Category Archives: Sleaze

“I loved the brutality of it”: Suede and London

I wrote about Suede for the current issue of Uncut. This was something of a revelation for me, as I was able to remind myself how excited I was when I first heard Suede – I remember playing “Animal Nitrate” over and over again in my bedroom, thinking that I’d finally discovered a band I loved as much as The Smiths. Before interviewing the band, I went to see them play at the Roundhouse and all of that old energy was still there, and I was just as thrilled as I had been at 16.

One angle covered in wide-ranging interviews with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Neil Codling was the importance of London to the Suede aesthetic – this was a band that even renamed themselves The London Suede, albeit under duress, for their American releases.

suede.jpg

When the band were formed, Osman and Anderson shared a flat on Hilever Road in White City “on the border with Notting Hill – bohemia one way, estates the other,” Osman said, and Suede’s music came to occupy this very same sort of space, the sort of London written about by Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh and Roger Westerby in those novels about outsiders arriving in London and being instantly swallowed by vice and excitement. Doing something similar around this time was the TV version of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha Of Suburbia, with a soundtrack by David Bowie – the combination of Suede and Kureishi is what led me to Bowie.

“London was a place where you can be what you want,” says Codling. “You can disappear, you can embrace any subculture, you can reinvent yourself and glamour is a possibility inherent in that.”

Anderson didn’t deny any of this. “I romanticised what London was,” he said. “I lived in a bit of a film fantasy. I loved the brutality of it, the loneliness and the hardness of it all. I really responded to that. But this is what we were living. I was part of this world I was writing about. I’ve always tried to find the romance in any situation I’ve been in and that happened to be the situation I was in. I’ve always loved art that deals with the prosaic. The Smiths aesthetic, I found that very powerful, ‘the riches of the poor’. There’s beauty in the brutality.”

 

Anderson told me he’s still inspired by London, often cycling the towpath from his home to West London to Camden, even if it doesn’t directly appear on the band’s new album. The excellent Night Thoughts is instead preoccupied by those unnerving concerns about children and fatherhood that keep Anderson – and myself – awake at night.

“I refute the tortured artist clichés, it’s bullshit, a lazy misunderstanding of what creativity is,” he said. “It’s not expected of authors and film-makers, Michael Haneke always seems very balance and his films are genius of discomfort. For me, a writer is finding those moments of friction, and those can occur in any existence, in any relationship, no matter how stable or content. There are always misunderstandings and moments of friction and this is what I write about.”

 

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Archive: Julian Cope interview

I recently rediscovered this 2005 interview with Julian Cope from Time Out. It took place over the phone and my main recollection is that Cope went to the toilet halfway through, with the sound of his piss hitting the urinal adding a certain sonic tang to the transcription.

They say that every boy needs a hobby; over the years Julian Cope has had plenty. At first it was taking LSD on ‘Top Of The Tops’ and talking about Scott Walker. Later it was sitting beneath a tortoise shell and listening to krautrock. Now it’s playing monolithic sludge rock riffs and visiting ancient monuments. There’s no pattern, it’s just how things worked out.

But before we get into one of those ‘isn’t Julian Cope crazy?!’ mindsets, let’s clear one thing up: Cope isn’t a whacked-out, moondog, schizoid beam-chaser, or even a ga-ga, freaked-up, attention-seeking acid-eater, he’s just a lot more interesting (and, crucially, interested) than most rock stars. Let the man himself explain, as he prepares for his Friday night gig at the Royal Festival Hall: ‘Playing the role of Julian Cope means I can hide behind what Julian Cope is supposed to be. People always say, “You’re a lot more normal than I thought you would be”, and I say, “Yeah, but if I was as weird as you thought, I wouldn’t be able to achieve fucking anything”. The whole point is that it’s the subject matter that’s weird, not the person behind it.’

These days such achievements are often literary – particularly best-selling books on standing stones (The Modern Antiquarian and The Megalithic European). But Cope continues to record. His latest is Citizen Cain’d, an epic, guitar-shredding study of alienation and monotheism that is heavily informed by travels in Iran and stupidly heavy rock ’n’ roll.

