Monthly Archives: November 2010

Schools Out! The moral contamination of schoolkid strikers

Yesterday’s protests by schoolchildren were by no means the first time London’s schoolkids have chosen to withdraw their labour from the classroom, as Clive Bloom discusses in his recently updated ‘Violent London’.

There were waves of strikes in 1889 and 1911 around issues such as corporal punishment, the length school day, leaving age, holidays and bullying teachers. In 1889 there were strikes in Finsbury Park, Homerton, Woolwich, Plumstead, Kennington, Charlton and Lambeth and in 1911 in Enfield, Islington, Hoxton, Fulham, East Ham and Deptford. Strikes continued until long into the 20th century. I’m pretty sure Grange Hill went on strike a couple of times as well.

These original strikes featured pickets, marches and demos with flags and banners, and often ended with some casual window-breaking, for which the pupils would invariably receive disproportionate punishment such as being birched in front of the whole school or sent to the workhouse.

That was because the authorities were terrified about these strikes, firstly because of the lack of discipline it demonstrated but also because they suggested the children were developing a political consciousness that challenged and threatened the establishment. Kids were learning to think for themselves and were bold enough to shout about it. Some in Bethnal Green even carried red flags. 

Newspapers argued that strikes were ‘manifestations of a serious deterioration in the moral fibre of the rising generation’, argued that ringleaders ‘could prove dangerous centres of moral contamination’ and claimed that ‘such movements as this do not spring up spontaneously. They are always evidence of a deep conspiracy against social order… the doom of the Empire must be near at end if the country is honeycombed with Secret Societies of schoolchildren.’ 

Things never change all that much, do they?

Secret London: the Russian tank of Bermondsey

That there is an authentic Russian tank parked in a patch of wasteland on a side street off the Old Kent Road is one of those things that is so brilliant it should be mentioned on the news at least once every day. (I felt much the same way about Gordon Brown’s glass eye.  A Prime Minister with a glass eye! How cool was that! What a wasted opportunity.)

The tank is a T34 Russian tank that was possibly used against the Czechs in the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. It arrived in London in 1995 when it was used for the filming of Richard III. The tank was then purchased by Londoner Russell Gray as a sort of giant and very expensive pun after Southwark refused him planning permission to build houses on the site. Gray instead applied for permission to put a tank on the site. They thought he meant water tank, but he didn’t. The tank’s gun is trained on the council office.

How much truth there is to that story is surely irrelevant. It feels right. And when it comes down to it, all that matters is that there is a bloody great Russian tank on the streets of South London and people don’t seem to realise quite how incredible this actually is.

Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard is one of the great treasures of the Museum Of London. A vast collection of Tudor jewellery, it was found by two workmen in the cellar of a house on Cheapside in 1912 and eventually made its way into the museum’s collection.

The story is a fascinating one, outlined in HV Morton‘s seminal London history ‘In Search Of London’.

Morton, a journalist and insatiable London enthusiast with the knack of knowing not so much the right people as the really interesting ones, begins by describing GF Lawrence, ‘or Stoney Jack as he was known by every navvy who worked in the City’.

Stoney Jack was an asthmatic antiques dealer with a shop on West Hill, Wandsworth. He also had a job as Inspector of Acquisitions at what was then called the London Museum, based in Lancaster House, St James’s.

Since the 1970s, every building site in the UK must by law be visited by a team of archaeologists to ensure no great treasures are missed, but in Lawrence’s time there was no such requirement. Lawrence’s job then was ‘to haunt every demolition site in the City and make friends with the navvies, so that they would bring to him anything that had been found during excavation’.

Morton writes that there was a lot of building work taking place at this time and Lawrence knew it may be the last chance to find any antiquities that might still be hidden in the soil. In his not entirely public-spirited determination to ensure nothing crucial was lost, workmen received rudimentary archaeological training during ‘mysterious transactions behind hoardings and in the tap rooms of City public-houses’.

