Last week I was able to visit the reopened Hunterian Museum at the Royal College Of Surgeons on Lincoln’s Inn Field. This is an anatomical, pathology and natural history collection originally started by 18th-century Scottish surgeon John Hunter, who acquired thousands of specimens – human and animal – in his desire to understand the natural world. Here is one of my favourites, a cute little foetus of a sloth.
I wrote about the collection and Hunter’s motivations for Apollo and you can read that article here.
It’s easy to cast the Hunterian as a sort of sophisticated freak show – a place where you can see diseased organs, strange animals, skeletons and a large number of dead babies. And to a certain extent – or at least to modern eyes – that is exactly what it is. But it’s important to understand the collection in the context of the time, before X-rays, aspirins, anaesthetic and all the other miracles of modern medicine that we take entirely for granted.
Hunter collected because he wanted to understand and he wanted to understand because he wanted to improve. His curiosity and motivation (and his approach to ethics) is very similar to that of John Soane, whose own vast jumble of artistic and architectural wonders can be viewed on the other side of Lincoln’s Inn Field.
Take just a moment to think about that. Here are the two cultures – art and science – in the form of two collections amassed by obsessed and committed individuals, facing each other across a large garden square in a pair of incredible free museums, either of which would be the envy of most national or city collections. London is by no means perfect, but – much like the scientific improvements that Hunter’s inquisitive mind helped propagate – such marvels should never be overlooked or underestimated.
Like many people, I have a difficult relationship with The Smiths. They were my favourite band for the most formative years of my life, but they also have the most problematic frontman, one in whom I – like many teenagers – invested so much of myself that his increasingly unpleasant behaviour seemed much like a personal betrayal.
But the death of Andy Rourke has me reaching once more for the comfort of familiar friends. When I think of Andy Rourke, I immediately think of two things: Meat Is Murder and this picture, which I always loved for some reason, partly because it reverses the way we usually see the band – but also because Rourke looks so fucking cool.
Rourke’s brilliant bass playing is all over Meat Is Murder. One of my best friends, a bass player, says he used to argue with me that on songs like “This Charming Man” Rourke was as essential to the Smiths’ sound as Johnny Marr – but as a non-musician who worshipped Morrissey, I often struggled to hear what was actually going on with the music: it just existed. It simply was. But even I couldn’t miss the bass on Meat Is Murder. It’s a prominent feature, holding together and driving forward just about every track from “The Headmaster Ritual” onwards but most memorable of all on the fantastic strut of “Barbarism Begins At Home”.
This may even have been the first time I became conscious of what a bass guitar actually sounded like.
I have a piece about 90s Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear in the latest Uncut to mark the 30th anniversary of their single, “Her Jazz”. Here’s Huggy Bear performing the song on The Word. Apparently you can see three members of their labelmates Cornershop in the crowd. It’s a thrilling performance and I remember watching it at the time, impressed and slightly scared.
Although I was not a huge Huggy Bear fan – frankly, they intimidated me – I couldn’t miss the fact that in the music press, Huggy Bear got a tough time in a manner that seemed completely out-of-proportion to their actual size. NME and Melody Maker were known for their snark, but the usual targets were the self-important big stars – Bono, Sting, Morrissey – or the current flavour-of-the-month, such as Suede or Manic Street Preachers (a band that have some interesting similarities with Huggy Bear). But for the latter, the nastiness was usually balanced by regular cover features, positive reviews, news pieces and a general boosting of the latest indie hero.
With Huggy Bear – a small band on an indie label whose fan base barely filled a couple of pubs in north London – it seemed like it was all snark. The vitriol was relentless; Huggy Bear were the eternal punchline.
Talking to the band – mostly via email as even after 30 years they were still reluctant to trust a journalist so wanted to retain control of their words – it was clear they’d had experience this as, in one member’s word, “spiteful bullying”. And it wasn’t just the press. Other bands refused to sign to the same label as them, or created such hostility they couldn’t drink in the usual indie haunts in Camden. Some of their peers even went to gigs just to heckle. It was vicious.
