Category Archives: London

“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.

There was only one Tony Elliott

When I started freelancing at Time Out in 1998, originally on sport and then with the TV section, I often sat on the “Channel 5/cabsat desk” – the desk for the journalist appointed to review the best Channel 5 and cable & satellite programmes of the forthcoming week (yes, we were so flush we had reporters for each channel,, even C5).

The desk was close to the office photocopier, which was frequently used by a young-looking old man – I mean, he was at least 50 – invariably attired in jeans and a paisley shirt. This chap would engage me in conversation – not unusual in the friendly Time Out office I was beginning to realise – and he usually had an opinion on something I had reviewed. This was more surprising given I was only writing about Channel 5, was an infrequent freelancer and reviewers were identified only by their initials.

I’m not sure precisely when I worked out this was Tony Elliott, founder and owner of Time Out, but it’s safe to say that Tony knew who I was long before I recognised him. Tony seemed to read every single word – and remember each initialed byline – of every magazine and was then happy to discuss your review of Hitler’s Secret Pets, even when you had no idea who he was. Coming from The Sunday Times, where I’d never met the editor let alone the owner, it was a bit of a shock but I soon learnt to roll with it, and it helps explain why there was so much emotion and, yes, love in the room at the Roundhouse on Monday evening when 800 people attended Tony’s memorial service. We all had an experience like that, and it shaped who we were.

Tony died in July 2020 and the memorial event celebrated a wonderful life, kicking off with a speech from Alan Yentob and including reminiscences from significant figures in media and business as well as former colleagues and friends. Several talked about being part of the “Time Out family”, which seems a bit soppy when I write it down but which in that moment, surrounded by former colleagues – including those who had worked at Time Out longer before I started or long after I had left – it made a lot of sense. Others said that Time Out was the best place they had ever worked, the happiest time in their careers. That’s partly because we were young and excitable with unprecedented access to an entire city through our free travel cards and ability to get on any press list – but it’s also because of that welcoming spirit that came from the very top. Time Out wasn’t shangri-la but it had a culture that was intoxicating.

Right at the end of my Time Out career, when I was no longer such a happy member of the family, Tony sought me out to recommend I meet this guy, a bookseller, he knew. He kept on at me so much that eventually I acquiesced – something that ultimately led to one of the most fascinating projects of my career, writing a book about a billionaire who amassed the world’s largest private library devoted to altered states of consciousness. Tony wasn’t doing this with any particular outcome in mind, he just thought me and Carl would get along so went out of his way to make it happen. That was his gift and a microcosm of what he did with Time Out – opening up first London and then the world to as many people as wanted access to it. What you did after that was down to you.

After the Roundhouse, still reeling from all the old friends I had encountered, I was chatting to a lawyer who worked for Time Out during Tony’s long battle to democratise TV listings. This was discussed during the memorial service and the lawyer confirmed all the details in more colourful language. Basically, in the 1980s, the BBC published their listings in the Radio Times and ITV published theirs in TV Times. This was a cartel of information suppression that represented everything Time Out and Tony stood against. Time Out was all about opening things up, allowing Londoners to know about every nightclub or cafe or poetry reading or korfball match – the 24-hour city for everybody. TV listings was just another aspect of this philosophy.

Time Out won their battle but first they were given a unique opportunity – Time Out and Time Out alone could print complete TV listings, a privilege that would not be extended to other publications. For the lawyer, this was the best possible result. It would give Time Out a legal victory and a massive competitive advantage. He urged Tony to accept but Tony refused. He believed everybody deserved the same access. Within 18 months, the Guardian launched their own Time Out-style Guide based on their TV listings, and soon everybody was doing it. Time Out’s circulation began a slow decline.

Back in the early 2000s, some of us would, in idle moments, compare Tony to Richard Branson, another figure who emerged from the counterculture to create a business empire – and who delivered a nice video tribute at Tony’s memorial. But Tony Elliott’s empire was never anywhere near as powerful as Virgin something that we then saw as a flaw – Tony was basically a bit of a control freak who couldn’t move on. But now it’s pretty obvious that the flaw was simply one of principle. You could never imagine Branson making that same decision when it came to TV listings because he simply didn’t have the same desired outcome. He would have placed the profit imperative over principle every time. That’s fine, but there are already enough Richard Bransons in the world. There was only one Tony Elliott.

Third generation rock and roll

That headline is not a phrase you hear much of – or in fact at all – these days, but in 1972 it was a much-discussed concept that attempted to define the music and performance of the early 70s as demonstrated by the likes of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music, New York Dolls and T-Rex. As author Peter Stanfield explains in his fabulous new book Pin-Ups 1972 about the London music scene in 1972, this went by other names too – Fag Rock and Poof Rock being just two of them – which is a reminder of how insensitive even the progressive rock papers of the time could be.

That distance between then and now is the focus of Stanfield’s book. So much has been said and written about the 1970s that it’s easy to believe we all lived through them and already understand everything there is to know, but by going back to the journalism of the time, Stanfield demonstrates how writers were attempting to comprehend the music of the time without benefit of hindsight or obscured by four decades of received wisdom. Stanfield has devoured the journalism of 1972 – underground, national press, music weeklies, colour monthlies, even soft porn titles – to examine the music through a detailed reading of the writing of Nick Kent, Nik Cohn, Richard Williams, Michael Watts, Simon Frith, Mick Farren, Chrissie Hynde and many more – not just their greatest hits, but deep cuts that even they will have forgotten writing.

We see these writers in real time try to get to grips with the ambiguities and contradictions of third generation rock and Stanfield writes in an approximation of these pioneers, dropping theories, connections and cultural references with intoxicating verve, daring the reader to keep up and learn something. Look it up or go with the flow, your call.

What is third generation rock? By this reading, the first generation were the original ’56 rockers – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – and the second generation were those that grew from R&B – the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Floyd, Zeppelin and you know the rest. Third generation were those that followed, essentially the ones who had more time to understand the grammar, scriptures, cliches and language of rock and roll and then tried to do something different with it – even if many of them, Bowie, Bolan, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop for starters, had been making music for almost as long as the second generation.

It’s a slippery concept (whither Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies?), as such genre-defining often is, but that isn’t really the point. What compels is the approach of exploring the acts through the media of the time. We see hippie journalists struggle to accept the sudden elevation of Marc Bolan from underground hero to teenage fantasy, haphazardly chronicle the New York Dolls’ ill-fated trip to London in 72, or write in awe of the arrival of the semi-mythical Iggy Pop and Lou Reed when the pair come and live in London (Lou Reed settling down in Wimbledon of all places). How do you make sense of Bowie and Roxy Music, when they are happening right in front of your eyes and you have no real frame of reference? The latter explains why for much of their first year, Roxy are likened to Sha Na Na: when something genuinely revolutionary happens, critics are left grasping for comparisons – only later are they able to go back and make it all fit together. But watching that struggle, and the sheer intellectual effort demonstrated by so many writers of the time, is fascinating and a little humbling. The through-line to punk and indie is clear to us but obviously was unknown at the time, and despite walk-on roles for Malcolm McLaren and Glen Matlock, Stanfield wisely leaves that largely unsaid, helping to seal 1972 into its own time capsule.

That makes this very much a book for those who enjoy historiography and media studies almost as much as they love rock and roll. What you don’t get is recycled anecdotes, biography or even too much in the way of music criticism – although the reappraisal of Bowie’s Pin-Ups is magnificent. Stanfield is more interested in the wider culture, with rock being as much about performance and publicity and fandom as it is about chords and melodies. Which for the writers and musicians of 1972, it almost certainly was.

http://www.reaktionbooks.co.uk/display.asp?ISB=9781789145656

Kate Bush’s guide to South East London

I have written the cover story for the current issue of Uncut about Welling’s greatest daughter, Kate Bush.

The piece looks at Bush’s formative years from her first musical compositions to the release of her debut single, “Wuthering Heights”, which must be one of the most surprising and memorable debut songs ever released.

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Much of this story takes place around south-east London, where Kate Bush was raised. She grew up in a rambling old farmhouse in Welling that many interviewees think influenced her idiosyncratic outlook.

