Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Monkees and Alf Garnett

I have a piece in the latest issue of Uncut magazine about the making of The Monkees 1967 hit “Alternate Title”, originally titled “Randy Scouse Git”.

The song was the band’s biggest hit in the UK reaching No 2 in the chart, which seems pretty appropriate given that it was written in London and is full of London references.  When Mickey Dolenz said it was called “Randy Scouse Git”, the English Monkee, Davy Jones, was a little perturbed. ‘They asked me what it meant,’ he told me, ‘and I tried to explain, but they just didn’t get it.’

Dolenz wrote the song during a visit to the UK. As he explains: ‘We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party . We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike Nesmith and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprise everybody by saying hello – they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. We must have had a party and the next morning there were still a few people hanging around and Mama Cass was in town, and the Beatles were huge and I’d met this girl and I just start doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming day and night. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meanings in there.

It was an amazing experience in London. I am told I had a great time. And of course I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair.  Lots of stuff was going on. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet because she could hear them screaming over in the palace.

‘I must have been watching TV and Till Death Us Do Part was on and Alf Garnett called the kid, Tony Booth [later Tony Blair’s father-in-law], a “randy Scouse git”. I had no idea what it meant, no clue, but I thought it was funny. He said that line right in the middle of me writing the song and as was the way in those days I was just spontaneous –  ‘Wow man, what a cool title!’ – and wrote it down.’

So that is how you go from this…

…to this…

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Mudlarking

Last winter, I went mudlarking on the Thames shore. This is an edited version of the article I subsequently wrote for Eurostar (image below from Knowledge Of London).

You’ll see them at low tide, wandering alone with bent necks along the damp and desolate mudflats of the Thames. These are the mudlarks: amateur archaeologists, beachcombers and scavengers who delight in rediscovering lost detritus from London’s past. Although they are wearing waders and carrying metal detectors, they look much like giant birds, storks or herons, as they walk with heads bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, scrutinising the mud and pebbles for hidden treasure. They’ll occasionally scratch at the surface with an extended toe if they see something they fancy. And then they’ll pounce, darting down to peck something from the ooze, before deciding whether to add it to the day’s hoard.

The tidal Thames has been described as ‘London’s largest and richest archaeology site’ and it’s certainly the longest in the country, stretching from the Thames Barrier to Teddington Lock. For centuries, the river in central London was used by boats bringing cargo from all over the world. Thousands of people worked in these docks and warehouses, and items that have fallen from boats or pockets or been casually discarded by Tudor dockers are still lodged in the London mud, waiting to be revealed whenever the tidal river withdraws.

Mudlarks have been prowling here for centuries. In Georgian and Victorian times, they were the desperately poor searching for things to eat or sell. By the 1960s, the term referred to unofficial archaeologists who formed the Society Of Thames Mudlarks in 1980. A few years later the Port of London Authority (PLA) – the body in charge of the river – offered the mudlarks licences to dig on the foreshore in return for having their finds officially recorded by the Museum of London. The mudlarks have thus helped build an unparalleled record of everyday life on a medieval river.

Ian Smith is one of them. His patch is the north bank of the Thames between London and Southwark Bridges, outside Customs House, where pre-Victorian cargo ships would have been checked for contraband. This was once the Pool of London, the main unloading point for boats that could not fit between the pillars of old London Bridge, and a place rich in treasures. ‘I started in 1973 as a schoolboy,’ says Smith on a bracing winter morning. ‘I grew up in Battersea and saw a TV show about a man who found these old clay pipes in the Bristol Channel. So I came down to see what I could find. I spent about a year working down the river bit-by-bit until I got to Blackfriars where I saw this group of people, a little cluster of them, and I went over with my collection of pipes. And where they’d been poking about there were pipes everywhere, loads of them, they were just ignoring them and looking for other stuff. So I started chatting and that’s how I got started.’

The thick black mud of the Thames conceals rich treats, everything from prehistoric flints to Victorian toys. The mud is anaerobic – without oxygen – so preserves just about anything. Kate Sumnall works for the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a Finds Liaison Officer; it is her job to manage the licence scheme and register everything the mudlarks find. She says, ‘London is different to most places in terms of the preservation and the proportion. You wouldn’t get iron daggers in a field, it would be eroded, but Thames mud is anaerobic so things don’t decay. And you also don’t have aggressive chemicals and ploughs, which damage items in the ground. You can still find medieval leather in the Thames.’

