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Poplar: How London Firefighter tells the story of Stephen Dudeney’s 31-year career

Book by former borough commander for Tower Hamlets and Hackney is available now

Firefighter Stephen Dudeney has published a book about his 31-year career
Firefighter Stephen Dudeney has published a book about his 31-year career

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There’s a circle to this story – it begins and ends with the printed word.

Stephen Dudeney grew up in Poplar, just down the road from its fire station.

As a boy in the 1970s, he was fascinated with the fire engines, even chasing them on his bike when he was old enough to ride.

“I loved them,” he said. “When I was about 12 I started going to the big library in Mile End to look at picture books full of them. 

“Then, one day, I saw a book with a really bright cover – loads of flames and fire engines. I pulled it off the shelf, and it was just full of text.

“I was disappointed, but I started reading it and found I quite liked it.”

It was an encounter that fed what was already a growing passion and Gordon Honeycombe’s Red Watch about firefighers in Paddingtonand Denis Smith’s Report From Engine Co. 82 about a fire crew in New York added further fuel to the flames.

Stephen said: “Gordon, who was then an ITN newsreader, had done a lot of charity work with the London Fire Brigade, and his book was a best-seller.

“It’s known as the book that launched a thousand careers because a lot of people – a bit older than me – had read it and decided to join.” 

While Stephen had always been fascinated by fires, once harassing his dad to take him to see a big blaze in Wapping, his journey to becoming a firefighter really began aged 14 when he and a friend volunteered to help out at Poplar fire station.

“We turned up on bonfire night because we knew it would be busy and offered to make the tea and cook some dinner for them,” he said.

“We both expected them to tell us to go away. I remember them saying ‘Thank you very much’ and we were expecting a ‘but’. 

“Instead, they said: ‘We’d love you to. Come on Thursday night, about six’. So we did.

“It was a different time, that’s not something that could happen now – just imagine, an unaccompanied 14-year-old at the station.

“Looking back, I expect they thought I was a poor kid, which I wasn’t really.

“I don’t think they thought I’d end up as a firefighter – I probably didn’t seem intelligent to them.

“But I’d join in with all the banter and I used to go down the pub with them – fancy being given a pint at that age.

“It was a good time. It changed me at school too – I started using that banter at school and the other kids probably thought I was a bit of a live wire.

“I was probably fairly bright and had been doing well with my studies but I know I was a bit of a disappointment to my parents because, having been put in the advanced classes with good reports, at that time I decided I didn’t need to worry about all that because I was going to be a fireman.”

Stephen joined the brigade in 1987, with his first shift the day after the King’s Cross fire that claimed the lives of 31 people. 

His 31-year career saw him serve at all the fire stations in Tower Hamlets, rising first to training officer and then station officer before going on to become station commander and then borough commander for Hackney in 2013.

Then, as Tower Hamlets had been placed in special measures, he returned to the area where it all began for him, finishing his career as borough commander in 2018, based at the new Millwall Fire Station on the Isle Of Dogs. 

London Firefighter is available from Amazon, priced £11.99

While that completed the circle career-wise for Stephen, he’s since gone one step further, publishing London Firefighter, a book that aims to give readers a sense of the evolution of the London Fire Brigade during his more than three decades of service.

“The changes have been massive over that time,” he said. “When I joined, it was still very much the fire brigade of the post-war era.

“The big changes came through the 1990s and into the 2000s, and it’s now completely unrecognisable. 

“We used to do a lot more of a lot less – it was fires, car crashes and the occasional flood.

“When you look at what’s done now – all sorts of things such as water rescue and animal rescue – the firefighters have got equipment and procedures that are so different.

“If I’d joined in 1957 and left in 1987, I would have recognised everything.

“Leaving in 2018, the only thing that was the same, was the water and the hoses. I hope this book shines a light on the modern brigade and how firefighting is a bit of London history. 

“I want people to come away thinking we’re not a bad bunch.

“I’d always had the idea that I wanted to write a book and I’d kept notes over the years – moving files over from computer to computer.

“Then, when I retired, I thought I would do something about it.”

While the book offers vivid first-hand accounts of what it was like for Stephen to tackle ferocious fires up close, it also offers a wider perspective on the sheer complexity of organising the service and its multitude of functions.

For example, during his career Stephen played his part in the response to such major incidents as the 1996 Docklands bombing by the IRA at South Quay on the Isle Of Dogs and the Buncefield fire – the biggest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe – when an oil storage facility exploded in 2005.

