In defence of Midtown

I recently wrote a piece for The London Magazine about Midtown.

Midtown is the bastard offspring name for what people traditionally think of Holborn. For some reason, that really pisses people off. Perhaps it’s the very crassness of the name – Midtown – that deliberate literalness with its clear nod to grid-like American cities where entire areas are known by their compass points. In London, of course, we have nothing like that.

Except the West End.

And the East End.

And the South Bank.

Ah, but they are all different, aren’t they?

It is very easy to get annoyed about Midtown – the idea of it, rather than the place itself, which is pretty inoffensive – but what interested me is why. Why take on the challenge of renaming a traditional part of London? What’s the benefit? How do you summon up the gall? And how do you persuade locals it’s a good idea?

To answer those questions, I spoke to Tass Mavrogordato, Chief Executive of InMidtown, a very nice woman who appears to be permanently on her guard against negative attacks on her Midtown baby. She quickly explained to me that Midtown isn’t another name for Holborn at all. “It’s an umbrella term for the entire area between the West End and the City ,” she says. “We didn’t want to take anything away from the historic areas of St Giles, Bloomsbury or Holborn, and in many ways should help them as it helps to locate them in a wider area. We look at places like the South Bank and can see how these names with a geographical sense have been successful.”

Mavrogordato draws a straight comparison with the West End, an umbrella term that people happily use for a wider area that takes in some of London’s most historic and lovable quarters – Mayfair, Soho, Marylebone – without in any way detracting from them. Nobody has a problem with the West End. Why, she wants to know, can’t Midtown do the same thing, just a bit further east?

It all sounds very logical when she puts it like that, but I doubt people will be convinced.

Part of the problem is one of perception. People don’t like being told what to call places by other people with more money than them. InMidtown is a Business Improvement District and uses aggressive branding to push the concept of Midtown in ways that rubs people up the wrong way – even if the term Midtown predates the BID and has been in use by estate agents since the 1990s.

It’s this noxious aroma of branding that really galls, making Midtown appear distinct from the West End and South Bank, even though these are equally artificial constructions, placing rather spurious boundaries on areas that already had well-defined, historic names. But the latter two appeared more organically, or more to the point they appeared so long ago that nobody actually remembers how they came about, so they are accepted simply because they predate people’s perception of what London is, which was generally formed when they first moved to the city.

London, though, evolves far more quickly than people are comfortable with – and most people don’t actually want London to evolve at all, or at least only in ways that benefits them directly, in the form of better coffee shops or making their flat more valuable, but not so valuable that people a lot richer than them might buy it.

And that gets to the crux of people’s problem with Midtown, it’s change that appears to be directed from above, by outside forces, by money. That’s why people delight in using the ridiculous name Fitzrovia, an inter-war construct for an area that was previously considered to be an extension of Soho, but rejected Noho when that was proposed by developers as it just felt too damned American, too damned money, even if it was, in many ways, more appropriate and certainly no less daft. (Imagine trying to name somewhere Fitzrovia now – you would be laughed out of town, and rightly so.)

There is a consistency here, it’s just a very wobbly one.

And so it goes. Londoners will boast long and loud that London is the greatest city in the world, a barrel of fun for all concerned. Other people will come to London, push the property prices out of orbit and rename the streets so they can get from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Gower Street without looking at their phone.

And suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much fun.

So in Midtown, poor helpless Midtown, they draw the line.

Turkish London and football

I have a post on Four Four Two about how Turkish Londoners square their support for Turkish club sides with their loyalties to London clubs. It was an interesting assignment, and made me wonder whether other incoming communities face similar quandaries.

Presumably they do: the historically large Italian following at Chelsea will have to occasionally decide between Lazio, Roma or Juve and their London club; Arsenal’s new French fans will have to choose between their love Arsene and their support for PSG – but there is something about the very visibly Turkish nature of the Turkish community and, particularly, the drama of Turkish football fans that made this particularly intriguing. I also got to eat some damn fine bread from the excellent Akdeniz Bakery in Stoke Newington, which I heartily recommend to readers.

Sportscapes of London

oasis

The Oasis swimming pool in Covent Garden in 1946

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Played In London, a book that is about as ambitious as any you are likely to see published about London this year. Written by Simon Inglis (author of the seminal book on British football grounds) for English Heritage, it attempts to tell the story of every sport that has ever been played in any venue in the capital – that’s everything from lost Tudor skittle alleys to skateboard parks, including all the major football and cricket grounds as well as lost lidos and billiards halls, archery grounds and greyhound tracks, relocated diving boards and blue plaques. There’s even space to mention rugby netball, a sport created in 1907 by soldiers on Clapham Common and which is still played there every Tuesday and nowhere else.

