Monthly Archives: March 2011

Celebrating the noble tradition of defacing London statues

It seems to happen every time a march or protest takes place in London. A much-loved statue or monument is defaced, horrifying the sort of people who are horrified by this sort of thing while the rest of us wonder why nobody’s got round to throwing a bucket of paint at that godawful Animals At War monstrosity on Park Lane.

On Saturday, after the TUC and some kids dressed in black marched through the London to complain about stuff, it was the turn for the Landseer lions at Trafalgar Square to take a pasting.


While the statue of Charles I received a more artful reimagining.


Interestingly, this Charles I statue had already been manhandled by the mob – albeit inadvertently – way back in 1867 when a reporter climbed the statue to get a better view of a passing protest and used the sword to steady himself. The sword promptly fell off and disappeared into the crowd, never to be seen again.

Most people think that this habit of deliberately defacing certain statues is a recent thing, dating back to the inarguably splendid Winston Churchill turf mohican on May Day 2000.

But the London mob has a rich tradition of dressing up (or down, depending on your viewpoint) London statues. My favourite example is the treatment dished out to the statue of a mounted George I, which was cast in 1716 and placed in Leicester Fields in 1784. This received serious punishment over the years as children clambered all over it, so both horse and rider lost bits, and at one point the poor king was without head, legs and arms. But worse was to come.

In October 1866, after the state of the statue had been discussed in the Times, guerilla jokers attacked the statue at night, painting black spots all over the horse, replacing the lance with a broomstick and putting a dunce’s hat from the nearby Alhambra Theatre on George’s bonce. Crowds flocked to see the spectacle. It was cleaned up, but eventually sold for £16 and pulled down in 1872.

As British History online website comments: ‘It would be almost impossible to tell all the pranks that were played upon this ill-starred monument, and how Punch and his comic contemporaries made fun of it, whilst the more serious organs waxed indignant as they dilated on the unmerited insults to which it was subjected.’

Nothing changes, once again.

Five unknown London pleasures

1 London’s first artificial ice rink
The Glaciarium opened in 1842 at the Baker Street Bazaar near Portman Square. The backdrop was ski chalets and snow-capped mountains, the ‘ice’ was churned-up hogs’ lard and sulphur. On hot days it smelt of cheese. It closed in 1844.

2 The clown and the geese
In 1884, a clown called Barry was watched by a huge crowd as he sailed down the Thames from Vauxhall to Westminster in a washtub pulled by four geese.

3 One-legged cricket
In 1796, Montpelier Gardens in Walworth hosted a cricket match between eleven one-armed Greenwich pensioners and eleven one-legged Greenwich pensioners. Interest was so great that a fence was broken and spectators fell through a stable roof. The match was drawn, but the one-legged team won a replay, earning themselves 1,000 guineas.

4 London’s first public museum
This was opened in a coffee house near Chelsea Old Church in 1695 by James Salter, a former servant of Hans Sloane, the man whose collection later formed the British Museum. Sloane reputedly handed Salter – renamed Don Saltero – some of the less important of his 80,000 objects, including a giant’s tooth,  a necklace made of Job’s tears and a bonnet that belonged to Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister (it actually came from Bedford).

5 The Peace of 1814
On Monday August 1, 1814, London celebrated the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte with a series of festivities. It began with a balloon ascent at Green Park; the balloon was captured by the winds and sent towards the Estuary until the ballooneer cut a hole and landed on Mucking Marshes near Tilbury. Next came a miniature Battle of the Nile on the Serpentine, followed by a firework display in Green Park, for which John Nash had designed a new pagoda. Sadly this caught fire, killing two people. The crowd applauded, assuming it was all part of the fun.

All these came from Pleasures of London, a book available at the Museum of London bookshop for £30. It is my new favourite London book. It should have been published in 1992, but was delayed repeatedly and by the time it was published by the London Topographical Society in 2009 the authors, Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, had both died.

What the pair had created was an endlessly browsable book on all the fads and fancies that have occupied Londoners leisure since the Dark Ages, from Frost Fairs to black-faced minstrels, lidos to the Great Exhibition. There are brilliant throwaways  – such as those mentioned above – as well as short but thorough looks at things like music halls, pleasure gardens (which I still don’t get the point of), museums and the origins of sports like cricket, football and boxing.

