Monthly Archives: January 2012

Blank Generation: original punk posters in South London

In 1977, Gary Loveridge spotted a Damned poster that he liked the look of hanging on the wall at his local record shop in Weston Super Mare. He decided to take it. ‘It was on the wall of the listening booth. I took it off the wall, rolled it up and stuck it under my jumper. I walked out, looking very suspicious. They probably knew exactly what was going on.’

And so it began. Loveridge, a landscape gardener, now has around 250 original music posters, and 100 devoted to punk are on display until March 8 at the 198 Gallery  on Railton Road. Not all were collected in quite the clandestine way of the first, but they are all original and numerous bands are featured, including the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Lurkers, Buzzcocks, TV Personalities, Mekons, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, PiL and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The Damned poster that got it all started

‘This is the first time I’ve seen them all on the wall together in one place,’ says Loveridge. ‘At home they are all in tubes, some on the walls but I haven’t enough room to put them all up.’

The posters were largely used to promote LPs and singles in record shops, although there are some from bus stops and concert venues. Most such posters will have been thrown out by the stores, making such a large collection quite unusual. Loveridge collected many on his way from gigs in Bristol, and then later added to his collection at markets and record fairs.

The exhibition takes in two rooms and also features part of Loveridge’s collection of badges, flyers, fanzines and other ephemera, some of which – such as the flyers for the Sex Pistols banned tour – are much sought after. Also on display is a framed advert from 1977, cut out from a local paper, promoting a gig by a mysterious band called The Spots. Now who could they be?

Punk was an incredibly visual movement, as one would expect from something inspired by glam and Situationism and created in art schools and clothes shops, so these posters are eye-catching and iconic.  A small selection are reproduced below, but the real thrill is seeing them collectively and close-up; many have pulled from walls and windows so have an authentically battered look, while the accumulation of colour and striking design is a treat for the eye. But you’ve only got six weeks, so hurry.

Blank Generation: A Collection of Original Punk Posters, 198 Gallery, 198 Railton Road, SE24 0JT. Until March 8, 2012

Spiral Scratch by Buzzcocks

Pretty Vacant by Sex Pistols

The Clash at Brixton Academy

The Mekons at North Staffs Poly

The Pop Group and Alternative TV

Blondie poster rejected by band as it featured only Debbie Harry

Elvis Costello

Sandinista by The Clash

The Only Ones

Siouxsie And The Banshees (with Human League third on bill)

London Calling by The Clash ('two for a fiver!')

Sex Pistols - used to introduce the band to the United States

Ian Dury

Sex Pistols

The Jam

Badges and flyers

Never Mind The Bollocks beer and fanzines

Sex Pistols flyer from SPOTS tour

My Fair Lady: the pun that nobody noticed

It has come to my attention that a substantial number of people do not realise that the title of My Fair Lady is a pun. It’s a play on the way a Lisson Grove-raised flower girl like Eliza Doolittle might pronounce Mayfair, if she wasn’t really a cockney at all but merely a Hollywood actor pretending to be one. Mayfair/Myfair – the drooping, elongated ‘y’ is a classic, if exaggerated,  symptom of the cockney mode of speaking,

Say it yourself in your best, daftest, Eliza Doolittle accent – Mwyyyy Fair. Sounds a bit like Mayfair, doesn’t it? If you don’t believe me, here’s Alan Franks saying the same thing, eventually.

So there you are. Here’s a scene from the film with Audrey showing off her accent at its very worst.

Look At Life – London newsreel bonanza

I’ve just come across a treasure trove on You Tube of old Rank Look At Life newsreels, each ten-minutes long and looking at different aspects of London life. There are some real treats to be found, but here are a few I enjoyed when I should have been working, or at least making a cup of tea.

Members only, 1965 – inside London’s private clubs

Coffee bar, 1959 – the new world of Soho’s coffee shops

Goodbye, Piccadilly, 1967 – a portraiof Piccadilly Circus

In Gear, 1967 – an iconoclastic look at Swinging London

Top People, 1960 – the crazy world of highrise living

Shopping By The Ton, 1960 – Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets

Report on a River, 1963 – a love letter to the Thames

Muhammad Ali in Tulse Hill, 1974

In 1974, this picture was taken of Muhammad Ali at Tulse Hill Comprehensive, sparring with a schoolboy.

