Category Archives: Books

London’s Lost Music Venues

The most depressing thing about Paul Talling’s new book, London’s Lost Music Venues, is that this is the second volume. The first volume featured on club-sized venues, including the likes of the Marquee, 12 Bar, Bull & Gate and the Cartoon in Croydon – there’s a full list here – while volume two takes in some of the larger theatres as well as smaller clubs that didn’t feature in the first volume and others that have closed since it was published – the list is here.

Talling is the creator of Derelict London, which was one of the great early London blogs and remains popular today. It features photographs of London buildings that the bulldozers had left behind: abandoned houses and factories, decrepit churches, empty shops and forgotten cinemas. There was something about this skeletal remains – boarded up doors, faded graffiti, floor strewn with rubbish, ivy and buddleia sprouting through the brickwork – that drew people’s attention. A couple of books followed, as did walking tours; Paul writes about the history of the blog here.

It’s always amazing to see how rapidly a building can descend into ruin once it’s left alone. The rot might take a while to set in, but as soon as it does the decline is fast – it literally seems to decompose before your eyes. Most of the venues in London’s Lost Music Venues haven’t quite reached that point however; they have either been demolished outright or given different uses. As well as great London venues such as the Astoria, Earls Court, and Borderline, there are the two big music shops at either end of Oxford Street, HMV and Virgin, both of which hosted in-store performances.

I’ve often pondered the absence of theatre-sized venues in central London since the demise of the Astoria as I knew the likes of the Lyceum and the Saville – although I’d never clocked that the Saville was located in what is now the rather dismal Odeon Covent Garden on the deadest part of Shaftesbury Avenue. But it’s some of the outer London venues that really resonate, such as Hobbit’s Garden, a club located in William Morris House in Wimbledon that hosted Roxy Music and Genesis before switching to hardcore punk in the late 80s, or the Acid Palace in Uxbridge, where Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash and Audience all played in thee later 60s.

Then there are all the decent-sized venues – the ballrooms, local theatres and cinemas – that hosted live music through much of the 60s and 70s. Think of the Assembly Rooms in Surbiton, which hosted Black Sabbath and The Fall, or the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, where The Who, Small Faces, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Slade all played at some time. Such spaces are now almost impossible to conceive. Sadly, a third volume feels almost inevitable.

Crowley’s London

Several years ago, I commissioned a writer at Time Out to go and explore what we then described as one of occultist and writer Aleister Crowley’s few remaining London homes – an apartment at 73 Chancery Lane, that was about to be turned into offices. In these rooms, Crowley had set up a temple for his magical friends, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and our writer made a valiant attempt at conjuring up a spooky atmosphere from what was probably a rather forgettable set of empty rooms. He even quoted a builder working on the site who claimed to have discovered a human skull and pentangle formed from sticks.

Time Out article on Crowley’s temple, Jan 18 2006

This seemed an entertaining and fairly useful thing to do because even though London is replete with memorials and blue plaques to long-forgotten politicians and music hall artists, there are no blue plaques for Aleister Crowley. London has a plaque for the dog that inspired the HMV logo, but even today, the one-time “wickedest man alive” is beyond the pale for the heritage industry despite his decent literary output and outsized influence on popular culture. (I have written about one such story here.)

Phil Baker’s fabulous new book, City Of The Beast, corrects that oversight. This is a biography of Crowley told through London locations – 93 in all, a number with magical significance for Crowley’s Thelamic religion. Baker, whose biography of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare is a minor classic, began the book as a lockdown project, listing London places associated with Crowley as something to do to pass the time and stop worrying about the end of the world. He’d soon listed dozens of Crowley homes thanks to Crowley’s inability to settle anywhere for long. That residence at Chancery Lane is mentioned, along with numerous apartments around Piccadilly plus others in Chelsea and Fitzrovia. At times, Crowley resided in such unlikely spots as Streatham, Surbiton, Richmond and Paddington, sometimes living for only weeks, fleeing in advance of creditors as his circumstances declined. It’s likely that most of us will have walked past one or two of Crowley’s front doors and certainly visited the same shops or drank in the same pubs. London overlaps – that’s one of the reason we like blue plaques. As Baker notes at one point, Caxton Hall in Westminster, the site of a public performance of a Crowley rite in 1910, was also the location of “Churchill’s election speech; the assassination of Sr Michael O’Dwyer in revenge for the Amritsar Massacre; the founding of the National Front; and the wedding of Ringo Starr”.

