Category Archives: Politics

Lennon/Ono and “RAPE” in Highgate Cemetery

I have written the cover story in the new Uncut about John Lennon in 1969. This was a pivotal year for Lennon, as he embraced Yoko Ono’s concept of experimental autobiographical artistic experiences and prepared for the break up with the Beatles.

Ono and Lennon were endlessly busy through 1969, releasing weird albums – Life With The Lions and Wedding Album – and forming the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon played free jazz in Cambridge University, sent acorns to world leaders, got married, sat in bags, took heroin and released several hit singles, including “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”, “Give Peace A Chance” and “Cold Turkey”.

One of the lesser known results of this creative outpouring was the film, “RAPE”. Sean Ono Lennon believes this to be: “A profound piece, especially in the context of the Me Too movement. It’s not designed to be entertaining, it’s a concept, a metaphor and an experience.”

 

“RAPE” was commissioned by Austrian TV and filmed by Nic Knowland, a cinematographer working for World In Action. He told me, “An Austrian gentleman called me and said John and Yoko wanted me to work on a project. I said okay and went to meet them in hospital – I think Yoko had a miscarriage – and they explained what they wanted from this film. It was to reflect their sense of being hounded by the press. They wanted me to get a small crew and then follow anybody in the street until they screamed or broke down.”

For the next couple of days, Knowland filmed around North Kensington, shooting a lot of footage but never reaching the point Ono and Lennon wanted. The producer than gave Knowland the address of an Austrian woman who was in London and had outstayed her VISA. Eva Majlata was the sister of  a friend of the producer and Knowland was never sure how much she was told about the project.

For the next three days he followed her around London – Highgate Cemetery, Chelsea Bridge – ignoring her attempts at conversation and keeping the camera focused on her face. “Then on the third day we were given the key to her apartment,” says Knowland. “That’s pretty full on and ends with me being very aggressive with the camera, putting my foot on the phone so she can’t call the police. I felt we had pushed it as far as we could.”

You can watch the whole film on You Tube.

The finished film is extremely unsettling, as Majlata is essentially stalked for 90 minutes by a silent camera to her increasing discomfort and eventual alarm. We see everything from the camera’s perspective, making us complicit in the action. For Lennon and Ono, this was about fame but it’s also about everyday street harassment – which, as Sean Ono Lennon says, make it very appropriate today.

What makes it even more alarming was Majlata’s after story. The film landed her a couple of modelling gigs with Vogue but she then “got into a spot of bother” as Knowland put it, and moved back to Austria where, as Eva Rhodes, she opened an animal sanctuary. She then got involved in various legal tussles and was eventually murdered in suspicious and horrendous circumstances. One of the themes of Lennon/Ono’s 1969 was how life inspired art, and Majlata’s experience was the reverse – art became life.

“RAPE” is little known now, but of all the projects Lennon and Ono worked on in 1969, this was the most powerful. There are a couple of articles about it that are worth reading including here and here.

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Crass – anarchy in the green belt

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Crass, a unique band who mixed music and politics in such way that they really did inspire a new way of life, and thinking about life, for their followers. Theoretically, Crass were punks – and their music was loud, aggressive, fast and very direct – but they also advocated a philosophy that tried to combine humanism with libertarianism: be true to yourself but care about others. That balance of selfishness and selflessness creates a circle that isn’t always easy to square, but Crass’s absolute dedication to their message makes their story a fascinating one. “There is no authority but yourself,” they sang, a message that’s not a million miles from Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

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I’ve always been fairly sceptical about the idea there was a sharp divide between punks and hippies, and Crass are a case in point. They were every bit a product of the 60s counterculture as much as they were 1976. The band were even formed in a commune in Epping Forest that was founded in the sixties and was dedicated to that concept of dropping out. Crass were anti-war and promoted vegetarianism and identity politics. They screened avant-garde films and took part in Situationist-inspired stunts against the mass media.

Crass co-founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud was a fan of the Beatles as well as Patti Smith and Television. Here he is on Ready Steady Go winning a prize from his idol John Lennon. Rimbaud says that Lennon’s increasingly bold political and artistic statements in collaboration with Yoko Ono from 1968 were a model for Crass.