“You expect to see and experience some things as a firefighter,” he said.

“I was called out to Grenfell Tower and it remains the worst thing I’ve ever seen.

“From a mental health point of view, I’ve largely survived the fire brigade in terms of the awful things that I saw over the years, but Grenfell really affected me.

“Since I left the service, I’ve started a company that consults and advises on fire safety and I was recently on my way to do a survey of a building when I passed the tower. 

“I thought I was OK, seeing it again, but later on I couldn’t get it off my mind. 

“Even though I wasn’t there over the night, when it was at its worst, it’s had a tangible effect on me and I think there will be a generation of firefighters who will feel the same, who will never forget it.”

That’s also the point of Stephen’s book.

To set down what happened and who it happened to, so those events and people aren’t forgotten.

  • London Firefighter by Stephen Dudeney is published by Austin Macauley Publishers and is available from Amazon priced £11.99.

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com

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Poplar: How Take Stock Exchange want people to take time to stop and reflect

Storytelling company are set to bring You, Me, The World And This Moment to Poplar Union on June 19

From left, Olly, Anna and Nick of Take Stock Exchange
From left, Olly, Anna and Nick of Take Stock Exchange – image James Perrin

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BY LAURA ENFIELD

After a two-year pause, it feels like the world is suddenly surging forward.

But are we ready to face the future when we’ve barely processed the past and are scrambling to keep up with the present?

Take Stock Exchange is offering a chance to reflect on this extraordinary moment in time, which we are all experiencing but in wildly different ways.

The community storytelling company, consisting of Nick Cassenbaum, Olly Hawes and Anna Smith, has been out in Poplar talking to older LBGTQIA+ men, gardeners and young people about what they are feeling as they try to get on with their lives. 

They will combine the stories with others from across London for You, Me, The World And This Moment a free event set to be held at Poplar Union on June 19, 2022, from 12.45pm to 3pm.

“Previously our projects have really been strictly location-based,” said Olly. “But this one is focused on the experience of the pandemic and of living right now. 

“We got the feeling that straight after lockdown people were going to be told: ‘Move on now. We have to get back to normal’.

“But we want to provide a space for people to reflect on this moment in time and experience what they need to.”

Anyone can get a ticket, go along to the event, share a meal, and watch a performance crafted from the stories the collective has gathered, accompanied by a live musician.

Nick said: “We believe the arts can be something everyone participates in and benefits from, one way or another.

“What that means for us is trying to talk to as many different people as we can, with as wide a range of experiences as we can. 

“Then we enable those people to reflect, to develop their own ideas, share them with other people and use that to help them move through their lives but also make that community stronger. I hope we’re going to see more work like this in the future.”

Drama graduates Olly and Nick met at Exeter University and formed the company in 2013. They wanted to do something involving the arts that had a direct impact on people’s lives.

They started with a grant of £250 for their first project You, Me, The World And Wanstead and have gone on to work on 12 large projects and numerous smaller ones across east London.

Of course, it’s not as simple as rocking up somewhere, putting on the kettle and sitting down for a heart-to-heart.

Anna joined as a producer a few years ago and is the one who finds the pathway into communities, organises the meet-ups and applies for funding.

In the past, they have worked with The Yard Theatre, Stratford Circus, Rich Mix, Culture Mile, The Barbican, Barnsbury Housing Association, Poplar HARCA, Poplar Union, Artsdepot and Vision Redbridge.

Anna said: “We always have one key partner in the area we’re working in that already has some connections to local groups. 

“We will start having conversations with people and perhaps get a tip-off about another group. It’s a lot of word-of-mouth and following that chain of people who know people. 

“It’s about embedding yourself, even though it’s for a short period of time, in a particular area and getting to know the connections and the networks that exist.”

The group reinforces this by always travelling to meet their subjects.

Anna said: “I think that allows people to feel comfortable enough to open up more than they would do if they were invited to a random conversation in an unfamiliar location.”

Take Stock Exchange have created You, Me, The World And This Moment
Take Stock Exchange have created You, Me, The World And This Moment – image James Perrin

Olly and Nick are the ones who then go out and talk to people and begin to build a sense of what conversations need to be fostered.

“A lot of the time we’re working in quite unpredictable situations,” said Olly. 

