Category Archives: Secret London

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

Dream City – London’s unbuilt Edwardian theme park

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.

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Dream City

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.

Uncovering a London ghost: the half-life of David Litvinoff

In the current issue of Uncut, I spoke to write Keiron Pim about his excellent book on David Litvinoff, Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Litvinoff is one of those characters that crops up in all sorts of strange places once you first notice him – in the last few years I’ve read books about the Krays, Performance and Operation Julie, and Litvinoff has featured in all of them as a mercurial, menacing muse. He also appears in Iain Sinclair’s books, but Sinclair is most interested in what he can use Litvinoff to represent – in this case a deliberately unknowable, shadowy figure who flits through London’s secret history, connecting the shadowy worlds of counterculture and crimes.

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Pim is a journalist, interested in people as people rather than as metaphors, and his book diligently puts flesh on the bones of Litvinoff’s known history, tracing this strange character’s ascent from the Jewish East End and into the worlds of art, crime and music, where he rubbed up against everybody from Lucien Freud to Eric Clapton.  It’s said that Litvinoff reached such elevated company he was even invited to Jimi Hendrix’s funeral – the invitation contained a tab of acid that the recipient was meant to take if they couldn’t physically attend.

Litvinoff was an unpredictable chancer who survived on his wits, making money here and there through schemes both legal and not. He worked for the Krays and Peter Rachman, but his defining role, as seen by Pim, is as consultant for Performance, that heady, troubling film that could be the finest ever made in this city. Litvinoff befriended and advised both Edward Fox and Mick Jagger on the ways of the underworld, and supplied his old Soho pal Donald Cammell with ideas for scenes and dialogue. One of the many memorable moments in the film – the shaving of one victim’s head by gangsters – was based on Litvinoff’s own experiences. This was a man who both delivered and received mob justice – and at times, he is unsympathetic to the point of psychopathy – until he discovered a form of salvation through drugs and the woolly world of hippie idealism.

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The story is ultimately a tragic one, as Litvinoff increasingly found himself left behind by friends, who could tolerate his wit and weirdness for only so long. He killed himself in 1975 as punk was breaking, and one sense that this movement of chaotic creativity, violence and contradiction would have suited him fine, although Malcolm McLaren may have baulked at the competition.

Given that Litvinoff didn’t actually leave much behind – no books or diaries, photographs or albums, little that is tangible or concrete – it’s difficult to put a pin in what he actually did. In an age in which we are increasingly defined by our jobs – commit a social media faux pas, and you are immediately reported to your employer – that’s strangely unsettling. The brilliant late artist Martin Sharp, a close friend of Litvinoff, makes a case that this needn’t be the case, that Litvinoff, by simply being himself and acting as muse and creative conspirator, did plenty. “It’s hard to earn a living doing it, but he made an enormous contribution to people’s lives,” says Sharp. “It’s not something you can send someone a bill for.”

Shrines of London

 

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.

Just look.

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.

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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.

The Blitz: missing buildings and false memories

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

There were some tantalising leads.

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

Lowndes Street

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

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

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

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Clarkenwell Road

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

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

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Photograph by Thom Atkinson

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

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

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

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

 

The Black Museum at the Museum Of London

The Museum of London’s new exhibition is undoubtedly something of a coup. Crime Museum Uncovered features around 600 items from the Met Police’s private museum, once known as the Black Museum but now renamed the Crime Museum. I visited the Crime Museum at Room 101 in Scotland Yard several years ago and wrote about the experience here.

What’s fascinating is the differences between the way a public museum like the MoL treats the same objects as the police museum. The shelf above is from Scotland Yard. It is located in an ante room before the museum proper and contains a selection of weapons seized on the streets of London, and above that a dozen or so death masks taken of the heads of executed prisoners. This is pretty much the first thing visitors to the museum will see and the ensemble is like a whack on the head with a cosh. It says London is full of criminals, this is how they will try to kill you and this is what we will do to them when they are caught.

At the MoL, the same material is treated much more sensitively. Only six or so weapons are exhibited, and these are placed neatly in a clean glass box rather than scattered higgledy-piggledy over an old table. The heads are also on exhibition, but some distance removed from the weapons, creating a disconnection between crime and punishment.

That is, perhaps, the only way the MoL could present this exhibition. I’ve said before that the Crime Museum as curated by the police is entirely inappropriate for the public and I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate for the police as it is deliberately created to cultivate an air of suspicion bordering on the paranoid, a repeated insistence that the streets are not safe for policeman, that anybody could be out to kill you, using anything from an umbrellas to a telephone. It’s an attitude that goes some way towards explaining the deaths of numerous Londoners at the hands of the police.

