The Black Museum at the Museum Of London

The Museum of London’s new exhibition is undoubtedly something of a coup. Crime Museum Uncovered features around 600 items from the Met Police’s private museum, once known as the Black Museum but now renamed the Crime Museum. I visited the Crime Museum at Room 101 in Scotland Yard several years ago and wrote about the experience here.

What’s fascinating is the differences between the way a public museum like the MoL treats the same objects as the police museum. The shelf above is from Scotland Yard. It is located in an ante room before the museum proper and contains a selection of weapons seized on the streets of London, and above that a dozen or so death masks taken of the heads of executed prisoners. This is pretty much the first thing visitors to the museum will see and the ensemble is like a whack on the head with a cosh. It says London is full of criminals, this is how they will try to kill you and this is what we will do to them when they are caught.

At the MoL, the same material is treated much more sensitively. Only six or so weapons are exhibited, and these are placed neatly in a clean glass box rather than scattered higgledy-piggledy over an old table. The heads are also on exhibition, but some distance removed from the weapons, creating a disconnection between crime and punishment.

That is, perhaps, the only way the MoL could present this exhibition. I’ve said before that the Crime Museum as curated by the police is entirely inappropriate for the public and I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate for the police as it is deliberately created to cultivate an air of suspicion bordering on the paranoid, a repeated insistence that the streets are not safe for policeman, that anybody could be out to kill you, using anything from an umbrellas to a telephone. It’s an attitude that goes some way towards explaining the deaths of numerous Londoners at the hands of the police.

The MoL also has to fill in some of the blanks at Scotland Yard. The Crime Museum is ostensibly a teaching museum  – it shows coppers the history of crimes and how they have been solved. But the cases at Scotland Yard contain little explanatory detail – that is provided orally by the curator. At the MoL, by contrast, there is a fairly thorough, detached but instructive look at a selection of important crimes, showing what they have revealed about forensics, police procedures, detective work and criminality (many of the cases, too many, concern crimes against women). They also touch on several of the most significant crimes of the era, including the Krays, the Richardson, Derek Bentley, Dr Crippen, Christie and the Acid Bath Murderers. It’s all very carefully selected and brilliantly explained, with items well chosen to both inform and occasionally horrify. This is easily the best part of the exhibition.

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

The MoL then breaks away from these individual crimes to look at broader themes, such as concealed weapons, drugs, forgery, armed robbery and espionage. While the focus on individual crimes does not include anything from after 1975 to avoid distress to victims’ relatives – which means the infamous Dennis Nilsen cooking pot isn’t on show thankfully – the exhibits on broader themes go right up to the present day. That is largely so they can show items related to the July 2005 bombings in the form of reconstructions of the homemade rucksack bombs, something I found particularly unnecessary as these weren’t even from the crime scenes, which is a core part of the Crime Museum’s relevance. Authenticity is absolutely vital here – it is the raison d’etre of the entire collection – and if the items are not original, you leave yourself open to accusations of Chamber of Horrors style ghoulishness.

It’s a rare misstep from an otherwise sensitive exhibition, that ends with an excellent film in which policeman, curators, crime victims and professors discuss crime, the museum and its role in police life.

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

So that’s all good, but I still came out of the Museum of London exhibition with mixed feelings.

It goes right back to the start. The exhibition begins with a “reconstruction” of the original Victorian museum. But this is a reconstruction in the very loosest sense – basically, it means the items are old but they are being presented in a very modern way. That is far removed not only from the Victorian museum but also from the contemporary Scotland Yard museum, which does not look, feel or smell modern at all. The Crime Museum is old-fashioned, cluttered, chaotic and deeply depressing, and a genuine piece-by-piece reconstruction, or even a photograph of the current Scotland Yard museum, would have been a real benefit, as otherwise it’s impossible to discern the peculiar atmosphere of the place. Without it, the MoL are sanitising not just the nature of crime – which is excusable – but also the nature of policing, which is not. That after all goes to the heart of what the Crime Museum is about, who it is for and what that means to Londoners, and it’s something that is entirely absent from this exhibition – the one hint comes from the only item relating to the long history of riots in London, which is a police shield from Broadwater Farm that’s been burnt by a petrol bomb. What does that tell you about the way the police regard these inner city riots?

The Museum of London have produced a fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking reimagining of the Crime Museum’s contents that explores the nature of crime and law enforcement in London, but it does not tell the full story of the Crime Museum. I imagine Scotland Yard will be very pleased about that indeed.