 

 

 

And yet few bands embraced the spirit of punk as much as Crass, who arranged their own gigs, ran their own label and communicated directly with their fans. They were in-your-face and anti-establishment, and their love of slogans, uniforms and banners caught some of punk’s militaristic fetish. A song like “Owe Us A Living” could surely only have been written in the punk era.

 

Rimbaud, as intellectually challenging an interviewee as any I have spoken to, discussed some of this during our conversation. “Punk wasn’t really about nihilism, that was just the theatre of McLaren,” he told me. “The Slits were a hippie band in appearance and attitude. Hippie was about people looking to find a way to live differently, what is now called DIY and is vaunted but was then common sense. You grew your own food and looked after yourself. The big difference was that punk was more urban. It was still people squatting and wearing strange clothes. People like McLaren tried to cash in on that natural and very long-existent form of youth discovery. It’s not protest, it’s youth discovering itself by buggering about. It’s only a big deal when somebody tries to market it, and punk and hippie were both exploited to the hilt.”

Read more in the current Uncut.

Santa Claus and Lapland’s Reindeer Antler Plan

I recently spent some time in Lapland for the Guardian. I wrote about my trip here  but thought I’d put a more complete version on the blog.

As soon as you land at Rovaniemi airport you see a reindeer. Not a real one admittedly, but somebody in a Rudolf suit cheerily greeting passengers who have just arrived and are planning to meet Santa Claus at his home in Northern Finland. A couple of miles from Rovaniemi airport –“Santa’s official airport” –  is Santa Claus Village, complete with elves, reindeers, huskies, shops, restaurants and the real Santa. It’s an attraction that draws more than 600,000 annual visitors to this isolated spot on the Arctic Circle.

There are reindeers everywhere in Rovianemi. Costumed at the airport, pulling sleighs at the Santa Village and recreated in statues throughout the town centre. There is also the outline of a reindeer embedded in the city’s streets. This is the “reindeer antler plan”, which was created by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto when he rebuilt the city after the Second World War. Aalto also designed the  town hall, library and concert hall, which are arranged in a complementary cluster to the south of the city centre. But while tourists flock to Santa Claus village, few seek out the work of Finland’s greatest architect. Frank Nieuvenhausen, a Dutchman living in Rovaniemi, hopes to change that through cultural tours that take in Rovaniemi’s museums, galleries and local history alongside the work of Alvar Aalto. “People get off the plane straight on a bus to the Santa Claus village but there is a rich history here,” he says. “We don’t all have to dress up as elves.”

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Rovaniemi was a quiet trading town of around 6,000 people before the Second World War. Russia invaded in 1939, and the Finns fought off their aggressors in the brutal Winter War of 1939-1940. After that, they allied with the Germans. The Finns were not Nazis and the Germans were not occupiers – this was a marriage of convenience to protect the Finns from the Russians and give Germany access to St Petersburg. Finnish Jews fought the Russians alongside German soldiers – three were offered the Iron Cross. Even today, this relationship continues. A few miles outside Rovaniemi by a lake is a memorial to the German war dead. It’s a peaceful spot, both respectful and isolated. The silence is only broken by the sound of Finnish jets protecting Rovaniemi from a feared Russian incursion.

Under the terms of German-Fin alliance, the country was split in half: the Finnish Army controlled the south and the German army had the north, with access to ports and nickel mines. The Germans were based in Rovaniemi and the town’s population doubled. The Luftwaffe built an airfield – Rovaniami airport – while Santa Claus Village itself is on the site of a German barracks. For years, the Germans and Finns got on famously. Then the war turned and the Russians told the Finns to expel the Germans or the Red Army would return. As the Germans departed, Rovaniemi was razed. Photographs show a smoking ruin with just chimney stacks left standing. Pekka Ojala, who runs a B&B and sauna near the city centre, still finds burnt wood and metal in his garden.

This desolation is what Alvar Aalto faced. But his ambition was vast. “He saw the burned town as an opportunity,” says Jussi Rautsi a former planner and researcher at the Aalto Foundation. Partly inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority Plan, Aalto created a plan for all of Lapland – a land mass as large as Holland and Belgium combined. The plan started with single housing units – designed to have as little cold north-facing façade surface as possible, and maximum external surface to the sun in south-west – and expanded outwards. Aalto factored in the hydroelectric plants being built on the great rivers of Lapland, and commissioned impact assessments to see what the effect would be on the environment, population, local industries, indigenous Sami, reindeer herds, water basins and microclimate. “Nobody in the world had done such a plan,” says Rautsi. “It had all spatial levels: regional, entire town, parts of towns, neighbourhoods, even peripheral estates. This was the only plan of this magnitude in the world.”

Rovaniemi’s “reindeer antler” street plan was conceived by Aalto in 1945. This was a stroke of visionary genius, as he simply imposed a reindeer outline on existing topography like those people who find animal shapes in the London Underground map. Aalto highlighted the natural shape of the land and the way the main roads and railway crossed. The football stadium became an eye, and the reindeer was born. It was magnificent branding, but Aalto then embellished the plan, creating different zones for commerce, residential and administration within the lines of the reindeer.

All this had to be built without Marshall Aid as the Finns had been on the side of the Germans and were also paying “reparations” to the Russians. Aid did come from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the precursor to UNICEF, which was brought to Rovaniemi by the UNRRA patron Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of FDR, in June 1950. Roosevelt wanted to visit the Arctic Circle, so the Finns built a log cabin near the airport, furnished with chairs designed by Alvar Aalto. They told her it was in the Arctic Circle although it was actually a little to the south. Roosevelt sent a letter from the cabin to President Truman – the first letter ever posted in the Arctic Circle – and wrote about it in her memoir. The log cabin became tourist attraction and was visited by other world leaders, including Brezhnev and Golda Meir. The log cabin still stands today on the edge of Santa Claus Village, where it is roundly ignored by tourists.

Tourism took time to build after the war but by 1984 Concorde was bringing visitors to Rovaniemi to see the Arctic Circle. That’s when some local entrepreneurs created the Santa Claus Village. According to Finnish myth, Santa came from Korvantunturi or Ear Fell, which is shaped like an ear so Santa can hear the wishes of every child in the world. Korvantunturi is to the far north and almost inaccessible, whereas Rovaniemi already had the airport thanks to the Luftwaffe. A rural-style wooden village was created around Roosevelt’s cabin, offering shops, reindeer rides, a Santa and a post office so visitors can send letters from the Arctic Circle. This is also where every letter addressed to Father Christmas ends up – up to 700,000 a year. In the 1990s, the Santa myth took over the town. Even part of one of the town’s nuclear bunkers was turned into Santa Park, a subterranean theme park.

As tourism grew, Rovaniemi was rebuilt. The zoning aspect of Aalto’s reindeer plan was never fully realised, but he did create three buildings for the town’s municipal centre. These were an undulating concert hall, a town hall (completed by his wife after Aalto’s death in 1976) and a library that is one of his finest works. He also built a small section of housing in the suburb of Korkalovaara, which featured terraced housing and two large apartment blocks that were modelled on the garden cities of England. In the city centre, he designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style private home and a commercial block. Not everything Aalto planned came to pass but for Raulti his successes included “climate responsive housing, separating traffic from housing neighbourhoods, using local materials, the human scale and in situ brick construction. Sound building according to nature and terrain conditions. He wanted the community to have a good and visible centre and in Rovaniemi the Aalto-centre indicates its position as the capital of the polar region.”

 

These are the sort of buildings that Frank Nieuvenhausen wishes to show visitors as an alternative to the Santa experience. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he is creating an Aalto tour, and is being supported in this endeavour by Rovaniemi tourist office, who want to increase visitors in the summer months. “Summer used to be bigger, then cold and dark became exotic,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, who runs Visit Rovaniemi. “We’d like to get that balance back.”

