Monthly Archives: December 2014

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.

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Ghost street

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I walk past this corner at least twice every day but only recently noticed the ghost sign painted above the newer enamel one. I assume it was previously covered up, otherwise I’m sure I’d have spotted it at some point in the past five years. Perhaps the jutting pipe points to recent usage.

Much as I like a painted street sign, this one is particularly interesting as it dates back to a time when the street – a short stub of road – had a different name entirely. According to Steve Chambers, who knows about such things, this was one of three name changes in the area – including the eradication of the similar Hamilton Terrace on Shakespeare Road – brought about to tidy up postal addresses.

The ghost sign for the ghost street sits opposite a ghost pub. Hamilton Supermarket occupies the site of the Hamilton Arms, a cosy corner pub opened in 1878 that was captured magnificently in these old photos. It closed in 2004.

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hamilton supermarket

Snapshots of a lost London from home movies

Chiswick swimming pool, via BFI National Archives.

Chiswick swimming pool, via BFI National Archives.

I have been doing some work for Film London’s London Screen Archives which involved watching hundreds old home movies, news reels and promotional films made in and about London. Many of these have been donated by families to local archives, others were made by councils or boroughs, or were newsreels acquired by the BFI, such as the above of Chiswick pool in the 1920s. Collectively, they give a glimpse of the past, showing how people lived, what they wore and ate, how they decorated their homes – even how they chose to behave in front of the camera.

Some of these films will be screened in Film London‘s new Kinovan, a mobile cinema that is travelling to different boroughs showing old footage of life in the area. Home movies are a fascinating and often neglected treasure trove of historical footage, inadvertently revealing so much about the past. I’ve collected some stills from home movies I’ve been watching to post below – and if you have any home movies you wish to donate to the collection, you can do so via The Bigger Picture project.

Berwick Street market, 1960s.

Berwick Street market, 1960s.

The Golden Egg, 1960s.

The Golden Egg, 1960s.

Docker tea break, 1960s.

Docker tea break, 1960s.

Londoners, 1960s.

Londoners, 1960s.

Cowboy demonstration, company fete, Dagenham, 1950s.

Cowboy demonstration, company fete, Dagenham, 1950s.

Lord Mayor's Show, 1967.

Lord Mayor’s Show, 1967.

Embankment, 1964.

Embankment, 1964.

Odeon Leicester Square, 1960s.

Odeon Leicester Square, 1960s.

New car, Haringey, 1960s.

New car, Haringey, 1960s.

London street, Haringey, 1960s.

London street, Haringey, 1960s.

London in the rain, 1960s.

London in the rain, 1960s.

Christmas party, Becontree, 1960s.

Christmas party, Becontree, 1960s.

Pint, 1961.

Pint, 1961.

potower

PO Tower, 1965.

Company sack race, Dagenham, 1950s.

Company sack race, Dagenham, 1950s.

Green Lanes, 1960s.

Green Lanes, 1960s.

Operating machinery, Dagenham

Operating machinery, Dagenham

Company fete, Dagenham, 1950s

Company fete, Dagenham, 1950s

Earls Court and the death of fun in London

“In London, it seems everything that’s not a shop, offices or luxury apartments is being demolished,” sighed artist Duggie Fields when I interviewed him last month for a piece in Uncut about the imminent demolition of Earls Court Exhibition Centre. It’s a quote that, in a nutshell, seems to encapsulate all that is going wrong with London right now.

“There is so much damaged being done to London all over, Earl’s Court is just part of it,” says Fields. “London is losing a scale of living that has been very special for a long time. Now we have this mini high rises that could be from anywhere, they are characterless and there are so many of them.”

Earls Court will be pulled down early next year and replaced by houses, ending the area’s 120-year history as a place of fun. This history is well known to London nerds, but is worth repeating. The former cabbage field of Earls Court was transformed into a funzone by Yorkhire entrepreneur John Whitely at the end of the 1880s, when he brought Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to the newly transformed exhibition site, hemmed in between railway lines. It featured a miniature Rocky Mountains, Native American village, corrals and a cowboy bunkhouse. “The show was a revelation,” write Felix Barker and Peter Jackson in Pleasures Of London. A few years later, the site attracted London’s first big wheel – a 300ft monster called the Gigantic Wheel.

When that lost its thrill, new entertainments were sought – including plans for a mechanical racecourse. Numerous exhibitions were also held there – including Captain Boynton’s Water Show in 1893, the Greater Britain Exhibition, in 1899 and Shakespeare’s England in 1912. Then in 1937 the Exhibition Centre was built. It opened with a Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition and went on hold swimming galas, motor shows, the Royal Tournament and events for the 1948 and 2012 Olympics.  It’s a decent looking building, too, well worth saving for its lovely Art Deco curve and revolutionary concrete engineering. So many magnificent buildings from this era are being lost.

Less, pleasantly, in 1939 it hosted a gargantuan meeting of Oswald Mosley’s fascist blackshirts.

From the 1970s, Earls Court also began to host pop shows. David Bowie was first to play there, although Noddy Holder of Slade claims they were the first to book it and then managed to improve the sound after Bowie flopped. Concerts by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd followed. I saw Oasis there, unfortunately, and also the BRIT awards in 2000, when I threw a champagne cork at Christine Hamilton.

Slade fans at Earls Court

And now it’s to come down, replaced by 8,000 houses and some shops.

Duggie Fields has lived in Earls Court since the 1960s. You may recognise his flat – and former flatmate.

He points out that the removal of the Exhibition Centre will, at a stroke, remove any point or purpose to the Earls Court area. “It has nothing for people to come to,” he says. “Just boring anonymous shops and lots of traffic. All we’ll get is more chainstores because there’s no neighbourhood, there’s no locals. You can’t create villages, they grow over a long period of time.” He also fears for the pubs and restaurants that rely on the Exhibition Centre, which has still been functioning almost round the clock despite impending doom, for their custom.

He’s right. Earls Court is, even with the Exhibition Centre, one of the most boring areas of London. Without it, it’s pretty much irrelevant. But there’s a problem here too. London needs housing, desperately. Surely these 8,000 or so units will help?

It seems unlikely. The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pubmusic venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.

It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres. Thank god at least the Olympic site has been safeguarded – for now.

“There’s nothing to build on the heritage they’re throwing away,” says Fields of Earls Court. “It’s been an exhibition site for over 100 years. London is tossing that out with as many other things as it can toss out under this current administration.”