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.
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.
I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about the 1960s hippie scene in the Balearic islands of Ibiza, Formentera and Mallorca. It explores three individual but inter-related scenes – the community of artists and writers centred around Robert Graves in Deià, which attracted musicians such Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen; the hedonistic hippies of Ibiza; and the more hardcore scene on Formentera, that was filled with escapees from London and which had connections to Pink Floyd.
This is a circular tale. Following the arrival of expat Londoners in the 1960s, Ibiza continued to attract a wide range of European travellers throughout the 1970s, and the resulting spirit of chemical hedonism, opportunism and musical adventure eventually spawned Acid House. This came back to London in 1988 at clubs like Shoom, which were directly modelled on the mutant neo-hippie attitude that London DJs had experienced in Ibizan nightclubs. Although the piece concentrates mainly on the Soft Machine/Pink Floyd angle, the circular nature of this journey really interested me – the way a generation of elite London hipster helped transport a certain spirit to the Mediterranean, where it gestated into something quite different that a later generation brought home again.
To get an idea of what life was like in Ibiza and Formentera in the 60s, you should watch More, the film by Barbet Shroeder which had a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. “The film More, that’s what made Ibiza famous forever,” said Jose Padilla, the DJ who founded Cade Del Mar. “That was it for me, the Ibizan white house with no water or electricity, hanging around knackered, guys from Vietnam, girls, there was a lot of heroin too. You can tell [Floyd] were doing a lot of acid… but the landscape must effect the music.” You should also listen to “Formentera Lady” by King Crimson, with evocative lyrics by Peter Sinfield, who often visited the island. As a result, there is now a street named after King Crimson on the tiny island.
Another Balearic-influenced 60s psychedelic classic is Cream’s “Tale Of Brave Ulysses”, with lyrics by the great Australian artist Martin Sharp that were inspired by his time in Ibiza and Formentera.
The Floyd crew spent time on Formentera in the 1960s, with Syd Barrett being sent there to recuperate following acid meltdowns, accompanied by the ever fascinating Sam Hutt, the hippie doctor who later became the country singer Hank Wangford. I’ve written about Sam’s West London hash clinic before. Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Denmark Street-based designers Hipgnosis, also spent much time on Formentera and told me how the island’s landscape influenced the artwork he later produced for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd – particularly the weathered sandstone that Syd Barrett would stare at while off his head on LSD.
Meanwhile, over in Deià, the scene that coalesced around poet Robert Graves helped influence Soft Machine and Gong. Graves was an extraordinary character, who straddles so many areas it’s difficult to know where to start, but was connected in several ways with music, drugs and a general spirit of inquisitive mysticism. I spoke to Graves’ Spanish son-in-law and son – both of whom are musicians. I also talked to Gong’s Didier Malherbe, who lived for a while in a cave in Robert Graves’ garden, where he would practise his flute and talk to Graves about Greek mythology, while neighbour Daevid Allen took acid and dreamed up his Gong universe.
Among Graves’ many interests was a fascination with magic mushrooms – he corresponded with Gordon Wasson, the American banker who helped bring mushroom knowledge to the west – and both Soft Machine and Gong were hugely influenced by the psychedelic experience. Artists, writers, musicians and actors from London would often visit Graves, including Ronnie Scott – Graves was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club whenever he was in London. Graves also spent time with Alan Lomax, the great musical folklorist.
Deià is now a mecca for rich Europeans, partly due to a huge luxury hotel owned by Richard Branson. The story behind this goes back to London in the 1970s, when Branson and his wife were having dinner at Branson’s Little Venice houseboat with Kevin Ayers and his wife. Branson had his eye on Ayers’ wife and in the spirit of the era, this canalside soiree soon turned into a swinging scene, with everybody swapping partners. However, Ayers and Branson’s wife Kristen then fell in love and ran off to Deià. Kristen later ran off again, this time with a German architect, who Branson promptly teamed up with to build the hotel that would destroy the town’s bohemian spirit forever, sending Ayers into further exile, this time to Paris.
While Ibiza/Formentera and Deià were largely separate scenes, there was the occasional crossover. One such was this album, Licors by Pau Riba. Riba, a Formentera-based musician and grandson of Catalan poet Carles Riba, recorded this excellent psych-prog album with Daevid Allen in Deià. Riba also recorded the strange, beautiful Catalan folk album Jo, La Dona I El Gripau, in a stone house on Formentera in 1971.