Santa is not the only challenge. As Aira Huovinen, curator of the Korundi contemporary art gallery acknowledges, the city’s cultural attractions also compete with nature – the Northern Lights, pine forests and wildlife. With most visitors coming for less than a week, that leaves little time to visit attractions such as the Korundi or the Arkitum, a local history/science museum. It doesn’t help that the city’s appearance is dominated by a certain post-war blockiness, encouraging tourists to stick to their out-of-town hotel resorts. There are some architectural highlights. The Arkitum has a stunning glass central corridor while the Korundi is located in one of the few buildings to survive the war, a huge brick bus depot that provided locals with shelter when the city was destroyed. Joining the gallery is a lovely new concert hall built for the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, while across the highway is a delightful and award-winning football stadium (the eye of the reindeer). The chief attraction is Aalto’s library, with its sunken reading pits, beautiful lighting and open plan. In one corner is a small section dedicated to Aalto, complete with Aalto-furniture and a picture of the reindeer antler plan on the wall.

You won’t see many tourists studying this however. It’s a different matter at Santa’s Village, which is open all year round but crammed in December. The experience isn’t quite as tacky as it might sound – we’re not talking Winter Wonderland levels of crassness – and children are enraptured. The Finns’ Santa has been shorn of any religious significance but isn’t excessively commercial. “We never let our Santa go to the mall,” says Mayor Lotvonen from his Aalto-designed office in the town hall. “He is a charitable figure.” Rovaniemi’s businesses contribute to a cheque for UNICEF at the start of every season, a reminder of the fact the city’s own resurrection and current good fortune came from an act of charity.

Santa occasionally accompanies the Mayor on official business to meet trade delegations, and he is an excellent and unique ambassador for the city. The international appeal of Santa can be seen by the make-up of Rovaniemi’s visitors, which is led by China, followed by Israel and then the UK. All find a Santa they are happy with. It’s tempting to see this as another example of the Fin’s seemingly infinite capacity for accommodation. They will make the German Army feel at home, move the Arctic Circle to keep Eleanor Roosevelt happy and then balance the needs of the West and East during the Cold War. So what would Alvar Aalto make of Rovaniemi’s adoption of Santa Claus? “Aalto liked people,” says Rautsi. “He was a social person. He would make Santa ride in a chaise lounge version of his Paimio chair pulled by three reindeers and they would leave Lapland with one of Aalto’s Savoy vases in their cabin luggage.”

 

 

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton

This review will appear in the January edition of the London Society journal.

News that a book has been commissioned on the back of a popular twitter account is often a cause for eyebrow-raising annoyance peppered with professional jealousy, but that wasn’t the case when Verso announced they were publishing a book based on @municipaldreams, the twitter account run by John Boughton. That’s because Boughton’s tweets (and superb blog) were on the history of social housing, about which Boughton has become the sort of house historian. Boughton’s posts would study in close detail a different housing estate, outline its social history and architectural appearance and then explain the various ways it had been neglected by local councils committed to Thatcherism, either through force or ideology.

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In the book of Municipal Dreams, Boughton takes a broad overview of the history of council housing from the Victorian era to the present day. Although there are occasional forays overseas to see how things are done elsewhere, his history is largely confined to England and increasingly to London, where “the spate of high-profile housing struggles in recent years testify to the dysfunction of the London housing market”. Boughton is a reassuring guide through this story. He’s a sincere and convinced advocate for state-built housing and praises the ambition and idealism exhibited by post-war planners, but he isn’t blind to the failures nor is he so politically motivated he cannot accord success where it’s been earned. This balance is particularly relevant in the later sections, covering the post-80s era when the consensus about the moral need and positive benefits of state housing was ended by Margaret’s Thatcher Conservative government, an attitude that continued under New Labour. Boughton fumes throughout this sorry era, but also gives credit on the few occasions it’s deserved.

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London is a major part of this story, starting with the pioneering Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, which opened in 1900 for the working poor and now offers two-bed flats for a monthly rent of more than £2,000 to City bankers. Boughton looks at numerous London estates, from the vast and rather dull Becontree Estate to the wonderful post-war estates built in Camden by Neave Brown, the only living architect to have all of his UK work officially listed. Historical nuggets are liberally applied – a particular favourite was the news that at Staleg Luft III, the Second World War POW camp from which the Great Escape took place, a group of prisoner took a break from depositing earth down their trousers to conduct a debate on Abercrombie’s County Of London Plan (see the poster below).

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It’s the post-1979 section that feels most important though. Boughton carefully and painstakingly takes us through the various government interventions that led to the “residualisation” of council estates – that’s the process by which social housing became repositories for the poorest and most desperate of society. As Boughton points out, this was not the original intention of state-built housing but as soon as councils began treating estates this way it was always going to start a race to bottom – and the self-fulfilling prophesy that council estates, in and of themselves, would be seen as breeding grounds for crime and deprivation. While he’s unimpressed by New Labour’s record on housing, Boughton reserves most scorn for David Cameron’s 2016 promise to “blitz” poverty by demolishing 100 of the “UK’s worst sink estates” noting that the conditions Cameron decried were caused by the policies Cameron advocated.

That brings us to the place of social housing in London’s recent deranged housing market. Boughton looks at various important recent London stories, including the ugly destruction of the Heygate Estate, the artwashing of Balfron Tower, Lambeth’s attempts to demolish Lambeth’s Cressingham and Central Hill, and the campaign to protect the residents of the New Era in Hackney. He ends with the horror story of Grenfell, pondering the role the tragedy may yet play in shifting our housing policies. I think Boughton actually underestimates the role the issue of housing has already played in contemporary politics – notably the surprise result of the 2017 general election – but Boughton ends with cautious optimism, suggesting that a new era of public housing may be coming thanks to “the failure of the free market to provide good and affordable homes to all those who needs them”. That still feels some way off as it would require an embarrassing climbdown from the media and Conservative party to admit that the flagship policy of Thatcherism, “right to buy”, has been a national disaster. But it also feels inevitable, as the case for a return to state-built housing will soon become too pressing to ignore.

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso)

A refugee’s son

When I was growing up, I unquestionably thought of myself as English. That was despite the fact one half of my family most clearly was not. They lived in Tooting and spoke a different language. They looked different, they ate different food and they had a way of being, a culture, that was profoundly different in a thousand indefinable ways.

Over the past two years, with every day and news cycle that passes, I’ve felt increasingly aware of this part of my background. It’s the part that doesn’t belong, the part that isn’t English and never will be. It’s the part that too many people would resent if my surname was not so plain and my skin not as white as theirs. Growing up I never thought of myself as the child of an immigrant, a refugee’s son: now, it’s increasingly how I define myself and my relationship with a country that seems to fear so much of what I represent.

First, some family history. My father’s side is easy. My grandad migrated from Barrow to Birmingham and then my dad moved to London when he was about 20. There may have been some Irish in there on my grandmother’s side – there usually is – but it was culturally 100% English and stolidly Protestant with it.

When my dad arrived in London, he lodged in Tooting at a house owned by a member of my mother’s extended family. This must have been an eyeopening experience. The family had arrived en masse in England in 1957. They were Mediterranean romantics, demonstrative Catholics who spoke Italian mixed with French, German, Greek, Arabic and even a bit of English and because they liked to eat properly, went to the chemist to buy olive oil, which the English only used to treat ear wax.

They were not English, yet they all had British passports. How so?

This is where it gets complicated. My mum’s family were originally Maltese, although they had lived in Egypt for at least three generations (my mum’s maternal grandparents were born in Egypt). Because of this somewhat vague Maltese heritage, the family were able to claim British citizenship even though they were culturally to all intents and purposes Italian. Italian was the first language, the food was Italian and they all supported Italy in the World Cup.

This led to some interesting collisions. My grandfather – my nonno – had the splendid Italian name of Salvatore Camenzuli, but he called his kids Daisy and Wilfred – which are as English as you could hope to get, even though neither of them spoke English. It’s why I have uncles with names like Herbert and Norbert. All were born around the time of the Second World War, so presumably were given such astoundingly English names to emphasise their official nationality.

It also meant that at the time of the Suez Crisis, they were thrown out of their homes. When Britain, France and Israel went to war with Egypt, everybody with a British passport was told to leave or become Egyptian nationals. Most chose to leave.

My family left Alexandria, the family home for at least 80 years, and got on boats that took them around the world. Some went to Australia, some went to Italy, but most went to England, the motherland, where they were interned in an old WWII camp in Horsforth, Yorkshire. They left Alexandria in January and when they arrived in England it was snowing. This is the passport on which they travelled.

