Monthly Archives: September 2013

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

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Football and anti-Semitism

The debate about the use of the word ‘Yid’ in football is all over the papers at the moment, including, with breathtaking insensitivity, this front page. I’m not easily offended, but found this headline is horrendous.

The topic of Jews and English football is the subject of an exhibition, Four Four Jew, opening next month at the Jewish Museum London. I interviewed the curator and we touched on the controversy around the ‘Y word’ , as she phrased it. She said that while the exhibition would look at the use of ‘Yid’ it ‘wouldn’t come down on either side of the argument’.

Ultimately, whether you are comfortable calling somebody a ‘Yid’, either in support or in hate, is a personal decision. I made up my mind where I stand a long time ago and here is an updated version of an article I wrote on the subject in Time Out a few years ago.

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I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you know it’s anti-Semitic?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I didn’t consider it racist or anti-Semitic, just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club.

I’ve stopped now. The eureka moment for me came when I was at a game in the mid-90s. Chelsea fan David Baddiel, who is Jewish, was spotted by the crowd after half-time as he returned to his seat with a cup of tea, and several hundred people began chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’ at him, in what I imagine they considered to be an affectionate manner. Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny dropped that this was straightforward racist abuse. Baddiel later wrote:  ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ He has since become an outspoken opponent of the use of the word by all supporters, earning him much scorn from Spurs fans. 

It used to be worse. In the 1980s hissing to imitate the release of gas was said to be commonplace, but I have never heard this – or chants about Auschwitz, bar from two drunks on The Shed in a League Cup tie in 1990 –  in more than 25 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures home and away. By the early 1990s, many fans had realised that was a step too far. I’m sure it still occurs but, in my experience, it’s pretty rare. Although by all accounts, West Ham are still at it. 

The canard that hissing is regularly heard at Chelsea games is often used by Spurs fans, as they attempt to defend their own use of ‘Yid’ but Jeremy Vine, a former Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees it doesn’t happen often. ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ Vine stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism and says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

What muddies the water further is that since the 1970s, Spurs fans have reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea). Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ Chelsea have since rejected this line and now take a zero tolerance approach. It’s worked, to some extent. My old favourite, ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo’ is rarely heard at Stamford Bridge these days. Spurs still get plenty of abuse, but – within the ground, certainly – the tone of it is much changed. 

A few years ago, Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the line many take. That is what annoyed them so much about the recent FA instruction that all uses of Yid must cease, an argument that David Cameron has now blundered into. Many argue there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist. I’d even go so far to contend that Spurs have won the argument – they’ve reclaimed a term of abuse. But when it leads to casually racist headlines like that published above – and let’s remember that most Jewish people who see that headline will not support Tottenham –  one wonders quite where this will end.

It is, as Joanne Rosenthal, the Jewish Museum curator, told me ‘very complicated. Even if it appears black and white the two poles are very strongly opposed. Fan culture has this nastier side and we can’t ignore it. It’s now become part of Tottenham’s heritage. It’s difficult to tell people what they can or can’t do.’

Perhaps not, and I’m a huge fan of tribalism at football, but sometimes everybody just needs to grow up and move on. Maybe that Metro headline, as trivial and offensive as it is, will give people pause for thought.

 

The Clash in Soho

The Clash have opened a, wait for it, pop-up shop in Soho to promote the release of their new box set. It’s only open for a couple of weeks, and I happened to be in the West End yesterday so paid a quick visit, joining a crowd made up entirely, and unsurprisingly, of middle-aged men.

I wasn’t actually expecting a great deal, but was pleasantly surprised by what I found. While the upstairs is essentially a Clash mini-mart, flogging copies of the band’s albums as well as the Sound System box, the downstairs is more like a mini-museum of Clash memorabilia, featuring the iconic alongside pleasing ephemera.

So while the biggest draw was the buggered bass guitar that Paul Simonon is seen smashing on the cover of London Calling

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… I rather preferred witty juxtapositions like this, which places a punk-referencing pizza box alongside a Vince Taylor LP.

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A long cabinet acts like a timeline of the band’s history, crammed with ephemera relating to the band personally and politically, but also to the musical and literary influences they were absorbing along the way. So the section around the time of, say, Sandinista!, is full of South American political paraphernalia, lyric sheets and cassettes of the music they were discovering, while further along, at the time of Combat Rock, it’s all about cowboys and indians, and the US military. It was a bit like the Bowie V&A show in miniature with a better developed sense of humour, and ably demonstrated that the three-dimensional, technicolor world of rock and roll offers huge potential for entertaining and informative exhibitions when handled with the right blend of respect and irreverence. One day, one hopes, somebody will do a Beatles exhibition that works along similar lines.

Other items of interest included the Clash’s map of the world, Paul Simonon’s certificate of appreciation from the Guardian Angels, the hand-written lyrics to “Guns Of Brixton” and an old beat box, with rather touching home-made cassettes. Everything is offered entirely without explanation, which is part of the fun. Check it out.