‘We’ve all got an inner moron,’ he explains. ‘And rock ’n’ roll entertains your inner moron, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be smart as well. I thought it would be great to take garage rock and fuse it with genuinely amazing guitar. American punk bands always struck me as being better because they were great musicians playing down. One of the reasons I work with Doggen is that he’s one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. He’s amazing. But it’s context, I never put him in a good context. I’m never going to make him look like Eddie Van Halen if he’s got to come out of the swamp.’

Talking of swamp, support on Friday is from San Francisco’s Comets On Fire, quality purveyors of cosmic sludge, who are playing their first UK show. Cope has been a fan for a while. ‘The great thing about Comets is they very much know where they’re coming from. When I first got in touch with Ethan Miller (Comets main guy) I was saying, “Man, you’re totally Roky Erickson meets John Fogerty with Hawkwind backing”, and he said “Shit man, in my dreams that’s where we are”. But it’s not in their dreams, they’re there already.’

As he enthuses about favourite bands like Speed Glue And Shinky (‘I’m a fucking cunt for a singing drummer’) and Monoshock (‘They’re really vile. Like a sewer Stooges’), it’s clear that Cope is totally into this stuff. And when Cope gets into something, it normally gets into print. ‘I’m writing a book that’s just called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll’, but it has the most portentous subtitle in the world. I can’t even remember it. On the back we’re going to have a massive question mark and underneath say “Who will entertain your moron?”’

Will this be written in his trademark stream-of-consciousness style? ‘Actually, I’m probably no more stream of consciousness than Robert Graves, I’m just fucking great at giving that impression. One thing I do is write what I want to say, then I go into an internet translator and turn it into German, turn the German into French and then the French back into English, and then pick out the nuggets. It ends up sounding like Faust lyrics. I’m happy that secret being leaked: the people who hear it and don’t take it seriously won’t learn anything, and the people that know wisdom is everywhere will take it on board and start doing it. Part of my job is to reveal other ways. I’m trying to be a facilitator rather than somebody who hides behind a cloak of mystery.’

And Friday? ‘Expect generic dark psychedelia. I’m really punishing the cliché. Get there early because we’re going to play two sets, one as people arrive, then after the Comets we’ll come back and do that monolithic sludge. It’s going to be a real vibe. Healthy amounts of mushrooms will be good and women should dress for the occasion.’

Mama Cass in London: drugs, towels, Michael Caine and Charles Manson

I have a piece about Mama Cass Elliot in the current issue of Uncut. One area I didn’t have space to cover was Cass’s arrest in London in 1967 when The Mamas & The Papas were travelling by boat to England to play a show at the Albert Hall. They had arrived at Southampton when they were told police were waiting with a warrant for Elliot’s arrest. The band frantically tried to destroy their stash of weed and then went on to the dock where they were supposed to meet label boss Lou Adler and his friend Andrew Loog Oldham. They were instead greeted by six of the Met’s finest, who bundled Elliot into a police car and drove her to Scotland Yard.

Cass

Elliot was stripsearched and questioned, then denied bail and held overnight. The police said the charges related to a stay in London six months previously at Queen’s Gate Terrace, when she had absconded with an unpaid bill and several towels. Outside the police station, The Mamas & The Papas – Denny Doherty, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips – were joined by Scott McKenzie, brandishing FREE MAMA CASS placards while they waited for Elliot’s release. The Albert Hall concert was cancelled.

Elliot escorted to the police station in Waterloo.

Elliot escorted to the police station.

Elliot told the press she had been treated well, but not been given enough blankets. ‘Believe me,’ she said, ‘One blanket doesn’t go far round this chick.’ After a trial at West London Magistrates Court, at which no evidence was offered for the prosecution, she was released without charge and left the courtroom munching on a hash cookie that she found in her handbag. That may account for the big smiles in the photo below, taken shortly after her release.

Elliot on release.

Elliot on release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot's release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot’s release.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

While such heavyhanded treatment by the authorities of rock stars was fairly common at this time, it later emerged that Elliot’s arrest actually had more to do with her occasional boyfriend, Pic Dawson, who the British police believed was involved in a major drug-smuggling operation. According to Michelle Phillips, this was the only subject the police in London were really interested in.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Dawson, who died of a drug overdose in the 1980s, was certainly an interesting figure with connections to the underworld. Numerous rumours circulate about him partly thanks to his peripheral involvement in the Manson Family murders.