The Barbican Estate – a town reconstructed from its cellars

In the comments to my Guardian piece on the Blitz (yes, I read them, hungrily seeking affirmation) there were several interesting discussions about the Barbican. In the piece I’d described it as a “successful” example of post-war redevelopment, something others were quick to dispute, arguing that nobody liked the Barbican. I hadn’t considered my view particularly controversial, but then I do spend a lot of time talking to Brutalists and had also just written an article about the history of the Barbican for the excellent n magazine – in-flight magazine for Norwegian airlines.

You can read it here, where there are also some excellent photographs. And here’s a video of Unit 4 + 2 singing “Concrete And Clay” on the unbuilt estate in 1965.

While writing the feature, I spent a couple of hours exploring the Barbican more carefully than ever before. Although I’ve visited the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London on countless occasions, this has rarely led me through or over the estate itself. There’s something about any estate that doesn’t welcome visitors and during my walks around London I usually stick to “normal” streets, but the Barbican is well worth your time.

The Barbican, contrary to public perception, is a wonderfully walkable part of London. Yes, it can be confusing but it was built with the pedestrian in mind so amply rewards the willing walker. As I wrote:

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line may abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work.

There are surprises around every corner, such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mendelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where Oliver Cromwell was married and the poet John Milton is buried.

Another fine spot is the roof of the concert hall, initially conceived as a sculpture court, which is framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Crescent and overlooked by a giant tower.

The Barbican is often chastised for being confusing and it can be, but this is precisely what many people like about the City, with a medieval street pattern that is often deemed charming. And is there anything wrong with getting lost in London anyway? I’ll report back on that thought in my next blog post.

The legacy of the Blitz

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the way modern London is still shaped by the bomb damage of the Blitz. This was a subject I immersed myself for several weeks and the first draft of my article is very different to the version that was published. I thought it might be interesting to reproduce the original article on The Great Wen. 


When travel writer HV Morton surveyed London in 1951’s In Search of London, it was still scarred by war. The Blitz had started on 7 September 1940 and more than a decade later, London was a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the sunlight in shattered walls, of cellars draped with willow-herb and Canadian fleabane.” As Morton wandered sadly round Cripplegate – an area now covered by the Barbican – he looked “across an area of devastation so final and complete that the memory of it will always rise in my mind whenever I hear the word Blitz. Thousands of buildings have been burnt and blasted to the cellars. Here and there the side of a building rises gauntly from the rubble, a detached gateway stands by itself in the undergrowth, the towers of a few churches, or a spire, lift themselves mournfully, like tombstones in a forgotten cemetery…. How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?”

The scale of this destruction can be gleaned from the website, which uses information from the National Archives to pinpoint every individual bomb strike, and The Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945, created by the London County Council and now published as a book, which show colour-coded bomb damage on a building-by-building basis. The maps were originally created for financial reasons, but post-war planning was always an issue. “The heart of it was insurance and compensation,” says Laurence Ward, the book’s editor and senior archivist at the London Metropolitan Archive. “But they had one eye on post-war reconstruction and the maps were essential tools for rebuilding London. They give a bird’s eye view of the damage and use a colour scheme that makes it easy to see areas that needed to be cleared.”

By cross-referencing Bomb Damage Maps with the A-Z and, London’s post-war evolution can be explored, with modern parks, offices and housing estates replacing black blocks of destruction. As Ward explains, “The maps help areas make sense, they show why the streets look like they do.” We look at six examples that show some of the ways the Blitz shaped contemporary London, and how that process is still continuing today.

Mayday Gardens, SE3

Alan Lee Williams was 10 when his home in Mayday Gardens, near Blackheath, was hit by a parachute mine. “It was meant for the Thames, but damaged 27 houses and took our roof off,” he recalls, now 84 and reflecting on a life that included a period as Labour MP for Hornchurch. Williams’ house was repaired but several houses – marked black for “total destruction” on the bomb maps – remained derelict throughout the war. “They became places for children to play,” says Williams. “They built a big water tank on them for the fire engines, and sometimes we’d swim in it.”