In this way, Lawrence was able to purchase items from ‘a procession of navvies with mysterious objects wrapped in spotted handkerchiefs’ and flog them on to the London Museum, earning himself a tidy profit. Anything the museum didn’t buy, went into his shop. And even if the navvies brought him something worthless, he always gave them enough cash to buy a pint of beer. In this way, he built up much of the Roman and Medieval collection that is now in the Museum of London.

Morton continues:

I cannot count the times I have been present when navvies have appeared and passed their treasures across the counter with a husky, “Any good to yer, guv’nor?” I have seen handkerchiefs unknotted to reveal Roman pins, mirrors, coins, leather, pottery and every kind of object that can lie concealed in old and storied soil.

I was with him one day when two navvies handed over a heavy mass of clay found beneath a building in Cheapside. It was like an iron football, and they said there was a lot more of it. Sticking in the clay were bright gleams of gold. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. That was how the famous hoard of Tudor jewellery, the Cheapside Hoard, was discovered.’

Morton recalls that for this great find, now worth millions, Stoney Jack received a thousand pounds. For their part, the navvies were rewarded with ‘something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these man disappeared, and were not seen again for months!’

Cocking up

I cocked up at work the other day. It wasn’t anything major, but it was enough to reignite that familiar feeling: stomach lurching, chest tightening, face reddening, bottom squeaking. A mix of self-loathing – ‘how could I be so stupid????’ – and indignation – ‘it wasn’t my fault!!!’ Then you start to wonder if you can get away with it, or should fess up forthwith.

In general, the best solution is to find that person who is at a similar or lower level of seniority to yourself, but way more competent and powerful (you know the one), and politely beg them to sort it out. But I work on my own, so had to bluff it out, which I did more or less.

It reminded me of other great cock ups of the past:

  • The time I forgot to include Coronation Street in the TV listings.
  • The time I asked if I could interview somebody who was dead.
  • The time I said on the cover of a magazine that the first phone call had taken place in London when it was really in New York.
  • The time I got the world 100m record wrong in the Guinness Book Of World Records.
  • The time I compiled the squad lists for a Premier League preview and completely forgot about Sheffield Wednesday.
  • The time I left the ‘S’ off Scunthorpe in the fixture list for a national paper (actually, I did this on purpose).

Ah, happy times and no lasting damage done.

The good news is that over the years I’ve witnessed far greater cock ups from people considerably more important than myself, so it’s clearly not a career-breaker in my chosen line of work.

Here’s to journalism, and gleefully calling other people’s cock ups to account while studiously ignoring our own.

Gertcha to the British Library, for Viz, Austen and Evolving English

I’ve seen three new exhibitions since being bored senseless by the British Museum’s Book of the Dead, and all of them are vastly superior to that banal blockbuster.

While the British Museum takes a complacent Tesco-like approach of pile it high and intimidate people with sheer weight of history, the Imperial War Museum, Wellcome Collection and British Library all have to work a little harder to get any attention and the results are far more satisfying.

Take Evolving English at the British Library, a superb exhibition about the history of the English language that offers both intelligence, insight and, most tellingly, the cheerful sense of humour that is lacking from Great Russell Street.

There are showstopping exhibits here, such as manuscripts of Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ and a copy of ‘Beowulf’, while the curators were ecstatic about a cabinet that featured side-by-side four historic bibles – the Wycliffe, Tyndale, Book of Common Prayer and King James.

But there are also wilder treats hidden in the margins.

One section on the differences between spoken and written English was illustrated by letters from schoolchildren to their teacher, my beloved BS Johnson, written in a glorious mixture of slang, formality and stream of consciousness that later found their way verbatim into his novel ‘Albert Angelo’. (‘Mr Johnson has a poor outlook towards us, calling us peasants and other insulting names of which we would like to contradict… Mr Johnson on the whole although he isn’t all there is a rotton teacher but not proffesionally for he teaches well… in school Mr Johnson is an authentic nit.’)


The section on profanity is illustrated with a copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a copy of Viz, while you can explore London English by reading extracts from Charles Dickens or you can just listen to ‘Gertcha!’.

