Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

Purley and dementia

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the dementia-friendly town concept, which is currently being rolled out in Purley. It is one of many initiatives being considered for towns and cities as the average age of the population continues to rise.

 

Read or Dredd: 2000 AD at the Cartoon Museum

Everything I love about British pop culture is encapsulated in 2000AD, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in February 2017. There are several birthday events planned, including an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury that runs until April 23rd. I had a look around in the company of the curator Steve Marchant, who enthused about the gorgeous clarity of the original artwork from Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra (“At times, the comic looked like it was printed with mud on toilet paper,” he said), while I reacquainted myself with the world of Dredd and Rogue Trooper.

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As a kid, my comic-reading progress went something like this: BeanoTransformersRoy Of The Rovers2000AD. It wasn’t quite that simple – the first comic I ever read was Beezer, and I was a big fan of Whizzer And Chips. When I was reading Transformers, I was also regularly reading Batman and Superman. And for a while, I got really into a horror comic called Scream!.

But in this journey, 2000AD always seemed like the inevitable destination. Even when I was reading the playful pranks and japes of Dennis and Minnie, I’d see 2000AD on the rack at WH Smiths and quiver in confused anticipation at the cover, and the weirdness and violence it promised.

I knew one day I’d be ready.

The exhibition at the Cartoon Museum starts by showing how 2000AD was created and how it developed. I learnt that the initial hero was soppy space curate Dan Dare, in whose blue-eyed banality I saw as the very opposite of what 2000AD stood for. Several other strips – often loosely based on popular movies or TV series – were given a turn until Judge Dredd inevitably took over. And it was Judge Dredd who most fascinated me. He is a brilliant creation, this square-jawed, deadpan, literal-minded, licensed thug who you can never be sure is good, evil or amoral. Sure, America had Batman but he was a playboy billionaire who frequently expressed moral conflict. Dredd, by contrast, was a foot soldier with no exterior life who always knew what he was doing was right because he was law incarnate. In that lack of doubt, he had more in common with supervillains than superheros.

But what made Dredd sing was the universe around him, and especially the surreal, sinister Mega-City One, which had its own architecture, slang, fads and culture. The world of Mega-City was often very funny and satirical – giant tower blocks named after some of the most insignificant 20th century personalities and politicians – and Dredd was this single-minded avatar plodding through it, trying to erase difference and make sense of it all.

The combination was fascinating: a strip could be at once nihilistic, surreal, smart, sarcastic, joyful, violent and morally ambiguous. One strip at the Cartoon Museum illustrates this neatly: Dredd is spending Christmas Day on the beat, by the end of which he has deported an illegal immigrant, shot a fellow judge and punched a well-wisher in the face. And this was the good guy.

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Much less ambiguous was my other favourite character, Rogue Trooper. The exhibition looks at several long-standing strips including Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog and the wonderful Halo Jones, but it was Rogue who I adored. He was weird – taciturn and blue, with a talking gun, back pack and helmet – but he at least provided some moral clarity after Dredd. The concept was simple too, a sort of future war Fugitive, with Rogue out to hunt down the man who betrayed his unit – the classic quest that could be strung out for as long as possible.

It’s heartening to see 2000AD is still popular today. When it was formed, it was assumed it would last around six months, as that was the usual lifespan of new comics – indeed, the aforementioned Scream! folded after 15 issues. That it is still relevant is testament to the skill of the artists and the writers, who continue to ensure there are sufficient parallels with the real world for plots to be relevant. A couple of strips at the Cartoon Museum showcase this perfectly: in one, a patriotic, racist robot sings Rule Britannia and whines about foreigners as it goes on the rampage amid the skycrapers of Brit-Cit; in another, Chief Judge Caligula has taken power, a deranged, rambling permanently enraged narcissist with a huge ego and lustrous hair who insists on building a giant wall around his crumbling empire.

Remind you of anybody?

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Podcasts, radio and Ray Davies

bps-ray-daviesI have recorded a podcast with N Quentin Woolf for Londonist about Battersea Power Station. It covers the full history of the site, looking at the history of the power station, the property battles, failed dreams and possible future.

On Friday, I will be a guest on Wandsworth Radio at around 6.30, again talking about Up In Smoke and the power station.

The image above, incidentally, is a screengrab from Ray Davies’s excellent 1984 film Return to Waterloo, starring Tim Roth and Ken Colley, which is set largely aboard the 8.52 from Guildford to Waterloo. Recently released on DVD, I review it in the forthcoming edition of Uncut.

 

 

 

Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

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Curiocity – the book

Way back in 2011, I wrote this blog post about something I’d been sent in the post. It was called Curiocity and was a tiny fold-up magazine that featured arcane trivia on one side and a weird map on the other. I think I was one of the first – if not the first – to write about the project. The first editions were numbered and then they began to appear in alphabetical order, with each letter indicating the theme, often wilfully obscure and tangential. It was a wizard wheeze, and I even contributed to later editions but Curiocity the magazine only got as far as G, when they stopped. I was miffed, partly because I’d not got round to asking how it should be pronounced – “curio city” or curiosity”?

