A Saturday in London in the early 1990s

Here are me, Scott and Mike trying to be the Ramones.

Triumvirate

We called ourselves the triumvirate and were inseparable. We were also insufferable poseurs.

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We spent most Saturdays going up to London. The day usually started here.

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The highlight of the train journey came after we passed Clapham Junction and trundled past the hulking mass of Battersea Power Station, which was apparently being turned into a theme park. This classic view of the power station from the railway line is soon to disappear as the building is surrounded by steel and glass boxes for the very rich.

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Crossing the Thames, you could usually make out the floodlights of Craven Cottage and Stamford Bridge if you were quick. There are fewer finer sights in life then the glimpse of far-off floodlight. If all went to plan, we might be getting a closer view before the day was done.

From Victoria, we headed for Covent Garden. Mike was a dresser. He could carry anything off. He still can. Mike had a dapper big brother, Pete, who read The Face and I-D, and so Mike always seemed to know where to go. His keen sense of style didn’t always go down well in the suburbs; when he wore a pair of Adidas shell tops to school, kids in Nike Air and Adidas Torsion laughed at his protestations that he was the trendy one. Still, I was convinced enough to buy a pair of suede Kickers on his say so, and nobody took the piss that much.

We usually went to a few shops on Floral Street and then  Neal Street, maybe first visiting the Covent Garden General Store, which was full of entertaining tat.

We spent much of this part of the day traipsing after Michael into shops where saleswoman would assure him he looked the ‘dog’s bollocks’ as he pulled on another pair of check flares. If I was feeling bold I’d try on something in Red Or Dead or Duffer of St George on D’Arblay Street. On one treasured occasion, Mike’s brother Pete was so impressed by my red Riot + Lagos t-shirt from Duffer that he borrowed it for a party. This was probably the high point of my life as a style icon.

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After watching Michael try on clothes, we’d go to Neal’s Yard, where we breezed past the weirdos in the skate shop on our way to the basement.

This was the Covent Garden branch of Rough Trade, a pokey den arranged around a metal spiral staircase, with walls covered in graffiti from bands that had played there. We loved it here. Music was one shared passion. Mike had got us into Sonic Youth, Pavement and Teenage Fanclub; Scott’s dad had a great selection of Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne and Neil Young. We all read the NME and Melody Maker and Select. This stuff mattered.

After a quick nose, we’d slip on to Shaftesbury Avenue and round to Cambridge Circus. There was a shop south of here on Litchfield Street that sold trendy Brazilian football shirts which we looked at but could never afford. Usually we headed north up Charing Cross Road to Sportspages.

imgresSportspages sold sports books, but we were only interested in the fanzines, which were scattered over the floor in untidy piles. Football was our other passion. I’d try and pick up the hard-to-find Cockney Rebel, a one-man Chelsea fanzine that combined football with an idiosyncratic take on pop and film culture. I went to Sportspages for years but never actually bought a book there.

After that, it was lunchtime.

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We lived for bacon double cheeseburgers.

Then we’d head down Hanway Street, past the Blue Posts on the corner, to visit Vinyl Experience, a huge place over a couple of floors which was covered by this fine Beatles mural.

Blue Meanies on Hanway Street

At some point earlier, it had this fine sign.

 

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There were a couple of other record shops here – JBs was a decent one – and we’d often pop into Virgin on Oxford Street to check out the t-shirts.

From there, we strolled down across Oxford Street and cut through Soho down to Berwick Street, where three more record shops awaited – Selectadisc, Sister Ray and Reckless. Selectadisc was my favourite; although the staff were contemptuous, they were marginally friendlier than in Sister Ray and the choice was wider.

Reckless Records Berwick Street

Sometimes we’d see our schoolfriend Martin, who worked the odd Saturday on a fruit and veg stall in Berwick Street market for his uncle. I was always slightly jealous of this; it seemed an impossibly cool, proper London job for suburbanites like us to have.

Football was next. Despite having visited so many shops, we spent more time browsing then buying so rarely had many bags. Most of our serious record shopping was done in Croydon at Beanos.

What game we went to depended on who was playing, how much money we had and whether I could persuade Scott (Wimbledon) and Mike (Celtic) to fork out to watch Chelsea. It usually boiled down to Arsenal in the Clock End, where we could still pay the kids fee, or Chelsea in the Shed. Occasionally we’d duck into the ground at half time, when the exit gates had opened.