What was everybody’s problem? It wasn’t Huggy Bear’s music, it was their politics – and more to the point – the sheer conviction with which they held their views. Huggy Bear believed in the underground community of fanzine culture and DIY gigs, and they believed in – and passionately espoused – gender and sexual equality. They were fierce feminists and that scared the boys. It still does. To care so much was unforgivable in the early 90s, as the affected ennui of Generation X was about to give way to the destructive irony of Britpop and Loaded – an irony, of course, that heavily favoured the views of white men.
After that performance on The Word, there was an interview with a pair of identical twins who modelled for Playboy and proudly declared they were “bimbos”. Huggy Bear and their friends in the crowd heckled, while guest Henry Rollins and presenter Terry Christian smirked awkwardly. Terry Christian is a good guy with sound views but he couldn’t handle being upstaged – on The Word for chrisake, which was explicitly created to manufacture controversy – and had them all thrown out. That earned Huggy Bear an appearance on the cover of Melody Maker. It was not The Word‘s finest hour.
Back then, Huggy Bear were sneered at for being “right on” and “politically correct”, even in the ostensibly left-leaning NME, which regularly carried a column by comedian Simon Munnery based on his Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character, which targeted this tiny but easy-to-mock demographic. Ironically, this terrible column was far more humourless than Huggy Bear themselves, whose songs brim with wit as well as fire and compassion.
These days, that terrible lazy “W” word would be deployed to diminish their opinions.
It must be annoying for them to know that Huggy Bear were right. About pretty much everything.
This was originally published by the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront newsletter in 2016.
It was while working on Time Out’s annual pub guide in around 2000 that I heard the tale of the Camden castles. A reviewer claimed that there were once four Camden pubs with castle in their name – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – and these had originally been built for navvies digging Regent’s Canal. The gist was that each national group – Scots, English, Irish, Welsh – was assigned a pub to keep them happy, or more precisely to stop them from scrapping with one another. It’s now found all over the internet, with variations. Sometimes, the Caernarvon Castle is included, and often they are said to have been built for the later railway navvies.
It’s a great yarn, but if it seems too good to be true, it’s because it is. The theory is carefully taken apart in the November 2014 newsletter of the Camden History Society by David Hayes who points out that the pubs weren’t built at the same time but “gradually appeared over a period of 130 years”. The Dublin Castle on Parkway, now a music venue, is the oldest. It featured in rates books in 1821 and may just have been frequented by Irish navvies, as the canal was completed in 1820. But next was the Edinboro Castle on Mornington Terrace, which opened in 1839, two years after the railway line to Euston. Not only did this open too late, it had facilities – a tea garden and library – aimed at an upmarket clientele. The Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill opened in the late 1860s and was probably named after its address – 1 Pembroke Terrace – while the Windsor Castle on Parkway was an off licence until 1953, when it reopened as a pub. It’s now a restaurant. As for the Caernarvon, this originally opened as the Pickford Arms – named after a nearby depot – changing its name in around 1870, possibly to join the trend, as Camden pubs became synonymous with castles.
Where then did this rumour came from? To seek an answer, I turned to In Camden Town by David Thomson. This is a diary covering a year in Camden in 1980, combining social history and personal reminiscences. Thomson spends much of his time idling with locals in Camden pubs – the Windsor, Edinboro and Dublin Castle all feature – and he also writes about the building of the canals. However, he never brings the two together, either to spread or dispel the rumour, by saying his favourite pubs were built for navvies. That suggests the story had not yet been formulated.
Of the canal navvies, he writes that “it is difficult to find out much about the… homeless thousands of men who carved the channel out by hand”, noting later that “public inquiries… showed their food, shelter and conditions of work were as wretched as those of the railway navvies later.” This was a dangerous and exhausting life. One accident near Camden in August 1813 saw a cutting collapse, burying a dozen men, several of whom died. “A navvy’s life was less valuable than a slave’s”, says Thomson, who says navvies were “like an invading army but without discipline, tents, billeting officer or commissariat.” Many were Irish and spoke no English. “‘They use only their Gaelic tongue,’ wrote one engineer. ‘And it’s by sign we direct them and thus they have little traffic with the English and keep them apart.’”