I went to see the new Tate Modern extension yesterday and very impressive it was too. The extension by Herzog & De Meuron manages that rare trick of looking new and exciting while also reflecting the character and style its neighbouring building. It reminded me a little of the way the British Library sits so comfortably yet confidently next to St Pancras.
The interior is also neatly done, despite some very peculiar shapes in corners. There appears to be more public space than in the original galleries – although that may be because it was filled with only 100 or so journalist rather than several thousand tourists – and it feels genuinely sociable, as well as realistically industrial. The viewing platform on the 10th floor is great, although the vista to the south is sadly blocked by the hideous tower to the left of the image directly above.
The art was fun too, featuring some great oversized installations on the second floor, plus a mix of disciplines – including incredible street photography taken in Newcastle – and loads of women and international artists.
Naturally, this sensitive, thoughtful and exciting treatment of what was once Bankside Power Station got me thinking about its older sibling along the river in Battersea. Both buildings were the work of the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and so naturally share a similar style, most notably the use of decoration on the brick envelope to dress the mass, making it more palatable. Some critics believe that Bankside is the better building, describing it as Scott’s masterpiece.
It is certainly a fine building but I’m not even sure I was aware it existed until it was converted into Tate Modern in 2000. I would have walked past it, sailed past it, looked straight at it numerous times – but the fact of its existence escaped me. This is not uncommon I’ve found and Bankside, for many, only became noticeable when it was turned into an art gallery, finding in its second life a prominence that had eluded it for decades – and perhaps this invisibility is something Scott should be commended for, as the power station’s presence on the river opposite St Paul’s was immediately and understandably controversial.
This is all in stark contrast to Battersea, a building that once seen is impossible to forget and which has always had a prominence you rarely find in industrial buildings, let alone their ruins. Only now, as Battersea disappears behind a curtain of contemporary glass and steel is that threatened – so while Bankside eventually found visibility in its afterlife, Battersea faces obscurity, with the thoughtfulness of the Tate’s new extension highlighting the brash ugliness of the new developments around Battersea.
As ever, one ponders alternative presents to that in which we find ourselves. When it became known in the early 1990s that the Tate was looking for a second building, having acquired a collection too large to be contained within the original Pimlico gallery, campaigners at the Battersea Power Station Community Group wrote to the trustees, suggesting they make a bid for Battersea Power Station, then still in the hands of theme park magnate John Broome but already in a terrible state. This, they argued, would make the perfect location for a new art gallery: it was huge, impressive, historic and directly across the river from the Pimlico site. Romantic as this might have been, Tate’s trustees – possibly alerted to the idea of using a power station by the campaigners – instead plumped for Bankside, which had closed in 1981 and facing demolition, for entirely practical reasons.
For one, Bankside is much smaller than Battersea, only a third the size. Secondly, Bankside is much easier to get to, surrounded by tube and rail stations, and even a new bridge to the City, while Battersea is strangely isolated despite its prominent location. Thirdly, Bankside wasn’t listed, making it much easier to convert -and later, to stick gargantuan limpet-like extension alongside, when it turned out the original building was too small.
Bankside was saved and the arrival of Tate helped precipitate a huge cultural change along that part of the river. Further west, however, Battersea’s struggles had barely begun.
Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station published by Paradise Road.
Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.
This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.
It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.
Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.
The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.
In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.
The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.
While I dedicate a chapter of my book about Battersea Power Station, Up In Smoke (now available to purchase from the publisher), to the chaotic photoshoot for Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover, this was not the only time the building has been used in popular culture. Here I’ve listed some of my favourites, but there are dozens more involving Dr Who, Slade, The Jam, Richard III, The Who and The Quatermass Xperiment. It was also used as otherwise anonymous filming locations for numerous TV shows, pop videos and films, including Superman III, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Texas, Manson and The Dark Knight but I’ve chosen the moments that made the building the star.
1 Sabotage (1936)
Hitchcock, a Londoner with a sharp eye for locations, was one of the first directors to note the visual potential of the power station, using it in early scenes of his 1936 film Sabotage. Here the power station has only two chimneys, the second half was not started until 1937 and the final chimney not added until 1955.
2. High Treason (1951)
This superior Cold War neo-noir b-movie includes a thrilling climactic scene at Battersea Power Station, where there’s a great shoot-out amid the clanging pipes and hissing steam. Worth seeking out.
3. Up The Junction (1963)
Nell Dunn’s non-fiction collection of writing about Battersea woman is set in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. The poetic back cover blurb for one early edition stated, “Innocence in Battersea lasts as long as the flower remains unsooted by the power station.”