“Sometimes we’ll turn up to a place and we don’t know if there are going to be three people there or 30. 

“We don’t know if they are going to be happy that we’re coming or not. So we have to have quite a clear plan in mind, but then be really, really flexible. 

“One of the real strengths of the project is it allows people to have the experience they want. It reveals stories that want to be revealed. 

“These conversations are already bubbling, but perhaps haven’t been connected to one another or haven’t been shown to be part of a wider whole. “

Olly said he and Nick often spent hours discussing the conversations and how they related to each other and the wider world.

“The idea is that we build a dialogue through difference,” he said. 

“The end result is people get a little bit of an insight into the lives of people they share a geographic space with, but who they might not necessarily interact with in their everyday lives.

During lockdown they took their conversations to Zoom, launching a podcast to share the results. 

The trio also completed a location-focused project in Poplar during the pandemic and said it felt important to return.

The event will take place at Poplar Union – image James Perrin

Olly said: “Lockdown gave some a moment of calmness and peace but we were still in the midst of this really disorientating experience. 

“And we’re still not out of that. We’ve just moved to a different stage of it. 

“Giving people the chance to sit and reflect is something that has almost universally been appreciated at every workshop we’ve done.

“One of the most common things that we’ve heard is people saying: ‘I still I don’t know what to make of all this.

“I feel like my world has changed massively, but I still can’t really work out how’.

“We’ve heard that from primary school kids and much older people and every age bracket in between, from people in a variety of different circumstances. 

“Our job now is to take all that material and create stories that are based on these events and communicate them in a truthful, clear way. That’s the big challenge of this project.”

They began holding workshops for You, Me, the World And This Moment in the Spring after receiving funding from the Arts Council and Poplar Union. 

Nick said having the pandemic as the theme has enabled people to connect more quickly.

“When we’re focusing on location, people can tend to keep it very light and not go into the personal,” he said. 

“So there is learning here for us that I think will definitely filter into future projects.

Olly said: “When we first started doing this work, it was in response to the idea that despite the fact we live in a world that is seemingly more connected, people feel a sense of disconnection more and more. We were trying to remedy that. 

“Now, we live in a world that has been turned upside down by the pandemic. And that uncertainty is at the heart of this project. 

“The pandemic has been this unifying experience but everyone has had really diverse experiences within it that we’re trying to connect.

“So, in our own small way, we’re trying to reunite this part of London.”

Read more: Artist creates pieces for Pride Month across Canary Wharf

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- Laura Enfield is a regular contributor to Wharf Life, writing about a wide range of subjects across Docklands and east London 
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Canary Wharf: How Ian Berry is set to create a new artwork from donated denim

The Poplar-based artist’s piece will be unveiled on the estate for World Environment Day on June 5

Artist Ian Berry, pictured surrounded by jeans in Cabot Square
Artist Ian Berry, pictured surrounded by jeans in Cabot Square

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Artist Ian Berry wants his work to be seen in real life – so apologies to anyone reading the this.

These reproductions might give you an idea of the kind of pieces he creates, but 2D reproductions on paper or digital screens just don’t cut it.

Based in Poplar, but hailing from Huddersfield via High Wycombe, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands, the constant in Ian’s life is also his medium – denim.

Cutting, layering and gluing, he creates images and installations using a palette of jeans, constantly pushing to make the material accurately depict all manner of scenes, lighting effects, substances and surfaces.

The reason you’re looking at one of the pieces from Ian’s Behind Closed Doors series is that he’s just embarked on a project in partnership with Canary Wharf Group.

With used clothes donated at Jubilee Place last week, he’ll be stripping out the denim and using it to create an artwork, which will be unveiled on World Environment Day – June 5.

Detail for one of Ian's pieces for his Behind Closed Doors series
Detail for one of Ian’s pieces for his Behind Closed Doors series

“My work needs to be seen in real life to be understood,” said Ian, who works from a studio overlooking the Limehouse Cut canal.

“I don’t really feel like a real artist to those who haven’t seen my work in that way.

“I’d spent the pandemic having seven different shows in other countries – most of them solo and that was tough with all the quarantines and shipping issues.

“I’d just got back from Chile when I got an email from Canary Wharf asking about this project.

“At first I thought it would be great just because I could walk there rather than having to take pieces on aeroplanes.

“I walk through the estate when I catch the Jubilee line, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my work seen by more people in real life.

