Category Archives: History

Time Out special edition

Time Out ceased publication – in physical terms at least – a few weeks ago. However, there is a special one-off final issue on the street today, which looks at the history of London over the past 54 years through the prism of the magazine.

I feel very privileged to have been part of Time Out’s story, so was delighted to be asked to contribute to this issue.

It’s a real souvenir edition, so grab one if you can. You can also access it online here.

London’s Lost Music Venues

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

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

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

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

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

Crowley’s London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Garvin’s awesome model of Battersea Power Station

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

Read it all for yourself here.

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)