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Under Construction: Interview with Mavis Davis

The housing crisis in London is endemic. Ahead of the screening of The Landlady we meet one of the landladies starring in the film, Mavis Davis, to discuss how she sees her role in an ever-changing community…

So what’s it like being a landlady in East London?

Tough. I’ve worked in 9 pubs over 30 years in Bethnal Green and Hackney. Most of my friends have gone out to Essex. ESSEX! So it’s a different customer now – I’ve swapped UHT for soya. The old lads are a bit funny about new customers. But that’s the point of The Oasis Social Club – a traditional premise that adapts, progresses and is owned by everyone that comes in the doors.

We’re actually based in East London too. Have you heard of Toynbee Studios?

I know about the social reformer Canon Barnett who set it up! And I’m up on my experimental, exciting live art. Don’t let my eighties glad rags and old school cockney accent fool you. I don’t much like all the cranes that are surrounding you though. Ruining the view – not to mention all the builders’ bums you must have to look at now.

We see more than our fair share of bare skin in this building! But yes, the local area seems to look different from week to week. Is there much mixing between new communities enticed in by regeneration and existing communities? Is your club a space for this?

There’s a different reaction to regeneration in London as there is in say, Stoke On Trent. Across all the places the club has been to – social spaces that have existed for a long time are being eliminated. In London, they’re being replaced with UNaffordable housing and gastros. A lot of us are angry about that. But we’re also made to feel like we’re part of the problem. So say you’ve been a resident on a council estate for twenty years, it’s ‘your fault’ it’s gone into disrepair and so ‘there’s no other option but to tear it down’. And on the flip side, if you’re an artist, for instance – it’s ‘your fault’ for moving into an area and ‘gentrifying’ it. Our worth is being capitalised – by big money. And I believe we have the power to demand change and make change by coming together. The motto of the club is ‘Forward Together’.

What the club does is work with a committee of local representatives to figure out what people want, whether it’s reclaiming space or challenging stigmas attached to the area we live or work in.

Mavis Davis

What do you think can be done to facilitate more conversation between the newer residents of communities and those who feel as though they are being displaced or outpriced? 

I think if you are concerned because you’ve moved into an area and are conscious of your position there, then be active. Have a voice – don’t assume powerlessness. There are some WELL nice poshos in my area, they care about where they have moved to – they make an effort. But it is sensitive – I usually avoid Columbia Road these days, it’s like the bit in My Fair Lady when she goes the Ascot races. I have some mouthy old regulars who don’t like coffee. I’m quite good at breaking the ice. In fact it’s my forte. That’s the point of karaoke no?

Karaoke is always unifying. I suppose it’s difficult with so much of London’s space being compartmentalised and segregated. What is happening with the city’s public space? Is this being compromised? Is space the only problem for residents who are feeling more and more pushed out of the city?

YES. This is a massive problem. Everything public is going, not just space, but the welfare state is in worse condition than my knackered bread bin – and I got that in a car boot in 1982. So we, the public, need to do something about what is rightfully ours!! And the worse it gets, the more you feel like you have to protect your own, you know what I mean? Now I don’t have kids, my family is everyone who comes to the club – so I’m protective of that. But that’s why it’s good to have space for families, young and old people to come together and organise.

As a landlady yourself, you must meet people from all walks of life. What do you think your role is in bringing people together?

Someone once described me as the glue that sticks everyone together. I’d be a firm glue. Like UHU. I am a classic landlady who doesn’t take any shit and makes sure you have a good time. Some people want to nestle in my chest if they’re feeling a bit rubbish, others want a good laugh, and some want to have a bloody good chat with different people over a Wigan Salad. Councils are scared of me, and so they bloody should be.

The Oasis Social Club

I’m sure it must take years to develop those relationships with your customers. People are often mistrustful of new pubs, bar and coffee shops popping up on every corner. How do you think these business owners can establish positive relationships with their local communities?

By listening.

I make friends on a ten-minute bus ride babes. I am interested in people and their stories. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone in the club.

