Category Archives: Blogging

Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

Miss World and the ruin of London

I have two events coming up where I will be discussing Battersea Power Station in collaboration with other writers. At the excellent Bookseller Crow shop in Crystal Palace I will be teaming up with Rob Baker of Another Nickel In The Machine for a London Night, where we will talk about low culture and high jinx in London. My talk will focus on some of the finer pop culture moments associated with Battersea Power Station, while Rob will talk about his blog, his book (Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics) and the Miss World protest of 1970.

This will take place on Thursday September 15th at 7.30pm, £3.

toya

This will be followed by a London Society event with Owen Hatherley, where we will discuss the redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea, and debate the limits of preservation and conservation in a talk titled The Ruin of London. This takes place at the Gallery on Cowcross Street on Sept 20th from 6.30pm.

Talking about Battersea Power Station

A lovely review of Up In Smoke has appeared on the London Society website this week, and I will be talking about Battersea Power Station at a London Society event alongside Owen Hatherley in September. More information on that soon. Owen and I discussed architecture and music on Resonance FM a few weeks ago, and you can listen to that here.

Pig-Pink-Floyd-4

Before that, I’ll be one of three speakers at a Londonist event on July 20th at The Pipeline on Middlesex Street, E1. I will tell some strange tales about Battersea Power Station, Amy Dickens will discuss her blog about commuters and Matt Brown will tell us that everything you know about London is wrong, which also happens to be the title of his latest book. All that for a fiver and chance to say hello. Doors open at 7pm.

To give you a taste,here’s a blog post I wrote about the power station’s current predicament for the New Statesman. I’ve also recorded something for their City Metric podcast – more information on that as it comes.  

 

 

Dream City – London’s unbuilt Edwardian theme park

I have a post on Londonist about Dream City, a theme park concept cooked up in 1907 by an American developer for a disused waterworks, a site that was later occupied by Battersea Power Station.

You can read the full story here.

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Dream City

The unbuilt Dream City is also the starting point for Alice May Williams’ short film about Battersea Power Station called Dream City: More, Better Sooner produced by the Film And Video Umbrella. The fvu have organised a talk on Friday (April 15) at the Battersea site of the Royal College of Arts by Owen Hatherley called Monetising The Ruin: Batterseas Old And New.

I will be attending the lecture and also selling copies of my book Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station.

Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics by Rob Baker

For several years, Rob Baker has written one of London’s best blogs, Another Nickel In The Machine, which explores the cultural history of London’s 20th century in a unique way. Rather than focus on, say, a musical genre or a particular locale or an identifiable concept such as celebrities or architecture, Baker simply finds great stories and researches the shit out of them. And now he’s turned it into an excellent book: Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics.

As with his blog, Baker doesn’t pretend to find a unifying theme to artificially define the richness of his material, instead relying on his natural instincts to identify a good story and tell it for just the right amount of time. This is crucial. Some of these chapters cover some pretty big subjects – the Krays, Lord Haw-Haw, Christine Keeler, Pop Art – but Baker always manages to find a new angle without going on too long: for instance, his piece on Pop Art concentrates on Pauline Boty and the Anti-Ugly Movement while he looks at Blow-Up through a street in Stockwell that appears in the film. He’s brilliant at detail – clothes, weather, atmosphere, quotes – and tightly wound narrative (the section on the escape of spies Burgess and Maclean could come from a thriller), but he also loves exploring interesting tangents.

But his real skill is contextualising individuals within their era or locality. So his chapter on Benny Hill tells us much about the post-war comedy scene at the Windmill as well as Hill’s own rise and sad decline, the Profumo Scandal chapter is also about Soho and the Flamingo club in the early 1960s while the section of Winifred Atwell takes in Atwell’s strange career as a popular black performer but also the history of Brixton, where she lived.

This is essentially, the book of the blog, with several of the same stories, only expanded with new research. The blog also features great photography, just the right amount of which is reproduced here, including a cracking cover shot from the 100 Club, a venue that increases in importance with each year it avoids closure. Collectively, these photos and historical essays build a picture of London that captures some of the city’s chaotic sensibility far more truthfully than a conventional or even psychogeographical history, which will try and draw dry parallels between then and now, sometimes with lamentable results. Instead, Baker simply tells a story and then leaves you to think about what it means, if anything.

