Category Archives: Photography

Zola’s bicycle women

This is a version of an article I wrote for the superb Mondial magazine, produced by Rapha. 

When Émile Zola lived in London between July 1898 and June 1899, he spent a lot of time on his bike photographing women on their bikes. The French author was in Norwood, a town dominated by the vast glass Crystal Palace exhibition hall, and most days he cycled around his unfamiliar environment. Zola attached a camera to his handlebars so he could take “photos that were marvellously sharp and clear”. He intended to “make an album of exile”, a record of his strange secluded months in south London. This was eventually published in 1997 by The Norwood Society as Emile Zola: photographer in Norwood, South London 1898-1899.

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Zola arrived in London on July 19 1898, carrying a nightshirt folded inside a newspaper and a piece of bread. He had left Paris in haste following his role in one of the great scandals of French politics. Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier, had been accused of passing secrets to the Germans; Zola believed Dreyfus was convicted only because he was Jewish. He defended Dreyfus in a newspaper editorial – J’Accuse – and was charged with libel. Rather than spend a year in jail, he fled to London.

Michael Rosen’s The Disappearance of Émile Zola is a lively summary of Zola’s lonely London life, where he hid in an anonymous suburb, unable to speak English or enjoy the terrible English food. One of his few treasures was his bicycle – cycling round Paris had been a passion –and also his camera. He took more than a hundred photographs of Norwood, and Rosen describes these as “pictures of a new kind of London, the modern suburban fringe to the old city.”

The bicycle was part of this modernity, providing users with freedom and ease of use. Bikes crop up repeatedly in Zola’s photographs – on dusty roads, busy high streets, outside the Crystal Palace and in surrounding country lanes. He was particularly interested in one type of cyclist: women. Of the 100 plus images compiled by the Norwood Society, 15 feature women cyclists. They wear long skirts and hats, some wheel their bikes uphill or swarm past the camera in groups. The only two male cyclists Zola photographs have female companions. “I meet women who cycle in all weathers in order to go shopping,” Zola marvelled. His photographs prove these words to be true.

So why the obsession? Did Zola have a fetish? Was he surprised to see so many women cycling in London compared with France? Or was he simply recording what was naturally occurring around him? The answer is probably a bit of all three. Women certainly were cycling in large numbers – it was a good way to get around while husbands were at work – so genuinely formed part of the streetscape. All the same Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built For Cars, thinks Zola “was probably going to some lengths to make sure he got those shots. The boom years were 1896–7 so it would have been waning in 1899. He was the “Copenhagenize/Cycle Chic” of his day – spotting pretty women on bikes.”

Rosen is unequivocal. “He was certainly interested in women cyclists!” he says. “Zola did see women on bikes in Paris, but noted that they wore culottes but the women in London wore skirts. He thought the English women looked more elegant. His letters read as a man looking at women. There is an element of voyeurism about it. Of course there is a “modernity” aspect to this too – in Zola’s own lifetime, this was new. As a child he would not have seen women anywhere riding bikes. In 1898/99 there were many.”

Zola returned to Paris in 1899 after Dreyfus was pardoned by a new French government but this was not the only time the Dreyfus Affair touched upon cycling. Another Dreyfus supporter was Pierre Giffard, the editor of France’s leading sports paper, Le Vélo. His pro-Dreyfus stance led to arguments with advertisers, who withdrew support and formed their own newspaper, L’Auto. In 1903, with circulation low, L’Auto writer Géo Lefèvre suggested the magazine should invent a profile-rising six-day cycling race around France. Henri Desgrange, the editor, was intrigued. “As I understand it, petit Géo, you are suggesting a Tour de France.” And so it came to pass.

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Rain/Bridges

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

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

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

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His bridges are beautiful.

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

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Miss World and the ruin of London

I have two events coming up where I will be discussing Battersea Power Station in collaboration with other writers. At the excellent Bookseller Crow shop in Crystal Palace I will be teaming up with Rob Baker of Another Nickel In The Machine for a London Night, where we will talk about low culture and high jinx in London. My talk will focus on some of the finer pop culture moments associated with Battersea Power Station, while Rob will talk about his blog, his book (Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics) and the Miss World protest of 1970.

This will take place on Thursday September 15th at 7.30pm, £3.

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This will be followed by a London Society event with Owen Hatherley, where we will discuss the redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea, and debate the limits of preservation and conservation in a talk titled The Ruin of London. This takes place at the Gallery on Cowcross Street on Sept 20th from 6.30pm.

Up In Smoke

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station has a release date of April 26.

You can find out more at this website, which also tells you how to get in touch if you want me to do any talks or events.

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Expect me to be writing about this a lot more in the next few weeks.

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station

I’ve written a book about Battersea Power Station.

It’s called Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station and is out in the spring via Paradise Road, a new publisher concentrating on London non-fiction.

Battersea Power Station is one of London’s favourite buildings, but nobody before has told its story.

This will be the first book to explore the history of the building, from conception and construction, through use and obsolescence, and then into the long years of post-closure redevelopment.

I wanted to understand why so many people have been fascinated by Battersea over the years. I’ve spoken to former workers and designers of inflatable pigs, location scouts and photographers, politicians, Lords, architects, planners and entrepreneurs.

This is a book that tells us so much about London and the way it changes. It’s a story of power and land, of big ideas and broken dreams. It’s a story that takes in property and politics, architecture and popular culture. It’s a story about our city and our relationship with its most popular building.

