Category Archives: Photography

Time Out – logo-agogo

As has been reported elsewhere, the big glowing Time Out sign came down this week from the front of the TO office in Tottenham Court Road where it has lived since around 1993. It has gone into storage, ahead of a proposed office move and will at some point, we are promised, be restored to wherever the magazine ends up next. I hope it does. This is, after all, one of London’s few bursts of neon and probably the only one that is halfway decent to look at.

That’s because the logo is a design classic, the work of Pearce Marchbank, an art school student who drifted into the more agitated end of the counterculture after the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demo. ‘The impact on me,’ he said, ‘Was blowing away all that love and peace shit which I thought was bollocks and complete pretence.’

After working on Friends, Marchbank was asked by Time Out founder Tony Elliott to redesign his shambolic magazine. ‘I hated the unadventurous way it looked,’ said Marchbank. The entire magazine was redesigned, with the logo being created at the last minute on a Sunday afternoon in November 1970. ‘It was supposed to look like an out-of-focus neon light,’ Marchbank explained. ‘It was Letraset Franklin Gothic, shot out of focus so it had a glowing fuzziness to it. I put a negative over the positive and the gap between the two made the glowing neon outline, which I shot in line then again out of focus. It was deliberately transparent, so the cover images could read through it, as if it were on the glass of a window.’

This distinctive, blurry effect was intended to be a short-term solution, but Elliott refused to change it. It was a wise decision although not everybody liked the new look. One reader wrote in asking if the magazine could include a pair of glasses with each issue as the typeface was now too small to read.

TOAllNight

Marchbank continued to work for the magazine on-and-off throughout the 1970s creating some of the best covers in the history of publishing. He was back there in 1981 when it imploded in a series of strikes, stand-offs and occupations between staff and management over wages and the historic equal-pay system. As Elliott attempted to regain control he learnt that the logo – which was now being branded all over London and which the strikers were hoping to claim as their own - actually belonged to Marchbank.

Elliott called Marchbank, saying ‘I want you to write me a letter saying you’re giving the logo to me.’ Marchbank figured it was probably worth as much as £100,000 but, strapped for cash and short of time, asked Elliott for a mere £2,000.

‘What? £2,000! How can you do this to me after all the things I’ve done for you?’

The conversation ended. Shortly afterwards, however, Marchbank was offered a job with Richard Branson’s new London magazine, Event. As his parting gift, he presented all rights to the logo to Elliott. To turn into a real piece of neon was both a no-brainer and a stroke of genius. I hope one day the sign will be back above the door in some London street – if not, I’m sure it’ll fetch more than £2,000 on eBay.

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Lambeth Surrealism

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A brief history of Covent Garden

There are many reasons to cherish Covent Garden, not least of which is that it exists at all. The area nearly didn’t make it past 1973, when it was scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ after the fruit and veg market moved out. The GLC drew up enthusiastic plans to replace 96 historic acres with a conference centre and lots of roads. The plan was defeated by locals who believed Covent Garden could have a different sort of future, one that didn’t involve hundreds of buildings being demolished and everything getting covered in asphalt. They were eventually proved right, although nobody anticipated that Covent Garden would turn into the upmarket open-air shopping mall it has since become.

Inigo Jones might have approved of its current status, though. It was he who built an elegant Piazza on an old abbey garden in 1630, transplanting a piece of Italy to the centre of London and unwittingly creating that definitively London piece of architecture, the residential square. The area grew in significance after the Great Fire destroyed much of the City, but then decline set it. We may now see Covent Garden as the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, a halfway house between the posh Englishness of Mayfair and louche Frenchness of Soho, but the place got pretty debauched in the 18th century, a hive of taverns, theatres and coffee shops, all haunts for prostitutes like Peg The Seaman’s Wife, Long-Haired Mrs Spencer of Spitalfields and the delightful Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt.

