Monthly Archives: February 2011

Strippers, beatniks, bikers and mods: celebrating BFI Flipside

I have a small piece in the Independent celebrating BFI Flipside, the BFI’s DVD label for forgotten, weird British films from the 1960s and 1970s.

The key Flipside films for any self-respecting London nerd are ‘London In The Raw’ and ‘Primitive London’, two endlessly fascinating exploitation documentaries that ‘lay bare’ the London of the mid-60s, with much emphasis on the weird and the shocking.

These are dayglo Soho-obsessed precursors to the rightly cherished London classic ‘The London Nobody Knows’, but possibly more entertaining for their utter shamelessness: here you’ll find strippers, wife-swapping, prostitution, Jack The Ripper re-enactments – anything that may titillate and tantalise.

It’s pretty tame stuff now of course, which is partly what makes it so intriguing. This is a key point of London history – as the hairy freaks massed their forces in preparation for the myriad cultural explosions of the late-60s – and these films capture some of that sense of a city teetering on the brink of… something. Check them out, you won’t be disappointed.

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Bollardian

I first came across John Kennedy’s brilliant Bollards of London blog shortly after he started it two years ago, when I idly googled ‘London bollards’ one evening (that is the sort of thing I do).

I’ve been fascinated by bollards for years, ever since I pretended to be  an art cinema-loving ponce and went to see Ben Hopkins’ weird London demi-classic The Nine Lives Of Tomas Katz at the ICA and was transfixed by a montage scene involving talking bollards.

Many years later I sent M@ from Londonist on a quest to locate London’s top ten bollards, but John has taken this to the extreme and now has over 100 London bollards on his site.

Bollards are great. They are everywhere and they are all different. Here are two I snapped last week, located within metres of each other in Wapping but very different. 

This one is fat, old and very rusty.

This one is new, shiny and very, very short. It barely comes up to my knees and nobody would ever describe me as a giant.

Amazing eh? If you agree, check out John’s site, where he will shortly be presenting my top three London bollards from his collection.

Can you contain yourselves?

London’s underground press: IT and OZ and the psychedelic left

‘IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics,’ says Mick Farren. ‘I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about that? So they asked me to be music editor.’

The current issue of Uncut magazine contains my feature on the London underground press of the 1960s and 1970s. It includes a number of stupendous quotes like the above from Mick Farren, one of the most colourful figures from the British psychedelic left.

The piece covers the founding of International Times in 1966, the relationship between the underground press and pop stars, the difficulty of publishing, happenings at the Roundhouse and Alexandra Palace, the creation of the UFO Club and the gradual demise of the movement after the dehibilitating OZ trial of 1971. Interviewees included Pete Townshend, Mick Farren, Marianne Faithfull, Robert Wyatt and Jonathon Green. Townshend was particularly reflective on his troubled relationship with the counterculture, and I’ll post the whole thing up here shortly.

There is some great stuff on the internet about both these publications, which in different ways served the needs of London’s young and switched-on population who were not being sufficiently satisfied by either the mainstream newspapers or the pop press. (And does that sound familiar or what?) They covered pot, pop and politics, were revolutionary in their use of colour, design and language and paved the way for later influential print movements like the punk and football fanzines of the 1970s and 1980s.

The entire International Times archive is online, a hugely valuable resource for hippy-watchers. Discover it here. Some of the old IT heads are also collaborating on a blog called The Fanatic.

For those interested in the OZ trial, I recommend the following two-part news clip made for Australian TV at the time of the trial in 1971. It’s a fascinating watch.

At Christie’s

Last week I attended my first auction. It was at Christie’s, the grand London auction house who hold their blockbuster Impressionist and Modern Sale every February.

It was a strange experience. This will almost certainly be the only time I’m ever in the same room as somebody spending upwards of £7 million on, well, anything. The big seller was Lot 10, a Pierre Bonnard oil painting from 1923 that went for £7.2m in a lengthy contest. The entire Bonnard bidding process can be witnessed here and is an interesting example of what can take place in this unusual atmosphere of extreme wealth and refined competition.

Terrasse à Vernon

At times, when the auctioneer is registering bids – ‘3.5… 3.8’ you have to remind yourself these are millions of pounds he is talking about. A painting can double in value in seconds. Note also how polite the auctioneer is. He personally addresses the bidders by name and asks them if they will continue to bid, delicately stoking their interest without seeming too pushy and occasionally breaking the tension with a joke. There is no aggression here, no way you could ‘accidentally’ bid for something, and the bidder is also given plenty of time to say whether they will maintain an interest. It is not the clock you are competing against.

