Category Archives: Brixton

Forgotten Londoners: Frank Harris, editor, prisoner and pornographer

Frank Harris was an objectionable little man. He was sallow as a gypsy. He had bat ears, dark hair with a crinkle in it that grew low on the forehead, and a truculent mustache. People remarked on the richness of his bass voice. His charm was great, particularly for the opposite sex. He had the gift of gab to a sublime degree and a streak of deep scoundrelism that was the ruin of him.

John Dos Passos, 1963

Frank Harris wrote My Life And Loves in 1922 when he was 68. It was partly about his career as an editor of the Evening News and Saturday Review in London, where he had championed critics like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but it was mainly about sex.

Harris was a rumbustious character with a voice so deep that one of his many mistresses claimed ‘it made her sex open and shut’ when she heard it. His memoir was scandalously candid, and featured several photographs of naked women, to emphasise the point.

It was these – ‘too much for the English’, Harris later observed – as much as Harris’s candid discussion of sex (he was particularly keen on cunnilingus) that saw the New York Supreme Court rule the book ‘unquestionably obscure, lewd,
lascivious and indecent’ and it was banned in several countries and pretty much did for Harris as a serious writer and journalist thereafter.

It had been a turbulent career. Harris was born in Ireland, educated in Wales and after a series of adventures in America, settled in London in 1882, where he talked his way into newspapers. His greatest triumphs were at the Saturday Review, the London paper he edited in the 1890s, publishing criticism by HG Wells, Shaw and Wilde and gaining a reputation for being unreliably unspoken and outrageously opinionated for a man of his position. He later wrote a biography of Wilde, who surely would have agreed with Harris’s insistence that ‘Modesty is a figleaf for mediocrity’.

As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘He blazed through London like a comet, leaving a trail of deeply annoyed persons behind him.’ Harris was briefly adopted as a Conservative candidate for South Hackney, resigning after he defended Charles Parnell during an adultery scandal. He also defended Wilde during his trial, and suggested he flee the country while out on bail, and took the side of the Boers during the Boer War. 

Years later, Harris looked back on his time as editor with satisfaction. He believed in positive criticism, not handing out brickbats and instructed his critics to celebrate, rather than denigrate. “When I was editor of the Saturday Review,’ he said ‘with the greatest assembly of literary men in history, I had a policy and I believed in sticking to it. There was Shaw and Wells and Rowe and oh, everybody else. I called a dinner and I said: “Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that people have started to call it the Saturday Reviler. Well, this sort of thing doesn’t get us any place. Hereafter the Saturday Review is going to try to find stars, and if it can’t find stars, it won’t merely hurl bricks. What good does it do? Insults, raps, knocks! Mainly lies. Nobody’ll remember them in fifty years. If we can’t do something constructive,” I said, “we won’t do anything.” Well, it worked.’

By 1913, Harris was editing a magazine called Modern Society and was charged with prejudicing a trial after publishing an ongoing divorce case.  ‘It seems to me you have a certain disdain for this court,’ noted the judge during his trial. ‘Oh, if I could only express all the disdain I have,’ replied Harris.

That did it. Harris refused to apologise publicly and was sent to Brixton Prison for contempt. The cartoonist Max Beerbohm visited Harris in Brixton and drew a cartoon, ‘To the best talker in London – from one of his best listeners’. Prints were made and posted all over London in a bid to raise public awareness with the message: ‘This is the man that was sent to prison.’

Harris was released after three months, complaining afterwards that ‘what I suffered most from in prison was lack of books’. Shortly after his release he left London and never lived there again. He died in Nice in 1931.

Max Beerbohm's cartoon of Frank Harris

For more on Harris, visit this excellent Odd Books website.

Blank Generation: original punk posters in South London

In 1977, Gary Loveridge spotted a Damned poster that he liked the look of hanging on the wall at his local record shop in Weston Super Mare. He decided to take it. ‘It was on the wall of the listening booth. I took it off the wall, rolled it up and stuck it under my jumper. I walked out, looking very suspicious. They probably knew exactly what was going on.’

And so it began. Loveridge, a landscape gardener, now has around 250 original music posters, and 100 devoted to punk are on display until March 8 at the 198 Gallery  on Railton Road. Not all were collected in quite the clandestine way of the first, but they are all original and numerous bands are featured, including the Sex Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Lurkers, Buzzcocks, TV Personalities, Mekons, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, PiL and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

The Damned poster that got it all started

‘This is the first time I’ve seen them all on the wall together in one place,’ says Loveridge. ‘At home they are all in tubes, some on the walls but I haven’t enough room to put them all up.’

The posters were largely used to promote LPs and singles in record shops, although there are some from bus stops and concert venues. Most such posters will have been thrown out by the stores, making such a large collection quite unusual. Loveridge collected many on his way from gigs in Bristol, and then later added to his collection at markets and record fairs.

The exhibition takes in two rooms and also features part of Loveridge’s collection of badges, flyers, fanzines and other ephemera, some of which – such as the flyers for the Sex Pistols banned tour – are much sought after. Also on display is a framed advert from 1977, cut out from a local paper, promoting a gig by a mysterious band called The Spots. Now who could they be?

Punk was an incredibly visual movement, as one would expect from something inspired by glam and Situationism and created in art schools and clothes shops, so these posters are eye-catching and iconic.  A small selection are reproduced below, but the real thrill is seeing them collectively and close-up; many have pulled from walls and windows so have an authentically battered look, while the accumulation of colour and striking design is a treat for the eye. But you’ve only got six weeks, so hurry.

Blank Generation: A Collection of Original Punk Posters, 198 Gallery, 198 Railton Road, SE24 0JT. Until March 8, 2012

Spiral Scratch by Buzzcocks

Pretty Vacant by Sex Pistols

The Clash at Brixton Academy

The Mekons at North Staffs Poly

The Pop Group and Alternative TV

Blondie poster rejected by band as it featured only Debbie Harry

Elvis Costello

Sandinista by The Clash

The Only Ones

Siouxsie And The Banshees (with Human League third on bill)

London Calling by The Clash ('two for a fiver!')

Sex Pistols - used to introduce the band to the United States

Ian Dury

Sex Pistols

The Jam

Badges and flyers

Never Mind The Bollocks beer and fanzines

Sex Pistols flyer from SPOTS tour

Muhammad Ali in Tulse Hill, 1974

In 1974, this picture was taken of Muhammad Ali at Tulse Hill Comprehensive, sparring with a schoolboy.

But how did the world heavyweight champion – and one of the most famous men in the world – end up in a South London state school shortly after the Rumble In The Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire?

Well, he was invited by civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson, who was on the school’s board of governors and thought it would be a good idea to ambush Ali in the lobby of the Hyde Park Hilton and suggest he come to the school assembly.

We continued to chat and he wanted to know how much I’d pay him. I looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Muhammad, I haven’t got a dollar.’ He responded ‘Not even a dime? You have more nerve than Frazier.’

The full story is here, and it’s a cracker.

‘Ladies who bus’

This is a piece I wrote for the Speed issue of the excellent Completely London magazine. 

Sometimes, it feels like there are few slower ways of getting round London than by public transport. And the bus –so often a victim of roadworks and burst water mains – can be the slowest of all. But for some, that slowness is part of the attraction. Jo Hunt (67), Mary Rees (68) and Linda Smither (64) are ‘ladies who bus’. Since March 2009, they have been taking all of London’s buses in numerical order, starting at No 1, travelling each route from one end to the other, and then writing about it on their blog. As a way to pass the time, it is a distinctively London thing to do. There are, after all, over 500 routes in London; more if you include those that start with letters, like the A10 or X68.

File:London Bus route 23.JPG

‘It began when I retired from my last job,’ says Jo, the head buskateer and a former teacher. ‘People asked what I was going to do. I said I’d just loll about or play computer games, but then I decided I’d get every bus in London.’

From that moment of whimsy came a plan, which became a blog and has now evolved into something like a mission. Jo, Mary and Linda have acquired matching sweatshirts with their blog address on it – these proved to be handy in winter when one bus’s central heating was broken – and they have printed business cards to hand to drivers at the end of journeys to explain what they are up to. Online, they have built up a following among London nerds and bus enthusiasts.