London English, we are reminded, adopts words from many different cultures and I was intrigued to learn about the history of the Black London idiom ‘aksed’ for ‘asked’. This apparently originated in south-west England and found its way to the Southern US states and the Caribbean through emigration, before returning to London via the West Indian diaspora. Take it away, Smiley Culture.

Being brave in SE8: Extraordinary Heroes at the Imperial War Museum

Have you ever heard of Geoffrey Keyes and Operation Flipper?

I hadn’t until this week, when I learnt that Keyes was a Second World War commando who led a team 400km behind enemy lines in North Africa in a bid to assassinate Erwin Rommel. The group evaded guards around the perimeter fence and got inside the house used as the German HQ, but as they entered a ground-floor room Keyes was shot and killed. Rommel wasn’t even in the house at the time.

Keyes was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross and his story is ripe for a film, but this is the first I’d heard of it.

The new Extraordinary Heroes gallery at the Imperial War Museum is full of such remarkable tales, 243 in all, each tied to either a Victoria or George Cross. 164 of these medals belong to Michael Ashcroft, the Tory party donor, who has also forked out £5m for a new gallery to house them – the first permanent gallery at the museum for a decade. Well, I guess it beats paying tax.

The gallery is a great example of how with a bit of thought a museum can make a lot out of a little. The exhibits – the medals – are not much to look at, and the VC itself is almost parodically tasteful, a modest thing of dull brass (it’s made of gun metal) with a sober ribbon the colour of dried blood. There are numerous medals on display here, and the VC is always the least conspicuous of the lot.

But the curators have done wonders with this unpromising material, emphasising the extraordinary stories behind each medal with frugal but compelling text and embellishing some of the tales with props such as the diving suit worn by James Magennis when placing mines on a target in 1945 or a portrait of recent VC awardee Johnson Beharry taken by Don McCullin.

Johnson Beharry VC by Don McCullin, 2010 - Imperial War Museum

 There’s wit here as well such as a stuffed white rabbit to represent the codename of spy Forest Yeo-Thomas or the surprisingly effective touch-screen version of some of the stories told in Victor comic style. The IWM uses these informal touches confidently, never lapsing into poor taste and aware that excessive sobriety can be just as offputting.

While the bravery of these men and women is moving, the circumstances are often maddening. Many medals were awarded during the carnage of Gallipoli, and there was something about the story of Alfred Wilkinson, a Private who was awarded a VC for delivering a message during the First World War after four previous messengers had died, that somehow summed up all that is most horrific and pointless about that conflict.

Some medals were awarded in peacetime. An 11-year-old girl was given a George Cross in Canada in 1916 for fighting off a cougarm, while Harry Wilson was awarded a GC in 1924 for saving the lives of his colleagues in a flooded colliery.

And, bringing it all back home, a George Cross was awarded for bravery in South London after unarmed PC Tony Gledhill chased a car filled with armed robbers from Creekside Street, Deptford into Rotherhithe. Gledhill’s car was shot at around 15 times by the robbers before he confronted them on foot and eventually subdued the men, securing the conviction of four criminals, including John McVicar.

There’s always a London connection if you look hard enough.

Room for improvement

Writer, Londonphile and intimidatingly prolific blogger Christopher Fowler recently noted my post on the London terraced house on his own excellent blog, adding intriguingly that:

‘Looking into the subject a bit more, I found that the terraced rooms and gardens are all percentages of those [9th century] measurements, making everything look neat and tidy even when it’s not.’

His recommended related reading on the subject is Harry Mount‘s ‘A Lust for Window Sills: A Lover’s Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble Dash’.

South London and the birth of the educated footballer

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for 4-4-2 magazine in September 2009

Whitgift School in Croydon is not the sort of place you’d expect to find the future of English football. This breeding ground for bright young talent is as far from the stereotypical back streets of football’s urban north as you can get. Situated in 45 acres of parkland and boasting colonies of albino wallabies, flamingos and red squirrels, Whitgift School is one of the oldest and wealthiest private boys schools in the country. For centuries, it has produced outstanding academics and sportsmen. The latter have usually been rugby players such as England fly-half Danny Cipriani or cricketers (the county-standard pitch is used by Surrey CC), as befits the tradition of the English independent school, which  leaves football to the hoi polloi of the comprehensive sector.