Visit Mayday Gardens now and you’d have no idea anything had happened here. Unlike other streets, where former bomb sites can be identified by the post-war housing blocks that interrupt Victorian terraces, the destroyed houses in Mayday Gardens were rebuilt exactly as before. “They look as if they have been there all the time and I’m sure most people living there have no idea what happened,” says Williams. Indeed, when a local resident – who declined to be named – was asked if they knew of the street’s history, they admitted it came as news to them. “There was no consistency with the reconstruction,” says Ward. “These have pretty good plots and they probably decided it would be easier to rebuild a couple of houses then build a low-rise block.” One issue would have been the material available, with bricks remaining in short supply until the 1950s despite the LCC’s ability to salvage 140 million from damaged houses. The reconstruction of these middle-class homes, though, comes as stark contrast to the way many working-class districts were treated.


Co-Op, Brook House, Shooters Hill, SE18

A short walk from Mayday Gardens on the corner of Shooters Hill and Corelli Road is an ugly squat building housing a supermarket. This was the site of the Brook Hotel pub, which was hit by a V2 rocket in November 1944.

Alan Williams, then 14, was one of the first on the scene. “I was on a tram on Shooters Hill, when I heard an explosion and ran down the road just in time to see a No 89 bus explode,” he says. “The pub had been hit by the missile and the bus was passing and caught fire.”

Williams was pressed into service. “The fire officer called for silence so we could listen for people calling for help and we heard somebody,” he says. “The firemen were too big to go down, so they lowered me. I found a body still breathing and helped them pull it back up. We got to the top and the gas blew up beneath us – I never got out of a bombsite so quickly.”

He’d rescued a girl who had been playing with the publican’s daughter. “She lived in the same road as me, and her father was a high-ranking policeman,” says Williams. “He came to see us – my mother thought I’d been in trouble again!” In the carnage, 29 died but the pub was rebuilt immediately. “The pub was a lovely old building,” says Williams. “It was close to where soldiers were billeted so they rebuilt it before the end of the war.” Williams passes such bombsites frequently. “I still live in the area and I bow my head as I go past,” he says. “I can still see that 89 bus exploding. I always thought it was strange that there was never an explanation of what happened to these places. I thought they should have put up plaques. It’s always a puzzle why it didn’t happen, maybe they just wanted to forget.”


Christ Church, Newgate

There are some memorials, if you know what to look for. Churches played an important role before and after the Blitz. Bombed churches were used as propaganda – a famous wartime photograph shows St Paul’s sheathed in smoke – and London’s churches took a pounding: 624 of 701 churches were damaged, of which 91 were destroyed. Many City churches were damaged by the fire bombs of 29 December 1940, which levelled entire streets.

Almost immediately, a debate began about what to be done with the most badly damaged churches. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyen argued in 1941 that “where there is no congregation I would leave the spaces occupied by destroyed churches as open”, partly as a memorial. In 1944, a letter in The Times presciently articulated this principle: “The time will come – much sooner than most of us to-day can visualize – when no trace of death from the air will be left in the streets of rebuilt London. At such a time the story of the Blitz may begin to seem unreal not only to visiting tourists but to a new generation of Londoners. It is the purpose of war memorials to remind posterity of the reality of the sacrifices upon which its apparent security has been built. These church ruins, we suggest, would do this with realism and gravity”.

The creation of these memorial-ruins was rooted in realism – with attendances in decline, churches simply weren’t always needed. The medieval church of Christ Church, Newgate had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1687 after the Great Fire and then razed again in the inferno of December 1940. It has been left in its ruined state in memory of the Blitz, but in bastardised form.

In 1981, neo-Georgian offices were added in imitation of the 1760 vestry – these currently house a dentist. Two walls to the east were removed in 1974 in a road-widening scheme, while the tower – with a steeple that Ian Nairn considered one of Wren’s finest – was transformed into a 12-storey private home in 2006. Merrill Lynch’s office squeezes against the wall of the church and the fact these gardens act as a memorial to the Blitz probably goes unnoticed by local workers – it’s all far too tidy for one thing. A short-lived campaign was launched in 2013 to turn this into a more thoughtful memorial to the sacrifice of Londoners, of which there are few. Christ Church at least fared better than another memorial-ruin: St Mary Aldermanbury was sold to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri to act as a memorial to Winston Churchill. London still awaits a fitting tribute.

Old Market Square, Columbia Road, E2

A complex network of priorities faced London’s post-war rebuilders, many of whom had been agitating to reconstruct London since before the war. This bore curious fruit in Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, now the location of a flower market and genteel Victorian terraces but then considered a slum. On the first day of the Blitz, a bomb hit a shelter beneath Columbia Market, killing 38. “Columbia Market was a 19th century development founded by Angela Burdett-Coutts to regenerate the area and improve quality of life,” explains Ward.” The buildings were damaged during the war and subsequently demolished – but, it seems, they could have been repaired – the map notes that the main blocks suffered only general blast damage.”

