Category Archives: Books

Big Capital – Anna Minton

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There is no bigger issue in London politics than housing. It’s probably the most significant reason London voters of all ages and from almost every social background turned to Labour in such numbers in last week’s election, and I wonder if the demographic changes caused by the capital’s out-of-control housing market had wider repercussions, as yet unexplored.

Was it partly responsible for the hollowing out of the Tory vote in Kensington, where the wealthy British are being replace by non-voting non doms? Are suburban constituencies being affected by the presence of recent graduates, unable to afford property of their own, and living with parents in the previously Tory-voting shires? What about those who have been forced to leave London because of prices – are they going to turn the country red wherever they end up? For many people under 50 – as well as older, concerned for their children and grandchildren – it is housing, not Brexit, that is the prism through which everything is viewed.

So how did we get here? Anna Minton’s Big Capital provides many of the answers. A few decades ago, this would have been published with a blue cover by Pelican, one of those great, short, cheap books that simply and effectively explained a moment in society for a wider audience.

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With the minimum of fuss, Minton explores the historic reasons for the housing crisis – right to buy, planning laws, changes in the way benefits are distributed, overseas investment – and then shows how these have affected London. She shows how the luxury housing bubble has impacted Londoners further down the scale and highlights what happens to people and property after councils, frequently Labour ones, elect to blow-up estates and sell the land on the cheap to developers. She even spends some time in the marketing suite at Battersea Power Station, where she discovers the way developers are encouraging people to invest in a lifestyle rather than simply buy a home for their family.

Minton is interested in what this has meant for people, and she talks to renters, campaigners, developers and politicians, as well as those who have been forced out of London by hostile redevelopment.  She wraps things up by looking at a handful of possible alternatives to the mess we are in – the most simple yet impossible of which is that the state starts taking responsibility and builds places where its citizens can live.

There has been a consensus against council housing for decades but as the election showed, there is a renewed appetite for state spending where it’s clearly seen that the market has failed. A national policy of housebuilding should be simple vote-winner but as long as the Conservatives view right-to-buy as the flagship achievement of the Thatcher years, they won’t be able to face up to the continuing disaster they helped unleash in the 1980s, assuming they even want to. Labour under Corbyn do not have such a shibboleth, which goes some way towards explaining their success in London despite any discomfort with the party’s policy towards Brexit.

Big Capital is a short and angry book, filled with data, case studies, interviews and personal opinion. This was a style Minton first used for 2009’s Ground Control, a prescient and important study of New Labour regeneration on UK cities. Minton was the first person to seriously highlight nagging doubts about New Labour’s regeneration policy, looking at the way communities had suffered because of failures of planning, design and basic humanity. Most memorably, she looked at the issue of private control of public space, an increasingly important topic in an age when developers are given larger and larger areas of land with which to do as they please, making their own rules along the way. It was groundbreaking, as so much of this seemed to have happened while people were looking the other way, seduced by the buoyant economy before the crash of 2008.

Big Capital isn’t quite in that category. There’s little here that isn’t already well known or hasn’t been covered many times before. Its value, though, is to join the dots and to gather everything together in one place. As a textbook primer on where we are today, it’s essential.

 

Metroburbia – by Paul Knox

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METROBURBIA: The Anatomy Of Greater London by Paul Knox (Merrell)

London’s suburbia occupies so much space – 695 square miles according to Paul Knox – that it seems ridiculous people even try to summarise it with a single adjective, whether that’s “aspirational” or “banal”. The suburbs contain multitudes and are more like a network of a thousand individual towns then a uniform commuter-ville of identical streets. Knox describes them as “metroburbia”, which he defines as “a multimodal mixture of residential and employment settings, with a fusion of suburban and central-city characteristics”, which is a way of saying that there’s much more to London’s suburbs then large gardens and a fast train to Waterloo: they have shopping centres, office blocks, housing estates, schools, local governments and, critically, millions of residents who never dream of travelling to central London even if they benefit from being within its orbit.

Knox explored central London in his previous book for Merrell, London: Architecture, Building And Social Change, a glossy overview of the relationship between social change and architecture. That book focussed on 27 central districts, looking at how they were originally developed and then exploring in more detail a dozen key buildings. Here he again divides London into sectors, seven of them – Lea Valley, Northeast London, Thames Estuary, South London (all of it), Thames Valley, Northwest London and North London – as defined by the arteries of road, river and rail. Little, though, is made of these sectors once they have been established, with Knox instead taking a chronological overview of metroburbia’s growth and development.

