Monthly Archives: May 2012

Five videos of Paul McCartney’s London

Inspired by this marvellous piece of Paul McCartney-related London trivia from Mark Mason, I thought we should look at five classic Macca In London videos on You Tube.

1 Press, 1986
Here’s Macca on the tube in this little known video from 1986. Check out the modestly greying locks, and drink in the 80s atmosphere and the now lost station architecture.

2 Busking, 1984
A dream sequence from Give My Regards To Broad Street features Macca busking outside Leicester Square tube.

3 Give My Regards To Broad Street computer game, 1984
This appalling Commodore 64 game based on the film sees Macca taking a cab around London to a brilliant, blippy 8-bit soundtrack of Band On The Run.

4 London Town, 1978
Paul and Linda take a boat trip down the Thames to promote London Town. Features many bridges and some fish and chips.

5 Oxford Street, 1983
And here’s Macca nipping round the West End in the back of a cab with Lesley Ash.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6dHRTQH-js

 

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Secret London: the London Grill

I was recently asked to answer a few questions about Secret London by the blogging cabbies at Radio Taxis.

If you are interested in my favourite London building, London landmark and favourite London film and book, head here, where you will be rewarded with a mildly disturbing image of my face. 

Mind The Map at the London Transport Museum

Ever since the British Library’s London map exhibition in 2007, London museums have learnt to love cartography. The Museum of London’s Hand-Drawn London was a highlight of 2011, and now the London Transport Museum has joined the cool kids with a brilliant new Mind The Map exhibition.

This traces the relationship between transport and maps over the past 150 years or so and offers a brilliantly edited selection of material from the archives. The exhibition space at the museum isn’t vast, but the way it has been used here is superb. The twin focus is on the work of McDonald Gill and Harry Beck. Gill created the Wonderland map, a gorgeous, highly detailed map of London aimed at transport users. Here’s one of his, for Hyde Park.

The exhibition features a number of maps created by Gill – the brother of sculptor Eric Gill – and also this fascinating unfinished map of Temple, showing his working method. He begins with a serious flat plan of the city, before building up layers of impeccably detailed architectural illustration. Then on top of that go the speech bubbles, puns and references that make his maps so fascinating. Please excuse my poor photography.

In this section there are other decorative maps that were used by LT to promote different areas of London. Here is one featuring Cheam, where I grew up.

The Beck part of the exhibition is also brilliantly done given how much has already been done on the man who created the modern tube map. A personal highlight was this sketch from the London Transport staff newspaper in 1933, in which Beck gently mocks the popular notion that he got the idea for his diagrammatic map from a circuit board. He has redrawn his tube map as the interior of a transistor radio, thus creating the first mash-up/spoof of his iconic design and pre-dating The Great Bear by several decades.

Speaking of which, the LT Museum have commissioned six new pieces of art for the exhibition, and they are all great, which is quite unusual for these things. Simon Patterson has updated The Great Bear as Saptarishi, Jeremy Wood has created a new ghost map, tracing his movements through GPS and there’s a marvellous ‘Proustian’ map of London by Agnes Poitevin-Navarra.

My Ghost

Most exciting of all is Stephen (The Island) Walter’s new epic undertaking, London Subterranea, a stunningly detailed map of the London beneath our feet, executed in stark black and white and crammed with information and folklore.

When I talked to Walter a few years ago, he expressed a keenness to put The Island behind him despite some interesting related projects that had been suggested to him. I’m delighted that he has since decided to return to London mapping, as he is a master at it. I’m told he’s now working on an A-Z, which will incorporate The Island and London Subterranea.

Other highlights include a copy of the infamous 2009 tube map that omitted the Thames, a gorgeous 1932 enamel map from a station wall and a copy of Finchley Central by The New Vaudeville Band. There’s also a brilliant book by curator Claire Dobbin that accompanies the exhibition. Go see it!

Mind The Map opens 18 May until 28 October 2012. 

Why I hate the Champions League

Who came third the year Arsenal won the league at Anfield in 1989? Does anybody remember? Does anybody care? Indeed, who came fourth in 2007? Third when Manchester United won the treble in 1999?