Burdett-Coutts was a philanthropist and friend of Charles Dickens, and Columbia Market was a combination of market and social housing constructed in a dramatic neo-Gothic style that marked one of the first flowerings of Victorian social housing. The ambitious scheme was deemed a “splendid failure” by The Times in 1936 and after the war was being used for storage. Although salvageable and unquestionably important, it was demolished in 1960 and replaced by Ravenscourt Park and a modern tower block, named Old Market Square in a half-hearted nod to what was lost. This new estate is typical of the buildings that were thrown up after the war to solve the problem of slum housing. A campaign is ongoing to get a plaque erected in memory of those that died.


In the haste to rebuild London, many important buildings were demolished, inadvertently spawning the modern heritage industry. “The idea of heritage and listing buildings only really started after the war, when things were demolished so rapidly we don’t know exactly what was demolished and what was valuable,” says Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, who has written on post-war reconstruction. “It was launched as a problematic and ad hoc system that allowed councils to designate conservation areas. After development stopped with the 1970s oil crisis, conservation almost took over and we now have 10,000 conservation areas and half a million listed buildings. Some think we conserve too much.” The only remaining trace of Columbia Market is a section of railing outside a nursery. “It’s a fascinating building that most have cost a fortune and completely dominated the road,” says Ward. “Now you’d never know it existed.”

Palestra, Blackfriars Bridge Road, SE1

This 1990s office block sits atop a site with a fascinating jumbled history. In 1783, the Surrey Chapel was built amid fields by Georgian preacher Rowland Hill, who chose a circular – or octagonal – form as this meant there were no corners where the devil could hide. By 1910, it was being used as a warehouse when boxer Dick Burge decided to turn it into a boxing venue. The Ring was a success but was hit by a bomb on 25th October 1940 and then again in March 1941. According to the Bomb Damage Maps the spot was also later hit by a V1 flying bomb. Damage from one of these strikes can still be seen a few yards away under a railway bridge.

Like many bombsites, The Ring wasn’t replaced until the 1960s. “Some materials required for building were rationed until 1954,” says Larkham. “Every bomb-damaged city was arguing with the government for their allocation of steel and you might have a site and a plan but you might not be able to do anything with it. Britain was selling steel to Australia because the economy was more important than rebuilding.” Eventually Richard Seifert’s gaunt Orbit House was raised on the site. Seifert, one of the UK’s most prolific post-war architects, loved to give his buildings space-age names, and this one also had a circular nod to The Ring. It housed records for the India Office.

But Orbit House’s time was fleeting. In the 1990s it was replaced by Will Alsop’s gargantuan glass Palestra, which is used by TfL. Peter Rees, the City’s former head of planning, once told me that modern office buildings have a life of around 30 years – something that has more to do with the changing requirements of office life than architectural trends – and that’s how long Orbit House lasted. But with his new building, Alsop paid reference to both of Palestra’s forefathers: like Orbit House, it is raised above the road on a pedestal, while its name comes from the Greek word for a wrestling ring. What’s interesting, though, is that as with much of London’s post-war offices – include huge swathes of the City – this site is already on its second generation of development. Larkham questions if that is sustainable. “One of the worst products in terms of sustainability is concrete,” he says. “The fact we can put these building up and then pull them back – is that really the best solution? We need to design for more flexible longer-term planning.”

Elephant Park, SE17

You won’t find Sayer Street on a map but you can hunt it down in photographs. One on the IWM website shows a family sitting at a dinner table outside the Blitzed shell of Sayer Street School eating egg and bacon supplied by American aid.

Another shows Sayer Street before the Blitz, when it consisted of five-storey tenements in one of London’s poorest areas around Elephant & Castle. Elephant was badly hit by bombs, and Sayer Street is riddled with damage on the Bomb Damage Maps. Before the war, the street contained a fishmongers, cat meat dealer, grocer, saddler, bookbinder; after the war, it was the location of a car park, one of the most popular post-war uses for bombsites. The NPC car park empire began with the purchase of a £200 bomb site on Red Lion Square.