Some of these yarns I knew nothing about, such as the strange days James Earl Ray spent in Earl’s Court after assassinating Martin Luther King, or the spiv murder of Warren Street, or Charlie Chaplin’s wonderful return to Lambeth in 1921. Others I was familiar with, but still learnt more about, such as the plans to redevelop Covent Garden in the 1960s that was stopped by protesters – in the current climate, I wonder, would a similar protest have any success at all?  The net result is like being rattled round the London decades by a raconteur with a time machine, a sort of blue badge Doctor Who, who tells a story with wit and panache before whizzing you off to his next unpredictable destination.

The Blitz: missing buildings and false memories

While researching my recent feature on the Blitz and former bombsites in London, I was keen to find a site that had been destroyed and not yet redeveloped.

There were some tantalising leads.

Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, provided me with an image he’d discovered years before of a derelict building on Lowndes Street, left fallow in memory of the Blitz.

Lowndes Street

“It was in the chartered surveyor professional magazine,” he explained. “The story was that it was owned by a family, bombed, and they never did anything to it in memory of a son that died in the war. Fifty years later, life had moved on, and the property came up for sale.”

It’s a compelling story but one that was difficult to confirm. The Bomb Damage Maps  showed a couple of strikes on Lowndes Street so I sent an email to Dave Walker, librarian at Kensington and Chelsea and writer of the formidable Library Time Machine blog. Dave put the query across to a colleague at Westminster, as Lowndes Street straddles the boundary between the two councils. Between the two of them, they discovered destroyed buildings at No 30 and Nos 11/12 Lowndes Street but both sites were developed by 1963. It would require further research to get to the bottom of the story as outlined by Professor Larkham and as tantalisingly revealed in the above photograph.

There was similar confusion with regard to another site. This was next to the Hat & Feathers pub on Clerkenwell Road.

Clarkenwell Road

Clarkenwell Road

According to local legend, the site had been demolished by a bomb and used as a car park ever since. For years, you could even see scraps of wallpaper from the destroyed building still attached to the neighbouring wall. The only problem was there was no record of a bomb landing anywhere near this property – itself rather extraordinary given how badly the area had been bombed. It appears that this was a false folk memory, but one that was still being shared today. In the end, I included no empty lots in my piece as I couldn’t find any that comfortably fitted the available facts.

After my piece was published, I was contacted by a photographer, Thom Atkinson. He was about to publish a book called Missing Buildings, looking at precisely this area – the missing spaces between London buildings ostensibly created by bombs. They’d even included an image of the Hat & Feathers site I’d been studying. Like me, Atkinson was intrigued with the way folk memory and evidence didn’t always correspond.

hatfeath

Photograph by Thom Atkinson

Thom said, “We came across the same sort of folklore thing a couple of times, and in a way that’s what the book is about. There’s a picture we made on Sclater Street, near Shoreditch Station, and the market traders there were talking about it being a bombsite when they were kids. When we looked at the map it didn’t quite fit their story – but they remembered it so clearly.”

There were several explanations for this, false memory being only one of them. As Thom explained, “Sometimes bombs are recorded and the site itself displays all the signs, but no building damage is shown on the LCC map. And of course the whole thing is complicated because the LCC maps only show damage during wartime – we’ve heard stories of buildings falling down or being demolished later on, because of underlying structural damage caused by the bombing – one of the guys who works in the processing lab (also a bombsite by the way!) has a house in East London with cracked foundations; the surveyor thinks they were caused by a bomb landing at the other end of the street.”

Missing Buildings is a wonderful book, showing the ghosts of London homes, many of which have long disappeared but still leave an imprint on neighbouring buildings in the form of shadows, new brickwork, girders and the spectres of chimney breasts. Others have been filled in with new buildings that stand out ridiculously against their neighbours, awkward and ugly, eternally temporary.

There are more of these spaces than you might imagine in London, but they are vanishing fast and this book is an exquisite record of the spaces that get left behind, often more by accident then design. You can buy it here.

 

Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

In defence of Midtown

I recently wrote a piece for The London Magazine about Midtown.