So how have four professional footballers emerged from Whitgift’s ranks in the past few years? Why does the school currently count 13 children from different footballing academies – including Chelsea and Tottenham – among its 1,200 pupils? And how did the school attract three former footballers to work on its coaching staff?

To answer those questions, I entered the headmaster’s study to meet Dr Christopher Barnett, the man who brought soccer to Whitgift. As we talk, exotic peacocks can be seen through the study window, heads bobbing up and down as they wander around on impeccable lawns. It is an extraordinary environment. In these conditions, Dr Barnett’s belief he can ‘change the mould and develop a new breed of middle-class footballer’ seems entirely plausible.

The Australian connection

Dr Barnett’s conversion from rugby to football came in Australia. ‘In 1996 I went out to a school in Parramatta,’ he says. ‘I was walking round the grounds and it was rugby as far as you could see – rugby match after rugby match after rugby match. But then I turned the corner and there was soccer being played. So I thought, if they can do it…’

Convinced that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly, Dr Barnett looked for a coach and found Colin Pates, the Chelsea and Arsenal centre-back, who had retired with a knee injury. A posh school in the suburbs is not where you’d expect to find a hard-bitten former pro, and Pates admits: ‘Whitgift is quite alien to some of us, because we had state school educations. It was intimidating, and not just for the boys.’ But he jumped at the opportunity.

‘The headmaster asked me to take a sixth-form team on Wednesday afternoons,’ he says. ‘I asked if there were any goalposts, pitches, teams or even footballs, and we didn’t have anything. So we had to start from scratch, pretty much teach them the rules. They were rugby boys playing football, so these were quite aggressive games. But after three years we introduced fixtures and we’ve never looked back.’

Introducing football to a rugby school for the first time in 350 years was no easy task and Pates admits that ‘there was always a concept that we’d bring in swearing and fighting, but we’ve had none of that. History told me it was going to be very difficult to change people’s attitudes, but if you know you’ve got the support from the top man, the head, you can slowly change the perception of football.’ And the Headmaster – motivated by ‘old-fashioned esprit de corps’ as well as the desire to have the newly fashionable sport of football on the syllabus – gave it his full support.

As football cascaded through the school, the coaching team expanded to include John Humphrey, a right-back for Charlton and Crystal Palace, and Steve Kember, the former Chelsea and Palace midfielder. ‘It showed that we were engaging with how we would be a football school, but a different kind of football school,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘What I wanted to do was provide discipline and a serious education. We wanted to tell footballers who were coming to Whitgift: “Yes, but…” and the “but” is that you are going to work.’


The coming of Moses

Whitgift began to offer scholarships and bursaries to help parents of talented young players pay the £13,266 annual fee. It also established an informal relationship with Crystal Palace, with some of the club’s outstanding talent getting recommended for places at the school. David Muir, Education and Welfare Officer at Crystal Palace, explains ‘Whitgift is flexible and open-minded,’ he says. ‘Private schools are generally better than state schools at supporting the academies, offering excellent sports training and balancing that with academic work.’

By 2007, two Whitgift pupils (Victor Moses and Lee Hills) were in the Palace first team. But education was still paramount. ‘A lot of these boys are outstanding academically even if some of them can come here with what appears to be a relatively low IQ,’ says Dr Barnett. ‘But if you work with them and give them belief and encouragement, they can soar.’

Moses, now playing in the Premier League with Wigan, arrived at the school as an 11-year-old orphaned asylum seeker from Nigeria predicted to get no GCSEs at A-C and ended it as an England youth international with GCSE results above the national average. Dr Barnett is adamant that a good education and football skills are mutually beneficial. ‘We did a correlation study on pupils’ academic expectation on entry and then factored in how much they participate outside the classroom,’ he says. ‘And those boys that were more heavily involved in sport did far better academically – quite the reverse of what you might expect. Received wisdom is that if you do too much sport, you’ll damage their education, but that wasn’t the case.’