In his memoir The Likes Of Us, Michael Collins writes how in the 1960s he explored Elephant’s remaining bombsites, “on which relics of former homes hovered, exposed broken fireplaces and floral or barley corn wallpaper that had witness births, deaths, Christmases, parties, tears, arguments, laughter and sex.” Sayer Street survived this half-life into the 1960s, when it was chewed up by the Heygate Estate. The Heygate was originally conceived as one of three gigantic housing estates that would stretch from Elephant to Peckham, linked by walkways and ramps for two miles. “It was said the planners decided which streets would be erased in the back of a taxi as they were driven around the neighbourhood,” writes Collins, who was forced from his childhood home. One of those to disappear was Sayer Street.

As Larkham explains, “some of the plans were incredibly radical, sweeping away neighbourhoods irrespective of damage and replacing them with high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in.” These were fuelled by idealism, but as early as 1945, the planner CB Purdom had warned of the dangers in How Shall We Rebuild London?, explicitly rejecting Le Corbusier and “the megalomaniac proposals of those who regard the metropolis as a hive of near termites speeding their existence upon escalators or in tubes.” Such pleas were ignored and towers went up on bomb sites all over London. Some were successful like the Barbican, but most were bleak, poorly built and badly maintained.

The Heygate was rarely popular but it housed many of London’s poorest and now it too is gone, having lasted 37 meagre years. Southwark sold it to Land Lease, a private developer and demolition began in 2011. Former residents have been shipped miles from London, displaced even more brutally than those who once lived on Sayer Street. In its place will come Elephant Park, a residential village of towers and plazas, where a three-bed apartment costs £2.5m. “It says a lot about where London is heading, how it is become more like Paris with those areas of social housing being pushed further out,” says Ward. The ripples from London’s post-war redevelopment continue to be felt, and from Blitzed streets and lost bombsites, another London arises. How long will this one last?

Summer on the canal

I wrote a piece for Waterfront about the serene and occasionally hedonistic pleasures of living on a narrowboat in the summer. You can read it here.

I also took part in a podcast talking about canals for Waterfront, which you can listen to here.

I recently walked one of my favourite sections of the canal, from Kensal Green to Little Venice, for the first time in years. This is what I saw on the way.


Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.

Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.



This statue garden once took up the space outside a single house – now it’s the entire terrace.



Ghost sign, of recent vintage.


Psychogeography centre, between Trellick Tower and the Westway.



The most important building in London – where boaters get their toilets emptied.


Towpath rumour said this boat once belonged to Richard Branson.

Killing Joke at Trafalgar Square

I recently interviewed the four original – and current – members of Killing Joke for a feature in Uncut.  I met them one-by-one in and around Lancaster Gate and we discussed their extraordinary career, from Crowley-inspired magical rituals in Battersea to police raids in Notting Hill squats and recording sessions inside the Great Pyramid.

We also discussed one of their first major gigs, when they headlined a CND show at Trafalgar Square.

As guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker recalled: “My favourite gig was the CND rally at Trafalgar Square. 80,000 people and us playing on the steps of the National Gallery in 1980. Jaz told them ‘Margaret Thatcher has bought all these cruise missiles and all you can do is stand there with a fucking placard. You dserve what you are going to get. This one’s called “Wardance”.’ It kicked off. It was killer. We never got invited back and I’ve got my suspicion that’s why we never did Glastonbury cos it’s the same hippie crowd and they remember.”

You can listen to that performance here.

I’ve interviewed several bands over the years for Uncut, from Buzzcocks and Gun Club to Soundgarden and The Damned. I’ve never met any quite like Killing Joke.

John Peel didn’t mean shit to me: my radio education

I’ve been thinking a lot about radio recently. It’s partly to do with the launch of Apple’s new radio station but really began when I read London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, and continued when I started Bob Stanley’s excellent history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah, which has some interesting thoughts on the way Radio One has shaped British music tastes and the roles played in this by different controllers and their chosen DJs. As ever, Stanley talks a lot about John Peel, who for many music fans was a lifeline to new, exciting music. For much of the 1980s, this was the only place you could hear music that other DJs might deem difficult or unpopular. Get a bunch of music fans of a certain age together, and they’ll soon talk about the important of Peel in their musical education.

It’s at this point I usually look at my shoes and hope the discussion moves on. Peel was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me. That’s because when I was starting to seeking out music – a little later than most, I was in my late-teens before I discovered any music that really spoke to me – Peel was barely to be found on Radio One. He occupied a tea-time shift on Saturday afternoons when I was usually coming back from watching football. I’d listen when I could because the elder guardians of the NME/Melody Maker said I should, and I remember avidly listening to the Festive Fifty at Christmas despite the protestations of my parents. But my heart wasn’t in it no matter how much I adored Strange Fruit’s wonderful budget collection of Peel Sessions LPs.