 

For the adults, this must have been traumatic. Many did not speak English and the older men and women were taken to separate care homes. My mum’s nonna died a week after arrival. Here are my great-grandparents, who like so many human beings in history were victims of a conflict they had no part in causing.

For the kids, it was great fun. They didn’t have to go to school! Here’s my uncle Wilfred and his cousins at the camp, playing cowboys.

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When my mum arrived in England she possessed a British passport but didn’t speak English and had a funny name. When the family moved to London and she started school, she was singled out as different because she was. Did she live in pyramid? Did she go to school on a camel? The English kids imagined she grew up in an oasis and ate papyrus – they had no concept that Alexandria was a city every bit as modern as London, because that isn’t what they were taught. They could never have grasped that my mother had enjoyed in Alexandria a better standard of living that most kids growing up in Tooting. Even today, people struggle with this sort of basic understanding that other cities around the world are much like our own, and that immigrants and refugees aren’t always poor.

That was all tough, but more than 50 years later, she’s still here, an amazing woman married to an amazing Englishman but still in touch with her family. A few years ago, some of them got together to commemorate 50 years of exile.

This country would be a poorer place without them.

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So what has all this got to do with me? For years, nothing. I was aware of my non-English side and enjoyed it – the warmth of the company, the excellent biscuits, the funny accents, the glass of sweet Marsala at bedtime – but always considered myself an Englishman. Even my mum seemed English most of the time, so that when friends detected an accent and asked where she was from, it always took me by surprise. And when my mum mocked the blandness of English cuisine and talked about how boring England would be without immigrants like herself, I found it a bit uncomfortable, unpatriotic, even though I suspected that she was right.

But recently, as the rhetoric against foreigners, against immigration, against refugees, has toxified, I’ve become increasingly aware of my roots. I’ve been made to feel that I am English only by default, one small step away from being – like half my family, the people who raised me as English and who I love – foreign, unwanted, alien, an infestation.

The thing is, nobody who looks at me would ever know. But if I had different coloured skin or a strange surname, how would that change things? If my mother’s family arrived in England tomorrow, would they be welcome? Would the government even allow them entry? Would they be encourage to settle, make their home, open businesses, have children and generally enrichen the culture of the country so that English children can now grow up with olive oil on their plates rather than in their ears.

Across the world, the prevailing politics revels in the hatred of other. Some people – many millions more than I ever could have imagined – despise anybody who is, essentially, exactly like my mother. As a result, I have become more aware of my background as the child of an immigrant and what that really means. I am more conscious of the rhetoric of race and division, of them and us, of who belongs and who would be allowed to stay if the fantasies of white nationalists should ever come to pass. But I am a refugee’s son, and nothing makes me prouder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Lydon in Gunter Grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Under the arches – ghost signs of London

Herne Hill’s subway tunnel is getting a makeover. The process began with the stripping away of some old panels that lined the passageway. That revealed some strange and ancient tribal wall markings that nobody will have seen for years.

What can they mean?

 

The graffiti can be dated fairly precisely by some of the political messages that were also exposed in the renovation. One is a stencil saying “No cruise”, while the other features the tattered remains of three “Militant Miner” posters, which would have been stuck on the wall around the time of the Miners Strike in 1984/1985.

You can see a clearer version of the Militant Miner poster here.

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I find it fascinating to see this sort of ephemera uncovered after more than 30 years. It’s a brief insight into an older London that was always there, within reach but out of sight.

The other wall of the tunnel has yet to be stripped. What further social history wonders lie beneath?

King Mob, the Camden Poster Workshop and revolutionary London in 1968

 

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While most recollections of 1968 concern events in Paris, Germany, the US and South America, there was also a minor uprising in London. That is being commemorated with a suitably bijou single-room exhibition at the Tate Britain, and also a new publication in Four Corners’ Irregular series – about which I first wrote here.

The book is an anthology of the work of Camden’s Poster Workshop, a collective that silkscreen protest posters for any cause that needed them, directly inspired by the famous posters of Paris in May. It includes examples of every poster the group produced from their premises on Camden Road, plus essays explaining how they worked and their social context.