It’s a breathtaking accomplishment, full of terrific nuggets of information – did you know there were Eton Fives courts under the Westway, or that the BBC’s Maida Vale studio was built in an old rollerskating rink? – but also attempting to tell the story of how a city and its people indulge in play, how that play is shaped by the culture and topography of the city, and how it develops over time, often wittingly reinventing itself as a ‘heritage’ sport rather than die out.

This is social history as much as anything, but goes much deeper than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, like the marvellous Pleasures Of London. One fascinating section looks at the history of company sports grounds. There were once dozens of these in south-east and south-west London – Catford had several – where civil servants or bankers could take part in regular games of rugby or football, or enjoy the annual sports day. Knowing more about these events, Inglis says, would let us learn so much about the culture of work, belonging and inter-office bonding in 19th and 20th century London.

hernehill

Bushel basket race for Borough Market sports day at Herne Hill, 1931

Given the scale of the project, the navigation of the book can be a little complex, but the layout makes sense over time. Inglis begins with an overview of the history of sport in London and of London parks and open spaces, before examining several areas in greater detail to see what they tell us about sport and London, and how certain spaces have been used repeatedly over time. He uses the phrase sportscapes and essentially is intending to show that sport, play and leisure require greater understanding of history than simply observing the architecture and listing club records (although the architectural chapters on Pavilions and Grandstands are genuine delights). It requires a knowledge of how space was utilised and developed, and what accidents of personality, business, culture and geography in the wider world outside sport allowed some sports and grounds to thrive while others died. It also shows how some spaces are defined by sport, but also how sports, clubs and associations are defined by the space they occupy.

The river is an obvious candidate for this treatment (and I never knew there were so many boathouses), but he also looks at length at such intriguing places as Wembley Park, Crystal Palace Park, Lea Valley, Dulwich and the Westway – all of which have long, complex relationships with myriad sports – to uncover stories that may otherwise only be known to local historians, or single-sport specialists. This approach repeats itself throughout the book, allowing ‘found spaces’ such as the South Bank skatepark to be included alongside manicured golf greens and expensive new all-seater stadia.

netball

Office workers play netball in Lincoln’s Inn Field, 1950s.

Oh, and if this isn’t enough the whole thing is illustrated lavishly throughout – indeed, they may have tried to cram in one or two photographs too many – with some spectacular mapping also included.

It makes a fine accompaniment to another book I read recently, on a more modest scale but still of some importance to London’s sporting heritage. Fighting Men Of London by Alex Daley is essentially an oral history – although the author occasionally makes his presence felt – of London’s boxing history between the 1930s and 1960s, told through seven former fighters. It puts some flesh on the bones of Inglis’s research: the boxers describe the lost boxing rings of London such as the shambolic Mile End Arena or the refined Stadium Club in Holborn, where inter-war gentlemen would dine ringside, ignoring the blood that splashed into their supper. They also talk about the old Central London gyms like Bill Klein’s in a basement in Fitzroy Street or Jack Solomon’s near the Windmill Theatre with an eye for detail that makes you think of Gerald Kersh.

The appetite for boxing in this age was vast, and many of the fighters interviewed built up large followings as they fought as frequently as once a month. None of them really made it into the big money though, and it’s notable that upon retiring several became involved in crime – The Krays, former boxers themselves, have walk-on roles in several of the stories. As a history of East End culture, it’s illuminating.

‘I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap': Meeting James Ellroy

James Ellroy has a new book out, so I thought I’d republish my interview with him from 2009 when he was promoting Blood’s A Rover. I was unusually nervous before our meeting as I’d heard Ellroy was a difficult man to talk to and his memoir – My Dark Places – saw him plead a strong case for his own insanity. But all in all, it went pretty well. Ellroy seemed sad rather than difficult, although anybody can seem lonely in a Chelsea Harbour hotel on a Sunday morning. I wish I had kept the full transcription of the interview, as we also discussed, from memory, his research techniques and his plans for a new series of book, the first of which has just been published.  

Smart, stern and ramrod straight, James Ellroy sits in his Chelsea Harbour hotel room and broods about women and words. He is upright. Terse. Correct. He doesn’t quite speak the way he writes – hell, nobody speaks they way he writes, in sentences entirely unadorned with commas, adjectives or conjunctions – but his sentences are short, exact, punchy.

‘I love the English-American idiom,’ he says. ‘I love Yiddish. I love racial invective. I love alliteration. I love slang. I love profanity. And the simpler the language, the more direct, the more blunt, the better. When writers try to imitate me they always put in too many words, and none of it works.’

People try to copy Ellroy because his jazzy, rhythmic, slang-strewn pulp-prose is deceptive in its simplicity and addiction in its execution. The latest fix comes from Blood’s A Rover, the Nixonland masterpiece that completes his Underworld USA trilogy, an alternative history of conspiracy, crime and collusion that includes American Tabloid and the psychotic The Cold Six Thousand. Like its kin, Blood’s A Rover is a bloody collision of Johnny Cash, Raymond Chandler and Sam Peckinpah in which Ellroy uses three fictional male characters to explore factual events – in this case, the ascent of Richard Nixon, who joins J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes in the pantheon of American personalities Ellroy has slyly redrawn. ‘You’ve got to like Nixon,’ he says. ‘He;s funny, full of shit, drunk half the time. You’ve got to love a guy like that.’

Where this novel differs is in its bold ancillary characters such as Joan Klein, a femme fatale who embodies Ellroy’s tribute to a life-changing lover. ‘It’s about a boy who finds a matriarch, and that’s my story,’ he says. ‘One of the men is asked why he does what he does and he says, “So women will love me” and that’s why I write. I wrote it to honour Joan. There was a dark romanticism to the relationship, it ended badly and I will never see her again. There’s a line from The Hilliker Curse [Ellroy's second memoir]: “I left bloodspills wherever we went.” She just cut me open.’

Joan is the book’s hinge. She is pursued by all three male characters – Wayne Tedrow Jr, a tortured ex-racist; Dwight Holly, a CIA fixer with shadowy brief and headful of grief; and Don Crutchfield, a teenage voyeur with the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time. All of them represent a part of Ellroy himself and all of them are looking for ‘salvation, redemption’, reflecting what Ellroy calls his ‘misunderstood Christian morality’. Joan brings female strength and left-wing idealism into their (and Ellroy’s) masculine right-wing world.

‘I wanted to write the story of that woman and me, and I wanted to write about symbiosis and synthesis and how the right and left need each other and how that often leads to catastrophe, because everything Joan and Dwight touch turns to shit,’ explains Ellroy.

There are other changes from past books. The prosy style is turned down a notch, the violence less gut-churning, the noir bleached a little. ‘The Cold Six Thousand was too difficult,’ he admits. ‘My ex-wife said: “Babe, it’s the most ambitious novel I have ever read, it’s 100 pages too long, it’s fucking complex, the style is too difficult and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.” And she was right. So here you have a range of characters who are much more thoughtful, much more, in their weird way, composed and who think about shit a great deal more, so you need a more explicatory style.’

Ellroy breaks up the pace with journal entries written from less testosterone-soaked perspectives, and softens the mood towards a tentatively upbeat conclusion. ‘I don’t feel bleak,’ he says. ‘It’s very much a book about romance. I didn’t want to drop a turd on the reader’s lap.’

As distinct as Ellroy’s style is his setting, a pre-70s America where powers is held by the Feds and CIA, rogue cops, Hollywood players, bent pols and the Mob. Plots are punctuated by historic events, which he uses and interprets as narrative demands. It’s a world Ellroy has made his own, but didn’t invent.

‘The three Underworld USA book were launched by Libra by Don DeLillo [a fictionalised biography of Lee Harvey Oswald] and his take that JFK was assassinated by renegade CIA guys, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob,’ he admits. ‘Conspiracy is there, I love writing about it, I love exploring the collusive mindset and I can’t prove any of it. What it comes down to is whether it is dramatically viable and whether the human infrastructure of the big public events is believable. That’s my job. I take the ideas, the characters, the milieu, the real-life history, the real-life situations and the research fills it in. Then I lie in the dark, I think of love stories, and I brood.’

Denmark Street and regeneration: slow death or triumphant rebirth?

I have a smallish piece in the current issue of Uncut about the changes about to strike Denmark Street, known to Londoners as Tin Pan Alley and historically one of the most important streets in London for the music industry. It began as a place where sheet music was sold and soon attracted other aspects of the industry: publishers, managers, songwriters, shops selling instruments, studios. It’s importance was such that both NME and Melody Maker started here, while in the 70s it was home to Hipgnosis, the design studio responsible for many of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s album covers.

