Monthly Archives: February 2012

All aboard the Boris Bus!

Boris Johnson’s much touted new bus launched in London on Monday, and I managed to take a trip on it. It wasn’t easy: the bus left Victoria two hours late after breaking down twice and being slipstreamed by a Routemaster filled with anti-Boris protesters, but the public cared not a jot. Read my piece for Time Out here.

The bus is a classic example of how far bluster and bullshit can carry you, if the public are even half-interested in your vision. This is not a Routemaster, it carries fewer passengers than the bus it is replacing, has cost a fortune to develop, it doesn’t stop fare dodgers, the back platform closes in the evenings and the conductors aren’t allowed to take fares – but it’s still, in my view, a guaranteed vote winner because people like the look of it and aren’t going to look at the downsides too deeply. And maybe they are right, because when all is said and done, a fleet of these on London streets in a few years won’t look too shabby, and all the complaints – accurate as they may be – will look like so much narrow-minded nitpicking.

New Bus for London

London’s football gangs: 1972

 I’ve mentioned Chris Lightbown’s article on London football gangs a couple of times before, but the piece itself hasn’t been available since it was first published in Time Out in 1972. The section on West Ham was reprinted in the excellent 2008 anthology London Calling, but the full article has been confined to libraries and private collections. Until now.

It is a fascinating read. This is the first time football fan culture had ever been seriously discussed by the press, and it offers a remarkable view of life on the terraces from the terraces, free of any moralism or finger-wagging. It is a thorough and very funny piece of writing, and is probably the first time terrace legends such as Mick Greenaway and Johnny Hoy (although he is called ‘High’ here) ever saw their names in print. It’s analysis of where the different clubs draw on their support is particularly great. 

The writing is very much of its time and place – complete with mention of ‘heads’ and ‘coons’ – and also paints the picture of a time when London terrace culture was very different: the Shed was as loud as the Kop, Arsenal had the most aggressive fans in London and Spurs were just a joke, on and off the pitch. Only West Ham’s identity appears to have remained more or less the same, although older Hammers would doubtless question that.

It is a cracking piece of work. Enjoy.

My favourite thing in London

The other day, I saw this board outside the Big Red Bus tourist shop near the British Museum and decided straight away that it might be my favourite thing in London. It was so striking, with such a warped sense of perspective and bizarre mishmash of London stereotypes.

I wanted it.

I decided that I would go inside and ask how much it would cost to buy it, but first I stopped and looked at it awhile. Questions entered my head.

What is a Grenadier Guard doing outside Downing Street? If he’s not on duty, why is he wearing his uniform and if he is on duty, which he shouldn’t be, why is he holding the hand of a small foreign bear? What is Paddington Bear doing so far from his comfort zone of Paddington without Mr Brown or any of the Brown family? Why is Paddington Bear standing behind the Grenadier Guard in that curious position? Are Paddington Bear and a Grenadier Guard even particularly relevant symbols of London life in 2012? And is it just me, or does the whole ensemble look rather like a surreal take on something you might see on Crimewatch featuring a stranger caught on CCTV camera leading a small child away from a shopping centre?

I still wanted it though, maybe now more than ever.

While I was plucking up the courage to go inside an ask, two Italian tourists came strolling down the road. They saw the board, giggled, then handed me their camera and asked if I could take their picture. After arguing over who would be the bear and who would be the guard, they poked their heads through the holes. I took a photograph, they thanked my fulsomely and moved on, laughing and chatting, relishing this rare free moment of childish fun in the sterling-sapping city.

I realised then that the need of London’s tourists was greater than mine. I could always come back, but they would only ever have their photographs. I went home, contented.

Lying about London

This appeared as part of an article that was published in the January 2012 edition of The Sunday Times Travel Magazine about London walks. Chris Roberts also runs the  wonderful One Eye Grey magazine and he will shortly issue a volume of stories from the magazine on Kindle.  In March 2012, Chris will be hosting some special related one-off walking tours

Deep in Chelsea’s prim back streets on a drizzly winter evening, half-a-dozen people wearing blindfolds are groping their way down a quiet Georgian square past James Bond’s house, leaning on each other for guidance, and giggling like schoolchildren. This is what happens when you go on Chris Roberts’s Liars London tour, a walk that offers fact, fiction and forfeits in the fancy surroundings of Sloane Square.