ALSO I charge peanuts for my peanuts. Who wants to spend a fiver on a pint when you can get a return to Camber Sands for the same price?

Even a coffee seems to cost close to a fiver these days, especially with all these alternative milks on offer. Have you ever indulged in an almond milk flat white yourself? Or a Panini? I suppose they’re a little passé now…

I indulge in a Babycham from time to time. That’s my tipple. Almond milk tests my gag reflexes. So does froth. A Panini’s just a toasted sarnie – which I have loads of. But the piece de resistance is the beige buffet – all delights beige and a side of Wigan Salad –crisps and peanuts (available on FEBRUARY 2, of course. Discussion ain’t discussion without a Wigan Salad). Whatever floats your boat though really – I believe in a well-stocked plate, whatever it’s filled with.

In the East End at the moment, there’s been a push for community land trust schemes with homes being sold in relation to local wages. What do you think about schemes like this?

A community led initiative for affordable housing? What’s not to like about this! Assemble’s Granby homes were part of the CLT scheme. However, I was brought up in council housing – there’s so little of it in London now. I’m still renting and have no interest in buying – I am a free spirit, on a small income! In this case CLT isn’t going to help me, right? Why must we BUY to SURVIVE?

What do you think could be done to stop people buying properties just for investment, rather than to have them as places to live?

I guess the CLT scheme does help with this. But back in the day we had squatting – squat for long enough in a council owned property and eventually you got the place on a peppercorn rent or you were even offered it for peanuts!

Rent for the young people who come through my doors in London is BLOODY OUTRAGEOUS BABES. Del from the bar, who loves a pork scratchin’ – my GOD does he love a pork scratchin’ – he says it’s like you’re pissing money up the wall. Paying all that rent. But he loves a good moan, and his karaoke song is Lighthouse Family. Bloody Hell. Thing is – if you have a bit of money, you think it makes more sense to try and buy somewhere in order to survive in London. Thatcher’s right to buy scheme was a total tragedy. Success is not the things we own. CLT is a good way of protecting buildings and trying to cap price increase on that property.

I know a bloke who buys property every year, does it up, sells it for a fortune. He does my tits in. Do you know what also does my tits in? The council’s gradual lack of maintenance on social housing estates – this gives them the excuse to flatten them. I still have hanging baskets outside my place – it’s my palace. They’re not taking me down without the BIGGEST FIGHT THEY EVER GOT INTO.

The Oasis Social Club

When we talk about gentrification and regeneration it can be very easy to be quite dystopian and doom-and-gloom about it. Is there a way to embrace it positively?

Very difficult in London isn’t it? And I’m a glass of Babycham half-full kind of person. I guess in terms of regeneration it’s good for us ‘mere mortals’ to keep asking: “WHOSE REGENERATION – MINE OR THE PEOPLE YOU HAVE ON THAT HOARDING???”

Know your worth as a resident, an artist, a baker, a club owner – protect your worth and don’t be afraid to make a song and dance of your worth. But then, The Oasis Social Club has also been to Stoke On Trent, Preston and Hull – where people are starting to make a song and dance before the change has happened. They’re making attempts to own that change and direct the regeneration that’s happening. In Stoke On Trent, the manifesto that I drew up with the committee there was delivered to the council who recognised the importance of our demands. A year later, we are negotiating a community asset transfer of the local pub. I am working with a brilliant artist there, Anna Francis (who’ll be at the discussion on 2 February), on realising the project which will see the pub turned into a ceramic workshop, social hub and artist residency flat. NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL UTOPIA BABES.

And what do you think the role of women specifically is in bringing communities together?

Someone once told me The Oasis Social Club would be very, very different if I was a bloke. It is interesting how people see me as a mother figure I guess. It’s like I’m your favourite auntie who tells your dad off if he’s giving you grief, listens to you in a way that an old friend does and KNOWS HOW TO PARTY. Party Auntie. Tell you what, those E15 women might be cut from the same cloth – I really, really admire them women. There’s a woman like me in every community. I guess I’m brave, and I conduct my fights with a sense of humour. It’s incredibly intimidating to those old patriarchal structures – like councils and developers…

In some more rural parts of the UK, it often seems as though new people to the areas are often considered slightly inferior to the existing community. Likewise in London, locals don’t always warm to incomers, but often it’s the locals who are made to feel ostracised. Is it all just a problem of entitlement?