4. Help! (1965)
In The Beatles’ film, the power station is shown blowing a fuse at a critical juncture, causing a black-out and allowing the Fabs to escape their bolthole in Buckingham Palace (“A Well-Known Palace”).
5. Smashing Time (1967)
This goes a step further, with the restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower revolving so fast it causes the power station to explode. London’s brash newest icon annihilating a venerable predecessor – a metaphor for the 1960s if ever there was.
6. Quark Strangeness And Charm & Lights Out (1977)
Despite the Animals debacle, album sleeve artists Hipgnosis returned twice more to the power station in 1977, photographing futuristic interior covers for Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness And Charm and UFO’s Lights Out.
7. The Borribles (1983)
A wonderfully feral cover for this brilliant 1983 children’s novel about a group of cockney elven urchins – Borribles – who are at war with the Rumbles, a group of rat-like creatures that are thinly disguised Wombles. The action begins in Battersea, hence the power station backdrop. I loved this book as a child, and the cover was part of that initial attraction.
8. Jet Set Willy (1984)
This level of the classic ZX Spectrum computer game was one of the first products to reference both the power station and Algie the flying pig. I played this game endlessly as a child – though I’m not sure I really got the pop culture or architectural references.
9. “You’re The One For Me, Fatty” (1992)
I was obsessed with Morrissey in 1992, and while I didn’t like this song much at the time, I did love the fact the power station featured a couple of times. Now, I think it is one of Morrissey’s finest pop moments, and the shots of the power station still delight me. A couple of years after this, I saw Morrissey play a gig at the power station, although in the dark and funnelled through tunnels, it was impossible to tell that’s where we were. Morrissey was rubbish too.
10. Children of Men (2006)
A striking scene in Children Of Men takes place at the power station, which has been converted into the Ark Of The Arts, containing the world’s most priceless artefacts in this dystopian future London – Alfonso Cuaron, like several other film directors, saw Battersea as the sort of building only a totalitarian could love. Note the pig, flying between the chimneys. The film’s location manager told me, “We wanted strong images that had to represent London but not cheesy London. Using somewhere like Battersea meant there was no question of where you were, it was London but proper London, authentic London.”
I have a post on Londonist about Dream City, a theme park concept cooked up in 1907 by an American developer for a disused waterworks, a site that was later occupied by Battersea Power Station.
You can read the full story here.
The unbuilt Dream City is also the starting point for Alice May Williams’ short film about Battersea Power Station called Dream City: More, Better Sooner produced by the Film And Video Umbrella. The fvu have organised a talk on Friday (April 15) at the Battersea site of the Royal College of Arts by Owen Hatherley called Monetising The Ruin: Batterseas Old And New.
I will be attending the lecture and also selling copies of my book Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station.
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.
Expect me to be writing about this a lot more in the next few weeks.
I wrote this piece in 2015 for the first issue of Waterfront magazine.
Some of the best secrets are hidden in plain sight. You don’t find them by exploring scruffy back streets and muddy fields, they are standing right in front of you, requiring only a translator to make sense of them. One sits in Burgess Park in Camberwell, ignored by cyclists, dogwalkers and joggers seeking respite from the Walworth Road, one of South London’s busiest byways. It takes the form of a pretty black-and-red iron footbridge with thick brick stanchions and strong stone steps straddling the path. It doesn’t serve any specific function – there’s nothing that needs to be crossed – so is known locally as the “bridge to nowhere”, but this was once a bridge with a purpose. It was built in 1906 to cross the Grand Surrey Canal, one of south-east London’s two lost canals. The park was once a busy industrial basin of wharves and warehouses but over time, the canal was abandoned, closed, filled in and forgotten. Soon, only the bridge remained, a relic or totem of this land’s previous life.
Like many canals, the Grand Surrey was opened in the brief period between the onset of urban industrialisation and the arrival of railways. It began at Surrey Commercial Dock (now Surrey Quays), a 300-acre system of nine docks two miles east of London Bridge. The original plan was for the Surrey Canal Company to cut a canal from this starting point at Rotherhithe through the south London suburbs. From the main canal, branches would peel off, feeding significant towns on the way south. The object was to create a fast-moving route that could bring produce from Surrey farms into London. An Act was granted in 1801 to build as far as Mitcham, with branches to Deptford, Peckham, Borough and Vauxhall.
