Category Archives: Rant

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

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

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

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

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

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Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

At Speakers’ Corner

This article was first published in Time Out in 2006. I am posting it after hearing about Sounds from the Parka partnership between On the Record and Bishopsgate Institute that is hoping to record an oral history of Speakers’ Corner. Photos by Chris Kennett. 

This London curiosity grew out of revolt, when Edmund Beales led the Reform League to Hyde Park in 1866 to complain about the lack of a vote for working men. The marchers were blocked from entering the park by police and a small but interesting riot developed. The Reform League continued to meet at Marble Arch to test their right to hold public meetings in the park. In 1872, the government relented and granted the right to assembly and free speech in this corner of Hyde Park. The Met promptly responded by turning Marble Arch into a tiny police station to keep an eye on the rabble below.

(1968) credit, Chris Kennett

On a sunny Sunday in October, the rabble are out in force with a dozen speakers taking their spots, espousing black power, Islamism, Christian atheism and much else that is vocal but indeterminable. The two largest crowds gather directly opposite each other on either side of the path. One is engaged in raucous religious debate, slinging insults about the Koran and Bible back and forth, and occasionally taking time out from happily lambasting each other to heckle the speakers, a Christian, a secularist and a Muslim, who each take their turn upon the platform. It’s the sort of ferocious debate about Islam and freedom that the newspapers tell us we don’t dare have in public.  Across the way, a striking young man has drawn a larger but less vocal crowd to hear him eloquently espouse familiar but fervent criticism of the Iraq War.

Nikolai Segura has been coming to Speakers’ Corner on-and-off for seven years, and then on a weekly basis for the last 12 months, during which time he’s become one of the Corner’s regular hecklers. ‘I’ve been heckling for a year,’ he says. ‘It makes a show for the crowd, but it also sends the message that this is a place that exemplifies freedom of speech.’

A couple of weeks ago he was heckling a speaker when ‘some Muslims came up to me and said there were extremists in the park who would kill me for what I was saying,’ he says. Segura’s response was bold. He has returned to the park wearing a Muhammad-baiting T-shirt (‘There’s a picture of the prophet on the back of this shirt… only kidding [please don’t kill me])’, and today he gets on the stepladder to speak himself for the first time. The resulting debate is ferocious, spiteful and fascinating.

Religious debate has been a feature of Speakers’ Corner since before it even existed – many of those executed at nearby Tyburn were Catholics, who used their final speech to try to convert the crowd . But the unmistakable change in overall tone from political to theological – the ‘three Abrahamic religions shouting at each other’ as Segura puts it – was first noticed by speaker Terminator 24 [T24] 25 years ago.

‘It’s changed a lot,’ he says. ‘During the Cold War it was a lot of social democrats, trade unionists, socialists and many intellectuals. But after 1979 international relations affected Speakers’ Corner and the revolution in Iran saw a change. It became more aggressive, more religious. And after 1989 there were even fewer universal, social democratic presentations and more nationalism and fundamentalism. It mirrors how the world changes.’

(1972) credit, chris kennett

Heiko Koo, who runs the Speakers’ Corner website, believes the debate there is genuine. ‘All speakers get information from each other and people in the audience and from the internet, so ideas and theories get spread around and I’ve seen them change the mind of some speakers,’ he says.

T24, like Segura, started in the crowd before progressing up the ladder. ‘I came here and started to ask questions, and the speakers were very abusive, so I thought: That’s not the way; if I were speaking, I would not be oppressive and tyrannical. Now, when I talk, I leave it open, without judgment, express a thought and let others join in. It’s unique, very special here. I love being with real people, seeing their expressions, their laughter, their frustrations and anger. I love it here. The open space, it’s free and,’ a pause for effect, and to have a swig of coke, ‘I have nothing else to do.’

Sounds from the Park is  organising a reminiscence event at the Bishopsgate Institute on 8th December for everyone with memories of Speakers’ Corner.

Peter Hitchens on drugs and the moral, opium-eating, Victorians

Peter Hitchens is a very clever man. I’m sure he’s also sincere – I can’t believe British newspapers would employ somebody to say stupid and provocative things just to get attention, after all – but judging by the interviews he’s conducted for his new book about drugs, The War We Never Fought, he’s a little bit daft.

Hitchens theory is that there has never been a war on drugs. ‘Drug-taking was, in effect, decriminalised by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971,’ is how Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases. Instead, he harks back to the golden age of the Victorians, when there was ‘increasing self-imposed moral conduct’ (Hitchens’ words.)

Where to begin with this nonsense? Well, let’s just stick to the last bit, those morally virtuous Victorians. In a sense, he’s right: the Victorians didn’t take illegal drugs. That’s because they were too busy snaffling down the legal ones – things like opium, cocaine and cannabis – which were available to just about anybody who needed them until 1868, and then over the counter from chemists until 1926. This was the golden age of drug-taking in Britain, with opium being consumed on a scale we could scarcely now believe.

Victorian London was awash with opium, not in semi-mythologised Chinese opium-smoking dens in Limehouse (of which there were very few), but in pubs, chemists, general stores and markets, where it was sold in bottles, powders, pills, lozenges, on plasters, in sweets and much else besides. The centre of trade was in Mincing Lane, London, where 90 per cent of transactions occurred. It was most commonly taken as laudanum, a tincture of opium and red wine, with saffron and cinnamon.

This was not thrill seeking. In the days before aspirin, opium was one of the few reliable painkillers available to Victorians, especially especially fever and diarrhoea, but also malaria, smallpox, syphilis and TB. And it was effective as well. As anybody who has taken codeine or morphine will confirm, opiates have a tendency to block you right up – something that was particularly helpful when the next cholera or dysentery epidemic was just around the corner.

However, opium was also used on children, particularly when teething, in specially formulated sweet concoctions like Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and thus surely led to the deaths of many by overdose. It also, believes the drug’s historian Martin Booth in Opium: A History, ‘provided an escape from the misery and vicissitudes of working-class life.’ This was especially the case in the Fens, where ‘many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it.’

Because of these two factors, opium was belatedly seen as a physical and spiritual danger, and Victorian abstinence advocates put it right up there with alcohol and tobacco as serious threats to British life. What’s interesting, though, is the way – anecdotally at least – users were able to effectively and relatively painlessly self-medicate, living normal decent lives despite their addiction, without resorting to crime. This is true for the working classes, it’s true of the famous opium-eating writers like Coleridge, Shelly, Keats, Collins and De Quincey, and it’s also true of the many great statesmen – the sort of people who shaped the British Empire so beloved by Peter Hitchens – who took the drug. You see, because opium was the only halfway reliable painkiller around, everybody took it – including people like William Wilberforce, the great Christian abolitionist, and William Gladstone, who popped some in his coffee before speaking in Parliament to improve his rhetorical powers – even if not all of them became addicted.

In later years, opium – and especially its stronger derivatives morphine and heroin – began to be used by those simply seeking a pathway to an altered consciousness, a shortcut perhaps to the sort of transcendent mystical experience some people get from religion. In doing so, they were merely following pattern taken by mankind in all civilisations since the dawn of time, however much Hitchens may wish that weren’t the case.

As restrictions were introduced – for opium, not alcohol and tobacco – drug-use declined massively and by 1960 there were less than 100 registered heroin addicts in the UK. They received their drugs from doctors, cheap and undiluted, and were largely able to enjoy a normal existence (at least in comparison with their criminalised counterparts in America). However, as drug use increased in the 1960s, restrictions were imposed, culminating with Hitchens hated Misuse of Drugs Acts in 1971, after which drug supply passed almost completely into the hands of the criminal and use immediately rocketed. A far cry indeed from those morally virtuous days of the 1850s, when Britain’s great and good could simply pick up a bottle of premium laudanum from their nearest general store and retreat into blissful opium dreams.

Brixton Bugle: the future of local newspapers?

Even in these days of live blogs, hyperlocal websites and social media, it can be easy to miss news stories. While national attention focuses disproportionately on a handful of big stories – whether that be tweeting footballers or dead paedophiles – smaller bits of news, especially local news, can fall through the gaps of newspapers that often seem to be more interested in filling their pages with the contrived comments of tedious columnists so snobbish, banal and privileged they could be auditioning for a lead role in the next Ian McEwan novel. And the time spent registering a new profile so you can leave an angry comment about their latest inanities makes it difficult for the average person to find those precious seconds when they can check out and absorb the content of a website devoted to your local area.

This is where the traditional local newspaper used to step in, but, er, well let’s not talk about that. But in Brixton, there is a solution. The Brixton Bugle is a monthly free newspaper (affiliated to the Brixon Blog) that rounds up all the most important news in Brixton, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Loughborough Junction. Around 7,000 copies are published and handed out for free outside the tube once a month or given to local shops. And it’s really rather good, occasionally breaking news that the bigger but less focused South London Press can easily miss. Visually it can still be a bit shonky, but the content is good and it is easily the best way of keeping locals abreast of the changes, both large and small, taking place in Brixton (such as the plans to knock down the local Rec Centre), especially since the council’s own free paper was scrapped.