The street’s heyday was the 1960s however, when musicians would shop for guitars in between visiting managers and publishers or recording in one of the studios, Regent Sound or Central Sound. The Rolling Stones and The Kinks came here, so did Donovan and Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Elton John, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. A popular dive was La Giocondo, a cafe/bar in which most members of the nascent R&B revolution visited at some point or other – David Bowie was said to practically live there.

la-gioconda

In later years, the street declined in importance – although when Malcolm McLaren was looking for a rehearsal space for the Sex Pistols he was delighted to find room in Denmark Street, installing his upstarts in the heart of the traditional music industry like Greek soldiers inside the Trojan Horse. It was a pretty squalid space, but handy for Soho. Graffiti from their stay was recently rediscovered inside a cupboard.

The street continues to have a music association, mainly in the form of its many instrument shops but also through the 12 Bar Club. How long it can retain that heritage in the face of the rapacious demands of the London property market combined with the way we play and consume music, remains to be seen.

Denmark Street is located in St Giles, one of the last untameable parts of central London. This was the location of Hogarth’s splenetic Gin Lane and would later be one of Victorian London’s biggest rookeries. It remained a troubled place throughout the 20th century, a centre of homelessness through which you would regularly see zombie armies of smackheads marching in bedraggled fashion in search of a score. To some, like Owen Hatherley or Robert Elms, its shabbiness is appealing, and I certainly enjoy its timewarp feel.

Old-Houses-in-St.-Giles-George-Clinch-copy

But that is over. The accursed Centre Point, one of the most soulless pieces of architecture in London, is being developed into luxury flats, while nearby is Renzo Piano’s lurid Central St Giles development – that’s those blocks painted in hideous Balamory primary colours. The driver here is the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road, which has released a flood of development money into the area, washing clean the grime of history. London is now getting too big, too rich, to allow anomalies like St Giles to continue to exist.

The important scheme in terms of Tin Pan Alley is by Consolidated Development. They are building a mixed-use block on St Giles High Street with the slightly bizarre title of the OuterNet. It promises, among other things, to revolutionise the way we shop. This development will back on to Denmark Place – the alley just north of Denmark Street – resulting in the destruction of some buildings there, as well as one building on the north side of Denmark Street itself. This is to create pedestrian access for the huge flows of people expected to use the new Crossrail station.

At the same time, and starting later this year, properties along the south side of Denmark Street will be refurbished following those on the north. That includes the 12 Bar, which is, I was told, close to collapse. Campaigners fear this will spell the end of Denmark Street as we know it, with rents rising and traditional retailers – the ones selling drums and guitars – forced out. To stop this happening, they want to make Denmark Street a conservation area, limiting use for any incoming shops in the same way Hatton Garden is for jewellery.

When I spoke to Lawrence Kirschel, the owner of Consolidated Development, he was desperate to assure me that he wants Denmark Street to retain its link to the music industry – indeed, he wants to enhance it by building a new venue, installing a rock hall of fame in the form of statues of Tin Pan Alley-associated musicans along Denmark Place, and offering any vacant shops to ‘music-related’ enterprises. He sees the music heritage as the key selling point for the whole enterprise, a way to drive tourists to the OuterNet’s shops and bars.

Kirschel seems genuine, but developers often do. He points out, reasonably, that he has owned Denmark Street for 20 years, and could have kicked out the instrument shops at any point in the past few decades if he was so inclined. The refurbishment, he said, is something he had put off for years but was now necessary as many of the buildings were in a poor state of repair, something reflected by the rents they currently pay.

Although Kirschel wants to retain Tin Pan Alley, he was less keen on the idea of a conservation area being imposed (what landlord would?) arguing that “any restriction on use is the dilution of creativity”. However, he also admitted that “developments usually mean sterility”. Somehow, he has to straddle this narrow line, and create something new that doesn’t kill the spirit of the old.

It’s a challenge, and one that is rarely met successfully however well-intentioned the developers may be – and assuming they are not just paying lip service to the notion of tradition or have a very different interpretation of it. Kirschel’s line is that he wants to bring the music industry itself back to Denmark Street so Tin Pan Alley is more than just instrument shops. Part of his scheme features short-stay apartments, which will be aimed at touring musicians.

He knows getting the industry to co-operate will be difficult. Kirschel is a previous owner of the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, now a Conran restaurant. He says he tried to keep it going but got no support from the music industry. If the industry wants to keep something alive, he says, they need to back him. Whether the music industry has any will to do so is another matter.