Instead, I was a devoted listener to Mark Radcliffe, whose show ran from 10pm-midnight four nights a week (and before that, weekly on Radio 5, which I also listened to). Radcliffe was given the sort of freedom that was highly unusual in national radio. He could play pretty much anything he liked, and happily mixed old with new. It was here that I first heard bands like The Leaves, The Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders, and discovered I really liked garage rock. He played a fair amount of indie just as the genre went massive, but gave it some context by playing it alongside records from the 1960s and 1970s, largely guitar-based but not entirely.

This was important, there was no streaming then, no internet at all, and oldies stations like Capital Gold generally stuck to the standards, so the only way to hear this kind of marginal music was by tracking it down in record shops and taking the risk of the purchase, or hearing it on the radio.

But the other thing he did was place the music within a wider cultural context. Guests came in to talk at length about films and books. He even did poetry. And the guests were immaculately selected: Will Self did a weekly slot on cult books, his unsettling drone of a voice perfectly suiting portentous, absorbing discussions of Kafka, Hesse, Burroughs and Huxley. In contrast to the regal Self, Mark Kermode would enthuse about cult films like a woolly teenager. He usually manged to slip in a mention of The Exorcist but, like Self, would cover a range of genres and era, showing how the dots connected. He’d also, I think, point out interesting films being screened at 2am on C4 so you could set the video. Every week, this pair gave me suggestions for something new to get from the library, or at least talk about knowledgeably, as if I’d read or watched them myself.

Simon Armitage and John Hegley would recite poems, which even then I didn’t much like but hell, just think about that for a minute, weird northern poets on national radio talking to teenagers. There were other guests too, comedians, journalists, mates of Radcliffe and his sidekick Riley, who joined in with the daft quizzes and silly set-pieces, but it was the mix of old and new music, spiced with literature and cinema that I was listening for.

You see, I loved music, but it wasn’t the centre of my life, which is how John Peel always seemed to present it, with deathless, off-putting, intensity. Radcliffe in contrast used music as a crucial flavouring in a cultural casserole. It felt mind-expanding, and was a massive influence on my education, on how I perceive music even today.

I don’t know if Radcliffe’s show stands up now, I don’t really want to know, but here’s a link to a fan’s website and some clips from one of the shows.

On Hackney Marsh with Jon The Poacher

One of the most enjoyable assignments have had in recent months was getting to spend a sunny late-spring morning on Hackney Marsh with John Cook, a forager who calls himself Jon The Poacher.

We wandered through parks and marshes for a couple of hours, filling a basket with wild plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms, before sitting at a cafe by the Lea and scoffing it all. John has grown up in Clapton and knows “every milimetre” of the vast east London marshland.

I touched on bits of the marsh when I explored the pre-Olympic Lea Valley with archeologist Kieron Tyler. That tour was all about the human impact on landscape (that, really, is the essence of archeology), so the walk with John made for a completely different experience, one in which we looked only at the natural aspect, the ways in which wild plants will seed in the smallest, most inhospitable space, and how we can harvest them without destroying their habitat. John essentially uses the marsh as a giant allotment, and believes almost anything can be eaten if treated correctly.

The difference between the two views is interesting. While Kieron lamented the Lea Valley’s problem with Japanese knotweed – something the Olympic authorities spent millions on eradicating – John notes that if you cook it with a little sugar, knotweed tastes much like rhubarb.

My article about John appears on the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront blog.

Pirate radio in London: The Clash, Keith Allen and biscuits

There’s currently a small exhibition at the ICA looking at the history of London’s pirate radio. The Guardian recently ran a great photogallery on the subject.


Not coincidentally, I’ve been reading a new book on pirate radio, London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, who formerly edited a magazine dedicated to pirate radio. It’s a great book, crammed with detail and utterly absorbing.

My knowledge of pirate radio was restricted to the 1960s offshore stations, and then the 1980s dance stations. I knew about the latter because I sometimes stumbled upon them while retuning from Capital Gold to LBC in search of football results. There would be a javelin of static, a man shouting, booming bass and a general feeling of chaos. I also diligently watched Lenny Henry, so knew all about the illegal broadcasting activities of Delbert Wilkins, who ran the a pirate radio show in Brixton.

