Monthly Archives: July 2011

Secret London: swastikas

One of the great London rumours is that somewhere inside the Royal Society’s building on Carlton House Terrace sits a giant swastika.  This is not because these esteemed scientists and thinkers are secretly Hitler-worshipping fascists, but because their home at Nos 6-9 was the location of the German Embassy (at Nos 8-9) during the pre-war Nazi era.

Carlton House Terrace was designed by John Nash between 1827-1832 to occupy a site previously taken by Carlton House. No 9 almost immediately became the seat of the Prussian Legation, which slowly evolved into the German Embassy. In the spirit of the time, it soon expanded to occupy the house next door at No 8.

In 1936, Joachim von Ribbentrop moved in, replacing the late Ambassador Leopold von Hoesch (whose dog’s gravestone can be seen under a tree near the Duke of York steps). Von Ribbentrop demanded a complete renovation of the property, and the Nazi’s top architect, Albert Speer, was called in to do the job. Exactly what he did remains something of a mystery, but the German Embassy website claims:

‘Only the fact that the Nash Terrace was a listed building saved the facades from being included in Ribbentrop’s plan to establish a model of the Third Reich architecture in the centre of the British capital. The renovation was exhaustive, money was no object.’

It is hard to discern exactly what alterations Speer made, but one diplomat wrote that the showy renovation of No 8 and 9 Carlton House Terrace had produced a style and furniture less suitable for an embassy and more comparable to that of German luxury liners of the time like the “Bremen”.  A contemporary set of photographs are lodged at the Library of Congress. The only one currently viewable is of the very modern-looking kitchen.

This decent phot0-set shows the building now, including Speer’s striking staircase, said to be constructed by marble supplied by Mussolini.

Albert Speer designed this

Among Speer’s embellishments was said to be the inclusion of a swastika mosaic on the floor of one of the public rooms. After the war, rather than remove the offending article, the swastika was said to have been simply covered with a carpet. (And this website claims there are still visible ‘border designs of swastikas on the floor of one public room’, which seems unlikely.)

Is it true?

Well, I’ve never seen a photo to substantiate the claim and people I know who have been inside the Royal Society are also none the wiser. However, I did once receive an email at Time Out from a builder who claimed to have renovated the building in the 1990s and seen a huge swastika under one carpet. Where, presumably, it still remains. Von Ribbentrop also had a house built for him in Pinner, which was said to have swastikas carved into the staircase.

If you do have a hankering to see a swastika in London, you should head for India House, where this plaque can be seen on the wall.

It represents the swastika when it was still an intriguing sign from the east, before it was appropriated by Hitler. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the swastika was a popular symbol in the west, often used as a good luck charm and adopted by groups as varied as the Boy Scouts and the Druids. My copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just-So Stories still has a prominent swastika featured in one illustration and the British Museum is full of the things.

Indeed, so popular was the swastika, it was even used to liven up the decor at Hounslow Bus Garage. Click on that last link and zoom in and you’ll see the border of pretty little swastikas that featured in the staff canteen. These swiftly disappeared as the truth about Hitler became impossible to ignore.

 

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London accessories

I fear this purchase may mark the moment when future biographers decided I tipped over into self-parody.

Next stop, a manbag version of this. I’m sure it can be done.

District Moquette Handbag

Thomas Paine’s London bridge

Thomas Paine was many things. A writer, revolutionary and political philosopher, Paine was also an inventor and engineer, who made the world’s first smokeless candle. He was also an occasional Londoner, most notably when he stayed at the Angel Inn, Islington, around the time he began writing Rights Of Man in 1791. This monument celebrates that fact.

Considerably more interesting than this, though, is the rarely discussed fact that Tom Paine built bridges. Iron bridges. And he built one of them in London.

Paine was fascinated by bridges, admiring them for their architecture as much as their metaphorical meaning. John Keane, Paine’s biographer, writes that he ‘was stuck by their double meaning. Bridges were for him combinations of architectural beauty and practicality, works of genius that could be breathtaking in their simplicity… the rising spirit of an epoch translated into space.’

Paine first tried to raise the funds to build an iron bridge over the Harlem River in New York in 1785 and then another over the Seine in Paris in 1786, but without success. Bridges of this era were still largely constructed in stone and wood, making Paine’s ideas rather unusual. Plus, he had no real background in engineering or architecture.