Part of the problem is that the music industry is now so fragmented. Independent labels can’t afford to function in central London – many can’t afford to be in London at all – while the major labels brood out west, thinking up new ways to flog back catalogues to deep-pocketed ageing musos. With Crossrail causing the demolition of the Astoria, there are few venues left in Soho – Kirschel says his will be the first to open there since the war – and much of what the industry used to offer – everything from recording an album to releasing one – can now be done at home via the net

So what would really keep Denmark Street? A musician friend who occasionally shops on Denmark Street thinks the instrument shops need to become more specialised, more discerning – when he was trying to purchase a pedal steel recently, there was only one for sale on the entire street. Maybe more people would visit Denmark Street if they know their more obscure requirements will be serviced. He also suggested the installment of cheap rehearsal space as a way of drawing genuine musicians to the area – although I’m not sure whether a bunch of sweaty indie kids is the clientele Kirschel is hoping to attract. As it is, if the plan requires the help of the music industry for it to work, I’m not optimistic.

First World War in London

Britain declared war on Germany 100 years ago today on 4th August, 1914, and to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War I was asked to write a piece for Metropolitan magazine looking at some of the most remarkable items from the refurbished Imperial War Museum.

pigEdith

The selection includes items as varied as a mounted German pig’s head and Edith Cavell’s nurse cap. One thing I like about the IWM is that it is very good at driving home individual stories amid the context of immense global suffering and complex geopolitics, meaning you can find numerous, remarkably touching, small personal items in its collections, such as this postcard written on a piece of wood from the Western Front.

Picture 4172

One of the favourite items I came across – or rather, which the incredibly helpful press team at the museum pointed me towards – was this decorated tin, painted by a disabled Belgian soldier in London as part of a fascinating occupational therapy programme.

belgiantin

The fascinating story of California House at 82 Lancaster Gate is recounted here, but in short the hospital was set up in 1914 by an American expat artist and writer called Julie Heyneman, who – like many in London in the early months of the war – was horrified by the casualties caused by the German advance into Belgium. California House became a refuge for injured, displaced Belgian soldiers who were taught languages and sciences.

CH

Those left paralysed or limbless were encouraged to take up activities like painting, book-binding, wood-carving and drawing – anything that required manual dexterity. Objects created, such as the tin above, were then sold to Londoners, with the soldier-creator keeping some of the proceeds. A similar establishment, Kitchener House at Cambridge Gate, Regent’s Park, was set up for British soldiers. California treated around 500 soldiers, some of whom were able to return home after the war and make a living from their new skills. It closed in 1918.

california

Art and protest at the V&A

I’d been looking forward to the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A for quite some time, so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d end up being disappointed. The exhibition looks at the art and design of protest, the way campaigners create new objects to enhance their ability to protest. Most obviously, this involves items like banners or posters, but protesters can be incredibly creative, and the boundaries for this are almost limitless.

The V&A exhibition, though, all felt a little safe. There was very little here that could upset anybody. The protests could all have come from a Guardian-approved list of righteous causes, while the objects were either strung up high out of reach – inflatable cobblestones, old banners – or dwarfed by the surrounding cabinets made of cheap plywood. Not that that there were that many objects: some posters and banners, a decorated car, some bicycle contraption, a phone with a subversive game and a limited selection of T-shirts and button badges. I was particularly disappointed that the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group that placed subversive voiceboxes inside old Barbies, were represented only by a film much like one you can watch on You Tube.

It wasn’t terrible. I liked the shields made to resemble book covers, for instance, and the Suffragette china has historic importance, while the Fuck The Law pendants made by a Black Panther who has spent 35 years in solitary had a rare power. Certainly more so than the rather trite banner, below, that the V&A clearly love so much they’re selling as postcards. I liked the free sheets they were giving away, though, telling people how to make their own disobedient devices.

Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)Coral Stoakes, I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies

Best of everything, though – and the only stuff that really felt at all dangerous even now – were the mock newspapers created by Reclaim The Streets and Class War. These supported a variety of causes, but were generally just designed to piss off the power of the establishment.