Hebditch’s book mentions Henry, who was a supporter of probably London’s most famous pirate, Kiss FM, which like many others broadcast using transmitters stuck above shops on Westow Hill in Crystal Palace. But he also talks in detail about aspects of pirate radio that are much less well known. The book looks at developments in the pirate scene year-by-year from the 1960s, starting with a general overview taking in major shifts in technology, approach, licensing laws and law enforcement, followed by a longer look at a couple of  the year’s most important stations, and then a round-up of all the other stations that broadcast that year – some of them only surviving a week.

The detail is astonishing and what really fascinated me was the range of stations that existed. Many were playing jazz, dub, soul, funk and reggae – and the story of the way Black Londoners embraced pirate radio in the 1980s is an important one. Hundreds were later playing dance music, but there was also stations for heavy metal, classic rock, pop, and rock and roll as well as for local community groups: Poles, Greeks and South Indians all had stations. There was even said to be a far-right station, Radio Enoch, broadcasting in the Midlands, which was shut down after members from one London rock station went to pay a visit.

From these stations came numerous DJs we know today – Tim Westwood, Gilles Peterson, Annie Nightingale, Pete Tong, Judge Jules and Steve Lamacq – but also a hint of the variety of music and programming that the radiowaves could support. Many paid their costs by charging advertisers; some even charged the DJs for the right to present.

A station like Phoenix (1981-1985) would play early indie – Ellery Bop, Nightingales, Inflatable Boy Clams – mixed with “dub, jazz, industrial and African”, with guest presenters like Robert Wyatt and The Monochrome Set. Similar was Network 21, that played alternative rock and dance, while also covering news, cinema listings, concerts, plays and exhibitions.


Then there’s Radio Concord, which grew out of the west London squatting scene between 1972 and 1976, sometimes broadcasting from the house in Maida Vale where Joe Strummer lived with the 101ers. This was a politicised counterculture station, and would comment on issues like Northern Ireland and housing rights. “They have even been critical of the Queen,” the Daily Mail reported. One time, they were busted while broadcasting so stuck  a mike through the letterbox to try and interview the law live on air.

Then there was Radio Amanda, that lasted from 1982-1984 playing a pre-Resonance diet of space rock and electronic music. At roughly the same time, there was Our Radio, a station started by anarchists that had shows devoted to feminists, gay groups and Brixton-based anarchists. It had few listeners but the police hated it: in one court case it was described as an “anarchist, terrorist, homosexual” radio station.

Radio Wapping broadcasting briefly in 1986 to support the printworkers striking after News International’s move to Wapping. And in 1983, comedian Keith Allen launched Breakfast Pirate Radio, which was broadcast “using helium-filled balloons over Notting Hill” (ahem) and featured “comic-characters, malicious celebrity gossip, radio outtakes and the names of supposedly bent coppers.” Robbie Coltrane also featured and you can listen to it here.

Best of all, though, was a station called The Home Of Good Baking which broadcast for a few weeks in 1989 using a jingle from United Biscuit Network, the 1970s in-house radio station at United Biscuits in Hayes.

Croydon Till I Die: the flyover of life

I’ve written a piece about the concrete conundrum that is Croydon for the Guardian.

I have a peculiar relationship with Croydon, which seems appropriate as Croydon is a curious place. Growing up just outside Sutton, Croydon was Sutton’s scary big brother. The scary big brother everybody laughed at. Croydon had a reputation. It was ridiculous and people mocked it in a way you never seemed top get with nearby towns like Epsom, Sutton, Kingston or Bromley.

Perhaps as a result, I rarely went there, preferring to spend Saturday afternoons in the tedious safety of Sutton and then later in the West End.  It was only in my late teens that I really discovered Croydon.

By then, I could drive, and that seems relevant as Croydon was a town built for cars. In the sixth form I’d drive into Croydon with schoolfriends during breaks in the timetable to shop at Beano’s and have lunch – with girls! – at McDonald’s. And at weekends, I’d meet friends in the goth-metal Ship or in the Firkin beer garden.

That drive was thrilling. I’d soundtrack it to Aladdin Sane, which is ironic given David Bowie’s later comments about Croydon. I always entered Croydon from the south, via the flyover and that flyover was extraordinary and intoxicating. It was like nothing else around, certainly not in the dull suburbs of south London.