Smith believes the Thames has three other benefits. ‘London is almost unique,’ says Smith. ‘Most rivers aren’t tidal, so that’s one thing, but you’ve also got the river going through the centre of town rather than round the outside. And the third thing is that in the Victorian era all the docks got moved over to the Isle of Dogs, so that means the early stuff has been left in the ground rather than dredged away centuries ago.’

This is what makes the Thames such a popular and lucrative haunt for the mudlarks. There are around 50 with official permits, granted by the PLA after an individual has spent at least two years on the foreshore getting experience and demonstrating a history of recording their finds. ‘The mudlarks have huge value,’ says Sumnall. ‘They have sold us entire collections in the past and these have gone on to form a crucial part of the museum. But they are also immensely helpful in recording where things are discovered over time, which helps build up a bigger picture of London history.’

When Sumnall is contacted by somebody who wants to be a mudlark, she’ll often put them in touch with Smith, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the river and its secrets, knowing where to look and when. At low tide, he clambers down the steps on to the foreshore carrying the tools of his trade – a bucket and spade and a battered metal detector wrapped in waterproof plastic – to begin his hunt. After just a few minutes he returns with a 13th-century arrowhead, 16th century pipes, medieval buttons and a shard of Tudor pottery. But this is bric-a-brac to an experienced mudlark. Smith, an antiques dealer by trade, specialises in medieval pewter pilgrims badges which were sold at points of pilgrimage, but has found all sorts of things. ‘I found a hoard of forged coins from 1470,’ he says. ‘People would clip a bit of silver off the edges of coins and these forgers must have been chased so they flung the bag of coins into the river to get rid of it and I found it centuries later.’

London’s history as a world port dates back to the Roman era, which can make for interesting finds. Sumnall tells the story of a bone harpoon that they originally thought came from the Stone Age, but after carbon dating turned out to be from around 1650. ‘That really threw us, but we realised it came from a part of the foreshore where the whaling docks were located and it’s possible it came from an Arctic civilisation and arrived in London on a whaling ship. But obviously we can’t be sure.’

Another recent discovery was a 400-year-old lead toy coach, found by a London decorator, Albert Johanessen, who says his most important equipment is not a metal detector but ‘his eyes and a stout pair of wellies’. Smith possesses these, but after 40 years of mudlarking is realistic about what he’s going to find. ‘You’re never going to find treasure like the Staffordshire Hoard because nobody is going to bury gold in a river, but you find ordinary everyday stuff that people chuck away: tools, rings, badges, glass and pottery.’

You certainly find a lot of clay pipes. These carpet the foreshore in London, thousands of them dating back to the sixteenth century when tobacco was first introduced to the capital. The pipes were sold pre-filled and although they were reusable were often discarded, thrown into the river by those who worked in the docks. These 400-year-old fragments are fascinating to newcomers but to the trained eye are more like Tudor cigarette ends and rarely get taken to the museum to be registered.

But there is one Londoner who is interested. Jane Parker is a designer who last year began to collect pipes to make into necklaces and bracelets. She currently sells them on her website but hopes to get a stall at a London market soon. ‘I went to the Museum of London Docklands (in Canary Wharf) and afterwards walked to the river,’ explains Parker. ‘The tide was out so I went down on to the beach. I saw these clay pipe stems and decided I’d make something from them and started making them for friends who had left London as a momento.’

Parker doesn’t have a PLA licence, which means she can’t dig but is allowed to collect anything from the surface. With pipes that’s all she needs. At the right spot, Parker reckons she can pick up 400-500 usable pipe stems in an hour. ‘I want stems that have been pummelled by the tide, and are soft and worn at the ends. The smaller and finer, the newer they are. Some of them have a line down the middle that show they’ve been cast in a mould, while the bigger, chunkier ones are hand-made, the holes aren’t centred and they aren’t smooth.’

You can also see the fruits of the foreshore in a special display at the Museum of London devoted to items found in the river, covering everything from prehistoric axes to medieval skulls. The museum takes in around 1,000 items a year from the mudlarks and despite Smith’s belief that ‘the best times are over, so much has already been found’, Sumnell thinks there’s still plenty to discover. ‘We’re definitely finding different things,’ she says. ‘They heyday of the pilgrim badges may have passed but we’re seeing more Roman stuff than I can keep up with, especially in areas of heavy erosion. There’s still a lot of interest in mudlarks, and we’re always getting new ones.’ A new generation itching to uncover the secrets of the Thames.

Small is beautiful: maps and models in London exhibitions

I’ve written before about my dislike of blockbuster exhibitions so was interested to read this piece by Stephen Moss the other day about how the age of the blockbuster may be coming to an end.  It may be wishful thinking, but support for his view comes from some surprising places.

Ken Arnold, the creative force behind the Wellcome Collection, recently told me that ‘Blockbusters are a depressingly greedy way to view exhibitions’. Arnold criticised the idea that any institution would want to cover a subject so definitively it left no avenues for others to explore, and also bemoaned the very experience of a blockbuster, which is often so unfulfilling for the spectator, who is shunted in and out on a timed ticket, having only seconds to view key works of art from behind a throng of tourists and daytrippers.

Small exhibitions might not get the column inches and posters on the tube, but they are often far more thoughtful, unusual and creatively curated. There are two crackers on display in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them. The Petrified Music of Architecture at the Sir John Soane Museum is a wonderful collection of tiny Victorian models of European cathedrals – I wrote about it for the New Statesman.

The Hand-Drawn London exhibition at the Museum of London is even better. Curated by the Londonist website, it features 11 idiosyncratic maps of London drawn by locals, and is one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen for a while. I reviewed it for the Independent.

Go and see them both.

Secret London: The London Thirteen Club

The London Thirteen Club was set up as an ‘antidote to superstition’ by Camberwell historian William Harnett Blanch in the 1890s.

It met on the 13th of every month in Holborn. There were thirteen dinner tables each with thirteen settings and diners wore green ties with toy skeletons in their buttonholes. Meals were served by two cross-eyed waiters, who announced dinner was to start by smashing two mirrors.

To get to the dining room, guests had to follow an undertaker underneath a ladder and then sit at tables decorated with a centrepiece featuring a black cat, peackcock feather and witch’s cauldrons. They were asked to spill salt before they could begin eating.

The club had numerous members, including leading journalists and politicans, and their membership fees were distributed to the poor of Southwark. Oscar Wilde, however, refused to join saying that ‘I love superstitions. They are the opponent of common sense.’

Despite this public flouting of superstitions, the London Thirteen Club had a very low mortality rate – only one member died, and he’d failed to pay his fees. As it was pointed out by some, ‘It is actually rather lucky to belong the Club.’ Read more here.

Happy Friday 13th, readers.

Six London landmarks in music videos

1 ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers at Leighton House.

2 ‘Wannabe’ by The Spice Girls at Midland Grand Hotel.

3 ‘No Way No Way’ by Vanilla at Brockwell Lido.

4 ‘Blood In My Eyes’ by Bob Dylan at Camden Market.

5 ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ by Chemical Brothers at the Natural History Museum.

6 ‘The Medal Song’ by Culture Club at Stamford Bridge.

Bin Laden world exclusive from Herne Hill

‘Blue Is The Colour’: versions from around the world

I dimly recall watching an animated Czech film on Channel 4 many years ago, which featured a version of the Chelsea anthem Blue Is The Colour sung in Czech. (Huw Jones in the comments now reveals this to be ‘Virile Game’, by Czech genius Jan Svankmajer – it appears 1min 45secs into this clip.)

It seems I may not have imagined this. I’ve just found out that the song was indeed recorded by Czech singer Frantisek Ringo Cech as Zelená je tráva (‘Green Is The Grass’) in 1981.

Here are some Czech footballers – including the great Antonin Panenka – singing it in the 1970s.

There’s also a Danish version called Rød-hvide farver (Red and White Colours) recorded by Flemming Anthony in 1984.

And here’s a rather chirpy Finnish version, where it was recorded by Vexi Salmi and called Hoo Ji Koo, although it’s better known as Taas Kansa Täyttää. This is probably my favourite.

Here are The Proclaimers singing a pretty awful recent version, renamed ‘White Is The Colour’ for the Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada.

Also from Canada is this version, a hilarious tribute to American Football team Saskatchewan  Roughriders, in which they try to fit the entire name of the team into a rhyming scheme that was only designed for two syllables.

Away from professional recorded versions, the song has also been adapted by other football fans on the terraces. Here are fans of the Japanese club Montedio Yamagata singing it in English.