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Black Market Clash, 75 Berwick Street, W1. Open until September 22.

Jonathan Gili, on collecting and connecting

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

Paul McCartney-designed wrapping paper for Indica bookshop and gallery.

The wonderful new catalogue by Maggs counterculture is dedicated to (a fragment) of the vast collection amassed over four decades by the film-maker Jonathan Gili. An insight into Gili’s collecting instinct comes from this article by Anthony Gardner:

Lift the lids of the boxes, and you can scarcely believe your eyes. There are bottles of Star Wars bubble bath and packets of Beatles bubblegum; fridge magnets shaped like kettles and Danish pastries; hair clips
commemorating the Queen’s coronation; Camembert boxes and plastic lizards and packets of tortilla chips. It is as if all the flotsam and jetsam of post-war consumer society had been washed up on a concrete shore and painstakingly catalogued by an tireless, obsessive beachcomber.

Although the catalogue focuses on the recognised brilliance of London’s 1960s psychedelic poster artists like Martin Sharp and Haphash And The Coloured Coat, Gili would collect anything – indeed, Gardner notes he was particularly drawn to sardine tins and even self-published a book about them. The items Maggs has for sale includes such magpie oddities as shopping bags, wrapping paper (albeit designed by Paul McCartney) and old newspaper posters, such as this one regarding Joe Orton’s murder, taken from a newstand in London in 1967.

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In 1986, Gili wrote an article about his collection asking rhetorically: ‘Who could resist records shaped like Elton John’s hat or Barry Manilow’s nose? They have poor sound and often can’t be made to play at all… but as art objects they are sublime.’

Sadly, there are no records shaped like Barry Manilow’s nose in this catalogue as much of Gili’s collection went to a private collector sympathetic to the intentions and ambitions of Gili. But what makes somebody collect stuff like this? In his short, thoughtful, introduction to the catalogue, Carl Williams – who knows much about collectors – ponders that question. Collectors are often said to be creating a bulwark against their own death, but perhaps, speculates Williams, they also wish to act as a guardian for those things that would otherwise be ‘forgotten, scorned or destroyed’ as tastes and times change?  Today’s trash is tomorrow’s museum piece; yesterday’s lunatic is the future’s visionary. Gardner touches on this, with an anecdote in which Gili ‘rescues’ a particularly revolting object from a garage forecourt. It’s a revealing story. By the very nature of his collecting this worthless item, Gili has given it value. But he’s also, clearly and very simply, enjoyed the moment, relishing both the acquisition and the reaction it will get from his co-conspirator. Why collect? Why not!

Lucinda Lambton tells a story which epitomises Gili’s passion for acquisition. ‘We were driving through the outskirts of Guildford,’ she says, ‘and he suddenly shouted “Stop!” Then he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran across this huge, horrible garage forecourt. When he came back, he was triumphantly waving a gold-lamé-clad Michael
Jackson doll.

Collections also gain their own momentum, and I sometimes wonder how many collections have been made almost by accident – one minute you are idly picking up old books about London from secondhand shops and markets, the next thing you know you have 250 of the things and, inadvertently, the beginnings of a minor collection. And if you’ve started, you might as well finish. What else is there to do with your time?

More obviously, collectors hoard items that carry the echo of a cherished memory, certain pieces that remind them of a special moment in their past, or of a past they wished they had. Many of the items being sold by Maggs are focused around the London underground scene of the 1960s. I’m not sure quite what relationship Gili had with the counterculture, but he was clearly an interested observer at the very least – and he edited cult London film Bronco Bullfrog, with soundtrack by 1960s Gilbert & George support act, Audience.

Gili’s 1960s collection includes a number of items from that era that have always been regarded as important and beautiful, such as these stunning posters by Martin Sharp, one of my favourite psychedelic artists and, in my view, a rival to anything that came out of the more lauded Bay Area poster scene.

Cream by Martin Sharp

Cream by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Purple Dylan by Martin Sharp

Oz magazine

Oz magazine

UFO Club poster

UFO Club poster

Many of the objects are related specifically to the London scene – the shops, clubs, galleries and ‘fun palaces’ of 1960s London. Gili, then, had a close relationship with this city. One of his best-known films is the charming To The World’s End, about the No 31 bus journey from Islington to Chelsea. Interestingly, 1960s historian Jonathon Green recalls a map of this very bus route once published as a cover of IT newspaper, showing how it connected some of the key points of swinging London – ‘The hippie highway: all the way from Granny Takes a Trip to the Roundhouse’, as Green puts it.

A semi-thorough scouring of the ever-so-distracting IT archive has not turned up this delightful sounding map, so perhaps it was produced by one of the many other underground papers of the era. But it is not a massive leap to speculate that Gili, the great collector of underground London, noted this off-kilter way of observing and uniting the London villages, and later chose to make a film taking precisely that approach. Collections, like buses, are a way to make connections.

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Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar.