Category Archives: London

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.

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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.

Crass – anarchy in the green belt

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Crass, a unique band who mixed music and politics in such way that they really did inspire a new way of life, and thinking about life, for their followers. Theoretically, Crass were punks – and their music was loud, aggressive, fast and very direct – but they also advocated a philosophy that tried to combine humanism with libertarianism: be true to yourself but care about others. That balance of selfishness and selflessness creates a circle that isn’t always easy to square, but Crass’s absolute dedication to their message makes their story a fascinating one. “There is no authority but yourself,” they sang, a message that’s not a million miles from Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

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I’ve always been fairly sceptical about the idea there was a sharp divide between punks and hippies, and Crass are a case in point. They were every bit a product of the 60s counterculture as much as they were 1976. The band were even formed in a commune in Epping Forest that was founded in the sixties and was dedicated to that concept of dropping out. Crass were anti-war and promoted vegetarianism and identity politics. They screened avant-garde films and took part in Situationist-inspired stunts against the mass media.

Crass co-founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud was a fan of the Beatles as well as Patti Smith and Television. Here he is on Ready Steady Go winning a prize from his idol John Lennon. Rimbaud says that Lennon’s increasingly bold political and artistic statements in collaboration with Yoko Ono from 1968 were a model for Crass.

 

 

 

And yet few bands embraced the spirit of punk as much as Crass, who arranged their own gigs, ran their own label and communicated directly with their fans. They were in-your-face and anti-establishment, and their love of slogans, uniforms and banners caught some of punk’s militaristic fetish. A song like “Owe Us A Living” could surely only have been written in the punk era.

 

Rimbaud, as intellectually challenging an interviewee as any I have spoken to, discussed some of this during our conversation. “Punk wasn’t really about nihilism, that was just the theatre of McLaren,” he told me. “The Slits were a hippie band in appearance and attitude. Hippie was about people looking to find a way to live differently, what is now called DIY and is vaunted but was then common sense. You grew your own food and looked after yourself. The big difference was that punk was more urban. It was still people squatting and wearing strange clothes. People like McLaren tried to cash in on that natural and very long-existent form of youth discovery. It’s not protest, it’s youth discovering itself by buggering about. It’s only a big deal when somebody tries to market it, and punk and hippie were both exploited to the hilt.”

Read more in the current Uncut.

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)

Bus Fare – new anthology of bus writing

I’ve written about my love of buses several times on this blog – most recently when I reproduced some of the bus columns I wrote for Time Out back when I tried to take every route, end-to-end, in numerical order.

Now a new anthology of bus writing has come out featuring two of my old pieces (on the first day of the Boris Bus and on a group of retired women who took every bus in London) alongside writing by Charles Dickens, Will Self and Virginia Woolf.

Bus Fare is published by AA and edited by Travis Elborough & Joe Kerr. What’s particularly great is the way the pieces combine to tell a complete history of London buses, covering all areas from design, engineering, letter-suffixed routes, night buses, Routemasters and Green Line buses. It’s beautifully compiled, containing a variety of voices and a mix of poetry, fiction, newspaper extracts, diary entries and journalism. Lovely images too. Perfect reading for when you are stuck on the Walworth Road on the No 68 AGAIN.

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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.