Embedded image permalink

Embedded image permalink

This had a lot in common with the excellent exhibition upstairs in Room 88 called A World To Win: Posters Of Protest And Revolution, where Class War were also represented. This display takes place across two rooms which collectively contained dozens of dramatic posters from more than 100 years of graphic protest across the globe. There are items here from the Weimer Republic, Vietnam, Soviet Russia, Oman, Northern Ireland, Paris 68 and the Iranian Revolution.A lot are designed to shock – dead bodies at My Lai, Fuck The Draft, the incongruity of a poster celebrated the Ayatollah Khomeini placed just across the room from one lauding Angela Davis. The mix worked, and the images were superb.

A few of my favourites are below. but I recommend you check the collection out yourselves. Both this and Disobedient Objects are free.

 

Poster - So Long as Women are not Free the People are not FreePoster - Never Again! Stop the Nazi NF!

Against Apartheid. Boycott South African Goods (Poster)

Les Beaux-Arts Sont Fermés, Mais L'Art Revolutionaire Est Ne (Poster)

Embedded image permalink

London: a cycling city

I wrote about the challenges facing cycling in London for The London Magazine

Every time I hear that another cyclist has been killed on one of London’s many lethal junctions, I pray to a god I don’t believe in that it isn’t one of my friends. The idea of cycling in London terrifies me. That’s partly because I haven’t ridden a bike more than twice in 20 years, and partly because I have seen so many incidents, altercations and near fatal collisions involving cyclists during my walks around the city.

 

I’m aware of the figures – the fact that cycling is overall a pretty safe form of transport, even if it could always be better – but it’s hard to shake off that impression that it’s anything but. I’ve seen cyclists get hit by taxi doors and narrowly avoid getting squashed by buses. I’ve seen them shouting with rage and fear at drivers who’ve turned out of a side street in front of them without looking. I’ve seen them cycle headlong into pedestrians who weren’t looking where they were going (and vice versa). I’ve seen them getting into squabbles with bus drivers about ownership of bus/cycle lines that end with blows being traded. I’ve seen them picking themselves and their bent bikes off the pavement after minor crashes. And I’ve seen the blood getting washed off the road after major ones. It looks anything but fun.

So despite the fact I see people cycling quite easily and happily on London streets every day, I still think it’s one of the last things I’d ever want to put myself or my family through on a daily basis.

That is something that needs to change if London is ever going to be a cycling city, which it desperately needs to if it is to remain in any way a human and pleasant place to live in. People like me need to be persuaded that London cycling is safe and that a trip on the bike to the shops won’t result in a serious injury or a shouting match. As Mike Cavenett of the London Cycling Campaign admitted to me “the striking thing is that Dutch cyclists just look like Dutch people”, by which he means you see the elderly and children, men and women, all cycling in their normal clothes – not like London, where cyclists wear tight, bright clothing and manage to look simultaneously over and under dressed.

When London’s cyclists start to look normal, that’s when we know we are heading the right way. And for that to happen, London needs better infrastructure, streets on which cyclists feel safe and are able to relax, making the whole experience better for everybody. Everybody I spoke to – including Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s cycling tsar – seemed united on this and agreed on the direction that London needed to go in. Whether it actually happens, whether there is the political will to spend the cash to keep the promises, remains to be seen. But here’s hoping it starts to happen, because a cycling city would be better London for everybody.

London’s Huguenots

I wrote this last year for Metropolitan magazine. The Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival runs from 9-20 July 2014. 

Up to 400,000 French people have settled in London in recent years, but this is not the first time the French have moved to London in great numbers. While today’s arrivals come willingly, with passports, bank accounts and mobile phones, those of 1685 were in reluctant flight, arriving with next to nothing. Calling themselves the réfugiés, these Huguenots – the persecuted French Protestant minority – were the world’s first self-described refugees, coming by the thousand to seek sanctuary in London. An adolescent boy with three siblings, including a baby unable to walk. A teenage girl disguised as a man. Husbands without wives. Children without parents. Houses and jobs left behind. They came hidden in salt barrels, pregnant, shoeless and with diamonds sewn into their cloaks. But like many of their modern counterparts, these French arrivals were young and ambitious, bringing with them a sense of adventure and enterprise, ready to transform the city they now called home.

Hogarth’s Huguenots

 

‘Britain owes a great but barely acknowledged debt to the Huguenots,’ writes historian Lucy Inglis in Georgian London of the biggest French invasion since 1066. The Huguenots brought with them exotic food like oxtail soup, caraway seeds and pickles, new ideas about industry and banking, brilliance in textiles, watchmaking, horticulture and medicine, and enough numbers – as many as 40,000 – to transform the geography of London, pushing it west into the ‘French Quarter’ of Soho, allowing London to become one of the great multinational capitals of the world. Inglis expands on this in conversation. ‘They were real self-starters, that’s what I admire about them, the way they arrived with nothing and just got on with it. A lot of them were very young. They arrived in London and began to make a splash straight away.’

This was the first serious test of London’s toleration of outsiders, and the city took it well, with just a few grumbles about the whiff from the garlic sausages that the Huguenots hung to dry outside their windows. Otherwise, the Huguenots were a sober presence. For decades, the Huguenots had been tyrannised by France’s Catholic majority until a vague equality was established with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. When this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, Protestantism was effectively outlawed. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots ignored a ban on emigration and fled France in their search for religious freedom.

Many settled in the new district of Soho, where Huguenot craftsmen could be close to the gentry of Westminster. Soho’s French character lingered for centuries – even now you can dine at L’Escargot, get cake from Maison Bertaux or pernod from The French House. In 1720, 40% of Soho’s residents were French speakers and one contemporary noted the area ‘so greatly abounds with French that it is an easy matter for a stranger to imagine himself in France’. French currency was accepted by London Huguenots into the 1720s and as late as 1924 a London guidebook would comment, ‘In Soho you may see Frenchwomen shopping exactly as they do in France, bareheaded, as no Englishwomen would.’ Scandalous!

Huguenot church, Soho Square

 

Just as many of today’s London French work in and around the City, when the Huguenots arrived, most headed to the long-established French Church on Threadneedle Street. London already had a small population of wealthy Huguenots – among them John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England – and they, observing Louis’s despotic behaviour from afar, had been expecting the exiles. A soup kitchen was already established and accommodation secured for pregnant women. New arrivals had often become separated from their spouses so posted their details on a huge board outside the church. ‘It’s a horrible analogy,’ says Inglis. ‘But it was like the aftermath of 9/11.’

The Huguenots descended on a city on the rise. ‘Daniel Defoe wrote about the corruption of luxury, the way people could suddenly afford luxury goods,’ says Inglis. ‘But the Huguenots were plain people, they didn’t wear wigs, perfume or make-up, they had a real dignity and that meant they appeared trustworthy. As a people they were very upright in their business and to a city that was booming, this was quite welcome.’

Not every Englishman responded to this in quite the right way. One was accused of kidnapping an English girl named Christian Streeter, raping her and then having her hair cut ‘in the French way’, such was the appeal of the short-cropped French women on London’s streets. He was eventually acquitted. For the most part, though, the French presence was accepted, even as they set about revolutionising the silk business.

‘The wealthier ones went to Soho and the rest went to Spitalfields and Shoreditch, where they began to set up business as weavers, establishing a factory system and employing a lot of people,’ explains Inglis. ‘They had a massive influence on the earliest part of the Industrial Revolution.’ So many Huguenot weavers left France that the country went from being an exporter of silk to an importer in a few years. Silk was used for clothes, furnishing and wall coverings, and the Huguenots produce huge amounts of the material. The stunning patterns created by one Huguenot designer, James Leman, are now in the V&A Museum. Another weaving family were the Courtaulds, who later founded the Courtauld Insitutute of Art in Somerset House. The weavers, with the fine eye for style of many Huguenots, erected grand-looking houses, most notably along Fournier Street, one of which is now occupied by the artists Gilbert & George.

James Leman textiles

 

Another London artist, William Hogarth, was still able to reference the Huguenots as a stylish, sober but alien presence in his 1737 etching Noon, completed more than 50 years after their arrival and Inglis notes that ‘until the 1730s they almost exclusively married within the community.’ By 1780, however, the Huguenots were integrated into the London landscape, even adopting English names – Dubois becoming Wood, Roussel become Russell – the first of many groups of refugees who arrived in London with a bang, and then slowly became absorbed into the city’s heaving, evolving mass having altered it for ever.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis (Penguin) is out now in paperback.

Under London: Crossrail is coming

Like every other journalist in London, I wrote an article about the Crossrail project. It appeared in Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine in May and is reprinted here.

In a cavern 35 metres underneath Stepney City Farm, London is getting smaller. Not literally of course, that would be terrifying. No, this gigantic space under east London has been excavated for Crossrail, the 42-km high-speed tunnel being built beneath London. When it opens in 2018, Crossrail will carry 200 million passengers every year from east to west (or west to east), cutting the city down to a more manageable size as journey times are greatly reduced. When Mayor Boris Johnson entered a similar Crossrail site in Canary Wharf he gushed it was “like a Neanderthal stumbling into the gloom of Lascaux… akin to a gigantic subterranean cathedral several times the size of Chartres.” In truth, the Stepney cavern is more like a big, bare quarry, shaft open to the sky, lined with concrete and exuding a faint smell of wet earth.