Of the railway navvies, Thomson writes. “Navvies were reckless in their leisure. They came and went to the next job in hordes, shared hardships and pleasures peculiar to their homeless life, helped each other in adversity, had a strong sense of justice, were loyal to the gang and to fair employers, and fiercely violent against those who cheated them of food or pay.” The navvies had their own traditions, including “broomstick weddings” – a marriage ceremony described thus in 1846: “It consists of the couple jumping over a broomstick in the presence of a room full of men, met to drink upon the occasion, and the couple were put to bed at once in the same room.”
Navvies were perceived to be heavy drinkers and sporadically violent. At a ceremony in Camden’s Cumberland Basin in 1816 to mark the opening of one section of Regent’s Canal, the navvies “were presented with several hogsheads of beer. Plenty of quarts and pint pots were provided, but not finding these large enough, many held out hats for a full up and drank copious draughts from those.” There were occasional fights – most notably between canal workers in Sampford Peverell in 1811 and Barrow-Upon-Soar in 1794 – as there was among railway workers in Camden in 1846 when a riot broke out between English and Irish labourers at the Round House that lasted several hours and left many injured.
A trip to the Canal Museum in King’s Cross brought more information from The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton. The canal navigators were, he writes, “strangers of uncertain origin” who carved canals the length and breadth of the country using spade and barrow, experience and muscle. Again, he notes how little trace they left on the printed record, as they became “such an accepted part of the landscape that writers and travellers rarely felt it worthy of mention”.
Originally made up of part-time agricultural workers from the English and Welsh farms, by 1795 there were an estimated 50,000 navvies working on the canals, “a mixture of English workers… and a specialised work force from Scotland and Ireland, specifically to work on the canals.” The Irish and Scots were extremely poor and these “roving bands of migrant workers” were much feared, described as “banditti… the terror of the surrounding country” in 1839.
And what of their living conditions? These sound uncannily like that of migrant workers today. Burton says some were encouraged to lodge in the towns in which they worked to defuse some of the fear and friction caused by so many unfamiliar men living close together but most lived in jerry-built temporary accommodation, travelling encampments of 600 or more, with navvies living in “a turf hovel” and subsiding on “dull plain food”. Some canal owners discussed improving conditions, raising places for workers to eat and drink, but only in the form of tents or booths. Many were paid in tokens that could only be redeemed at certain stores, invariably those owned by the canal owners. Would four brick pubs have been constructed for such poorly treated, poorly regarded men who never settled in a single place for long? Not a chance.
A photograph in Michael Ware’s A Canalside Camera shows a group of navvies, dressed in rags, surly and exhausted. The navvies had a terrible reputation, but Burton is sympathetic. “Take thousands of poor, uneducated men, remove them from home and family, send them out to sweat away at hard, dirty and dangerous work, and you cannot be surprised if the end result is a gang of men who frequently find their repose in outbursts of drunkenness and fighting.”
Here it is apparent how – if not when – the story of the Camden castles was formed. Canal navvies would have been prominent in Camden during the first half of the 19th century. They were often drawn from the poorest Irish and Scottish labourers, bolstered by English and Welsh workers. Attempts were made to keep the disparate national groups apart as they were known to fight with each other and the public. They were also famed for consuming heaps of ale, traditions later continued manfully by the railway navvies, who enjoyed a terrific tear up in the centre of Camden in 1846. And so, from these disparate truths, a cohesive myth was born, spun by some enterprising soul with a rich imagination, possibly even a lubricated barfly, enjoying the continuing hospitality of one of Camden’s many, but entirely coincidental, castles.
The Pembroke Castle, Edinboro Castle and Dublin Castle can all be found around Camden Town. The London Canal Museum is at 12-13 New Wharf Road, N1 9RT.
