Category Archives: Obituary

Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RIP Martin Stone – guitarist, bookseller, hustler

I first met Martin Stone, who died this week of cancer in France, at at exhibition in a Mayfair bookstore. It was a display of countercultural ephemera and included a flyer advertising a gig by Mick Farren’s Deviants. Stone, thin, toothless and full of mischief, regaled me with a terrific anecdote about the time he saw Mick Farren – “once one of the three coolest men in London after Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix” – doing a rather desperate book reading in front of a barely interested audience at a branch of Borders in California. He cackled a little in the telling, obviously amused by the fall of one of the underground giants of the 1960s.

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Stone himself was an intriguing figure who in later years looked a little like a more crumpled William Burroughs and came with a fascinating back story and the vibe that you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. When I wrote about early 1960s R&B in south-west London, his name recurred as one of the best guitarists on the scene, able to hold his own against the likes of Page, Beck and Clapton. He was even said to be on the shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Stone stayed in music throughout the 60s and 70s – he played for a variety of bands including The Action, Mighty Baby, Pink Fairies and 101ers – but later branched into bookselling, where he became a mythical figure, “running” books from one shop to another, which basically means finding something underpriced in one place and selling it for its true value in another.

Stone was friendly with Iain Sinclair (who wrote about him here), appearing as a character in one of Sinclair’s early books and as himself in one of the strange films Sinclair made with Christ Petit. This was an odd trajectory to take, from 60s counterculture musician to  bookdealer, but it’s worth recalling how many other musicians of that generation did something similar. Jimmy Page ran an occult book shop in Kensington, Pete Townshend ran the Magic Bus bookshop in Richmond and worked for Faber & Faber while Paul McCartney was closely involved with Indica. Thurston Moore is doing something similar today.

Stone developed a reputation as being an astonishingly adept runner, capable of finding rare books in all sorts of unusual places. Sinclair, naturally, believed he had some sort of mystical talent but having seen Stone in action and discussed it with others better informed than I, he was really just a man who knew his market and was capable of going wherever it took and spinning whatever seductive yarn was required to get his goods. He was a hustler essentially, with all that is impressive and sordid about that skill.

Having recently enjoyed Keiron Pim’s book about David Litvinoff, I’d put Stone in a similar category. A curious character with one foot in a London underworld, waspishly intimidating, unreliable but decent company, who flitted in and out of the lives of many people better known than he. His Wikipedia page gives a good flavour of this –   casually namedropping Michael Moorcock, Jimmy Page, Iain Sinclair and Marianne Faithfull.

I last saw Stone two years ago, wearing a pink suit and strolling casually down Cecil Court. He popped in to see a mutual friend, smiling and self-confident, delivered a couple of carefully barbed asides and then went on his way, looking for bargains and preparing to ambush the unprepared.

It’s all glass here now – the taming of St Giles and death of the West End

I have a piece in today’s Guardian about the disappearing London district of St Giles, for centuries a hive of villainy and low entertainment but which is now, finally, being aggressively domesticated by developers with no love of vernacular architecture or fun.

Last year, while walking round this junction of Tottenham Court Road, Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, I was assailed by pneumatic drills, wrecking balls and nostalgia. This used to be my territory, where I’d play after working at Time Out on Tottenham Court Road, and now much of it was unrecognisable. The cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs that I’d known so well were gone. But this wasn’t simply a case of the passage of time and changing fashion causing old haunts close down – that I could accept, more or less. Here the buildings themselves had been pulled apart so nothing new or interesting could take their place.

Even Time Out‘s old office had been demolished, developers deciding that rather do any actual developing and modernise the entirely usable existing structure, it was easier to knock it down and start again. This was happening over and over, wherever I looked. It was like armaggedon, a building site several miles square, pouring concrete over memories and salting fertile ground.