The book is richly illustrated, with the historical narrative interrupted by numerous boxes that focus on individual buildings, trends, regions and housing estates. The story that unfolds is a useful way of understanding how the city has developed. At first, the suburbs were essentially used as a place to put the city’s problems. This is where you could place those big, ugly but necessary things such as cemeteries, asylums, prisons, sewage pumping stations and reservoirs. Housing at this time was just another problem to solve, and in the suburbs there was sufficient space to experiment with both social and private housing, whether in the form of domestic architecture or vast pioneering estates. The increase in population that came with the railways then created a need for further, more localised, infrastructure – libraries, police stations, hospitals, town halls. As a result, one of the joys of this book is the variety of styles it features. There are photos of 60s high-rise towers, modernist mansion blocks, art deco Golden Mile factories, neo-gothic Victorian asylums, Edwardian shopping parades and glitzy suburban villas, with tiny details picked over such as the subtle incorporation of postmodern motifs in domestic housing.

And it’s housing that ultimately dominates the story. The Green Belt is one factor behind this. A crucial reason for the attractiveness of suburbia, it is also a choke on growth with 14 outer boroughs giving more land to the Green Belt than they do to housing. A further complication is the continued fingers-in-ears approach to social housing, something the Government’s recent White Paper on housing suggests isn’t going to change any time soon. Knox picks over all this in a final chapters that analyses the current problem and possible outcomes. What is clear is that the impasse cannot be resolved without direct intervention, and that the fringe land of Metroburbia will be central to any solution.

Buy the book here – http://www.merrellpublishers.com/?9781858946511

 

Rain/Bridges

I have written two pieces for the Canal & River Trust.

The first is about what it’s like when it rains on a canal boat.Being on the canal when it rained could be a powerful experience, from watching a storm approach you across a basin to the sound of being woken by fat drumbeats of rain on a metal roof at night. I spoke to the writer Melissa Harrison, whose book Rain: Four Walks In The English Weather has just been published in paperback by Faber, and also quote this song by Pulp.

I’ve also written about Eric De Mare, a photographer who explored the dying canal network on a makeshift boat just after the Second World War. His photos, collected in the classic book Canals Of England, were instrumental in reigniting interest in the canal. As an architect, he particularly admired their functional beauty, the simplicity of “architecture without architects”, and the way the bridges, locks and towpaths blended with the natural landscape. He photographed all aspects of the canal, but my favourites are his images of weathered bollards, which he describes as accidental sculptures.

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His bridges are beautiful.

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He would later repeat this sort of work with photographic surveys of the Thames and then the rest of the country’s industrial infrastructure – the breweries, warehouses, docks, factories and, of course, power stations.

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Curiocity – the book

Way back in 2011, I wrote this blog post about something I’d been sent in the post. It was called Curiocity and was a tiny fold-up magazine that featured arcane trivia on one side and a weird map on the other. I think I was one of the first – if not the first – to write about the project. The first editions were numbered and then they began to appear in alphabetical order, with each letter indicating the theme, often wilfully obscure and tangential. It was a wizard wheeze, and I even contributed to later editions but Curiocity the magazine only got as far as G, when they stopped. I was miffed, partly because I’d not got round to asking how it should be pronounced – “curio city” or curiosity”?

That’s because the pair behind Curiocity – Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose – had been approached to write a book. I remember them announcing this to a bunch of us London nerds in a pub in Farringdon. How, we wondered, was this fascinating map concept going to make it into a book? Well, the answer arrived earlier this year with the publication of Curiocity: In Pursuit of London. If it wasn’t for the publication of Up In Smoke, it would probably be the best London book of the year.

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I’m not sure when bookshops started having London sections, but I know that I first became aware of the concept of “London writing” in 1999, when Granta published a marvellous London special. Ackroyd’s biography appeared shortly after and a genre was defined. Since then, the concept has exploded. People have always written books about London, but now it has developed into a mini industry all of its own. My bookshelves groan with London books, many brilliant, others less so. There is, in these London bookshop sections, perhaps an over-reliance on ‘secret/eccentric” London-type books, which all seem to contain pretty much the same information just with slightly different covers. But there are also gazetteers on London place names, London maps, London statues, London rivers, London animals, London graveyards, London pubs, London murders, London folklore… my house is packed with these specialist tomes, the best of which are rich in detail and lovingly compiled.