If we didn’t fancy Chelsea or Arsenal, or they were away, we’d head over to QPR, Charlton, Millwall and Fulham. Nobody ever sold out.

After football, dinner.

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If we had time, we’d pop into the sweet shop in the Trocedero.

And then maybe a gig: at the Marquee or Astoria.

Or more likely home via Victoria, and then out to the Ship or the Firkin in Croydon.

A week or so later, we’d do it all over again.

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Many of these places no longer exist, and I’m not even that old. Or at least, I didn’t think I was.

Forty years of London football

I wrote this in 2008, for Time Out’s excellent 40th anniversary compendium, London Calling.

It’s 1991, and after queuing for an hour to get in, and then waiting another hour for the match to begin, I’m starting to wonder if it was the effort and £8 entrance fee; Chelsea are losing 2-1 to Wimbledon at Plough Lane, the latter’s cramped, tumbledown stadium near Wimbledon dog track. The view from the away terrace is terrible, you can barely make out the top of the crossbar in the goalmouth beneath you, but as Chelsea’s Gordon Durie turns and scores, the surge from the celebrating fans pushes me down the terrace and twirls me back to front. My leg catches on the vertical support of a crush barrier and twists round, creating a huge purple bruise that I proudly show at school on Monday.

Abruptly, the celebrations end. The linesman’s flag is raised. He has disallowed the goal and there’s no big screen action replay to show why. The Wimbledon fans jeer, Chelsea lose, I nurse my wound. Chelsea finish the season 11th; Wimbledon come 6th. Nearly breaking my leg celebrating a disallowed goal is one of the few memorable moments from a dismal season that included a 7-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest.

If you told that story to a 15-year-old supporter from 1968 or one from 2008, it is difficult to guess who would be more surprised. Football has undergone extraordinary changes over the past 40 years, transformations encapsulated by the oscillating fortunes of Chelsea and Wimbledon. In 1968, Chelsea were the most fashionable team in the land: young, vibrant, popular, stylish and successful. Conversely, few knew of Wimbledon, an amateur outfit stuck in the Southern League. Forty years later, and after plenty of ups and downs and a period when Wimbledon habitually outperformed their neighbours, Chelsea are once again one of the biggest clubs in the country. But terraces have gone, Plough Lane has gone – hell, even Wimbledon have gone, a stellar rise through the leagues ending in ignominy when they were split in two, with one ersatz version playing league football in Milton Keynes and the other back in non-league, playing in front of 3,000 in Kingston.

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The only way to really grasp these changes is to look at them chronologically. In 1968, football was riding the crest of the postwar wave and attracting huge crowds. However, two trends were emerging that would distinguish 1960s football from its forebears. The first was the transformation of footballers into celebrities, a result of the abolition of the minimum wage in 1961 and the introduction of regular televised matches. Manchester United’s George Best was the poster boy for football as the new cool, but it was also a role manfully shouldered by King’s Road carouser such as Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke, David Webb and Tommy Baldwin.

The other factor was the appearance of a distinctive youth culture in the later 1950s; teenagers had the freedom and cash to go to games at home and, crucially, away, where bonds were formed and rivalries cemented. In ‘Football Gangs’, a landmark piece published in Time Out  in 1972, Chris Lightbown explained what this meant, as kids claimed the terrace behind each goal as ‘The End’ to be protected from invaders at all costs, vocally and physically.

But football hooliganism was not seen as a major threat: drinking was still allowed on terraces and there was no segregation. But things worsened as the 70s progressed and the fortunes of the four major London clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham – plummeted from 1971, when Arsenal won the Double, Chelsea won the European Cup Winners Cup and Tottenham won the League Cup. Arsenal went missing for much of the decade; Chelsea were relegated, promoted and relegated again as they stumbled towards insolvency; Spurs went down and up; West Ham beat Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup final, then went down and stayed down. In 1975, Queens Park Rangers were London’s highest-placed club; they came 11th. The decline from the high points of the 1960s was manifest.

The backdrop was uglier. Hooliganism, especially – but by no means exclusively – at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall was destroying the game from the inside, driving away crowds and investment, turning stadiums into barbed wire police states. Hooliganism effected every club, including Arsenal and Spurs, particularly in any London derby or when a big northern club – Manchester United especially – came to London. On the pitch, England failed to qualify for two successive World Cups as the game faced a talent drain despite an extraordinary run in the European Cup that saw English clubs win the trophy seven times in eight seasons between 1976 and 1984, no thanks to London.