With this wholesale demolition, the character of an entire area was being irrevocably and deliberately erased. People have been saying the West End was dead for decades, but in the borderland of St Giles something of the old  Soho and Covent Garden still lingered. Now, it’s gone. If it’s fun you want, give Zone One a skip. It’s all glass here now.

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Farewell to Soho’s Stockpot

It feels these days as if every time I venture into the West End I will pass a raft of unfamiliar shiny expensive shops and restaurants and then stumble upon one last holdout from the London that I grew up with. “How on earth has it survived,” I’ll think. And then a week later, I’ll find out on Twitter that it hasn’t.

So it is with Soho’s Stockpot, the cheap and cheerful bistro on Old Compton Street that was more than a cafe but wasn’t quite a restaurant. This closes on Sunday after decades of serving starving Soho dilettantes.

I started coming here in my early 20s. It was the first time I felt like a proper grown-up because I wasn’t simply eating at Burger King. It was utterly, ineffably London, as if they had distilled the very essence of the city and mixed it into the gravy that they poured liberally over the liver and bacon.

The Stockpot was somewhere you could come at any time, though I was usually there around 6pm before a night out, lining my stomach with cheap carbs before a gig or evening in the local pubs. It was one of the few places where you could order something like gammon and chips, and could be sure of getting a hot main course for under a fiver, which even then was something of a bargain.

I often ate there alone, with a book and tumbler of cheap red, feeling mildly bohemian, imagining that I was parking my posterior on wooden benches that had once seated some of Soho’s finest writers, artists, poets, wits and wasters. It felt that a torch was being carried. There was a sense of continuum, of being a tiny part of a magnificent city where progress and tradition could go hand in hand.

I loved so much about the Stockpot. I loved the simplicity of its frontage. I loved the way people sat close together, knee to knee, as the waiting staff stuffed another customer into every available space. I loved the menus, handwritten daily but always the same. I loved the ancient brass till that looked like a Victorian musical instrument. I loved the theatrical paraphernalia and overheard conversations of people that seemed like actors and artists but were probably receptionists in a nearby film production company as they gossiped about friends. I really loved the prices. I even loved the food, which was tasty, hearty and filling, precisely what was required before a night exploring Soho’s familiar haunts.

Once you’d eaten at The Stockpot, you felt ready for anything, and that the intoxicating adventure that was a young man’s night out in London was already underway.

 

 

 

Secret London: eight London shrines

I wrote this for the wonderful Curiocity, London’s finest pocket-sized trivia-and-map-packing magazine. Issue E, with a pilgrimage theme, is available at all good London bookshops. 

Tyburn martyrs
On Bayswater Road at Marble Arch is a small convent, unlikely home to a ‘cloistered community of benedictine contemplatives’, aka nuns. In the basement chapel, the walls are covered with ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged on the three-sided Tyburn Tree during the Tudor wars of religion. Behind the altar of this ghoulish Martyr’s Shrine is a replica of the Tyburn gallows itself.

Giro, The Nazi Dog
One of London’s best known ‘secret’ sites, this little stone on Carlton House Terrace marks the grave of Giro, beloved pooch of (Hitler-opposing) German ambassador Leopold von Hoesch. Giro died while the German Embassy was at No 8-9 (now the Royal Society) during the pre-war Nazi era. He wasn’t really a Nazi, incidentally, as dogs rarely express a political preference (although I did once know one that would bark like a maniac if you said ‘Labour party’).

Bolan’s Tree
A sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes has been a shrine to Marc Bolan since 1977 when Bolan’s Mini crashed into it, killing the singer instantly. A bronze bust of Bolan stands nearby.

Spoons

Holborn’s junkie spoons
Underneath a dank stairwell in Farringdon close to Mount Pleasant sorting office you might stumble across a wall stuck with a dozen mysterious spoons. Urban legend says these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead peers, each spoon marking a new death.

