Category Archives: Journalism

Building on London allotments

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a conflict between social housing and green spaces, two of the most important issues facing London today. It concerns Northfields Allotments, a stunning sliver of green space in Ealing that is London’s oldest surviving allotment. I visited the allotments on a gorgeous June morning and was captivated by this secret garden hidden behind ancient hedgerows.

Northfields Allotments - rainbow 2_Credit - Paul Bate

Credit: Paul Bate

Rather than the rather staid lines of vegetables that I expected, the allotment was like 100 completely individual back gardens in one giant field – so some people had turned their spaces into meadows of wildflowers, others had grown small orchards, there were all manner of handmade sheds, somebody had flung a hammock across a makeshift porch, and there were several Wendy houses for the kids. It was an example of the best a city can offer – people of many nationalities and with very personal tastes thrown together and creating something truly magical.

Then I went across the road to meet Robin, who was living in an almshouse owned by Pathways, a local housing charity that also happen to own the allotment following various historical mergers. Robin’s flat was very small and a little rundown, but provided him with a home when he found himself homeless, jobless and unable to support himself. Thousands of Londoners face similar situations, and there isn’t enough housing being built to provide for all of them. It’s London’s greatest failing.

Pathways now want to correct this by knocking down Robin’s block and rebuild it to modern specifications. While that takes place, they will build a new block of social housing on a small strip of the allotment site. This is so they can keep all the residents of Robin’s block together during the rebuilding work. They will fund this – contentiously – by building a small element of private housing, either to rent or sell depending on what they are allowed to do (technically, they cannot sell the allotment land).

View over Northfields Allotments NW to SE_Credit - Nabil Jacob

Credit: Nabil Jacob

Robin argued very persuasively that the needs of vulnerable Londoners are paramount and the loss of a tiny amount of green space was no big deal. Christina and Ian at the allotments argued equally persuasively that green space was essential for London’s mental and physical wellbeing and that once it is gone, we never get it back (60% of the original allotment site was already under concrete following development in the 1970s). They also felt that Pathways would keep coming back for more land, so eventually there would be nothing left. A spokesperson for Pathways assured me they had no intention of doing so, but who is to say how his successors will feel in 20 years time? This is a deceptively large section of land and housing will continue to be a concern for decades. The temptation to repeat this process, taking another 5 per cent here and there, will surely be too great.

As I wrote this story, I found it very difficult to decide where I stood. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the allotment holders because I think there is going to be increasing pressure on inner London green spaces in the next few decades so it’s important to protect what we have – and it won’t just be charities hoping to build on it.

If I had ever been homeless myself, I’d probably feel very differently, though.

We need social housing, but we surely can do better than this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reversing the ferret: affordable housing at Battersea Power Station

The Evening Standard, usually a reliable cheerleader of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, reports that the already limited affordable housing commitment is being slashed in half.

The argument appears to be that as the bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because of entirely predictable problems of over supply, the developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually need. The commitment had originally stood at more than 600. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, my book about the history of Battersea Power Station, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Some of these have since been moved to another location – ie, nowhere near the posh flats going up round the power station itself.

The Standard says the developers now want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering. That’s because following escalating costs caused by Brexit, they need to focus their finance on renovating the power station itself and building the new Northern Line extension. It’s the sort of trick used by developers all around the country as they attempt to weasel their way out of already meagre commitments, and at Battersea they can do this without making a new planning application or holding a public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. Conservative Wandsworth Council, whose commitment to a developer-led solution to the power station has been steadfast despite three decades of excruciating and occasional hilarious disappointment, are unlikely to object.

Ah, the irony. When I interviewed the amiable Rob Tincknell, the development’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was only the developer’s commitment to the Northern Line extension  (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units.

Now the argument is reversed. Because they have to build the NLE, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. It’s a classic piece of power station sophistry to match that of the recent decision to transform some planned residential units into commercial, despite earlier assurances that they having developed the perfect ingredients for a mixed use scheme they’d be fools to change their minds.

Tincknell told me in 2014 via email: “BPS makes its section 106 planning contributions in two ways. The first is a £200m plus contribution to the Northern Line extension (NLE), the second is 15% affordable housing or 565 units – the largest amount ever built in Central London.