The result was an increasingly unpopular national sport. Chelsea’s crowd drained from 40,342 at the start of the decade to 24,782 at the end; the First Division average went from 32,074 to 27,428 in the same period and continued declining into the early 90s. In 1974, Time Out‘s Sports Editor Peter Ball thought he’d spotted the problem: ‘In the last 20 years, football has been taken away from its natural community, commercialised and given the worst trappings of Hollywood by the media. Is it any wonder that the kids, whose dads used to live next door to the local players, feel alienated?’

The upside of this was that it levelled the playing field and allowed smaller clubs to move into the vacuum. Wimbledon joined the football league in 1977 and began a staggering rampage up the tables that saw them in the First Division within a decade. Crystal Palace were dubbed the Team Of The 80s as they briefly topped the First Division in 1980; Watford’s tag team of manager Graham Taylor and chairman Elton John powered into the First Division and reached the FA Cup final in 1984; even Leyton Orient reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1979.

But part of the climate that allowed them to prosper was the stunning primitiveness of the English game. Excluding Liverpool, who ruled the era with Stalinist ruthlessness but considerably more efficiency, English football was tactically and technically sterile. Most teams were built on the model of ten grafters and a crafter – Hoddle at Spurs, Brady at Arsenal, Brooking at West Ham, Wilkins at Chelsea. Peter Ball dissected England’s failure in the 1980 European Championships and came up with some familiar problems: ‘The English game… does not enhance the development of techniques, nor of flair players, who tend to be regarded with suspicion. The history of the English game is littered with names whose vision and skills have failed to tell over the long haul of English seasons, and have, in the end, lapsed into a sullen and possibly embittered disenchantment.”

One way to get round this was to recruit foreign players, which Tottenham did in 1978 when they signed the Argentines Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, a policy that resulted in a couple of FA Cups and introduced the concept that London might be an appealing home for overseas footballers. But for the most part the English league was suffocatingly insular. And often it was plain racist. All the London clubs suffered problems with bigots, but Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall had the worst of them, with the National Front recruiting on the terraces. Whereas West Ham first fielded black players in the 1960s and Millwall in the 1970s, Chelsea did not take the plunge until 1982, and when Paul Cannoville made his debut, a significant proportion of Chelsea fans walked out. It was only under chairman Ken Bates, who had bought the bankrupt club for £1, that a battle to reclaim the club from the racists was staged.

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Chelsea weren’t the only club to suffer financial problems, as property developers began eyeing up the valuable tracts of London occupied by half-empty and decaying stadiums. By 1985, Charlton’s average attendance had dropped to 5,000 and the club could no longer afford to stay in its home ground, the Valley, so moved in with Crystal Palace. Two years later, Fulham and QPR fought a sustained battle against David Bulstrode, a developer who wanted to merge the clubs into Fulham Park Rangers and turn Craven Cottage into flats. Stamford Bridge was threatened by Cabra Estates until Bates secured the freehold against the backdrop of a property crash.

Charlton Athletic: The Valley

The turbulence had a positive effect on supporters, who suddenly began to take a more constructive approach. A fanzine movement sprang up, allowing supporters, previously cast as goose-stepping, baby-eating Neanderthals, to show they had wit, intelligence and creativity, and were prepared to challenge their clubs rather than blindly support them. Fans of clubs like Millwall, who rarely had a good word printed about them in the national press, were suddenly able to counter their tabloid image. By the late 1980s every club had at least one fanzine and most had several, ranging from tatty sheets of photocopied, hand-stapled A4, to epic, glossy tomes that rivaled official programmes in expense and were considerably better value. Sportspages, a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road with hundreds of fanzines strewn across the floor in giddy piles, became a rallying point for supporters in London.

The early days of the fanzine movement even engendered a brief flowering of camaraderie among rival supporters who faced similar issues of over-zealous policing and scheming owners – Arsenal and West Ham fans, for instance would unite to battle ‘bonds’, a sort of long-term season ticket – at least until antagonistic, insular publications such as Manchester United’s Red Issue turned up to revel in their own divisive nastiness, hastening the demise of supporter solidarity and heralding the tedious partisan commentary of many of today’s football bloggers. Nick Brown, editor of the Chelsea Independent, recalls: ‘The early Chelsea Independents, like all fanzines, brought fans back to football and allowed supporters to air their views where otherwise they would have been ignored. The Independent could challenge the club on the serious issues of racism, policing, pricing and ticket arrangements.” At some clubs, enfranchised supporters went a step further. In 1990, Charlton fans formed the Valley Party and secured 11 per cent of the vote in local elections on  a platform of getting the club back to their old home. Charlton returned to the Valley two years later.