Roberts, a librarian, London historian and author, came up with the Liars London idea four years ago when he was asked to curate a tour for the local council. It’s a simple idea. Roberts and Silvana Maimone lead the walk and at each stop they both tell a story about the area: one story will be true and the other false. The audience are asked to guess who is lying and the person who is right most often receives a small prize at the end. Get it wrong, and you may have to pay a location-related forfeit, such as walk around in a blindfold, write a poem, or have a duel with waterpistols. Roberts and Maimone are a great double act, garrulous and witty, happily interrupting each other’s story-telling with exaggerated scoffing. Under their spell the 20-or-so walkers soon start to relax.

We are strangers when we meet among the evening commuters and blinking fairy lights at Sloane Square, but have already bonded by the time we reach the Saatchi Gallery at the affluent end of the King’s Road, where London’s wealthy still promenade in ostentatious fashion. Roberts is spinning an improbable yarn about British fascist Oswald Mosley, when an eavesdropping passer-by indignantly mutters in plumy tones, quite correctly as it happens, ‘What a load of rubbish!’ much to our amusement.

Because the walks require two hosts and require around 20 people attendees – people are happier to participate as part of a larger group, Roberts believes – they must be booked in advance. The Chelsea tour goes from busy Sloane Square down through quiet residential back streets, where every house is impeccably maintained and fragrantly festooned with hanging baskets, before finishing at Cheyne Walk, an 18th-century parade of grand houses nestling on the banks of the Thames, whose surface gleams inkily in the moonlight.

Over 90 fascinating minutes, we take in unusual landmarks such as James Bond’s fictional house on Royal Avenue and the riverside home of wombat-obsessed Romantic poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When it comes to the stories, the truth is often just as entertaining and unlikely-sounding as the fiction. Outside the rich brick walls of Chelsea Physic Garden, a seventeenth-century botanical garden, we are asked to choose between Maimone’s story about how a strange plant here became the inspiration for the fiendish foliage in John Wyndham’s sci-fi classic Day Of The Triffids, and Roberts’s (correct) claim that cotton seeds taken from Chelsea ended up being picked by slaves in the southern state of the United States, ultimately leading to the American Civil War.

Tall tales or otherwise, this sort of London knowledge is a personal obsession for Roberts, who has written a book, ‘Cross River Traffic’, about London’s bridges, and edits One Eye Grey, a magazine devoted to capital folklore. As such, he can’t help himself but pepper each conversation with a few extra facts and arcane titbits, making the walk a treasure trove for those who like trivia, albeit trivia that’s sometimes indistinguishable from entertaining falsehood.

Harry Redknapp lends a hand

Possibly the only interesting sentence that has ever been written about Harry Redknapp appeared 40 years ago, when Redknapp was playing West Ham. It goes:

‘It is said that when West Ham were fighting Coventry at Coventry station last year, Billy Bonds and the inevitable Harry Redknapp came along to lend a hand.’

This appears almost as an aside in Chris Lightbown’s seminal article Football Gangs in Time Out in April 1972, which looked at the mobs that followed the four big London clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.

Did Redknapp really join in a ruck in 1971? This should surely be the first question put to him if he ends up getting the England job.

Hawksmoor at the Royal Academy: bunkum and brilliance

As the adverts all over the tube let us know, there’s currently a big David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. Less well advertised, but far more compelling from a London point of view, is the same gallery’s fine show on the fascinating architecture of Nicholas Hawskmoor.

This takes place in the Architecture Space – a nice name for a small corridor near the restaurant – and features a short introduction to the architect, alongside photographs and paintings (photographed, not originals) of key works that feature or reference Hawksmoor’s work.

Leon Kossoff's Christchurch, Spitalfields

Hawksmoor, who specialised in hefty Baroque churches, is not an architect to everybody’s taste. In 1734, James Ralph argued that Christchurch was ‘beyond question, one of the most absurd piles in Europe’.  His reputation was resuscitated by Kerry Downes in 1959, who insisted of his churches that ‘they will repel us or fascinate us, but we cannot escape from their strange, haunting power’. This has been a mantra repeated by writers in the following years.

I actually find it quite easy to escape their powers, strange, haunting or otherwise, but this supposed mysterious attraction of Hawksmoor churches is now almost impossible to ignore or deny. It has been repeated so many times, it’s become fact, as Hawksmoor became the anointed architect for a certain type of London writer, the Peter Cook to Sir Christopher Wren’s Dudley Moore. I admire Hawksmoor’s churches, but don’t see them as particularly profound or unsettling.