“But it also sounded interesting because of the estate’s sustainability credentials – it’s something that’s taken very seriously whereas some other places just use it for marketing. I’ve not spoken much about sustainability in the context of my work.

“Others have – as recycling or upcycling – but when I started 16 years ago it wasn’t the buzzword it is now.

“The project I’m doing with Canary Wharf Group reflects sustainability and the environment – denim’s terrible in its impact at the end of the day – but there are also good things happening in the industry.

“I don’t believe there’s a material that better reflects contemporary times, good or bad.”

Detail from Ian's Secret Garden
Detail from Ian’s Secret Garden

That really is the crux of things for Ian. While we talk it becomes clear there are all sorts of tensions at work between the artist, his medium and the subjects he chooses.

He tells me denim stands for freedom, democracy and the West to the point where it was banned in Russia and Belarus, where it’s still worn symbolically by dissenters.

Then again, it’s also the clothing of capitalism, excess and greed, with designer jeans selling for astronomical sums.

“I’m interested in people and in the denim industry, in workers’ rights,” said Ian. “I know everyone in the sector and there’s a lot of greenwashing going on – a lot of lying and they even tell me what their lies and exaggerations are. It’s frustrating.”

While Ian’s pieces are necessarily shot through with such issues – how noble attempts to pass on clothing to do good can come unstuck as second-hand garments wind up flooding foreign markets or simply get dumped overseas, for example – the denim he uses is also, importantly, just the stuff he uses to capture the world.

“I use it literally as my paint to represent contemporary life and issues you see every day,” he said.

“I have struggled for 16 years to know what to call them –  they’re not paintings, they’re collages, but using just one medium.

“In some there are 16 layers of denim, so they are very sculptural, 3D pieces, and they can be very effective, with the texture of the denim as well. All that gets lost if people look on their phones or laptops.

“The magic in my work is finding the gradients in the denim, the fades, the cat’s whiskers – where it goes from indigo to lighter shades. You can connect them together and get quite a photo-realistic piece.

“Sometimes I achieve that too well and people don’t realise it’s jeans, but you need that ‘aha’ factor for people to connect.

“It happens in America especially, where people look for a while and then get closer and closer and, at about 50cm away, they say: ‘Oh, my God, it’s blue jeans’. I don’t want it to be seen as a gimmick, though.

“I hope people appreciate the craft, the love and attention to detail and they are amazed that the piece is made out of denim.

“I do set myself technical challenges – how to depict shiny, metallic objects or water using this matt material. But the main thing is the subject.

“With the Behind Closed Doors series I wanted to depict this busy city we’re living in, which can be lonely. 

“That really connected with people – two out of three were saying: ‘Wow, that’s me’ – and it was kind of special.”

Detail from The Game by Ian Berry
Detail from The Game by Ian Berry

Ian, whose granddad was from east London, said he wasn’t sure what kind of piece he would create from the jeans donated in Canary Wharf.

He said: “Hopefully the piece I create will cause discussion and make people think. 

“I can’t give too much away at this stage in case the idea changes but I think it’s going to have an element of my hanging Secret Garden, which turns plants into cotton, into jeans and then back into plants again. 

“There’s a nod to sustainability in that – it’s nice because we can make something permanent out of the jeans. 

“If you wear a pair for 10 years and then throw them away, it might be just about OK, but now we have a world where people buy them, wear them two or three times and throw them out.”

Ian’s piece will be added to the Wharf’s permanent art collection.

Detail from The Roosevelt, LA, by Ian Berry
Detail from The Roosevelt, LA, by Ian Berry

Read more: Find out where to make your own cloth with Freeweaver Saori Studio

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Poplar: How Felix’s Kitchen is cooking thousands of meals for those in need

Food charity is looking for more volunteers and donations so it can help feed more people

Staff and volunteers portion up meals at Felix's Kitchen
Staff and volunteers portion up meals at Felix’s Kitchen – image Matt Grayson

Felix’s Kitchen does an incredible thing. Recently opened on an unassuming industrial estate in Poplar the 4,400sq ft facility is ramping up production with the aim of eventually producing 6,000 meals a day using surplus ingredients from supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurants – most of which would be thrown out as they near their sell-by date.

Those meals are then distributed to people who need it for free, via a network of organisations and charities across London. 