The 1980s had been a terrible decade, but the fun was returning to football. With hooliganism in decline and crowds returning, this was a good time to be a football supporter. Huge terraces meant cheap tickets and few games were televised, meaning the 3pm Saturday kick-off still dominated. Grounds were vast, so matches rarely sold out, allowing the promiscuous supporter to pick and choose fixtures on a Saturday morning. In London, you could decide that morning whether you fancied the rough-and-tumble of Leyton Orient, the lower league faded grandeur of Fulham, a vocal work-out at West Ham, or even go and watch some of the best players in the country at Arsenal or Spurs.

The cost of this improved environment had been great. Wooden stands were phased out after an inferno at Bradford killed 56 in 1985; that same year, a riot involving Liverpool fans in the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, caused the deaths of 39 Italians and led to improved policing and serious sentences for hooligans. Perimeter fences came down after 96 caged Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989. Hooligans had not gone away but cameras in grounds and the threat of long prison sentences forced them on to the streets, where the anarchic gangs of the 1970s became quasi-military groups, adopting names like the Bushwhackers and Headhunters as they engaged in pre-arranged meetings away from most normal supporters.

On the pitch, the football was tough, fast and tactically primitive, but it could also be unpredictable and exciting. Wimbledon’s ragtag bunch of hodcarriers and hoofers rough-and-tumbled their way into the First Division, where they terrified the elite and won the FA Cup against Liverpool in 1988 – a formidable achievement for a club with crowds of barely 10,000. Arsenal, scarcely more sophisticated, secured an astonishing league title on goal difference a year later (their first since 1971), when they beat Liverpool 2-0 at Anfield, with the crucial second goal coming in the last minute of the last game of the season. Stately Spurs enjoyed some success with a team that included the world class talents of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne, while inconsistent Chelsea and West Ham continued to switch between the top divisions. Smaller London clubs were also prospering – Millwall, Charlton, QPR and Crystal Palace all playing in the First Division.

As the visible threat of hooliganism receded, attendances rose, boosted by England’s unexpectedly successful World Cup campaign of 1990, headed by Gascoigne and Lineker. Which made Nick Horby’s timing all the more fortuitous. Fever Pitch, his solipsistic account of the trauma of supporting one of the most successful clubs in the country, was an astonishing success, launching football into the arena of the middle classes. Published in 1992, it told the story of Hornby’s life, measured out in Arsenal fixtures, and its acceptance by serious critics marked the first significant step in football’s long march towards gentrification.

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The same critics didn’t have much time for another Arsenal fan, Colin Ward, who, equally significantly and just as unwittingly, had written a eulogy for the old guard three years previously with Steaming In, a fan’s eye view of terrace culture since the early 1970s. My copy was passed around the playground with wonder, like a holy bible of terrace lore, containing numerous alarming and hilarious anecdotes about football fans from this scorned era. Tough and self-confident where Fever Pitch was reserved and self-analytical, Steaming In was the first book written by a former hooligan and remains the only one worth reading. But Ward was already a dinosaur. The Taylor Report, commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster, called for all-seater stadiums, and the great terraced Ends up and down the country were broken up and sold, piece by piece, back to the fans via the club shop. With this, an entire culture was dismantled; an act of social vandalism that changed football’s character forever. Some clubs, like Millwall, took the chance to sell valuable land and move elsewhere. Others, like Wimbledon, couldn’t afford to pay the builders; Wimbledon said farewell to ramshackle Plough Lane and moved in with Crystal Palace.

Football was fashionable. Next came greed. The richest English clubs had long agitated for a ‘super league’, which would essentially see their income ringfenced from the rest of the football league, and in 1992 they got their wish: the Premier League was financed by an astonishing £190m broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky that saw an unprecedented 60 fixtures screened live each season. Games would be live on Monday evenings as well as Sundays and several hours would be devoted to each televised fixture. Pundits would even talk about alien concepts like tactics and formations. Inside the ground, fans were treated to entertainment in the form of giant inflatable sumo wrestling and the occasional pop band. Pundits were flabbergasted. Andrew Shields, Time Out‘s Sports Editor, predicted disaster, arguing that an elite league would ‘last two seasons, three at most’ and that fans would refuse to pay ever-increasing ticket prices.

That’s not quite how it worked out.

In fairness, few people anticipated the explosion of interest and wealth that came with the Premier League, as more games were televised each season and clubs’ revenue increased accordingly. Demand began to exceed supply: clubs had to reduce capacity when they converted terracing into seats, but as attendances were rising were able to charge more for entry. With TV revenue also rising, clubs were suddenly rich and could compete with the Italian and Spanish leagues for the best, most exciting players, increasing demand, feeding the whale. The smaller clubs struggled to compete, while others spent rashly to keep up with the giants, now led by Manchester United, a commercial juggernaut masquerading as a football club.

The football-going experience was much changed as ticket prices forced out young and poorer supporters, diluting the atmosphere and deadening the camaraderie. In 1972, Chris Lightbown had said that Chelsea’s Shed ‘sounded like London’s answer to the Kop’, but by 2002 Stamford Bridge was more regularly likened to the nearby cemetery. The same was happening in every Premier League ground but as ever the changes seemed more dramatic at Chelsea. Under Ken Bates, the club charged the highest prices in the country, but the new money paid for superstars such as Marcel Desailly, Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, who brought unexpected success to the club making them fashionable once more. At Chelsea, as elsewhere, it was hard to get a seat. Tickets were even more expensive on the black market as tourists to London flocked to Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal to experience the famous English atmosphere they had heard and read so much about, but which had now all but vanished.

Arsenal, London’s traditional powerhouse, were also in the ascendancy. French manager Arsene Wenger transformed the culture of this previously most English of clubs, embracing a cosmopolitan recruiting policy and producing teams of mesmeric beauty. That allowed Arsenal, who had attracted barely 18,000 for a game at the start of the 90s, to build a stadium for 60,000 a decade later. The smaller London clubs could not compete. QPR had been runners-up in the First Division in 1976, Watford came second in 1983 and Crystal Palace third in 1991, but those days were over, as the behemoths of English football began to flex their financial muscle.

Wimbledon suffered most of all when the Football League shamefully allowed their owners to move the club wholesale to Milton Keynes. Wimbledon supporters, rightfully outraged and emboldened, promptly formed their own club, AFC Wimbledon, with a policy of fan ownership and an adherence to what were seen as  pre-Premier League proposals.

Modern football’s alternative model to AFC Wimbledon began close by in London. Fulham had started the trend of rich benefactors bankrolling astonishing success when Mohamed Al Fayed bought Fourth Division Fulham in 1997 and had them in the Premier League by 2001. The ante was upped by neighbours Chelsea in 2003, when Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich pounced on a club that had overspent their way to becoming one of the success stories of the Premier League and were in dire need of refinancing. Over five years, Abramovich, said to be worth £11.7b, invested £500m on players, wages and facilities, and Chelsea joined the European elite. If Peter Ball’s ‘kids’ were alienated from players in 1974, they were living on a different planet in 2008, as ticket prices nudge £50, the amount some players earn in five minutes.

Few think such levels of expenditure are healthy and many question whether they are sustainable, as football threatens to become the game that ate itself. Football has faced bigger crises over the past four decades and survived, but the time may come when individuals have to decide what they want for the future of their sport – supporter-owned clubs like AFC Wimbledon, or oligarch-owned ones like what wits now call Chelski FC.

Park football

I recently played my first football match for about a decade, so thought it would be a good time to revisit this article, which originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday in around 2003. This is an edited version.

“Can we join your game?”

It’s an action stopper every time. The match shudders to a halt as everybody sizes up the newcomers, two lads in Italy shirts with heavily accented English working their way round Regent’s Park like free transfers looking for a kickabout.

“Can we join your game?”

Well, it’s not as simple as that lads. This might look like two dog-eared teams in mismatched shirts puffily chasing a flaccid ball over a softball pitch, but it’s actually an evenly tied humdinger, a finely poised 4-4. Pick the wrong Italian, and that satisfyingly tight and edgy tie could turn into a 10-4 romp. And who wants that?

Welcome to the world of park football, when London’s green spaces become a mass of under-athletic over-enthusiasm. Just after 7pm, gangs of kids and grown-ups who should know better mob up at tube stations – Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Clapham Common – and descend upon the nearby park to seek their pitch. Bags become goalposts, talents are weighted and teams carefully picked, and, after token warm-up, the game is on.

And what a game. Pitches are warped, with non-existent boundaries so that the keenest players will go haring off after the ball into the far distance; fouls are rare, with every physical challenge followed by an apology; headers are met with open mouths and closed eyes; teams are mixed in race, sex, size, language and ability. The only unifying factor is that everybody is playing for the hell of it. It’s fun.

This can change when you find yourselves a couple of players short for a decent game among yourselves. You need at least four-a-side for a proper match, so if only seven of you have turned up there are two options. Rope in a pair of eager passing Italians to make up the numbers, or – more thrillingly – challenge another group short on numbers playing elsewhere in the park.

Possible match-up are scrutinised and whispered conferences abound: what about them, they look crap. Don’t ask that lot, they’re wearing shinpads. Check them out, they’re all in Tottenham shirts – they must be rubbish. Eventually the challenge is thrown down, considered, debated, accepted, and the teams line up. At first it is tentative, nervy, almost polite, as you test each other out, softly sparring like virgin boxers. Then your opponents realise how crap you are, and thrash you 9-0.

In these circumstances, there are only two ways to lose: to some awesomely gifted foreign language students who score countless goals of great beauty and raise your spirits with their relentless exuberance; or to some ultra-competitive English accountants who celebrate each methodical goal with high fives and crush your spirit with their relentless commitment.

Indeed, it is almost terrifying how many cultural stereotypes are encountered on these pitches; stocky, tricky southern Americans who want to beat half-a-dozen players before scoring; willing but limited Scots; talented but retiring east Europeans; willing but limited English; pass-heavy Spaniards; clueless Australians playing rugby. All are represented on this uneven playing field.

Here young and old, black and white, join together to bond in unexpected teams. And, most tellingly, here are the Asian footballers that we are told do not exist, playing huge, joyful, eager games and raising the question why no player from the subcontinent has yet broken through to play top level professional football in this country. Well, they’re out there, in London parks, having fun with us and wondering why their role models all play cricket.

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.

Ghost street

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I walk past this corner at least twice every day but only recently noticed the ghost sign painted above the newer enamel one. I assume it was previously covered up, otherwise I’m sure I’d have spotted it at some point in the past five years. Perhaps the jutting pipe points to recent usage.

Much as I like a painted street sign, this one is particularly interesting as it dates back to a time when the street – a short stub of road – had a different name entirely. According to Steve Chambers, who knows about such things, this was one of three name changes in the area – including the eradication of the similar Hamilton Terrace on Shakespeare Road – brought about to tidy up postal addresses.

The ghost sign for the ghost street sits opposite a ghost pub. Hamilton Supermarket occupies the site of the Hamilton Arms, a cosy corner pub opened in 1878 that was captured magnificently in these old photos. It closed in 2004.

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Snapshots of a lost London from home movies

Chiswick swimming pool, via BFI National Archives.

Chiswick swimming pool, via BFI National Archives.

I have been doing some work for Film London’s London Screen Archives which involved watching hundreds old home movies, news reels and promotional films made in and about London. Many of these have been donated by families to local archives, others were made by councils or boroughs, or were newsreels acquired by the BFI, such as the above of Chiswick pool in the 1920s. Collectively, they give a glimpse of the past, showing how people lived, what they wore and ate, how they decorated their homes – even how they chose to behave in front of the camera.

Some of these films will be screened in Film London‘s new Kinovan, a mobile cinema that is travelling to different boroughs showing old footage of life in the area. Home movies are a fascinating and often neglected treasure trove of historical footage, inadvertently revealing so much about the past. I’ve collected some stills from home movies I’ve been watching to post below – and if you have any home movies you wish to donate to the collection, you can do so via The Bigger Picture project.

Berwick Street market, 1960s.

Berwick Street market, 1960s.

The Golden Egg, 1960s.

The Golden Egg, 1960s.

Docker tea break, 1960s.

Docker tea break, 1960s.

Londoners, 1960s.

Londoners, 1960s.

Cowboy demonstration, company fete, Dagenham, 1950s.

Cowboy demonstration, company fete, Dagenham, 1950s.