As for what education can do for your football, he cites the words of an FA Cup-winning manager, who watched Whitgift win the Schools Cup in 2005, when they beat Healing School 5-0 (Moses scored all five). ‘Lawrie McMenemy said to me that if he’s got a choice between a footballer without a brain and a footballer with a brain, he’ll always go for the one with a brain, because he knows he’ll follow instructions and understand tactics and you’ll get far more from him.’

Muir says that  ‘previously, you were either seen as a sportsman or an academic, but our best players have always had the potential to be high-achievers academically as well.’ This backs up Dr Barnett’s claim that ‘the managers of the academies want their boys at Whitgift. Because as well as getting good football training and terrific facilities, they’re going to get discipline and they’re going to get structure and they’re going to get their qualifications.’

It is this that will provide the new type of footballer desired by Dr Barnett. ‘You know that if they were in the state sector they would get lost. Football would be all they had and they’d probably end up with nothing, no career and no qualifications; here, they can end up with 10 GCSEs and still make it as a footballer. And that is one of the key differences in how they will conduct themselves on the pitch  and what image they provide for football. If you get enough kids doing this, you could change things.’

The movement is gathering place. Other private schools – including local rival Trinity and Ardingly College in Sussex – have started to follow Whitgift’s lead.

Finding the kids

So how does Whitgift recruit its talent? Muir says that ‘Palace put forward one or two players every year. We have to find kids who are both outstanding footballers and with a potential to do well academically because they have to pass the entrance exam. The parents pay the fees, though they can be helped by scholarships or wealth-related bursary schemes.’

Other relationships are less formal, and sometimes clubs foot the fees. And sometimes, the players are already at Whitgift before the clubs spot them such as Stefan Amokwandoh, a 13-year-old at Charlton.

A close relationship between school and academy is vital. The school’s fixtures are played midweek to avoid clashing with academy games, while academies benefit from the high standard of coaching the players get from the school.

Whitgift insists that all pupils play in school fixtures, compete in all sports and do their homework. ‘I have to work harder than the other boys at Chelsea,’ says Joel Witele, a 14-year-old who also excels at rugby. ‘When I get homework I have to concentrate and make sure I do it.’

For those football academies accused in a recent book (‘Every Boy’s Dream’ by Chris Green) of offering too many boys nothing but disappointment and educational underachievement, you can see why Whitgift is so attractive.

‘Look Sir, no litter!’

The notion of privately educated footballers no longer seems strange to Pates and Humphrey, even if it must to some of the school teams they come up against (‘We played a local state school,’ said Pates, ‘and one kid said: “Look Sir, no litter!’). Humphrey says: ‘We have quite a few guys at Charlton [where he is an academy coach] who go to private schools. If you have two boys of the same ability, you pick the brighter one because they’ll learn quicker, so we’re moving away from state schools monopolising football. There’s a lot of money out there, and parents want to give their kids the best education they can.’

Pates agrees: ‘A lot of footballers are sending their kids to independent schools. Working-class parents are earning money and putting their kids through private school. We’ve had [Brentford manager] Andy Scott’s boy here, Ian Wright’s boy, Steve Coppell’s – there are lots of them and its spreading into football.’

Muir concurs: ‘It’s great to see the kids get an opportunity I never had. It’s not what people might perceive of from an independent school, it’s not a bunch of boys with plums in their mouths, it’s just normal kids whose parents want them to do really well and provide them the best opportunity to do so.’

Another motivation for Pates and Humphrey is the experiences they had as players. ‘A lot of players from our generation had nothing to fall back on when they came out our game,’ says Pates. ‘There was also nothing in place when we were young – if you didn’t make it, that was that. So we ensure that our players have the opportunity to be everything they want to be, even when they leave. Rhys Coleman was released by Charlton, went to Glenn Hoddle’s academy in Spain and didn’t quite make it, so we got him a trial with Palace. It’s like aftercare. We try and help.’ Another former pupil managed to put himself through university with the money he earned from semi-professional football.