Dawson, left, and Elliot, right, at Mama Cass’s house with guests including David Crosby and Eric Clapton

Dawson knew several of the victims – basically, he supplied them drugs – and after the murders John Phillips is said to have told the police that the bloody PIG daubed on Sharon Tate’s wall actually said PIC. The LA police were also informed that Dawson, along with another of Elliot’s drug-dealing boyfriends, Bill Doyle, had been ejected from a party at the Polanski house shortly before the murders. Dawson was subsequently arrested, questioned and cleared, as was Doyle.

These were not Elliot’s only connections with the Manson murders. Dave Mason recalls, “One of the freakiest parts was that at Cass’s I saw a lot of Abbie Folger and Wojciech Frykowski until the Manson crew slaughtered them” and she knew all the victims well. But she also knew the murderers – in his autobiography, Michael Caine of all people recalls attending a party in Hollywood with Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, where Mama Cass introduced him to a ‘scruffy little man’. His name was Charles Manson.

A brief history of Covent Garden

There are many reasons to cherish Covent Garden, not least of which is that it exists at all. The area nearly didn’t make it past 1973, when it was scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ after the fruit and veg market moved out. The GLC drew up enthusiastic plans to replace 96 historic acres with a conference centre and lots of roads. The plan was defeated by locals who believed Covent Garden could have a different sort of future, one that didn’t involve hundreds of buildings being demolished and everything getting covered in asphalt. They were eventually proved right, although nobody anticipated that Covent Garden would turn into the upmarket open-air shopping mall it has since become.

Inigo Jones might have approved of its current status, though. It was he who built an elegant Piazza on an old abbey garden in 1630, transplanting a piece of Italy to the centre of London and unwittingly creating that definitively London piece of architecture, the residential square. The area grew in significance after the Great Fire destroyed much of the City, but then decline set it. We may now see Covent Garden as the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, a halfway house between the posh Englishness of Mayfair and louche Frenchness of Soho, but the place got pretty debauched in the 18th century, a hive of taverns, theatres and coffee shops, all haunts for prostitutes like Peg The Seaman’s Wife, Long-Haired Mrs Spencer of Spitalfields and the delightful Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt.

The area’s drift in tone came as the market expanded and the gentry who occupied the Piazza decamped to the newer squares of Berkeley, Grosvenor and St James’s. At around the same time, Charles II reintroduced theatre to the UK, and companies gradually moved from the nearby Inns of Court into Covent Garden by way of Drury Lane. Theatres brought rowdy audiences and actresses who doubled as bawds, and were a magnet for lowlife figures. In 1722, there were 22 gambling dens, countless brothels (one pimp published an annual guide to London’s prostitutes called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies) and street brawls were commonplace. In 1951, HV Morton argued that Covent Garden provided ‘the most accessible glimpse that remains to us of Hogarth’s London’, but post-war Britain offered nothing quite as depraved as the third plate from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, set in Covent Garden’s infamous Rose Tavern. Hogarth depicted the Rose as a den of sin, full of drunks, thieves and whores. The tavern specialised in women who engaged in flagellation, both giving and receiving. Pepys was a regular, although he only seems to mention the food, for which it was also famous.

Given such carnage, it is little surprise that in 1754 Henry Fielding would organise the Bow Street Runners, the progenitors of the Met, from Covent Garden, and the area slowly improved from a hotbed of crime into a straightforward slum. Throughout, the market remained central – Charles Fowler’s fine market building was erected in the 1830s and the Flower Market arrived in 1870 – so it was easy to believe that when that moved to Nine Elms, Covent Garden would wither and die.

Amazingly, though, Covent Garden survived. That is largely due to its fringe attractions, which expanded to fill the vacuum left by the market. Theatre was key – opera was now a decidedly upmarket pursuit – but by the 1980s the area also boasted decent restaurants and, on Neal Street, trendy shops like Red Or Dead and Duffer Of St George. Credit must go to Nicholas Saunders, who opened a wholefood shop in Neal’s Yard in 1976. His alternative empire slowly spread to other buildings, creating a colourful corner of the counterculture in the heart of Covent Garden even as anti-hippie punks gathered round the corner, in the Roxy on Neal Street. Neal’s Yard still has an idiosyncratic flavour – the blue plaque to ‘film-maker’ Monty Python seems well placed (Palin and co had offices here).