As I approached Croydon from this elevated position, the 1920s terraces spread out below, I always had a lingering desire to drive straight over the side into oblivion. It wasn’t a suicidal or maudlin, it was more like Butch Cassidy or Thelma And Louise, to exit in triumph.

When I left home, I came to increasingly dislike Sutton for the atmosphere of violence, racism, desperation and small-mindedness that I noticed every time I returned, seemingly growing worse each time. But with the benefit of distance, Croydon seemed far more interesting, an adventure in creating a new kind of suburban living that hadn’t quite worked but still left behind a town centre that was unique.

If only Beano’s was still around.

Archive: Julian Cope interview

I recently rediscovered this 2005 interview with Julian Cope from Time Out. It took place over the phone and my main recollection is that Cope went to the toilet halfway through, with the sound of his piss hitting the urinal adding a certain sonic tang to the transcription.

They say that every boy needs a hobby; over the years Julian Cope has had plenty. At first it was taking LSD on ‘Top Of The Tops’ and talking about Scott Walker. Later it was sitting beneath a tortoise shell and listening to krautrock. Now it’s playing monolithic sludge rock riffs and visiting ancient monuments. There’s no pattern, it’s just how things worked out.

But before we get into one of those ‘isn’t Julian Cope crazy?!’ mindsets, let’s clear one thing up: Cope isn’t a whacked-out, moondog, schizoid beam-chaser, or even a ga-ga, freaked-up, attention-seeking acid-eater, he’s just a lot more interesting (and, crucially, interested) than most rock stars. Let the man himself explain, as he prepares for his Friday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Playing the role of Julian Cope means I can hide behind what Julian Cope is supposed to be. People always say, “You’re a lot more normal than I thought you would be”, and I say, “Yeah, but if I was as weird as you thought, I wouldn’t be able to achieve fucking anything”. The whole point is that it’s the subject matter that’s weird, not the person behind it.’

These days such achievements are often literary – particularly best-selling books on standing stones (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European). But Cope continues to record. His latest is Citizen Cain’d, an epic, guitar-shredding study of alienation and monotheism that is heavily informed by travels in Iran and stupidly heavy rock ’n’ roll.

‘We’ve all got an inner moron,’ he explains. ‘And rock ’n’ roll entertains your inner moron, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart as well. I thought it would be great to take garage rock and fuse it with genuinely amazing guitar. American punk bands always struck me as being better because they were great musicians playing down. One of the reasons I work with Doggen is that he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. He’s amazing. But it’s context, I never put him in a good context. I’m never going to make him look like Eddie Van Halen if he’s got to come out of the swamp.’

Talking of swamp, support on Friday is from San Francisco’s Comets On Fire, quality purveyors of cosmic sludge, who are playing their first UK show. Cope has been a fan for a while. ‘The great thing about Comets is they very much know where they’re coming from. When I first got in touch with Ethan Miller (Comets main guy) I was saying, “Man, you’re totally Roky Erickson meets John Fogerty with Hawkwind backing”, and he said “Shit man, in my dreams that’s where we are”. But it’s not in their dreams, they’re there already.’

As he enthuses about favourite bands like Speed Glue And Shinky (‘I’m a fucking cunt for a singing drummer’) and Monoshock (‘They’re really vile. Like a sewer Stooges’), it’s clear that Cope is totally into this stuff. And when Cope gets into something, it normally gets into print. ‘I’m writing a book that’s just called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, but it has the most portentous subtitle in the world. I can’t even remember it. On the back we’re going to have a massive question mark and underneath say “Who will entertain your moron?”’

Will this be written in his trademark stream-of-consciousness style? ‘Actually, I’m probably no more stream of consciousness than Robert Graves, I’m just fucking great at giving that impression. One thing I do is write what I want to say, then I go into an internet translator and turn it into German, turn the German into French and then the French back into English, and then pick out the nuggets. It ends up sounding like Faust lyrics. I’m happy that secret being leaked: the people who hear it and don’t take it seriously won’t learn anything, and the people that know wisdom is everywhere will take it on board and start doing it. Part of my job is to reveal other ways. I’m trying to be a facilitator rather than somebody who hides behind a cloak of mystery.’

And Friday? ‘Expect generic dark psychedelia. I’m really punishing the cliché. Get there early because we’re going to play two sets, one as people arrive, then after the Comets we’ll come back and do that monolithic sludge. It’s going to be a real vibe. Healthy amounts of mushrooms will be good and women should dress for the occasion.’