Lord Mayor's Show, 1967.

Lord Mayor’s Show, 1967.

Embankment, 1964.

Embankment, 1964.

Odeon Leicester Square, 1960s.

Odeon Leicester Square, 1960s.

New car, Haringey, 1960s.

New car, Haringey, 1960s.

London street, Haringey, 1960s.

London street, Haringey, 1960s.

London in the rain, 1960s.

London in the rain, 1960s.

Christmas party, Becontree, 1960s.

Christmas party, Becontree, 1960s.

Pint, 1961.

Pint, 1961.

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PO Tower, 1965.

Company sack race, Dagenham, 1950s.

Company sack race, Dagenham, 1950s.

Green Lanes, 1960s.

Green Lanes, 1960s.

Operating machinery, Dagenham

Operating machinery, Dagenham

Company fete, Dagenham, 1950s

Company fete, Dagenham, 1950s

Earls Court and the death of fun in London

“In London, it seems everything that’s not a shop, offices or luxury apartments is being demolished,” sighed artist Duggie Fields when I interviewed him last month for a piece in Uncut about the imminent demolition of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It’s a quote that, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate all that is going wrong with London right now.

“There is so much damaged being done to London all over, Earl’s Court is just part of it,” says Fields. “London is losing a scale of living that has been very special for a long time. Now we have this mini high rises that could be from anywhere, they are characterless and there are so many of them.”

Earls Court will be pulled down early next year and replaced by houses, ending the area’s 120-year history as a place of fun. This history is well known to London nerds, but is worth repeating. The former cabbage field of Earls Court was transformed into a funzone by Yorkhire entrepreneur John Whitely at the end of the 1880s, when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the newly transformed exhibition site, hemmed in between railway lines. It featured a miniature Rocky Mountains, Native American village, corrals and a cowboy bunkhouse. “The show was a revelation,” write Felix Barker and Peter Jackson in Pleasures Of London. A few years later, the site attracted London’s first big wheel – a 300ft monster called the Gigantic Wheel.

When that lost its thrill, new entertainments were sought – including plans for a mechanical racecourse. Numerous exhibitions were also held there – including Captain Boynton’s Water Show in 1893, the Greater Britain Exhibition, in 1899 and Shakespeare’s England in 1912. Then in 1937 the Exhibition Centre was built. It opened with a Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition and went on hold swimming galas, motor shows, the Royal Tournament and events for the 1948 and 2012 Olympics.  It’s a decent looking building, too, well worth saving for its lovely Art Deco curve and revolutionary concrete engineering. So many magnificent buildings from this era are being lost.

Less, pleasantly, in 1939 it hosted a gargantuan meeting of Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts.

From the 1970s, Earls Court also began to host pop shows. David Bowie was first to play there, although Noddy Holder of Slade claims they were the first to book it and then managed to improve the sound after Bowie flopped. Concerts by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd followed. I saw Oasis there, unfortunately, and also the BRIT awards in 2000, when I threw a champagne cork at Christine Hamilton.

Slade fans at Earls Court

And now it’s to come down, replaced by 8,000 houses and some shops.

Duggie Fields has lived in Earls Court since the 1960s. You may recognise his flat – and former flatmate.

He points out that the removal of the Exhibition Centre will, at a stroke, remove any point or purpose to the Earls Court area. “It has nothing for people to come to,” he says. “Just boring anonymous shops and lots of traffic. All we’ll get is more chainstores because there’s no neighbourhood, there’s no locals. You can’t create villages, they grow over a long period of time.” He also fears for the pubs and restaurants that rely on the Exhibition Centre, which has still been functioning almost round the clock despite impending doom, for their custom.

He’s right. Earls Court is, even with the Exhibition Centre, one of the most boring areas of London. Without it, it’s pretty much irrelevant. But there’s a problem here too. London needs housing, desperately. Surely these 8,000 or so units will help?

It seems unlikely. The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pubmusic venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.

It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres. Thank god at least the Olympic site has been safeguarded – for now.

“There’s nothing to build on the heritage they’re throwing away,” says Fields of Earls Court. “It’s been an exhibition site for over 100 years. London is tossing that out with as many other things as it can toss out under this current administration.”