At the same time, permission for a second canal was granted. The Croydon Canal was originally going to be its own entity but the Grand Surrey Canal provided a convenient meeting point, and – after some negotiation – the two navigations joined at New Cross. This canal was intended to reach Epsom, but when it opened in 1809 in a ceremony featuring decorated barges, a 21-gun salute and a special song (“Long down its fair stream may the rich vessel glide; and the Croydon Canal be of England the pride”) it stalled at Croydon, having passed through 28 locks from the junction with the Grand Surrey Canal through Honor Oak, Sydenham and Norwood. Nonetheless, it was described by The Times as “one of the highest and best constructed canals in England” and the owners talked about extending it to Portsmouth. Plans for the Grand Surrey also proved over-ambitious, and when it opened in 1807 it went only as far as the Old Kent Road. It reached Camberwell in 1809 and branched off to Peckham in 1826, but got no further.
There are several bucolic illustrations of both canals, presenting them as splendid streams surrounded by countryside. At the opening of the Croydon Canal, a reporter wrote of “finding themselves gliding through the deepest recesses of the forest, where nothing met the eye but the elegant winding of the clear and still canal, and its border adorned by a profusion of trees, of which the beauty was heightened by the tint of autumn.” In 1811, the Grand Surrey Canal was peaceful enough to be used for bathing, causing one Camberwell resident to write a furious letter to The Times objecting to the “indecency” and “extreme offensiveness to females in so public a situation”. Soon after, ‘bank rangers’ – a sort of private police force – were appointed to keep an eye out for lewd or criminal behaviour.
Quickly, though, the landscape changed. Submitted to parliament alongside the proposals for the two canals, was another for the Surrey Iron Railway, which would become the country’s first public railway in 1803, linking Wandsworth to Croydon via Mitcham. Using carriages pulled by horses over iron tracks, the intention was to create an integrated transport network for the expanding suburbs, but ultimately it put the two technologies in direct competition. At first, they cohabited and connected, and the canal even proved superior, but as steam trains arrived, the canals lost any edge. Croydon Canal’s success was further hindered by its expensive, time-consuming locks and the company could tell where things were headed. The canal was dead by 1836, the first in the country to be closed by parliament. The land was purchased by the London And Croydon Railway, who built their line largely alongside the old canal and turned the basin into West Croydon station.
The Grand Surrey Canal was spared such a fate, even if it was to never fulfil the bravura plans made at the outset. Initially the canal was intended to transport numerous goods – the 1801 Act set out rates for freestone, limestone, chalk, bricks, slates, tiles, corn, hay, straw, faggots, dung, manure, stones, clay, cattle, calves, sheep, swine, lime, timber, hemp, tin, bark, iron-stone, pig-iron, pig-lead, coal, charcoal, coke, culm, flour, wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, malt, potatoes, hops and fruit – but instead of becoming a vibrant link between garden suburbs and London docks, the canal was more like a gigantic wharf, an extension of the Surrey docks lined by warehouses, factories, yards and depots. The canal nonetheless became a useful part of the industrial infrastructure, drawing cargo from all over the world – including a 4ft snake from South America that was fished out the canal at Peckham in 1932 by an angler who at first believed he’d nabbed a particularly fine eel. The industry was largely dirty and unglamorous with numerous timber yards, but there were also R White’s, manufacturers of lemonade, and Edison-Bell, who made 78rpm records and had a recording studio on the premises.
After the Second World War, decline set in. The increase in road traffic offered tougher competition even than rail, while changes in freight transportation threatened the docks themselves. The canal closed in stages from the 1940s. The basin at Camberwell was first to be abandoned, becoming a playground for children, who went fishing for sticklebacks or tore doors off bombed-out houses to sail down the stagnant canal as rafts. Children determined their local sympathies by which side of the bridge they lived.
The bridge was still surrounded by the straggling detritus of light industry, but fears that children would drown – indeed, The Times reported more than a dozen had met this fate since the war, as several had before it – led to the area being cleared in 1974 and replaced by Burgess Park. The canal’s route was turned into a pathway and the bridge retained as a momento. There are further princely bridges on the Peckham arm of the canal, at Willowbrook Road and Commercial Way, while the Peckham basin is now the site of Peckham library. Nearby, a sliver of park connecting Burgess Park to Peckham High Street is known as the Surrey Linear Canal Park, presumably to confuse new arrivals. Elsewhere, there are further pointers: bits of wall, ghosts of towpaths, mooring rings, milestones, and in a park reclaimed from the old Russia Dock in Surrey Quays, a large amount of quayside.