Cross Bones graveyard
This parcel of disused land in Borough has been claimed by locals as a shrine to prostitutes said to have been buried on unconsecrated land since the 1500s, and they come here to lay flowers for the forgotten dead. In truth, Borough had many such graveyards and Cross Bones was used to bury the poor of both sexes.

Regent’s Canal coconuts
The further west you head along Regent’s Canal towards Southall the more likely it is you will come across a coconut floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles. These are placed there by London Hindus in religious ceremonies that sees the tiny canal replace the mighty Ganges.

Skateboard graveyard
Look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge and you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of the concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have experienced one olley too many and, beyond repair, been dropped to join their kin by South Bank skateboarders.

Postman’s Park
A shrine to everyday heroes, this park features a number of ceramic tiles dedicated to Londoners who died while saving the lives of others. A remarkable, very touching little spot created by the Victorian artist GF Watts.

Pubs

I’ve only ever really had one local, that is a pub I visited at least once a week for a couple of years. But what a local. Crocker’s Folly was one of London’s best pubs, a beautiful old gin palace, with a stunning saloon bar that featured 50 kinds of marble, Romanesque marble columns, Jacobean ceiling, cut glass, chandeliers and carved mahogany.

The pub even had a great back story. It was built by Frank Crocker in 1889, who got wind that a new station was to open at Marylebone and so placed his extravagant new hotel at what he believed was going to be the perfect location to attract the thousands of travellers. Sadly, the station was constructed half-a-mile  to the south and – it’s said – a ruined Crocker leapt to his pavementy death from one of the upstairs window. (In truth, he died in 1904 of natural causes.)

I used Crocker’s when I lived on the nearby canal at Lisson Grove, popping there for a pint after work, for a quick lunch or long dinner, to watch the football, for a sneaky drink between visits to the launderette, to take part in the pub quiz, to meet friends, to be alone. We had a great landlord and the pub was always full of canal folk and locals, a place you felt welcome, where there was always somebody to talk to or enough room for you to settle down on your own, with a packet of cigarettes, a newspaper and a couple of quid for the fruit machine.

Then, pretty abruptly, things changed. A new landlord was brought in by the owners and you couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing wrong, but it was clearly something. Dodgy kids from nearby estates become more prominent. The quality of ale declined. Less events were held. The food menu got worse. Suddenly, Crocker’s became a little rough – it was no longer the sort of place you’d expect to encounter the annual Christmas party held by national newspaper crossword compilers, as had once been the case in the late 1990s – and so we’d walk past it on our way to other, now better, pubs around Warwick Avenue. That’s the problem with pubs. If they aren’t good enough, there’s always a better one around the corner. Until that one closes as well.

I noticed on one of my last visits to Crocker’s that the door policy had changed to an almost unheard of ‘Over-25s only’. In 2002, shortly before I left the canal behind, it closed.

It’s still closed.

Lord know what Crocker’s looks like inside, even though it is a listed building and being carefully watched by CAMRA members. Last time I passed it was as boarded up as ever, but there is planning permission for flats to be installed in the many upstairs rooms. Work has begun, I’ve heard, but CAMRA do not think a pub is part of that plan. What this means for that astounding ground floor, I do not know.

Crocker’s Folly was a beautiful building, open to all Londoners, serving many needs and creating a community around it, and it’s demise is as great a tragedy as that imagined for its creator, more so because it always felt deliberate, as if the company that owned the pub were opting for managed decline, an excuse to close the pub and find a way to sidestep planning permission so they could sell it to developers. That never happened and so the pub was left to rot, like so many others in London.

If you can stand it, scroll through this amazing Flickr archive of London’s lost pubs. I knew some of these, once.

I’ve written about the threats to London pubs and what can be done to save them in this month’s Metropolitan magazine for Eurostar. 