The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double. Therefore, without the NLE the density at BPS would be about half (like the previous planning consent) and therefore even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30%, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Suddenly, all that has changed.

The developers claim they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Metroburbia – by Paul Knox

51Lx1KDP1TL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

METROBURBIA: The Anatomy Of Greater London by Paul Knox (Merrell)

London’s suburbia occupies so much space – 695 square miles according to Paul Knox – that it seems ridiculous people even try to summarise it with a single adjective, whether that’s “aspirational” or “banal”. The suburbs contain multitudes and are more like a network of a thousand individual towns then a uniform commuter-ville of identical streets. Knox describes them as “metroburbia”, which he defines as “a multimodal mixture of residential and employment settings, with a fusion of suburban and central-city characteristics”, which is a way of saying that there’s much more to London’s suburbs then large gardens and a fast train to Waterloo: they have shopping centres, office blocks, housing estates, schools, local governments and, critically, millions of residents who never dream of travelling to central London even if they benefit from being within its orbit.

Knox explored central London in his previous book for Merrell, London: Architecture, Building And Social Change, a glossy overview of the relationship between social change and architecture. That book focussed on 27 central districts, looking at how they were originally developed and then exploring in more detail a dozen key buildings. Here he again divides London into sectors, seven of them – Lea Valley, Northeast London, Thames Estuary, South London (all of it), Thames Valley, Northwest London and North London – as defined by the arteries of road, river and rail. Little, though, is made of these sectors once they have been established, with Knox instead taking a chronological overview of metroburbia’s growth and development.

The book is richly illustrated, with the historical narrative interrupted by numerous boxes that focus on individual buildings, trends, regions and housing estates. The story that unfolds is a useful way of understanding how the city has developed. At first, the suburbs were essentially used as a place to put the city’s problems. This is where you could place those big, ugly but necessary things such as cemeteries, asylums, prisons, sewage pumping stations and reservoirs. Housing at this time was just another problem to solve, and in the suburbs there was sufficient space to experiment with both social and private housing, whether in the form of domestic architecture or vast pioneering estates. The increase in population that came with the railways then created a need for further, more localised, infrastructure – libraries, police stations, hospitals, town halls. As a result, one of the joys of this book is the variety of styles it features. There are photos of 60s high-rise towers, modernist mansion blocks, art deco Golden Mile factories, neo-gothic Victorian asylums, Edwardian shopping parades and glitzy suburban villas, with tiny details picked over such as the subtle incorporation of postmodern motifs in domestic housing.

And it’s housing that ultimately dominates the story. The Green Belt is one factor behind this. A crucial reason for the attractiveness of suburbia, it is also a choke on growth with 14 outer boroughs giving more land to the Green Belt than they do to housing. A further complication is the continued fingers-in-ears approach to social housing, something the Government’s recent White Paper on housing suggests isn’t going to change any time soon. Knox picks over all this in a final chapters that analyses the current problem and possible outcomes. What is clear is that the impasse cannot be resolved without direct intervention, and that the fringe land of Metroburbia will be central to any solution.

Buy the book here – http://www.merrellpublishers.com/?9781858946511

 

1967 Uncut

I have a couple of pieces about 1967 in the new issue of Uncut, a Summer of Love special.

The first is about the Monterey Pop Festival, which became a template for almost all music festivals that followed without actually taking on board the two things that made Monterey such a success – artists played for free and the audience numbers were relatively limited. The concert featured performances from The Who, Hendrix, Grateful Dead, the Byrds, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar and several more. The music wasn’t always spectacular but the vibe was clearly unique, thanks to fine weather, excellent LSD and a general mood of harmony both among crowd and audience. I interviewed musicians, organisers and also the guys who did lighting and sound, who provided great insight.

Monterey was arguably the high point in the career of John Phillips, who co-organised the festival, booked the acts, headlined and wrote the best-selling jingle.

It must have seemed that after Monterey anything was possible but in reality – and as a neat metaphor for the movement in general – it was all downhill for Phillips from here. Pete Townshend told me a couple of Phillips anecdotes that I couldn’t include in the piece and so will repeat here.