Unless you’re a fan of Nottingham Forest (1989), Liverpool (2007) or Chelsea (1999), it’s doubtful you’ll be able to answer any of those questions. And rightly so. Because finishing third or fourth is, in the greater scheme of the history of football, nothing to get excited about, it’s not interesting, important or impressive. But thanks to European football’s ridiculous obsession with the Champions League, Arsenal fans are celebrating limping home a distant third as if it is their club’s greatest achievement since the Invincibles, just one that doesn’t come with a trophy or will be remembered by anybody in a year’s time. It’s been a successful season insist fans of the biggest club in London, now seven years now without a cup, because it means they have earned the right to play in the Champions League again (until March, usually).  And they seem to believe it.

Ah, the Champions League, the bloated, vile, venal parasite of European football, with its hideous anthem and putrid stench of self-importance. How I hate this wretched competition. Yet qualifying for it is now deemed to be the greatest achievement of any club, more desired than mere trophies and finals. Clubs with trophy cabinets that used to gleam with silverware are now more interested in securing next year’s income stream, terrified about what might happen to the bank balance if they fail. Henry Norris and Arsene Wenger have more in common than we could have ever imagined when Wenger brought swashbuckling trophy-winning teary-eyed romantic football to the Emirates in 1998. Fuck success, fuck beauty, fuck romance, fuck football: give me the cash.

I don’t get it. I never have. I understand why money is important in football, but that doesn’t mean I want to have my nose rubbed in it. In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool; the winner would finish third and qualify for the Champions League. This was, in financial terms, the biggest game in the club’s history, I was told by friends. It was more important than a cup final, they said. Well, I’ve been to a few cup finals, and that sir was no cup final. It was a squalid mudfight for cold hard cash, a stripping down of modern football to its ugliest essentials. And yet it was presented as if it was a thing to admire, and people bought into it. Why?

I hated it then and I hated it now, especially as the Champions League’s weight and wealth has expanded, rewarding failure in the rich leagues to the point where it has pretty much destroyed all European domestic football outside of England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and turning the FA Cup and League Cup into heavily sponsored footnotes. 

It’s even turned the Europa League into a joke, in England at least.  Patrice Evra said it was ’embarrassing’ that Manchester United were playing in the Europa this season, something you’d hope would make Uefa take a long, hard look at what they have done, although of course they didn’t. The Europa has its fans, but in reality it’s a sad and unlovable replacement for the splendid streamlined charms of the old Uefa and Cup Winners’ cups.

But nothing can be allowed to compete with the CL’s budget, which throws millions of pounds at so-so teams, encouraging billionaires to buy into the game in a bid to join the bunfight – something Uefa are now trying to ban without acknowledging the root cause, the disproportionate rewards offered by their beloved keynote trophy. Meanwhile, leagues, cups and the dignity and priorities of supporters all disappear beneath the whirling blades of Uefa’s deranged zombie lawnmower.

And now we have come to the extreme logic of the position, where we’re told that the main reason Chelsea should want to win the Champions League final on Saturday is so they can qualify for next year’s Champions League, as if the trophy itself is just something that comes free in a packet of corn flakes, and nobody bats an eyelid. How can this be right? What have Uefa been allowed to do to 57 years of history? And why does nobody appear to care?

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

Secret London: dealing with the counterculture at Maggs

This article originally appeared in Dazed And Confused magazine in February 2012.

Maggs Bros Ltd rare bookshop is an unlikely place to encounter the counterculture. For a start, it’s located on one of London’s poshest squares in Mayfair, the heart of the establishment, and even boasts a Royal warrant just inside the front door. Inside No 50 Berkeley Square – an imposing Georgian terrace once described as ‘the most haunted house in London’ – earnest young men in expensive suits sit at desks covered in large old brown books, which they flog to largely millionaire collectors that occasionally step through the front door.

But round the back, a different world awaits. Carl Williams works in an office converted from the stable block, in a room that is full of wonders. Come here at the right time and you will find boxes full of punk fanzines sitting on chairs draped with Republican flags from Spanish Civil War. Ask Williams nicely and he may show you brooches made by junkie poet Alexander Trocchi from used heroin needles, a complete set of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ board games or a pamphlet drawn by Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter, the shadowy figure behind the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. This recent catalogue will give you an idea of the material. 

