Category Archives: History

Dead butterflies – 50 years since Rolling Stones at Hyde Park

It’s 50 years since the Rolling Stones played their famous free gig at Hyde Park. The show was their first with new guitarist Mick Taylor, and was given added poignancy as Brian Jones died a few days before it took place. To commemorate his death, Mick Jagger decided to release a box of butterflies while quoting Shelley.

Five years ago, I wrote an epic, 3-million word oral history piece about the gig for Uncut, which included promoter Andrew King’s memory of Mick’s gesture.

Jagger was going to release these white butterflies. I had to liaise with this butterfly farm in the West Country and the parks people who were very concerned the wrong sort of butterflies might upset the ecosystem of the park. Eventually, we agreed on a species. Early on the morning of the concert I went down to Paddington Station to collect these boxes of butterflies, they came in these things like wine boxes, about half-a-dozen. I peeped inside and as far as I could see it was full of dead butterflies. So I called the butterfly farm in a panic and said, ‘They’re dead!’ And they said they’re not dead, they’re cold, they are sleeping, you’ve got to warm them up.”

How the fuck were we going to warm them up? We had these old hot plates, the sort of thing students use to warm up baked beans, and so we put the boxes of butterflies on them to warm them up. I think one of them caught fire. When Mick opened the boxes, some of them flew away but most dropped senseless to the stage. They weren’t dead, they were cold. They only died when they got trod on.’

Peace and love.

 

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.”

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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.

Spies Of London

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Apparently this “drab” office block in St James’s was for many decades a London base for GCHQ and is now being sold off to developers. It reminded me of the time I was writing an article that briefly alluded to GCHQ. The piece was mainly about Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, and I remember talking over the phone to the author of Walsingham’s biography to try and confirm whether Walsingham’s portrait was still hanging in the lobby of GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Then, completely out the blue, a chap from GCHQ called me at the office, wanting to know what I was writing about. He refused to say how he’d found out that I was writing about GCHQ, indeed he seemed to take great delight in not telling me – and he did allude to general suspicions about Time Out given the magazine’s radical history. He did eventually confirm that GCHQ had a portrait of Walsingham, before signing off with what sounded suspiciously like an evil chuckle.

There was almost certainly an innocent explanation.

But it was also incredibly creepy.

To add to my sense of paranoia, I was at the time living in an old SIS office on Westminster Bridge Road. This was Century House, MI6’s HQ until they moved to Vauxhall. Rumours abounded about the secrets that still lay within the basement. Were there really old prisons cells? And a special tunnel that led directly to the nearby Lambeth North tube station? Any ex-spooks with knowledge of the building, feel free to tell me what you know. Just don’t call the mobile, that would really freak me out.

Santa Claus and Lapland’s Reindeer Antler Plan

I recently spent some time in Lapland for the Guardian. I wrote about my trip here  but thought I’d put a more complete version on the blog.

As soon as you land at Rovaniemi airport you see a reindeer. Not a real one admittedly, but somebody in a Rudolf suit cheerily greeting passengers who have just arrived and are planning to meet Santa Claus at his home in Northern Finland. A couple of miles from Rovaniemi airport –“Santa’s official airport” –  is Santa Claus Village, complete with elves, reindeers, huskies, shops, restaurants and the real Santa. It’s an attraction that draws more than 600,000 annual visitors to this isolated spot on the Arctic Circle.

There are reindeers everywhere in Rovianemi. Costumed at the airport, pulling sleighs at the Santa Village and recreated in statues throughout the town centre. There is also the outline of a reindeer embedded in the city’s streets. This is the “reindeer antler plan”, which was created by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto when he rebuilt the city after the Second World War. Aalto also designed the  town hall, library and concert hall, which are arranged in a complementary cluster to the south of the city centre. But while tourists flock to Santa Claus village, few seek out the work of Finland’s greatest architect. Frank Nieuvenhausen, a Dutchman living in Rovaniemi, hopes to change that through cultural tours that take in Rovaniemi’s museums, galleries and local history alongside the work of Alvar Aalto. “People get off the plane straight on a bus to the Santa Claus village but there is a rich history here,” he says. “We don’t all have to dress up as elves.”

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Rovaniemi was a quiet trading town of around 6,000 people before the Second World War. Russia invaded in 1939, and the Finns fought off their aggressors in the brutal Winter War of 1939-1940. After that, they allied with the Germans. The Finns were not Nazis and the Germans were not occupiers – this was a marriage of convenience to protect the Finns from the Russians and give Germany access to St Petersburg. Finnish Jews fought the Russians alongside German soldiers – three were offered the Iron Cross. Even today, this relationship continues. A few miles outside Rovaniemi by a lake is a memorial to the German war dead. It’s a peaceful spot, both respectful and isolated. The silence is only broken by the sound of Finnish jets protecting Rovaniemi from a feared Russian incursion.

Under the terms of German-Fin alliance, the country was split in half: the Finnish Army controlled the south and the German army had the north, with access to ports and nickel mines. The Germans were based in Rovaniemi and the town’s population doubled. The Luftwaffe built an airfield – Rovaniami airport – while Santa Claus Village itself is on the site of a German barracks. For years, the Germans and Finns got on famously. Then the war turned and the Russians told the Finns to expel the Germans or the Red Army would return. As the Germans departed, Rovaniemi was razed. Photographs show a smoking ruin with just chimney stacks left standing. Pekka Ojala, who runs a B&B and sauna near the city centre, still finds burnt wood and metal in his garden.

This desolation is what Alvar Aalto faced. But his ambition was vast. “He saw the burned town as an opportunity,” says Jussi Rautsi a former planner and researcher at the Aalto Foundation. Partly inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority Plan, Aalto created a plan for all of Lapland – a land mass as large as Holland and Belgium combined. The plan started with single housing units – designed to have as little cold north-facing façade surface as possible, and maximum external surface to the sun in south-west – and expanded outwards. Aalto factored in the hydroelectric plants being built on the great rivers of Lapland, and commissioned impact assessments to see what the effect would be on the environment, population, local industries, indigenous Sami, reindeer herds, water basins and microclimate. “Nobody in the world had done such a plan,” says Rautsi. “It had all spatial levels: regional, entire town, parts of towns, neighbourhoods, even peripheral estates. This was the only plan of this magnitude in the world.”

Rovaniemi’s “reindeer antler” street plan was conceived by Aalto in 1945. This was a stroke of visionary genius, as he simply imposed a reindeer outline on existing topography like those people who find animal shapes in the London Underground map. Aalto highlighted the natural shape of the land and the way the main roads and railway crossed. The football stadium became an eye, and the reindeer was born. It was magnificent branding, but Aalto then embellished the plan, creating different zones for commerce, residential and administration within the lines of the reindeer.

All this had to be built without Marshall Aid as the Finns had been on the side of the Germans and were also paying “reparations” to the Russians. Aid did come from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the precursor to UNICEF, which was brought to Rovaniemi by the UNRRA patron Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of FDR, in June 1950. Roosevelt wanted to visit the Arctic Circle, so the Finns built a log cabin near the airport, furnished with chairs designed by Alvar Aalto. They told her it was in the Arctic Circle although it was actually a little to the south. Roosevelt sent a letter from the cabin to President Truman – the first letter ever posted in the Arctic Circle – and wrote about it in her memoir. The log cabin became tourist attraction and was visited by other world leaders, including Brezhnev and Golda Meir. The log cabin still stands today on the edge of Santa Claus Village, where it is roundly ignored by tourists.

Tourism took time to build after the war but by 1984 Concorde was bringing visitors to Rovaniemi to see the Arctic Circle. That’s when some local entrepreneurs created the Santa Claus Village. According to Finnish myth, Santa came from Korvantunturi or Ear Fell, which is shaped like an ear so Santa can hear the wishes of every child in the world. Korvantunturi is to the far north and almost inaccessible, whereas Rovaniemi already had the airport thanks to the Luftwaffe. A rural-style wooden village was created around Roosevelt’s cabin, offering shops, reindeer rides, a Santa and a post office so visitors can send letters from the Arctic Circle. This is also where every letter addressed to Father Christmas ends up – up to 700,000 a year. In the 1990s, the Santa myth took over the town. Even part of one of the town’s nuclear bunkers was turned into Santa Park, a subterranean theme park.

As tourism grew, Rovaniemi was rebuilt. The zoning aspect of Aalto’s reindeer plan was never fully realised, but he did create three buildings for the town’s municipal centre. These were an undulating concert hall, a town hall (completed by his wife after Aalto’s death in 1976) and a library that is one of his finest works. He also built a small section of housing in the suburb of Korkalovaara, which featured terraced housing and two large apartment blocks that were modelled on the garden cities of England. In the city centre, he designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style private home and a commercial block. Not everything Aalto planned came to pass but for Raulti his successes included “climate responsive housing, separating traffic from housing neighbourhoods, using local materials, the human scale and in situ brick construction. Sound building according to nature and terrain conditions. He wanted the community to have a good and visible centre and in Rovaniemi the Aalto-centre indicates its position as the capital of the polar region.”

 

These are the sort of buildings that Frank Nieuvenhausen wishes to show visitors as an alternative to the Santa experience. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he is creating an Aalto tour, and is being supported in this endeavour by Rovaniemi tourist office, who want to increase visitors in the summer months. “Summer used to be bigger, then cold and dark became exotic,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, who runs Visit Rovaniemi. “We’d like to get that balance back.”

Santa is not the only challenge. As Aira Huovinen, curator of the Korundi contemporary art gallery acknowledges, the city’s cultural attractions also compete with nature – the Northern Lights, pine forests and wildlife. With most visitors coming for less than a week, that leaves little time to visit attractions such as the Korundi or the Arkitum, a local history/science museum. It doesn’t help that the city’s appearance is dominated by a certain post-war blockiness, encouraging tourists to stick to their out-of-town hotel resorts. There are some architectural highlights. The Arkitum has a stunning glass central corridor while the Korundi is located in one of the few buildings to survive the war, a huge brick bus depot that provided locals with shelter when the city was destroyed. Joining the gallery is a lovely new concert hall built for the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, while across the highway is a delightful and award-winning football stadium (the eye of the reindeer). The chief attraction is Aalto’s library, with its sunken reading pits, beautiful lighting and open plan. In one corner is a small section dedicated to Aalto, complete with Aalto-furniture and a picture of the reindeer antler plan on the wall.

You won’t see many tourists studying this however. It’s a different matter at Santa’s Village, which is open all year round but crammed in December. The experience isn’t quite as tacky as it might sound – we’re not talking Winter Wonderland levels of crassness – and children are enraptured. The Finns’ Santa has been shorn of any religious significance but isn’t excessively commercial. “We never let our Santa go to the mall,” says Mayor Lotvonen from his Aalto-designed office in the town hall. “He is a charitable figure.” Rovaniemi’s businesses contribute to a cheque for UNICEF at the start of every season, a reminder of the fact the city’s own resurrection and current good fortune came from an act of charity.

Santa occasionally accompanies the Mayor on official business to meet trade delegations, and he is an excellent and unique ambassador for the city. The international appeal of Santa can be seen by the make-up of Rovaniemi’s visitors, which is led by China, followed by Israel and then the UK. All find a Santa they are happy with. It’s tempting to see this as another example of the Fin’s seemingly infinite capacity for accommodation. They will make the German Army feel at home, move the Arctic Circle to keep Eleanor Roosevelt happy and then balance the needs of the West and East during the Cold War. So what would Alvar Aalto make of Rovaniemi’s adoption of Santa Claus? “Aalto liked people,” says Rautsi. “He was a social person. He would make Santa ride in a chaise lounge version of his Paimio chair pulled by three reindeers and they would leave Lapland with one of Aalto’s Savoy vases in their cabin luggage.”

 

 

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.

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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.

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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)

Americana in Perivale

Maybe it’s just me, but Perivale is one of those London places names that always make me want to snigger. It’s also the unlikely location of one of London’s most beautiful buildings, the Hoover Factory.  The building has recently been turned into flats, which meant I got to look around it when writing a piece for the Telegraph.

I’d only ever driven past it before, so seeing it up close was a real treat. I even took some photographs. None of the interior I’m afraid but take my word for it that it’s been converted in the best possible taste.

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The premise of this piece was that the Hoover, along with several other buildings in the area, represent a brief flowering of Americana in London – that is, buildings that are billboards and look like they belong alongside a Californian freeway rather than next to A-road in suburban west London. I’m not sure whether “Americana” as a distinct architectural term even exists, but I know what I mean when I use it.

When I was at Time Out, we named the Hoover one of the Seven Wonders of London. You can tell why when you get a close-up gander of the entrance. What a beauty!

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The Hoover was built by Wallis, Gilbert & Partners, who called their style “fancy factories” and admitted the influence of not just American factory architecture but also Madison Avenue advertising techniques. Their most accomplished vision was the Firestone Factory, which was infamously knocked down on August Bank Holiday weekend in 1980. As a result, Michael Heseltine hastily listed a number of other buildings from the same era, including the Hoover and Battersea Power Station.

The Firestone was a stunner. As anybody who has driven along the Great West Road knows, there are still several other amazing buildings of this type in the area – there’s surely a book to be written about this unique collection of London buildings.

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Despite all that, my favourite building in this style might be one that is outside London. The India of Inchannin building is located on the road between Glasgow and Greenock and is too cute for its own good. Read more here.

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A refugee’s son

When I was growing up, I unquestionably thought of myself as English. That was despite the fact one half of my family most clearly was not. They lived in Tooting and spoke a different language. They looked different, they ate different food and they had a way of being, a culture, that was profoundly different in a thousand indefinable ways.

Over the past two years, with every day and news cycle that passes, I’ve felt increasingly aware of this part of my background. It’s the part that doesn’t belong, the part that isn’t English and never will be. It’s the part that too many people would resent if my surname was not so plain and my skin not as white as theirs. Growing up I never thought of myself as the child of an immigrant, a refugee’s son: now, it’s increasingly how I define myself and my relationship with a country that seems to fear so much of what I represent.

First, some family history. My father’s side is easy. My grandad migrated from Barrow to Birmingham and then my dad moved to London when he was about 20. There may have been some Irish in there on my grandmother’s side – there usually is – but it was culturally 100% English and stolidly Protestant with it.

When my dad arrived in London, he lodged in Tooting at a house owned by a member of my mother’s extended family. This must have been an eyeopening experience. The family had arrived en masse in England in 1957. They were Mediterranean romantics, demonstrative Catholics who spoke Italian mixed with French, German, Greek, Arabic and even a bit of English and because they liked to eat properly, went to the chemist to buy olive oil, which the English only used to treat ear wax.

They were not English, yet they all had British passports. How so?

This is where it gets complicated. My mum’s family were originally Maltese, although they had lived in Egypt for at least three generations (my mum’s maternal grandparents were born in Egypt). Because of this somewhat vague Maltese heritage, the family were able to claim British citizenship even though they were culturally to all intents and purposes Italian. Italian was the first language, the food was Italian and they all supported Italy in the World Cup.

This led to some interesting collisions. My grandfather – my nonno – had the splendid Italian name of Salvatore Camenzuli, but he called his kids Daisy and Wilfred – which are as English as you could hope to get, even though neither of them spoke English. It’s why I have uncles with names like Herbert and Norbert. All were born around the time of the Second World War, so presumably were given such astoundingly English names to emphasise their official nationality.