This sort of grassroots, hyperlocal newspaper, with low distribution costs, small staff, funded by local advertising and with close and committed connections to the area in which it operates has real potential, which is presumably why the Lebedevs’ Journalism Foundation has given the Bugle a grant and mentoring support.

There are plenty of London areas – the south-east for instance, or Barnet – that do not receive the attention they deserve from the existing print media, but which have strong blogging communities. Their work is impressive and they often get lots of attention when they break big stories, but there is still nothing quite like print for keeping an entire community – not just political nerds and news junkies – involved and aware of local developments that do not have headline-grabbing power. Will they heed Brixton’s trumpet call? Here’s hoping.

My interview with Brixton Bugle co-editor Tim Dickens for Completely London

Why I hate the Champions League

Who came third the year Arsenal won the league at Anfield in 1989? Does anybody remember? Does anybody care? Indeed, who came fourth in 2007? Third when Manchester United won the treble in 1999?

Unless you’re a fan of Nottingham Forest (1989), Liverpool (2007) or Chelsea (1999), it’s doubtful you’ll be able to answer any of those questions. And rightly so. Because finishing third or fourth is, in the greater scheme of the history of football, nothing to get excited about, it’s not interesting, important or impressive. But thanks to European football’s ridiculous obsession with the Champions League, Arsenal fans are celebrating limping home a distant third as if it is their club’s greatest achievement since the Invincibles, just one that doesn’t come with a trophy or will be remembered by anybody in a year’s time. It’s been a successful season insist fans of the biggest club in London, now seven years now without a cup, because it means they have earned the right to play in the Champions League again (until March, usually).  And they seem to believe it.

Ah, the Champions League, the bloated, vile, venal parasite of European football, with its hideous anthem and putrid stench of self-importance. How I hate this wretched competition. Yet qualifying for it is now deemed to be the greatest achievement of any club, more desired than mere trophies and finals. Clubs with trophy cabinets that used to gleam with silverware are now more interested in securing next year’s income stream, terrified about what might happen to the bank balance if they fail. Henry Norris and Arsene Wenger have more in common than we could have ever imagined when Wenger brought swashbuckling trophy-winning teary-eyed romantic football to the Emirates in 1998. Fuck success, fuck beauty, fuck romance, fuck football: give me the cash.

I don’t get it. I never have. I understand why money is important in football, but that doesn’t mean I want to have my nose rubbed in it. In 2003, Chelsea played Liverpool; the winner would finish third and qualify for the Champions League. This was, in financial terms, the biggest game in the club’s history, I was told by friends. It was more important than a cup final, they said. Well, I’ve been to a few cup finals, and that sir was no cup final. It was a squalid mudfight for cold hard cash, a stripping down of modern football to its ugliest essentials. And yet it was presented as if it was a thing to admire, and people bought into it. Why?

I hated it then and I hated it now, especially as the Champions League’s weight and wealth has expanded, rewarding failure in the rich leagues to the point where it has pretty much destroyed all European domestic football outside of England, Spain, Italy and Germany, and turning the FA Cup and League Cup into heavily sponsored footnotes. 

It’s even turned the Europa League into a joke, in England at least.  Patrice Evra said it was ’embarrassing’ that Manchester United were playing in the Europa this season, something you’d hope would make Uefa take a long, hard look at what they have done, although of course they didn’t. The Europa has its fans, but in reality it’s a sad and unlovable replacement for the splendid streamlined charms of the old Uefa and Cup Winners’ cups.

But nothing can be allowed to compete with the CL’s budget, which throws millions of pounds at so-so teams, encouraging billionaires to buy into the game in a bid to join the bunfight – something Uefa are now trying to ban without acknowledging the root cause, the disproportionate rewards offered by their beloved keynote trophy. Meanwhile, leagues, cups and the dignity and priorities of supporters all disappear beneath the whirling blades of Uefa’s deranged zombie lawnmower.

And now we have come to the extreme logic of the position, where we’re told that the main reason Chelsea should want to win the Champions League final on Saturday is so they can qualify for next year’s Champions League, as if the trophy itself is just something that comes free in a packet of corn flakes, and nobody bats an eyelid. How can this be right? What have Uefa been allowed to do to 57 years of history? And why does nobody appear to care?