walking them round the building and show them – “We’ll have rehearsal rooms here, performance spaces there…” – they slowly begin to understand. It lets them use the property in a way that doesn’t impact on their business value. They start off going “Huh?” and end up saying “Ooh!”
‘We’ve put on pieces like ‘Heist’, where audience members use a sledgehammer to break open part of the wall then try to steal a painting while dodging security guards over four floors. We’ve got a show based on the ten stages of genocide where the audience is split into groups depending on whether they like anchovies or not. We’ve opened up buildings that were private and closed, then turned them into places that are stimulating to the imagination. It’s really exciting.’
To stay up to date with Theatre Delicatessen, visit theatre delicatessen.co.uk.
Saviour of London’s cyclists
Donnachadh McCarthy, co-founder of Stop Killing Cyclists, doesn’t take road-related deaths lying down – except when he does, along with 1,500 other protesters.
‘In November 2013, in one fortnight, six cyclists were killed on our streets – and something snapped inside of me.
‘”We need to get to the people making the decisions,”‘ I said to my friend Steve. “The only thing left for us to do is protest.” We put up a Facebook page saying we were going to stage a ‘die-in’; 16 days later we had 1,500 people lying down on the pavement outside Transport for London’s headquarters on Blackfriars Road. Everywhere you looked there were cyclists lying still, while all around them bike lights flashed. It was very moving.
‘In the last year, public support has really swung behind us. We look on this as a human rights movement: we think that everyone, aged from eight to 80, should be able to cycle somewhere without being squashed to death. But we’re not just campaigning for cyclists. There’s a statistic that says two-thirds of Londoners want to cycle but are too afraid to. Right now, our public transport system is overloaded. But if we can make cycling in London less scary, it could keep our city flowing.’
Check out 16 ways you can save London right now.