London filth

Lee Jackson loves filth. His new book, Dirty Old London, is full of the stuff, as he explores Victorian London’s attempts to cleanse a city that is swilling in muck. I’ve often wondered what Victorian London would have smelled like, and Jackson’s book comes close to capturing what must have been a frightful stink. I knew about the horse shit and the smoke, but had never considered the mud, blood, unwashed bodies, corpses and human excrement that, collectively, would have made the Victorian city one of the foulest places on earth. It’s astonishing anybody wanted to live there.

Jackson shows how Victorians began to push against the tide of muck, which grew worse as London’s population swelled. Victorians did not consider dirt in itself to be a carrier of disease, but they believed the smell could be lethal as well as deeply unpleasant, so eventually set about doing something about it. They built pavements, sewers, public baths and indoor lavatories, improved housing, dug cemeteries and generally tried to do something about “that combined odour of stale fruit and vegetables, rotten eggs, foul tobacco, spilt beer, rank cart-grease, dried soot, smoke, triturated road-dust and damp straw’. They weren’t always successful – some of those aromatic problems lingered long into the 20th century when they were eventually dealt with, or in the case of horse manure, replaced by something even worse such as exhaust fumes.

In explaining how this happened, Jackson is far more entertaining than anybody has the right to be on such a subject. Rather than focus on the well-trod tales of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette – both of whom barely feature, thankfully – Jackson resuscitates the lives of less well known figures in this lengthy campaign against dirt, characters like reformer Edwin Chadwick who laid much of the groundwork for what was to follow. In the process, he shows how Victorian London functioned – the haphazard, individual-driven nature that saw things get done, or not, as the case might be.

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Indecency by Isaac Cruikshank

This is a history with potentially narrow focus, but Jackson – a general historian of the unstuffy, non-academic variety – is removed enough from the subject to be able to show its wider importance and long-term effects. One theme of the book is the way sanitisation – in the form of sewage, rubbish and housing – was the hinge on which London’s social contract turned. For much of the 19th-century, the bewildering array of local authorities that ran London saw their role as, essentially, to keep out the way. They did as little as necessary, thus keeping rates low and relying on private enterprise to fill the gap. But as London grew, getting bigger and smellier every year, this system began to creak. A good example is with the dustmen. Collecting and recycling London’s rubbish was a lucrative job for some entrepreneurs, but not so much for the dustmen themselves, who had to rely on tips to make a living. And given that tips were much more likely to be acquired in rich areas, the poorer streets were increasingly neglected, allowing rubbish to pile higher and higher. Local authorities had to step in to fix this, and it gradually became the accepted role of local authorities in the UK until Thatcherite councils like Wandsworth in the 1980s began to perceive different, pre-Victorian, way of running things.

Jackson also touches on a related angle: the increasing movement of public buildings into private hands. In this case, it’s centred round the Victorian public lavatories, which were only built after ferocious lobbying from some notable figures who recognised the desperate need on the streets for London loos.  The story of how those toilets were eventually built is fascinating in itself, but Jackson also notes the fact that so many have recently been closed, flogged, refurbished and then sold back to us as coffee shops, galleries and an “award winning urban spa”. Perhaps this is the fault of the Victorians, for making things so well and so adaptable, but you can’t help feeling that, now as then, it stinks.

Survivors in Wapping, 1976

Survivors was a TV series made by the BBC in the mid-1970s that explored Britain’s post-apocalyptic near future. With most of the world’s population killed by plague, the survivors were ‘reduced to trudging across the countryside in their parkas’ (Dominic Sandbrook in Seasons In The Sun) in search of food and shelter. The creator, Terry Nation, went on to make Blake’s 7. The series featured numerous guest stars – Brian Blessed, Patrick Troughton – as well as faces that would become better known in the 1980s like Dot from Eastenders, Peter Duncan from Blue Peter and Trigger from Only Fool’s And Horses.

It’s Trigger, aka Roger Lloyd-Pack, who you may recognise in the pictures below. They come from an episode shot on  a bleak wasteland in Wapping in 1976.

In the absence of an actual post-apocalyptic landscape on which to film, the decimated docks of Wapping made a handy substitute. The main location is the site of the current Hermitage Riverside Memorial Gardens – then a bombsite but now the location for London’s only memorial to the civilian dead of the Blitz – but there are several interesting looking buildings in the background. Reader Steve, who sent me the pictures, wants to know if any of these buildings remain. (Other than Tower Bridge, obviously.)

If you know, please tell us in the comments below.

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