This is more social history than psychogeography, thank goodness. Drawing from Crowley’s unpublished personal diaries, Baker presents Crowley’s rather sad progression through homes and temples as well as the museum, shops, restaurants, printers and courtrooms of Edwardian London. We follow Crowley’s dramatic, even thrilling rise and then a rather pathetic long decline, a petering out, as he hops, heroin-addicted, from home to home, desperately trying to maintain his image and reputation. That must have been awful for a man who once supped with giants – Augustus John, Anthony Powell, WB Yeats, Nina Hamnett, W Somerset Maugham, Auguste Rodin – and in the diaries, some of the frustration comes through. We also get to meet many other remarkable figures who are now largely forgotten such as Labour MP and Crowleyite Tom Diberg, Allen Bennett, who lived with Crowley at Chancery Lane and later became a leading proponent of Buddhism in England, and composer and occultist Peter Warlock, father of the great art critic Brian Sewell. A typical entry will introduce a character like JFC Fuller, a successful soldier who loved yoga the occultism and fascism, becoming one of only two Englishmen invited to Hitler’s 50th birthday parade.

Crowley’s magical and philosophical beliefs are explored in outline, as are his literary achievements, his impressive sexual exploits (these were carefully recorded as Crowley practised sex-magic) and, rather wonderfully, his recipes. Crowley loved to cook and enjoyed strong flavours: a Crowley recipe book could surely be created for the niche occult-gastronomic market, although it would take a brave soul to sample some of these recreations.

Baker presents Crowley as a man whose outlook was formed in the decadent 1890s, one who never really adapted to the changing world, his own age or the reduced circumstances that meant a gentleman without money could no longer shop at Fortnums and live on Jermyn Street and would, instead, have to spend some time in a bedsit near Praed Street drinking at the Royal Oak. He quotes Cyril Connolly’s observation that Crowley bridged “the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler”, and that’s a neat way of looking at Crowley both in terms of the age he occupied and the principles and philosophy he espoused. That makes this a very rewarding social history – a look at London in the first decades of the 20th century, still clinging to the veneer of Victoria, like Jeeves And Wooster with magic.

It’s ultimately a very human study of the man, stripping him of much of his mystic allure without making him seem ridiculous, which could easily be the case when dealing with figure who did as many ridiculous things as Crowley. It’s hard not to see Crowley as analogous to those pop stars of the 1960s who worshipped Crowley’s libertarianism and whiff of stage-conscious evil who are still living a priapic life with full heads of hair, clinging to those glory days. And frankly, who can blame them?

City Of The Beast by Phil Baker (Strange Attractor).

“The building doesn’t represent or resemble anything other than itself.”

I was delighted to be sent this excellent article about Battersea Power Station by Richard Garvin, who introduces himself as a writer and retired English professor with an interest in architecture. Richard recreates great buildings from Lego and then writes about them on his blog, combining his appreciation of architecture with his deep knowledge of literature. For Battersea Power Station, that means using an absolute ton of Lego red bricks – and then references to Shakespeare, TS Eliot, John Milton and, er, me – Richard drew much of the factual content of his post from Up In Smoke, my book on the power station.

Richard Garvin’s awesome model of Battersea Power Station

This served as a welcome reminder of the ability the power station still has to influence, inform and intrigue upon people’s thinking as well as the value my research has for others. Richard writes wonderfully about how the power station has been used in film and TV, something I explored in Up On Smoke but which he develops more fully. I also particularly enjoyed Richard’s thoughts on the strange, powerful architecture of the power station, which he astutely summarises is completely unlike anything else “other than itself” – which is precisely why it is been used so brilliantly in films and TV programmes such as Richard III, Children Of Men and 1984.