One of the most interesting survivors is a rusting round bollard under a bridge near the junction of the Surrey Canal Road and Mercury Way in New Cross, once the meeting point of the Grand Surrey and Croydon Canals. Embedded in the grassy embankment, it looks as if it has been dropped from the heavens. Little of the Croydon Canal remains, although diligent historians have traced shadows of its passage in the topology of the land between New Cross and Croydon. Some tiny sections are extant in Dacres Wood, a small nature reserve in Forest Hill, and Betts Park in Anerley. The old reservoir in Norwood has been transformed into South Norwood Lake.
There is a strong sense here of what might have been. The Croydon Canal’s life was too brief, and too quickly swallowed by the dramatic forces leading to the rapid urbanisation of south London, to be saved, but the fate of the Great Surrey Canal is not so easily forgivable. Its potential was not unknown. In the 1960s, trip boats from Little Venice would take extended tours across the Thames into the depths of Peckham and Camberwell, and even in the 1970s, some insisted the canal should be saved. One report in 1971 noted the increasingly popularity of the Regent’s Canal and pondered whether similar could yet happen to “the poor, ugly Surrey Canal… [which] had the misfortune to run south of the river.” The author admitted there was an image problem: “Its waters are polluted and filled with rubbish and hunks of wood. Its banks are closed to the public and lined with disused factories and unkempt grass. To many local people it is just three miles of stinking water, which has to be dredged every time a child goes missing.” But should the drastic solution of eradication proposed by Southwark and the Port Of London Authority go unchallenged? “Suggest any redevelopment of Little Venice and fashionable owner-occupiers besiege the local town hall,” he wrote. “Down south of the river, however, they apparently order matters differently. Two public authorities have quietly decided between them to scrub off the map one of South London’s most precious potential assets.” And so disappeared the Grand Surrey Canal, not so much a lost secret as a missed opportunity.
Further reading: http://www.bridgetonowhere.friendsofburgesspark.org.uk/ and http://www.londoncanals.uk/
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…
This is an edited version of a talk I gave last year for the London Fortean Society about London’s shrines. I decided to repost it after visiting the David Bowie shrine in Brixton last week.
To prepare for this speech and in an attempt to get my head around what a shrine was, I began thinking about the simplest shrines you see in London – that’s usually flowers tied to a lamppost after a sudden often violent death or the ghost bikes you see tied to lampposts after crashes.
That got me thinking about the largest shrine I’ve seen in London. This was in those strange weeks after Diana’s death. I was in my 20s and strongly Republican and so had little interest in the public mourning, but an older friend suggested we go and see what was taking place at Kensington Palace as it was something that only happens once in a lifetime. As we walked across Hyde Park this strange smell began to creep across the park – and I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of rotting flowers. It was indeed an incredible sight. The area in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, already turning to compost in the summer heat. People were walking among them, stooping like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts to read a label. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. You could not get near the palace gates.
What fascinated me also about all this was that it had a seditious, outlaw aspect. There was a lot of noise in the press about whether the Queen was treating Diana’s death with sufficient respect, and this huge impromptu shrine – by the people, against the establishment – was given the atmosphere of an almost revolutionary act. It was a fascinating combination – the privacy of remembrance, carried out on a larger scale with political implications.
So perhaps these are some of the key elements for a memorable shrine: they need to be in memory of a colourful life cut short, possibly violently and unexpectedly, but also be plebeian or proletariat in nature, carrying a sort of unofficial, rebellious, streak, upsetting the forces of the order and establishment.
Unsurprisingly. London is filled with them.
A disarming proportion are devoted to rock stars. This is Freddy Mercury’s old front door in West Kensington, featuring primitive scratched messages from fans all over the world.
There’s also a more or less permanent shrine outside Amy Winehouse’s house in Camden Square. It’s interesting to speculate why some musicians get this treatment and others don’t. For instance, why has Abbey Road become a shrine for Beatles fans but there’s nowhere similar for the Rolling Stones? Perhaps a shrine needs a magnetic location, and the Stones have never created that particular relationship with any single space in the city, perhaps we will need Mick or Keith to die before we find out.
I used to live near Abbey Road, and they had to repaint the wall every two weeks or so such was the flood of graffiti, even though you’d never actually catch anybody in the act of doing it.