What Neal’s Yard illustrates is the way that amid the ubiquitous stage doors, posh shops and cobbled streets, the different parts of Covent Garden retain an individual imprint, from the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to the boutiques of Floral Street, where Paul Smith still has a rickety presence. Seven Dials is one of London’s more interesting shopping areas, while the Piazza has been transformed from a ragged craft market into a chi-chi mall. The idea is to attract Londoners as well as tourists, and the Piazza has certainly smartened up, with the central market a mecca for shoppers, serenaded by opera singers and overlooked by a fancy Apple store in one corner and refurbished London Transport Museum in another.

 

Covent Garden is a patchwork then, more diverse than superficially similar areas like Soho and Spitalfields and still boasting enough fascinating nooks and crannies to keep even the most experienced Londoner busy for hours, even if Hogarth and Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt might no longer recognise the streets they once adored. 

 

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.

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?

Drugs and dead babies at the Queen’s bookshop

Maggs Bros is a posh antiquarian bookseller on Berkeley Square that has a Royal Warrant and is supposed to occupy the site of the most haunted house in Britain, but it is also home to a small contemporary art gallery, located out the back and accessed via 50 Hays Mews.

The latest show is being curated by New Artists and features photographs by Richie Culver taken of London crackhouses. These are loosely based on Gustave Dore’s engravings of Victorian opium dens.

Opium Smoking

The exhibition also features Polaroids by Shorvon & Hunter that explore the demise of the Polaroid and newspapers as forms of media. It’s definitely worth a look if you are in the area before it closes on Monday, December 5.

If you do, you should also pop upstairs to see a selection of some items that Maggs’s counterculture expert Carl Williams is currently selling. These include photographs of William Burroughs taken by Brion Gysin in Paris and an extraordinary mural taken from an American street gang club house. You could also pick up a copy of Carl’s latest catalogue to see if he has anything you fancy, whether it be items to do with Crowley, punk or the Weathermen. Last time I visited, he showed me some pictures he’d just acquired of dead Victorian babies, but don’t let that put you off.

Hell W10: the film that killed the Clash?

In 1983, just as the band were starting to fall apart, The Clash decided to make a film. But stung by their experiences on the strange but compelling Rude Boy, they decided to make it themselves. They called it Hell W10, filmed it on 16mm silent black and white film, and made the plot up as they went along. The result, understandably, was somewhat bizarre.

‘Let’s make a film!’ said Mick Jones in 2005. ‘We had no other agenda there than that. Everyone put in their time without thinking about it. That was what we did on our time off; we worked! It was totally Joe [Strummer]’s idea. He directed it, he shot it, he did it. And then it was gone. It didn’t even come out!’

Strummer believed the film was lost forever. In 1987, when it looked like he might carve out a new career for himself in the film world, he told an interviewer, ‘I have directed a film myself, a black and white 16mm silent movie and it was a disaster. Luckily the laboratory that held all the negative went bankrupt and destroyed all the stock, so the world can breathe again. I shot without a script. God knows what it was about. I’m the only other one that knew, and I’m not telling.’

In 2002, the film was rediscovered on video tape and re-edited by long-time Clash collaborator Don Letts, who added a fine Clash soundtrack over the top. It is a strange piece indeed, a gangster tale that follows Earl, a musician and small-time hood played by Paul Simonon, who falls foul of the local crime boss called Socrates, ‘The Lord of Ladbroke Grove’, played with some relish by Mick Jones, resplendent in white tux (‘You wanna end up as a pillar in a Canning Town flyover?’ he threatens one lackey). Strummer gives himself a cameo as a corrupt and racist policeman. It’s a cross between The Harder The Come and some of the pulp London crime novels of the 1950s (many of which have been republished by London Books).

Hell W10 also features some cracking period photography of Notting Hill, Paddington and Ladbroke Grove, and weighs in at almost 50 minutes, which suggests it must have taken quite some time to film.

What makes it particularly fascinating is that it was filmed just as the band were starting to go belly up; Topper Headon had already been kicked out for drug abuse, while Simonon and Jones were barely speaking, making their feud in the film a little too close to the truth. Things came to a head within weeks of Hell W10 being made, with Jones sacked from the band in September 1983.

In Letts’s documentary, Westway To The World, both Jones and Strummer confess that the band had simply spent too much time in each other’s company and should have taken a break; if they had done so, hotheads may have had time to cool. Instead, they made a film. Perhaps if they’d had a summer holiday in 1983 rather than fool around with a camera, the band of Jones, Strummer and Simonon might have lasted another few years. Still, it looks like they had fun making it.

Was it worth it? Watch and decide, this is the first of five parts.

Strippers, beatniks, bikers and mods: celebrating BFI Flipside

I have a small piece in the Independent celebrating BFI Flipside, the BFI’s DVD label for forgotten, weird British films from the 1960s and 1970s.

The key Flipside films for any self-respecting London nerd are ‘London In The Raw’ and ‘Primitive London’, two endlessly fascinating exploitation documentaries that ‘lay bare’ the London of the mid-60s, with much emphasis on the weird and the shocking.

These are dayglo Soho-obsessed precursors to the rightly cherished London classic ‘The London Nobody Knows’, but possibly more entertaining for their utter shamelessness: here you’ll find strippers, wife-swapping, prostitution, Jack The Ripper re-enactments – anything that may titillate and tantalise.

It’s pretty tame stuff now of course, which is partly what makes it so intriguing. This is a key point of London history – as the hairy freaks massed their forces in preparation for the myriad cultural explosions of the late-60s – and these films capture some of that sense of a city teetering on the brink of… something. Check them out, you won’t be disappointed.

Inside the Fleet: exploring London’s lost rivers

I wrote this piece for Time Out in 2005 and for some reason it’s never been available online. Until now.

It’s only as the filthy brown water rises above my thigh-high waders and my feet struggle to grip the tunnel’s slimy floor that I realise that drowning in a river of shit after breaking into a London sewer would be a really, really crap way to die.

It all began so well. I found Jondoe and Stoop, two urban explorers who get their kicks investigating drains, lost rivers and derelict buildings, on the internet and asked them if I could come on their next journey beneath the city streets.

We met near Farringdon. The plan is to explore one of London’s lost rivers, the Fleet, which once flowed from Hampstead to Blackfriars. Although long bricked over, the Fleet, like many of London’s old rivers, still flows underground through a series of pipes and culverts. Joseph Bazalgette integrated these rivers into his sewer system, using them as storm-relief drains to carry overspill into the Thames when the main east-west sewers were swelled beyond capacity. These days, heavy rain can still cause sewage to flow into the river via the Fleet.

Jondoe and Stoop have been in the Fleet before, but turned back when the stench became overwhelming for even these experienced drainers. This time, they are determined to reach the end. They believe no other UK urban explorer has made the trip, largely because it takes considerable planning to find a way into London drains. Urban explorers are driven by a combination of adrenalin and curiosity, and take their hobby seriously. This trip has been months in the planning. They’ve popped many manholes looking for the right entry point, and the weather has to be right – no rain for at least three days before we enter.

In a nearby car park, we change into waders, boiler suits, flourescent vests and hard hats – the latter more for disguise than protection. Carrying a couple of traffic cones, we’re suddenly transformed into construction workers, practically invisible to passers-by. Nobody bats an eyelid as we walk through busy streets to the selected manhole, stick some cones round it, lift the cover and climb down the ladder into the gloom.

We enter a feeder tunnel with a five-foot ceiling, which means we have to abandon our hats and walk with cricked necks. It’s cramped, damp, dank and dirty but doesn’t smell too bad. Stoop and Jondoe glide like skaters along the slippery floor while I splash clumsily behind, using slimy walls to keep my balance. We head downwards along a series of mini-waterfalls. The light and noise that intermittently emerges from the grates overhead suggest we aren’t getting deeper, but simply following the gradient of the road. It’s a curious feeling, being isolated in the dark but with occasional glimpses of London reminding us that normal life continues up above.

Eventually we reach the end of the feeder tunnel and swing into the Fleet itself using broadband cables that make useful subterranean handrails. It stinks in here and the air is heavy with a strange mist. Jondoe points north, to where the Fleet is blocked by the main east-west sewer. Ominous clumps of matter fester in pools all around. ‘Don’t disturb them,’ he says. ‘It’ll be full of gas that just sits there and collects.’