People are hungry in the capital and cannot afford to buy food. The hard work of staff and volunteers at the kitchen goes some way to addressing that, but The Felix Project – the largest food redistribution charity in London, which operates the kitchen – expects a spike in demand in the autumn as furlough comes to an end and potential benefit cuts bite.  

It’s 2021. The UK was the fifth largest economy in the world in January.

That such organisations exist at all is a damning indictment of those managing our society.

That more and more people are expected to need their services is a shameful failure of that governance.

But there are mouths to feed right now and those doing the hard practical work to achieve that end deserve our support and admiration for spending their time on this planet compassionately helping others. 

Head of Felix's Kitchen Leon Aarts
Head of Felix’s Kitchen Leon Aarts – image Matt Grayson

Take Leon Aarts, for example. Having “rolled into hospitality by accident” at age 19, the Dutchman became a chef, rising through the fine dining world to win Michelin stars before moving to London to start a high-end food wholesale business for top restaurants in the capital. 

A change of direction followed in 2008 when he decided to close that business and create a charity with an initiative that saw diners pay 15p extra in a restaurant to feed a child in a developing country. 

He went on to cook for thousands of migrants in the camps at Calais. 

Just before lockdown, he set up Compassion London to cook for those without food in the capital as the pandemic hit, eventually using Wembley Stadium to produce around 5,000 meals a day.

The team create meals out of donated food
The team create meals out of donated food – image Matt Grayson

Having joined up with The Felix Project, right now he’s in Poplar, cooking with 12 staff and a group of volunteers as head of Felix’s Kitchen – located next door to parent charity’s latest warehouse and distribution centre.

“It’s terrible that people live in food insecurity, but we can’t let anyone go hungry while those who have the resources are figuring it out – whether that’s the Government or companies,” said Leon. 

“I think we can solve this problem if we work together and it’s a disgrace that so much perfectly good food goes to waste.

“The Felix Project gets surplus food from more than 500 businesses, whether that’s small shops or Amazon, Hello Fresh and Ocado. 

“It’s really good produce, often close to its ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date, which means you can’t sell it any more. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. It’s then distributed to almost 1,000 charities all around London who give it to people who live in food insecurity.

“For example, many workers just before Covid were made redundant – people who were living from pay cheque to pay cheque. 

“You can see, as you drive round east London, that so many people fall outside the system, and we allow it to happen – with ridiculous wages, not giving people any sense of security. 

“Many people in the capital get paid really, really, well, but a lot of people don’t – it’s almost impossible to live in London on a wage of £7 or £8 an hour.

“A few weeks ago I had a charity kitchen doing what we do here and, in talking with The Felix Project, we found funding to create this purpose-built kitchen in Poplar – we’re building up to do 6,000 meals a day, but it takes time.

“I have very experienced chefs, so they look at what comes in and they make meals out of it. We always try to do a variety – it’s crucial we do both nutritious and delicious meals.

“That’s very important to me because when people are not in a very good state, they tend not to eat so well – if you have mental health challenges, eating is not at the top of your list of priorities and they don’t even realise it, so we will be working with nutritionists to help us improve what we produce. We always make sure that there’s protein, whether meat, vegetarian or vegan.

The meals are then distributed to charities
The meals are then distributed to charities – image Matt Grayson

“We’re also guided by the surplus we have – one of our remits is that no food should go to waste, which is a very interesting challenge.

“Right now we are actively looking for volunteers, especially local people, because we serve the local community.

“Also, if local companies have surplus food, then they should get in touch with us because we don’t want any food to go to waste

“We can put it to good use, re-purpose it and give it to the people who need it. We have the resources for that – warehouses, where we can collect the food, sort it and turn it into meals.

“We get black crates from Amazon, for example, that have all different things, and we separate it out. If you’re a small business, then give it to us rather than put it to waste.

“Bigger companies that produce food for supermarkets often have a lot of waste – often it’s not their own fault. For example, if it’s going to be good weather, a firm might make a lot of barbecue packs and then it rains and suddenly they don’t sell anything. But if they don’t put it in the bins and bring it to us we can do something with it. 

“We talk to our suppliers, of course, to ask if they have any of a particular ingredient but we’re especially short of staples – rice, pasta, tins of tomatoes – that sort of thing.”

The Felix Project was created in 2016 by husband and wife Justin and Jane Byam Shaw, inspired by the compassion of their late son Felix, who died suddenly from meningitis in 2014. 

You can find out more about the charity and volunteering in east London online at thefelixproject.org.

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