Chartres cathedral

Crossrail hole in the ground

“If Crossrail is a Y, we are standing where it splits,” explains Will Jobling, Crossrail construction manager, pointing at a map that shows Crossrail travelling across London to Stepney, where it divides with one leg heading north-east and the other crossing the Thames to Abbey Wood in the south-east. “Two of the tunnel boring machines (TBM), Victoria and Elizabeth, have passed through here and you can just see the back of one on its way to Farringdon. They should get there by February 2015.”

There are eight TBMs working on Crossrail, giant moles that slowly grind through London clay at the rate of around 150 metres a week. Weighing 1000 tonnes and with rotating, earth-scraping heads, these monsters run 24-hours a day and are like mobile factories, removing dirt and sealing the tunnel with concrete as they move. They even have canteens and toilets as well as a rescue chamber in which workers can take refuge in case of an accident. Around 4.5 million tonnes of earth (which Jobling says has the consistency of “elephant dung”) will be transported by barge to the Thames estuary to create a man-made nature reserve. One machine, Jessica (named after Olympic athlete Jessica Ennis), is being removed at Stepney. It’s taken apart underground, lifted out the shaft then transported to Canning Town, where it will be welded back together and lowered into the ground to continue tunnelling. Parts of Jessica lie strewn across the Stepney site, battleworn, clay-scarred and weary but with more work still to do. They look like ancient artefacts salvaged from the seabed.

The TBMs cost £10million apiece and are fitted with lasers that help engineers plot a course around and under London’s subterranean obstacles – sewers, foundations, plague pits, buried rivers and other tube lines. “At Tottenham Court Road, we come within 80cm of the Northern Line,” says Jobling. “We look at every obstruction we could possibly find. Sometimes we have to back-engineer, look at how high a building is and then work out how deep the piles will go.”

Despite this, the basic principles haven’t changed since Marc Isambard Brunel invented the tunnel shield to dig the Thames Tunnel from Rotherhithe to Wapping between 1825 and 1843. Some methods go back even further. “At Canary Wharf we hit a bunch of old piles that we had to cut through by hand using old mining techniques,” says Jobling. “The older guys loved it.” He’s interrupted as a loco, a miniature train used by workers to travel through completed tunnels, scoots noisily past. It’s like an old mining cart, only it runs on diesel and is deafening. As the TBMs approach Farringdon, workers will have an 8km underground commute on the loco to work every morning. When the screeches have stopped echoing off the cavern walls, Jobling explains how a ceremony was held at the start of operations as priests blessed 38 statues of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners, and placed them at tunnel mouths. “Tunnellers can be a superstitious lot,” he notes.

Saint Barbara

Crossrail will be followed by similar huge projects – the Northern Line extension to Battersea, a gigantic sewer called the Thames Tideway, and possibly a north-south Crossrail Two – and to ensure London retains its tunnelling knowhow, Crossrail opened the Tunnelling And Underground Construction Academy (TUCA) in Ilford in 2011. In a building designed to look like a TBM entering the ground, workers are trained in a specially developed environment that includes a replica of Crossrail tunnel. “We get them used to working in an enclosed space,” says Georgina Bigam, Skills And Training Manager. “Everything can be installed and dismantled. We also do a safety course where they fill the tunnel with smoke, turn off the lights and simulate explosions by chucking firecrackers around for half-an-hour. They have to find their way out.” She pauses. “I usually make the journalists do it,” she says, and giggles.

TUCA trains hundreds of people to work beneath London’s soil. The canteen – complete with mural of UK tunnelling landmarks – is filled with eating, gossiping men (and one woman) of all ethnicities, from Cockney grease monkeys to a middle-aged Sikh with hard hat screwed on top of his turban. Many gain knowledge that is valued all over the world. As Valerie Todd, TUCA’s Talent and Resources Director, explains. “There’s tunnelling happening right across the world as cities everywhere are facing similar pressures, looking to find ways to move a lot of people around very quickly when the surface area is used up.” But Crossrail is the current focus, a £15-billion project that is Europe’s largest infrastructure project and which Boris Johnson has likened to conquering Everest. Onward push the TBMs, while the city sleeps and workmen come and go. Saint Barbara would be proud