 

 

 

 

 

The graphics, slogans and general attitude are a perfect expression of the spirit of 1968, with campaigns focusing on big issues like Vietnam but also looking at very localised political issues such as rent strikes and student protests. There is a whole wall of those posters on display at the Tate, sitting opposite various artworks that capture the anti-establishment spirit of 1968 – a photograph by Richard Long, some work by Joseph Bueys.

In the space between are a handful of exhibition cases containing some ephemera related to 1968. Much of this relates to protests at Hornsey Art College and LSE, but there’s also some terrific King Mob and Anti-University paraphernalia, plus issues of IT and Black Dwarf. It’s definitely worth a quick look if you are planning to visit either of the current two main exhibitions, one on the impressionists on London and the excellent All Too Human, a very London-orientated featuring art by Freud, Bacon, Auerbach and Bomberg.

 

The King Mob elements particularly interested me, as this group had a striking way with word and image that anticipates – and inspired – the artwork of punk. “Comrades stop buggering about”, one pamphlet implores while another quotes Antonin Artaud in a perfect mix of the profane and the artful. They may well have been little more than annoying provocateurs, the Spiked Online of their day who said things like “football hooligans are the avant-garde of the British working class” but they certainly had wit. As Alan Marcuson explained to Jonathon Green in Days In The Life: “They were much more fun, their writings were more fun, they were a more interesting group of people, they were doing more interesting things, their pamphlets were more interesting than the boring fucking Trots, who really were the most tiresome bunch of people I have ever come across.”

King Mob were outliers in the London revolutionary scene. They formed in Notting Hill as an offshoot of the Situationist International. In ’68 – The Year Of The Barricades, David Caute writes that they “derided both passive, drugged hippies and the usual New Left rent-a-crowd who were forever ‘counting arseholes’ and pursuing stale ‘issue politics’.” It’s noticeable that there is no index entry for King Mob in Barry Miles’ history of the London counterculture, London Calling. That could be because one of King Mob’s first actions was to go to Miles’s Indica bookshop, where the hippie Trots of IT were then based, and “scaring the wits out of them”.

Like most left-wing revolutionary groups, King Mob believed they were the real thing. They articulated a keen sense of humour that was borrowed from the Yippies and Situationists, and also nurtured a belief in “creative violence” that they admired in New York’s brilliantly named and short-lived Motherfuckers. As a result, King Mob celebrated serial killers and planned audacious actions – blowing up a waterfall in the Lake District; hanging the peacocks in Holland Park – none of which came to pass.

Their most famous activity was when a group of King Mobbers, including Malcolm McLaren, invaded Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas and handed out toys to children. They are also said to have been responsible for some of London’s best graffiti, including the famous “How much more can you take?” in Ladbroke Grove. Their influence on the political climate of 1968 was minute, but McLaren and Jamie Reid would soon take King Mob’s love of ‘chaos and anarchy” and apply it to punk rock.

 

 

 

 

The Diana shrine: 20 years ago

Almost 20 years ago, I saw London’s largest shrine. It was outside Kensington Palace a week after the death of Princess Diana. It was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen in London, an doubtedly historic moment that made me feel completely alienated from the city around me.

Just look at this nonsense.

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I am not a royalist and, at first, had little interest in Diana’s death. My main recollection of the immediate aftermath was that London appeared to have sprouted a thousand flagpoles overnight. Taking the bus from Victoria to Maida Vale a day or two after the accident, every building seemed to be flying a Union flag at half mast. Every building except Buckingham Palace of course. I was working for News International and The Sun was furious at the Queen’s lack of respect. So furious, in fact, that they erected a flagpole outside their office just so they could fly the Union flag at half mast for a photo opportunity, a tabloid stunt aimed at shaming the Queen and aligning The Sun with the views of the people, despite their having helped ruined Diana’s life over two decades of intrusion.

A week or so later, it was quietly replaced by a flag bearing the News International logo.

Private Eye‘s hypocrisy-nailing cover seemed more in tune with my thinking, but caused such a furore they had to withdraw copies. I wish I’d kept my issue.

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Over the following week, hysteria built across London. I wanted no part of it, and had no intention of visiting Kensington Palace until I was persuaded by an older friend who wisely pointed out this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m sort of glad he did.