Similarly, I’ve always been slightly puzzled as to why Marc Bolan has attracted a shrine. This is the sycamore tree on Queen’s Drive in Barnes that Bolan’s Mini crashed into in 1977, killing him instantly. People have been leaving notes and flowers ever since, and now there’s a bust. Why Bolan? I like T-Rex but don’t really see him as the sort of shamanic, eternal talent you’d think attracted such a tribute.
Perhaps it’s simply the violent nature of the death that appeals to people. But the way his death tree – his cause of death – is being marked is inescapably macabre. In some ways, it makes me think of the old Bill Hicks line, that the last thing Jesus would want to see if he came back to Earth was another bloody crucifix.
That brings us neatly to the religious aspect of shrines. Even in the secular ones, it’s there under the surface, this primitive, sacred need to mark a spot and remember the dead devotionally. But London also has numerous religious shrines. There are two that particularly interest me. One is on Bayswater Road at Marble Arch, where there’s a small convent for nuns. In the basement is a chapel, with walls covered in ancient relics – skin, bone, bits of fingernails – pulled and plucked from some of the 350 Catholic martyrs who were hanged at Tyburn, the gallows nearby. Behind the altar is a replica of the gallows itself. It’s remarkably medieval and extremely weird, especially when a nice old nun is telling you about their favourite piece of shrivelled skin.
There’s also a really interesting element of the shrine found in the canals of west London. Here you often find coconuts floating in the water, sometimes cut in half and containing candles, sometimes tied with ribbons. I used to live on a narrowboat and would occasionally travel west to Uxbridge – the nearer you got to Southall the more you’d see.
I was told they were placed in the water by London’s Hindus in religious ceremonies, with the canal representing the Ganges. A recent article confirmed this: they are place in the canal as an offering to Maa Ganga who symbolises Mother Earth and also the elixir of life, as water is where all life begins. And why coconuts? A Hindu scholar has explained that “Coconuts are the fruit of the Gods – it’s a pure fruit with remarkable qualities, it takes in salt water and produces sweet fruit and it’s neatly packaged too. Also it’s a symbol of fertility, it reflects the womb, and has human qualities – it has two eyes, a mouth and hair.” It’s fascinating that this symbolism has been transported across hundred of miles and generations.
When I was researching this talk, I began to wonder whether London had any graffiti wall shrines – that’s public spaces that have been adopted by street artists to commemorate specific moments and remember people. I’m sure that these exist, but they are hard to pin down because of the transient nature of the form. London does have lots of murals, huge paintings, often commissioned by the community and with a political angle. There’s the Battle of Cable Street mural in Wapping and the Nuclear Dawn CND mural in Brixton. A lot of these are official, but it was interesting to read about the War Memorial Mural at Stockwell tube. This commemorates various aspects of war, with a section for Violette Szabo, who worked behind German lines in WW2 and lived in south London. More recently, artists decided to include on the memorial an image of Jean Charles De Menezes, who was murdered by the police in 2005. But there were disagreements – people felt he didn’t conform to the spirit of the overall piece. Eventually, he was painted out. But there is a small mosaic and shrine to De Menezes nearby.
Then there’s the really strange shrines. I had no idea until this week that the phone box near St Bart’s hospital had been briefly turned into a shrine to Sherlock Holmes after the TV show had him falling from the hospital roof. I don’t imagine there are that many shrines to fictional characters elsewhere in the world.
London also has a skateboard shrine. If you look over the side of the Jubilee Footbridge, you’ll see dozens of broken skateboards lying on one of those immense concrete feet that anchor the bridge to the Thames. These are boards that have been broken during skating sessions by the nearby skaters on the South Bank in the undercroft, and ceremoniously chucked over the bridge to form this strange graveyard.
Then there’s what for me is the saddest shrine of all, partly because it no longer exists. I used to see this all the time when I walked Farringdon, close to Mount Pleasant sorting office, where there are steps going up the viaduct. High up on the wall of one of these dank stairwells you’d see a dozen or so spoons stuck to the tiles.
I always wondered what this was about – even though I think I also partly knew. One day I asked the collective wisdom of Twitter and somebody told me what I’d always suspected: that these were placed here by heroin users in tribute to their dead comrades, each spoon marking a departed soul.
This summarises the essence of an urban shrine for me – it’s clandestine, it’s seditious, it’s violent, it’s about a form of martyrdom and above all it’s about remembrance. I was extremely sad to see the spoons had been removed when the bridge was recently repainted. It’s like those people, those lives, were erased from the public memory. Even as a shrine, they are not allowed to exist.