Read it all for yourself here.

Third generation rock and roll

That headline is not a phrase you hear much of – or in fact at all – these days, but in 1972 it was a much-discussed concept that attempted to define the music and performance of the early 70s as demonstrated by the likes of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, New York Dolls and T-Rex. As author Peter Stanfield explains in his fabulous new book Pin-Ups 1972 about the London music scene in 1972, this went by other names too – Fag Rock and Poof Rock being just two of them – which is a reminder of how insensitive even the progressive rock papers of the time could be.

That distance between then and now is the focus of Stanfield’s book. So much has been said and written about the 1970s that it’s easy to believe we all lived through them and already understand everything there is to know, but by going back to the journalism of the time, Stanfield demonstrates how writers were attempting to comprehend the music of the time without benefit of hindsight or obscured by four decades of received wisdom. Stanfield has devoured the journalism of 1972 – underground, national press, music weeklies, colour monthlies, even soft porn titles – to examine the music through a detailed reading of the writing of Nick Kent, Nik Cohn, Richard Williams, Michael Watts, Simon Frith, Mick Farren, Chrissie Hynde and many more – not just their greatest hits, but deep cuts that even they will have forgotten writing.

We see these writers in real time try to get to grips with the ambiguities and contradictions of third generation rock and Stanfield writes in an approximation of these pioneers, dropping theories, connections and cultural references with intoxicating verve, daring the reader to keep up and learn something. Look it up or go with the flow, your call.

What is third generation rock? By this reading, the first generation were the original ’56 rockers – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – and the second generation were those that grew from R&B – the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Floyd, Zeppelin and you know the rest. Third generation were those that followed, essentially the ones who had more time to understand the grammar, scriptures, cliches and language of rock and roll and then tried to do something different with it – even if many of them, Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop for starters, had been making music for almost as long as the second generation.

It’s a slippery concept (whither Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies?), as such genre-defining often is, but that isn’t really the point. What compels is the approach of exploring the acts through the media of the time. We see hippie journalists struggle to accept the sudden elevation of Marc Bolan from underground hero to teenage fantasy, haphazardly chronicle the New York Dolls’ ill-fated trip to London in 72, or write in awe of the arrival of the semi-mythical Iggy Pop and Lou Reed when the pair come and live in London (Lou Reed settling down in Wimbledon of all places). How do you make sense of Bowie and Roxy Music, when they are happening right in front of your eyes and you have no real frame of reference? The latter explains why for much of their first year, Roxy are likened to Sha Na Na: when something genuinely revolutionary happens, critics are left grasping for comparisons – only later are they able to go back and make it all fit together. But watching that struggle, and the sheer intellectual effort demonstrated by so many writers of the time, is fascinating and a little humbling. The through-line to punk and indie is clear to us but obviously was unknown at the time, and despite walk-on roles for Malcolm McLaren and Glen Matlock, Stanfield wisely leaves that largely unsaid, helping to seal 1972 into its own time capsule.

That makes this very much a book for those who enjoy historiography and media studies almost as much as they love rock and roll. What you don’t get is recycled anecdotes, biography or even too much in the way of music criticism – although the reappraisal of Bowie’s Pin-Ups is magnificent. Stanfield is more interested in the wider culture, with rock being as much about performance and publicity and fandom as it is about chords and melodies. Which for the writers and musicians of 1972, it almost certainly was.

http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781789145656

Inside Brixton Prison

Although I’ve lived about a mile from Brixton Prison for over a decade, the closest I’ve ever got to it is the view from the top of the nearby Brixton Windmill. From there, the bleak wall of the building can be glimpsed. It’s a miserable contrast to the uplifting presence of the windmill, but for some prisoners the unexpected sight of the windmill from their cell brings real solace.

The prison is now the subject of a very readable history, The House On The Hill by Christopher Impey and published by Tangerine Press. Impey tells the story of the prison in breezy bite-sized chapters, switching from general history to extended anecdotes as required. In the process, he shows how Brixton evolved as attitudes to prison and punishment have developed.

