Category Archives: History

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.”

 

 

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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?

King Mob, the Camden Poster Workshop and revolutionary London in 1968

 

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While most recollections of 1968 concern events in Paris, Germany, the US and South America, there was also a minor uprising in London. That is being commemorated with a suitably bijou single-room exhibition at the Tate Britain, and also a new publication in Four Corners’ Irregular series – about which I first wrote here.

The book is an anthology of the work of Camden’s Poster Workshop, a collective that silkscreen protest posters for any cause that needed them, directly inspired by the famous posters of Paris in May. It includes examples of every poster the group produced from their premises on Camden Road, plus essays explaining how they worked and their social context.

 

 

 

 

 

The graphics, slogans and general attitude are a perfect expression of the spirit of 1968, with campaigns focusing on big issues like Vietnam but also looking at very localised political issues such as rent strikes and student protests. There is a whole wall of those posters on display at the Tate, sitting opposite various artworks that capture the anti-establishment spirit of 1968 – a photograph by Richard Long, some work by Joseph Bueys.

In the space between are a handful of exhibition cases containing some ephemera related to 1968. Much of this relates to protests at Hornsey Art College and LSE, but there’s also some terrific King Mob and Anti-University paraphernalia, plus issues of IT and Black Dwarf. It’s definitely worth a quick look if you are planning to visit either of the current two main exhibitions, one on the impressionists on London and the excellent All Too Human, a very London-orientated featuring art by Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Bomberg.

 

The King Mob elements particularly interested me, as this group had a striking way with word and image that anticipates – and inspired – the artwork of punk. “Comrades stop buggering about”, one pamphlet implores while another quotes Antonin Artaud in a perfect mix of the profane and the artful. They may well have been little more than annoying provocateurs, the Spiked Online of their day who said things like “football hooligans are the avant-garde of the British working class” but they certainly had wit. As Alan Marcuson explained to Jonathon Green in Days In The Life: “They were much more fun, their writings were more fun, they were a more interesting group of people, they were doing more interesting things, their pamphlets were more interesting than the boring fucking Trots, who really were the most tiresome bunch of people I have ever come across.”

King Mob were outliers in the London revolutionary scene. They formed in Notting Hill as an offshoot of the Situationist International. In ’68 – The Year Of The Barricades, David Caute writes that they “derided both passive, drugged hippies and the usual New Left rent-a-crowd who were forever ‘counting arseholes’ and pursuing stale ‘issue politics’.” It’s noticeable that there is no index entry for King Mob in Barry Miles’ history of the London counterculture, London Calling. That could be because one of King Mob’s first actions was to go to Miles’s Indica bookshop, where the hippie Trots of IT were then based, and “scaring the wits out of them”.

Like most left-wing revolutionary groups, King Mob believed they were the real thing. They articulated a keen sense of humour that was borrowed from the Yippies and Situationists, and also nurtured a belief in “creative violence” that they admired in New York’s brilliantly named and short-lived Motherfuckers. As a result, King Mob celebrated serial killers and planned audacious actions – blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District; hanging the peacocks in Holland Park – none of which came to pass.

Their most famous activity was when a group of King Mobbers, including Malcolm McLaren, invaded Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas and handed out toys to children. They are also said to have been responsible for some of London’s best graffiti, including the famous “How much more can you take?” in Ladbroke Grove. Their influence on the political climate of 1968 was minute, but McLaren and Jamie Reid would soon take King Mob’s love of ‘chaos and anarchy” and apply it to punk rock.

 

 

 

 

Boxing cats and potato smashing on the streets of Victorian London

I spent yesterday morning sheltering from the snow by browsing the London Society‘s archives, which are kept in a warehouse near the Regent’s Canal in Islington. The society has several hundred London books, but also hundreds of boxes crammed with ephemera. These have been sorted to a certain degree into different categories, but it still doesn’t mean you have a clue what you’ll find until you open the lid. Amid the photographs, bus timetables, leaflets, maps, old copies of Time Out and weathered periodicals I found a box named only “odd-shaped”.

I had to investigate further.

Inside this box was another box, and this was filled with index cards. These had been sorted into alphabetical order. Each one had a handwritten title – usually a place name – and then a pasted clipping from the Daily Telegraph, usually from the late 1920s and 1930s. Quite who compiled this library – or why – was unclear, but they collectively represented a series that could have been published almost in their entirety as “Strange things about London”. For instance, this was the only entry for “Herne Hill”.

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Towards the back, under S, I discovered a fantastic series of clippings about “Street Shows, London” that was prompted by a letter regarding some of the old street entertainers seen around the city. What followed was an outpouring of extraordinary memories, all for some 30-40 years before. There were boxing cats (“the cats boxed rather lazily”). “A shabby little man” organised the pantomime execution and funeral of a canary (“the hearse drawn by a team of four canaries”). There was “a savage who glowered and grunted behind a set of bars”. There was a “burly negro” who ate coal, drank meths and then set fire to his breath. There was a drunken stilt-walker. There was another “negro”, who ate lighted fuses – “he once showed me the inside of his left cheek burned black”. There was “another negro” who would throw dinner plates in the air and smash them on his head – “on one occasion I was present when cut his forehead rather badly”, records the correspondent in Bogner Regis, dispassionately. Best of all was the “potato smasher”, who would turn up in Camden or Oxford Street and throw a raw potato in the air, smashing it with his head – he had “a permanent bruise on his forehead caused by the impact of many  potatoes”.