Buy it.

Natural selection

My review of the Natural History Museum’s very good exhibition on Sexual Nature, about the mating habits of animals, can be read at the New Statesman. It features slug sex, Guy the Gorilla and Isabella Rossellini.  

For more on this sort of thing, you should read Melissa Harrison’s Tales Of The City blog, who writes about blossom, snowdrops, daffodils and foxes from the urban wilderness of sunny Streatham.

Stamford Bridge in 1979

For people like me, there are few things more emotive than an empty football ground, filmed in 1979 in flickery Super-8 and overlayed by a haunting soundtrack. It’s like Simon Inglis’s first volume of ‘Football Grounds Of Great Britain’ come to life.

Check out loads more here.

Waxworks at war

The other day I headed to London Bridge to investigate Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience, a peculiar attraction on Tooley Street next to the London Dungeon that opened in 1992.

This strange place attempts to recreate the experience of wartime London feels rather like a private collection of eccentric memorabilia that has been thrown together in a space under a railway arch. There are no shiny monitors and well-lit cases; some of the labels are handwritten.

I quite liked it, although not at the £13 it would have cost if Laura at About London hadn’t got me in for free.

It begins with a film screened in a mocked-up air raid shelter, features various displays about life in London during the war (evacuation, fashion, rationing, entertainment, land girls), has a real Anderson Shelter to sit in and ends with a gloriously dramatic and gruesome life-size reconstruction of a bombed pub, complete with smoke and severed limbs.

What I liked best, were the waxworks. You don’t get many waxworks in museums these days but there are loads at the Britain At War Experience and they are mostly terrible. Unfortunately, I only managed to photograph a couple, missing out on the frightening one of a small child asleep in an air-raid shelter, looking like a little corpse, and also a brilliant Winston Churchill with a head the size of Gibraltar (this may in fact be physically accurate).

But here are the ones I got.

This one is quite normal. It’s a man using a switchboard. It shows what they can do with waxworks when they put their mind to it.

But then they get progressively weirder. This woman with a massive nose is demonstrating wartime fashion, although I think she is actually a man who dresses like a woman to avoid war service and because he likes the freedom it offers him.

This woman is a fire warden with a bad back. 

At the end, in the bombed pub, this woman can be seen bravely selling tea even though she has clearly suffered terrible burns and should be taken to the nearest hospital. This could be to demonstrate the implacability of London spirit during the Blitz, or it could be because they ran out of artificial hair.

So there you go, if you like weird wartime waxworks and have thirteen quid to spare, get down to Tooley Street before they all come alive and take over the London Bridge Quarter.

The man who saved the Midland Grand Hotel

With the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras about to reopen as the St Pancras Renaissance, I thought it worth posting a piece I wrote about the renovation last year for Metropolitan.

Of the six major London stations, strung out like new gates to the old city along the Euston Road, there is none quite like St Pancras, where all Eurostar journeys begin and end. Much is made of the station’s emblematic steel-and-glass roof, but that delight will soon be upstaged by the refurbished wonder that lies outside the station walls. The Midland Grand Hotel – even when sheathed in scaffolding and protective hoardings – is a breathtaking sight. ‘It’s a fantastic building,’ says a besotted Harry Handelsman, the property developer. ‘It’s amazing, such a legacy, such an important structure.’

A vast red-brick neo-Gothic vision of spires, arched windows, clock towers and weathervanes, the Midland Grand looms over the Euston Road more like a Transylvanian castle than a hotel. But guests have not been welcomed since 1935, when the hotel was converted to offices, desecrated internally and left to rot. Renaissance has been a long time coming, but will be confirmed when the hotel reopens after 76 years of neglect and near destruction.

Handelsman is a German-born London-based property developer whose Manhattan Loft Corporation pioneered loft-living in London. ‘In 1997 I was asked if I would be interested in converting 20-odd rooms in St Pancras into flats. That was it, the extent of our involvement. For me the chance to have a small share in such a fantastic building was very exciting.’ Thirteen years later he finds himself financing and organising a project that now includes 68 apartments and a bar, restaurant and health club in the original building, as well as a newly built 250-bed five-star hotel next door. ‘Have I kept an apartment for myself?’ he muses. ‘No, I kept the hotel.’

The Midland Grand Hotel opened on May 5, 1873. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect who also built the Albert Memorial. In ‘St Pancras Station’, Simon Bradley describes the hotel as ‘the grandest single monument of the Gothic Revival in Britain’ and upon completion, Scott believed the Midland Grand was perhaps ‘too good’ for its intended purpose.

The hotel cost £437,335, making it one of the most expensive buildings in London and one of the most modern hotels in Europe. It had a revolving entrance door, only the second in London and also some of the capital’s first ‘ascending rooms’, or lifts. The central feature was the breathtaking main staircase, which rose grandly from ground floor to fifth. Although the hotel was at the cutting-edge of Victorian technology, it was not an exclusive venue. Victorian hotels were built for everybody, with rooms getting smaller and cheaper the higher you got, so the aristocracy had suites on the first floor and the travelling salesman attic rooms at the top. This floor-by-floor ranking was reflected in the furniture: oak and walnut on the first floor; teak on the second floor; mahogany on the third floor; ash on the fourth floor; softwood on the fifth floor.

Striking, modern and open to all, at first the hotel prospered, but slowly decline set in. The reasons for the hotel’s demise were built into the fabric of its creation: there were around 400 rooms, 250 of them bedrooms, but no central heating and only nine bathrooms.

‘The toilet was invented six years after it was finished, so this place was redundant almost overnight,’ says Geoff Mann, principal director of RHWL, the project architect. As newer hotels with en-suite bathrooms were built, the Midland Grand began to look outdated. And it was a problem that could not be solved. While a hotel like the Savoy could turn balconies into bathrooms, there was no way the Midland could modernise as the fire-proof floors proved resistant to inserting pipes. Further difficulties came with maintaining the exterior of such an elaborate building and the sheer cost of running it – the census of 1881 recorded 115 resident staff to 91 guests. Even the bloke who chalked up the score in the billiard room was on ten shillings a week.

‘It never lost money, but it wasn’t making as much as they’d have wanted it to,’ explains the building’s unofficial historian Royden Stock. ‘So in 1930, they did the group accounts and found this one had made a profit of £2,700 whereas the Midland in Manchester had made £51,000. This was the flagship and today people would have kept it open as a loss-leader, but back then it was about straight profit. It closed five years later.’

Now began the dark days of the hotel’s life. Railway staff moved in and set about trying to turn an ornate Victorian hotel into utilitarian offices. ‘They had no respect for the building whatsoever,’ says Handelsman. ‘It was awful, awful, awful, awful. The destruction. It was almost like they said, “oh, there’s an amazing feature let’s stick a hammer through it”, and they did this with pedestrian efficiency.’ Cheap false ceilings were installed, walls were knocked through and beautiful features painted over in an orgy of philistinism.

It got worse. In 1966, a plot was hatched to demolish St Pancras hotel and station, a fate that had already befallen nearby Euston. Led by Sir John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, conservationists managed to secure Grade I listed status for St Pancras in November 1967, ensuring it could never be demolished. The hotel was renamed St Pancras Chambers and limped on as offices until it was abandoned completely in 1988. But the chance of a second life came with the proposal of a Paris-London railway in the mid-1990s. Mann explains, ‘With the high speed rail scheme [HS1] came an act of Parliament saying the hotel would be returned to its original purpose. This was an important point – it became a legal requirement of the consortium bidding for HS1 to find somebody who could take on this project. That wasn’t easy. RHWL, the Manhattan Loft Corporation and Whitbread, who owned the Marriott franchise, won the contract.’

Now began more fun and games. RHWL quickly ascertained that there was not enough space in the original building to open a modern, viable five-star hotel. Originally, 20 apartments were intended to underwrite the cost of refurbishing the hotel, but this was upped to 68 apartments, and a new 250-room hotel was built behind St Pancras Chambers, alongside the station, the design of which was vigorously contested by English Heritage and the architects. Then Whitbread pulled out. ‘We had two choices,’ says Handelsman. ‘We could pull out or we could ask Marriott to do a direct deal with us, which they did. So from doing 20 rooms, I suddenly inherited the whole project. The cost went through the roof, but by the same token I became much more personally involved because I saw this was an opportunity to create something. With Eurostar coming here I saw that the only way I could recoup my expenditure was by turning this into a five-star luxury hotel. My ambition is that somebody who is coming to London will want to stay at the Dorchester, Savoy or St Pancras – that’s where I want to be with facilities and aura.’