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For fans of psychogeography or coincidence, some of this evolution travels along parallel lines. When it was first constructed, the prison had a giant treadmill, on which prisoners were forced to march all day. This produced flour to make into bread. The treadmill is gone, but the prison today has a bakery, founded by Gordon Ramsay. It also has an award-winning restaurant, the Clink, and is home to the studios for the National Prison Radio.

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Brixton has had a variety of uses and been rebuilt several times. Originally it was constructed as a local prison for Surrey, but it’s also been a women’s prison, a military prison and, most famously,  a remand prison for those awaiting trail in London. It was briefly planned to be used as a site for hangings – a gallows was constructed but never used after a local outcry. The building is now the prison gym.

It as a remand prison that its best known and this period saw it welcome many of its most famous inmates, among them Mick Jagger, Bertrand Russell and the Krays. Over the years, it’s housed a number of politicians, including in 1921 a group of 24 Labour councillors from Poplar who refused to pay precepts to the LCC, water board and others. The politicians were able to use their savvy to gain extra benefits, and even held 32 council meetings at the prison – six female councillors at Holloway were ferried over to take part. They were released after six weeks. During the Second World War, it was Oswald Mosley and other homegrown Nazis who were demanding additional privileges. One prison officer complained, “I have to line up at shops for my cigarettes. The Fascists get all they want. They smoke all day. The play table tennis. One of them even has a pet budgerigar.”

brixton-handcuffed

One lesser known prisoner was Colonel Victor Barker, who was arrested in February 1929 and brought to Brixton after going bankrupt. During the requisite medical examination, the Colonel asked if he could wear his vest. Would the doctor take his word that there was nothing wrong with him? The doctor refused. At which point the Colonel confessed that he was a woman. The doctor agreed, noting that Barker was “well developed woman, obese” with breasts “fully developed and pendulous”. Barker was swiftly sent to Holloway.

Colonel Barker had been born Lillias Irma Valerie Barker. She had started to live as a man ten years previously. Astonishingly, she had married – her wife had no idea she was living with another woman and declared the honeymoon “perfectly normal”. After serving nine months for perjury, Barker was released to huge crowds of fascinated onlookers. He continued to live as a man and died penniless in 1960 in Lowestoft.

The House On The Hill: Brixton, London’s Oldest Prison by Christopher Impey (Tangerine Press).

 

 

 

Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands

It feel as if the underground is heading overground. At the London Metropolitan Archives, an exhibition celebrates London’s subterranean treasures. Robert Mcfarlane has recently applied his golden Iain Sinclair-does-nature touch to a book on Underland. A photographic exploration of ghost stations is incoming from the London Transport Museum.  And at the Museum of London Docklands, London’s Secret Rivers have been granted their own exhibition.

Jacob’s Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart

London’s rivers are persistently fascinating and resistant to erasure. Like so many Londoners, I have been on their trail for decades. I nearly drowned inside the Fleet. I walked the Effra with a water dowser. I interviewed architects, businessmen and artists who have wanted to bring rivers back to the surface – or, in a particularly fascinating case, suggested we acknowledged the new flow of the buried Fleet via a subway, an underground bridge over a river under a road. I have studied the objects taken from the Roman temple alongside the Walbrook. I have stood in the middle of roads, ears to a grate, hoping to hear the passage of the subterranean river. I could go on.

All of this came flooding back at the Museum of London Docklands, a clever exhibition that features much of the above and more besides. It starts by exploring the reality of London’s rivers – where they were, what they were used for, why they disappeared – and then tackles the far meatier subject of what they mean to us now. It’s an exhibition of two distinct halves, one archaeological and topographical; the second more artistic and speculative. Bridging the gap comes a wonderful series of large photographs taken inside the Fleet, which gave me flashbacks and daysweats from my own subversive submersion in the sewer.

There are stacks of books, modern artworks, maps, films and digital pieces. Among them is a terrific sequence of SF Said‘s haunted Polaroids for Tom Bolton’t great rivers book, taken at above ground sites along the course of London’s rivers. I always think they look as if they were shot through a film of water, as if the ghost of the river has infected the lens.

It was particularly pleasing to see my local river, the Effra, getting some good space. This went back to the 1990s art/political prank group Effra Redevelopment Agency, and continues today in the form of the decorative manhole covers that mark the course of the river. It’s also given its name to a regreening project, a small but worthy attempt to restore ecological balance to the city.

I once believed that lost rivers could be restored, acting as canals or ornamental bodies of water. Now I rather like them as they are, buried but acknowledged, a reassuring secret hidden in plain sight, out of sight but never to be ignored.

Secret Rivers at Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2019.

The Parakeets of London

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview 90-year-old Angela Allen for the Telegraph Magazine. Allen was a script supervisor, or continuity girl as it was originally called, for a host of great films including The Third Man.  I was asking her specifically about her experiences on The African Queen, which she filmed in the Congo jungle with Bogart, Hepburn and John Huston.

At the end of an enjoyable interview, I needed to ask one last question. About parakeets.

Big mistake.

“Oh don’t started me on the parrots,” she sighed. “Everybody says the London parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen but there were no birds in the film and we didn’t bring any animals back to England, so I’m bored of hearing that one. I don’t know where that rumour came from but I didn’t see a parrot in London or Africa. I was once filming in Rome with Zeffirelli and somebody started blaming The African Queen for the parrots they now have in Italy.”

So there you go. However, if you do want to know more about the history of London’s parakeets, a new book has all the answers. The Parakeeting of London is the latest book from Paradise Road, the London independent publishers who did my Battersea Power Station book. It’s fantastic.

Written by “gonzo ornithologist” Nick Hunt, the book looks for the earliest reported sightings in London and explores the many urban myths surrounding their history. It also looks at the way the parakeets live, travel and feed and the impact they have on other wildlife. And the book explores the nature of the relationship that Londoners have developed with this “invasive species”, asking some pertinent questions about the concept of native and immigrant species that ties into wider, non bird-related, socio-political questions.

You can get The Parakeeting Of London from the Paradise Road website.

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton

This review will appear in the January edition of the London Society journal.

News that a book has been commissioned on the back of a popular twitter account is often a cause for eyebrow-raising annoyance peppered with professional jealousy, but that wasn’t the case when Verso announced they were publishing a book based on @municipaldreams, the twitter account run by John Boughton. That’s because Boughton’s tweets (and superb blog) were on the history of social housing, about which Boughton has become the sort of house historian. Boughton’s posts would study in close detail a different housing estate, outline its social history and architectural appearance and then explain the various ways it had been neglected by local councils committed to Thatcherism, either through force or ideology.

munidreams

In the book of Municipal Dreams, Boughton takes a broad overview of the history of council housing from the Victorian era to the present day. Although there are occasional forays overseas to see how things are done elsewhere, his history is largely confined to England and increasingly to London, where “the spate of high-profile housing struggles in recent years testify to the dysfunction of the London housing market”. Boughton is a reassuring guide through this story. He’s a sincere and convinced advocate for state-built housing and praises the ambition and idealism exhibited by post-war planners, but he isn’t blind to the failures nor is he so politically motivated he cannot accord success where it’s been earned. This balance is particularly relevant in the later sections, covering the post-80s era when the consensus about the moral need and positive benefits of state housing was ended by Margaret’s Thatcher Conservative government, an attitude that continued under New Labour. Boughton fumes throughout this sorry era, but also gives credit on the few occasions it’s deserved.

boundary

London is a major part of this story, starting with the pioneering Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, which opened in 1900 for the working poor and now offers two-bed flats for a monthly rent of more than £2,000 to City bankers. Boughton looks at numerous London estates, from the vast and rather dull Becontree Estate to the wonderful post-war estates built in Camden by Neave Brown, the only living architect to have all of his UK work officially listed. Historical nuggets are liberally applied – a particular favourite was the news that at Staleg Luft III, the Second World War POW camp from which the Great Escape took place, a group of prisoner took a break from depositing earth down their trousers to conduct a debate on Abercrombie’s County Of London Plan (see the poster below).

