Category Archives: Cockney

The end of John Terry

Earlier this week, I went to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. It was also the last time I will ever see John Terry play there for Chelsea.

As I watched him play and score, I realised I was sitting exactly where I was when I saw Terry make his debut almost two decades before.

He came on as sub for Dan Petrescu in a League Cup tie. Terry’s debut was overshadowed by the fact Petrescu went off in a huff, Luca Vialli scored a hat-trick and Dennis Wise got sent off for one of the worst and most pointless tackles I’ve ever seen. In the years that followed, I’ve moved house, crossed the river, changed jobs, had children, got married, lost my hair, written books… but whenever I’ve gone to the Bridge (less frequently in the past decade), I’ve always had the same seat and Terry has nearly always been on the pitch.

I didn’t know much about Terry when he made his first appearance, but quickly came to admire him as a player. He appeared to have inherited Frank Leboeuf’s gift for hitting raking inch-perfect passes but also loved a sliding tackle, making him the sort of UK-EU hybrid that can excel in the Premier League. It swiftly became apparent he was an exceptional defender. Commanding in the air and strong in the tackle, but also with an outstanding ability at reading the game and comfortable with both feet. I always felt this part of this game didn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserved. Terry was a fantastic footballer, as good on the ball as any defender I’ve seen – including Carvalho and Rio Ferdinand, his partners in defence for Chelsea and England, and to whom he was often compared unfavourably. True, they both looked more elegant in command, but Terry’s first touch was better than both. He couldn’t carry the ball, but he could pass it like a dream. And his reading of the game was immense; it was the reason he rarely got beaten for pace despite so clearly lacking it himself. I saw him once in Harley Street; he was tall but not as solid as I expected. Terry was strong but he was no carthorse.

At some point, however, Terry got typecast as a throwback, a sort of Terry Butcher upgrade, cannon fodder, a lion from the trenches. The Guardian’s execrable but influential Fiver began mocking him as EBJT, while the tabloids lauded him for his bravery above all else. As a result, his game did change slightly – read here what Charlie Cooke once told me about how the press can influence a footballer’s natural style – as he threw himself eagerly into blocks where previously he might have looked to get a nick. He soon adjusted his style again, and until age caught up with him had an astonishingly clean record. In the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2009, when Chelsea spent almost the entire 180 minutes defending, he committed I think only a single foul.

As Chelsea captain, Terry had a role with far more importance at Stamford Bridge than almost anywhere else thanks to the stability and leadership he provided against a constant churn of incoming and outgoing managers. Terry often had to hold the dressing room together, most notably after Mourinho’s first departure when the team pulled together to reach the Champions League final despite the presence of out-of-his-depth coach Avram Grant.

Terry was often pinpointed as the troublemaker responsible for all this disruption but it always seemed to me that the continental-raised players – Ballack, Cech, Drogba – were usually at the centre of any shenanigans, raised as they were in a climate where it was more acceptable to confront coaches for poor decisions.

Still, the reputation stuck, along with much else. I’ve always tried to avoid judging players for things reported by the press, mainly because knowing how football journalists operate I don’t trust a word they write. I try to judge players only by how they good they are at football, so have no lacerating hatred of players like Suarez and Ronaldo or managers like Allardyce and Pulis – I think all four are brilliant. With Terry, that’s challenging. While some of the accusations made about him are hysterical – anything written by Matthew Syed, for instance – the volume of his indiscretions makes them hard to ignore. I cannot pretend I’ve ever warmed to the guy as a personality. Put it this way, he’s no Pat Nevin. But he is the greatest defender I’ve ever seen in my life and for much of the past 20 years it’s been a privilege to watch him do his job.

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My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

In 2005, I interviewed the author Tim Lott for Time Out‘s My Favourite Londoner feature, in which we invited writers, actors, musicians and other personalities to tell us about their favourite London character. Lott chose Hancock, who is also one of my heroes, and I’ve reproduced the piece below.

(Incidentally, my other interview in this series was with one of my favourite writers, George MacDonald Fraser, who told me of his fondness for John Bunyan – although I’m not sure how much he actually knew about him, as I recall him slowly reading chunks from the encyclopedia over the phone to me. Sadly, the piece was never published, I’ve lost the transcript and MacDonald Fraser died soon after, never having written the Flashman book about the American Civil War – something he told me kept putting off, as the war was so horrible.)