Renovation has been difficult – ‘It was a monster, there’s not one room the same in the whole building and we’ve discovered rooms we didn’t even know existed,’ says Mann’ – but is now complete. All work has been done under the close supervision of English Heritage, who insisted that six rooms were put back as they were original designed. As Mann points out, ‘this was quite a difficult thing to do as the hotel was in use for sixty years and kept being renovated. We’d scrape off a layer of paint and find six more underneath – so which one counted as original?’

But now it is over. Eurostar passengers arriving at St Pancras will soon be able to step straight off the platform and into the hotel to check in. They’ll be able to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant, work out in a top-of-the-range health club, drink in a gorgeous Victorian station-bar or network in a state-of-the-art conference room. Or they’ll simply be able to wander around one of the most beautiful buildings in London and rejoice that it has not only survived, but it has prospered.

London Street Photography at Museum of London

My review of the Museum of London’s excellent London Street Photography exhibition appears in the Independent today.

Street photography – the snatched and unposed glimpse of everyday life – is a fascinating genre even if it is never quite as authentic as it appears. Many of the strongest images in the exhibition reminded me of those Victorian journalists who investigated the slums of working-class London life in the 1880s and 1890s, reporting back in horror on what they found to their middle-class readers.

Thanks to these pioneeers, we now have evocative visual records of London life. My favourite were probably the images Roger Mayne took in the late 1950s to record the streets in West London that were scheduled to be demolished and replaced by Trellick Tower. A book of Mayne’s photographs has just been republished and can be purchased at the Museum of London bookshop, along with the excellent accompanying book for the exhibition.

Pete Townshend and the London counterculture

For my recent piece in Uncut on the London underground press, I contacted Pete Townshend to ask if he had any memories of the era. His reply was long and illuminating, and is worth reproducing in full.

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ME: Pete was a regular at UFO. Was it unusual for somebody so well-known and from a Mod background to go to a hippie club?

PT: I was taken hostage in a sense. My partner Karen Astley (whose pretty face was used for a few UFO posters) was working with her old friends from the Ealing Fashion School – Angela Brown and Annie Dupée. They had a company called Hem & Fringe. They made clothes for various boutiques, but in particular were designing for an adventurous new King’s Road store in the manner of Granny Takes a Trip. It was to be called Gandalf’s Garden. It was a joint effort by Barbara Allen and Michael Rainey I think.

Michael McInnerney was doing the window design, with – I believe – another artist called Dudley Edwards (who had decorated Lennon’s big Rolls Royce in psychedelic style). I had met Mike and Dudley after the Who had played Monterey Pop Festival with Jimi Hendrix in 1967, and I was interested in Meher Baba who they both followed.

The Who then went off on a very long tour supporting Herman’s Hermits, and while we were away there was a widely reported hippy wedding in Hyde Park, Michael McInnerney married Katie, and Karen was there, and in many of the photos. There is also newsreel film of Karen dancing with Barbara Allen and Hoppy. Mike McInnerney worked with Hoppy and Miles on IT. Karen was right in the centre of the hippy scene, and knew a lot of the leading faces of the time. Through her I met Joe Boyd, the producer of The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, and Barry Miles and his wife Sue (who was a terrific restaurateur), and Hoppy. I also got to know John Dunbar [Marianne Faithfull’s first husband] and met the other founders of the Indica Bookshop in Southampton Row at a party with the Beatles, but I never went to the shop. The way I remember it is that Paul McCartney was the chief patron of Indica from the Beatles and the pop scene at large. He was passionate about legalising marijuana, and came close to being arrested for some of the things he said. As far as I could see, marijuana and LSD were what the politics of the times revolved around. There may have been more, deeper things, but I never saw much sign of it at the time. Vietnam was big news of course, but sadly not to me. More of my myopic tendencies later.