As with the Mona Lisa, I’ve no idea when I first saw the cover of Dark Side Of The Moon, so ubiquitous is its presence in popular culture. The Floyd prism is one of the most recognisable record sleeves in the world and was the work of designers Hipgnosis, who are now the subject of a new book, Us And Them by Mark Blake. I’ve written about Hipgnosis before – in a feature for Uncut, in my book on Battersea Power Station, and in my next book too, a forthcoming musical history of Denmark Street as Hipgnosis’s office was at No 6, a space they shared with the Sex Pistols.
One of the reasons the Hipgnosis story is so interesting is that the company – founded by Floyd associate Storm Thorgersen and Aubrey Powell – came from exactly the same 60s scene as the bands they worked with. They loved rock and roll and Beat poetry, went to the UFO and the Technicolour Dream, watched the Beatles change music and saw first-hand as their friends in Floyd developed from a blues band into a psychedelic all-conquering world-making powerhouse. They were flatmates with Syd Barrett, took drugs, dated models and had huge ambitions – so when Paul McCartney wanted to take a photo of an Egyptian statue on top of a mountain for a Wings compilation, that’s exactly what they did, flying to Switzerland and hiring a helicopter rather than simply mock it all up in the studio – even if the final cover did actually look like a studio mock-up.
You can’t get them all right.
That thinking is what led to so many memorable covers from Presence to Ummagumma, including Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy – which I write about in more detail in my Led Zeppelin cover story for this month’s Uncut. It also meant rock stars enjoyed the process, particularly the likes of 10cc and Peter Gabriel, who really embraced the debate about art and commerce and meaning and surrealism. Not everybody was happy. Storm was a difficult customer and fell out with several of his clients, including heavy-hitters like the McCartneys, Zep manager Peter Grant and Roger Waters. But all of them kept coming back to Hipgnosis because they knew they had the best ideas and the chutzpah to carry them out.
Like all great bands – Floyd especially – the key figures in this story had an epic falling out. When I interviewed Suede in 2015, Mat Osman took a moment to reflect on his band’s journey: “I always thought we had such an interesting story – what we’d done was so different,” he said. “But then I looked at the shape of the story and it was every band ever: hard work, success, hubris, drugs, fights, coming back together a bit wiser. It’s been done a million times, it’s almost Shakespearean, but every generation has to go through it.”
The Hipgnosis story has exactly this shape, and it is one that naturally lends itself to biography. The 70s yarns are all well told but Blake’s book is particularly helpful in exploring Storm and Po’s origins in the Cambridge/London counterculture, as well as extending the gaze beyond the Hipgnosis era and looking at what happened when they stepped away from cover art and began to make pop videos and adverts in the 1980s. He also diligently explores their eventually falling out and reconciliation. Storm died in 2013 but Powell continues to work with Pink Floyd – he designed the new cover for the remixed Animals – and is surely one of the only human beings who has the confidence of both Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour.
Us And Them: The Authorised Story Of Hipgnosis by Mark Blake.
Word reaches me that plans are afoot to start a campaign to erect a statue to London peace campaigner Brian Haw, whose peace camp was a fixture at Parliament Square for many years.
I interviewed Brian in June 2005 for Time Out, by which time his shanty town and placards had been housed opposite the Houses of Parliament for several years. His arrival predated the Iraq invasion of 2003 but grew and grew, drawing much more attention after the conflict started. It’s worth remembering that the current Conservative government’s illiberal approach to protest was very much previewed by the way New Labour reacted to Haw, changing the law multiple times in an authoritarian attempt to erase what they saw as an embarrassing protest. And in some ways, Haw was a trendsetter for the kind of high-visibility permanent protests seen over Brexit, although now the protesters are permanently armed with camera phones to ensure they get that attention-grabbing soundbite for a tweet that might go viral. Haw could be noisy, but was generally more stoic in his approach to protest – sitting opposite Parliament like a human scowl, a permanent blight on the house’s collective conscience.
When I interview Haw in 2005, we ended up talking for two hours. Or rather he talked, while I listened.
His life was extraordinary and seems to have been defined by his strong Christian belief and the unresolved trauma of his father’s experience as a WWII sniper who liberated Belsen and later took his own life.