Charles Hardaker's Hawksmoor Baroque, St Mary Woolnoth, London

Among the first to take up this theme was Iain Sinclair who wrote about Hawksmoor in King Lud (1975). A quote from the book is reproduced on the wall, and it offers a perfect illustration of what I dislike about the psychogeographic way of seeing London: ‘From what is known of Hawksmoor it is possible to imagine he did work a code into the buildings, knowingly or unknowingly, templates of meaning, bands of continuous ritual.’

‘From what is known’; ‘possible to imagine’; ‘knowing or unknowing’. Make it up as you go along, in other words. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I do resent the way it is elevated above all other forms of London writing.

Sinclair has made a career out it, and he does it so well you could almost believe he takes it seriously. A fascinating map drawn by him features in the exhibition, showing his hand-drawn connections between London buildings, and there’s also a great film in which he talks eloquently about his relationship with Hawksmoor, which began when he was a gardener employed by Tower Hamlets to mow the churchyard grass at St Anne, Limehouse. Sinclair is a wonderful speaker, and spins a fine yarn here.

Sinclair's map for King Lud

After Sinclair came Ackroyd and Alan Moore, both of whom woves tales of occultish imagination around this indefinable mystery of Hawksmoor churches. Nonsense clearly, but at least it gave us the majestic From Hell, which features prominently in the exhibition.

From Hell featuring Christchurch, Spitalfields

All this bunkum gets space in the exhibition, but I found much else to entertain besides. There are wonderful photographs and prints of Hawksmoor buildings in many different styles and from varied eras, and also a passionate film by Ptolmy Dean, explaining – quite successfully – the attractions of the easily overlooked St Mary Woolnoth near the Bank of England.

The most interesting element, however, were the photos that drew attention to the parallels between Hawksmoor’s work and more recent buildings. We see a comparison of St Mary Woolnoth and Poultry in the City, and another between St Anne, Limehouse and the National Theatre. It might not be as sexy as psychogeography, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of straightforward architectural history every now and then.


Celia Paul's St George, Bloomsbury

Secret London: photos of lost rivers and abandoned London

Lovers of London urban landscape, lost rivers, photography and, for want of a better word, psychogeography, should be aware of a forthcoming exhibition, From The Westbourne To The Wandle at Maggs Bros gallery.

Curated by counterculture bookdealer Carl Williams, this brings together the work of two London photographers and writers, Jon Savage and SF Said. Savage is best known as a music writer, but in 1977, inspired by JG Ballard, he set out to photograph the urban wastelands of West London, taking a sequence of stunning black and white pictures of the lost land beneath the Westway.

He has written, ‘In its emptiness, austerity and gloom, it is an interzone waiting for something to happen, for the beasts to be unleashed. This was how London felt at the time: coming, coming, coming down – like a speed hangover merging into an apocalypse. But in there was also a sense of possibility that new ways of thinking might grow from this emptiness – like the scented buddleia on the bombsites.’

SF Said’s picture were taken for last year’s excellent Lost London Rivers book. Said shoots on Polaroid, which he describes as like a ‘photographic time machine’ and says he wants to ‘capture the dreams that a place might have of itself, or the memories that it stores under layers of time’.

He uses expired film, which can create strange, mesmeric effects and explains ‘as their chemical layers decay, they start to produce strange flame-like swirls and flickering light leaks that go even further into dreamlike realms.  These hallucinatory effects are unpredictable and random; sometimes they ruin a picture.  But when you’re lucky and it all comes together, I think they give you something magical that you could never get any other way.’

The exhibition is at the gallery at Maggs Bros, 50 Hays Mews, W1J 5QJ from March 22 to April 19.

The Gun Club

I have a piece in the latest Uncut about the Gun Club, the band fronted by Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The Gun Club trailblazed the kind of killer punk-swamp-country-blues later taken on, more lucratively, by Nick Cave and the White Stripes.

Born in California, Pierce settled in London in 1985. He spent a lot of his time hanging out at the Batcave, the Goth nightclub in Soho’s Dean Street.

Pierce left London in 1995, when he was deported after wielding a samurai sword in a Kensington pub. Which makes this trailer for what appears to be an Italian documentary from 2008 all the more intriguing, as it features Pierce wielding a samurai sword in London in 1992. (I’m not sure if it is the same film as this 2006 documentary, Ghost on the Highway.)

Pierce was a talented enigma, who made some amazing music. They also wrote the best song title ever, in Sex Beat, which pretty much sums up what all rock ‘n’ roll is really about.