And Lazio sing a mightily impressive version of it in Italian. Only they could make such a sweet song sound intimidating. 

Finally, here’s the original being recorded by Ossie and the boys in 1972.

The City of London’s secret zoo

My piece on the extraordinary Animal Reception Centre (ARC) at Heathrow – where all animals entering the UK have their passports stamped – appeared in last week’s Independent on Sunday.

One of the great things about the ARC is that by a quirk of administration it is run from Guildhall by the City of London Corporation. As Rob Quest, the facility’s manager, told me, ‘The City is responsible for the import of all animals in Greater London. That’s because in 1965 when the LCC broke up, the City still had a veterinary department because of Smithfield Market so they were deemed the best people to run the border control. They built this place after there was a rabies outbreak in Camberley in 1969 (Fritz, a black-and-white terrier, was released from quarantine early and bit two people) and it was decided we needed somewhere secure for animals to be checked.’

The City still runs the centre today, one of a number of non-Square Mile outposts that includes Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath. For more on the City’s more traditional oddities, check out David Long’s new book Hidden City.

London’s lost rivers

There is almost endless fascination with London’s lost rivers, as can be seen with the publication of Paul Talling‘s fine – if brief – new book on the subject. I have written about them a number of times and this article first appeared in Time Out in 2008.

Londoners love what they cannot see. Take the excitement that is generated by ‘ghost tube stations’ such as Museum and Aldwych that sit unused beneath our feet and can occasionally be glimpsed from trains. Yet people rarely blink when they descend escalators into the remarkable interiors of busy, living stations. Concealment and abandonment excited the mind more than the here and now.

So it is with London’s lost rivers. Anybody can check out the quirky Lea or watch the Wandle weave serenely past Merton Savacentre, but mention Brixton’s Effra or the City’s Walbrook rivers and the eyes of a certain sort of Londoner will light up, and a torrent of trivia about lost rivers will gush forth. This is an interest that can take us to unusual places. When Design for London recently mounted London Open City, an exhibition about creating new spaces in the capital, the idea of restoring buried rivers got people talking. The Sunday Times claimed Boris Johnson was going to greenlight the scheme and Peter Bishop, then director of Design for London, said: ‘When these rivers are opened up, Londoners will be absolutely amazed.’

Which was great news for James Bowdidge, a property developer with a yen for the Tyburn. ‘As soon as I learnt about it, I became fascinated with the old river and the way you could see it in street patterns,’ says Bowdidge, who channelled his enthusiasm into a curious project – ‘an angling society for a river that didn’t exist’. The Tyburn Angling Society, an irregular supper club, was born – Ken Livingstone attended their 600th anniversary dinner, 600 being a number they plucked out of thin air.

So far, so whimsical.

However, Bowdidge – a London buff with half an eye on property prices – has also looked into raising the Tyburn, which was covered in 1750 but still meanders underground from Hampstead to Westminster. ‘I asked an architect to draw up plans of the building that would have to go. We write to Westminster City Council about it every now and then. But they are sceptical because this particular plan requires the demolition of their headquarters.’

Now Bowdidge’s hope is renewed. ‘If you look at the planning statement the Mayor brought out, you can see a degree of support for this sort of project. And now the subject is live it’s worth thinking about seriously – what could you do? There’s no reason why you couldn’t reinstate the river through Regent’s Park. You don’t have to demolish billions of pounds of property, there are places where you could really bring it back if you looked at it pragmatically.’

Well, perhaps. The notion that Boris has gleefully embraced the scheme is not supported by the raised-eyebrows reaction of a GLA spokesperson, who told me: ‘Opening up parts of London’s subterranean river networks is one of many ideas proposed at the exhibition… As with all the ideas designed to stimulate thinking, a full study would need to be undertaken before any could be taken forward.’

In other words: Never. Gonna. Happen.

At least, not with the Mayor’s money. But there are always other pockets to pick. In 2003, the Environment Agency rescued the Quaggy, a tributary of the Ravensbourne, from an underground culvert in Kidbooke’s Sutcliffe Park, and there are plans to restore the Ravensbourne itself in Lewisham town centre, paid for by a regeneration group called Urban Renaissance in Lewisham (which includes the Quaggy Waterways Action Group). Architect Will Alsop has floated a similar scheme for Croydon, where a branch of the Wandle is interred. He says, ‘The buried river thing Boris is banging on about is a really good idea. In Croydon, the Wandle was only buried in 1967 so you can easily bring it back in patches: ponds or lakes or some elements of river. And you don’t even have to bring them back; you can leave some underground and go and see them there.’

