Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jaeter for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jaeter told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.

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The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

Talking about Battersea Power Station

A lovely review of Up In Smoke has appeared on the London Society website this week, and I will be talking about Battersea Power Station at a London Society event alongside Owen Hatherley in September. More information on that soon. Owen and I discussed architecture and music on Resonance FM a few weeks ago, and you can listen to that here.

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Before that, I’ll be one of three speakers at a Londonist event on July 20th at The Pipeline on Middlesex Street, E1. I will tell some strange tales about Battersea Power Station, Amy Dickens will discuss her blog about commuters and Matt Brown will tell us that everything you know about London is wrong, which also happens to be the title of his latest book. All that for a fiver and chance to say hello. Doors open at 7pm.

To give you a taste,here’s a blog post I wrote about the power station’s current predicament for the New Statesman. I’ve also recorded something for their City Metric podcast – more information on that as it comes.  

 

 

Tate Modern – a tale of two power stations

I went to see the new Tate Modern extension yesterday and very impressive it was too. The extension by Herzog & De Meuron manages that rare trick of looking new and exciting while also reflecting the character and style its neighbouring building. It reminded me a little of the way the British Library sits so comfortably yet confidently next to St Pancras.

 

The interior is also neatly done, despite some very peculiar shapes in corners. There appears to be more public space than in the original galleries – although that may be because it was filled with only 100 or so journalist rather than several thousand tourists – and it feels genuinely sociable, as well as realistically industrial. The viewing platform on the 10th floor is great, although the vista to the south is sadly blocked by the hideous tower to the left of the image directly above.

The art was fun too, featuring some great oversized installations on the second floor, plus a mix of disciplines – including incredible street photography taken in Newcastle – and loads of women and international artists.

Naturally, this sensitive, thoughtful and exciting treatment of what was once Bankside Power Station got me thinking about its older sibling along the river in Battersea. Both buildings were the work of the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and so naturally share a similar style, most notably the use of decoration on the brick envelope to dress the mass, making it more palatable. Some critics believe that Bankside is the better building, describing it as Scott’s masterpiece.

It is certainly a fine building but I’m not even sure I was aware it existed until it was converted into Tate Modern in 2000. I would have walked past it, sailed past it, looked straight at it numerous times – but the fact of its existence escaped me. This is not uncommon I’ve found and Bankside, for many, only became noticeable when it was turned into an art gallery, finding in its second life a prominence that had eluded it for decades – and perhaps this invisibility is something Scott should be commended for, as the power station’s presence on the river opposite St Paul’s was immediately and understandably controversial.

Bankside

This is all in stark contrast to Battersea, a building that once seen is impossible to forget and which has always had a prominence you rarely find in industrial buildings, let alone their ruins. Only now, as Battersea disappears behind a curtain of contemporary glass and steel is that threatened – so while Bankside eventually found visibility in its afterlife, Battersea faces obscurity, with the thoughtfulness of the Tate’s new extension highlighting the brash ugliness of the new developments around Battersea.

High Street

 

As ever, one ponders alternative presents to that in which we find ourselves. When it became known in the early 1990s that the Tate was looking for a second building, having acquired a collection too large to be contained within the original Pimlico gallery, campaigners at the Battersea Power Station Community Group wrote to the trustees, suggesting they make a bid for Battersea Power Station, then still in the hands of theme park magnate John Broome but already in a terrible state. This, they argued, would make the perfect location for a new art gallery: it was huge, impressive, historic and directly across the river from the Pimlico site. Romantic as this might have been, Tate’s trustees – possibly alerted to the idea of using a power station by the campaigners – instead plumped for Bankside, which had closed in 1981 and facing demolition, for entirely practical reasons.

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Inside Bankside before the art arrived

For one, Bankside is much smaller than Battersea, only a third the size. Secondly, Bankside is much easier to get to, surrounded by tube and rail stations, and even a new bridge to the City, while Battersea is strangely isolated despite its prominent location. Thirdly, Bankside wasn’t listed, making it much easier to convert -and later, to stick gargantuan limpet-like extension alongside, when it turned out the original building was too small.