What I most remember was his utter, almost frightening, determination – there was an almost messianic steel behind the eyes that reminded me in a strange way of the manner in which his nemesis Tony Blair was depicted by cartoonist Steve Bell. I’m sure neither man would like the comparison.
Haw sadly died in 2011 having defied several attempts to remove him – indeed his, peace camp was at one point famously recreated at the Tate by Mark Wallinger, winning the Turner prize.
Is a permanent statue likely to follow? News of the campaign will soon emerge.
In the meantime, here’s my interview with Brian from 2005.
A short and sad post to start 2023, following the death of former Chelsea player Gianluca Vialli. Some of my happiest memories were spent at Stamford Bridge watching Vialli play for and then manage a Chelsea side that surpassed all my childhood dreams. As a kid, the best I ever expected from Chelsea was to reach an FA Cup semi-final – with Vialli they won two FA Cups (one as player, one as manager) as well as the League Cup, Super Cup and, unforgettably in Stockholm, the European Cup Winners Cup. That Chelsea team of Poyet, Petrescu, Leboeuf and Wise was stylish, cavalier, tough and cosmopolitan – qualities utterly epitomised by Vialli himself, who grew up in a castle, dressed like a Bash Street kid, spoke in a hybrid Italian-Cockney accent and looked like he knew his way round a street fight. Vialli was very London, in an Italian sort of way, and for a few years around this time every Italian cafe in London – of which there were many – seemed to have a signed photo of Vialli behind the counter.
Of many great games from this late 1990s period, my favourite was probably this, Vialli’s first as manager. It was the second leg of the League Cup semi-final when that tournament still counted for something. Chelsea had been beaten 2-1 at Highbury. Back then, Arsenal always seemed to beat us and they were a truly formidable side – the George Graham back four, Petit and Viera in midfield, Bergkamp, Anelka and Overmars in attack. We played them off the pitch, winning 3-1, Vialli having calmed the players’ nerves with a glass of champagne before the game. Just watch the footage for a reminder of why late 90s was so thrilling and, frankly, so much better than the samey, sanitised, tactics-heavy, contact-free version we have today. These were exceptional footballers, but they knew how to tackle – well, almost: Veira was sent off. And the atmosphere! Nothing today comes close.
My girlfriend of the time had a notable soft spot for Vialli, a good-looking man who embraced his baldness like Jean-Luc Picard and paired it with a grey v-neck and thick tie.
For a while, I sported a grey v-neck myself in imitation of the great man. I couldn’t play like him, and I still had my hair, but at least I could dress the same way.
I may dig it out the back of the cupboard today, one last time, in memory of the lovely Luca.
The first indoor gig I ever want to was at the Marquee in September 1992. I’d already been to a couple of huge outdoor shows that summer – Reading, Madstock – but there was something special about going up town on a weekday to see a gig in a dark, sticky floored venue that stank of fags. It was the Irish band, Sultans Of Ping FC, best known for novelty hit “Where’s Me Jumper”, and I remember very little about the show or the venue for that matter other than the noise, the crush of people and the fact that everybody in the audience was asked to lie on their backs and wave their legs in the air for the final number. Oh, and I lost my watch in the moshpit.
I’m not sure whether I was even aware at the time that this wasn’t “the real” Marquee. That had been located on Wardour Street, whereas the Marquee I went to was at the bottom of Charing Cross Road pretty much opposite Sportspages. It closed a few years later and was turned into a Wetherspoons. The story of the Marquee – which started life underneath a cinema on Oxford Street before moving to Wardour Street – is told in a new book, co-written by Robert Sellers and Nick Pendleton. Nick is the son of Harold and Barbara Pendleton, the founders of the Marquee – and I interviewed Barbara for a piece in the Telegraph.