‘I identify extraordinarily strongly with Hancock. I remember loving him enormously as a kid and living for ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. I was about eight or nine and thought it was just the funniest thing on television. He spoke directly to my world – I lived in a London suburb like East Cheam and I too was a kind of – I hadn’t reached the level of being pretentious but I was somebody who desperately wanted to transcend what I saw as being my suburban limitations. And yet I was hugely intimidated and bewildered by the larger world beyond. Hancock’s concept of noble failure was very appealing to me. He never gave up trying to raise above his station but he was always doomed, and that was the key behind his comedy.

It goes deeper than that though. Deeper than him being simply funny.

I should incidentally remark that Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham not London, but I’m talking of course about Antony Aloysius St John Hancock, the character created by the London-born Galton and Simpson, who were died in the wool Londoners and that’s why the London voice is so strong. I think that idea of petty pretention underpinned by a real desire to better yourself – a motif shared by another of my great London characters, Steptoe the younger.

Trapped by circumstances but longs to escape the limitations not only of his own external situation, but more crucially the limitations of his own personality. He dreams of a wider world, one that isn’t defined by the quintessentially dullness of a 1950s suburban world.

I remember on the day he died this very famous photograph of him in Sydney looking so haunted, if you wanted to draw a picture of a man about to commit suicide it was almost a perfect representation of depression. I’ve written a memoir about my own depression (‘The Scent Of Dry Roses’) and somehow even at that age – I was 11 – it made an enormous impression me. I wondered how anybody could reach a level of such deep misery that they should want to kill themselves, and I found that utter bewildering. I was too young to recognise the deep melancholy and frustration that lay behind the character of Hancock.

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You can look upon Hancock as a ludicrous figure but people loved him and felt a tenderness towards him because of his vulnerability. Underneath his absurdity was a genuine wish to transcend his world. In ‘The Rebel’ he escapes to Paris to become an artist even though he has no talent and that was always my dream, to escape the dead streets of Southall and mix with all the eccentrics, bohemians and artists. But on the one hand you want this, but you also want to be reassured that these people are slightly absurd.

Hancock is greatly loved for that sadness that the real Tony Hancock brought to the role. It was the same with ‘The Likely Lads’, Steptoe, the essential tragedy of the situation.

He was a very beautiful man, he had a lovely face. There was something very evocative about his looks. Those great moony soulful eyes always acted as a counterpoint for the laughter and always said, yes it’s funny but it’s terribly sad as well.

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He was the soul of male suburbia in the 1950s. I always felt that aspiration, I always felt doomed, I always felt too stupid, I always feared I would end up back in Southall, my equivalent of Railway Cuttings, Cheam. And like Hancock I always felt a paradoxical affection with that place. It’s not a cruel, angry comedy. It’s very whistful, tender, reflective comedy.

I’m very rarely that shocked or sad when somebody dies, but I was when Hancock died. I remember seeing the story on the cover of the Daily Express and staring at it for a very long time. It’s strange how 20 years later I became terribly depressed, almost as if I had an intimation that it would happen. It’s almost creepy how fascinated I was by him, but he was a social climber with aspirational pretentions.

My favourite moment: when I went to university this sketch always came to mind. Hancock decides he’s going to increase his education so he gets out the biggest book he can find, this massive intellectual tome, and he sets it down on the table and prepares himself to do battle with the contents of this heavyweight textbook. He opens the first page and focuses and there’s this wonderful brave shot when nothing happens for about a minute, it’s just him looking at a page and then he looks up at the camera and just says ‘Stone me’. That basically summed up my entire attitude to learning.

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You love the freedom and art and culture of the middle classes, but you despise their pretention and their snobbery and their wealth and their privilege – and the two are very mixed up in your own mind, you want to become what you hate. He was very much of that era of working-class writers – Sillitoe and Storey and Waterhouse and Potter – but all of them were from the north. There were no southern working-class playwrights and in a way it was all transposed into the comedy of Galton and Simpson and Clement and LeFrenais. That novel about the lower-middle classes and working classes in London never came out – there was a whole tradition of northern writing but I didn’t recognise that, it meant nothing to me. But I did recognise Hancock and Steptoe. You didn’t find that world much in novels or drama, but most frequently in comedy and Hancock was the greatest of them.”

 

Uncovering a London ghost: the half-life of David Litvinoff

In the current issue of Uncut, I spoke to write Keiron Pim about his excellent book on David Litvinoff, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Litvinoff is one of those characters that crops up in all sorts of strange places once you first notice him – in the last few years I’ve read books about the Krays, Performance and Operation Julie, and Litvinoff has featured in all of them as a mercurial, menacing muse. He also appears in Iain Sinclair’s books, but Sinclair is most interested in what he can use Litvinoff to represent – in this case a deliberately unknowable, shadowy figure who flits through London’s secret history, connecting the shadowy worlds of counterculture and crimes.

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Pim is a journalist, interested in people as people rather than as metaphors, and his book diligently puts flesh on the bones of Litvinoff’s known history, tracing this strange character’s ascent from the Jewish East End and into the worlds of art, crime and music, where he rubbed up against everybody from Lucien Freud to Eric Clapton.  It’s said that Litvinoff reached such elevated company he was even invited to Jimi Hendrix’s funeral – the invitation contained a tab of acid that the recipient was meant to take if they couldn’t physically attend.

Litvinoff was an unpredictable chancer who survived on his wits, making money here and there through schemes both legal and not. He worked for the Krays and Peter Rachman, but his defining role, as seen by Pim, is as consultant for Performance, that heady, troubling film that could be the finest ever made in this city. Litvinoff befriended and advised both Edward Fox and Mick Jagger on the ways of the underworld, and supplied his old Soho pal Donald Cammell with ideas for scenes and dialogue. One of the many memorable moments in the film – the shaving of one victim’s head by gangsters – was based on Litvinoff’s own experiences. This was a man who both delivered and received mob justice – and at times, he is unsympathetic to the point of psychopathy – until he discovered a form of salvation through drugs and the woolly world of hippie idealism.

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The story is ultimately a tragic one, as Litvinoff increasingly found himself left behind by friends, who could tolerate his wit and weirdness for only so long. He killed himself in 1975 as punk was breaking, and one sense that this movement of chaotic creativity, violence and contradiction would have suited him fine, although Malcolm McLaren may have baulked at the competition.

Given that Litvinoff didn’t actually leave much behind – no books or diaries, photographs or albums, little that is tangible or concrete – it’s difficult to put a pin in what he actually did. In an age in which we are increasingly defined by our jobs – commit a social media faux pas, and you are immediately reported to your employer – that’s strangely unsettling. The brilliant late artist Martin Sharp, a close friend of Litvinoff, makes a case that this needn’t be the case, that Litvinoff, by simply being himself and acting as muse and creative conspirator, did plenty. “It’s hard to earn a living doing it, but he made an enormous contribution to people’s lives,” says Sharp. “It’s not something you can send someone a bill for.”

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

 

Tightrope walking: pub life in East London

One of my favourite recent commissions was for Norwegian Air’s magazine, N, who asked me to write text accompanying Jan Klos’s terrific photographs of East London pubs that, as he says, “capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction.” The article is here.

I visited several pubs, interviewing the landlords about the difficulties of running a pub in London. “London’s pub landlords are tightrope walkers,” I wrote. “Maintaining a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.” What fascinated me about successful pubs was how they balanced their role as “a communal living room” as Pauline Forster, formidable landlord for The George Tavern described it, with their need to draw custom by programming events, from the ubiquitous pub quiz to the more avant-garde offerings at somewhere like the Jamboree on Cable Street. Even that is not always enough, and the George is under threat of development.

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All the pubs had been photographed by Jan for his project, the Photographic Guide To The Pubs Of East London. He explained to me via email how it came about:

“I was looking for a project and I was playing with the idea of examining London’s tourism industry. The idea of photographing pubs was born from (believe it or not) cycling by Parliament Square and Big Ben and watching all the tourists. I really hate crowds and landmarks. There’s much more to London than Big Ben, double decker buses and telephone booths and I wish more tourists would see that.

I thought of all the tourists who come to London following travel guides full of landmarks and return with home with exactly the same boring photographs as everyone who has ever visited. I felt it a duty to show them what they are missing out on. Around the time I started plotting the project, more and more articles started appearing in the press about gentrification, pub closures and the death of East London. I’m a massive fan of East London’s pubs and slowly a way in to my project took shape.

I thought it made perfect sense to combine a “tourist guide” idea with a documentary approach to capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction. It gives insight into London’s pubs as a good tourist guide would, but, most importantly, it documents these fantastic institutions and groups of people – “families” – who run them. The family portrait approach I have taken also highlighted how close the teams are and how strongly they feel about their survival: many of the staff I encountered have other jobs but still do an odd day of work  in the pub, just because they enjoy being part of a close-knit community.”

