Tag Archives: Londonist

The South will rise again: trivial recruits needed

I have agreed to captain a South London team in Londonist‘s Londoner Challenge at the Museum of London.

To spare me complete humiliation at the hands of teams from the North, East and West, please apply to join my team so the South can come an apologetic third. Details here.

Small is beautiful: maps and models in London exhibitions

I’ve written before about my dislike of blockbuster exhibitions so was interested to read this piece by Stephen Moss the other day about how the age of the blockbuster may be coming to an end.  It may be wishful thinking, but support for his view comes from some surprising places.

Ken Arnold, the creative force behind the Wellcome Collection, recently told me that ‘Blockbusters are a depressingly greedy way to view exhibitions’. Arnold criticised the idea that any institution would want to cover a subject so definitively it left no avenues for others to explore, and also bemoaned the very experience of a blockbuster, which is often so unfulfilling for the spectator, who is shunted in and out on a timed ticket, having only seconds to view key works of art from behind a throng of tourists and daytrippers.

Small exhibitions might not get the column inches and posters on the tube, but they are often far more thoughtful, unusual and creatively curated. There are two crackers on display in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them. The Petrified Music of Architecture at the Sir John Soane Museum is a wonderful collection of tiny Victorian models of European cathedrals – I wrote about it for the New Statesman.

The Hand-Drawn London exhibition at the Museum of London is even better. Curated by the Londonist website, it features 11 idiosyncratic maps of London drawn by locals, and is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a while. I reviewed it for the Independent.

Go and see them both.

Maps round-up

A quick post on maps. I have a small piece in the Independent about the Museum of London and Londonist’s forthcoming collaboration, Hand-Drawn London. This exhibition, opening on April 21, features maps drawn by Londoners.

I submitted a map drawn by four-year-old daughter of her daily walk to nursery, but it was harshly rejected. I have reproduced it here.

I have also been posting fairly regularly on maps at the Time Travel Explorer blog. Recent posts have included one on London’s first lido and another on London’s forgotten exhibition.

Bollardian

I first came across John Kennedy’s brilliant Bollards of London blog shortly after he started it two years ago, when I idly googled ‘London bollards’ one evening (that is the sort of thing I do).

I’ve been fascinated by bollards for years, ever since I pretended to be  an art cinema-loving ponce and went to see Ben Hopkins’ weird London demi-classic The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz at the ICA and was transfixed by a montage scene involving talking bollards.

Many years later I sent M@ from Londonist on a quest to locate London’s top ten bollards, but John has taken this to the extreme and now has over 100 London bollards on his site.

Bollards are great. They are everywhere and they are all different. Here are two I snapped last week, located within metres of each other in Wapping but very different. 

This one is fat, old and very rusty.

This one is new, shiny and very, very short. It barely comes up to my knees and nobody would ever describe me as a giant.

Amazing eh? If you agree, check out John’s site, where he will shortly be presenting my top three London bollards from his collection.

Can you contain yourselves?

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

How to tell the Story of London

The Story of London festival was introduced by Boris Johnson last year and immediately came under a lot of fire. Here’s something from Boris Watch plus stern words from Diamond Geezer.  

The festival is not a bad idea. It’s intended to cover the history of London in a way that includes all boroughs, all ages, all races and all genders – a riposte to Ken Livingstone’s habit of staging festivals for different minority groups at a Balkanised Trafalgar Square.

But it doesn’t work.

Part of the problem is publicity, and this is of the mayor’s own doing. In 2009, there was little or no attempt to promote the nascent festival by the city’s tourist office because their funding had just been slashed by Boris and they pretty much refused to help. 

The organisers then had to take their minute budget to Time Out, where I ended up knocking up a few pages to pull out of the middle of the mag that due to a hilarious production error did not actually pull out. It was nothing like the sort of lavish inserts the company can produce when given some cash and time. 

The other problem is that London already has loads of festivals – Open House, Meltdown, the London Film Festival, London Design Festival, the City of London Festival and dozens more - while institutions such as the Bishopsgate Institute regularly put on fantastic cultural events. And that’s before we even bring in the other museums, universities, galleries and scientific institutions.