Midtown is the bastard offspring name for what people traditionally think of Holborn. For some reason, that really pisses people off. Perhaps it’s the very crassness of the name – Midtown – that deliberate literalness with its clear nod to grid-like American cities where entire areas are known by their compass points. In London, of course, we have nothing like that.

Except the West End.

And the East End.

And the South Bank.

Ah, but they are all different, aren’t they?

It is very easy to get annoyed about Midtown – the idea of it, rather than the place itself, which is pretty inoffensive – but what interested me is why. Why take on the challenge of renaming a traditional part of London? What’s the benefit? How do you summon up the gall? And how do you persuade locals it’s a good idea?

To answer those questions, I spoke to Tass Mavrogordato, Chief Executive of InMidtown, a very nice woman who appears to be permanently on her guard against negative attacks on her Midtown baby. She quickly explained to me that Midtown isn’t another name for Holborn at all. “It’s an umbrella term for the entire area between the West End and the City ,” she says. “We didn’t want to take anything away from the historic areas of St Giles, Bloomsbury or Holborn, and in many ways should help them as it helps to locate them in a wider area. We look at places like the South Bank and can see how these names with a geographical sense have been successful.”

Mavrogordato draws a straight comparison with the West End, an umbrella term that people happily use for a wider area that takes in some of London’s most historic and lovable quarters – Mayfair, Soho, Marylebone – without in any way detracting from them. Nobody has a problem with the West End. Why, she wants to know, can’t Midtown do the same thing, just a bit further east?

It all sounds very logical when she puts it like that, but I doubt people will be convinced.

Part of the problem is one of perception. People don’t like being told what to call places by other people with more money than them. InMidtown is a Business Improvement District and uses aggressive branding to push the concept of Midtown in ways that rubs people up the wrong way – even if the term Midtown predates the BID and has been in use by estate agents since the 1990s.

It’s this noxious aroma of branding that really galls, making Midtown appear distinct from the West End and South Bank, even though these are equally artificial constructions, placing rather spurious boundaries on areas that already had well-defined, historic names. But the latter two appeared more organically, or more to the point they appeared so long ago that nobody actually remembers how they came about, so they are accepted simply because they predate people’s perception of what London is, which was generally formed when they first moved to the city.

London, though, evolves far more quickly than people are comfortable with – and most people don’t actually want London to evolve at all, or at least only in ways that benefits them directly, in the form of better coffee shops or making their flat more valuable, but not so valuable that people a lot richer than them might buy it.

And that gets to the crux of people’s problem with Midtown, it’s change that appears to be directed from above, by outside forces, by money. That’s why people delight in using the ridiculous name Fitzrovia, an inter-war construct for an area that was previously considered to be an extension of Soho, but rejected Noho when that was proposed by developers as it just felt too damned American, too damned money, even if it was, in many ways, more appropriate and certainly no less daft. (Imagine trying to name somewhere Fitzrovia now – you would be laughed out of town, and rightly so.)

There is a consistency here, it’s just a very wobbly one.

And so it goes. Londoners will boast long and loud that London is the greatest city in the world, a barrel of fun for all concerned. Other people will come to London, push the property prices out of orbit and rename the streets so they can get from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Gower Street without looking at their phone.

And suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much fun.

So in Midtown, poor helpless Midtown, they draw the line.

London by the bollards

I have a piece in the Autumn 2013 issue of Completely London about London experts, those Londoners who specialise in esoteric subjects like lion statues, ghost signs and stinkpipes. You can read part of it here. My interview with John Kennedy, London’s bollard supremo, didn’t make the cut so I have reproduced it below.

John Kennedy, 47, taxi driver & writer of Bollards Of London
Most people in London get excited about the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace but when you drive a taxi you get bored of the norm and start to look around and notice other things. With me, it’s bollards. It actually began as a bet with ‘Big’ George Webley, a radio presenter. He challenged me to write a blog about something weird and it got picked up by the Guardian. Now I’m really interested in bollards, the way they look, where they are located, what they are used for and how we interact with them.

