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Art in the right place? Opinions split over mural to West Hampstead bookseller

Neighbours are divided over bridge mural in memory of bookseller ‘Spider’

28 May, 2020 — By Tom Foot

The mural of John Henderson and dog, Sugar [Photograph Christopher Scoley]

A PERMANENT memorial to a street bookseller – and his trusty three-legged dog – has appeared on a railway bridge on the first anniversary of his death.

The haunting image of John Henderson, who sold books outside the West Hampstead Thameslink station for 20 years, was created by artist Alketa Xhafa Mripa, who runs the Curled Leaf café in nearby Mill Lane.

Her “Through Arts We Rise” project aims to spark a debate on the causes of rough sleeping while adding a splash of colour to a dreary stretch of road.

But despite being approved by bridge owner Network Rail, it has divided opinion among neighbours, with some criticising the piece as “political graffiti” that would be more at home in Shoreditch or Camden Lock.

Police spoke to Ms Mripa on Saturday after receiving a complaint that the bridge was being vandalised.

She said: “I think if you want to address an important issue, you don’t go to galleries, it needs to be in public view. In the last two years, I came across a lot more homeless people.It feels like they are everywhere. They are always lower than you, because they are begging, and it feels like you are superior to them. But you are not. I was interested in their stories – was it a choice that they were there?”

Police respond to a report of ‘vandalism’

“John was not homeless, he had a flat in Kilburn, but he chose to be out there. It was from what life had brought to him – childhood trauma and addiction.”

Ms Mripa added: “I know some people are upset, they are saying in the street to me, ‘who is this girl doing this, she is not part of the community?’ But I am, I moved here 15 years ago. I have the Curled Leaf café in Mill Lane. I knew John, my boys knew him. He would call out, ‘hey gorgeous, hey beautiful’ – you know how he was.”

The work in progress [Christopher Scoley]

The artist came to London as a refugee from Kosovo, and studied art at Central St Martins. She has gone on to create large public artworks in major cities, often tackling difficult subjects such as domestic abuse.

Linda Brown, chairwoman of West Hampstead Safer Neighbourhoods, said: “John wasn’t homeless. He was a nice, helpful guy and he should be remembered. But you can’t just have people going around plastering whatever they like all over the place. I am sure there are a lot of yuppy, ­college things who are saying it’s great. It’s all a bit Shoreditch.”

“We have spent years trying to keep this place nice and clean and ­sensible. They say it’s a community project. I feel they have insulted us as a community.”

And John Saynor, chairman of West Hampstead Amenity and Transport (WHAT), said there had been no consultation with the council or residents, adding: “A lot of local people were very supportive of John, and it’s of course important to highlight the impact of addiction and homelessness on so many people, including those living in an affluent area such as West Hampstead. However, I don’t find the photographic montage very attractive and I don’t think it tells the story or explains to the ordinary person what it’s about. In other words, I don’t think it succeeds in its laudable aim.”

John Henderson was not homeless but had a lifelong struggle with addiction

A coroner ruled that Mr Henderson – who was known to his friends as “Spider” – died from a drugs and alcohol overdose on the Black Path on May 23 last year.

The 47-year-old was found sitting cross-legged with a pipe, a can of beer and a packet of tobacco in his lap.  Despite his lifelong struggles with addiction, he was considered a lovable rogue. Residents filled the Emmanuel Church for a funeral service after his death.

Floral tributes and books were left at his plot for weeks and there were calls to rename the Black Path after Mr Henderson, or to put a plaque up for him next to one that is already fixed to the Network Rail wall remembering his dog, Sugar, who he sat with.

In an emotional scene – a year ago this week – Mr Henderson’s daughter Rosie Henderson-McGirr was reunited with her long lost brother at her father’s shrine. They had found each other while looking at online posts about their dad.

This week, Rosie who does not live in the area, said she was thrilled by the “amazing” new mural, adding that after the lockdown she hoped to organise a memorial event for his friends.

She added: “I’m so happy it has been done. “I can’t wait to come and visit it.” Two further images have been added to the bridge wall of homeless people from photos taken by two of the world’s leading photographers. Network Rail officials were approached by Ms Mripa about the project before she started work and agreed to grant permission.

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