Jo got the idea when she got on a bus and saw it was terminating at Ponder’s End. ‘I thought, “Where’s Ponder’s End?”’ and elected to find out. ‘Then I thought if I was going to do one, I should do them all, and if I was going to do them all, I should do them in the right order.’ Linda and Mary were both ready for retirement as well, so – armed with their Freedom Passes –they agreed to come along. Jo’s son created a blog, and 200 buses later we are now travelling by bus from Brixton to Mitcham on one of the hottest days of the year.

And here I must make a confession. I also spent a couple of years on the buses, writing a weekly column for Time Out about exactly this topic – taking every bus in London in numerical order, from end to end. Well, it started as a weekly column, but soon lethargy took over, the column became fortnightly and then monthly and in the end I never made it further than the low 60s. Jo, Linda and Mary have persevered, resolve stiffened by each other’s company – and by Jo’s determination to complete the task. ‘Jo is the leader,’ confesses Mary. Jo plans each route a week in advance, working out how they are going to get to and from the stops that bookend the route, and she and Linda take turns writing them up on the blog.

But they are clearly enjoying themselves as well. There is much to appreciate about a lazy morning spent taking a bus for no other reason than the sheer fun of travel, watching London knit together while everybody outside rushes about their daily business without time to stop and absorb the city around them. As we slip languidly through south London streets, the trio note familiar landmarks and reminisce about other routes that have passed this way. They are also able to recall what an area was like 5, 10, 20, even 40 years previously. ‘It’s evocative,’ says Linda of the experience of revisiting old haunts. She also comments on how they have watched London change in the two-and-a-half years they’ve been doing the routes. When they began, the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle was a building site – now it’s one of the tallest buildings in London. A rapid transformation, observed at leisure.

They are fascinated by London’s arcane history of– such as the Balham estate we pass that was reported to be Hitler’s choice for a home if he successfully invaded Britain – but also by the present, especially in Tooting, as South Indian restaurants slowly give way to West African clothes shops and Mary contemplates hopping off to pick up three crates of mangoes for £10.

London as seen by bus is a city of delights and surprises. ‘I’ve been surprised at how good the drivers are,’ says Jo. ‘I’ve really enjoyed being able to understand how London ties together. And sometimes you’ll be bumbling along and then suddenly you are in the country, surrounded by green. It’s like you’ve reached the end of the world.’ Or the end of London, which sometimes feels like much the same thing.

Brixton Village hawk

I saw this harrier hawk in the unlikely surroundings of Brixton Village this week while I was quietly tucking into a galette washed down by hot ginger beer.

He is flown around the market twice a week to keep pigeons away and dis-encourage them from nesting in the rafters, where they would crap merrily on hip Londoners going about their hip business. Many of the local stallholders looked terrified.

Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

Secret London: Brixton’s Windmill

I finally got round to visiting Brixton Windmill during Open House Weekend. I first heard about the windmill ten years or so again, when I would go to gigs at the Windmill pub and pop out between acts to try to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary building in the nearby park, lost and derelict like an abandoned spaceship.

The windmill was built in 1816 and run by John Ashby of Brixton Hall. It was originally on a hill in fields, surrounded by outbuildings like a mill cottage and bake house, where bread was baked with the mill’s stone-ground wholemeal flour and sold to locals.

By the 1850s, Brixton was starting to grow and new housing blocked the wind, hampering performance. In 1862, the Ashby’s took their milling business to the Mitcham watermills along the Wandle, but the Brixton Windmill somehow remained, used for storage. The sails, though, were removed and sold for firewood.

In 1902, the windmill was returned to use, albeit as a location for a steam-powered provender mill. The mill was finally closed in 1934 and left empty until the LCC purchased it in 1957, after at least one attempt had been made to demolish it and cover the site with flats. Despite the sails being restored in 1983, the windmill, now owned by Lambeth, was allowed to run almost to ruin, which is how it appeared when I first saw it.

Since then, a major restoration project has taken place and the windmill is now open again to the public around once a month. The Friends of Windmill Gardens, a local residents association, also hope to start grinding flour again, using the provender mill that still survives on the first floor.

In celebration, here are the Fuck Buttons playing at the Brixton Windmill pub.