 The Story of London simply does not have a distinct identity to compete with these established players.

With barely a niche to be found in London’s crowded cultural calender, Story of London has taken to hijacking and rebranding existing events, which doesn’t impress anybody. And they are so busy doing this they forget to organise any showpiece events that would help to give the festival a character of its own. Plus, they don’t have any money.

The result is a bit of a mess.

So what could they do? Fortunately for them, I was able to scribble a few suggestions on the back of a press release in between playing Secret of Monkey Island on my phone and wondering why I’ve rarely heard of a single person who appears in the Standard’s Londoner’s Diary.

  • Be honest - don’t hijack events that have nothing to do with you as it just looks cheap. And if you insist on this policy, it means that desperate organisers of terrible events will attempt to smuggle their substandard fare into your festival and you’ll have no way of keeping them out.
  • Bespoke – ensure that anything carrying the Story of London banner is new and brilliant and has genuinely been arranged specifically for the festival. That makes it fresh and makes it exciting and should ensure that you can keep an eye on the quality control.
  • Be focused – find a theme and stick to it. Make it broad and make sure that every borough has at least one institution participating. Narrow the time frame so it all takes place on a single weekend. Keep it tight at first and let it grow organically. At the moment it is a big blancmange of a festival when it should be as tight and pretty as an avocado stone.
  • Be clever – one of the best festivals the mayor currently has at his disposable is the Thames Festival, so hook the whole thing round that. A wee bit of rebranding – and yes, this is hijacking, but it’s hijacking with a point – and you have a ready-made spectacular way to close the weekend with the annual fireworks display.
  • Be imaginative - the guys from the Londonist website are already involved in one small event, but why not ask them to think up something big and crazy? These – and other - bloggers live and breath London in a way few paid professionals can compete with, so talk to them. They may not be interested, they may have terrible ideas, they may have no ideas, but they may just come up with a couple of events that curators and pros can turn into something special. Because at the moment, as Ian Visits says, the Story of London is just ‘a way for a lot of venues who are already planning to do something to get involved in a joint media campaign’.

And that’s as far as I got. LeChuck was causing all sorts of problems and I had to Google Laura Weinstock. But hey, it’s a start.

Maps and apps

 

Some months ago, I heard about the Time Travel London Explorer app, a nifty iPhone application that allows you to layer different historical maps of London on top of each other, so you can use GPS to see how the street you are standing in has changed (or not) since 1746.

I was so excited I went out and bought an iPhone in anticipation and wasn’t disappointed when the app was finally completed. It features four different maps – Rocque 1746, Horwood 1799, Greenwood 1830 and Stanford 1862 - as well as lots of easily searchable historical information and photographs of London, along with audio guides. You can read a review here.

It’s a bit like the Museum of London’s Street Museum app only better as fading in from one historic map to another is fun and informative.

The Time Travel Explorer website features a blog about mapping and London history written by myself and M@ from Londonist. If this is the kind of thing that gets you going – and really, how could it not? – go check us out.

Magnificent Maps at the British Library

The British Library currently has an excellent new exhibition about maps called Magnificent Maps. I reviewed it for New Statesman (get me), and tried to focus on the sort of political aspects of the maps on display that would appeal to the generally Labour-supporting readers of the New Statesman, seeking any sort of diversion from the electoral massacre they had recently witnessed.

Diamond Geezer also took inspiration from contemporary politics with his review. He wins, I think.

The highlight of the exhibition for many Londoners will undoubtedly be Stephen Walter’s incredible idiosyncratic The Island, which you can study in detail here. This is a very personal and witty look at London by an artist. I particularly like the rather condescending but still satisfying comment he puts next to Herne Hill – ‘If I lived south of the river it would be here’. What finer praise could a North Londoner offer?

If you like maps a lot, you should also check out the hand-drawn gallery at Londonist. A little bird tells me that these may soon get a museum exhibition of their very own.