There were reams of this stuff, all clipped, pasted, annotated and diligently filed, until they were eventually sent to The London Society, placed in a box and then left on a shelf in a warehouse, waiting to be rediscovered.

I post a selection below.

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High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

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I wrote about Rob Baker’s last book – Beautiful Idiots, Brilliant Lunatics – a couple of years ago. It’s a collection of London-based short histories inspired by Rob’s superb blog, Another Nickel In The Machine. Rob’s now written a follow-up, High Buildings, Low Morals, which again explores a dozen London stories from the 20th century, some entirely forgotten and others well-known but brilliantly written by Baker, who takes a familiar tale – say, the Streatham brothel of Cynthia Payne – and use it to discuss something loosely related, such as the history of luncheon vouchers.

The fun of this approach can be seen in the opening story, which is about the infamous “headless polaroids” showing a Mayfair socialite giving an unknown man a blow job – the four photos had handwritten captions, “before”, “during”, “oh!” and “finished”. The photos were at the centre of an infamous divorce case but Baker also brings in Noel Coward lyrics, PG Wodehouse, Mussolini, Barbara Cartland and Normal Mailer.

Baker often focuses on a scandal of some sort but I particularly liked the chapter about Graham Greene’s wartime activities during the Blitz, which followed the author at work as a fire warden on one of the worst evenings of bombing. Within each chapter, are a handful of great facts and in the Greene section I learnt about a restaurant, the Hungaria on Lower Regent Street, which advertised itself as being “bomb-proof, splinter-proof, blast-proof, gas-proof and BOREDOM PROOF”. The restaurant had “a fleet of private cars driven by tin-hatted chauffeurs ready to take you through bomb blasts and shell fragments back home.”

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Other chapters take in the IRA’s operations of the 1970s, the Oz trial, and the extraordinary Lord Boothby. One of the best is about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.”

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The London Mithraeum

Back when this blog was young, I wrote about the Temple of Mithras in the City of London, which was then embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House – an entirely unsympathetic treatment for what was one of London’s finer Roman sites.

The temple had been discovered by chance after the Blitz and became a hugely popular tourist attraction for a while but was then encased in concrete in a bizarre treatment, instantly turning something important and kind of heroic into the hopelessly banal. Here was a site that told several important stories about London and it looked like an unfinished courtyard.

Well the temple has now been restored to its rightful place, several metres below the street underneath Bloomberg’s new HQ on Walbrook. Bloomberg have not only restored the temple, they’ve also given it a new name – The London Mithraeum – and have opened it to the public free of charge. It now as all the solemnity and integrity missing from the old temple site.

It’s an almost minimalist space, stacked over three levels. The ground–floor introduction is a wall of Roman finds from the Walbrook valley, which are a tiny sample of the thousands archeologists have recovered. This is a currently rather popular way of cramming in a lot of visually arresting items from everyday life, and in this case includes toys, arrows, rings, amulets, wooden paddles, shoes and writing pads, one of which contains the first written example of the word London. They nearly all date from the very earliest Roman arrivals, as the Walbrook was culverted within decades of the city’s foundation and used as a rubbish heap. That partly explains why so much was found here, although god knows what has been lost in past reconstructions of the City. Apparently even after the Blitz, a huge amount of rubble from here was simply dumped without anybody sorting through it to find items of archeological significance. Incidentally, Bloomberg have also installed a rather nice sculptural reimagining of the Walbrook in the pavement outside their office, though I’m not sure how it will age.

The Temple itself dates to the 3rd century. Stairs take you down to the old Roman street level and a sparse atrium, where three digital lecterns allow visitors to explore the cult of Mithras. As part of the process, Bloomberg brought together various Mithran scholars and some of this information is fed into the audio-visual material. Shadowy interpretations of Mithran themes – the zodiac, bulls, wind –  are screened on the walls. The room also acts as a holding room before you go into the Temple site itself.

 

The Temple’s complete footprint has survived, which is part of what makes it unique in London. It has been pieced back together following the botched 1960s effort and then the entirety has been carefully reconstructed on its old site. Bloomberg have decided to work only with what they have – there’s no extraneous sculptures, no attempt to recreate an ersatz version of a reimagined interior. Instead, the columns of the Temple are cleverly evoked through light sculpture, while a slightly spooky tape of a Roman ceremony is played. Bloomberg haven’t even installed models of the sculptures from the site which are now in the Museum of London as they don’t want to use fabricated material and they can’t be entirely sure where they would have been placed. The exception to this is the clearly modern tauroctony showing Mithras slaying a bull, placed at what we think would be the altar.

Round the back of the altar there is also a rather prominent oyster shell buried in the brickwork. This was given to somebody who visited the rediscovered Mithras temple in 1954 and who returned it shortly before her death.

Bloomberg’s Mithraeum is slightly mysterious and sinister, but that’s not so much because the Mithran cult was particularly secretive, it’s just that we don’t know all that much about them. It’s also pretty tasteful – although the Latin incantations wobbled towards the theatrical side. But the drama is better than what was there before, and what’s particularly impressive is that Bloomberg didn’t really have to do all of this. They were always going to reconstruct the temple – it was a condition of their planning permission – but they’ve done a much more thoughtful job of it that many companies would. It’s probably nice for them to have such a striking slice of history in their basement – and it’s certainly good for the company profile – but it’s also a major commitment to provide such open access to the public.

It made me think of other London subterranean treasures, like the Tudor wine cellar that’s suspended underneath the Ministry of Defence. A fascinating and unusual space that the public never get to see. The London Mithraeum, by contrast, is now open for everyone.

All pictures courtesy of MOLA.