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It’s the post-1979 section that feels most important though. Boughton carefully and painstakingly takes us through the various government interventions that led to the “residualisation” of council estates – that’s the process by which social housing became repositories for the poorest and most desperate of society. As Boughton points out, this was not the original intention of state-built housing but as soon as councils began treating estates this way it was always going to start a race to bottom – and the self-fulfilling prophesy that council estates, in and of themselves, would be seen as breeding grounds for crime and deprivation. While he’s unimpressed by New Labour’s record on housing, Boughton reserves most scorn for David Cameron’s 2016 promise to “blitz” poverty by demolishing 100 of the “UK’s worst sink estates” noting that the conditions Cameron decried were caused by the policies Cameron advocated.

That brings us to the place of social housing in London’s recent deranged housing market. Boughton looks at various important recent London stories, including the ugly destruction of the Heygate Estate, the artwashing of Balfron Tower, Lambeth’s attempts to demolish Lambeth’s Cressingham and Central Hill, and the campaign to protect the residents of the New Era in Hackney. He ends with the horror story of Grenfell, pondering the role the tragedy may yet play in shifting our housing policies. I think Boughton actually underestimates the role the issue of housing has already played in contemporary politics – notably the surprise result of the 2017 general election – but Boughton ends with cautious optimism, suggesting that a new era of public housing may be coming thanks to “the failure of the free market to provide good and affordable homes to all those who needs them”. That still feels some way off as it would require an embarrassing climbdown from the media and Conservative party to admit that the flagship policy of Thatcherism, “right to buy”, has been a national disaster. But it also feels inevitable, as the case for a return to state-built housing will soon become too pressing to ignore.

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso)

Bus Fare – new anthology of bus writing

I’ve written about my love of buses several times on this blog – most recently when I reproduced some of the bus columns I wrote for Time Out back when I tried to take every route, end-to-end, in numerical order.

Now a new anthology of bus writing has come out featuring two of my old pieces (on the first day of the Boris Bus and on a group of retired women who took every bus in London) alongside writing by Charles Dickens, Will Self and Virginia Woolf.

Bus Fare is published by AA and edited by Travis Elborough & Joe Kerr. What’s particularly great is the way the pieces combine to tell a complete history of London buses, covering all areas from design, engineering, letter-suffixed routes, night buses, Routemasters and Green Line buses. It’s beautifully compiled, containing a variety of voices and a mix of poetry, fiction, newspaper extracts, diary entries and journalism. Lovely images too. Perfect reading for when you are stuck on the Walworth Road on the No 68 AGAIN.

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Cruising London’s canals: the Paddington Packet

This original appeared in the Spring/Summer issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s excellent magazine for supporters.

Canals haven’t only recently embraced the leisure industry. As early as 1801, passenger boats ran from Paddington to Cowley in Uxbridge along the newly opened Grand Junction Canal, stopping at various points between including “several Nobleman and Gentleman’s Seats, Villas and Country Residences”. The Paddington Packet boat took three hours and was pulled by four horses. For many, it was a relatively quick route into London as well as a fun day out and an illustration from 1801 shows a jolly boat party with dozens of Georgian gentlefolk carrying parasols and wearing top hats. The full journey cost 2s and passengers could bring luggage. People could also hire boats for private trips, including ones “sufficiently capacious to accommodate conveniently from One to Two Hundred Persons”.

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Boats initially ran both ways every morning and afternoon, but this changed as time went on. The service also switched from widebeams to narrowboats after six months, when it was taken over by Thomas Homer, a speculator who helped build the Regent’s Canal. Boat crews were noted for their jaunty blue uniforms with yellow capes and yellow buttons, which makes them sound a little like Bananaman, and passengers could get tea or coffee.  Following the construction of the Regent’s Canal, the service travelled as far as Camden but closed when it could no longer compete with faster coach services.