But how did the world heavyweight champion – and one of the most famous men in the world – end up in a South London state school shortly after the Rumble In The Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire?

Well, he was invited by civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson, who was on the school’s board of governors and thought it would be a good idea to ambush Ali in the lobby of the Hyde Park Hilton and suggest he come to the school assembly.

We continued to chat and he wanted to know how much I’d pay him. I looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Muhammad, I haven’t got a dollar.’ He responded ‘Not even a dime? You have more nerve than Frazier.’

The full story is here, and it’s a cracker.

James Watt’s workshop at the Science Museum

This piece was originally published in World of Interiors in December 2011.

James Watt was not a tidy man. Inside the Scottish engineer’s eighteenth-century workshop, shelves are thick with dust and overlapping objects of marvellous obscurity. It’s chaotic, but it is the past, a life perfectly preserved. Almost 100 years ago, this attic room was moved from Birmingham and reconstructed at the Science Museum, but the public have only recently been readmitted. It’s a delightful and very human sight. Unlike the modern scientist’s sterile laboratory, items are stuck to wall and floor, or piled harum-scarum on shelves, desks, tables, lathes and huge wooden machines of curious design. There are 8,434 objects all told, each lovingly listed on an exterior wall. Pincers, mallets, drawer knobs, hacksaws, charcoal, ladles, a frying pan, washers, broken thermometers, bent wire, drills, bradawls (six without handles), packages of chemicals wrapped in yellow paper and tied with brittle string, lumps of metal, fossils, half-finished statues, cogs, pieces of wood, barrels full of plaster of Paris and a clock key. There’s even, or so it says, a sea horse tooth. Nothing thrown away. This is the testimony of a life in science, and it looks exactly as Watt left it almost 200 years ago.

Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1736. For several years, he quietly sold scientific instruments, musical instruments and toys from a shop in Glasgow but he had a curious mind and was an inveterate tinkerer. In 1776, he completed a steam engine that used a fifth of the coal of the existing engine. Factories and mines all over the country were soon powered by Watt engines as Britain surged into the steam-driven Industrial Revolution. Watt became a hero, as crucial to the national identity as Wellington and Nelson. On his death in 1819, he was the first engineer to have a statue in Westminster Abbey, although it was later removed as it was grotesquely large. His legend was international. In Japan, the state dispensed prints of Watt to promote the British values of industry, resilience and ingenuity that he embodied.

Watt began work on the steam engine in 1764 and moved to Birmingham ten years later taking with him the tools, fixtures and fittings he had accumulated in Glasgow. In 1790, he settled in Handsworth where he had his final workshop, a garret room where he could work undisturbed. In this dark space, Watt drilled, sawed and chiselled, experimented with chemicals, and developed a variety of extraordinary devices, including a perspective drawing machine, a letter-copying press and a sculpture-copying machine. He often had to make for himself the tools he needed for his inventions, including what Science Museum curators think is the oldest circular saw they’ve ever seen. The impression gained is of somebody who loved using his hands, and was always looking for ways to improve production, to make more things, and faster. He was a solitary soul. To ensure he could work without interference, Watt built a shelf outside the door on which the maid could leave his dinner. When he was ready, he would bring it inside and warm it on the stove. There’s a hint of sadness too. In one corner lies a chest full of things that belonged to his son Gregory, who died of tuberculosis in 1804. It seems Watt kept it here, close by, for 15 years until his own death.

At which point, the door was closed and the room left untouched. Even as the house was occupied by new families, the workshop was kept as Watt had left it for more than a century, with drawers full of half-made thermometers wrapped in wax paper and surfaces strewn with rusty hinges. It became a shrine. One visitor commented, ‘the dust lay so thick it was like walking in soft snow’. One pilgrim was Bennet Woodcroft, who ran the Patent Office Museum, part of the South Kensington Museum. Woodcroft was acquiring key artefacts from the Industrial Revolution and in the 1860s registered an interest in the room. However, it was not transferred until 1924, by which time Woodcroft was dead and the Patent Office Museum had become the Science Museum.