Yep – rural or urban. Workplace or home Street. Entitlement is a funny one. It’s important for The Oasis Social Club to feel owned by EVERYBODY – everyone is welcome. It’s that age old thing about hosting – if you were out in a desert and you saw a stranger coming from miles away you’d get the tea on. It should be the same now. I’m not sure people see others as inferior, but perhaps more as a threat in lots of cases – so you try and DO AWAY with fear rather than instilling it. Put the tea on. Have a gossip about the packed lifeguard from the local leisure centre. Both existing communities and newcomers feel vulnerable – sometimes you just need a space like The Oasis to break the ice with a bit of bingo.

How do you think this time will be looked back on in history?

This exact time, right now, will be a historic, revolutionary moment where all the people who were unhappy with the dismantling of our welfare state, where all the people who were peed off with feeling pushed out, looked down on, unequal, ROSE UP. They joined together and demanded the change and got the change they wanted. It’s good to think like that. It’s good to be bloody passionate. If you came to my bar, and every time you came and asked for a pint – after you’d work a long hard day, you just wanted a pint – but every time I gave you a glass of water, even though you had even given me the money for a pint. You just got water. You’d do something about it wouldn’t you? Too many people are taking their seat with that water and not saying anything about it – not questioning it and asking why, or asking to be given what they worked for, or what they deserve, what they paid for or what THEY WANT! For the record – THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN IN MY CLUB.

How do you see the future of your city?

These wind tunnels that these skyscrapers cause? Doing NO END of damage to my boosh. The future of my hair does not look good – it looks frizzy and dry. And so will morale and not to mention the bloody air that we breathe – it’s shockingly wasteful the amount of decent housing that is getting demolished for these energy consuming, fifty floored towering, monstrous scrapers. I see people are going to get angrier, and more active – apathy is the most dangerous thing for this city, it’s preyed upon by capitalism. Be the cog that brakes – even the tiniest cog can stop a giant machine from churning.

What’s the one thing you’d like to leave our readers with?

Nye Bevan of course! “We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, now we are the builders”.

Forward Together.

Meet Mavis and her fellow landladies from Stoke on Trent, Preston and Hull in a screening of The Landlady, taking place at Toynbee Studios on the 2 February, 7.30pm. The Oasis Social Club and its comprising characters are part of an ongoing project created by artist Rebecca Davies

About The Oasis Social Club

The Oasis Social Club is a touring, colourful, creative space where you can do everything from anti-dvt aerobics to bookbinding and bingo, under the wing of artist Rebecca Davies

The Oasis Social Club [TOSC] is part entertainment venue, part discussion space, incorporating the long British tradition of working men’s clubs, infused with davies’ warmth and humour. The club also provides an important arena for debate on more serious issues such as housing justice and diminishing social space as well as quality performance from local and national acts.     

Mobile and sustainable, TOSC has been popping up in unexpected places across the UK, taking up residence in the shadow of a closed community centre in Stoke, on platform three of Preston railway station and now to the orchard park estate in Hull.

Prior to The Oasis Social Club arriving in each city, Rebecca undertakes an intensive consultation period, working with local people and organisations who are integral to every phase of the project’s residence. These people form the club’s committee to create the club’s president – a character-host played by Rebecca, inspired by local women. in each location, the committee also creates the program of events that will take place in the space, which has included everything from aerobics to political debates and mothers’ groups. the first character-host, Mavis Davis, was based on a woman from Hackney, a warm, welcoming woman with stories from being a barlady for 40 years. Rebecca’s character-hosts draw on the Mavis Davis in every community in the uk, women who are funny and instrumental in bringing people together but command a strong presence and are not to be messed with.

The Oasis Social Club is a project by Rebecca Davies, co-commissioned by Appetite and They Eat Culture. It is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The project is produced by Sam Trotman.