We met at Hyde Park Corner and began to walk across the park. As we got closer to the palace, a smell began to rise – I can still smell it to this day, the acid sweet stench of slowly rotting flowers.

Kensington Palace was a genuinely incredible sight. The park in front of Kensington Palace was carpeted with flowers, thousands of bouquets, several layers deep and turning to compost in the summer heat. There was no way of getting near the palace gates and lone figures walked among the flowers, stooping to read labels, looking like peasant farmers or bomb disposal experts. I’d never seen or smelled anything like it. I remember reading one label. It was from a mother who wrote that she had lost a son in the Falklands War. She hadn’t cried then, but she had when Diana died.

There’s too much to unpick here to even know where to start, but one thing that stood out – above the general public insanity and my own utter bewilderment at how people were responding – was the strange, seditious, slightly exciting undercurrent undercurrent to it all.

A shrine is a very public way of responding to private grief, and they are almost always political in some way in the sense that the are the public’s way of drawing attention to somebody who they feel was otherwise neglected by authority. Shrines are often about the way a violent or unpredictable deaths provokes a proletariat response that has rebellious, anti-establishment bent. Shrines are rarely sanctioned, they are impromptu and organic. This shrine felt as close to a revolutionary act as anything that had happened in London since the Poll Tax Riot, and it was far more wideset, an angry reaction to what was perceived as the cold, heartless behaviour of the establishment. It also felt very un-London like, as this city isn’t usually so ostentatious in its response to tragedy or crisis. It unleashed a national trait for emotional drama that has never fully gone away and I’ve still to completely understand. And boy, did it smell.

 

 

 

 

Building on London allotments

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a conflict between social housing and green spaces, two of the most important issues facing London today. It concerns Northfields Allotments, a stunning sliver of green space in Ealing that is London’s oldest surviving allotment. I visited the allotments on a gorgeous June morning and was captivated by this secret garden hidden behind ancient hedgerows.

Northfields Allotments - rainbow 2_Credit - Paul Bate

Credit: Paul Bate

Rather than the rather staid lines of vegetables that I expected, the allotment was like 100 completely individual back gardens in one giant field – so some people had turned their spaces into meadows of wildflowers, others had grown small orchards, there were all manner of handmade sheds, somebody had flung a hammock across a makeshift porch, and there were several Wendy houses for the kids. It was an example of the best a city can offer – people of many nationalities and with very personal tastes thrown together and creating something truly magical.

Then I went across the road to meet Robin, who was living in an almshouse owned by Pathways, a local housing charity that also happen to own the allotment following various historical mergers. Robin’s flat was very small and a little rundown, but provided him with a home when he found himself homeless, jobless and unable to support himself. Thousands of Londoners face similar situations, and there isn’t enough housing being built to provide for all of them. It’s London’s greatest failing.

Pathways now want to correct this by knocking down Robin’s block and rebuild it to modern specifications. While that takes place, they will build a new block of social housing on a small strip of the allotment site. This is so they can keep all the residents of Robin’s block together during the rebuilding work. They will fund this – contentiously – by building a small element of private housing, either to rent or sell depending on what they are allowed to do (technically, they cannot sell the allotment land).

View over Northfields Allotments NW to SE_Credit - Nabil Jacob

Credit: Nabil Jacob

Robin argued very persuasively that the needs of vulnerable Londoners are paramount and the loss of a tiny amount of green space was no big deal. Christina and Ian at the allotments argued equally persuasively that green space was essential for London’s mental and physical wellbeing and that once it is gone, we never get it back (60% of the original allotment site was already under concrete following development in the 1970s). They also felt that Pathways would keep coming back for more land, so eventually there would be nothing left. A spokesperson for Pathways assured me they had no intention of doing so, but who is to say how his successors will feel in 20 years time? This is a deceptively large section of land and housing will continue to be a concern for decades. The temptation to repeat this process, taking another 5 per cent here and there, will surely be too great.

As I wrote this story, I found it very difficult to decide where I stood. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the allotment holders because I think there is going to be increasing pressure on inner London green spaces in the next few decades so it’s important to protect what we have – and it won’t just be charities hoping to build on it.

If I had ever been homeless myself, I’d probably feel very differently, though.

We need social housing, but we surely can do better than this.