Edinburgh // To many it’s just a flyover and a few thousand tons of tarmac, but Stratford’s one-way system owes its existence to a dead dog and a fresh-faced country meat-packer … The role of Mark Borkowski in the creation of Stratford town centre’s one-way traffic system // London, The World & Camden
The role of Mark Borkowski in the creation of Stratford town centre’s one-way traffic system
To many it’s just a flyover and a few thousand tons of tarmac, but Stratford’s one-way system owes its existence to a dead dog and a fresh-faced country meat-packer
by John Park
This particular Stratford is not Shakespeare’s pretty town in the sticks, it’s a raw East London suburb that people generally pass through on the way to somewhere else. There’s a couple of sleek new stations where the tube and overhead railway intersect. There’s a shopping centre, a lot of boarded-up buildings, more shops, a theatre – that’s about it. People who live there love it, and to most other people it’s simply a place on the map. It could, in other words, be pretty much any other suburb in anyone’s town. But there’s a story in Stratford, embedded in its roads. Shakespeare plays a key part in the tale, but the star role goes to man’s best friend. Dog lovers may care to look away now, but first, a word about a man.
Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling the publicist Mark Borkowski. It’s very difficult to get a fix on a man who has made mirrors, artifice, smoke and scam his life’s study. A charming man, certainly, but there’s been so much written about him over time (often by himself) that it’s hard to get in deep. So over the last couple of years we’ve interviewed people who know him well, and during August and September, we’ll be telling you what they said. And one central thing that they’ve all mentioned is certainly a downright lie, but it’s a good story. Here it is (with the truth first).
Joan Littlewood set up the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, as a pioneering modern theatre in a rough part of London. She died. Philip Hedley became director, a charismatic man with remarkable vision and a beret. Embereted, Philip Hedley could pass easily as the legendary late French cabaret singer Charles Trénet, who gave the world La Mer. Philip Hedley gave London a stunning 21st Century theatre, embracing the African and West Indian heritages of many of the people who live in Stratford. The Theatre Royal has a gorgeous traditional theatre auditorium with a year-round theatrical programme, and regular comedy performances in the bar. The whole building is regularly packed with enthusiastic audiences drawn from across the class, religious and colour structures that elsewhere often divide. Back in the 1980s, all this was in the future, when Philip Hedley made the decision to hire as the theatre’s new press and marketing trainee a young man, the son of Polish immigrants, who had recently been packing meat in a rural bacon factory. He remembers Mark Borkowski then as quite conventional-looking, in a jacket and tie, and wasn’t quite sure if it was going to work.
Mark Borkowski was born in the 50s and – as he watched strong men go about pigs with electric tongs, stunning the animals, binding their rear trotters, hanging them up from the ceiling, plunging a knife into their jugulars, slopping the blood-content of their bodies onto the abattoir floor, sawing off their legs and arms, curing the remains, and finally shipping out pan-ready bacon in half-pound (it was a pre-metric Britain) shrunk-plastic packs – dreamed of a future in theatre. His first production was an audience-proof experimental production of Shakespeare, and try marketing that.
The Theatre Royal’s press release announced an exciting new version of Shakespeare, featuring a strong cast, the Bard’s inpenetrable language, startling direction, blah blah. And – how did this slip in? – a tap-dancing dog.
Even now Mark Borkowski can’t remember how the dog got into the release. Too much coffee? Too many fraught nights tramping Stratford High Street – at the time the suburb centred itself around a traffic-bound main drag, with a Woolworths, a Boots The Chemist, a Sainsbury’s grocery, a small green-fronted branch of Marks & Spencer – with a sackful of flyers to post through the faded bronze letter-boxes of what had once-upon-a-time been a prosperous place, home to ships’ captains and merchants from the nearby Thames dockyards? But dog there was, and a most unfortunate thing happened.
Some quick-eyed journalist on a local paper at the other end of the country noticed a small news-item about a dog – a specialist in tap possibly using a blend of the Le Coq and Laban techniques – in Shakespeare (the film Shakespeare In Love has a storyline about a performing dog The Globe’s theatre manager supposedly wanted Shakespeare to incorporate in one of his plays, but the film script was written many years after this story), and wrote a piece about it. Within exactly 7 days it was a cover-page story above the fold in every national newspaper. This was a lot more than Mark Borkowski had dreamed. Philip Hedley recalls MB coming to him, petrified (MB remembers himself as being quietly confident – all facts have at least two versions). What’s wrong lad, the older man asked? ‘They want’, MB stammered (said with relaxed candour), colour drained from his face, ‘they want to see the dog.’
