Monthly Archives: March 2015

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

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Charlie Cooke: Chelsea wing wizard

I recently dug up an old PC, and found this interview I conducted with former Chelsea and Scotland footballer Charlie Cooke in 2007 for Time Out.

It has become common currency for fans and players of other clubs to decry Chelsea’s lack of history, a revealing attitude that mistakes ‘history’ for ‘success’ and ‘wit’ for ‘arrogance’. Chelsea, of course, have a rich history, albeit one of spectacular underachievement and remarkable foot-shooting, of which the legendary – and much-romanticised – 1960s side is the best example. One of the geniuses of that team was Charlie Cooke, the brilliant Scottish midfielder who replaced Terry Venables in the heart of the Chelsea side and rivalled Peter Osgood for the affections of The Shed. Cooke was a combination of Pat Nevin and Joe Cole – phenomenally gifted, an extraordinary dribbler and visionary passer, but one with a prodigious work ethic. He was Chelsea’s player of the year three times – a record shared with a certain diminutive Sardinian – but only won two major trophies in his two spells at Stamford Bridge.

‘We were underachievers, and that was our own fault,’ says Cooke, on the phone from the United States where he coaches children’s soccer (‘I have to call it that’). ‘We underachieved on the big occasions – we were dreadful in the FA Cup final against Spurs in 1967, and we lost to Stoke in the League Cup final in 1972. We were out of control, wild and crazy, we egged each other on with the drinking culture. I have regrets. From this perspective, it was a lot of nonsense. At the time, you’re having fun, or you think you are, but I’m not one to say that if I had it all to live over I’d do it exactly the same. I’d be a bit smarter, more self-controlled, not so willing.’

It’s telling that Cooke’s autobiography The Bonnie Prince, lacks the drinking stories common to memoirs written by footballers from this period – that’s because Cooke, who doesn’t quite admit he was an alcoholic, can’t remember many of them (although he gets some off-page prompting from his drinking partner, Tommy Baldwin, nicknamed ‘The Sponge’ for his ability to soak up booze). Instead, Cooke gives a thoughtful account of a playing career that took him from Greenock High School to California Surf, via Aberdeen, Dundee, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

‘I took it as an opportunity to retrace a lot of my life and find out things I’d forgotten,’ he says. ‘One of the strange things was that my sister had been doing some genealogy and the interesting thing to me – although it may be of no interest to anybody else – is that we, the Cookes, came from a long line of circus people. My umpteen great grandfather was the first person to take a big top to America. Another Cooke would ride round the ring on a horse taking off costumes of different Shakespearean characters. I come from a long line of hairy-chested women, Romanian jugglers and fat men. Entertainers, sure, but I’m not sure it’s a rich lineage – maybe a tacky one.’

Cooke also writes about his own failings as a player, showing self-reflection that’s unusual in books of this type. You rarely see footage of Cooke in action – ‘sometimes you’ll see a tiny clip of yourself and think, “that wasn’t me was it? Ach, I thought I was a better player than that!” – and rarer still a Cooke goal: he scored barely 20 in nearly 300 league games for Chelsea. Cooke’s explanation of this is interesting – ‘I allowed the headlines about my being the team schemer and midfield general to get into my head, with the result that I ignored finishing’ – showing that even positive press can have results journalists might not expect, causing players to subconsciously neglect those parts of their game that do not receive the most publicity or overdoing their strengths in the belief that this is what the public demands.

Cooke lives in America (‘I always wanted to be in the States, I married an American girl and I loved Westerns and American detective series and the blue skies of America always seems to be a place I wanted to try’), but returns to Abramovich’s Stamford Bridge more regularly now than he did under the previous regime. ‘One of the wonderful things about the takeover at Chelsea is that they invite all the old farts back, he says. ‘It had been thrown out the door before. I have no gripe about Ken Bates, that’s what he wanted, but it’s wonderful that they invite us back now, it’s lovely for me and all the guys really appreciate it. You feel the love fans still have for you and it’s fantastic.’

The Bonnie Prince (Mainstream; £7.99).

Robert Fraser: the butterfly, Performance and the Rolling Stones

I’ve often thought that when William Rees-Mogg wrote his famous editorial in the wake of the Redlands court case, the butterfly was not so much Mick Jagger or Keith Richards but the third party in that sorry affair. Art dealer Robert Fraser was convicted alongside the Rolling Stones for possession, but while Richards and Jagger were spared prison partly thanks to the Times editorial, Fraser pleaded guilt and was sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It’s difficult now to think of Richards and Jagger as butterflies; Fraser was the one that got left behind to get broken.