 

Bollards have so many uses but most people don’t notice them no matter how colourful, ornate or dandy they are. I really like the Anthony Gormley bollards in Peckham. I love that one of our great contemporary artists is making street furniture. I picked up Charles Saatchi recently and we ended up talking bollards, he found it quite amusing that I had a blog with pictures of 330 bollards. You do get some odd looks when you photograph a bollard – the other day I was spotted taking a picture by somebody. He said, ‘You must be the bollard man.’

Peter Hitchens on drugs and the moral, opium-eating, Victorians

Peter Hitchens is a very clever man. I’m sure he’s also sincere – I can’t believe British newspapers would employ somebody to say stupid and provocative things just to get attention, after all – but judging by the interviews he’s conducted for his new book about drugs, The War We Never Fought, he’s a little bit daft.

Hitchens theory is that there has never been a war on drugs. ‘Drug-taking was, in effect, decriminalised by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,’ is how Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases. Instead, he harks back to the golden age of the Victorians, when there was ‘increasing self-imposed moral conduct’ (Hitchens’ words.)

Where to begin with this nonsense? Well, let’s just stick to the last bit, those morally virtuous Victorians. In a sense, he’s right: the Victorians didn’t take illegal drugs. That’s because they were too busy snaffling down the legal ones – things like opium, cocaine and cannabis – which were available to just about anybody who needed them until 1868, and then over the counter from chemists until 1926. This was the golden age of drug-taking in Britain, with opium being consumed on a scale we could scarcely now believe.

Victorian London was awash with opium, not in semi-mythologised Chinese opium-smoking dens in Limehouse (of which there were very few), but in pubs, chemists, general stores and markets, where it was sold in bottles, powders, pills, lozenges, on plasters, in sweets and much else besides. The centre of trade was in Mincing Lane, London, where 90 per cent of transactions occurred. It was most commonly taken as laudanum, a tincture of opium and red wine, with saffron and cinnamon.

This was not thrill seeking. In the days before aspirin, opium was one of the few reliable painkillers available to Victorians, especially especially fever and diarrhoea, but also malaria, smallpox, syphilis and TB. And it was effective as well. As anybody who has taken codeine or morphine will confirm, opiates have a tendency to block you right up – something that was particularly helpful when the next cholera or dysentery epidemic was just around the corner.

However, opium was also used on children, particularly when teething, in specially formulated sweet concoctions like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and thus surely led to the deaths of many by overdose. It also, believes the drug’s historian Martin Booth in Opium: A History, ‘provided an escape from the misery and vicissitudes of working-class life.’ This was especially the case in the Fens, where ‘many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it.’

Because of these two factors, opium was belatedly seen as a physical and spiritual danger, and Victorian abstinence advocates put it right up there with alcohol and tobacco as serious threats to British life. What’s interesting, though, is the way – anecdotally at least – users were able to effectively and relatively painlessly self-medicate, living normal decent lives despite their addiction, without resorting to crime. This is true for the working classes, it’s true of the famous opium-eating writers like Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, Collins and De Quincey, and it’s also true of the many great statesmen – the sort of people who shaped the British Empire so beloved by Peter Hitchens – who took the drug. You see, because opium was the only halfway reliable painkiller around, everybody took it – including people like William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, and William Gladstone, who popped some in his coffee before speaking in Parliament to improve his rhetorical powers – even if not all of them became addicted.

In later years, opium – and especially its stronger derivatives morphine and heroin – began to be used by those simply seeking a pathway to an altered consciousness, a shortcut perhaps to the sort of transcendent mystical experience some people get from religion. In doing so, they were merely following pattern taken by mankind in all civilisations since the dawn of time, however much Hitchens may wish that weren’t the case.

As restrictions were introduced – for opium, not alcohol and tobacco – drug-use declined massively and by 1960 there were less than 100 registered heroin addicts in the UK. They received their drugs from doctors, cheap and undiluted, and were largely able to enjoy a normal existence (at least in comparison with their criminalised counterparts in America). However, as drug use increased in the 1960s, restrictions were imposed, culminating with Hitchens hated Misuse of Drugs Acts in 1971, after which drug supply passed almost completely into the hands of the criminal and use immediately rocketed. A far cry indeed from those morally virtuous days of the 1850s, when Britain’s great and good could simply pick up a bottle of premium laudanum from their nearest general store and retreat into blissful opium dreams.