Sportscapes of London

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The Oasis swimming pool in Covent Garden in 1946

I’ve spent the past week immersed in Played In London, a book that is about as ambitious as any you are likely to see published about London this year. Written by Simon Inglis (author of the seminal book on British football grounds) for English Heritage, it attempts to tell the story of every sport that has ever been played in any venue in the capital – that’s everything from lost Tudor skittle alleys to skateboard parks, including all the major football and cricket grounds as well as lost lidos and billiards halls, archery grounds and greyhound tracks, relocated diving boards and blue plaques. There’s even space to mention rugby netball, a sport created in 1907 by soldiers on Clapham Common and which is still played there every Tuesday and nowhere else.

It’s a breathtaking accomplishment, full of terrific nuggets of information – did you know there were Eton Fives courts under the Westway, or that the BBC’s Maida Vale studio was built in an old rollerskating rink? – but also attempting to tell the story of how a city and its people indulge in play, how that play is shaped by the culture and topography of the city, and how it develops over time, often wittingly reinventing itself as a ‘heritage’ sport rather than die out.

This is social history as much as anything, but goes much deeper than any other book I’ve seen on the subject, like the marvellous Pleasures Of London. One fascinating section looks at the history of company sports grounds. There were once dozens of these in south-east and south-west London – Catford had several – where civil servants or bankers could take part in regular games of rugby or football, or enjoy the annual sports day. Knowing more about these events, Inglis says, would let us learn so much about the culture of work, belonging and inter-office bonding in 19th and 20th century London.

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Bushel basket race for Borough Market sports day at Herne Hill, 1931

Given the scale of the project, the navigation of the book can be a little complex, but the layout makes sense over time. Inglis begins with an overview of the history of sport in London and of London parks and open spaces, before examining several areas in greater detail to see what they tell us about sport and London, and how certain spaces have been used repeatedly over time. He uses the phrase sportscapes and essentially is intending to show that sport, play and leisure require greater understanding of history than simply observing the architecture and listing club records (although the architectural chapters on Pavilions and Grandstands are genuine delights). It requires a knowledge of how space was utilised and developed, and what accidents of personality, business, culture and geography in the wider world outside sport allowed some sports and grounds to thrive while others died. It also shows how some spaces are defined by sport, but also how sports, clubs and associations are defined by the space they occupy.

The river is an obvious candidate for this treatment (and I never knew there were so many boathouses), but he also looks at length at such intriguing places as Wembley Park, Crystal Palace Park, Lea Valley, Dulwich and the Westway – all of which have long, complex relationships with myriad sports – to uncover stories that may otherwise only be known to local historians, or single-sport specialists. This approach repeats itself throughout the book, allowing ‘found spaces’ such as the South Bank skatepark to be included alongside manicured golf greens and expensive new all-seater stadia.

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Office workers play netball in Lincoln’s Inn Field, 1950s.

Oh, and if this isn’t enough the whole thing is illustrated lavishly throughout – indeed, they may have tried to cram in one or two photographs too many – with some spectacular mapping also included.

It makes a fine accompaniment to another book I read recently, on a more modest scale but still of some importance to London’s sporting heritage. Fighting Men Of London by Alex Daley is essentially an oral history – although the author occasionally makes his presence felt – of London’s boxing history between the 1930s and 1960s, told through seven former fighters. It puts some flesh on the bones of Inglis’s research: the boxers describe the lost boxing rings of London such as the shambolic Mile End Arena or the refined Stadium Club in Holborn, where inter-war gentlemen would dine ringside, ignoring the blood that splashed into their supper. They also talk about the old Central London gyms like Bill Klein’s in a basement in Fitzroy Street or Jack Solomon’s near the Windmill Theatre with an eye for detail that makes you think of Gerald Kersh.

The appetite for boxing in this age was vast, and many of the fighters interviewed built up large followings as they fought as frequently as once a month. None of them really made it into the big money though, and it’s notable that upon retiring several became involved in crime – The Krays, former boxers themselves, have walk-on roles in several of the stories. As a history of East End culture, it’s illuminating.

Pathe newsreel: London time machine

These are all taken from the recent cache of thousands of Pathe newsreels loaded on to You Tube.

1. A trip to Swinging London in 67. Is that Yoko reading International Times at Trafalgar Square? Surprisingly sympathetic beneath the patronising tone. I love those Bob Dylan paper dresses. And at 4:50 you get to meet Keith Albarn, father of Damon, as he organises a happening. Also features Mary Quant, the Speakeasy, the Scotch of St James and much more.

2. This Is London, with commentary by Rex Harrison. A tour of the capital for the British Travel Association, starting at the Tower of London, into Fleet Street and Temple then into the West End and Westminster. It’s all very quaint and polite, but great for location spotting. The shots from Chelsea at 10:42 are extraordinary.

3. Platform shoes, 1977. A wide range of Londoners discuss platform shoes – “they’re not natural,” says one cockney. I think this was filmed around the King’s Road.

4. Tracking shots of Soho at night, 1968. No sound or context here, just a series of tracking shots around Soho at night. It’s incredibly atmospheric and full of strange glimpses into past lives, especially the laughing man at 3:22, whose companions have slipped off to an upstairs flat.

5. West End, 1977. Similar to the above, this is a series of disconnected, fairly random shot of London and the West End starting in Chinatown. Silent but fascinating as a sort of moving street photography. Note the number of Scotland fans around Piccadilly Circus, the porn shops, and the huge amount of scaffolding that appears to be everywhere.

7. Making a psychedelic light machine, 1968. A sitar plays while Mike Leonard constructs his machine for a light show. For 60s scene nerds, this is pretty fascinating.

8. White Defence League, 1959. Footage from Notting Hill, featuring an interview outside the HQ of the White Defence League (soundtrack starts around 1.20min). Staggering racism, unapologetically voiced.

Exploring the lost Lea Valley with Saint Etienne

The BFI have just released a fantastic DVD for London fans. A London Trilogy: The Films Of Saint Etienne collects the three documentaries Saint Etienne and director Paul Kelly made between 2003 and 2007. Finisterre, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? and This Is Tomorrow are three fine oblique celebrations/meditations of London esoterica, soundtracked by the band and also guided philosophically by band member and London nerd Bob Stanley (who once beat me in a London quiz with his excellently named team of ringers, The London Nobody Knows, the bastard).

As ever with the BFI, the extras are also superb, including a short film about the then little-known Banksy, three eulogies to lost London cafes and a piece about Monty The Lamb, North Hendon FC’s club mascot.

My favourite of the three main features is 2005’s What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, which tours the Lower Lea Valley, a then almost abandoned part of London that has since been covered by the Olympic Park. In 2007, I took a tour of the valley with Kieron Tyler, an archaeologist at the Museum of London who also happens to be a regular collaborator with Stanley and Saint Etienne. Here is what we found.

I’ve often wondered where the East End begins, but never realised there was an actual border: one that’s so physical, and so weird. The River Lea (or Lee – both are acceptable) rises in Luton and flows into London at Edmonton and then, via Hackney, Stratford and Bromley-by-Bow, into the Thames. It has been the municipal boundary between Essex and Middlesex since the sixth century. ‘When you’re on the Middlesex side, you’re in the City of London, and when you’re on the Essex side, you’re east of London,’ Kieron Tyler explains helpfully. Tyler is the Museum of London archaeologist responsible for assessing the archaeological potential of the 2012 Olympic site, large swathes of which straddle the Lea Valley. As a committed Londonist, he’s become fascinated by one of the capital’s oddest landscapes.

You see, the Lea is more than just a theoretical dividing line on an administrative map, it’s a deep, wide trench gauging out a huge chunk of prime London land and bordered on either side by reclaimed marsh, Victorian rubbish heaps and industrial wasteland that physically separate the communities on either side. Look at a map if you don’t believe me. The Lea Valley boasts that ‘A-Z’ rarity, actual blank space, spotted with grey squares and circles that are precise in form but vague in utility, listed only as ‘works’, ‘depot’ or ‘warehouse’. All roads over the valley are fast and functional, crossing as quickly as possible, unwelcoming to residents. It’s a no man’s land in which few Londoners live, or ever have.

‘It’s the whole nature and character of the Lea Valley itself,’ says Tyler. ‘The area either side of the banks has acted as a buffer zone, stopping development. Before the ice age, this entire area was a water-filled valley. As the tide level changed the water become marsh with water channels snaking through it. Looking at evidence from between the end of the last ice age to the early medieval era (the eleventh century), we can see the Lea stretching from Stratford Town Centre to Hackney Wick, with marsh all around. Marsh is a problem. You can’t build on marsh. You can graze cows on it, or grow plants, but you can’t build on it. That’s why the Lea Valley itself is a buffer, wider than the river itself.’

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We take the 308 bus from Stratford tube to New Spitalfields Market on the A12, a bleak block of urbanity that makes the North Circular look like the Cotswolds, and stroll down Quarter Mile Lane – a piece of gleaming new roadwork that, like a Sicilian motorway, ends abruptly, having gone nowhere – into Eastway Cycle Circuit. Buried somewhere on this meadow are the remains of Temple Mill, a thirteenth-century mill managed by the Knights Templar. The mill is one of many things lost in the mud, dumped on by successive generations who used the marsh as a rubbish tip (bits of the Euston Arch were chucked in the Lea in the 1960s), which Tyler hopes to uncover when work on the Olympics site begins.

One such buried treasure is the Lea’s first bridge. ‘Nobody knows how the Lea was first crossed,’ says Tyler. ‘The Roman London-Colchester road came up to the edge of the Lea Valley around Wick Lane and picks up on the other side, but we haven’t a clue exactly where and how they crossed.’

We do know that the focus for crossing the Lea moved south, with the construction of Stratford Langthorne Abbey in 1135, now covered by factories, railways and a sewage-pumping station. This bridge was called Queen Matilda’s Crossing after the yarn that it was built at the behest of the wife of Henry I, who almost drowned while trying to cross the old ford. It was the first stone arch bridge in Britain, and was called Bow Bridge because of its shape – a name that later lent itself to the area on the Middlesex side, Stratford-by-Bow, now shortened to Bow.

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The Lea isn’t the only river in the valley. Half-a-dozen other ditches, streams and rivulets snake through it. Tyler guides me, via the doomed Eastway Cycle Circuit, to Hennikers Ditch, a medieval drainage ditch that’s little more than a hollowed-out puddle. We cut right, through dense foilage – Japanese knotweed, the most invasive plant around – and join a rarely trod path along the bank of the sluggish Channelsea River, a stream supposedly dug by King Alfred to keep the Danes from sacking London that has been dated to the eleventh century. Within minutes, we’ve gone from the concrete Ballard-scape of the A12 to an otherwordly, overgrown terrain that Tyler suggests lacks only Ray Harryhausen’s jerky dinosaurs to give it that proper prehistoric appearance. Allotments overlook the stream, and Tyler points out one tumbledown shed that his team have identified as a World War II pillbox. The Channelsea is still fulfilling its original function of defending London from invasion.

After peering through a fence that guards the new Eurostar terminal at Stratford, we head back to the A12 and cross the Lea, via torturous means (the Valley is as hard to navigate as it ever was), to wander down the weird Waterden Road, an alienating thoroughfare that features the Kokonut Groove Nite Klub, a demolished greyhound stadium, a bus depot, an ‘International Christian Centre’ and a travellers’ site. There’s no sense of the famed East End community here; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more disconnected environment outside an American strip mall.

At the bottom, Waterden Road meets White Post Lane, crossing the Lee Navigation (spelling decreed by a 1570 Act of Parliament), a canalised section of the river that runs almost parallel to the Lea that was built in stages from the eighteenth century. With its arrival, the Valley became a centre for industry.

As the lost Temple Mill shows, mills have been located here for centuries. There’s Three Mills, recently the location of the ‘Big Brother’ house, and Wright’s flour mill, London’s last working independent mill. Slaughterhouses crossed the Lea after being banished from the City in the fourteenth century, and the remains of animals were used in a variety of Lea-side industries. Walls Matteson churned out sausages by the yard at Abbey Mills until the 1990s and animal bones were used for china, chemicals, candles, soap, glues and fertilisers. Chemicals for tanning skins came from Lea and it’s said the smell was so bad that, in the early seventeenth century, James I asked for work at the mill to stop before he travelled past. Not for nothing was it known as ‘stinky Stratford’. The ‘ready-made kebab’ factory at the bottom of Waterden Road seems aptly placed.

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Heavier industry soon moved in, boosted by an 1844 Act of Parliament that ruled that, within London, ‘offensive trades’ could not be located within 50 feet of a house. The Lea’s industrial alumni is formidable. Matchbox cars were made here until the 1980s. The diode valve was invented in Lea by Professor Ambrose Fleming in 1904, which led directly to the invention of the wireless; Britain’s first radio valve factory was established in Lea Valley in 1916, and the first television tube factory followed in 1936. Bryant and May had a match-making factory in Newham, which was the site of the landmark matchgirls strike in 1888. Monorail was invented in Lea in 1821. IPA was first brewed on the Bow riverbanks in the 1780s. The Yardley soap factory was on Carpenter’s Road, and the Lea is where the first British commercially successful porcelain, Bow China, was produced. AV Roe became the first Briton to pilot an entirely British-built aircraft on Walthamstow Marsh in 1909.

The Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield produced the British Army’s Lee-Enfield rifle by the thousand (though unfortunately the Lee bit comes from its inventor, not the location), and also helped with the development of the bouncing bomb.It’s a rich history that, in a most un-London way, is celebrated by approximately nobody (although Saint Etienne’s film on the Lea Valley, What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day? captured much of the weirdness). We’re at the junction of White Post Lane, Wallis Road and Hepscott Road, which, Tyler points out, is the location of ‘a conglomeration of late Victorian industrial concerns that either introduced a number of products to this country or were invented here or recast in their modern form’.

He’s talking about plastic, petrol and dry-cleaning, which all came from here. Carless, Capel and Leonard started making a product they named petrol in Hackney Wick in 1892. Before then it was called ‘unrefined petroleum’ and competitors continued to call it ‘motor spirit’ until the 1930s. A few years previously, Alexander Parkes had been manufacturing a celluloid based on nitrocellulose with ethanol solvent that he uneffacingly named Parkesine, but which we now call plastic. And in the 1860s Frenchman Achille Serre introduced dry-cleaning to the UK, setting up a chain that lasted a century until it was bought out by Sketchleys.

It’s only as we reach Hackney Wick station that I realise we’ve not seen the Lea itself, though Tyler points out we crossed it while negotiating the A12. The river is more accessible elsewhere along its long slide through London, but it forms only a tiny part of the appeal of the Lea Valley, a glorious scrap of London that will change forever with the Olympics. With it, one fancies, the barrier between London and the East End may become a little less precise, and a lot less interesting.

The Special London Bridge Special

This sensational slice of ham and song was made in 1972 to celebrate the purchase of London Bridge by an American theme park. It features a bizarre cast that includes Tom Jones, Rudolf Nureyev, The Carpenters, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Terry-Thomas and is basically the film the Olympic opening ceremony could have been.

It’s all here, but watch the intro especially, featuring Tom Jones singing his way round various London landmarks before engaging in a small slice of double entendre on a No 13 bus.

Secret London: inside a cabmen’s shelter

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This piece was published in Time Out in March 2006.

You must have noticed them: jolly green garden sheds that squad in odd spots of London like displaced emerald Tardises, steam coming out the windows and queues of black cabs lining the streets outside. These are London’s few remaining cabmen’s shelters – 13 in all, for 23,000 drivers – places where cabbies can gather to enjoy tea and sympathy away from the hopeful eyes and raised arms of the stranded, late and lazy who make up their regular custom. The Russell Square shelter is the domain of Maureen, 52, who runs a tight ship, keeping an eye on regulars like Ken (‘Say I’m 21’) and Malcolm (‘I’ve been a cabbie for 37 years. That’s all you need to know’).

‘These places are very interesting to the outsider,’ I say, by way of introduction.

‘They’re even more interesting when you’re on the inside,’ Malcolm replies.

He and Ken come in every day, more or less, to swap tales of fares and roadworks, grumble about Ken Livingstone, talk football, and have something to drink and a bite to eat. They’re keeping alive a long tradition. The Cabman’s Shelter Fund was created by Sir George Armstrong, a newspaper publisher who get fed up waiting for cabs in the rain when drivers had decamped to the nearest pub. He started a fund to supply drivers with a place to get out of the cold and enjoy a cheap meal without straying from the cab stand. The first shelter, erected in 1875, was located on the stand nearest his house (in Oxford). Because the shelters stood on a public highway, the police stipulated they weren’t allowed to be any larger than a horse and cart. At their peak, there were more than 60 in London. Although meant for cabbies, the public could also pop in. Ernest Shackleton was said to frequent the Hyde Park Corner shelter, while the Piccadilly one was nicknamed the ‘Junior Turf Club’ by bright young things, who smuggled in champagne despite the strict teetotal licensing regulations.

Their number declined after WWII as they fell victim to bombs and road-widening schemes, but for a time where a notable feature of London life. HG Wells wrote about ‘the little group of cabmen and loafers that collects around the cabmen’s shelter at Haverstock Hill’, while PG Wodehouse went into greater detail in ‘The Intrusion of Jimmy’ in 1910.

‘Just beyond the gate of Hyde Park… stands a cabmen’s shelter. Conversation and emotion had made Lord Dreever thirsty. He suggested coffee as a suitable conclusion to the night’s revels…. The shelter was nearly full when they opened the door. It was very warm inside. A cabman gets so much fresh air in the exercise of his duties that he is apt to avoid it in private life. The air was heavy with conflicting scents. Fried onions seemed to have the best of the struggle, though plug tobacco competed strongly. A keenly analytical nose might also have detected steak and coffee.’

Food, warmth and companionship are the key. As WJ Gordon wrote in 1893’s The Horse World of London: ‘The cabman is not so much a large drinker as a large eater. At one shelter lately the great feature was boiled rabbit and pickled pork at two o’clock in the morning, and for weeks a small warren of Ostenders was consumed nightly.’

The menu doesn’t stretch to rabbit now, with cabbies preferring tucker that is more in keeping with what a tired cabbie needs, and prices to match. Tea and coffee are 50p. Hot food starts at a quid.

Maureen We do soup, sarnies, fry-ups, curries, jackets… I know what everybody wants. I know everybody who comes in, what he eats and what he don’t eat. Malcolm here had boiled eggs with cucumber in rolls. Except Wednesday. He has baked beans on toast on Wednesday. Ken, he don’t eat nothing. He has a cup of tea.

Time Out You don’t eat here?

Ken No! And I haven’t been in hospital either. Look at the pictures: there’s three up there, four, five, six. All dead. And they used to eat in here.

Malcolm That’s why we’ve got the sign up there: ‘God’s waiting room.’

TO It’s for older cabbies then?

Ken No, anyone can use it. We have one young lad comes in – how old’s Gary, Maur?

Maureen Forty-four. Some of the other shelters are very cliquey – no, I won’t tell you which. If a stranger comes in, they’ll say, ‘You can’t sit there, it’s so-and-so’s seat.’ But we’re not like that.

Malcolm We just check ’em straight out.

Maureen No, we’re friendly here.

TO There’s lots of Arsenal flags, do you have to be an Arsenal fan?

Ken We get a lot of Arsenal, unfortunately.

Malcolm The Tottenham fans get in and out early.

Ken We let the Arsenal in here ‘cos they’re not allowed in the other shelters.

Maureen This one’s been going since 1901. It used to be in Leicester Square, but moved up here.

Ken That was in 1960-something. When I started cabbing in 1967, it was in Leicester Square. I reckon it moved in around 1969.

Malcolm They’re not all the same size.

Maureen They’re similar, but some are longer or wider. They never used to look like this inside though. They used to have seating all round the sides and a big square heater in the middle. People would bring their own food to cook, but there was no kitchen – it was really for keeping warm. Now it’s more like a caravan, with a kitchen at one end and tables at the other.

TO I read they were originally built to keep cabbies out of pubs.

Ken Well, that didn’t work did it?

TO Can non-cabbies come in here?

Ken Builders come in sometimes and have a cup of tea, but if it gets crowded they have it away and let the drivers in.

Malcolm Cabbies get priority. 

TO Who owns this one?

Maureen I rent it off the Trust Fund. I pay the rent and the bills out of what I make. It’s all right in the summer, but in winter it gets very cold. Once you start letting people in, it’s okay, and in the summer we have all the doors open or sit outside. We get heat from the ovens as well.

Ken That’s why they have us two come in here before the rest, to warm it up.

TO What are your opening hours?

Ken That’s a sore point.

Malcolm When she wakes up.

Maureen These are the only two who come in at this time, so I open for them.

Ken We’re up early – we go out at 4.30 or 5am. The others don’t start till seven or eight, so they don’t want a cup of tea or a sandwich until about 12 but we get hungry before. I eat elsewhere. I ate here once and was laid up for two years.

TO When do you close?

Maureen About half-five. We get some people sitting here all day.

Malcolm We get a lot of people that put their head round the door looking for cabs or information.

Maureen There’s a bloke from Holland who’s fascinated with black cabs. He comes over now and then to talk. We get people all the time. Who’s that bloke off the radio who talks and talks?

Ken Robert Elms

Maureen Yeah, he’s been in here.

Ken And what’s-his-name, Ricky Gervais, he’s always walking past, says hello. Angela Rippon popped here head in the other day.

Maureen And then there’s that bleeding Madonna. She came in to try and get a cab.

TO Do you get any women cabbies?

Maureen Yeah, we’ve got Marion. But they don’t seem to stay – they have one look and go straight out again. We’ve too many nutters. We’ve Mad Bob, Cockhead, the Village Idiot…

Ken We’re all different in here and we’ve all got our stories.

Malcolm We come in to keep track of who is alive and who is dead.

Maureen You’d be surprised how many we can fit inside. It holds ten or 12 sitting but for Christmas dinner we have 30 or 40 standing inside.

Ken We get slung out, me and Malcolm. It’s better anyway  – if anybody’s going to get a turkey with bird flu, it’s Maureen.

Maureen doesn’t rise to the bait. She’s used to it. And, as it has every day for more than 100 years, the hut fills with the smell of fried onions. The cabbies start to file in for lunch, and I have it away to let them grumble, joke and eat in peace.