Some of letters and telegrams Fraser received and sent while during his four months at the Scrubs feature in the Pace Gallery’s superb exhibition, A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense, which runs until 28th March. The title comes from Richard Hamilton’s collage, created as a response to the Redlands bust.

It is displayed alongside one of Hamilton’s other famous creations in his Swingeing London series, which shows Fraser and Jagger being led away from court.

Hamilton was one of several artists that Fraser promoted at his Duke Street gallery in the 1960s, and many of them feature in the show. Here there are works by Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Eduardo Paolozzi, Claes Oldenberg, Clive Barker, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley and Peter Blake, as well as later pieces by Francis Bacon, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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Copyright Pace London

There’s also a nice mock up of Fraser’s office.

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Copyright Pace London

Fraser had a great eye and a sense of daring, and that helped attract the stars. Fraser’s gallery became a centre for the cool kids of the counterculture, attracting pop stars, actors and film directors as well as perennially lurking scene figures like Keith Anger. Paul McCartney described Fraser as “one of the most influential people in the London sixties scenes” and The Beatles feature in the exhibition, most wonderfully in the shape of the drumskin from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Peter Blake created under Fraser’s direction. Fraser was the catalyst for much that happened in this mid-60s meeting of art and pop.

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Copyright Pace London

Fraser was nicknamed Groovy Bob and a sense of the fluid interchange of ideas that resulted from these encounters can be seen in a long display cabinet, arranged with artful haphazardness and crammed with personal letters, memos, books, flyers and photographs. There’s no caption for this wonderful ephemera, but rich pickings for those who take the time to drink it in.

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Copyright Pace London

I was fascinated by a 1968 letter Fraser wrote to Richard Lock at Simon & Schuster proposing a biography of the Rolling Stones, which “would be satirical and totally fictional”. It was seen as a suitably Stonesy response to Hunter Davies’s recently published and “totally humourless” Beatles biography. Sadly, this came to nothing.

I also liked a letter written by the producer of Performance, confirming that Anita Pallenberg would be renting Fraser’s flat in Mount Street for the eight-week duration of the shoot, at £30 a week. This was presented alongside a page of the script from Performance. Fraser’s spirit is essential to the milieu and mystery around Performance. He had known Pallenberg since 1961, and his interest in art, drugs and bohemia was infectious.  Pallenberg later recalled that around Fraser gathered “a fascinating group of people who were on the cutting edge of what was happening in high society, great cultural evenings, wonderful intellectual talk, plenty of hash and marijuana and speed and LSD.” Marianne Faithfull’s recollection is a more withering English take on the same deal: “Desultory intellectual chit chat, drugs, hip aristocrats, languid dilettantes and high naughtiness.”

The weeks that Pallenberg, with boyfriend Keith Richards, stayed at Fraser’s flat, would be pivotal to the unfolding psychosexual drama surrounding the Stones. Fraser was using heroin (his opium pipe is on display), and soon turned on Keith, who was otherwise writing Let It Bleed and brooding about the shenanigans Pallenberg and Jagger were getting up to while making the film.  The ensuing atmosphere of jealousy, betrayal spiced by heavy drug use would hang round the Stones for decades. As Richards spiteful autobiography shows, they still haven’t entirely gone away.

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Cecil Beaton photograph from Performance set.

Also floating around the scene was another arch mischief-maker, Kenneth Anger, and a couple of his missives to Fraser can be found in the cabinet. Best of these is probably the telegram requesting £60 which concludes “GROOVING ON MAGIC CURRENT ONE TRILLION VOLTS AFTER AUSPICIOUS LUCIFER HOUSE BOAT LOVE IS THE LAW”. Indeed.

But it’s the Stones with whom Fraser became most closely associated, for better or for worse. No matter how it ended, I’ve always loved a pair of photographs Michael Cooper took of the Stones with Fraser in 1966 and 1967 in Morocco, a location that is almost as emblematic of the 1960s as London itself, lingering even in the set design of that orgiastic lightning rod Performance. Here is the calm before the storm, before the butterfly is broken.

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A Strong Sweet Smell Of Incense at Pace London, 6 Burlington Gardens, W1S 3ET.

Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.