As he speaks, one of the hard hats we’d left by the entry point shoots out of the feeder tunnel on a wave and floats towards the Thames, bobbing along the shallow water that moves sluggishly down the centre of the tunnel.

We follow, heading south. The tunnel is around ten feet tall and wide, so we can walk two abreast. It’s about the same size as a tube tunnel. The smell slowly subsides, although lumps of faeces and toilet paper gather in places where they’ve washed against the brickwork. Otherwise, there’s just a trickle of brown water ferrying the odd cotton-bud downriver.

It’s no hellhole, but still a far cry from the Fleet’s sixteenth-century heyday as one of London’s key tributaries, when, flanked by wharves and warehouses, it was a centre of London commerce. It separated Westminster from the City and carried cargo to the Thames, was compared unfavourably with the four rivers of Hades by Ben Jonson, was briefly turned into a canal and then covered in portions from 1732, by which time it was little more than an open sewer.

But this was not the end of it. In 1846, the Fleet exploded, its sewage gasses bursting the street above, rendering King’s Cross Road impassable, destroying Clerkenwell poorhouses and smashing a Thames steamboat against Blackfriars Bridge. This river, it seems, has a habit of coming back to ambush those who thought it dead and buried.

Almost two centuries later, traffic and police sirens are audible overhead, competing with the constant crash of water that flows from numerous side tunnels, feeding the central trickle. Rats stop and stare as we walk past. I nervously keep my torch shining on them until we have moved on.

Before Ludgate Circus, the Fleet splits into two parallel tunnels, directly replicating the pattern of Farringdon Street overhead. Otherwise, it’s impossible to work out exactly where we are. The tunnel heads south, but is full of turns. At one point we notice large iron rings cemented into the wall. They are support for scaffolding, but look like mooring rings. Throughout, the Victorian brickwork is surprisingly beautiful for something that is so rarely seen.

 

After about two miles of trudging, we emerge into an enormous end chamber, more than 20-feet high and elaborate in design and construction. Two short tunnels lead from here, ending in huge metal flaps, which we assume open directly into the Thames.

After taking pictures, we head back. Immediately, we realise there’s a problem. It’s much harder to walk uphill against the flow of water. On the way down, the water was a stream, heading back, it’s more like a river. We labour onwards and upwards in the dark, but it’s tough work.

Stoop eventually says what we’ve all been thinking. ‘Is it just me,’ he asks, ‘Or is the water getting deeper?’

Water which before barely covered our feet is now above our knees, flooding downhill towards us at pace and rising slowly all the time. Wading into the tide, our clothes are heavy with water and our feet struggle to grip the slimy stone floor. Panicking rats scurry up the walls to get out the way of the bubbling water.

 It’s frightening. Nobody knows we are down here and as our pace slows I begin to ponder our options. Should we press on, or brave a side tunnel, where a ladder may at least take us above water level, so we can sit it out. But how long would that take? And what if the water keeps rising and the side tunnel we’re in doesn’t have access to the street? 

We reach a turn where the water has become a torrent and Stoop tries to brace himself against the tide but instead starts sliding backwards towards me, threatening to skittle us all into the dirty water. For a split second I consider what an undignified death this would make, and with one final effort we press on, forcing ourselves to a point where we can stand without getting knocked off our feet. But we’re exhausted.

Then Jondoe shouts, ‘That’s where we came in!’ It is indeed. We pull ourselves up into the feeder drain via the broadband cable and watch the river below us boil to a frenzy. The Fleet is back with a vengeance. Later Jondoe explains, ‘Somewhere further up the sewer they must have been doing some maintenance and so diverted the flow down the Fleet.’ It is, he says, something he’s never experienced before.

Twenty minutes later, after an exhausting walk through the smaller drain in the course of which I bang my head several times on overhanging pipes and bricks, I haul my battered, sodden body up the ladder and into the sunshine. It’s bright outside. The air smells clean. Half-a-dozen people across the road pay us no heed as we emerge from the manhole and sit slumped in the road, moving only to remove our waders and empty them back down the drain.

We trek back to the car in soaking socks, leaving a trail of footprints behind us.