‘My best John Phillips stories are:

1. He hired my Dad to play sax on a Nic Roeg film (The Man Who Fell To Earth I think). My Dad came home and said, “I thought I could drink, but that John Phillips out-drank me five to one. And he never stopped working, we started at seven, and were still doing takes at five in the morning.” My Dad didn’t really know about cocaine.

2. His sister asked me to call him a few years back to try to persuade him to stop drinking and using cocaine. “Pete!” He was delighted to hear from me. “Have you heard the news?” “Yes,” I replied. “You have a new liver”. “Ah!” He was triumphant. “But it’s a black woman’s liver. At last, I’ve got soul.”

The second piece is about the London scene, which is basically the story of the UFO club but covers everything from the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream to the Dialectics of Liberation conference and the launch of Radio One. I spoke to numerous figures from the scene, including Joe Boyd, Jim Haynes, Jenny Fabian, Dave Davies, Twink, Mike McInnerney and Sam Hutt.

I wanted to make this interesting, to get beyond the Beatles and write as little about fashion as humanly possible, so at the suggestion of Robert Wyatt I spoke to Caroline Coon about Release, the NGO she helped start in 1967 – partly as a result of the Stones bust at Redlands – to provide information and support to those who had been busted for drugs.

I also wrote about the psychedelic art, which is probably my favourite element of the psychedelic experience. Mike McInnerney was excellent at explaining the subtle differences between the key UK practitioners – himself, the Nigel Waymouth/Michael English collective, Martin Sharp and Alan Aldridge.

Hippies are often rejected as fluffy utopians  – partly the fault of The Beatles and “All You Need Is Love” – but I’ve always been impressed by things like Release and Steve Abrams‘s full-page ad in The Times (funded by The Beatles) challenging the marijuana laws. These are radical undertakings, that required considerable gumption and a great deal of practical planning. The underground had these in spades, even if the results weren’t always as intended. This was also the last time when the underground was really united. By the autumn of 1967, political schisms had emerged and pop was beginning to fracture into often opposing genres.

It’s impossible I think to watch the film of Monterey and not want to be there, to feel that this is the world and these are the ideals which we’d all like to inhabit. And no wonder so many still look back on 1967 with such fondness and bristled when I asked if they actually achieved any of what they had intended.

Rain/Bridges

I have written two pieces for the Canal & River Trust.

The first is about what it’s like when it rains on a canal boat.Being on the canal when it rained could be a powerful experience, from watching a storm approach you across a basin to the sound of being woken by fat drumbeats of rain on a metal roof at night. I spoke to the writer Melissa Harrison, whose book Rain: Four Walks In The English Weather has just been published in paperback by Faber, and also quote this song by Pulp.

I’ve also written about Eric De Mare, a photographer who explored the dying canal network on a makeshift boat just after the Second World War. His photos, collected in the classic book Canals Of England, were instrumental in reigniting interest in the canal. As an architect, he particularly admired their functional beauty, the simplicity of “architecture without architects”, and the way the bridges, locks and towpaths blended with the natural landscape. He photographed all aspects of the canal, but my favourites are his images of weathered bollards, which he describes as accidental sculptures.

bollard

His bridges are beautiful.

Heywood-Canal-Staffordshire

He would later repeat this sort of work with photographic surveys of the Thames and then the rest of the country’s industrial infrastructure – the breweries, warehouses, docks, factories and, of course, power stations.

eric-de-mare-power-statio-006

Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

Purley and dementia

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the dementia-friendly town concept, which is currently being rolled out in Purley. It is one of many initiatives being considered for towns and cities as the average age of the population continues to rise.

 

Podcasts, radio and Ray Davies

bps-ray-daviesI have recorded a podcast with N Quentin Woolf for Londonist about Battersea Power Station. It covers the full history of the site, looking at the history of the power station, the property battles, failed dreams and possible future.

On Friday, I will be a guest on Wandsworth Radio at around 6.30, again talking about Up In Smoke and the power station.

The image above, incidentally, is a screengrab from Ray Davies’s excellent 1984 film Return to Waterloo, starring Tim Roth and Ken Colley, which is set largely aboard the 8.52 from Guildford to Waterloo. Recently released on DVD, I review it in the forthcoming edition of Uncut.

 

 

 

Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

gtballet1gtballet2-jpeg

 

 

 

Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Spitalfields Life reports that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close. This is one of London’s oldest companies, founded in 1570 and based at its present site for 250 years. I met the owner of the foundry in 2015, and wrote this piece for Completely London magazine.