It also meant that at the time of the Suez Crisis, they were thrown out of their homes. When Britain, France and Israel went to war with Egypt, everybody with a British passport was told to leave or become Egyptian nationals. Most chose to leave.

My family left Alexandria, the family home for at least 80 years, and got on boats that took them around the world. Some went to Australia, some went to Italy, but most went to England, the motherland, where they were interned in an old WWII camp in Horsforth, Yorkshire. They left Alexandria in January and when they arrived in England it was snowing. This is the passport on which they travelled.

 

For the adults, this must have been traumatic. Many did not speak English and the older men and women were taken to separate care homes. My mum’s nonna died a week after arrival. Here are my great-grandparents, who like so many human beings in history were victims of a conflict they had no part in causing.

For the kids, it was great fun. They didn’t have to go to school! Here’s my uncle Wilfred and his cousins at the camp, playing cowboys.

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When my mum arrived in England she possessed a British passport but didn’t speak English and had a funny name. When the family moved to London and she started school, she was singled out as different because she was. Did she live in pyramid? Did she go to school on a camel? The English kids imagined she grew up in an oasis and ate papyrus – they had no concept that Alexandria was a city every bit as modern as London, because that isn’t what they were taught. They could never have grasped that my mother had enjoyed in Alexandria a better standard of living that most kids growing up in Tooting. Even today, people struggle with this sort of basic understanding that other cities around the world are much like our own, and that immigrants and refugees aren’t always poor.

That was all tough, but more than 50 years later, she’s still here, an amazing woman married to an amazing Englishman but still in touch with her family. A few years ago, some of them got together to commemorate 50 years of exile.

This country would be a poorer place without them.

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So what has all this got to do with me? For years, nothing. I was aware of my non-English side and enjoyed it – the warmth of the company, the excellent biscuits, the funny accents, the glass of sweet Marsala at bedtime – but always considered myself an Englishman. Even my mum seemed English most of the time, so that when friends detected an accent and asked where she was from, it always took me by surprise. And when my mum mocked the blandness of English cuisine and talked about how boring England would be without immigrants like herself, I found it a bit uncomfortable, unpatriotic, even though I suspected that she was right.

But recently, as the rhetoric against foreigners, against immigration, against refugees, has toxified, I’ve become increasingly aware of my roots. I’ve been made to feel that I am English only by default, one small step away from being – like half my family, the people who raised me as English and who I love – foreign, unwanted, alien, an infestation.

The thing is, nobody who looks at me would ever know. But if I had different coloured skin or a strange surname, how would that change things? If my mother’s family arrived in England tomorrow, would they be welcome? Would the government even allow them entry? Would they be encourage to settle, make their home, open businesses, have children and generally enrichen the culture of the country so that English children can now grow up with olive oil on their plates rather than in their ears.

Across the world, the prevailing politics revels in the hatred of other. Some people – many millions more than I ever could have imagined – despise anybody who is, essentially, exactly like my mother. As a result, I have become more aware of my background as the child of an immigrant and what that really means. I am more conscious of the rhetoric of race and division, of them and us, of who belongs and who would be allowed to stay if the fantasies of white nationalists should ever come to pass. But I am a refugee’s son, and nothing makes me prouder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Under the arches – ghost signs of London

Herne Hill’s subway tunnel is getting a makeover. The process began with the stripping away of some old panels that lined the passageway. That revealed some strange and ancient tribal wall markings that nobody will have seen for years.

What can they mean?

 

The graffiti can be dated fairly precisely by some of the political messages that were also exposed in the renovation. One is a stencil saying “No cruise”, while the other features the tattered remains of three “Militant Miner” posters, which would have been stuck on the wall around the time of the Miners Strike in 1984/1985.

You can see a clearer version of the Militant Miner poster here.

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I find it fascinating to see this sort of ephemera uncovered after more than 30 years. It’s a brief insight into an older London that was always there, within reach but out of sight.

The other wall of the tunnel has yet to be stripped. What further social history wonders lie beneath?