Bankside was saved and the arrival of Tate helped precipitate a huge cultural change along that part of the river. Further west, however, Battersea’s struggles had barely begun.

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station published by Paradise Road.

Parks and pubs

I reviewed Travis Elborough‘s lovely history of the British public park for Caught By The River.

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Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.

This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.

It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.

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Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.

The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.

In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.

The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.

 

A Monkee in London: Alf Garnett, John Lennon, Princess Margaret and Balham

I have a feature on the Monkees in the current issue of Uncut.

It’s the second time I’ve spoken to Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, having interviewed them both – plus the late Davy Jones – five years ago to discuss the recording of “Randy Scouse Git”. This time I also spoke to Mike Nesmith.

“Randy Scouse Git” was a song inspired by London. Dolenz wrote it in a London hotel, riffing on a line from Alf Garnett. He told me in 2011:

“We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party. We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprised everybody by saying hello and they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. It was an amazing experience. I am told I had a great time. I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and then we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet as it  was disturbing her sleep.

The next morning there were a few people hanging around, Mama Cass was in town, and I’d met this girl and I just started doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meaning.

‘The being known as wondergirl’ was Samantha and the ‘wonderful lady’ at the start was Mama Cass. I must have been watching Till Death Us Do Part on TV. Alf Garnett called the kid (Tony Booth, Tony Blair’s future father-in-law) a ‘randy Scouse git’. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was funny so I wrote it down.”

Dolenz also talked about visiting The Beatles at Abbey Road.

“I’d gone to a Sgt Pepper session at Abbey Road in my paisley bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirt and hair in beads and giant sunglasses. I looked like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Charlie Manson. I was expecting a wild, psychedelic funfest freak-out happening, but it was more like a high school gymnasium with four guys in jeans and t-shirts sitting on folding chairs and playing. I must have looked such an idiot. John Lennon said, ‘Hey monkey man, do you want to hear what we’re doing?’ and in the booth is George Martin in a three-piece suit and he presses the button and played “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

Dolenz is something of an Anglophile. His first two wives were British and he lived in London for many years, in Tooting Bec. While working as a TV producer in the UK, he directed this 1979 take on the classic 1950s Denis Norden/Frank Muir sketch, “Balham – Gateway To The South“.

Waterstones event

I will be giving a talk about Battersea Power Station’s failed dreams on Wednesday May 11 at 7pm at Waterstones in Clapham Junction. Further details here. Please come along and ask questions. It’s free.

A lovely review of Up In Smoke is on Caught By The River and I also wrote a long piece in The i Paper this week, exploring the power station’s history through quotes from those involved in its history. It’s pretty thorough and looks great. You can read that here.

Perhaps I should have asked Brian Barnes to knock up some posters? This is one of us from the 1980s.

BPSCG 1988 from Spectacle blog

Talking power station with Robert Elms

I was invited on Robert Elms’ Radio London show yesterday to talk about Battersea Power Station.

You can hear me here, from around 1 hr 39 minutes. Thanks to Robert’s team for inviting me on, and for Robert asking such excellent questions. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Listening to Robert Elms’s show in the late 1990s was fundamental to developing my fascination with London so this was quite an exciting event for me. In many ways, the nature of my love for London was more influenced by Elms than it was the likes of Sinclair or Ackroyd.

Incidentally, this was also the first time I had visited the BBC at Portland Place since 1999, when I was one of a handful of journalists invited to see a demonstration of TIVO by the BBC’s Head Of Future, who paused and then continued watching a live weather forecast. Many of us believed we had witnessed a form of witchcraft; one reporter even accused him of manipulating a VHS tape.

I also had a piece in Time Out this week, listing ten things you didn’t know about Battersea Power Station. You can read that here.

 

 

 

 

Getting battered at the Half Moon

With the Half Moon in the news so much these days – and about to feature in its own book – I thought I’d reprint this article I wrote in 2002 for Time Out when I went sparring in the gym above the pub. I’ve included a couple of grainy photographs of me flailing wildly, sweating ringlets asunder, but cannot be responsible for any harm these may cause the viewer.

