Monthly Archives: March 2010

Yoko’s chinese whispers

‘Yoko One was one of the most boring artists I came across, but she had the ability to put people into a state of expectancy that didn’t always result in a satisfactory outcome. I went to a happening at Conway Hall. There were rows of seats all occupied with people, and she started at the front on the left and whispered something in somebody’s ear. They whispered the message in the ear of the person next to them and it went on person by person, row by row for 30 minutes, until it reached the last person at the back of the hall. Then that person went over to Yoko and whispered the message in her ear, and Yoko stood up and said “Thank you” and walked out.’

From an interview with John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.

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Patronising email of the month

‘Hi Peter, You’re a fine reporter and writer, but I’m afraid you don’t (yet) have the track record we require. Meanwhile, you’re on to a great story, and I wish you all the best in pitching it to another publication.’

Gee, thanks.

Angry Young Men and me

I forget which of my teachers called me an ‘angry young man’, which is a shame as it lead to just about the only useful thing I took from school. I was a cocky wee gobshite and regularly got ticked off in class, but the phrase ‘angry young man’ clearly had something more about it than the usual earbashing, so I asked my mum to explain. She told me of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine, and I rushed off to the library to devour ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Lucky Jim’, ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’, ‘Room At The Top’ and whatever else I could find about these 1950s writers who raged against the establishment.

As I learnt more, I kept finding references to a writer called Colin Wilson, whose book ‘The Outsider’ had kicked the whole movement off. He’d written it at the British Museum while sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath, but, pre-Amazon, I couldn’t find it anywhere.

I never read ‘The Outsider’ or thought of Wilson for years until I came upon this excellent summary of Wilson’s life on Another Nickel In The Machine. Then came two more references in quick succession, in Barry Miles’s ‘London Calling’ and David Kynaston’s ‘Family Britain’. When I saw Wilson’s ‘The Angry Years’ for £3.99 in a remaindered bookshop in Waterloo, I knew I shouldn’t resist.

I’m glad I did. What a treat. Wilson’s book is a lively package of memoir, biography, literary criticism and score-settling as he describes his life with the ‘Angries’ in the 1950s. At times, Wilson comes across as a sort of intellectual Forrest Gump, who becomes unexpectedly famous and then wanders round the literary scene telling his peers why they aren’t as clever or important as he is, acting baffled that they take this the wrong way. It is bracing stuff: ‘I wrote [Kingsley] Amis a letter… trying to explain what I found unacceptable about his attitudes’; John Wain ‘seems totally unaware of how real people behave’; Beckett writes ‘dreary rubbish’; ‘Osborne’s use of a current event only demonstrated his lack of invention and the bankruptcy of his creative talent’. Larkin and Tynan also get it in the neck, and there are walk on parts for Sillitoe, Wesker, Braine and Alex Trocchi.

Wilson may not be subtle – and the latter part of the book, tracing the Angries’ decline is genuinely sorrowful – but by and large he’s right. When I first read ‘Look Back In Anger’ I thought it was nasty, fatuous and improbable, but was too frightened to say so. Ditto ‘Lucky Jim’. If this was meant to be a comic novel, why is it so bloody unfunny? And Jim Dixon isn’t angry (or all that young), he’s a middle-class twat with arrested development. I guess context is everything, and these works were revolutionary when they came out, paving the way for the novels that I loved: ‘Billy Liar’, funny, touching and true in all the ways ‘Lucky Jim’ wasn’t, ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’, a rabble-rousing morality tale that made a virtue of its simplicity, and above all David Storey’s ‘This Sporting Life’, which towers over everything else produced by or sucked into the Angry Young Men/Kitchen Sink orbit.

For me, the Angry Young Men worked best when rooted in the working class, and dilettantes like Amis’s Dixon and Osborne’s Porter just seemed to be a slightly different and no more appealing version of the very phoneys they raged against.

Throughout the book, Wilson writes engagingly and incisively and it’s sad that he has been so neglected (an issue this article takes up). But Wilson is a hard-to-pigeonhole oddball with a tendency to rub people up the wrong way, utterly convinced of his own seriousness but also happy to write books about things that aren’t allowed to be serious such as aliens, murder (at one point he mentions his ‘homicidal acquaintance Ian Brady’) and the occult.

I liked the book a great deal, but still won’t be rushing out to buy ‘The Outsider’ as I think I’d rather leave it unread. But I’m delighted that Wilson has reintroduced the Angry Young Men to me after a decade and am hugely grateful. So thanks Colin, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Le Garage: an art gallery comes to Herne Hill

Plonked on a prominent corner site on Dulwich Road, just opposite Brockwell Lido, is La Garage. You can’t miss it. It’s the one with huge floor-to-ceiling windows through which you’ll see an antique bath filled with blue water.

Le Garage is Herne Hill’s newest art gallery. It’s the creation of Alice Bailey, a Canadian who bought the building in auction about three years ago (the name tells you what is used to be) and then started to think about what she was going to do with it. A friend suggested she turn the downstairs space into a gallery, so that’s what she did as soon as she’d finished rebuilding the upstairs and refurbishing it with things she found in junk shops (‘it’s kind of random,’ she says).

‘It was a total accident, I just thought they were great windows and I should put something in them,’ she says, so she did. Currently on display (until March 28) are paintings, photographs and the paint-filled bath by pseudonymous artist Mei Ziqian, and Alice already has three more shows lined up including a photographer, a shadow puppet play and an artist who does embroidered portraits of characters from ‘Coronation Street’. After that, she wants some street art, but is open to any ideas. Drop by if you have something to offer.

‘I want it to be organised but free and organic,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of artists who can’t get shows in London, although I know I’m a bit out of the way here in Herne Hill. A lot of people have already contacted me after seeing this and so far the work I’ve seen has been great. The photographer showing  next is quite well-known, but she wants to do something different from what she usually does, and she doesn’t want to do it under her own name.’

The space is still not fully developed, and Alice is wondering how to use the back room and pondering about turning the garden into a cafe – inspired partly by Scootercaffe on Lower Marsh, where she lived previously. ‘It’s so nice living above your business,’ she says. ‘I really want it to be fun, because it’s a fun space, informal and  friendly.’

Le Garage, 115 Dulwich Road, SE24 ONG.

Feel my pain: how football made me a masochist

Since reading this post by Rob Smyth in the Guardian, I’ve been thinking about some really depressing Chelsea matches I’ve witnessed. Because, why not? So here they are wrist-slashing reverse order.

6 First Divison play-off, 1988: Chelsea 1 Middlesbrough 0

The only Chelsea game that has made me cry. We were playing Second Division Middlesbrough for the right to play First Division football in 1988-89 (despite having been second in October) and were 2-0 down from the first leg. Gordon Durie gave us an early lead, but we lost on aggregate and the crowd rioted, as was the fashion at the time. The play-off system was changed shortly afterwards and Chelsea therefore became the only team to ever get relegated from the top flight through the play-offs, an honour we can place alongside being the first team to refuse to play in the European Cup and the first team to be created purely as a commercial means to fill an empty ground. It’s all history, you know.

5 Premier League, 1996: Coventry 1 Chelsea 0

A meaningless game, but typical pre-(and post-) Mourinho Chelsea. The week before we had tortured Middlesbrough 5-0 with a staggering performance of perpetual motion and effortless beauty, inspired by the man-god Ruud Gullit. Thousands of Chelsea fans made the trip to Cov for what we imagined would be a repeat performance from a vibrant, thrilling, all-conquering Chelsea. We flopped. Gullit made one sublime pass to Paul Furlong, who fell over. Same old Chelsea.

4 Champions League semi-final, 2009: Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1

Because it stank but also because we outplayed the best team in Europe with a performance that for many reasons will never be fully appreciated for its brilliance and intelligence. Only placed this low to reflect the contempt with which one should regard the rich man’s roulette that is the vile, venal, corrupt and corrupting Champions League.

3 Premier league, 1997: Chelsea 2 Arsenal 3

No, not the Kanu game. By then I was used to seeing Chelsea capsize against Arsenal, and in many ways it was an honour to witness such an extraordinary individual performance. Four times I’ve seen Chelsea take a 2-0 lead against Arsenal but not win the game; four times I’ve seen their full-backs belt last-minute howitzers past our hapless keepers. These memories of dominance and submission can never be erased. This game was a cracker and we looked like we were hanging on for a deserved point when Nigel Winterburn let rip in the 89th minute and scored the best goal of his life. It hurt. I mean, at least Kanu was a great player.

2 League Cup semi-final 2002: Spurs 5 Chelsea 1

It was once said that the only predictable thing about Chelsea was their unpredictability; later this was changed to the only predictable thing about Chelsea is that they will beat Spurs. Before this game, we hadn’t lost to Tottenham since 1990 when Lineker scored a last-minute winner at the Bridge. Since then we’d beaten them by every score from 6-1 to 1-0, and before this semi-final second leg were 2-1 up from the first leg. At White Hart Lane, we were smashed, humiliated, gutted, hung out to dry. The only redeeming features were that Spurs still managed to lose the final and later that season we went on to beat them 4-0, twice, in the same week that I, erm, got together with the delightful Ms GreatWen. Karma.

1 FA Cup quarter-final: Sunderland 2 Chelsea 1

This is the game that festers in the darkest place of my soul. It is the one moment when I considered renouncing my club and football in the conviction that I had been duped into backing a complete stinker, a club that would never come close to winning a trophy in my lifetime. This game is the reason that even now when I consider a potential cup draw, I always wish for the game that will hurt least to lose, rather than the one that will be most enjoyable to win. As a Chelsea fan, I live in constant fear because of games like this.

This was one of those seasons when all the good teams except a so-so Liverpool had been knocked out the cup. Chelsea were drawn against Second Division Sunderland and, stupidly, we felt we had a good chance of getting to the final, or at least the semis, for the first time since 1970.

In the first leg in London, we took the lead but tension mounted. At Chelsea in those days the crowd’s terror was so intense that they would actually turn off the scoreboard with ten minutes to go so nobody knew when the final whistle was coming. Imagine that!

On this occasion, it didn’t matter whether the scoreboard was on or off; everybody was terrified. Sunderland won a free kick, the Shed shat themselves, so did the players, the ball was knocked long, bounced around a bit and John Byrne scored. Replay.

But we could still do it. We went up to Sunderland and battered them, hit the bar, hit the post, their keeper stopped everything and they scored. Despair! Worse was to come. Dennis Wise equalised with five minutes to go. Hope! Then Sunderland won a last-minute corner in front of a delirious away end and a forgettable centre-back in red-and-white stripes hammered home an unstoppable header from about 300 yards out.

Watch this video and you can just hear in the background, somewhere in Sutton in fact, a small boy’s heart breaking in two.

That was it.  The best chance Chelsea had of reaching a semi in my lifetime, and they’d blown it. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans won’t get it, but every other football fan in the country knows what I mean when I say that in this exact moment, I was convinced I would never see Chelsea win a sausage. Not een half a sausage. Not the discarded package that the sausages came in.

And the memory of this match has never left me. It made the demon-blitzing FA Cup win in 1997 so exhilarating, but it’s still there, trapped in my heart, my throat, my guts, waiting to get me every time I’m considering taking any kind of success for granted.

And I think it’s the reason why Chelsea will never be a big club, at least not as long as my generation, who witnessed this sort of hope-decimating match with mundane regularity, goes to games.

We know how easy it is to fail, what disappointment really tastes like, how fruitless hope is, and we are terrified that we are just a couple of poor signings away from a return to the days of  Andy Myers, Ian Porterfield and Gareth Hall. You can smell it in the crowd at the Bridge when Chelsea go 1-0 down against a crap team, or are leading 1-0 with minutes to go, or are taking part in a penalty shoot-out. Big clubs don’t have this fear, it’s not in their genes, but it’s very much a part of my Chelsea and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Under the Thames in the Brunel Tunnel, or how I became a moleman

I never had much interest in London’s subterranean bits until my Dad took me on a tour of Victoria station’s hidden depths. This was the late 80s, and he was then a contractor working for London Underground to improve station facilities. Together, with a big bunch of keys, we went to those parts of the station that commuters never see. Mysterious doors on platforms were opened to reveal networks of corridors filled with machinery or left damp and abandoned. In one room there was a massive well, dank, dark and dripping. Another had walls covered in thrillingly pornographic graffiti. And every now and then our adventure would end at a closed door, for which nobody had the key and everybody assumed was part of the government’s clandestine tunnels. Secrets within secrets! I was hooked.

Since then I have been under the skirts of the city a number of times. In the crypt of a convent at Marble Arch; in the vaults of the Bank of England; underneath Tower Bridge; in the deep-level Tube shelter at Chancery Lane, built for Blitz protection but later requisitioned by spooks; under Waterloo Station for immersive theatre that reminded me of ‘Doom’; in the Fleet sewer; in Henry VIII’s wine cellar under the Ministry of Defence; and in the old Holborn tramway tunnel under Kingsway. I’m like a ferret, if there’s a hole, I’m in it.*

This morning’s escapade took me – and every other underground/transport nerd in London – to Rotherhithe station for a very rare chance to see inside the first tunnel built under the Thames, indeed, the first underwater tunnel built anywhere in the world.

The Thames Tunnel was started in 1807, abandoned and then taken up again by Marc Brunel in 1823, who had invented a new form of tunnelling machine modelled on a woodworm. Brunel, accompanied by his son Isambard Kingdom, abandoned work again in 1828 after loss of life due to pollution and occasional inundations, but picked it up 1835, completing the tunnel in 1843. Marc died in 1849. Read a proper history here or here.

It remained a foot tunnel until the 1860s, when it was converted into a railway tunnel for the East London line, linking Rotherhithe and Wapping. This weekend, the tunnel reopened as a foot tunnel for what we were assured will be the very last time in its history, which is just the sort of hyperbole I like to hear on a Friday morning.

The tunnel is now pretty much indistinguishable from any other underground line. The only sense you get that you are heading under the river is that it is rather damp and chilly. Although most of the tunnel’s original brickwork has been concreted over, there are some areas where you can still the original bricks, beautiful but damaged.

Arches bisect the tunnel throughout its length. These were originally used as small shops, as the tunnel became the world’s first underwater shopping arcade. These spaces are tiny, and would have been cramped, dark, cold and damps places to work from. I imagine they are rather like those booth-cum-shops you get along Brixton’s Atlantic Road, where people flog phonecards and reggae from the stairwells of blocks of flats.

Here, though, you can get a sense of the detailing that distinguishes so much Victorian architecture.

And that was it, an entertaining diversion into the depths of history, made all the better for the fact that I happened to bump into fellow blogger Darryl of 853 for the first time and so got the chance to have a good natter about politics and football while walking through a landmark Victorian tunnel several metres beneath the Thames. (Darryl’s post is now up and Annie Mole is rounding up some of the London bloggers who have written about the tour.)

A coda: upon leaving Rotherhithe station, Darryl and I were accosted by a young man from the Southwark News, eager for eyewitness reports of this momentous occasion and then slightly disconcerted that he had somehow managed to approach a pair of freelance journalists masquerading as innocent bystanders. I suggested he choose an alternative career for me; crisp shop proprietor, perhaps?

 *I would just like to point out that while I didn’t use the joke here about certain Premier League footballers, that doesn’t mean I didn’t think of it.

What is London?

‘I walked back up the East India Road and caught a bus back to London. But then what, I asked myself, is London? To me, London is one thing; but to the inhabitants of Bermondsey, Wapping, Stepney and Poplar it is quite another. There are hundreds of London, all of them equally real to those who live in them.’

HV Morton, ‘In Search of London’, 1951.

Honesty, reliability, quickness

I love these flyers you get in London promoting the work of African spiritualists. I’m not sure how much cause there is for them in Herne Hill, but who doesn’t want to ‘regain fidelity’ or receive the ‘immediate return of affection and of forever love’?

England and Egypt, Nasser and Rooney

Yesterday I attended my first England game for more than a decade. I first gave up England in 1990, shortly after Chris Waddle belted the bar over the crossbar against Germany and I realised that I already had one useless team in my life and didn’t need another.

Nevertheless in 1996 I found myself at Wembley for England v Holland, one of the iconic England games of my generation simply for the fact it epitomised the ambition England will never satisfactorily deliver on. Pathetically, the one thing I can remember is that I refused to celebrate any goal scored by Tottenham’s Teddy Sheringham, so in my mind England won 2-1 rather than 4-1, meaning Scotland should have qualified for the next round instead of Holland, something that UEFA to their eternal discredit chose to ignore despite my send them repeated letters pointing out the error.

Interest sort of reignited, I decided to go to Paris to watch England v Brazil in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament involving England, France and Brazil. Big mistake. I have never spent 90 minutes in the company of a more unpleasant group of men, and I’ve been to Millwall-Chelsea. It was if you took the worst one per cent of supporters from every club in the country and decanted them all in the Parc Des Princes stand, with ten cans of Special Brew, subsidised lobotomies and shirt-drenching humidity. The casual racism and sexism, the witlessness, the stupidity, the ugliness – my god, it was hideous. So that was it: by the time England played Scotland in the play-off for the 2000 European Championships, I was cheering for the other side.

But there I was last night at Wembley watching England v Egypt. Why? Well, partly because I am slightly Egyptian. My mother was born in Alexandria but because her family could trace their ancestry back to Malta they held British passports even though they’d lived in Egypt for at least three generations and none of them could speak English. In 1956, when Britain attempted to reclaim the Suez Canal, her family were told they had to get out or nationalise, so they came to England, living in a former German POW camp in Yorkshire before settling in Tooting. Thanks to silly old Eden and Nasser, the strong man of Egypt, I came to exist. It doesn’t make me Egyptian at all really, but it’s a nice story.

So, notwithstanding my deep personal connection to the two teams, I was not looking forward to the game. And for the first twenty minutes, it was much as I expected. There were crap jokes about suicide bombers, the customary booing of one sacrificial lamb (currently John Terry) and the terrible band playing terrible songs. England fans will perhaps always represent the very worst aspects of football support from any era, and, in the modern fashion, this lot had all the passion and originality of people watching a pantomime.

Then Egypt took the lead. I tried not to snicker.

But, slowly, things improved. The crowd stopped booing Terry and he put in his best performance for a month; SWP made the correct decision with the ball, twice; and there was Wayne Rooney.

One of the reasons I go to football is for that one moment each game when a footballer does something that makes me gasp and think ‘did he really just do that?’. Rooney provided that moment last night, bring down a high ball on the near touchline with a soft touch that stopped the ball with a smidgen of back spin and gave him, what, half-a-second, perhaps less, than he should have had. It was a more important moment than any of the goals, because it emphasised just what a marvellous player Wayne Rooney is, and how important he is to an England team that is otherwise horribly workmanlike. Think back to that 1990 World Cup squad and England had players like Beardsley, Waddle, Barnes, Steven and Gascoigne (plus Hoddle left at home); this team only has Rooney. Capello can mould them into a strong unit, but only Rooney will make anybody coo.

So not all bad then, and unlike some people, I really am looking forward to the World Cup, perhaps because I still don’t care how England perform. As for last night, Tottenham’s Crouch scored twice, SWP got another so England drew 1-1, an entirely appropriate sharing of honours for us Anglo-Egyptian mongrels, who went home happy.

For two very different takes on the game, see the Wing Commander and James Hamilton.

Top blogging: an essay in futility

A quick post to point you in the direction of the latest from Lucky Jim.

I am hugely envious of Lucky Jim’s writing skill – the ability to write well is something that is easily overlooked when people talk about great blogging – and his latest piece is a minor masterpiece, a perfectly formed short story that also happens to be true.

He probably won’t thank me for saying this, but it also ends in the only possible way it could.