“The house when it was built would have been in the countryside,” Joe Boyd told me. “By the time Kate was growing up it was suburbia, but right on the edge with fields out the back. There are barns and stables and horses. It does feel as if her upbringing gave her one foot in both new and old, and I know she really valued that place and what it gave her. It’s one of those old London houses that have somehow never been demolished, where you can squint and imagine the past.” Boyd likened it to an old Georgian mansion that survives in Notting Hill, somehow having avoided redevelopment and now a portal to another history. I told him it sounded like Brixton Windmill, and Boyd told me of a spell he spent in Brixton prison in the 1960s, on remand for possession. The windmill, he said, became his beacon of hope.

When Bush left home, she continued to stay close to her family living in the top floor of a Victorian house in Brockley – her two older brothers occupied the two flats below. It was in SE London that she first rehearsed and performed with the (still performing) KT Bush Band, touring the London pub scene. Here she is performing “Come Together”, one of the few recordings that survive from this period.

Anyway, here are some of the key locations from this part of Bush’s life. For more, you’ll have to buy the magazine.

KATE BUSH GUIDE TO SOUTH-EAST LONDON

East Wickham Farm, Wickham Road, Welling

The Bush family homestead, parts of which are more than 400 years old. The farmhouse remains in family ownership today.

 

St Joseph’s Convent Grammar School, Woolwich Road, Abbey Wood

Bush’s school, which she attended until 1976 getting 10 O Levels. She wrote poems for the school magazine, including “The Crucifixion”, “Blind Joe Death” and “Epitaph For A Rodent”.

 

44 Wickham Road, Brockley

The Bush family bought this house and installed the three Bush siblings in flats on each floor. It was where Bush would perfect the songs that appeared on The Kick Inside.

 

Greenwich Swimming Baths, Trafalgar Road

In a room next to the boiler room, the KT Bush Band held their first rehearsal ahead of their short life touring London pubs, clubs and hotels.

 

Rose Of Lee, 162 Lee High Road, Lewisham

Scene of the debut KT Bush Band show in March 1977 in front of an audience of around 30. Crowds would grow over the next few weeks as the band returned.

 

South East London Entertainment, Rushey Green

Musical equipment shop where the KT Bush Band bought PA equipment with money provided by EMI. They also bought mics from Fender Soundhouse in Soho.

Save the canal’s statue garden

When I lived on the canal in Lisson Grove, we would often head west along the canal towards Kensal Green and Notting Hill, either by foot or narrowboat.

Whenever we did, we’d pass a small sculpture garden of  garden ornaments and gnomes on the offside (non-towpath side) of the canal. This occuped a thin strip of land between the canal and a brick wall, which seemed to be the back of some housing. Every time we passed, the sculpture garden would have grown a little and paintings and mirrors started to appear on the wall itself. As far as I recall, we never saw anybody in the garden – it just seemed to mutate organically, as if the statues were breeding during the night.

I left the canal more than a decade ago and rarely returned, until a couple of years ago when work took me once more to Kensal Green. I was delighted to see that the statue garden still survived. Indeed, it had thrived. What had once occupied a single house now took over an entire terrace with what appeared to be more than a hundred statues and other decorations.

I took a quite bad photo, which gives you a vague idea of what it looks like.

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I never knew who made this garden. It just seemed like one of those glorious London eccentricies that somebody willed into existence and then nurtured, simply because they could. They had the time and the talent and the inclination, so why not. They may will have had their own internally coherant reasons for creating it, but that scarcely mattered as it brightened the canal and the lives of everybody who passed.

Today I learnt much more via twitter. The garden is called Gerry’s Pompeii and was created by Gerry Dalton, who was born in Ireland in 1935, moved to London in the 1950s and after a career as a postman, factory worker and gardener retired and began to create his garden. As you might expect when you think about, this was not contained to the canal. This alternative universe began in Gerry’s own house, took over his garden and then spilled on the canal. By the end, it featured an astonishing 200 concrete and mixed media sculptures, around 170 wall mounted works and a 50 meter long mural.

If he had not died this year, one imagines that it would have just kept growing all the way to Camden. This video gives a great taste of what he created.

A crowdfunding project has now started to try to save Gerry’s Pompeii, either by raising £700,000 to preserve it in situ by purchasing his home from the housing association that owns it, reconstructing it elsewhere, or removing, storing and archiving it for the future.

If you can help, give some cash here. And get down to the canal to see this before it goes, as it’s a real London gem.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Farewell to The Borderline

I have a short piece in the current issue of Uncut about the Borderline (and another longer, very good, piece about the Flamingo).

