Category Archives: Place

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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Fiddling with the ingredients at Battersea Power Station

When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, chief executive of the Battersea Power Station development, for my book Up In Smoke, he went to great lengths to explain why the plan would be a success, not just as a business but as a new piece of city.

Well, he actually used the words “urban village”, but let’s try not to blame him for that.

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Tincknell enthused about how carefully they had worked out the exact mix of residential-commercial-leisure space in a way that would create the perfect “place” – a real destination that people wanted to visit. This was the social science of “placemaking” and the developer had published numerous reports and beautiful but boring books to explain their position.

He proudly told me the precise numbers: “57% residential. Of the remaining 43% that’s about 3.4m sq ft, 1.2m retail and restaurants, 1.7m sq ft of offices and the balance  in hotels, leisure and community space.”

These numbers, he insisted, were sacrosanct – they were the recipe that made the cake rise.

“It’s an appropriate density for the centre of the city,” he said when I questioned the scale of the residential aspect. “This level of density has been proved all round the world as a density that works. It creates a critical mass so the shops function, the public transport works, there’s a buzz and that’s what people come for. You create this mix of uses, this cocktail that you really believe in, you have to stick with it, you can’t fiddle with the ingredients.”

Guess what?

That’s right, the ingredients are now being fiddled with. According to an interview with Ticknell in the Financial Times,  the bottom has fallen out of the luxury flat market, causing problems for the power station model. But riding to the rescue are Apple, whose decision to move into the power station’s vast office space in 2021 has undoubtedly been a gigantic coup for the developers. Now, with Apple proving such an attractive hook, Tincknell is talking about turning over more of the residential aspect to offices. He told the FT that at least one planned building in the third phase of the scheme, designed by Frank Gehry and Foster + Partners, was under consideration for a change of use.

“I could easily see us adding another million square feet [of offices],” Tincknell says. “The great thing about a long-term scheme like this is we can adjust with the markets. If there’s no residential market and a very strong office market then we will build offices.”

It looks as if that perfect cocktail is being shaken not stirred.

For Up In Smoke, Tincknell promised me “that we are genuinely committed to creating a brilliant community. We feel very passionate. It will only make the place better. We have a responsibility to London. We are doing things way beyond the remit of the site so it fits in with London and genuinely improve the quality of life. If we succeed in that goal the value of the commercial and residential assets will rise and it will be a great place to live and visit. You can’t just develop it and run away, it has to work.”

On that latter promise, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

 

Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

Purley and dementia

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the dementia-friendly town concept, which is currently being rolled out in Purley. It is one of many initiatives being considered for towns and cities as the average age of the population continues to rise.

 

Podcasts, radio and Ray Davies

bps-ray-daviesI have recorded a podcast with N Quentin Woolf for Londonist about Battersea Power Station. It covers the full history of the site, looking at the history of the power station, the property battles, failed dreams and possible future.

On Friday, I will be a guest on Wandsworth Radio at around 6.30, again talking about Up In Smoke and the power station.

The image above, incidentally, is a screengrab from Ray Davies’s excellent 1984 film Return to Waterloo, starring Tim Roth and Ken Colley, which is set largely aboard the 8.52 from Guildford to Waterloo. Recently released on DVD, I review it in the forthcoming edition of Uncut.

 

 

 

On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

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Funding film about Tin Pan Alley

I’ve written about Denmark Street before – that strangely old-fashioned almost Brooklyn-style street on the border of Soho and Covent Garden that for decades has been home to various aspects of the music industry in the UK.

Tin Pan Alley Tales is a film that plans to tell the story of this small but vitally important street but it needs funding. Made by campaigner Henry Scott-Irvine, the film will tell the stories of the 22 buildings that make up Denmark Street and trace its progression from home of pre-war publishers and songwriters, through skiffle, pop and rock, punk and to the present day.

It will provide an important and fascinating document of a London street that has been at the forefront of popular culture for decades but which is now under threat from London’s rampant development.

To make a donation, go here.

 

Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

In 2005, I interviewed the author Tim Lott for Time Out‘s My Favourite Londoner feature, in which we invited writers, actors, musicians and other personalities to tell us about their favourite London character. Lott chose Hancock, who is also one of my heroes, and I’ve reproduced the piece below.

(Incidentally, my other interview in this series was with one of my favourite writers, George MacDonald Fraser, who told me of his fondness for John Bunyan – although I’m not sure how much he actually knew about him, as I recall him slowly reading chunks from the encyclopedia over the phone to me. Sadly, the piece was never published, I’ve lost the transcript and MacDonald Fraser died soon after, never having written the Flashman book about the American Civil War – something he told me kept putting off, as the war was so horrible.)