So far as Shakespeare was concerned, things could not have been better. Tickets sold out for the run, and the run was quickly extended. In publicity terms, Mark Borkowski’s strategy had succeeded. But the immediate problem of creating a dog, and teaching it to dance in time remained. Borkowski borrowed Admiral Lord Nelson (1758-1805)’s strategy and doubled-up on brazenness, steering a straight course into the heart of the enemy. He called a press conference for national and broadcast media at which the dog would perform a selection of its routines.
Traffic continued, as every day since the invention of the internal combustion engine, to trundle along Stratford’s single main street. Heavy Foden lorries carried their daily loads of cable-drums from the Isle of Dogs, wheat from Essex farms, agate from the Commonwealth ports, deliveries of fresh bananas to the Eastern reaches of the Thames Estuary. Crossing the road was a daily hazard, with occasional fatalities.
There was a conference at the theatre. A female member of the bar staff volunteered to be the fictitious dog’s owner for all telephone calls. Another female member of staff who owned a dog agreed for her dog to be used in photographs issued to the press. For the next days, newspapers showed an attractive and obviously competent dog, a dog with appeal and an authentic history and dietary habits, a dog with character. The nation took this particular dog to its heart, and the days to the press conference – in Mark Borkowski’s case the seconds counted by his possibly palpitating (quietly assured and confident) heart – passed. Within the theatre, things weren’t going smoothly.
The owner of the real dog was becoming distressed by the situation, and her boyfriend shared his feelings in a frank way with Borkowski. The East End of London is famous for its criminal and gangster tradition, and while this particular East-Ender had no part of either, his feelings were emphatic. And the dog, though clearly attractive, showed no inclination to tap. Mission abort was staring Mark Borkowski in the face. But how?
As the press prepared to travel to Stratford – there was no modern station in those days, it was a journey you set out on with sandwiches and a flask – Borkowski issued a tragic press release. Finding a break in the slow-moving traffic along Stratford’s high street, a heavy lorry had accelerated. Watching the road ahead, perhaps distracted by taking a Woodbine cigarette from his jacket pocket, and fumbling to light it with his windshielded-top-capped Ronson petrol cigarette lighter, the cloth-capped lorry driver (a family man from Tiptree, Essex) had failed to notice the small four-legged animal crushed to death under the heavy-duty 36-inch Firestone tyres of the vehicle’s front wheels; failed to hear its final yelp of transitory pain as it became – in the middle of a hazardous road-crossing journey it had made with risk but so far in its 12-year life uneventfully – flattened.
It would be a good story to say that the nation mourned, but not really true. The 5-day week, the coal-miners’ strike, the bombing of Serbia, the build-up to the war against Iraq, the final end of post-war rationing, Selective Employment Tax, Value Added Tax, the formation of the Common Market, the loss of India – people had distractions. But at a local level, the story changed tack, and increased to the level of a public scandal. Stratford, and in particular the town Council of the London Borough of Stratford, had been publicly shamed. It was on their high street that a dog – it’s said that Britain is a place that loves dogs more than humans and perhaps this is so – had been murdered. A strong word? You have to picture the fame of this particular dog. The national fame – the local shame. The Director of Highways & Traffic was summoned, and sacked. The first task of the new director was to draw up – immediately – an imaginative scheme to relieve Stratford of its congestion, to remove the road on which the small terpsichorean wonder had died.
Today, Stratford isn’t famous for its one-way system – it’s just a fact of life. People often remark how easy it is to drive through Stratford. There are no traffic delays. It was one of the first one-way systems in the country, a benchmark. In textbooks of urban traffic-handling configurations, the Stratford Model is used as a template for town-planning. It’s practical, it works, it’s stood the test of time. It’s easy to forget how it all began, in this modern age when lorries are trucks, when the cab is designated a work-place in which smoking is forbidden under sensible European laws, when dogs have more important things to do with their time than tap-dancing. All that remains, by the side of the approach to Stratford’s flyover, near the broken-glass modern sculpture on its western roundabout, close to the bricked-up doorway of the old Essoldo Cinema, is a small stone marked RIP recalling the passing of a little fictitious quadruped; and in small writing underneath, in the rhyming slang for which East London’s chirpy Cockney residents are famous, the publicists’ immortal legend: never ruin a good story for the sake of the facts.
John Park 5 August 08
Mark Borkowski – Part Two – follows later in August
The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Created the Celebrity Industry, by Mark Borkowski, first published by Sidgwick & Jackson, hardback, on 1 August 08, £16.99.
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2008