They took everything– not just the furniture and contents but the floorboards, door, window frames, fireplace, stove and flue – and reconstructed them on the ground floor of the museum. Workman even asked if they should remove the dust. The public would peer through a window above Watt’s workbench and observe a scene almost identical to the one painted by visiting artists in 1864 and 1889. But by the 1970s, it had become a museum relic. The room was moved to the mezzanine, where it was ignored for another couple of decades before being ignominiously boarded up. Staff could still reach it if they took the wrong door out of the admin office, but the public would never know it was there.

So it remained until earlier this year, when the room was returned to the ground floor and made the centrepiece of an exhibition that examined Watt’s life in the context of the Industrial Revolution. In an act of domestic archaeology, objects were removed from drawers where they had been invisible for centuries as curators resolved to explore every nook and cranny. These were then replaced exactly where Watt had left them.

The exhibition shows that Watt was a scientist but also a workman, constructing by hand the very machines that made mass production possible. Years later, William Morris would reject the industrialised world that Watt had created, but the two had something in common in their love of forming things by hand. However, Watt’s inventions meant things no longer had to be created at such labour and expense, and people could choose for themselves the design and furnishing of their home rather than rely on what was passed on to them by their forefathers. It was the start of the consumer age, making Watt was partly responsible for many of the decorative items that can be studied at length next door at the V&A Museum. When Woodcroft visited Watt’s workshop, this relationship between industry and design would have been more apparent. The South Kensington Museum was essentially the Science Museum and the V&A combined, and had been created partly to inspire the working class with technique as well as design, showing not just beautiful objects but also how they were made. Now cause and effect, science and art, are divided by the bustle of Exhibition Road. But enter Watt’s workshop, and just for a moment the two become one.

Dickens And London at the Museum of London

This review was published in the Independent last week but has not surfaced online.

It’s going to be hard to avoid Charles Dickens in the next few months. The writer will be everywhere, as publishers, programmers and producers commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 7, 2012. The best celebration of Dickens’s legacy could be this illuminating exhibition at the Museum of London. It’s an imaginative look at a familiar subject, and represents the best of what a museum can do.

This is no staid trawl through Dickens’s back catalogue but a vivid evocation of Victorian life based around themes from his books, from poverty to innovation. Sure, the big objects like Dickens’s writing desk or his manuscript for Great Expectations are there to grab the attention, but this drama is complemented by Victorian minutiae, the fascinating bric-a-brac of everyday life, everything from rent arrears books and mourning wands (wooden sticks carried by footmen ahead of funeral processions) to clay pipes, Punch and Judy puppets, model trains and Dickens’s soup ladle.

The exhibition is more than objects. There are mournful photographs of Victorian buildings that Dickens wrote about but have since disappeared, and a short film by William Raban that meanders around modern London while an actor recites Night Walks, Dickens’s essay about the sleeping city, drawing subtle parallels between his time and our own. The film is a rare chance to wallow in Dickens’s own voice, but neither this nor the manuscripts are quite as impressive as Dickens’s reading copy of Oliver Twist. This is the book he used on reading tours towards the end of his life; words and sentences are underlined for emphasis, and melodramatic stage directions (‘Action’, ‘mystery’, ‘terror to the end’) are scrawled in the margins.

The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London

Most rewarding of all, though, is the art. There’s classically sentimental Victoriana, such as William MacDuff’s Shaftesbury, which shows two urchins looking in a shop window like something by Norman Rockwell. There’s the fascinating documentary sketches of George Scharf’s, who drew the people he saw on streets acting as human advertisements, in colourful costume and carrying eye-catching signs for shows and products. And there are many detailed depictions of Victorian street life, which owe a clear debt to Hogarth. Phoebus Levin’s ‘Covent Garden Market’, Caleb Robert Stanley’s ‘The Strand, Looking Eastwards From Exeter Change’ and especially Edmund John Niemann’s ‘Buckingham Street’ portray a city of energetic bustle, cobbled streets and vicious contrasts of wealth that are the visual embodiment of what we still call Dickensian London.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844). Until June 10, 2012. Admission £8 (£7 advance booking); concs £6 (£5 advance booking).