The MoL also has to fill in some of the blanks at Scotland Yard. The Crime Museum is ostensibly a teaching museum  – it shows coppers the history of crimes and how they have been solved. But the cases at Scotland Yard contain little explanatory detail – that is provided orally by the curator. At the MoL, by contrast, there is a fairly thorough, detached but instructive look at a selection of important crimes, showing what they have revealed about forensics, police procedures, detective work and criminality (many of the cases, too many, concern crimes against women). They also touch on several of the most significant crimes of the era, including the Krays, the Richardson, Derek Bentley, Dr Crippen, Christie and the Acid Bath Murderers. It’s all very carefully selected and brilliantly explained, with items well chosen to both inform and occasionally horrify. This is easily the best part of the exhibition.

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

The MoL then breaks away from these individual crimes to look at broader themes, such as concealed weapons, drugs, forgery, armed robbery and espionage. While the focus on individual crimes does not include anything from after 1975 to avoid distress to victims’ relatives – which means the infamous Dennis Nilsen cooking pot isn’t on show thankfully – the exhibits on broader themes go right up to the present day. That is largely so they can show items related to the July 2005 bombings in the form of reconstructions of the homemade rucksack bombs, something I found particularly unnecessary as these weren’t even from the crime scenes, which is a core part of the Crime Museum’s relevance. Authenticity is absolutely vital here – it is the raison d’etre of the entire collection – and if the items are not original, you leave yourself open to accusations of Chamber of Horrors style ghoulishness.

It’s a rare misstep from an otherwise sensitive exhibition, that ends with an excellent film in which policeman, curators, crime victims and professors discuss crime, the museum and its role in police life.

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

So that’s all good, but I still came out of the Museum of London exhibition with mixed feelings.

It goes right back to the start. The exhibition begins with a “reconstruction” of the original Victorian museum. But this is a reconstruction in the very loosest sense – basically, it means the items are old but they are being presented in a very modern way. That is far removed not only from the Victorian museum but also from the contemporary Scotland Yard museum, which does not look, feel or smell modern at all. The Crime Museum is old-fashioned, cluttered, chaotic and deeply depressing, and a genuine piece-by-piece reconstruction, or even a photograph of the current Scotland Yard museum, would have been a real benefit, as otherwise it’s impossible to discern the peculiar atmosphere of the place. Without it, the MoL are sanitising not just the nature of crime – which is excusable – but also the nature of policing, which is not. That after all goes to the heart of what the Crime Museum is about, who it is for and what that means to Londoners, and it’s something that is entirely absent from this exhibition – the one hint comes from the only item relating to the long history of riots in London, which is a police shield from Broadwater Farm that’s been burnt by a petrol bomb. What does that tell you about the way the police regard these inner city riots?

The Museum of London have produced a fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking reimagining of the Crime Museum’s contents that explores the nature of crime and law enforcement in London, but it does not tell the full story of the Crime Museum. I imagine Scotland Yard will be very pleased about that indeed.

Secret London: deliberate mistakes in the A-Z

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You can’t trust a map. Not even the A-Z.

A BBC TV programme several years ago first revealed to many people the news that the A-Z contains deliberate mistakes. These ‘trap streets‘ are inserted as a way to protect copyright – if the map is reproduced or copied without permission, the map manufacturers will immediately be able to spot them (see more here).

(A comment at Reddit clarifies this: the map itself cannot have a copyright as it is a “representation of fact… The trap streets and deliberate mistakes change the work from being purely factual into a creative expression and thus able to be protected by copyright.”)

Nobody is quite sure exactly how many mistakes each A-Z contains or where or how long they last for, but the BBC said there were about 100 and named one, Bartlett Place, a real street which was actually called Broadway Walk and renamed thus in future maps.

Another deliberate mistake can be seen on the photo at the top of this page. Can you spot what it is?

See the ‘ski slope’ in the park just next to the city farm? That’s one of the A-Z’s little phantoms. It comes from an old copy of the A-Z (and many thanks to reader Andrew Lyn) for sending the photograph, as the ‘ski slope’  hasn’t been used for about a decade.

If anybody is aware of any other other deliberate mistakes in recent A-Zs, please let us all know.

Richard Fortey’s secret tour of the Natural History Museum

Some years ago, the writer and scientist Richard Fortey took me on a tour of his favourite items in the Natural History Museum. His book, Dry Store Room No 1, is one of the best books I’ve read about London museums.