‘I identify extraordinarily strongly with Hancock. I remember loving him enormously as a kid and living for ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. I was about eight or nine and thought it was just the funniest thing on television. He spoke directly to my world – I lived in a London suburb like East Cheam and I too was a kind of – I hadn’t reached the level of being pretentious but I was somebody who desperately wanted to transcend what I saw as being my suburban limitations. And yet I was hugely intimidated and bewildered by the larger world beyond. Hancock’s concept of noble failure was very appealing to me. He never gave up trying to raise above his station but he was always doomed, and that was the key behind his comedy.

It goes deeper than that though. Deeper than him being simply funny.

I should incidentally remark that Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham not London, but I’m talking of course about Antony Aloysius St John Hancock, the character created by the London-born Galton and Simpson, who were died in the wool Londoners and that’s why the London voice is so strong. I think that idea of petty pretention underpinned by a real desire to better yourself – a motif shared by another of my great London characters, Steptoe the younger.

Trapped by circumstances but longs to escape the limitations not only of his own external situation, but more crucially the limitations of his own personality. He dreams of a wider world, one that isn’t defined by the quintessentially dullness of a 1950s suburban world.

I remember on the day he died this very famous photograph of him in Sydney looking so haunted, if you wanted to draw a picture of a man about to commit suicide it was almost a perfect representation of depression. I’ve written a memoir about my own depression (‘The Scent Of Dry Roses’) and somehow even at that age – I was 11 – it made an enormous impression me. I wondered how anybody could reach a level of such deep misery that they should want to kill themselves, and I found that utter bewildering. I was too young to recognise the deep melancholy and frustration that lay behind the character of Hancock.

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You can look upon Hancock as a ludicrous figure but people loved him and felt a tenderness towards him because of his vulnerability. Underneath his absurdity was a genuine wish to transcend his world. In ‘The Rebel’ he escapes to Paris to become an artist even though he has no talent and that was always my dream, to escape the dead streets of Southall and mix with all the eccentrics, bohemians and artists. But on the one hand you want this, but you also want to be reassured that these people are slightly absurd.

Hancock is greatly loved for that sadness that the real Tony Hancock brought to the role. It was the same with ‘The Likely Lads’, Steptoe, the essential tragedy of the situation.

He was a very beautiful man, he had a lovely face. There was something very evocative about his looks. Those great moony soulful eyes always acted as a counterpoint for the laughter and always said, yes it’s funny but it’s terribly sad as well.

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He was the soul of male suburbia in the 1950s. I always felt that aspiration, I always felt doomed, I always felt too stupid, I always feared I would end up back in Southall, my equivalent of Railway Cuttings, Cheam. And like Hancock I always felt a paradoxical affection with that place. It’s not a cruel, angry comedy. It’s very whistful, tender, reflective comedy.

I’m very rarely that shocked or sad when somebody dies, but I was when Hancock died. I remember seeing the story on the cover of the Daily Express and staring at it for a very long time. It’s strange how 20 years later I became terribly depressed, almost as if I had an intimation that it would happen. It’s almost creepy how fascinated I was by him, but he was a social climber with aspirational pretentions.

My favourite moment: when I went to university this sketch always came to mind. Hancock decides he’s going to increase his education so he gets out the biggest book he can find, this massive intellectual tome, and he sets it down on the table and prepares himself to do battle with the contents of this heavyweight textbook. He opens the first page and focuses and there’s this wonderful brave shot when nothing happens for about a minute, it’s just him looking at a page and then he looks up at the camera and just says ‘Stone me’. That basically summed up my entire attitude to learning.

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You love the freedom and art and culture of the middle classes, but you despise their pretention and their snobbery and their wealth and their privilege – and the two are very mixed up in your own mind, you want to become what you hate. He was very much of that era of working-class writers – Sillitoe and Storey and Waterhouse and Potter – but all of them were from the north. There were no southern working-class playwrights and in a way it was all transposed into the comedy of Galton and Simpson and Clement and LeFrenais. That novel about the lower-middle classes and working classes in London never came out – there was a whole tradition of northern writing but I didn’t recognise that, it meant nothing to me. But I did recognise Hancock and Steptoe. You didn’t find that world much in novels or drama, but most frequently in comedy and Hancock was the greatest of them.”

 

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.

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