That’s because the pair behind Curiocity – Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose – had been approached to write a book. I remember them announcing this to a bunch of us London nerds in a pub in Farringdon. How, we wondered, was this fascinating map concept going to make it into a book? Well, the answer arrived earlier this year with the publication of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London. If it wasn’t for the publication of Up In Smoke, it would probably be the best London book of the year.

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I’m not sure when bookshops started having London sections, but I know that I first became aware of the concept of “London writing” in 1999, when Granta published a marvellous London special. Ackroyd’s biography appeared shortly after and a genre was defined. Since then, the concept has exploded. People have always written books about London, but now it has developed into a mini industry all of its own. My bookshelves groan with London books, many brilliant, others less so. There is, in these London bookshop sections, perhaps an over-reliance on ‘secret/eccentric” London-type books, which all seem to contain pretty much the same information just with slightly different covers. But there are also gazetteers on London place names, London maps, London statues, London rivers, London animals, London graveyards, London pubs, London murders, London folklore… my house is packed with these specialist tomes, the best of which are rich in detail and lovingly compiled.

Even so, I’m tempted to chuck them all out because all this information and more can be found in Curiocity. Ostensibly divided into 26 alphabetic themes, the book basically contains all the London trivia, information and history you’d ever require in one place. The esoteric nature is hard to grasp and harder to describe but for example G is for Grids,  a chapter that takes in everything from bollards to bikes – and the bike page includes entries on velodromes, cyclist cafes, Queen videos, mass transit cycling events, recumbent hire and the serial number of the most ridden Boris bike. It’s a mix of trivia, history and listing information that reminds me of peak-era themed issues of Time Out crossed with The London Encyclopedia and then given the Burroughs cut-up technique. 

What’s particularly edifying is there is no attempt to thin out or dumb down  – it’s a total mind dump, with the editors throwing every possible piece of information they can have at the pages and then worrying how to make them stick later. It’s also beautifully illustrated, with special maps created and conceived for the occasion. And while the gargantuan size takes it a long way from the flimsy fold-up map I first received in 2011, it’s gratifying that the spirit of the project has not only survived but been allowed to expand and prosper to the benefit of anybody fascinated by London books and with space enough on their bookshelves for more.

Curiocity: In Pursuit Of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose.

 

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Spitalfields Life reports that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close. This is one of London’s oldest companies, founded in 1570 and based at its present site for 250 years. I met the owner of the foundry in 2015, and wrote this piece for Completely London magazine.

“The world is full of bells,” says Alan Hughes, and he should know. Bells are in his blood. Hughes is the fourth generation of his family to be master bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. Operating since 1570, the foundry has cast some of the most famous bells in the world. Big Ben was one of theirs, as were the bells at Westminster Abbey, the cockney bells of St Mary-le-Bow and America’s Liberty Bell. “I feel more like a caretaker than the owner,” says Hughes. “It’s so old. It was started by somebody walking these streets when Shakespeare was alive and Elizabeth I was on the throne. The world was unrecognisable. Yet it’s the same business, doing the same thing, essentially the same way.”

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In 1738, Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved to their present site on Whitechapel Road, having been founded up the road at Aldgate. The shop front is discreet and the Georgian offices modest. A display area depicts highlights from the past 445 years, such as cuttings from the Queen’s visit in 2009 and, hanging above the door, a gigantic moulding gauge, which looks like a pterodactyl’s wishbone and was used to create the mould for the 13.5 tonne Big Ben. They are proud of their history at Whitechapel, but past a small internal courtyard comes a clanging reminder that this is a living enterprise. Here is the foundry’s workshop, a large space filled with old bells, new bells, castings, moulds, metal dust, furnace bricks, and the damp thick smell of clay. In one corner, a tuner stands turning a bell on a lathe, gradually shaving off the rough interior metal by millimetres until he gets the right tone. It’s a busy, dirty, noisy place, which is why the foundry’s popular tours don’t take in the factory floor. “It’s lovely to be involved in a company that actually makes things,” says Hughes. “Here we are surrounded by bankers and financial services and I’m sure that’s very necessary and profitable but there’s nothing tangible, there’s no nuts and bolts.”

The foundry makes around 35 tonnes of bells each year, of varying sizes and for all occasions, exporting as far as Australia. They make church bells, hand bells, tiny bells for instruments like the calliope (a sort of steam organ) and ornamental bells using methods unchanged for centuries. “The fundamentals haven’t changed in 4,000 years,” says Hughes. “You create a mould, which means you make a space, the shape of which is the exact shape of the cast you wish to create, and you pour in liquid metal. That cools and the mould is then broken. Our moulding material – called the loam – is sand, bound with clay, hair and horse manure. What has changed is that we have far tighter control of technique and purity, and greater understanding of acoustics. We can produce bells that sound better, are better tuned, are better made and will last longer.”