Bidding also goes up quite gradually. You are not attempting to blow your opponent out of the water poker-style with an eye-watering bid, but merely hoping to part with as little more than your direct competitor is prepared to pay then you can get away with. For this reason, battles can be protracted.

The Bonnard contest perhaps went on a little too long for the purists, but even I could detect the air of disappointment when the auction’s landmark painting, a Gaughin estimated at up to £10m, failed to meet its reserve and was withdrawn from sale. Could nobody really be bothered to fork out for this work? The room sighed.

Some of the things I witnessed intrigued me. The auctioneer is Jussi Pylkannen, who also happens to be the President of Christie’s Europe, so each increment of £100,000 will translate directly into profits for the company’s coffers. No wonder he gives people time. At one point in the Bonnard sale, he started accepting bids of £50,000, much to the annoyance of the man sitting next to me who felt that ‘splitting the bid’ so late in the day simply wasn’t on. But it’s all profit for Christie’s.

I was also interested to see that many of the Christie’s senior management – including Olivier Camu and Giovanna Bertazzoni, who organised the sale – were now manning the phones, bidding on behalf of individual clients and offering advice on what to go for. This put them in a curious position, although given that Christie’s itself is essentially just a gigantic middleman, not a particularly troubling one.

The auction room itself is a busy, noisy place, packed with an international clientele of around 500 people dressed in their finery and younger than I expected. For some it was clearly seen as an exciting way to begin a night out in London.

Most of the bidding was done on the phone, but some came from people in the room. I wondered whether people deliberately remove themselves from the room so they can avoid the tension and the sort of ‘testosterone bidding’ I had been told about.

A man near me purchased a Picasso for £500,000 while slouching against a pillar, desperately trying to look casual. As his bid was accepted he barely looked up, but the arm holding the paddle was trembling. An elegant woman right at the back suddenly became involved in a fascinating competition over a Max Ernst sculpture, that was expected to reach £350,000 but eventually went for over a million. Between bids I watched her take instruction from a mobile phone. Was she bidding on behalf of somebody else, consulting an lawyer or accountant, or was she seeking approval from her husband before busting his budget over the million pound mark? The billionaires who deal in this market are, after all, overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – male.

Les asperges de la lune

The battle over the Ernst sculpture reminded me of something Bertazonni had said – that sculpture had become hugely popular in the post financial crash art market, ‘as though people wanted something tangible, three-dimensional’ to hold on to. This piece of tangibility cost somebody £1.3 million. Security comes at a price.

London in maps

This was a piece I wrote for the January 2011 issue of Metropolitan magazine.

In July, the Mayor of London introduced a scheme that allowed the public to rent bicycles from 300 docking stations in different London. Within days, maps could be found all over the internet showing exactly where each docking stations could be found and which were the most popular. These maps were largely unofficial and all free, created by tech geeks for fun and copied to internet forums for the use of cyclists, tourists and map lovers. It proved once again that Londoners will map anything. There are maps for free wi-fi hotspots, maps that chart where the most Twitter activity comes from and maps that find the nearest toilet. One of my favourite maps is this 1970s version of the knitted football tribes of London.

 

This love of maps is engrained in London’s psyche, the result of living in a chaotic and unplanned metropolis. Two of the city’s favourite icons are maps: the A-Z, that portable atlas which even seasoned Londoners carry in case they get lost; and the Tube map, a design classic that has been copied by transport networks all over the world and is regularly ‘mashed-up’ by artists, replacing stations with footballers, philosophers, films, authors and anagrams.

In 2006, the British Library organised a ‘London: Life In Maps’ exhibition, curated by Peter Barber, the library’s Head of Maps, who thinks London’s love of maps is far stronger than anything you might find in Paris. ‘The French have a very cool attitude towards maps,’ he says. ‘They don’t, on the whole, use them and there is no comparable market in old maps to the one we have in London. You have to give away old maps of France. Maps in France are associated with authority – they were tools of administration and control. Whereas in England maps were commissioned privately and so are not perceived as being so menacing.’

The Lost Map

Barber names the key maps of London’s past –the Copperplate map of the 1550s, the Morgan map of 1682, the John Rocque map of 1746 and the Horwood map of 1829. Barber makes a distinction between two kinds of maps. There are functional maps for getting you from A to B (or A to Z) and there are maps that work thematically or artistically to present information or ideas over a cartographical plan. The thematic map has been popular in London for centuries – the most famous is Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889, which colour-coded streets according to income. Another is ‘The Modern Plague’ of 1886, produced by the National Temperance League, which showed pubs in central London. These maps are designed to transmit an idea, not aid mobility, and are fascinating to study. One of the first was John Snow’s map, tracking cholera outbreaks in Soho.