Aleister Crowley

Williams, a fast-talking Yorkshireman , is one of the few booksellers who deals in items related to the counterculture, a nebulous term which covers politics, the occult, avant-garde art, film and literature, drug culture, rock and roll and alternative lifestyles. The interesting stuff, in other words. ‘There’s no guide to the counterculture,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not doctrinal. It’s whether something has the right feel, the way it looks, where it came from. It’s folk art, it’s the Watts Towers, it’s Austin Osman Spare, it’s Aleister Crowley. It’s not like Marxism where everybody knows the key texts. There are things in the counterculture that are still being discovered. There are things lost in libraries that will take it in a completely new direction.’ And it isn’t just books: Williams deals in paintings, posters, games, clothes and records. The only requirements are that Williams can locate it somewhere within his own concept of the counterculture, and that he can sell it. He also puts on occasional shows in the gallery beneath his office, such as the recent Lost Rivers exhibition.

Williams was born in 1967 – ‘the autumn of love’ – in Scarborough. Despite failing his O-Levels, he went to the LSE to read sociology, where he discovered the library and ‘read indiscriminately’. In 1997, after a decade of odd jobs and working in book shops, Williams returned to the LSE to do a Masters just as the library was selling off its old stock during a refurbishment. Almost by accident, Williams became a ‘runner’, a pejorative term that describes something which, in essence, all book dealers do. ‘Running is a pre-internet term, now it’s much more transparent, but it means taking a book quickly from one dealer or auction house, to another dealer or collector and selling it for more money than you paid,’ says Williams. ‘The idea is that you get it from A to B without B finding out how much you paid A.’

RED FESTIVAL 77 POSTER

With the LSE library at his disposal, Williams was blessed with early success. ‘I was able to sell all these political economy and philosophy books,’ he says. ‘But although I knew the books I didn’t really know what they were worth. I realised this when I took one dealer the first Western European edition of the Koran, and walked out with £500 when it must have been worth thousands.’

As the stock from the LSE ran out, Williams began frequenting other dealers and auction houses to find sellable books. In February 1999, he wandered into Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where he picked up a book from 1864 called The Pure Logic Of Quality by William Stanley Jevons. ‘Jevons thought this book would revolutionise how we understood logic, but he only sold six copies,’ says Williams. ‘I’d never seen one outside a library. I took it to a dealer, Pickering and Chatto, and a man called Jolyon Hudson asked if he could keep it for a day or two.’

Hudson recognised the book had been stolen from the London Library. The police were notified and Williams’s discovery unravelled what the Guardian described as ‘the most systematic plundering of Britain’s great libraries ever carried out by an individual’. William Simon Jacques, a dealer, had stolen books worth more than £1 million. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. (Jay Rayner covered the story here.)

‘I was devastated,’ says Williams, ‘because I thought I’d tried to sell a stolen book, but it turned out to be a blessing because Hudson told the Guardian that I had behaved impeccably and that gave me an entry into the higher levels of the trade.’

Williams began working at Maggs Bros, selling books on the internet and looking after the catalogue. ‘I got to know the customers. There was one guy who had been coming in for 20 years. He’d usually walk out with a travel book, but one day they asked this guy what he actually wanted and he said he wanted books on drugs.’

The man was Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire, and Williams sold him a painting made by a Mexican artist after he had been injected in the neck with LSD. Santo Domingo was in the process of putting together one of the great private collections of drug books and paraphernalia, a stunning selection of material that ranges from ancient books about Chinese opium smoking to a bicycle that belonged to Syd Barrett. ‘I worked for Julio [who died in 2009] for three years,’ says Williams. ‘His collection is one of the great untold stories of the 21st century. It’s not just drugs, it’s sex, rock and roll, the occult, erotica and art. And it’s not just books. It’s everything.’

