Waltham Forest is London's first Borough of Culture, for the whole of this year, starting this weekend.
The opening event is Welcome To The Forest, and is taking place between six and half past nine on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Two audiovisual installations await your presence, one in Lloyd Park and one at the Town Hall, linked by illuminated activities along Forest Road. It looks like the selection committee chose wisely.
The easiest venue to enter is the forecourt of the Town Hall, itself a magnificent building, and the ideal backdrop for one of those big screen projections that Cultural contenders like to kick off their Years with. Two specially commissioned films are being shown every half hour, one short and enjoyably musical, the other longer and a bit more worthy. I missed watching the first because I was waiting to clear security, but was in place down by the ornamental pool in time for the second.
To a soundtrack by Talvin Singh, this 'sonic triptych' explores the borough's story through the voices of its residents. This means shots of God's Own Junkyard, the Hitchcock mosaics and the occasional oxyacetylene torch, plus a varied burst of poetry/rapping by faces of all ages. Within minutes somebody has rhymed Waltham Forest with William Morris, and Borough of Culture with Like A Vulture, which at least gets all that out of the way at the start of the Year. The underlying thrust is a bit depressing to begin with, namechecking the downsides of gentrification and redevelopment, but brightens in tone towards the end which is a lengthy gallery of smiling multi-cultural residents. The visuals are sharp, the presentation's masterful, and the performance even earned a ripple of applause at the end.
Last night Forest Road was busy with visitors, but I suspect not quite as busy as the organisers were hoping. The temporary absence of traffic allows carnival bands, illuminated birds and mechanical horses to prowl up and down, enough to delight the smallest of children. There are also a lot of flaming torches, because fire always goes down well at a wintertime event, plus a circle of large whooshing flames on the lawn outside the Magistrates Court. I think some older local residents were dancing up a sideroad in front of the Disco Shed, but the surrounding crowd made it almost impossible to see. Thankfully the lady looking down from her bedroom window seemed to be enjoying it, although she may have changed her mind by Sunday evening.
But getting into Lloyd Park was a miserable experience. Every single bag entering the park had to be checked, and every single person waved over with a security wand, and the organisers had woefully misjudged how quickly people would pass through. Two enormous queues stretched off from the gates of the William Morris Gallery, one in each direction, each with a waiting time in excess of 40 minutes. I think the queue moved fastest not when the security check shuffled forward but when entire families gave up and went home. I first saw a steward 39 minutes in, and she invited me to jump forward because I didn't have a bag, only for me to be stopped by another steward who told me to go away and join the back of the queue. A brief argument thankfully solved that one, but by the time I was having my arms and legs checked I'd lost most of the goodwill earned earlier in the evening. Unsurprisingly Lloyd Park was rather emptier than it could have been.
But the final piece of work was almost worth the wait. This is 'Nest', a light sculpture by artists Marshmallow Laser Feast, comprising eighty-or-so spotlights arranged in a large overhead ring. Over the course of 20 minutes they light up sequentially and spin round the sky creating an ever-changing web accompanied by a haunting choral composition. I couldn't work out whether the best place to view was in the centre of the ring, looking up inside a whirling spirograph, or standing outside the circle watching the beams wobble like a potters wheel. It's just the kind of visual landmark experience a Year of Culture needs, suggesting Waltham Forest is indeed the place to be in 2019. Just don't travel too far to get here this weekend, unless you like queueing.