The Wardour Street Marquee was an extraordinary venue because of Harold and Barbara’s open-minded booking policy. The venue was open every night so there were plenty of slots to fill, which is why so many huge bands got their break at the Marquee – and continued to do so as tastes and genres changed. A lot of club venues become locked into a single scene, or even a single band – think of the Cavern or Eric’s in Liverpool for perfect examples – whereas the Marquee was much more promiscuous. It started with jazz but quickly embraced blues and R&B, before following those threads through to the 80s, taking in psych rock, hard rock, prog, pub rock, punk, new wave, heavy metal, goth, indie and hair metal. Name the leading band from any of these scenes – the Stones, Who, Pink Floyd, Cream, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Yes, King Crimson, Dr Feelgood, Sex Pistols, Wire, The Cure, Iron Maiden, Joy Division, Stone Roses, Guns N Roses – they all played the Marquee. Just about the only important band that didn’t was The Beatles. One of the charms of the book is seeing some of these line-ups and realising that pretty much every week for around 25 years, a legendary bands was on stage at the Marquee.
Playing the Marquee became a rite of passage for bands on the way up, while by the 80s it became the first port of call for many US bands. It was used for filming, and it was also used for secret shows – Bowie, The Stones, The Who, Tom Petty, The Police and loads more used it for warm-ups or special events.
The Pendletons developed parallel businesses, including artist management and promotion. They started an outdoor festival in Richmond that turned into the Reading festival – and for years, Reading was every bit as important as Glastonbury. There was also a studio, where The Moody Blues recorded “Go Now!”, Chelsea FC recorded “Blue Is The Colour” and Killing Joke recorded their debut LP – three of the finest records in anybody’s collection. The Marquee studio was where the Stock Aitken and Waterman team came together, working on Dead Or Alive’s “You Spin Around”, before they left for their own space.
The book goes into this in detail with plenty of great anecdotes about some of the most famous personalities to have played the venue, including Bowie, the Stones, Lemmy, Gilbert & George and Metallica. It’s a great read and an excellent way of understanding what arts and culture can do for a city and how many lives can be touched with memories that never leave them. That’s invaluable, and there are aren’t many places where it still happens in Soho.
The Marquee was revived a couple more times – once in Angel, now the 02, with a consortium that included Dave Stewart – and then back in the West End. The brand’s current owner tells me he does one day hope to reopen a Marquee in Soho, if he can find a willing partner- ie, a landlord prepared to accept their wider responsibility for maintaining the historic culture of an area rather than simply a devotion to their own bottom line. We can all dream, can’t we?
The sad death of PiL guitarist Keith Levene sent me back to an old Great Wen blog post, about the flat in World’s End where PiL were formed. John Lydon’s flat on Gunter Grove was located on a busy road, where the noise of passing buses was accompanied by pounding dub music from Lydon’s stereo. Throw in some paranoia, weed, a cat called Satan and a lot of argumentative music-obsessed 20-something men, and you had the formula that produced PiL.
Levene lived here with Lydon and the drummer, Jim Walker. By all accounts, it was intense.
“John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail,” said Jah Wobble.
Serendipitously, the influence of architecture on music was one theme of my current Uncut cover story, which explores David Bowie’s life in 1971 as he began to write and record Hunky Dory. Bowie wrote most of the album in his ground-floor flat at Haddon Hall, a huge Victorian mansion house backing on to a Beckenham park and golf course. It’s a classic suburban setting – a main road at the front, countryside at the back – while the house itself was really extreme, a gigantic villa surrounded by balconies with a vast stained-glass window overlooking the park. It was built by the Price family, who made candles, and originally named Pettistice.
Bowie’s landlord was a Mr Hoy, the gardener, who is said to have inherited the house out of spite after it was passed to him by the Price family, who wanted to cut a descendent out the will. Hoy charged Bowie rent of around £14 a week.
Bowie lived here with Angie and their baby Zowie (later Duncan), as well as assorted members of the soon-to-be named Spiders From Mars. He filled the house with antiques including a grand piano, on which he began to compose some of the melodies that distinguish Hunky Dory, such as “Changes” and Eight-Line Poem”. It was a great place to entertain, and visitors included fellow musicians like Roy Harper and Marc Bolan.