He comes at you again, all padding and muscle like a Michelin man filled with concrete. The ropes dig into your back as he bellows in your air – “Hit me! Give me what you’ve got!” – but even if you could raise your tortured arms there’s no room to swing a punch. Sweat spills down your face and your longs flip-flop as they grab for air. Then suddenly there’s space. “Jab!” he shouts. And you do, smacking his raised glove at full pelt. “Cross, jab, cross!” One, two, three! Bam, bam, bam! Then he’s down your throat again, pushing you back and forcing a clinch. You can’t see, you can’t move, you can barely breathe. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating.

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The setting is a rough-and-ready gym above a nondescript pub in Herne Hill. This is where Clinton McKenzie, former British and Commonwealth light-welterweight champion, runs a “boxercise” class that he boasts “is the closest thing to getting in the professional ring”. McKenzie, the brother of former world champion Duke and father of footballer Leon, has been here for seven years, ever since he found something that satisfied after the messy couple of years that followed his retirement from the game. The place was derelict when he began. Now, he says, the demand is such that he may need to close the membership for a couple of months.

 

You can see the appeal. First, the gym is one of the least threatening you’re ever likely to walk into. For a venue in which so much energy is devoted to hitting things, there’s a surprising lack of testosterone in the air. Such is the unintimidating atmosphere that a fair number of women take part, as partial to a workout and punch-up as anybody else. When you’re in the ring, fellow boxercisers yell encouragement. They help tape up your knuckles. They don’t laugh when you trip over the skipping rope.

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As affable outside the ring as he is dominant inside, McKenzie tailors the sessions to individual needs and interests. Mine went thus: 15 minutes on the exercise bike; 12 minutes on the punchbag; one minute failing to skip; an eternity in the ring; 20 minutes trying not to throw up; 10 minutes warm down. Make no mistake, this is tough work. The punchbag is hard and heavy, and pummelling it for four rounds of three minutes is punishing. Our arms aren’t used to that kind of treatment, the shudder of connection as you wallop and counter-wallop the swaying sack. First time out, boosted by McKenzie’s encouragement and ignoring his warnings, chances are you’ll overdo it and punch yourself out. With the adrenalin pumping, it’s difficult not to.

It’s in the ring that the real stuff happens. You feel like a champ as you tighten your bandages, pull on the gloves and step into the ring. McKenzie waits. He’s in padding that covers his chest and stomach and wears sparring gloves but has not intention of simply making himself a target. For the first minute or so he shouts instructions – jab, cross, work the body, switch stance, put together combinations – but every now and then you get a cuff round the head, a reminder of where you are. Then he starts forcing you back, into corners, against the ropes, using sheer mass and presence to push you into tight spots where you have to gather all your wit and strength to stay mobile. There’s just enough pressure to make you understand what it means to enter a ring for real.

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“I like to give people a feel of what it’s like for a pro, the hard work you’ve got to put in to survive,” he says. Trying to punch, move and think at the same time takes considerable effort and – the occasional tap on the top of the head notwithstanding – here you don’t even have to worry about defence. By the end you’re reeling, vision blurred, stomach hollow, knuckles raw, arms leaden. The bell is blessed relief. And that was just one round.

“Most gyms are just machines,” says McKenzie. “Don’t get me wrong, machines are great for exercise. But there’s something special about pitting yourself against somebody else, doing it one-on-one. It makes people try that bit harder. That’s what the regulars love about this place. And the fact they are getting in the ring with a champion gives them a buzz.”

And a buzz there undeniably is. Even those of a non-violent persuasion will relish the safe, healthy environment that offers just enough whiff of danger to get the heart pumping. “If boxing ever goes under, this is what people will be turning to so they can find out what it used to be like,” says McKenzie. Sure, he’s exaggerating, but as you pound the bag or jink through the ropes, you’ll have to bite your lip to stop humming the theme from Rocky. It might not be the real thing but it’ll do champ, it’ll do.