Santo Domingo had a remarkably open concept of what to collect, not just concentrating on the old and valuable but hovering up anything with drug connections. ‘Somewhere in it is a McDonalds coffee stirrer from the 1970s,’ says Williams. ‘It looked like a coke spoon, just in plastic rather than silver. There were press rumours that it was the hillbilly coke spoon and so McDonalds discontinued the range, but I found an original. What do you do with that? Sotheby’s don’t want it, Christie’s don’t want it. But it’s gold. So that’s what I do.’

McDonald's coffee stirrer

Williams operates in a rarefied world, selling unusual and arcane items to billionaires and academic institutions. Some are interested in the subject, others are professional collectors, and still more are collectors who collect other people’s collections, as investments and for the pleasure of ownership. ‘It’s a very small world of dealers and a very large world of buyers, who work on the basis that they should buy now when it is relatively cheap and is all still out there,’ says Williams. ‘And some of it is cheap. The 1960s stuff isn’t because it is more mainstream and the top Beat stuff is far too expensive, although I’ll still buy manuscripts.’

New items are acquired from auctions and the internet, book fares, private sellers and other dealers. A recent haul brought in the first issue of Heat Wave, a British Situationist International magazine written in 1966, which nobody has seen outside the British Library for decades. There’s a file full of items William Burroughs collected during his short-lived immersion in the Church of Scientology. There are four skeletal marionettes that used to live in an amusement arcade in Hastings. There are posters of Black Panther Bobby Seale, complete collections of short-lived No Wave fanzines, cloth bags designed by Yoko Ono and the programme from Michael Clark and The Fall’s collaboration on the ballet ‘I Am Curious Orange’, which took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1988. And there are books, loads of them, by Richard Neville and BS Johnson and Gregory Corso and Timothy Leary. Some of this stuff is hard to sell, partly because it’s difficult to know how much it is worth – ‘there simply isn’t a precedent for some of these things, so you’ve nothing to compare it with.’

 

Williams found his niche with a little help from Edward Maggs, the man who inherited the family firm. ‘There might have been something brewing in Ed’s mind that we needed to cover this demographic,’ says Williams. ‘It really began when I started cataloguing all this proto-counterculture American Beat stuff from the 50s and it did really well, I sold about 80% of it. I designed a catalogue based on Ginsberg’s Howl, the same size and typeface. It did well, people liked it and I realised I had the right skills for the subject.’

And what are those skills? Williams pauses. ‘It’s judo,’ he says. ‘I have one real ability. I can pick up a book, look at the front, open it, look at the back and I can usually understand what that book is about, condense it, understand where it came from and put a price on it before I’ve put it down. That’s not a talent many people have. It’s like judo, you’re fighting an opponent who is much bigger than you but you don’t need take on the whole thing at one time if you are going to defeat it. It’s an intellectual work-out every day. I have to explain each item, do the research, understand its value, and then I try and sell it.’

Unstable at Maggs Bros Gallery is on until June 8, 2012.

The Shard: ‘There hasn’t been a building like this in living memory’

View from the top floor of the Shard in September 2011

Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Shard has risen on the London horizon, a totem pole wrapped in glass that gets taller by the day and is now impossible to ignore. Not yet finished, it’s been the tallest building in the UK since December 2010 and when completed later this year will be the tallest in Europe, topping out at 310m (1,017 feet). The Shard stretches 72-storeys (although the mast on top takes it to the equivalent of 87 storeys) and will offer 1.2 million square feet of floor space. They say that on a clear day you will be able to see all the way to France from the top of Renzo Piano’s elegant skyscraper, and while that may be rather fanciful, the impact it will have on London is certainly far-reaching.

London is a city with plenty of tall buildings but the Shard is something else. Few buildings have so divided public opinion. ‘It is grotesquely out of scale with other London landmarks,’ says Jonathan Jones, the Guardian’s art critic, while Sir Terry Farrell, the architect, says, ‘It’s got style and it is a phenomenon. If we come back in ten years, people will feel affectionate towards it.’ The Shard’s developer, a straight-talking cockney called Irvine Sellar, cuts to the chase. ‘There hasn’t been a building like this in living memory,’ he says.

It all began in the late 90s, when Sellar purchased an unlovely office block near London Bridge station. After the government indicated they would support high-density buildings that were built near transport hubs, he decided to ‘maximise the potential’ of the one acre site by building a skyscraper. ‘We decided that if we wanted planning permission we had to get an international architect,’ recalls Sellar. ‘We met Renzo Piano in March 2000 in Berlin. He saw the beauty of the river and the railways and the way their energy blended and began to sketch in green felt pen on a napkin what he saw as a giant sail or an iceberg. The Shard emerged from that piece of paper.’

It took another nine years for construction to begin after English Heritage, St Paul’s and the Tower of London objected to the impact the Shard would have on London’s skyline. A spokesperson from English Heritage offers a view shared by many: ‘We have never denied the Shard as a piece of architecture with merit. Our problem is that it is in the wrong place – it is overwhelming and dominating –and in the backdrop of government protected views of St Paul’s Cathedral.’ Critics cite the fact the Shard looms over the dome of St Paul’s when viewed from Parliament Hill.

Irvine Sellar in the Shard

Sir Terry Farrell has built plenty of tall buildings and has also worked with English Heritage. He offers an interesting insight on London’s protected views. ‘We have created these visual roads in the sky,’ he says. ‘These rather ludicrous and arbitrary imaginary sky corridors around St Paul’s. I spoke to a Parisian who told me “You British really do puzzle me. In Paris, Haussmann arranged all the roads in long boulevards so you have these long vistas, but you Londoners have Haussmannised the sky even though it is a mess on the ground.” I mean, what’s wrong with seeing the Shard from Parliament Hill? If you really don’t like it, walk 20 yards to one side and the view will be different.’

The development went to a public enquiry, which Sellar won. ‘There is a case to protect certain sightlines,’ he admits. ‘But we’re not living in a museum. We didn’t want a public enquiry but it did make us think a little bit harder and as a result we’ve ended up with a better building.’

The Shard is unusual among London skyscrapers in that it will contain offices, restaurants, a hotel, public viewing gallery and apartments. Sellar says he always wanted a mixed-use building because he didn’t want to rely on any one sector for income, but it was Piano who pushed for what could be the most important aspect of the building –the public galleries right at the top. ‘Renzo thought it was vital the building was open to the public. That didn’t bother me at first, but it does now because we’ve built a building that Londoners feel they own –they can eat there, sleep there and view there.’ Farrell believes that this factor could make it London’s answer to the Empire State Building.

One positive part of the development that English Heritage does acknowledge is the regenerating effect it will have on London Bridge. ‘We have created a new quarter for London,’ says Sellar. Next to the Shard, Sellar is constructing a 17-storey office and retail building called the Place and the company is also assisting Network Rail in refurbishing London Bridge station. ‘That’s what tall buildings do,’ says Farrell. ‘They create a massive amount of demand and that brings in revenues and taxes that allow the council to sort out the immediate area.’

The overall effect on the neighbourhood will be immense and John Corey, chairman of the Bermondsey Forum, says local reaction is positive to the Goliath on their doorstep. ‘We feel it will put the area on the map. The area between London Bridge and Waterloo will become the third biggest economic region in London.’ A new outpost of the White Cube art gallery has opened on Bermondsey Street, and other developments will surely follow the money. Locals, though, are keen to strike a balance between existing independent shopping destinations like Borough Market and Bermondsey Street, and the new businesses that are soon to arrive.

Shane Clarke, Deputy CEO for Team London Bridge, the area’s Business Improvement District, says ‘There are some dissenting voices on the aesthetics, but there’s a feeling it’s going to be a huge driver for regeneration. But some local shops don’t want the big brands coming in on the back of regeneration, and we agree. We have the riverfront which is corporate and touristy and then we have Bermondsey Street which is more bohemian – both those areas complement each other very nicely and we want to create a gradual transition from the corporate shiny stuff to the independent shops on Bermondsey Street.’

The upshot is a striking building that will dominate the London skyline for generations, as well as transform a neighbourhood, one way or another. ‘It’s an amazing feeling to create this sort of building,’ says Sellar. ‘The Shard will be instantly recognisable around the globe like the Taj Mahal or the Sydney Opera House. We may not always be the tallest building in Europe, but we will be the most beautiful.’

This article first appeared in bthere, the magazine for Brussels Airlines magazine.