But he persevered. In 1788-89, he attempted to build an iron bridge over the River Don in South Yorkshire and although the project was never completed it did secure him a patent for his bridge-building scheme. Paine now decided that he needed to build his prototype bridge in London, where potential investors could see for themselves the sort of brilliant bridge he was going  to make. He told Thomas Jefferson – who himself had many ideas about how the bridge should be built – that a London bridge would soon pay for itself in tolls. Jefferson was impressed, writing to a friend: ‘Mr Paine, the author of Common Sense, has invented an iron bridge, which promises to be cheaper by a great deal than stone, and to admit of a much greater arch. He supposes it may be ventured for an arch of five hundred feet. He has obtained a patent for it in England, and is now executing the first experiment with an arch of between ninety and one hundred feet.’

Paine had originally hoped to build this experimental bridge to nowhere in Soho Square, but when he wrote to George Washington on May 1, 1790 describing his single-arch bridge of 110 feet, he still hadn’t found an appropriate location. By the end of May he could tell the no doubt anxious Washington that a site had been found – a field next to a famous tavern called the Yorkshire Stingo, on the Marylebone Road near what is now Lisson Grove. This was at least partly appropriate, given that the bridge was being constructed by a Rotherham-based ironworker called Thomas Walker.

Paine moved into the Yorkshire Stingo and began erecting his 110-foot bridge on the neighbouring bowling green. By September it was finished. Jefferson wrote to him a very nice letter saying: ‘I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.’

However, although there were many interested visitors, none of them were impressed enough to offer to invest in Paine’s scheme to build a bridge over the Thames. By October 1791, Paine’s bridge had been started to rust and Paine had lost interest, so it was dismantled and the iron returned to Yorkshire, where some was used in a bridge built over the River Wear in Sunderland in 1796, which at the time was the longest iron bridge at the world at 240 feet.

Nature: an apology

I was born in Epsom, one of those places on the fringe of London that mark the very boundary of the city, the point at which tarmac gives way to soil. As the picture below shows, just a few hundred yards from my road, Hookfield, the country begins in all its greenness.

This never much interested me in my youth. I was always more attracted by town than country. Nature passed me by. When I moved into the city proper, I took little notice in the pike or herons I saw from my boat on Regent’s Canal, or the ring-necked parakeets and woodpeckers I later found in Brockwell Park. If somebody told me they saw a badger in Regent’s Park or a cormorant on the Thames, I cared not a jot. And who needed peace and still when you had Hampstead Heath or Richmond Park nearby, even if I rarely actually bothered to go there.

A month in the Scottish Highlands changed that. For the first time I was able to observe hedgehogs, adders, shrews, woodmice, weasels, deer and eagles in the wild, and see traces of badgers, pine martens and wildcats. The sheer scale of the country was extraordinary, from the peaks of the Munros, to the endlessly unfolding glens. It was eye-opening and life-affirming.

Returning to London was difficult. I had previously viewed the city’s numerous parks as pastoral paradises. Now they seemed liked scratty scraps of green, a sad imitation of the real thing. The battering noise, smell and greyness of London was overwhelming.

But nature is still here, if we look for it. It’s there in the foxhole that occasionally appears at the bottom of my garden. It’s there in the resilient, remarkable weeds and visiting birds, as lovingly chronicled in Richard Mabey’s essential London wildlife book ‘The Unofficial Countryside‘. It’s there in Tales Of The City, the blog of Mel Harrison, in which she charts encounters with owls, snowflakes and brambles. It’s there in Herb Lester’s Untamed London map, which records those places ‘where nature still runs wild in the big city.

As I walked home from taking my daughter to nursery this week, along the horrible, traffic-clogged hill that takes cars from Herne Hill to Camberwell, I heard a faint, familiar sound as I passed a bus stop. It was the chirruping of a grasshopper. I stopped and looked and found it on a hedge. It looked at me, quite unmoved, before continuing to sing (or stridulate) defiantly. We gazed at each other for a minute, while commuters bustled past on foot and in car, and then quietly, and more contentedly, I went about my way.

Pirates from outer space

There are a couple of particularly interesting exhibitions open in London at the moment, and I’ve reviewed both of them for the Independent. The first is Out Of This World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It, a thorough exploration of genre fiction at the British Library that offers much of interest for the careful reader, while the second is the Museum of London Docklands colourful Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story.

There’s plenty of London interest in both, from the apocalyptic and despotic visions of a future London by everybody from HG Wells to Alan Moore at the British Library, to the fascinating relationship between London’s rich and powerful and common pirates that is explored at the Museum of London Docklands.