Clinton is still running boxercise classes from a new venue in Tulse Hill. Details here

 

 

 

 

Top ten: Battersea Power Station in popular culture

While I dedicate a chapter of my book about Battersea Power Station, Up In Smoke (now available to purchase from the publisher), to the chaotic photoshoot for Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover, this was not the only time the building has been used in popular culture. Here I’ve listed some of my favourites, but there are dozens more involving Dr Who, Slade, The Jam, Richard III, The Who and The Quatermass Xperiment. It was also used as otherwise anonymous filming locations for numerous TV shows, pop videos and films, including Superman III, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Texas, Manson and The Dark Knight but I’ve chosen the moments that made the building the star.

1 Sabotage  (1936)

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Hitchcock, a Londoner with a sharp eye for locations, was one of the first directors to note the visual potential of the power station, using it in early scenes of his 1936 film Sabotage. Here the power station has only two chimneys, the second half was not started until 1937 and the final chimney not added until 1955.

2. High Treason (1951)

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This superior Cold War neo-noir b-movie includes a thrilling climactic scene at Battersea Power Station, where there’s a great shoot-out amid the clanging pipes and hissing steam. Worth seeking out.

3. Up The Junction (1963)

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Nell Dunn’s non-fiction collection of writing about Battersea woman is set in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. The poetic back cover blurb for one early edition stated, “Innocence in Battersea lasts as long as the flower remains unsooted by the power station.”

4. Help! (1965)

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In The Beatles’ film, the power station is shown blowing a fuse at a critical juncture, causing a black-out and allowing the Fabs to escape their bolthole in Buckingham Palace (“A Well-Known Palace”).

5. Smashing Time (1967)

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This goes a step further, with the restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower revolving so fast it causes the power station to explode. London’s brash newest icon annihilating a venerable predecessor – a metaphor for the 1960s if ever there was.

6. Quark Strangeness And Charm & Lights Out (1977)

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Despite the Animals debacle, album sleeve artists Hipgnosis returned twice more to the power station in 1977, photographing futuristic interior covers for Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm and UFO’s Lights Out.

7. The Borribles (1983)

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A wonderfully feral cover for this brilliant 1983 children’s novel about a group of cockney elven urchins – Borribles – who are at war with the Rumbles, a group of rat-like creatures that are thinly disguised Wombles. The action begins in Battersea, hence the power station backdrop. I loved this book as a child, and the cover was part of that initial attraction.

8. Jet Set Willy (1984)

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This level of the classic ZX Spectrum computer game was one of the first products to reference both the power station and Algie the flying pig. I played this game endlessly as a child – though I’m not sure I really got the pop culture or architectural references.

9. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” (1992)

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I was obsessed with Morrissey in 1992, and while I didn’t like this song much at the time, I did love the fact the power station featured a couple of times. Now, I think it is one of Morrissey’s finest pop moments, and the shots of the power station still delight me. A couple of years after this, I saw Morrissey play a gig at the power station, although in the dark and funnelled through tunnels, it was impossible to tell that’s where we were. Morrissey was rubbish too.

10. Children of Men (2006)

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A striking scene in Children Of Men takes place at the power station, which has been converted into the Ark Of The Arts, containing the world’s most priceless artefacts in this dystopian future London – Alfonso Cuaron, like several other film directors, saw Battersea as the sort of building only a totalitarian could love. Note the pig, flying between the chimneys. The film’s location manager told me, “We wanted strong images that had to represent London but not cheesy London. Using somewhere like Battersea meant there was no question of where you were, it was London but proper London, authentic London.”

Dream City – London’s unbuilt Edwardian theme park

I have a post on Londonist about Dream City, a theme park concept cooked up in 1907 by an American developer for a disused waterworks, a site that was later occupied by Battersea Power Station.

You can read the full story here.

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Dream City

The unbuilt Dream City is also the starting point for Alice May Williams’ short film about Battersea Power Station called Dream City: More, Better Sooner produced by the Film And Video Umbrella. The fvu have organised a talk on Friday (April 15) at the Battersea site of the Royal College of Arts by Owen Hatherley called Monetising The Ruin: Batterseas Old And New.

I will be attending the lecture and also selling copies of my book Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station.