The chief feature of the house was a huge staircase, which greeted visitors as soon as they stepped through the door. In this old picture from the Price days, it looks like something from a National Trust property.
The architecture of the house – its grandeur, its follies, its faded over-the-top decor, its location – found its way into Hunky Dory, a very English album with a distinct personality that oscillates between domestic, internal concerns and sweeping drama.
“The house was very theatrical and grand,” Geoff MacCormack, Bowie’s old school friend, told me. “That created a certain energy to the creativity, this huge staircase with balconies on each side – the ultimate staircase to descend or ascend. It was the perfect venue to have big ideas in. It counts, all that stuff, it counts.”
Angie Bowie described it thus: “As you might expect, Haddon Hall is a thoroughly Victorian edifice: solid red brick, ornately embellished with solemn white fasciae, and of course righteously, haughtily church like in basic aspect, so much so that the dominant feature of the rear face is a huge stained-glass window. The front is almost as imposing. The door opens, and the first thing you see is that magnificent stained-glass window rising above a short staircase at the far end of a central hallway fully forty feet wide by sixty feet long.”
It made me think of other London houses that informed the sound of an album, such as Kate Bush’s 400-year-old family home nearby in Kent.
Sadly, Haddon Hall no longer exists. Already in poor condition, it was demolished and replaced by some very boring looking flats. I spoke to a current resident, who knew about the Bowie connection. “Hard to imagine now,” he said, shaking his head in wonder.
The reopening of Battersea Power Station last week drew a lot of publicity, much of which summarised the contents of Up In Smoke, my book on the power station, while sanitising most of the politics.
The reason I wrote the book was because I felt that much of what has happened to modern London – indeed, modern England – could be located within the bricks of the power station.
Battersea was always a symbol of prevailing trends and it still is today – from industrial powerhouse to decrepit ruin, reimagined as a retail experience for the ultra wealthy. Here is a landmark piece of British architecture on a patch of prime central London once owned by the British state but sold for a pittance to chaotic private enterprise only to end up in the hands of another country’s state pension fund.
If that doesn’t highlight the relationship between the short-sightedness and failure of imagination of privatisation and our current economic situation, where just about every British asset seems to be owned by other countries, I’m not sure what does.
When writing the book, I found one of the most honest interviews to be with Sir David Roche, the power station’s overlooked first developer. Sir David came on the scene in 1983 after a distant relative saw a competition in the Times inviting applicants with ideas to redevelop the power station. Roche’s relative, an architect, wanted to build a science-theme park but Roche went along with it but privately thought that was a daft idea.
“To me,” he said. “It was a shopping centre.”
Roche’s secret plan was to come up with a design that had a few rides in prominent places in and around the power station, while filling most of the space with shops. “We’d win the competition on the basis it was a theme park as that is jolly nice and makes people comfortable and exciting. But to make money it had to be a retail destination.”
As cynical as he was, Roche has proved to be completely correct, it’s just taken 40 years for everybody to admit it. The problem at the time was that Tory-controlled Wandsworth didn’t want to build shops because they didn’t want to threaten Clapham Junction town centre, just as they didn’t want to build houses because they didn’t think people would buy them. The fact there was no other viable use of the power station – an art gallery is a lovely idea but it’s too damn big – meant developers were forced to conceive completely unpractical uses for decades. That only changed when Wandsworth admitted that okay, maybe shops and houses were a good idea after all – but only for really rich people. By then, most of the developers either went bankrupt or sold to people who would eventually go bankrupt.
Roche was one of the latter. To make the theme park idea work he needed somebody with experience and brought on board John Broome, the owner of Alton Towers. Broome was even more cynical than Roche and outmaneuvered his rival to take control of the consortium, paying Roche a tidy sum to walk away – before going bankrupt trying to achieve the impossible.
That made Roche the first of several developers to pocket a tidy profit without have done all that much to earn it.
“It was mega bullshit by lots of people including me,” he admitted quite cheerfully. “But the problem with bullshit is it can sometimes work but when it doesn’t the whole thing falls apart.”
Welcome to Britain 2022. We hope you enjoy your stay.