Category Archives: London

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)

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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.

 

John Lydon in Gunter Grove

There’s still time, just about, to grab a copy of the current issue of Uncut, which features my cover story on PiL, the band Johnny Lydon formed after the Pistols. One of the first things Lydon told in our interview was about the importance of the top-floor flat he owned at 45 Gunter Grover, on the border of Fulham and Chelsea. “Gunter Grove definitely had this ominous influence,” he said. “The house shook day and night with the traffic, non-stop revving of vehicles going by. So up would go the record player and the mood would get darker and darker. We were in a constant competition with the traffic outside.”

Although it was only round the corner from the King’s Road and World’s End, where so much punk began, Gunter Grove was a rather strange place for a Finsbury Park native like Lydon to end up. There weren’t many record shops around, for a start. Lydon now describes it as “suburban, with an aspect of Tring”, and the street was certainly in something of a no man’s land between Fulham and Chelsea. For Lydon, though, it was an important retreat from the world of the Sex Pistols, where he had been treated viciously by his old band, his former manager as well as the public and press. Here he could regroup and create a new reality.

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Gunter Grove soon developed a demonic character of its own. Lydon and his bandmates and other trusted friends would spend days hanging out at Gunter Grove, listening to music, smoking, speeding and arguing endlessly. Lydon has always been provocative, and those who hung around him had no choice but to join in. “What did we argue about?” said Lydon. “Everything. We’d argue over a curry. Was the spice content right? Was there enough butter in it?”

The flat was decorated minimally, with some of Lydon’s own paintings on the walls. The most important feature was the “very serious” Japanese stereo, on which Lydon would play dub and krautrock at deafening volumes. “John’s place was the best club in London,” said guitarist Keith Levene. “We had all this dub from Jamaica that nobody had and an amazing sound system. Loads of people would come through and we’d sit around arguing.”

Levene and drummer Jim Walker eventually moved in – Lydon says Walker was given money for furniture but spent it all on a moose’s head and slept on newspapers. Bassist Jah Wobble was a regular visitor. “It was heavy,” said Wobble when we met at the Chelsea Arts Club. “John and Keith both remind me of Withnail & I, only they are both Withnail. I had a girlfriend so I could stay until it got too much and then leave. I’d say to people, ‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll fuck off home’, but they never did. They wanted to be around the scene and were scared that if they went, they’d miss out on something. It was like Waiting for Godot, that Irish thing. I’ve always been good with chaos, I start arguments, I wind people up, that didn’t bother me, but it was like Beckett, quite desolate.”

Don Letts was another regular visitor. Was it as intense as people were telling me, I asked. He said, “Intense was a fucking understatement. People would come to visit and leave broken people. Even his fucking cat was nuts. He had a cut called Satan that he trained to fetch things and even this cat was freaked out by the whole experience. It was very dark.”

And all of this mood fed into the music. Lydon told me that with PiL, he wanted the music to be scratchy, to be irritating, nerve ridden and anxiety prone – and several songs on First Edition and Metal Box will still leave you feeling a little like Satan the cat. A crucial element of that was Lydon’s vocals. “His voice was at the same tone as a whining baby,” said Wobble. “Russians used the frequency to jam American recon jets. But it was this strident rabble rouser.”

 

Throughout my interviews with the band I was interested to discover whether the social and political atmosphere of the late 1970s – National Front marches, constant strikes, IRA bombs and the Yorkshire Ripper – had fed into PiL’s sound, but time and again I was told it was all about Gunter Grove. Don Letts put it best. “They were in their own microclimate, it didn’t matter what was happening in the wider political social cultural universe, they were in a place all of their own,” he said. “And that came from the whole Gunther Grove thing, which was an alternative world. Looking back, I can see it was scary. They created their own world. They weren’t checking out other music, they weren’t into politics, PiL was in spite of all that.”

 

 

 

 

 

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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Fatberg at the Museum of London

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After the latest fatberg was discovered in London’s sewers in Whitechapel in September 2017 – a 130 tonne monster that covered 250 metres – the Museum of London moved fast. While most of the fatberg was broken down by spades and high-pressure water and then converted to biodiesel, the museum was able to preserve two smallish sections for analysis, conservation and display. Fatberg! duly opens at the Museum on Friday February 9 and runs until July 1. It’s a terrific example of a museum thinking on its feet, responding quickly to events and then producing a short, snappy display that covers an important topic without resorting to hectoring or over-thinking. It covers the environmental impact and what can be done to reduce fatbergs without lecturing or wagging fingers, but also shows that London is facing a growing problem that people need to be aware of before they flush anything down the loo.

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There isn’t a great deal to see, which isn’t a bad thing. There are some displays explaining precisely what a fatberg is, why they are problems, how they are formed and why the museum decided to collect a sample – apparently because they are “disgusting, fascinating things which mark a particular moment in London’s history”. The museum also proudly announces that ‘there is no precedent for collecting a fatberg”. Thames Water are co-sponsors and there’s a short video, some photos of the sewers, the tools and hamzat suit used by workers who have to break down and remove the obstruction, samples of biodiesel and then two chunks of fatberg themselves. One has broken into smaller pieces, the other is a solid and fairly hefty piece of native London fat.

Although I was slightly disappointed I couldn’t take home a small slice of fatberg for the mantelpiece, having to settle instead for some fatberg-branded fudge and a book about sewers, I was able to talk to somebody who’d handled the real thing. Andy was involved in the scientific analysis. He touched the fatberg when it was first retrieved from the sewer and says it was greasy and waxy, but has since dried to the consistency of a pumice stone and also lightened in colour as the moisture has evaporated. It’s also very light. Andy showed me photos of the museum’s fatberg sample from soon after its recovery – it was originally brown and damp, like dinosaur poo, with finger marks where people have prodded it.

The fatberg is 62%, of which 53% is the palmitic fat found in cleaning products and olive oil. The remaining 38% is 19% ash and grit, 10% water and 9 % other, which presumably includes solids such as wet wipes, nappies and condoms – all of which are a major problem for our sewers. London has suffered from an increase in fatbergs in recent years because of the age of our sewers, our changing habits, a growing population, carelessness and also possibly the fact we don’t use that much water – Americans apparently use three times as much as us – so there is less chance to flush away deposits or dilute them.

Nobody seems to know how precisely a fatberg forms or how long it takes for one to develop. Andy told me that a scientist at Cranfield University is hoping to raise sufficient funds to construct a replica London sewer where she can grow her own fatberg. This seems a wholly worthwhile enterprise and one I fully endorse. Until then, we’ll have to make do with studying the dried remains of London’s fatberg at the Museum of London.

Fatberg! at Museum of London until July 1.

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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