Michael English was an old friend from Ealing Art College, and his partner was Angela Brown. When I wasn’t performing we hung out together. Michael was developing his air-brushing techniques, but also making silk-screened posters for hippy events with his colleague Nigel Weymouth. Michael and I were extremely close for about a year in 1967, and I became very fond of him. My friendship with Mike McInnerney lasted much longer, and although we don’t see much of each other today, his work on the Tommy artwork went much further than just coming up with cover art. I flew every single Tommy song past him before I played it to Kit Lambert my mentor and Who producer and manager.

I loved the UFO club. Hoppy was always on the door, smiling, welcoming, never spoke about politics although we knew he was involved in trying to get marijuana legalised. On the stairs I often found Mike McInnerney, who would never stop drawing and painting, and sometimes took his work out with him. One night Gustav Metzger who had lectured at Ealing Art College did the acid-based-light-projections for The Soft Machine. In those days Soft Machine were really very jazzy, and I seem to remember they played a few pieces by John Coltrane. I’ve always been a huge fan of Robert Wyatt, and he married one of my friends Alfreda Benge who edited The Lone Ranger, the first film for which I ever made a soundtrack. Pink Floyd were regulars, and I thought they were wonderful, and not just Syd. I’d met Syd at a few parties, and he was already pretty mad, too many trips we all thought. One Pink Floyd night at the UFO a bunch of Mod boys circled me and ridiculed my hippy coat that Karen had made me, and from then on I think I started wearing boiler suits and Doc Martens, attempting to disown both fashions. We had a lot of fun, I had about five LSD trips, one good one, the rest pretty scary. The UFO was a very friendly place, unless you happened to run into Roger Waters. I’m joking, he was friendly enough, but though handsome he was extremely scary looking, and was rather too keen on Karen for my liking, but then a lot of men were.

I am simply name-dropping here, over and over again, because I was not really a part of this scene at all. I just met all these extraordinarily glamorous and friendly people through Karen, then jumped back in the shitty old Who tour bus and went off to play in fucking Morecambe.

Was Pete’s comfort with the counterculture a result of his art school background?

I was not comfortable with it. This is where I confess my myopic nature. I never ever managed to find a sense of place in it. I think when we played Woodstock a year later, and my famous argument happened on stage with Abbie Hoffman, I suddenly realised I simply hadn’t understood how divided society had become by then. This divide was not just between young and old, but between those younger people who saw themselves as political agitators and those who simply wanted to conform, get a job and have a quiet life.

As an artist I operated within the Who as a kind of mirror or commentator, always looking at the local neighbourhood rather than the international scene, trying to give a voice to that part of our audience that seemed most disaffected, but I lost touch completely during the hippy years. Tommy was possibly only accepted from the Who because in hindsight some aspects of the hippy movement had been seen to be counterfeit and bogus. But the spiritual yearning that grew out of the LSD revolution was carried in Tommy, and made a connection somehow. 

My art school work had been hugely inspiring, especially with respect to the possibilities of future technology and the way it would affect art. I have always felt I juggled art, technology and spiritual matters fairly well. But those three issues really needed from me an awareness of politics to produce balanced artistic work. That never happened for me. My mostly apolitical protests were rather sullen and sometimes resentful.

Did interviews with International Times allow musicians to reach different audiences or talk about different subjects than was possible with the mainstream press?

Oh yes. But I don’t remember my talk with Miles, I just remember Miles himself, and I adored him. Around that time (1967) I began to specialise in thought-stream interviews, just rapping really. I spoke creatively, sometimes absurdly, often moving into territory I knew little about. Occasionally this system did produce the most wonderful ideas. At other times, looking back, I just sounded out of my depth.

Why did rock stars like Pete and Paul McCartney get involved with IT, UFO and the counterculture scene? What did Pete personally do to help?

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Macca got taken hostage as I did, but in his case by his partner Jane Asher. I know that her brother Peter was involved in some way with John Dunbar. We were all part of what we thought would be a new London intelligentsia. In the end it was just a group of young pop stars with extremely pretty girl friends. I can remember one gathering – I think it was at an art opening for Simon and Maryka – where George Harrison was talking about Krishna, Macca about legalising marijuana and Eric Clapton and I were with the artist and lyricist Martin Sharp talking about the Oz Trial. I don’t think I helped at all, but Macca did. He gave money when Hoppy was arrested, and later for the Oz trial I believe.

Did Pete attend or have anything to do with International Times happenings at the Roundhouse or Alexandra Palace?

Yes I went to both events. Michael English and I took LSD and walked all the way to the Roundhouse from his house in Portland Road. A long, wonderful trip, one of the good ones. At the Ally Pally Rave I ‘discovered’ Arthur Brown and started recording him. Kit Lambert got thrown out of the Alexander Palace event. God knows what he did. He was rather posh, maybe he was thought to be too straight, but I got Hoppy to get him back in. The Who actually performed at one of the last IT Roundhouse events, with Elton John’s new band. By that time IT and Hoppy had lost control of the London hippy scene and it was being taken over by the old guard of promoters. 

Five weird London museum exhibits

Forget the Rosetta Stone or Boris’s new pretend Routemaster at the London Transport Museum, there’s some crackingly quirky stuff to be found in London museums if you are prepared to look hard enough.

So here are five favourites from the top of my head.

Stuffed sparrow on a cricket ball
MCC Museum, Lord’s

Forget the ridiculous Ashes urn, the highlight of the MCC museum has to be a dead sparrow. It was killed by a cricket ball hit by Jehangir Khan in a match at Lord’s in 1936 between the MCC and Cambridge University. In death, the bird was treated with utmost dignity, being stuffed and stapled to the ball that killed it.

Chinese torture chair
Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome is filled with some of the oddest semi-scientific bric-a-brac imaginable, but I’m particularly fond of this Chinese torture chair, as it is just so mind-bogglingly vicious. In fact, it’s so vicious it would kill anybody as soon as they sat on it, so was probably only used for psychological torture. So that’s okay then.

Raquel Welch in a Chelsea kit
Chelsea FC Museum, Stamford Bridge

Possibly the coolest thing ever.

Stanley Green’s placard
Museum of London

Stanley Green, the Protein Man, used to march up and down Oxford Street carrying this placard and was a legendary sight in London for decades until his death in 1993. The placard is now in the Museum of London. A lovely piece by curator Cathy Ross tells the whole story here.

Mechanical galleon
British Museum

Bizarre sixteenth-century boat-clock designed to move along a banquet table, tell the time, strike the quarter-hour and fire its cannons. Wonderfully ridiculous.

And that’s just for starters.

Marianne Faithfull

I interviewed Marianne Faithfull before Christmas for a piece that can be currently read by anybody who reads the free Metropolitan magazine on Eurostar.

It begins like this. (Or at least it would do if my intro hadn’t been changed.)

Who is Marianne Faithfull? She’s a 1960s icon who had four chart hits, a marriage and baby, three Rolling Stones and a drugs bust before she was 20. She’s a blue-blood aristocrat who spent the 1970s in a narcotic haze, homeless in Soho. She’s the Queen of Goth, the Princess of Excess, a 64-year-old woman who has eyes to die for and which have seen more of life than most of us dare dream.

Who is Marianne Faithfull? Well, why not ask her yourself. ‘I’m a musician. I’ve always known I’m a musician. I’ve just been a hardly-known, little-understood and not-appreciated musician, which is something to be, but I’d rather I wasn’t. My fans are loyal and I cannot fault them for that, but I’d like a few more of them.’


I’ll be honest and say this is not a commission I was particularly looking forward to. Faithfull has earned a reputation as being ‘difficult’, partly as a result of living to excess for decades but mainly because of this vicious article by Lynn Barber.

To make things worse, I was informed at the interview that Faithfull was tired because her journey had been delayed by seven hours. And she’d been travelling on Eurostar, which is who I was interviewing her for.

Oh dear.

In the end, she was magnificent. Intelligent, generous, witty, occasionally outspoken but above all thoughtful, which is really all you are looking for from an interviewee.

She also has a bullish determination that surely kept her alive through the years of alcohol and narcotic abuse. At one point I asked her if it was harder being an older women in music and film. She looked at me steadily and said: ‘It’s always harder for women, all the way and it goes on being harder. But that can be surpassed by not accepting the rules. And there are a lot of women like that. I like to focus on the women I admire like Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. They’re beautiful, they’ve put on weight but they are stunning and they are still working. A lot.’

I liked her. A lot.