Mick Farren: dead good Deviant

‘Sure the underground was elitist: we were an elite. We were the cutting edge of ongoing bohemianism at that point.’ Mick Farren in Days In The Life by Jonathon Green

The last time I spoke to Mick Farren (May, 2013) he was waiting for the doctor to come round. He was, he told me, in pretty poor shape but welcomed our interview as it gave him something else to think about. Farren’s ill health had been known for some years, but it didn’t stop him going on stage with his old band the Deviants every now and then. It was while performing at the Borderline last night (Saturday, July 27) that he collapsed and died.

It seems crude to say that is how Mick Farren would want to go, but it’s certainly no great surprise that this vivacious ball of hair and action, the closest thing London ever came to producing an Abbie Hoffman,  should die while giving it all to his great love rock and roll. (The following, and all subsequent quotes, are from my interviews with Farren.)

‘Essentially, from when I was in art school through to Joe Strummer the major communication medium of the counterculture certainly in the second half of the 1960s was rock and roll music. You start with that and everything else was peripheral to it.’

Farren’s Deviants were pre-punk noise terrorists whose self-distributed debut album, Ptooff! was one of the first records to come directly out of the London counterculture. When I spoke to Farren for Uncut about the Rolling Stones free gig at Hyde Park in 1969, I asked him whether the Deviants had wanted to play the show. He said,

‘We asked if we could play. We were vetoed, it was probably Jagger. Everybody said I wouldn’t behave myself and start rabble rousing, which was fair enough.’

I put this to Pete Jenner, who co-organised the gig, who responded.

‘Well, there was that and also the fact they were a rotten band. I really like Mick [Farren] but they were a rotten band who smashed instruments on stage. It wasn’t kick out the jams motherfucker, it was let’s have a joint and a buttercup sandwich.’

The Deviants weren’t really a rotten band, but Farren certainly saw them as London’s answer to the MC5. He was heavily active in the political end of the counterculture, forming the London branch of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party and leading the occasional putsch at the International Times when he felt it was getting too bourgeois and boring. Farren was a key figure in so much of what happened in the counterculture, running the door at UFO, writing for and editing alternative newspapers, organising free festivals while playing shows and really meaning it, man. He was fixer and a doer, a wit and sometimes a sage.

‘IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about THAT?’

His politics though, always came with a sense of fun – at one anti-war demo the Deviants played he annoyed the po-faced organisers by being more concerned with getting on stage without splitting his trousers than with espousing the cause. He was once described to me by a fellow traveler as being one of the three coolest men in London in 1967, and that made him one of the three coolest men in the entire world.

”We were always condemned as frivolous and philosophically disorganised, and the counter-accusation was they were just boring totalitarians who wanted to sing the Red Flag when we’d rather listen to Voodoo Child and smoke pot.’

When the alternative press disintegrated, Farren – like many from the underground – went on to write great pieces like this for the NME:

The immediate legacy of the underground papers was the NME because we all went there. They had a very profound effect on the visual effect of magazine publishing, but much more important is that the spirit of the thing is now preserved on the internet.  It’s all still there, it’s just become more specialised and you have to go looking for it.’

Farren is one of the dominant figures in Jonathon Green’s essential history of the British underground, Days In The Life, and also wrote brilliantly, if unreliably, about his own activities in Give The Anarchist a Cigarette. What resonates from those books is what an unlikely fit Farren seems in the upper-middle-class world of the counterculture, which was largely run by public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates imbued with that remarkable confidence that comes with a good education. Farren was different, his confidence was self-generated and less polite, while his art school experiences meant he ‘learned to manage chaos’. Indeed, he relished it. Take a look at the clips below if you don’t believe me.

In his own writings and when interviewed, Farren always came across as funny and incredibly sharp but there was more to it at than that. He was fundamentally, intrinsically, decent. A man without edges. As Jonathon Green told me when hearing the news of his death: ‘Of the underground ‘stars’ he seems, and always did, to have been one of the good guys.’

RIP Mick Farren. He will be missed by many.

Farren invading The Frost Show.

Farren recollecting the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam riot of 1968.