1 ‘This is the collection of all known species of humming birds which I used as the cover for my book. It goes back nearly 200 years to the earliest days of natural history as spectacle. One of the amazing things is that the colours, the iridescent feathers, have survived so long. You can even see the tiny eggs, with the appropriate egg in it. This whole bird gallery is a survivor to the old days of the museum, preserved almost apologetically as an example of the classic gallery, but a lot of people still stop and look at it even though it’s just stuffed birds.’

Pregnant ichthyosaur fossil showing three skeletons of young inside her bodys 2. ‘This one of the great sea dragons, an ichthyosaur, a marine reptile. This one is particularly beautiful and informative because within the body cavity you can see here outlined in red, the remains of other smaller individuals. The question originally was ‘were they cannibals or did they give birth to live young’ and the answer is almost certainly the latter. These animals are very like porpoises and almost certainly lived the same way, gregariously and pursuing a very fast life that gave them no time to sit on eggs. But this is very easy to miss.’

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3 ‘The building itself. You can choose anything from the various animals and birds that adorn the interior. Even the pillars are based on the bark of trees. On the whole, the building moves from living to fossil as you go from one end to another and that is true also of the animals portrayed. In the mineral gallery, right at the end above a door on the left is a dodo. I also think that one of the monkeys has been made to look a little like Darwin.’

4. ‘The mineral gallery has probably changed the least since my early days and it’s also the least visited. It’s a classic systematic approach where all the minerals are laid out in cases arranged by chemical composition, so you could come here and learn some serious mineralogy if you started at one end and worked your way through. At the end, in the Vault, where particularly precious minerals are displayed, is something  called bournonite with black wheels shaped like cogwheels. This came from a Cornish mine that has since closed so this is really the only good specimen that will ever be found with this particular chemical composition. It’s now extremely valuable because the rarer something gets, the more valuable it becomes.’

5. ‘The blue whale, it might be obvious but it is remarkable. For a while, during the war, some people working here kept an illicit still in the belly of the whale. So even with the best-known exhibit, there are secrets to be had.’

The Natural History Museum's table tops

6. ‘Finally, head for the geology section in the mezzanine level. This used to be an old-fashioned museum in its own right but now it has been changed and in making space they only put back about ten per cent of the specimens. Each one is individually highlighted so it doesn’t give you the systematic overview or leave room for the quirkier items. But this table is still here. It’s a collection of North European ornamental stones all made into one table. You can even make out fossilised nautiloids of around 450 millions year in some of them, and also fossilised coral. There’s no label for it, nothing to say what it is and where it came from. You and I are probably the first people to have stopped and look at this for several weeks.’

Secret London: more streets beneath London streets

A fascinating, I think anyway, footnote to my previous post about the secret streets beneath London comes courtesy of reader Steve Lloyd.  Although it may raise more questions that it answers.

Steve worked at shoe shop Lilley & Skinner in the early 1980s and thinks the abandoned Victorian shops beneath Selfridges as seen at around 31 minutes in Malcolm McLaren’s The Ghosts of Oxford Street, may have been located in their basement. I’ll let Steve take up the story.

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‘In the early 80s I was manager of Lilley & Skinner at 356-360 Oxford Street (the largest shoe store in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records). The staff entrance to the store was at the rear along Barrett Street. Here was a short driveway downhill into the building where I used to park.Also situated here was the maintenance department and adjacent was a concrete staircase which led down to several lower levels that were really no more than cellars. The lads in maintenance had told me about the ‘old street’ that was down there and took me down one day to have  to have a look.

Though of course very interesting there was not a lot to see, just a bit of old shop front under some arches and some cobbled street. The lads said that the council had put a preservation order on it and that we weren’t allowed to use the space in any way.

I found some stills from The Ghosts of Oxford Street a couple of years ago after I saw it discussed on this forum and I have to say that they are exactly how I remember the site at Lilley & Skinner.

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The first is one of the arches and the second is the piece of shop front and window frame. Entering the right of the store from Oxford Street you’d go downstairs to the Mens department on the lower ground floor and then there was another department (Tall and Small) at lower lower ground floor, which was on the left hand side of the building. Our secret street was a couple of levels down from that.’
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So there we go. Is this the true location of the secret street beneath Oxford Street? Does it really have a preservation order from the council? And if so, does it still exist? The site at 360 Oxford Street, incidentally, is now a branch of Forever 21.