Which brings us neatly to the most interesting scheme, that of Nick Robertson, a designer and London obsessive who once walked the Thames from source to sea with Peter Ackroyd (‘every Saturday for a year’) and harbours a fascination for the Fleet. Bowdidge refers to the infamously filthy Fleet as ‘the ditch’, and Robertson does not disagree. ‘There’s nothing artistic about the Fleet,’ he says. ‘It was bricked up for good reason. He’s right to call it a ditch. But some ditches are worth celebrating.’

Robertson’s plan was ‘the confluence of several ideas’. One was a walk he completed along the course of the Fleet – ‘it was a river route, you could see it in street names, and in the topography and geology; a river that wasn’t there, but was.’ A second influence was an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1996 called ‘Living Bridges’, which author Stephen Bayley has said marked the ‘moment when bridges have become showpieces of architects rather than engineers’. And the third was a visit to the Monument, the column raised by Wren and Hooke in 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire.

Robertson explains: ‘What interested me about the Monument was that it wasn’t representational. You climbed this big Doric column and saw what you saw, which was the extent of the destroyed city. The Monument is not the monument – what you see, the rebuilt city, is the monument. Stylistically, it’s of its time but conceptually, it’s way ahead.’

Robertson and an architect friend Iain Johnston explored options. ‘We discussed whether it was a good idea to open up the river and very quickly dismissed it because most plans to open up the hidden river are missing the point. The point is this river is covered. That’s what is interesting. To open it up is to ignore the historical process. And it’s ignoring the mystery, the charm. If you opened up the Fleet, it would regress to what it was, an urban river: charmless, shit-filled.’

Instead, Robertson ‘thought it would be interesting to have a bridge that went underground and the obvious site was Ludgate Circus because that was the site of the Fleet Bridge and Wren’s bridge when he tried to turn the Fleet into a canal.’ They designed a subterranean chamber that went under the road and had a glass floor through which visitors could observe the still-living Fleet. ‘A warped bridge over a warped bridge’.

He sent his proposal to the head of Thames Water where, as far as he knows, it still resides. The Fleet and the Tyburn were incorporated into Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system in the 1860s and both Bowdidge and Robertson have blagged trips underground with Thames Water sewer workers. Says Robertson: ‘One of the things I found most interesting was the amount of decoration. The designers stopped and thought what they were doing even though nobody was going to see it – it’s effectively dressing up shit.’

It’s true. London river-sewers are artfully constructed, beautiful things that deserve celebration, both for what they are now and what they used to be. The Guardian’s Ian Jack disagrees. When confronted with Bowdidge’s cheerful scheme of tree-lined tributaries, he wrote that the Tyburn was a ‘sewer owned by Thames Water and more remotely by pension funds in Canada and Australia. It has been a sewer for hundreds of years as part of a combined system, far too expensive to separate, that carries rainwater and human waste.’

And that’s that. Robertson at least sees a way past this brutal approach, and while his Fleet Bridge is the sort of imaginative scheme destined to go nowhere, he also believes the Fleet should be remembered in simpler ways, such as surface markers along its course of which there are none. It seems London is ashamed of its lost rivers, or at least of its treatment of them.

‘The Fleet is something London has buried,’ says Robertson. ‘So it appeals to people who feel strongly about the occluded side of London history.’ The best way to deal with it, he thinks, is to go down and confront this ‘trapped nerve’.

‘It was once a bubbling brook of bucolic bliss, then it turned into an open sewer, then it was bricked up,’ he says. ‘Now it needs to recreate itself in a different way. To open it up is to miss the point, pandering to a nostalgic view of London. London should never be nostalgic.’

Spoken like a true Ballardian (and Ian Jack would surely approve), but everybody, even a ruthless modernist, is allowed to look back every now and then and wonder. So Robertson tells me to head up Farringdon Road and down Ray Street towards Back Hill. There, in the road outside The Coach & Horses, is a grill, and ‘when you stand over it,’ says Robertson, ‘you can hear the Fleet belting beneath your feet.’

So it does, the magnificent sound of a torrent of water battering its way downhill directly beneath London streets. Sewer or river, call it what you will, but the Fleet lives on. Deep waters run still.