Buckingham Street, Strand, London

‘Ladies who bus’

This is a piece I wrote for the Speed issue of the excellent Completely London magazine. 

Sometimes, it feels like there are few slower ways of getting round London than by public transport. And the bus –so often a victim of roadworks and burst water mains – can be the slowest of all. But for some, that slowness is part of the attraction. Jo Hunt (67), Mary Rees (68) and Linda Smither (64) are ‘ladies who bus’. Since March 2009, they have been taking all of London’s buses in numerical order, starting at No 1, travelling each route from one end to the other, and then writing about it on their blog. As a way to pass the time, it is a distinctively London thing to do. There are, after all, over 500 routes in London; more if you include those that start with letters, like the A10 or X68.

File:London Bus route 23.JPG

‘It began when I retired from my last job,’ says Jo, the head buskateer and a former teacher. ‘People asked what I was going to do. I said I’d just loll about or play computer games, but then I decided I’d get every bus in London.’

From that moment of whimsy came a plan, which became a blog and has now evolved into something like a mission. Jo, Mary and Linda have acquired matching sweatshirts with their blog address on it – these proved to be handy in winter when one bus’s central heating was broken – and they have printed business cards to hand to drivers at the end of journeys to explain what they are up to. Online, they have built up a following among London nerds and bus enthusiasts.

Jo got the idea when she got on a bus and saw it was terminating at Ponder’s End. ‘I thought, “Where’s Ponder’s End?”’ and elected to find out. ‘Then I thought if I was going to do one, I should do them all, and if I was going to do them all, I should do them in the right order.’ Linda and Mary were both ready for retirement as well, so – armed with their Freedom Passes –they agreed to come along. Jo’s son created a blog, and 200 buses later we are now travelling by bus from Brixton to Mitcham on one of the hottest days of the year.

And here I must make a confession. I also spent a couple of years on the buses, writing a weekly column for Time Out about exactly this topic – taking every bus in London in numerical order, from end to end. Well, it started as a weekly column, but soon lethargy took over, the column became fortnightly and then monthly and in the end I never made it further than the low 60s. Jo, Linda and Mary have persevered, resolve stiffened by each other’s company – and by Jo’s determination to complete the task. ‘Jo is the leader,’ confesses Mary. Jo plans each route a week in advance, working out how they are going to get to and from the stops that bookend the route, and she and Linda take turns writing them up on the blog.

But they are clearly enjoying themselves as well. There is much to appreciate about a lazy morning spent taking a bus for no other reason than the sheer fun of travel, watching London knit together while everybody outside rushes about their daily business without time to stop and absorb the city around them. As we slip languidly through south London streets, the trio note familiar landmarks and reminisce about other routes that have passed this way. They are also able to recall what an area was like 5, 10, 20, even 40 years previously. ‘It’s evocative,’ says Linda of the experience of revisiting old haunts. She also comments on how they have watched London change in the two-and-a-half years they’ve been doing the routes. When they began, the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle was a building site – now it’s one of the tallest buildings in London. A rapid transformation, observed at leisure.

They are fascinated by London’s arcane history of– such as the Balham estate we pass that was reported to be Hitler’s choice for a home if he successfully invaded Britain – but also by the present, especially in Tooting, as South Indian restaurants slowly give way to West African clothes shops and Mary contemplates hopping off to pick up three crates of mangoes for £10.

London as seen by bus is a city of delights and surprises. ‘I’ve been surprised at how good the drivers are,’ says Jo. ‘I’ve really enjoyed being able to understand how London ties together. And sometimes you’ll be bumbling along and then suddenly you are in the country, surrounded by green. It’s like you’ve reached the end of the world.’ Or the end of London, which sometimes feels like much the same thing.