It asks how we went from this…

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Battersea Power Station, 1975.

To this…

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Battersea Power Station, 2016

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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Paul Weller in Uncut

I’ve written the cover story for the latest issue of Uncut about a couple of days I spent in San Francisco with Paul Weller in October.

I enjoyed the incongruous location – Weller was staying in the Japanese district and played a country music festival at Golden Gate Park and a show at hippie landmark Fillmore West – as well as the chance to spend time backstage with Weller and his band unaccompanied by any label management or press officer.

Weller discussed his forthcoming projects, including an avant-garde film soundtrack he’s composed, and also reminisced about early tours of America with The Jam. On one occasion, he said, the band were asked to celebrate their London credentials by posing outside an English pub in Santa Monica with a double decker bus.

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I also got the chance to explore San Francisco – where I discovered ghost signs, parrots, a punk-themed restaurant called The Brixton, coyote warnings and a complete absence of cranes, billboards, pneumatic drills and the general intensive building work that blights daily life for so many Londoners.

 

The Blitz: missing buildings and false memories

While researching my recent feature on the Blitz and former bombsites in London, I was keen to find a site that had been destroyed and not yet redeveloped.

There were some tantalising leads.

Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, provided me with an image he’d discovered years before of a derelict building on Lowndes Street, left fallow in memory of the Blitz.

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“It was in the chartered surveyor professional magazine,” he explained. “The story was that it was owned by a family, bombed, and they never did anything to it in memory of a son that died in the war. Fifty years later, life had moved on, and the property came up for sale.”

It’s a compelling story but one that was difficult to confirm. The Bomb Damage Maps  showed a couple of strikes on Lowndes Street so I sent an email to Dave Walker, librarian at Kensington and Chelsea and writer of the formidable Library Time Machine blog. Dave put the query across to a colleague at Westminster, as Lowndes Street straddles the boundary between the two councils. Between the two of them, they discovered destroyed buildings at No 30 and Nos 11/12 Lowndes Street but both sites were developed by 1963. It would require further research to get to the bottom of the story as outlined by Professor Larkham and as tantalisingly revealed in the above photograph.

There was similar confusion with regard to another site. This was next to the Hat & Feathers pub on Clerkenwell Road.

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According to local legend, the site had been demolished by a bomb and used as a car park ever since. For years, you could even see scraps of wallpaper from the destroyed building still attached to the neighbouring wall. The only problem was there was no record of a bomb landing anywhere near this property – itself rather extraordinary given how badly the area had been bombed. It appears that this was a false folk memory, but one that was still being shared today. In the end, I included no empty lots in my piece as I couldn’t find any that comfortably fitted the available facts.

After my piece was published, I was contacted by a photographer, Thom Atkinson. He was about to publish a book called Missing Buildings, looking at precisely this area – the missing spaces between London buildings ostensibly created by bombs. They’d even included an image of the Hat & Feathers site I’d been studying. Like me, Atkinson was intrigued with the way folk memory and evidence didn’t always correspond.

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Photograph by Thom Atkinson

Thom said, “We came across the same sort of folklore thing a couple of times, and in a way that’s what the book is about. There’s a picture we made on Sclater Street, near Shoreditch Station, and the market traders there were talking about it being a bombsite when they were kids. When we looked at the map it didn’t quite fit their story – but they remembered it so clearly.”

There were several explanations for this, false memory being only one of them. As Thom explained, “Sometimes bombs are recorded and the site itself displays all the signs, but no building damage is shown on the LCC map. And of course the whole thing is complicated because the LCC maps only show damage during wartime – we’ve heard stories of buildings falling down or being demolished later on, because of underlying structural damage caused by the bombing – one of the guys who works in the processing lab (also a bombsite by the way!) has a house in East London with cracked foundations; the surveyor thinks they were caused by a bomb landing at the other end of the street.”

Missing Buildings is a wonderful book, showing the ghosts of London homes, many of which have long disappeared but still leave an imprint on neighbouring buildings in the form of shadows, new brickwork, girders and the spectres of chimney breasts. Others have been filled in with new buildings that stand out ridiculously against their neighbours, awkward and ugly, eternally temporary.

There are more of these spaces than you might imagine in London, but they are vanishing fast and this book is an exquisite record of the spaces that get left behind, often more by accident then design. You can buy it here.

 

Summer on the canal

I wrote a piece for Waterfront about the serene and occasionally hedonistic pleasures of living on a narrowboat in the summer. You can read it here.

I also took part in a podcast talking about canals for Waterfront, which you can listen to here.

I recently walked one of my favourite sections of the canal, from Kensal Green to Little Venice, for the first time in years. This is what I saw on the way.

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Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.

Slopes for horses that slipped into the canal.

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This statue garden once took up the space outside a single house – now it’s the entire terrace.

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Ghost sign, of recent vintage.

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Psychogeography centre, between Trellick Tower and the Westway.

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The most important building in London – where boaters get their toilets emptied.

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Towpath rumour said this boat once belonged to Richard Branson.

In the depot

I finally made it to one of the London Transport Museum’s twice-early weekend openings at their Acton depot. where they store the buses, trams and train carriages they can’t exhibit in Covent Garden.

It was brilliant. If you like that kind of thing.

(I wouldn’t like to say the event attracts a certain type, but these were the longest queues for the gents I’ve ever seen outside a football ground.)

I could have spent hours browsing the specialist books for sale, while the kids loved the model railways.

The following pictures are via @callyorange. And go to the next one in September.

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