It’s all part of a package that Pates and Dr Barnett believe to be unprecedented. ‘You have to be an exceptional footballer to make it these days,’ says Pates. ‘So we want to give them the best opportunity to be a footballer, but also give them a magnificent education so if they don’t sign scholarship forms they have something to fall back on. It works for us, it works for the academies and it works for the families.’

The question now is will it work for football.

My London Library: No 5 – Night Haunts

  • Title Night Haunts by Sukhdev Sandhu (Verso, 2006)
  • Cost Free
  • Bought from Sent by publisher
  • Genre Contemporary non-fiction; flaneur

At a time when London writing has been dominated by pop historians and psychogeographers, it’s worth noting that the best two London books of recent years are very different beasts.  One of these is Night Haunts, a thoughtful study of the modern London night, commissioned by Artangel, written by Sukhdev Sandhu, and modelled on a similar book by the great London writer, HV Morton. (Sandhu gives a talk about Night Haunts this Friday at Birkbeck.)

Night Haunts first emerged as a beautiful website before appearing in short but sweet printed form. The conceit was simple. As the sub-title explained, it was ‘a journey through the London night’ in which Sandhu explored and observed London’s nocturnal operations, spending evenings with cleaners, pilots, flushers, bargers, fox-hunters, cabbies, exorcists and graffiti artists.

What emerged was an elegant and perceptive portrait of what happens in London while we are asleep, with Sandhu’s own hands-on experience giving it a resonance far greater than the whimsical dilettantism encouraged by the self-indulgent psychogeography movement. 

  • Best bit There’s a marvellous scene early on which sets the tone. Sandhu is on a night-time police helicopter flight over London and writes evocatively of the sleeping city from the air, a passage which concludes with the wonderfully implausible line ‘One pilot describes Croydon as “an oasis of high-rise buildings, sitting there like downtown Dallas”.’
  • Verdict The best book of its kind for decades.

Book of the dead dull: against blockbuster exhibitions

A new British Museum exhibition opens this week and it’s already a guaranteed success. But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I went to the press view of the Egyptian Book Of The Dead and afterwards felt much the same as I do after every British Museum exhibition: overwhelmed and underimpressed. But I knew that all the big reviewers would give it a knee-jerk five stars – and sure, enough, before I’d even got home, the first suitably awestruck review was in. Meh.

So why was I so bored, and am I on my own with this? Well, the exhibits are undoubtedly important and fascinating – papyrus and artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs, many dating back more than 3,000 years, which together tell the story of the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. But, gawd, ain’t there a lot of it? And why does the exhibition space look so bloody boring?


The British Museum has an incredible talent at taking something potentially fascinating and kicking all the life out of it through stuffy, unimaginative presentation and a conviction that more is better – and getting away with it every time. 

At Book Of The Dead we get acres – and I really mean acres – of stuffy captions and endless cases containing aged papyrus covered in hieroglyphs, with only the odd gaudy mummy case by way of variation. After seeing the first room, I felt I’d seen it all and would have had a more enjoyable experience sitting down with a cup of a tea and reading a good book on the subject. But I still had another dozen rooms to trudge round. Exhibitions are meant to bring a topic to life, but this was deadening. And I was lucky enough to be there when it was relatively empty – for the average punter, it must be chaos.

I’m not sure I’m entirely out on my own here – on my way into the exhibition I bumped into a friend coming out, and he said much the same thing, as did Time Out Art on Twitter. But the British Museum’s methods clearly convince most of the reviewers and they certainly draw the crowds; these are, after all, two of the constituents museums most need to impress. 

As a lover of museums, though, I cannot help feel that the BM is doing the art of exhibitions a disservice. There is none of the thoughtful wit of the Imperial War Museum, or the layered smarts of the Wellcome Collection, or the sheer intellectual depth of the British Library, all three of whom have new exhibitions opening next week that will not get anything like the attention of the BM.

The British Museum make museum-going into something worthy rather than fun. My fear is that thousands of people will push through heaving crowds to see this exhibition drawn by fawning publicity and out of a sense of duty, before emerging battered and bored, vowing to never visit another museum until the next blockbuster rolls into town. That really would be a shame.