That’s some claim given that even old bells are extraordinarily durable. “The demand for bells has been falling steadily since the 19th century and the fundamental problem is that once you have a well-made bell, you never need to replace it,” says Hughes. “There are two at Westminster Abbey that we cast in 1583. They are rung once a day every day and there’s nothing wrong with them. The oldest bell we’ve worked with are in North Kent and from the 1200s. There’s nothing wrong with them. Providing they are used sensibly, a bell will go on forever.”

Hughes was introduced to the family business – his great-grandfather purchased the company in 1904 – at a young age, going on tower inspections with his father during school holidays. “I’d sit at the top of the tower and write down measurements that he shouted out at me,” he recalls. Hughes “drifted” into working at the foundry, starting in the workshop in 1966. Now office based, he still keeps his hand in. “Nobody here can do everything,” he says. “We have loam-moulding, sand-moulding, tower bell tuning, handbell tuning, leatherwork, carpentry, joinery, fitters, turners, blacksmiths, bell hangers, steel fabricators. I started in the loam shop and still have the record for the greatest number of loam hand-mixes in one day, I did eight – the closest anybody has got is six. I have done frame building and bell hanging and I am currently the blacksmith’s mate. I enjoy the physical work. You end the day thirsty, dirty and exhausted but can fix it with a beer, bath and bed.”

Running the bell foundry is, Hughes suggests, tiring but satisfying work. “I like the idea that I am involved in creating things that will still be operating not only years after I have died, but possibly centuries,” he muses. “Not many people are in such a fortunate position that they will leave something behind that will outlive them so long.” No wonder the foundry seems timeless. Back outside, the 21st century continues. Upon leaving the foundry, a tiny bell above the door chimes clearly and with pride.

http://www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/

On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

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RIP Martin Stone – guitarist, bookseller, hustler

I first met Martin Stone, who died this week of cancer in France, at at exhibition in a Mayfair bookstore. It was a display of countercultural ephemera and included a flyer advertising a gig by Mick Farren’s Deviants. Stone, thin, toothless and full of mischief, regaled me with a terrific anecdote about the time he saw Mick Farren – “once one of the three coolest men in London after Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix” – doing a rather desperate book reading in front of a barely interested audience at a branch of Borders in California. He cackled a little in the telling, obviously amused by the fall of one of the underground giants of the 1960s.

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Stone himself was an intriguing figure who in later years looked a little like a more crumpled William Burroughs and came with a fascinating back story and the vibe that you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. When I wrote about early 1960s R&B in south-west London, his name recurred as one of the best guitarists on the scene, able to hold his own against the likes of Page, Beck and Clapton. He was even said to be on the shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Stone stayed in music throughout the 60s and 70s – he played for a variety of bands including The Action, Mighty Baby, Pink Fairies and 101ers – but later branched into bookselling, where he became a mythical figure, “running” books from one shop to another, which basically means finding something underpriced in one place and selling it for its true value in another.

Stone was friendly with Iain Sinclair (who wrote about him here), appearing as a character in one of Sinclair’s early books and as himself in one of the strange films Sinclair made with Christ Petit. This was an odd trajectory to take, from 60s counterculture musician to  bookdealer, but it’s worth recalling how many other musicians of that generation did something similar. Jimmy Page ran an occult book shop in Kensington, Pete Townshend ran the Magic Bus bookshop in Richmond and worked for Faber & Faber while Paul McCartney was closely involved with Indica. Thurston Moore is doing something similar today.

Stone developed a reputation as being an astonishingly adept runner, capable of finding rare books in all sorts of unusual places. Sinclair, naturally, believed he had some sort of mystical talent but having seen Stone in action and discussed it with others better informed than I, he was really just a man who knew his market and was capable of going wherever it took and spinning whatever seductive yarn was required to get his goods. He was a hustler essentially, with all that is impressive and sordid about that skill.

Having recently enjoyed Keiron Pim’s book about David Litvinoff, I’d put Stone in a similar category. A curious character with one foot in a London underworld, waspishly intimidating, unreliable but decent company, who flitted in and out of the lives of many people better known than he. His Wikipedia page gives a good flavour of this –   casually namedropping Michael Moorcock, Jimmy Page, Iain Sinclair and Marianne Faithfull.

I last saw Stone two years ago, wearing a pink suit and strolling casually down Cecil Court. He popped in to see a mutual friend, smiling and self-confident, delivered a couple of carefully barbed asides and then went on his way, looking for bargains and preparing to ambush the unprepared.