Even so, I’m tempted to chuck them all out because all this information and more can be found in Curiocity. Ostensibly divided into 26 alphabetic themes, the book basically contains all the London trivia, information and history you’d ever require in one place. The esoteric nature is hard to grasp and harder to describe but for example G is for Grids,  a chapter that takes in everything from bollards to bikes – and the bike page includes entries on velodromes, cyclist cafes, Queen videos, mass transit cycling events, recumbent hire and the serial number of the most ridden Boris bike. It’s a mix of trivia, history and listing information that reminds me of peak-era themed issues of Time Out crossed with The London Encyclopedia and then given the Burroughs cut-up technique. 

What’s particularly edifying is there is no attempt to thin out or dumb down  – it’s a total mind dump, with the editors throwing every possible piece of information they can have at the pages and then worrying how to make them stick later. It’s also beautifully illustrated, with special maps created and conceived for the occasion. And while the gargantuan size takes it a long way from the flimsy fold-up map I first received in 2011, it’s gratifying that the spirit of the project has not only survived but been allowed to expand and prosper to the benefit of anybody fascinated by London books and with space enough on their bookshelves for more.

Curiocity: In Pursuit Of London by Henry Eliot and Matt Lloyd-Rose.

 

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

RIP Martin Stone – guitarist, bookseller, hustler

I first met Martin Stone, who died this week of cancer in France, at at exhibition in a Mayfair bookstore. It was a display of countercultural ephemera and included a flyer advertising a gig by Mick Farren’s Deviants. Stone, thin, toothless and full of mischief, regaled me with a terrific anecdote about the time he saw Mick Farren – “once one of the three coolest men in London after Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix” – doing a rather desperate book reading in front of a barely interested audience at a branch of Borders in California. He cackled a little in the telling, obviously amused by the fall of one of the underground giants of the 1960s.

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Stone himself was an intriguing figure who in later years looked a little like a more crumpled William Burroughs and came with a fascinating back story and the vibe that you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. When I wrote about early 1960s R&B in south-west London, his name recurred as one of the best guitarists on the scene, able to hold his own against the likes of Page, Beck and Clapton. He was even said to be on the shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Stone stayed in music throughout the 60s and 70s – he played for a variety of bands including The Action, Mighty Baby, Pink Fairies and 101ers – but later branched into bookselling, where he became a mythical figure, “running” books from one shop to another, which basically means finding something underpriced in one place and selling it for its true value in another.

Stone was friendly with Iain Sinclair (who wrote about him here), appearing as a character in one of Sinclair’s early books and as himself in one of the strange films Sinclair made with Christ Petit. This was an odd trajectory to take, from 60s counterculture musician to  bookdealer, but it’s worth recalling how many other musicians of that generation did something similar. Jimmy Page ran an occult book shop in Kensington, Pete Townshend ran the Magic Bus bookshop in Richmond and worked for Faber & Faber while Paul McCartney was closely involved with Indica. Thurston Moore is doing something similar today.

Stone developed a reputation as being an astonishingly adept runner, capable of finding rare books in all sorts of unusual places. Sinclair, naturally, believed he had some sort of mystical talent but having seen Stone in action and discussed it with others better informed than I, he was really just a man who knew his market and was capable of going wherever it took and spinning whatever seductive yarn was required to get his goods. He was a hustler essentially, with all that is impressive and sordid about that skill.

Having recently enjoyed Keiron Pim’s book about David Litvinoff, I’d put Stone in a similar category. A curious character with one foot in a London underworld, waspishly intimidating, unreliable but decent company, who flitted in and out of the lives of many people better known than he. His Wikipedia page gives a good flavour of this –   casually namedropping Michael Moorcock, Jimmy Page, Iain Sinclair and Marianne Faithfull.

I last saw Stone two years ago, wearing a pink suit and strolling casually down Cecil Court. He popped in to see a mutual friend, smiling and self-confident, delivered a couple of carefully barbed asides and then went on his way, looking for bargains and preparing to ambush the unprepared.

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.

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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.

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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.

Parks and pubs

I reviewed Travis Elborough‘s lovely history of the British public park for Caught By The River.

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Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.

This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.

It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.

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Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.

The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.

In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.

The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.

 

Waterstones event

I will be giving a talk about Battersea Power Station’s failed dreams on Wednesday May 11 at 7pm at Waterstones in Clapham Junction. Further details here. Please come along and ask questions. It’s free.

A lovely review of Up In Smoke is on Caught By The River and I also wrote a long piece in The i Paper this week, exploring the power station’s history through quotes from those involved in its history. It’s pretty thorough and looks great. You can read that here.

Perhaps I should have asked Brian Barnes to knock up some posters? This is one of us from the 1980s.

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