The Borderline is due to close this summer after a rich history as a venue, hosting a huge number of US and UK bands including Amy Winehouse, REM and Pearl Jam. It was the last venue Townes Van Zandt ever performed, but it was also often used by labels hoping to break an act – its location, good reputation, atmosphere and 200 capacity made it an ideal showcase venue. For these reasons, Oasis chose to use it as the location for their “Cigarettes & Alcohol” video, before playing an impromptu set for the fans who attended the shoot.

I’ve seen loads of great shows here, the best of which was the UK debut by the Drive-By Truckers, which included a solo spot by new recruit Jason Isbell. I also saw Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent play here as Fillup Shack in front of an audience of around a dozen. Most of us were there thanks to the music editor of Time Out, Ross Fortune, who heard ticket sales were low so handed out freebies  to anybody who wanted a night out. Ross loved the Borderline and made it his venue of the year. He even had a favourite seat by the bar that gave him a perfect view of the stage while also allowing him to get served without having to stand up.

Jeff Buckley was another who made his debut at the Borderline – he then played a second show across the road at the 12 Bar for fans who couldn’t get tickets. I was talking to somebody recently who saw Pop Will Eat Itself at the Borderline supported by Suicide – when the crowd booed Suicide off the stage, Clint Mansell refused to perform with PWEI. A bunch of US actors who fancied themselves at musicians all played the Borderline, among them Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Minnie Driver and Kiefer Sutherland. How many venues in the world can claim that?

When REM played here it was under the pseudonym Bingo Hand Job, a legendary two-night stand that saw them joined by Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock as this massive band played a bunch of scuzzy covers to 200 fans under their assumed identity. For the piece, I talked to Mike Mills about the shows as well as fans who say it was the most fun they ever saw the band have on stage. That’s the power and pull of a good club venue, and one you’ll never see replicated at a larger theatre or arena.

The Borderline was also worked hard. During its peak years (1990-2005) it was open every night of the week, and after gigs hosted club nights like Alan McGee’s The Queen Is Dead – which caused some entertaining culture clashes at the doors as one group of fans left and the others arrived. The music booker was Barry Everitt, who had a fascinating career in music and whose obituary is worth a read. Incidentally, the manager during this golden period now runs the Crobar, the nearby dive bar and one of the few venues that seems to be clinging on in this part of London. He believes the current owners suffered from a “lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of contacts”.

When I wrote about the changes to the Charing Cross Road on this blog eight years ago, I speculated about what Crossrail would allow to survive. The development of this area has cost London several venues either directly or indirectly, with the Astoria, 12 Bar and Metro all disappearing along with a number of smaller bars and clubs.

And now the Borderline is going too, leaving the 100 Club  as the last decent-sized West End venue standing. Enjoy it while you can.

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.

The Parakeets of London

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview 90-year-old Angela Allen for the Telegraph Magazine. Allen was a script supervisor, or continuity girl as it was originally called, for a host of great films including The Third Man.  I was asking her specifically about her experiences on The African Queen, which she filmed in the Congo jungle with Bogart, Hepburn and John Huston.

At the end of an enjoyable interview, I needed to ask one last question. About parakeets.

Big mistake.

“Oh don’t started me on the parrots,” she sighed. “Everybody says the London parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen but there were no birds in the film and we didn’t bring any animals back to England, so I’m bored of hearing that one. I don’t know where that rumour came from but I didn’t see a parrot in London or Africa. I was once filming in Rome with Zeffirelli and somebody started blaming The African Queen for the parrots they now have in Italy.”

So there you go. However, if you do want to know more about the history of London’s parakeets, a new book has all the answers. The Parakeeting of London is the latest book from Paradise Road, the London independent publishers who did my Battersea Power Station book. It’s fantastic.

Written by “gonzo ornithologist” Nick Hunt, the book looks for the earliest reported sightings in London and explores the many urban myths surrounding their history. It also looks at the way the parakeets live, travel and feed and the impact they have on other wildlife. And the book explores the nature of the relationship that Londoners have developed with this “invasive species”, asking some pertinent questions about the concept of native and immigrant species that ties into wider, non bird-related, socio-political questions.

You can get The Parakeeting Of London from the Paradise Road website.