The area’s drift in tone came as the market expanded and the gentry who occupied the Piazza decamped to the newer squares of Berkeley, Grosvenor and St James’s. At around the same time, Charles II reintroduced theatre to the UK, and companies gradually moved from the nearby Inns of Court into Covent Garden by way of Drury Lane. Theatres brought rowdy audiences and actresses who doubled as bawds, and were a magnet for lowlife figures. In 1722, there were 22 gambling dens, countless brothels (one pimp published an annual guide to London’s prostitutes called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies) and street brawls were commonplace. In 1951, HV Morton argued that Covent Garden provided ‘the most accessible glimpse that remains to us of Hogarth’s London’, but post-war Britain offered nothing quite as depraved as the third plate from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, set in Covent Garden’s infamous Rose Tavern. Hogarth depicted the Rose as a den of sin, full of drunks, thieves and whores. The tavern specialised in women who engaged in flagellation, both giving and receiving. Pepys was a regular, although he only seems to mention the food, for which it was also famous.

Given such carnage, it is little surprise that in 1754 Henry Fielding would organise the Bow Street Runners, the progenitors of the Met, from Covent Garden, and the area slowly improved from a hotbed of crime into a straightforward slum. Throughout, the market remained central – Charles Fowler’s fine market building was erected in the 1830s and the Flower Market arrived in 1870 – so it was easy to believe that when that moved to Nine Elms, Covent Garden would wither and die.

Amazingly, though, Covent Garden survived. That is largely due to its fringe attractions, which expanded to fill the vacuum left by the market. Theatre was key – opera was now a decidedly upmarket pursuit – but by the 1980s the area also boasted decent restaurants and, on Neal Street, trendy shops like Red Or Dead and Duffer Of St George. Credit must go to Nicholas Saunders, who opened a wholefood shop in Neal’s Yard in 1976. His alternative empire slowly spread to other buildings, creating a colourful corner of the counterculture in the heart of Covent Garden even as anti-hippie punks gathered round the corner, in the Roxy on Neal Street. Neal’s Yard still has an idiosyncratic flavour – the blue plaque to ‘film-maker’ Monty Python seems well placed (Palin and co had offices here).

What Neal’s Yard illustrates is the way that amid the ubiquitous stage doors, posh shops and cobbled streets, the different parts of Covent Garden retain an individual imprint, from the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to the boutiques of Floral Street, where Paul Smith still has a rickety presence. Seven Dials is one of London’s more interesting shopping areas, while the Piazza has been transformed from a ragged craft market into a chi-chi mall. The idea is to attract Londoners as well as tourists, and the Piazza has certainly smartened up, with the central market a mecca for shoppers, serenaded by opera singers and overlooked by a fancy Apple store in one corner and refurbished London Transport Museum in another.

 

Covent Garden is a patchwork then, more diverse than superficially similar areas like Soho and Spitalfields and still boasting enough fascinating nooks and crannies to keep even the most experienced Londoner busy for hours, even if Hogarth and Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt might no longer recognise the streets they once adored. 

 

150 years of the London Underground

To mark the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, here is a piece I wrote for Time Out in 2007.

It was, on the face of it, a stupid idea. Running trains, and steam trains at that, in tunnels underneath the London streets. In 1862, the Times described it as an ‘insult to common sense’ and it was probably right. But the London Underground turned out to be one of the great engineering feats of modern times, the world’s only steam-driven underground railway and the first electrified underground railway. A socially egalitarian and liberating phenomenon, it helped drive London’s rapid expansion and got people to work on time, while providing the city with a bold new identity through impeccable branding that incorporated iconic typography, cartography and architecture.

And yet… And yet…

It’s fair to say that the Underground remains unloved by Londoners, and it would take a more dishonest contrarian than I to defend the grime, the delays, the heat, the way it’s so busy and unreliable and the fact that, year after year, we are asked to pay more for a service that doesn’t seem to be getting any better, cleaner, quicker or cooler. But that’s a fault of management and decades of underinvestment, not of a system that remains something Londoners should treasure as remarkable, groundbreaking and emphatically ours.

The story began with Charles Pearson, the first in a succession of underground visionaries. It was he who first proposed the notion of ‘trains in drains’ in 1845, when the railway was a relatively new invention (the first steam passenger service only opened in 1830). Pearson, instrumental in the removal of the anti-Catholic inscription on the foot of the Monument, was a progressive and a pioneer – his persistence helped persuade the House of Commons to approve a bill in 1853 to build a subterranean railway between Paddington and Farringdon.

The reason such a hare-brained, experimental scheme received approval was one of necessity. London roads were suffering from terrible overcrowding and the mainline railways all stopped on the fringes of the West End and City thanks to a Royal Commission of 1846 that declared central London a no-go area for railway companies. A method of linking the mainline stations of Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross was needed, and Pearson’s plan fitted the bill. He helped raise the finance from private investors and the City of London, and excavation began in 1860, with a shallow trench dug beneath Euston Road and then covered over. Thousands of poor residents were displaced in the process.

The Metropolitan Line opened for business on January 10 1863, clocking 30,000 passengers on the first day. A celebratory banquet had been held the previous day at Farringdon. Pearson was not among the guests, having passed away the previous year. Another absentee was Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, who was approaching his 80th birthday, and said he wanted to spend as much time above ground as he possibly could (he died two years later).

The Metropolitan was a success, with 11.8 million passengers (the population of London was about 3.2 million) braving the foul, smoke-filled conditions in its first year. The Metropolitan’s owners claimed the ‘invigorating’ atmosphere ‘provided a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma’, but they also allowed drivers to grow beards in a futile bid to filter out the worst of the fumes. A civil servant who had spent time in Sudan said the smell reminded him of a ‘crocodile’s breath’. One attempt to improve conditions saw smoking banned, until an MP objected and insisted that all railways provided a smoking carriage. Smoking was not banned again on the trains until 1985, and at stations until after the King’s Cross fire of 1987, itself the culmination of 30 years of neglect.

Among those to benefit most from the new railway were the lowest-paid workers, who were entitled to use a special, cheap pre-6am train. Social journalist Henry Mayhew interviewed some such passengers in 1865, first explaining that ‘this subterranean method of locomotion had always struck us as being the most thoroughly Cockney element of all within the wide range of Cocaigne’. The labourers he spoke to all voiced their enthusiasm for a service that allowed poorer Londoners to live further out, sparing them a six-mile walk to work and allowing their families to live in two rooms rather than one. As the Metropolitan expanded westwards, it opened up new areas for Londoners to move to, and the overcrowded city d slowly started to expand – one of the reasons that London still has such a relatively low population density. When Hammersmith received its first station in 1864 it was still a village ‘best known for spinach and strawberries’, writes Christian Wolmar in his definitive ‘The Subterranean Railway’ (2004), but it soon became a major interchange. This pattern was repeated throughout the Underground’s history. When the Northern Line hit Morden in 1926, it was a village of 1,000 inhabitants; five years later, its population was 12,600.

The success of the Metropolitan led to the building of the District Line along the Victoria Embankment, and then the creation of a Circle Line to link the two. Unfortunately, the two east-west lines were run by rivals, James Forbes and Edward Watkin, whose perpetual bickering meant the Circle took twenty years to complete. When it was finished in 1884, Watkins’ Met operated trains that ran clockwise, while Forbes’ District controlled those in the other direction; such was the antagonism between the two, the companies refused to sell tickets for their rival line, meaning a passenger might end up paying for 20 stops rather than seven. When the Circle was finally electrified in 1905 the companies used different systems which proved incompatible, resulting in a further three-month delay. Because the Underground was built haphazardly by private investment and with no central planning, there were many such inconsistencies. Some destinations had more than one station, built by competing interests, which explains why there is such a poor interchange at Hammersmith between the Hammersmith & City and District Lines, and why Oxford Circus has two different surface stations on either side of Argyll Street. This is also why there are so many ghost stations on the network – about 40 – built without adequate knowledge of whether they were actually needed.

The completion of the Circle Line marked the last of the sub-surface lines, built by the simple, cut-and-cover method. Advances in tunnelling and the use of electrified rails now allowed for the building of deep-level lines that gave birth to the phrase ‘tube’ and allowed London’s network to really connect the dots beneath the capital. The first was the cramped City & South London line from City to the Elephant & Castle, later incorporated into the Northern Line, which was opened in 1890 by the future king Edward VII. This was followed by the Waterloo & City, Central, Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead (now the Charing Cross branch of the Northern), all before 1907.

This splurge of lines occurred within a narrow window of opportunity after the invention of suitable tunnelling technology and before the appearance of the motorised bus. It was aided by gullible investors (who never quite received the returns they were promised), public demand and London’s favourable geological conditions – the capital’s clay being an ideal substance through which to tunnel.

Several of these lines were built by American financier Charles Tyson Yerkes, who also controlled the District and was the first person to attempt to realise a unified vision of London’s chaotic underground network. A property speculator with a questionable reputation (he served time in prison in Philadelphia for embezzlement) Yerkes put together numerous complex financial schemes to get his lines built, often using capital from the States, but never got the chance to cash in on his success, dying in 1905.

Yerkes left an extraordinary legacy. While lines such as City & South London never proved popular with the public – something that had much to do with the fact that the trains, or ‘padded cells’, were built without windows because the manufacturers figured there was nothing to see down there – his Central Line was a hit. This was largely because, like the Metropolitan half a century before, it served major transport routes, relieving strain on crowded streets above. There were drawbacks – the line followed the road pattern because the tunnellers didn’t want to pay compensation to surface landowners, so there were unnecessary kinks – but the Central Line was a groundbreaking service, attracting 100,000 passengers daily. For a start, it only had one class of travel, and one price, hence the nickname the d d Twopenny Tube. It also had some innovative engineering aspects (each station was built atop a slight incline, meaning trains naturally slowed when entering stations and sped up when leaving, while the flat face of the train pushing air in front of it provided much-need ventilation) and carriages were considerably plusher than on the City & South London. Yerkes’ desire for a unified service also led to the introduction of what can be seen as the first attempt at branding on the tube – the Leslie Green-designed distinctive dried-blood-coloured tiles of the surface stations – something pursued by the man who followed.

Frank Pick began working for Yerkes’ Underground Electric Railway Limited (UERL), which owned all the underground lines other than the Metropolitan and the Waterloo & City, in 1906. Over the next 30 years, in partnership with Lord Ashfield, general manager of UERL and future chairman of London Transport, he helped make the tube the ‘most famous and respected transport system in the world’. Historian Nikolaus Pevsner believes Pick’s accomplishments to be greater still: in 1942 he described him as ‘the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England and indeed the ideal patron of our age’. He is certainly one of the few transport gurus to have met Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.

Pick’s reputation was based on his eye for design. He introduced the roundel, borrowed from the London General Omnibus Company, but made famous by the tube; he asked calligrapher Edward Johnston to design the tube’s unique font; commissioned beautiful posters by Man Ray, Graham Sutherland and Edward Nash; introduced each line’s distinctive patterned seat-covers or moquettes; appointed architect Charles Holden to design modernist stations, most famously at Arnos Grove; and in 1931 he paid Harry Beck five guineas to come up with a new kind of map that would simplify the most complicated transport system in the world. All the while, the tube continued to spread east, west, north and even – occasionally – south, and was by 1934 carrying 410 million passengers a year. Pick can be said to be as responsible for the image London projects around the world as Christopher Wren, George Gilbert Scott or Norman Foster. Even today, Transport for London is well aware of the value of the brand, and jealously guards icons such as the roundel and Beck’s map from even the most loving of imitators.

Pick’s definition of the tube did not end there. In tandem with Lord Ashfield, he also arranged the integration of London’s various transport systems in 1933 under the umbrella London Transport, ensuring that an underground network that had hitherto been privately funded and unprofitable became publicly supported, thanks in part to Leader of London County Council (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) Herbert Morrison.

Finance has always been the failing of the tube, largely because, as Wolmar astutely points out, the early railwaymen ‘were building a fantastic resource for Londoners whose value could never be adequately reflected through the fare box which was their only source of income’. This was as true in the days of private entrepreneur and public ownership as it is with today’s uncomfortable mish-mash, the great experiment of the Public Private Partnership. All too briefly London Transport papered over this failing through a combination of Ashfield and Pick’s acumen and the fact that, following the depression, there was greater confidence in public ownership, and more skill in the manner with which it was executed. But this was soon diluted with World War II (in which the tube played its own valuable role), after which, rebuilding the country took precedence.

Which, more or less, is where we are today. The tube has acquired only two new lines since Yerkes’ frenzy: the Victoria, which took 20 years from planning to opening in 1968, and the Jubilee, hewn in part from the Bakerloo Line and extended magnificently in 2000. Years of under-investment have taken their toll, and the system looks haggard and worn. Recent years have seen some improvement, but the cost to users has soared. Even the ongoing improvements leave the system, temporarily at least, worse off – with stations closed for months and entire lines closed weekend after weekend, reinforcing the public’s lack of sympathy for this ancient marvel.

So it’s no wonder that we look upon the city’s mighty works and despair. But perhaps we should, every now and then at least, reflect on what the city would be like if the tube had never existed, be thankful for the visionaries of the past, and hopeful that their legacy will once more receive the attention and adulation it deserves.

North and south: the enduring hatred of Chelsea and Leeds

It was the draw every older Chelsea fan wanted. The plastic flash of the Champions League may excite shallow newcomers, but a League Cup quarter–final at Leeds is what gets the blood pumping. This is proper football, one of the juiciest rivalries in British football, a celebration of regional differences with mutual bad memories stretching back to the mid-1960s.

That’s about how long Leeds have been singing this little ditty about shooting Chelsea scum.

In the late 1970s, Chelsea fans would reciprocate by asking their Yorkshire foes, ‘Did the Ripper get your mum?’ And they’ll always have this.

The fixture will probably have the sort of ‘toxic’ atmosphere that hysterical commentators love to condemn, but it’s also the very reason people pay to watch football in numbers that dwarf that of any other sport. It’s a game that feels more important than it really is, one steeped in tribalism, history and cultural dislike, offering momentary respite from the sterility that defines the modern football-watching experience. For many fans, this is personal, this is pride.

And Chelsea-Leeds has always been huge. The TV audience for the 1970 FA Cup final replay remains the second largest for any sporting event (after the 1966 World Cup final) and it has the sixth largest TV audience of all time – more than any Champions League or European Cup final involving the self-important Establishment clubs of English football. That’s because Chelsea and Leeds had captured a hold on the national imagination since the mid-60s, when two young, stylish, streetwise sides stormed out of the Second Division within a season of each other.

So much in common but so little alike, Chelsea and Leeds set about each other with a passion in a series of increasingly ill-tempered league and cup encounters. By the time a ferocious 1967 FA Cup semi-final was settled by an awful refereeing decision – a last-minute Leeds equaliser from a rocket-like Lorimer free kick was disallowed because the Chelsea wall had moved too early – the foundations were firmly in place. Chelsea and Leeds, they didn’t get on.

‘Hate. We hated them and they hated us,’ is how Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson once described it, and footballers are rarely so forthcoming about such things. It was a hatred mired in misconception as much as anything else, an embodiment of all of the north and south’s prejudices about each other. This was Yorkshire v London epitomised.

Chelsea considered themselves the club a la mode, King’s Road stylists, swinging London dandies who knew as much about fashion as they did football. On the pitch, they strutted and posed, playing with flair and panache – but only when they could be bothered. Off the pitch, they dressed up, grew their sideburns, hung out with  filmstars and were photographed by celebrity photographers with famous fans. No wonder George Best said Chelsea was the only other club he’d ever consider playing for.

Raquel Welch, not in a Leeds shirt

Leeds were more hardworking, more focussed, with a Yorkshire work ethic and attention to detail. They were also masters of professionalism in all its forms. Uncompromising, indomitable, they’d only turn to showboating when the opposition were already on the canvas. To make it worse, neither respected the other’s approach: Leeds thought Chelsea were flash failures; Chelsea thought Leeds were boring and nasty.

These stereotypes weren’t entirely fair – Leeds had beautiful footballers like Gray and Lorimer, Chelsea had roughnecks like Harris and Dempsey, and both teams could be said to have underachieved - but they contained more than a grain of truth. When the teams met at the 1970 FA Cup final, fireworks ensued. It must be the most enthrallingly violent games ever seen in this country. Played today, both teams would count on at least three red cards. This tackle (unpunished) is typical. I’d love to see a You Tube compilation just showing the fouls. Paul Hayward would wet himself.

As they rose together, they sank together. From the mid-70s and through much of the 1980s, both clubs endured financial turmoil, relegation, racism and hooliganism. The rivalry remained intense. At a Second Division fixture in 1984, which Chelsea won 5-0 to secure the title, Leeds fans responded by destroying Chelsea’s new scoreboard with a scaffolding pole. This was the scene at another 1980s game at Stamford Bridge, when the fixture still attracted one of the largest crowds of the day.

For a while, things calmed down. When Chelsea won the Second Division title in 1989, the fact they were playing Leeds was almost irrelevant as both sets of supporters maintained an impeccable minute’s silence the week after Hillsborough. When Leeds won the league in 1992, Chelsea fans barely flinched.

The rivalry only really picked up in 1996, when Brian Deane’s vicious ankle-stamp on Mark Hughes signalled the rebirth of Chelsea-Leeds hostilities. For the next few years, Frank Leboeuf, Lee Bowyer, Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate produced moments of quite stunning spontaneous cruelty. This was epitomised by George Graham’s side, who arrived at the Bridge in the winter of 1997 with no intention other than to kick Chelsea to pieces. It worked. Leeds had two players sent off before half time, but secured a valuable 0-0 draw. Ruud Gullit’s beautiful but fragile side were never the same.

As Chelsea rebuilt upon experienced foreign lines and David O’Leary went with native youth, the ideology again differed. This time Chelsea came out on top, picking up cups while Leeds imploded (Chelsea even scored, above, one of their greatest ever goals against Leeds). The two sides haven’t faced each other since Leeds were relegated in 2004, in which time Chelsea escaped their own financial reckoning, instead becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world. Leeds, meanwhile, have been scraping along in the lower divisions, the pain exacerbated by the fact they are now owned by much-despised former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates.

So to Elland Road, and while the two clubs have probably never experienced such a vast divergence in fortunes, the fans have been looking forward to this one for weeks. It might be epic, it might be a damp squib, but it will matter, and if we’re really lucky, it’ll be just that little bit toxic. 

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? - but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month - however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

At Speakers’ Corner

This article was first published in Time Out in 2006. I am posting it after hearing about Sounds from the Parka partnership between On the Record and Bishopsgate Institute that is hoping to record an oral history of Speakers’ Corner. Photos by Chris Kennett. 

This London curiosity grew out of revolt, when Edmund Beales led the Reform League to Hyde Park in 1866 to complain about the lack of a vote for working men. The marchers were blocked from entering the park by police and a small but interesting riot developed. The Reform League continued to meet at Marble Arch to test their right to hold public meetings in the park. In 1872, the government relented and granted the right to assembly and free speech in this corner of Hyde Park. The Met promptly responded by turning Marble Arch into a tiny police station to keep an eye on the rabble below.

(1968) credit, Chris Kennett

On a sunny Sunday in October, the rabble are out in force with a dozen speakers taking their spots, espousing black power, Islamism, Christian atheism and much else that is vocal but indeterminable. The two largest crowds gather directly opposite each other on either side of the path. One is engaged in raucous religious debate, slinging insults about the Koran and Bible back and forth, and occasionally taking time out from happily lambasting each other to heckle the speakers, a Christian, a secularist and a Muslim, who each take their turn upon the platform. It’s the sort of ferocious debate about Islam and freedom that the newspapers tell us we don’t dare have in public.  Across the way, a striking young man has drawn a larger but less vocal crowd to hear him eloquently espouse familiar but fervent criticism of the Iraq War.

Nikolai Segura has been coming to Speakers’ Corner on-and-off for seven years, and then on a weekly basis for the last 12 months, during which time he’s become one of the Corner’s regular hecklers. ‘I’ve been heckling for a year,’ he says. ‘It makes a show for the crowd, but it also sends the message that this is a place that exemplifies freedom of speech.’

A couple of weeks ago he was heckling a speaker when ‘some Muslims came up to me and said there were extremists in the park who would kill me for what I was saying,’ he says. Segura’s response was bold. He has returned to the park wearing a Muhammad-baiting T-shirt (‘There’s a picture of the prophet on the back of this shirt… only kidding [please don’t kill me])’, and today he gets on the stepladder to speak himself for the first time. The resulting debate is ferocious, spiteful and fascinating.

Religious debate has been a feature of Speakers’ Corner since before it even existed – many of those executed at nearby Tyburn were Catholics, who used their final speech to try to convert the crowd . But the unmistakable change in overall tone from political to theological – the ‘three Abrahamic religions shouting at each other’ as Segura puts it – was first noticed by speaker Terminator 24 [T24] 25 years ago.

‘It’s changed a lot,’ he says. ‘During the Cold War it was a lot of social democrats, trade unionists, socialists and many intellectuals. But after 1979 international relations affected Speakers’ Corner and the revolution in Iran saw a change. It became more aggressive, more religious. And after 1989 there were even fewer universal, social democratic presentations and more nationalism and fundamentalism. It mirrors how the world changes.’

(1972) credit, chris kennett

Heiko Koo, who runs the Speakers’ Corner website, believes the debate there is genuine. ‘All speakers get information from each other and people in the audience and from the internet, so ideas and theories get spread around and I’ve seen them change the mind of some speakers,’ he says.

T24, like Segura, started in the crowd before progressing up the ladder. ‘I came here and started to ask questions, and the speakers were very abusive, so I thought: That’s not the way; if I were speaking, I would not be oppressive and tyrannical. Now, when I talk, I leave it open, without judgment, express a thought and let others join in. It’s unique, very special here. I love being with real people, seeing their expressions, their laughter, their frustrations and anger. I love it here. The open space, it’s free and,’ a pause for effect, and to have a swig of coke, ‘I have nothing else to do.’

Sounds from the Park is  organising a reminiscence event at the Bishopsgate Institute on 8th December for everyone with memories of Speakers’ Corner.

Wellcome to London: how Henry Wellcome ‘hoovered up the world’ and left it on the Euston Road

Wisconsin, 1858. A five-year-old boy is playing near his frontier home when a strange stone catches his eye. He takes it to his father, who examines the flint carefully before deciding that it was a prehistoric tool made thousands of years before to cut meat. It probably meant as much to its creator as the railway did to modern humans. ‘That excited my imagination and never was forgotten,’ wrote Henry Wellcome years later, after he had grown up, moved to London and accumulated one of the largest collections of scientific paraphernalia that has ever been gathered by a single individual.

Henry Wellcome

Wellcome established his pharmaceutical company, Wellcome-Burroughs, in 1880, making a mint selling pills to an English public that had previously taken medicine in the form of powder or syrup. This fortune sits in the Wellcome Trust, which was established 76 years ago and is now worth £14 billion, making it one of the world’s largest charitable foundations. Next door to the Wellcome Trust HQ on Euston Road, a short walk from St Pancras, sits the Wellcome Collection, a museum that houses some of the million or so objects collected by Wellcome in his lifetime. Here is Napoleon Bonaparte’s toothbrush, ancient sex aids, Chinese torture chairs lined with blades, boxes of false eyes, human skeletons and paintings by Van Gogh. It is one of the most extraordinary collections in the world, a throwback to a time when wealthy individuals would hoover up the weird and wonderful of the world for their personal collections, but executed on a scale few could compete with.

Ken Arnold is the Wellcome’s Head of Public Programmes. ‘This is the last great non-connoisseurs collection,’ he says. ‘Our usual concept of a collector is somebody who carefully decides whether something is authentic and then forks out a huge amount of money for it. Wellcome had an “other-end-of-the-telescope” approach. He saw everything through medical-tinted spectacles and wanted to own anything that would illuminate that fascination.’

Wellcome collected everything: paintings, engravings, photographs, models, sculptures, manuscripts, books, periodicals, pamphlets, letters, prescriptions, diplomas, medical instruments, archaeological finds, skeletons, skin, hospital equipment, advertisements, drugs, remedies, food, plants, microscope slides, charms, amulets, ceremonial paraphernalia, costumes, medals, coins and furniture. He bought entire shops, contents, fixtures and fittings, acquiring enough to recreate an entire street. He bought others collections, picked up human skulls from African battlefields and returned from one typical trip abroad with 44 packing cases of material. If something wasn’t available, he had an artist make a reproduction. Teams of buyers were finding him items right up until his death in 1936. His reach was broad and their brief was wide.

‘Wellcome had deep pockets and no bureaucrats telling him what he could bring home so he had none of our moral, financial or logistical concerns,’ says Arnold. ‘He hoovered up the world, and left us with this extraordinarily unwieldy and undisciplined collection.’ Although Wellcome amassed an immense collection, he was frugal with his money. ‘He was very wealthy, but he would send employees to auctions dressed down so they didn’t look too rich, and would set up fake companies so people wouldn’t know it was his money,’ says Ross MacFarlane, research officer at the Wellcome Library.

A chippy self-made American, Wellcome could never become part of the British establishment – although he was awarded both a knighthood and the French Legion d’honneur – and a desire to be taken seriously may have prompted his determination to create a museum of ‘the art and science and healing’. This opened in 1913 in South Kensington, before it moved to Wigmore Street and closing in 1932. When Wellcome died, the collection was put into storage or dispersed.

‘The British Museum has 40,000 objects, the Science Museum has more than 100,000, the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford has 30,000 items and there are bits in almost every museum in the UK,’ says Arnold. The Wellcome Trust has since taken a similarly philanthropic approach, funding wings in numerous UK museums, galleries and academic institutions.

In 2007, the Wellcome Collection opened. It is a modern, classy space, with a cafe and bookshop, as well as a gallery that hosts thought-provoking exhibitions that use art and science to explore topics such as Skin, Sleep and Brains. Their next exhibition, Death, promises to be particularly fascinating and challenging.

The Wellcome dares to be different: while most museums take an unfamiliar topic and wring all the knowledge out of it like a damp dishcloth, the Wellcome looks at something familiar and turns it inside out, using contemporary art and scientific research to make visitors question what they think they already implicitly understand. Their ability to do this can be traced back to Henry Wellcome himself.

‘We feel free to interpret the material Wellcome collected,’ says MacFarlane. ‘Because although we know when something was bought and what it cost, we don’t always know how it got to the auction.’ Arnold expands on this: ‘He didn’t talk about his philosophy. There’s enough to get an idea of why he was collecting, but there’s not so much that we feel we have to conform to his beliefs. He once said ‘Never tell anybody what you are planning to do until you have done it.’ That sounds like a good idea to me…’

So the Wellcome eschews blockbuster shows – which Arnold describes as ‘a depressingly greedy way to conduct exhibitions’ – and takes pride in imaginative live events. ‘We never try to be definitive,’ says Arnold. ‘There’s always more to discover. And we don’t want to be po-faced. Science is either deadly serious or fun with pink fluffy letters – and between these two unpalatable positions is a yawning chasm that can be filled with smart and sophisticated entertainment.’

Of course, the Wellcome is helped by having a lot of money in its coffers. ‘We are much more privileged that most other organisations. We are wealthy and we don’t have to satisfy civil servants, corporate sponsors or shareholders. But that attitude comes from the Wellcome Trust itself: science is a risk-taking business and there is a sense we are allowed to be experimental.’

MacFarlane finishes that thought, ‘When we take the directors an idea, they’ll often want to give it a go, and that’s a bit like how Wellcome collected. It’s a great position to be in.’

Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. Admission free. The Wellcome’s next exhibition is Death, from November 15. 

Punk at the Hayward: curate and destroy

Does any music form have as curatorial approach to its own history as punk? In many ways that is understandable, as the graphic art that came out of the punk movement is as interesting as most of the music, while many of the scene’s key movers always saw themselves as part of a cultural avant-garde that went back to the Symbolists and still wish to emphasise that. One of the most prominent of these voices is Jon Savage, and he has co-curated an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on punk called Someday All The Adults Will Die.

Despite punk now being nearly 40 years old and having been curated like a dead horse for several decades, it still has a visceral and visual appeal to many – and not necessarily the people you may expect. When I visited the gallery, most of my fellow visitors appeared to be in their 20s: this was clearly not simply an excuse for a nostalgic wander back through adolescence by men suffering a mid-life crisis. The kids dug it.

It’s a wide-ranging exhibition, with sections devoted to seven-inches, cassettes, posters, flyers and fanzines, including Savage’s own London’s Outrage.

My favourite stuff tended to be the less predictable such as pre-punk items involving the Diggers, who co-existed awkwardly with the hippies in San Francisco in 1966 and 1967, as these mimeographs demonstrate.

There was also items reflecting Savage’s fascination with Situationism, including this King Mob poster. Malcolm McLaren was loosely affiliated to King Mob.

I also liked the items relating to Suburban Press, the witty and brilliant pre-punk/Situationist publishing house created by Jamie Reid.

And, finally, I loved the handful of contemporary examples demonstrating how the mainstream tried to cash-in on punk with things like a punk-themed horoscope magazine and punk pulp fiction. Such money-grabbing tactics, it must be noted, have since been refined somewhat…

Someday All The Adults Will Die is at the Hayward until November 4.

Photos: Young London, Permissive Paradise, 1969

These photographs of London in the late 1960s are a wonderful commentary on the scene of the time. Frank Habicht, who also took some great images of the Rolling Stones, is particularly adept at drawing out the contrasts between the carefree young and the more traditional side of the city. Enjoy.

All photographs are from Frank Habicht’s Young London, Permissive Paradise (1969)