Such maps are now getting easier to compile. ‘It’s said that 80 per cent of all knowledge is spatial, and you can geo-reference any phenomenon and plot it on a map,’ says Barber. ‘With digital mapping, the techniques to do this are within the range of everyone. Digital mapping isn’t new, what is new is the ease with which it can be done and the extent of the information that can be plotted.’

Simon Foxall summarised this in his book ‘Mapping London’, writing: ‘Maps have been made to do things they were never expected to tackle and, in doing so, have exposed patterns, connections and ideas that were as interesting as they were unexpected. ‘

Straddling these two types of map is Bill Visick, a former manager at IBM, who has developed the London Time Travel Explorer (TTX) app for the iPhone. This features four maps of London dating from 1746 to 1862 and a contemporary map of the city. Using GPS technology, the user can fade between old and new maps to see how the street on which they stand has changed. It’s virtual time travel.

Visick had been collecting maps of his Kensington home for years, but smart phones allowed him to take this to another level. ‘What sparked it for me was realising that the street I lived on contained the first buildings ever built in Kensington,’ says Visick. ’I was standing outside my door and thinking, “blimey, that was a hedge and that was a field”. So the first thing I did was put this old map on my phone and walk around looking at it – that became the prototype and that’s where the idea of TTX came from. It happened almost as soon as I realised the technology would allow it.’

The novelist and poet Blake Morrison has spoken about ‘our craving for interactivity’, and that is something the artist Stephen Walter is also exploring through maps. In 2008, he created The Island, a vast, exquisitely detailed map of London, crammed with cultural and political references and in-jokes. ‘People have been suggesting I do an app,’ says Walter. ‘The British Library did a brilliant browsing tool for the map and people have suggested I do something for a phone or tablet computer. I’m interested to see if there’s a way people can leave their own tabs on the map, personally configure it with their own information.’

The Island is modern in its outlook, but Walter was following a long tradition. ‘There’s a huge, strong history of map-making in London and we do like to beat our chests about it,’ says Walter. ‘It’s a bragging thing, a celebration of history and size. The Island was a spoof of a medieval map. The twist was that a lot of it was very personal and also a contemporary reaction to the city, whereas at first glance it looks like a pretty conservative world map.’

It has long been understood that the map is subjective, reflecting the views of the maker, although rarely as blatantly as in The Island. In ‘Mapping London’, Foxall writes, ‘The map, as a scaled replica of the entire city, presents a choice to its maker: not what to include, but rather, what to exclude. The mapmaker, like a sculptor, must chip away at the raw block of material that is the city to reveal the shape and representation hidden inside.’

Barber expands this point. ‘Different maps show different things and your judgment of a map depends entirely on what you want from it. In some cases you could draw a direct contrast between the map the man in the street wants and the map the expert says is best. The A-Z is a complete travesty of mapping because the streets are grotesquely enlarged and the open spaces much reduced.’

The irony of the growth of digital mapping is that it comes at the expense of the old-fashioned kind. People no longer need A-Zs, because they can use GPS or SatNav. ‘I spoke to somebody the other day, a businessman in his 60s, who no longer takes directions,’ says Visick, with one example that stands for thousands. ‘He knows he can get anywhere on his phone.’

And into this breach step the digital mappers, who offer information in a manner that all of us can understand. London can be a daunting city to comprehend, so a thematic map that breaks the city down into easily absorbed chunks of information located spatially is very helpful. As Walter muses, ‘It seems the more complicated life gets and the easier it gets to traverse the landscape, the more maps become all about ourselves.’

Moonlighting

I am going to be blogging current affairs type stuff over at Snipe, in the illustrious company of Adam and Darryl.  

My first post about the Old London Underground Company can be read here.

You can also read more of my stuff over at the Time Travel Explorer blog, which is devoted to maps and history. My latest piece is about the constancy of one London burial ground.

More London books

Continuing a bookish theme, a couple of current and forthcoming releases have caught my eye.

First is ‘London’s Lost Rivers’ by Paul Talling and published by Random House. This is the first serious update of Nicholas Barton’s classic 1950s underground river book and it will be interesting to see what new information about the Fleet, Effra, Westbourne et al that he has uncovered.

Jamrach's Menagerie

The second has been catching my eye in the window of Herne Hill Books every time I walk past it. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a novel by Carol Birch published by Canongate.  This is a novelised account of the famous occasion a bengal tiger escaped from London petshop Jamrach’s. It was from this shop that the animal-loving artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti probably purchased the pet wombat, whose death left him so bereft.

Incidentally, if any publishers are reading this and fancy sending me London-themed books to add to my collection, my conscience would have no hesitation in happily accepting them.

Inside London’s super-rich bubble

Peter Mandleson once famously said that ‘we are intensely relaxed about the filthy rich’, a sentence that has always made me intensely uncomfortable until very recently, when I spent some time exploring the various ways the filthy rich spend their filthy money. What really surprised me, though, isn’t what they spend, but the way they spend it. It isn’t greed so much as purchasing for sheer pleasure on a scale that most of us can barely imagine and that they themselves will hardly even notice.

It began at Christie’s auction house for a piece I wrote for the Independent on Sunday that went behind the scenes before this week’s big impressionist/modern evening sale. The collectors who will be bidding on paintings by Monet, Picasso and Degas are taken from the ranks of the world’s super rich, and will between them spend around £100m on new paintings for the walls of their second and third homes.

Then I went to see some of those second and third homes when I wrote a piece for Gulf Life magazine about London’s super-prime property market – that’s anything from £15 million up to about £150 million. I visited four apartments and houses in Knightsbridge, Bayswater and Regent’s Park – including the Candy Brothers extraordinary One Hyde Park development – that between them had a combined value around £121 million and contained more marble and flat-screen TVs then is good for anybody.

Finally, last week the owner of my favourite football club – who many believed to be losing interest in the sport – dropped in to spend a trifling £70m in one day on two players, just like that.

Now, while it is undeniable that the outlay of such vast sums of money on luxuries is morally indefensible and all the rest, it’s also increasingly apparent that as there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, there’s no point in being anything other than intensely relaxed about it. The alternative would drive you mad.

These people are worth billions, and for them £150m is an irrelevance. To understand exactly why, try this thought experiment, taken from John Lanchester’s outstanding ‘Whoops!’, about the global financial crisis, which shows in a fairly clear way the vast difference between millions of pounds and billions.  

Lanchester writes, ‘Without doing the calculation, guess how long a millions seconds is. Now try the same for a billion seconds. Ready? A million seconds is less than 12 days; a billion seconds is almost 32 years.’

Or as one estate agent told me, ‘When they spend £30 million on a property, it’s not a financial decision, it’s a personal one.’

Best books about London

Although I’m late to the party as ever, I see via Chris Fowler that Londonist editor M@ has come up with his personal list of the 15 best non-fiction books about London. It’s a good list, as you would expect, and has prompted me to come up with my own favourite 15.

1 ‘The London Encyclopaedia’ by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert

The definitive A-Z of London history, fascinating and accessible. I much prefer this to narrative histories like Roy Porter and Peter Ackroyd.

2 ‘In Search of London’ by HV Morton

My single favourite piece of narrative London writing, featuring Morton wandering around the bomb-battered city in 1951, describing what he finds and remembering what it once looked like.

3 ‘Shaping London’ by Terry Farrell

A fascinating look at the tangible forces that have shaped the infrastructure of London, and a welcome antidote to the airy tediousness of so much contemporary psychogeography.

4 ‘The History of London In Maps’ by Felix Barker and Peter Jackson

Excellent and accessible cartographical guide from 1993, divided into sensible sections and well illustrated.

5 ‘Curiosities of London’ by John Timbs

Hefty Victorian guidebook that is an intriguing contemporary reference source.

6 ‘London: The Unique City’ by Steen Eiler Rasmussen

A Danish architect analysis in 1937 why London looks like it does.

7 ‘Subterranean Railway’ by Christian Woolmar

Definitive and readable recent history of the London tube.

8 ‘The Lost Rivers of London’ by Nicholas Barton

The classic guide to the old rivers of London, first published in the 1960s and flawed, but still the best.

9 ‘Violent London’ by Clive Bloom

Superb study of the London Mob through history, recently updated.

10 ‘In Camden Town’ by David Thomson

Gloriously whimsical half-finished diary by a BBC producer from the 1980s, which captures Camden on the brink of gentrification. (See also Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’.)

11 ‘London Under London’ by Richard Trench

To be honest, it’s on a par with the many other subterranean London books, but makes my list because it was written by a bloke called Trench.

12 ‘People Of the abyss’ by Jack London

Wonderful late-Victorian journalism from the destitute East End. I should also include Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour And The London Poor’ but shamefully I’ve only ever dipped into it. 

13 ‘Night Haunts’ by Sukhdev Sandhu

Following in HV Morton’s footsteps, Sandhu explores the nocturnal economy of 21st century London.

14 ‘London peculiars’ by Peter Ashley

One of many ‘Secret London’-style books I own, but probably the best looking. See also the fine recent ‘Secret London: An Unusual Guide’,  ‘Eccentric London’ by Tom Quinn and ‘Curious London’ by Robin Cross.

15 ‘The Likes Of Us’ by Michael Collins

A biography of working-class South London.