“The world is full of bells,” says Alan Hughes, and he should know. Bells are in his blood. Hughes is the fourth generation of his family to be master bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. Operating since 1570, the foundry has cast some of the most famous bells in the world. Big Ben was one of theirs, as were the bells at Westminster Abbey, the cockney bells of St Mary-le-Bow and America’s Liberty Bell. “I feel more like a caretaker than the owner,” says Hughes. “It’s so old. It was started by somebody walking these streets when Shakespeare was alive and Elizabeth I was on the throne. The world was unrecognisable. Yet it’s the same business, doing the same thing, essentially the same way.”

wbffront

In 1738, Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved to their present site on Whitechapel Road, having been founded up the road at Aldgate. The shop front is discreet and the Georgian offices modest. A display area depicts highlights from the past 445 years, such as cuttings from the Queen’s visit in 2009 and, hanging above the door, a gigantic moulding gauge, which looks like a pterodactyl’s wishbone and was used to create the mould for the 13.5 tonne Big Ben. They are proud of their history at Whitechapel, but past a small internal courtyard comes a clanging reminder that this is a living enterprise. Here is the foundry’s workshop, a large space filled with old bells, new bells, castings, moulds, metal dust, furnace bricks, and the damp thick smell of clay. In one corner, a tuner stands turning a bell on a lathe, gradually shaving off the rough interior metal by millimetres until he gets the right tone. It’s a busy, dirty, noisy place, which is why the foundry’s popular tours don’t take in the factory floor. “It’s lovely to be involved in a company that actually makes things,” says Hughes. “Here we are surrounded by bankers and financial services and I’m sure that’s very necessary and profitable but there’s nothing tangible, there’s no nuts and bolts.”

The foundry makes around 35 tonnes of bells each year, of varying sizes and for all occasions, exporting as far as Australia. They make church bells, hand bells, tiny bells for instruments like the calliope (a sort of steam organ) and ornamental bells using methods unchanged for centuries. “The fundamentals haven’t changed in 4,000 years,” says Hughes. “You create a mould, which means you make a space, the shape of which is the exact shape of the cast you wish to create, and you pour in liquid metal. That cools and the mould is then broken. Our moulding material – called the loam – is sand, bound with clay, hair and horse manure. What has changed is that we have far tighter control of technique and purity, and greater understanding of acoustics. We can produce bells that sound better, are better tuned, are better made and will last longer.”

That’s some claim given that even old bells are extraordinarily durable. “The demand for bells has been falling steadily since the 19th century and the fundamental problem is that once you have a well-made bell, you never need to replace it,” says Hughes. “There are two at Westminster Abbey that we cast in 1583. They are rung once a day every day and there’s nothing wrong with them. The oldest bell we’ve worked with are in North Kent and from the 1200s. There’s nothing wrong with them. Providing they are used sensibly, a bell will go on forever.”

Hughes was introduced to the family business – his great-grandfather purchased the company in 1904 – at a young age, going on tower inspections with his father during school holidays. “I’d sit at the top of the tower and write down measurements that he shouted out at me,” he recalls. Hughes “drifted” into working at the foundry, starting in the workshop in 1966. Now office based, he still keeps his hand in. “Nobody here can do everything,” he says. “We have loam-moulding, sand-moulding, tower bell tuning, handbell tuning, leatherwork, carpentry, joinery, fitters, turners, blacksmiths, bell hangers, steel fabricators. I started in the loam shop and still have the record for the greatest number of loam hand-mixes in one day, I did eight – the closest anybody has got is six. I have done frame building and bell hanging and I am currently the blacksmith’s mate. I enjoy the physical work. You end the day thirsty, dirty and exhausted but can fix it with a beer, bath and bed.”

Running the bell foundry is, Hughes suggests, tiring but satisfying work. “I like the idea that I am involved in creating things that will still be operating not only years after I have died, but possibly centuries,” he muses. “Not many people are in such a fortunate position that they will leave something behind that will outlive them so long.” No wonder the foundry seems timeless. Back outside, the 21st century continues. Upon leaving the foundry, a tiny bell above the door chimes clearly and with pride.

http://www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk/