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Leaving the canal

I wrote this piece for a recent issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s superb magazine for canal lovers.  

In theory, it doesn’t take long to move off a canal boat. When I finally left my floating home of seven years, all I really needed was a couple of hours with some sturdy cardboard boxes and a roll of bin bags, such is the lack of storage space for anything other than the most basic of life’s essentials. But how long does it take to get over moving off a canal boat? I’ll tell you when I manage it.

I left for love, having bought a flat with my girlfriend, but also for central heating, storage space, flushing toilets and a water supply that never ran out. The decision was helped by the fact my boat was in poor condition. I’d been spending less time there, and the neglect was starting to show. I’d never been the most diligent of handyman and a boat deteriorates quickly, so by the time I moved away the boiler, fridge and cooker were condemned or unreliable. Then there was the toilet. The terrifying condition of this medieval contraption was the main reason my girlfriend wouldn’t spend much time on the canal, and helped make dry land – with its ready access to an actual sewer – seriously appealing.

There was more. Now at least I wouldn’t have to mentally filter every item I acquired – every book, CD, mug, apple or pair of socks – to decide whether I could really afford the room. I’d never wake frozen to the core having come home too late to light the fire. I’d never run out of water in the middle of a shower because I’d forgotten to refill the tank. That time when I ended up taking a shower in diesel after a can of oil leaked into my water tank would, surely, never be repeated. I’d be able to have a bath, and my mum could stop worrying about me accidentally falling in the canal when I arrived home, unsteadily, after midnight.

All this was true, and yet from the start there was much I missed. Quite simply, living on a boat never gets boring and it was never something to take for granted. I had never grown tired of returning each evening and unlocking the mysterious gate in an unremarkable wall that allowed me to descend from noisy street to the secluded world of the towpath. I felt privileged to be part of this secret universe, populated by fascinating people. It wasn’t just about seeming cool – although that had something do with it. Boat life really is interesting, both as a concept and as a way of life. These were the rewards you got for the discomfort.

It could also be exhausting and at first, I revelled in the luxurious space of my tiny flat but even this proved illusionary. A good boat has excellent storage but also genuine, unbreachable limitations on what you can accumulate; flats and houses have no real limits, you can continue stacking stuff almost indefinitely in corners and under beds and sofas until you are so suffocated by physical objects you find yourself desperate to move. On a boat, you cannot hoard. It was an excellent discipline that in some ways I retain – I don’t keep newspapers or magazines, for instance, and am always getting in trouble for instinctively throwing away any letter or piece of paper that seems to have been abandoned in the same place for too long.

I didn’t return to the canal for several years after leaving my boat – canals being easy to avoid unless you go out of your way to find one. When I did go back, I was struck by a disorientating sense of saudade, a nostalgic melancholy for what has passed. As I wandered down the once familiar towpath, noting old boats in new moorings, new boats in old moorings and the excellent paint job on my former home, I realised how much I missed the chaotic camaraderie of boat life. We lived on top of each other in a way that was as close to communal living as you can get outside of student digs. In my flat, by contrast, I took the stairs rather than get stuck with a stranger in the lift.

Even now, years later, there are times I miss the canal most painfully. The pang can be triggered by the slightest thing – the smell of coal smoke on crisp winter evenings, the sight of a perfect blue sky in August, the sound of hard rain late at night. It comes back most powerfully every time I step aboard a boat. There is that initial give and roll, the subtle shift of weight that comes every time you leave dry land, and then the short descent into the comforting darkened corridor of a cabin with its warm smell of water, smoke and diesel. One day, I think, one day I will come home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

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I wrote about Rob Baker’s last book – Beautiful Idiots, Brilliant Lunatics – a couple of years ago. It’s a collection of London-based short histories inspired by Rob’s superb blog, Another Nickel In The Machine. Rob’s now written a follow-up, High Buildings, Low Morals, which again explores a dozen London stories from the 20th century, some entirely forgotten and others well-known but brilliantly written by Baker, who takes a familiar tale – say, the Streatham brothel of Cynthia Payne – and use it to discuss something loosely related, such as the history of luncheon vouchers.

The fun of this approach can be seen in the opening story, which is about the infamous “headless polaroids” showing a Mayfair socialite giving an unknown man a blow job – the four photos had handwritten captions, “before”, “during”, “oh!” and “finished”. The photos were at the centre of an infamous divorce case but Baker also brings in Noel Coward lyrics, PG Wodehouse, Mussolini, Barbara Cartland and Normal Mailer.

Baker often focuses on a scandal of some sort but I particularly liked the chapter about Graham Greene’s wartime activities during the Blitz, which followed the author at work as a fire warden on one of the worst evenings of bombing. Within each chapter, are a handful of great facts and in the Greene section I learnt about a restaurant, the Hungaria on Lower Regent Street, which advertised itself as being “bomb-proof, splinter-proof, blast-proof, gas-proof and BOREDOM PROOF”. The restaurant had “a fleet of private cars driven by tin-hatted chauffeurs ready to take you through bomb blasts and shell fragments back home.”

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Other chapters take in the IRA’s operations of the 1970s, the Oz trial, and the extraordinary Lord Boothby. One of the best is about Tallulah Bankhead, who caused a scandal in 1928 when she hosted sex and cocaine parties for Eton schoolboys. An Eton teacher was said to have told her, “We don’t at all mind you taking some of the senior boys over for a smoke or a drink or a little sex on a Sunday afternoon. That doesn’t upset me. What does upset me is you giving them cocaine before chapel.”

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Altered States – new book

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I have a new book out. It’s called Altered States: The Library of Julio Santo Domingo and is published by Anthology Editions. This is a coffee table book that chronicles the extraordinary private collection of Julio Santo Domingo, whose LSD Library (named after his dog as much as the drug) was an attempt to capture all literature and ephemera related to his perception of the term “altered states” – something that essentially meant drugs, sex, music and black magic but which tipped into related spheres of art, literature and politics. The bulk of the collection is now on long-term loan at Harvard 

I’ll write more on this – and how I came to be involved in the project – at a later date but I’ve already done a few interviews around the book for Another Man and Huck Magazine, while Lit Hub has carried an excerpt of some Beat-related entries.

 

The London Mithraeum

Back when this blog was young, I wrote about the Temple of Mithras in the City of London, which was then embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House – an entirely unsympathetic treatment for what was one of London’s finer Roman sites.

The temple had been discovered by chance after the Blitz and became a hugely popular tourist attraction for a while but was then encased in concrete in a bizarre treatment, instantly turning something important and kind of heroic into the hopelessly banal. Here was a site that told several important stories about London and it looked like an unfinished courtyard.

Well the temple has now been restored to its rightful place, several metres below the street underneath Bloomberg’s new HQ on Walbrook. Bloomberg have not only restored the temple, they’ve also given it a new name – The London Mithraeum – and have opened it to the public free of charge. It now as all the solemnity and integrity missing from the old temple site.

It’s an almost minimalist space, stacked over three levels. The ground–floor introduction is a wall of Roman finds from the Walbrook valley, which are a tiny sample of the thousands archeologists have recovered. This is a currently rather popular way of cramming in a lot of visually arresting items from everyday life, and in this case includes toys, arrows, rings, amulets, wooden paddles, shoes and writing pads, one of which contains the first written example of the word London. They nearly all date from the very earliest Roman arrivals, as the Walbrook was culverted within decades of the city’s foundation and used as a rubbish heap. That partly explains why so much was found here, although god knows what has been lost in past reconstructions of the City. Apparently even after the Blitz, a huge amount of rubble from here was simply dumped without anybody sorting through it to find items of archeological significance. Incidentally, Bloomberg have also installed a rather nice sculptural reimagining of the Walbrook in the pavement outside their office, though I’m not sure how it will age.

The Temple itself dates to the 3rd century. Stairs take you down to the old Roman street level and a sparse atrium, where three digital lecterns allow visitors to explore the cult of Mithras. As part of the process, Bloomberg brought together various Mithran scholars and some of this information is fed into the audio-visual material. Shadowy interpretations of Mithran themes – the zodiac, bulls, wind –  are screened on the walls. The room also acts as a holding room before you go into the Temple site itself.

 

The Temple’s complete footprint has survived, which is part of what makes it unique in London. It has been pieced back together following the botched 1960s effort and then the entirety has been carefully reconstructed on its old site. Bloomberg have decided to work only with what they have – there’s no extraneous sculptures, no attempt to recreate an ersatz version of a reimagined interior. Instead, the columns of the Temple are cleverly evoked through light sculpture, while a slightly spooky tape of a Roman ceremony is played. Bloomberg haven’t even installed models of the sculptures from the site which are now in the Museum of London as they don’t want to use fabricated material and they can’t be entirely sure where they would have been placed. The exception to this is the clearly modern tauroctony showing Mithras slaying a bull, placed at what we think would be the altar.

Round the back of the altar there is also a rather prominent oyster shell buried in the brickwork. This was given to somebody who visited the rediscovered Mithras temple in 1954 and who returned it shortly before her death.

Bloomberg’s Mithraeum is slightly mysterious and sinister, but that’s not so much because the Mithran cult was particularly secretive, it’s just that we don’t know all that much about them. It’s also pretty tasteful – although the Latin incantations wobbled towards the theatrical side. But the drama is better than what was there before, and what’s particularly impressive is that Bloomberg didn’t really have to do all of this. They were always going to reconstruct the temple – it was a condition of their planning permission – but they’ve done a much more thoughtful job of it that many companies would. It’s probably nice for them to have such a striking slice of history in their basement – and it’s certainly good for the company profile – but it’s also a major commitment to provide such open access to the public.

It made me think of other London subterranean treasures, like the Tudor wine cellar that’s suspended underneath the Ministry of Defence. A fascinating and unusual space that the public never get to see. The London Mithraeum, by contrast, is now open for everyone.

All pictures courtesy of MOLA.

 

British Undergound Press

Fans of the London underground should head to a small exhibition at the A22 Gallery on Laystall Road between Farringdon and Holborn (hey, let’s split the difference and call it Midtown).

That’s not the London underground that gets us from A to B, but the inky, colourful, progressive newspapers produced by a small coterie of hippie publishers in the 1960s. The exhibition – curated by James Birch and Barry Miles – features just about every copy of Ink, IT, Oz, Friends/Frendz, Black Dwarf and Gandalf’s Garden ever published, strewn tantalisingly out of reach under glass cases. There are also some of the Crumb-inspired comics, such as Nasty Tales.

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There’s also a large amount of ephemera – letters, memos, badges and posters, including an entire wall devoted to the Australian maestro Martin Sharp.

The British underground press – which was conceived, written, edited and published in London – was inspired by the hippie/Beat press that sprang up in America from 1965. These took some inspiration from Beat/avant-garde art magazines, but added a heavy dose of hard and lifestyle politics. They were also printed on offset litho, which made layout easier to manage as there was no need for hot metal plates. These newspapers were by no means ideal – writers were rarely edited, illustrations were crude, there was rampant sexism both in offices and in print – but they were visually exciting and  challenging, advocating both political and cultural revolution.

I wrote a piece about them for Uncut a few years ago, when Mick Farren told me: “IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about that.’

Farren also talked to me about the working practices, which were as ad hoc as the financing (IT‘s profits were reinvested in drugs, as this was the best way to make a little go further). ‘It was all hands to the pump,” he said. “What are we going to do now? Well, we’re going to take speed and lay out a newspaper. It was systemised chaos. But a lot of us had learnt how to manage chaos in art school, and that gave us a nodding acquaintance with typesetting and a more than nodding acquaintance with amphetamines. Somehow, it worked.’

Another participant, Mike Lesser told me: ‘Vogue would try to do an IT issue but it didn’t work. They weren’t 36 hours behind deadline, they hadn’t been up for a week and they weren’t stoned.’

The underground’s obsession with sex, drugs and radical politics meant the newspapers and magazines would inevitably get targeted by the police, who were also doing their best to nick rock stars left, right and centre. IT and Oz were both raided and Oz famously charged with obscenity following the Schoolkids issue. The resulting court case could well be seen as the crowing glory of the London counterculture, and there are several exhibits relating to the trial. For Farren, this wasn’t much fun. “At least if you’re busted dealing coke you’ll have had a good time and made a lot of money. But you’re happily going on practising your art and craft and philosophy and suddenly, boom, you’ve got to deal with the law. it’s a fight and you get to know far more about obscenity than you care to know, and there’s also the chance that at the end of it you might have to spend 18 months in prison. That’s a sobering thought, because you have plans for those 18 months.”

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue – which can also be purchased online – which has almost every cover of every issue of the leading publications. It’s well worth your money.

 

 

 

 

 

Zola’s bicycle women

This is a version of an article I wrote for the superb Mondial magazine, produced by Rapha. 

When Émile Zola lived in London between July 1898 and June 1899, he spent a lot of time on his bike photographing women on their bikes. The French author was in Norwood, a town dominated by the vast glass Crystal Palace exhibition hall, and most days he cycled around his unfamiliar environment. Zola attached a camera to his handlebars so he could take “photos that were marvellously sharp and clear”. He intended to “make an album of exile”, a record of his strange secluded months in south London. This was eventually published in 1997 by The Norwood Society as Emile Zola: photographer in Norwood, South London 1898-1899.

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Zola arrived in London on July 19 1898, carrying a nightshirt folded inside a newspaper and a piece of bread. He had left Paris in haste following his role in one of the great scandals of French politics. Alfred Dreyfus, a French soldier, had been accused of passing secrets to the Germans; Zola believed Dreyfus was convicted only because he was Jewish. He defended Dreyfus in a newspaper editorial – J’Accuse – and was charged with libel. Rather than spend a year in jail, he fled to London.

Michael Rosen’s The Disappearance of Émile Zola is a lively summary of Zola’s lonely London life, where he hid in an anonymous suburb, unable to speak English or enjoy the terrible English food. One of his few treasures was his bicycle – cycling round Paris had been a passion –and also his camera. He took more than a hundred photographs of Norwood, and Rosen describes these as “pictures of a new kind of London, the modern suburban fringe to the old city.”

The bicycle was part of this modernity, providing users with freedom and ease of use. Bikes crop up repeatedly in Zola’s photographs – on dusty roads, busy high streets, outside the Crystal Palace and in surrounding country lanes. He was particularly interested in one type of cyclist: women. Of the 100 plus images compiled by the Norwood Society, 15 feature women cyclists. They wear long skirts and hats, some wheel their bikes uphill or swarm past the camera in groups. The only two male cyclists Zola photographs have female companions. “I meet women who cycle in all weathers in order to go shopping,” Zola marvelled. His photographs prove these words to be true.

So why the obsession? Did Zola have a fetish? Was he surprised to see so many women cycling in London compared with France? Or was he simply recording what was naturally occurring around him? The answer is probably a bit of all three. Women certainly were cycling in large numbers – it was a good way to get around while husbands were at work – so genuinely formed part of the streetscape. All the same Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built For Cars, thinks Zola “was probably going to some lengths to make sure he got those shots. The boom years were 1896–7 so it would have been waning in 1899. He was the “Copenhagenize/Cycle Chic” of his day – spotting pretty women on bikes.”

Rosen is unequivocal. “He was certainly interested in women cyclists!” he says. “Zola did see women on bikes in Paris, but noted that they wore culottes but the women in London wore skirts. He thought the English women looked more elegant. His letters read as a man looking at women. There is an element of voyeurism about it. Of course there is a “modernity” aspect to this too – in Zola’s own lifetime, this was new. As a child he would not have seen women anywhere riding bikes. In 1898/99 there were many.”

Zola returned to Paris in 1899 after Dreyfus was pardoned by a new French government but this was not the only time the Dreyfus Affair touched upon cycling. Another Dreyfus supporter was Pierre Giffard, the editor of France’s leading sports paper, Le Vélo. His pro-Dreyfus stance led to arguments with advertisers, who withdrew support and formed their own newspaper, L’Auto. In 1903, with circulation low, L’Auto writer Géo Lefèvre suggested the magazine should invent a profile-rising six-day cycling race around France. Henri Desgrange, the editor, was intrigued. “As I understand it, petit Géo, you are suggesting a Tour de France.” And so it came to pass.

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.

 

 

 

 

Reversing the ferret: affordable housing at Battersea Power Station

The Evening Standard, usually a reliable cheerleader of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, reports that the already limited affordable housing commitment is being slashed in half.

The argument appears to be that as the bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because of entirely predictable problems of over supply, the developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually need. The commitment had originally stood at more than 600. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, my book about the history of Battersea Power Station, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Some of these have since been moved to another location – ie, nowhere near the posh flats going up round the power station itself.

The Standard says the developers now want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering. That’s because following escalating costs caused by Brexit, they need to focus their finance on renovating the power station itself and building the new Northern Line extension. It’s the sort of trick used by developers all around the country as they attempt to weasel their way out of already meagre commitments, and at Battersea they can do this without making a new planning application or holding a public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. Conservative Wandsworth Council, whose commitment to a developer-led solution to the power station has been steadfast despite three decades of excruciating and occasional hilarious disappointment, are unlikely to object.

Ah, the irony. When I interviewed the amiable Rob Tincknell, the development’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was only the developer’s commitment to the Northern Line extension  (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units.

Now the argument is reversed. Because they have to build the NLE, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. It’s a classic piece of power station sophistry to match that of the recent decision to transform some planned residential units into commercial, despite earlier assurances that they having developed the perfect ingredients for a mixed use scheme they’d be fools to change their minds.

Tincknell told me in 2014 via email: “BPS makes its section 106 planning contributions in two ways. The first is a £200m plus contribution to the Northern Line extension (NLE), the second is 15% affordable housing or 565 units – the largest amount ever built in Central London.

The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double. Therefore, without the NLE the density at BPS would be about half (like the previous planning consent) and therefore even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30%, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Suddenly, all that has changed.

The developers claim they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Big Capital – Anna Minton

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There is no bigger issue in London politics than housing. It’s probably the most significant reason London voters of all ages and from almost every social background turned to Labour in such numbers in last week’s election, and I wonder if the demographic changes caused by the capital’s out-of-control housing market had wider repercussions, as yet unexplored.

Was it partly responsible for the hollowing out of the Tory vote in Kensington, where the wealthy British are being replace by non-voting non doms? Are suburban constituencies being affected by the presence of recent graduates, unable to afford property of their own, and living with parents in the previously Tory-voting shires? What about those who have been forced to leave London because of prices – are they going to turn the country red wherever they end up? For many people under 50 – as well as older, concerned for their children and grandchildren – it is housing, not Brexit, that is the prism through which everything is viewed.

So how did we get here? Anna Minton’s Big Capital provides many of the answers. A few decades ago, this would have been published with a blue cover by Pelican, one of those great, short, cheap books that simply and effectively explained a moment in society for a wider audience.

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With the minimum of fuss, Minton explores the historic reasons for the housing crisis – right to buy, planning laws, changes in the way benefits are distributed, overseas investment – and then shows how these have affected London. She shows how the luxury housing bubble has impacted Londoners further down the scale and highlights what happens to people and property after councils, frequently Labour ones, elect to blow-up estates and sell the land on the cheap to developers. She even spends some time in the marketing suite at Battersea Power Station, where she discovers the way developers are encouraging people to invest in a lifestyle rather than simply buy a home for their family.

Minton is interested in what this has meant for people, and she talks to renters, campaigners, developers and politicians, as well as those who have been forced out of London by hostile redevelopment.  She wraps things up by looking at a handful of possible alternatives to the mess we are in – the most simple yet impossible of which is that the state starts taking responsibility and builds places where its citizens can live.

There has been a consensus against council housing for decades but as the election showed, there is a renewed appetite for state spending where it’s clearly seen that the market has failed. A national policy of housebuilding should be simple vote-winner but as long as the Conservatives view right-to-buy as the flagship achievement of the Thatcher years, they won’t be able to face up to the continuing disaster they helped unleash in the 1980s, assuming they even want to. Labour under Corbyn do not have such a shibboleth, which goes some way towards explaining their success in London despite any discomfort with the party’s policy towards Brexit.

Big Capital is a short and angry book, filled with data, case studies, interviews and personal opinion. This was a style Minton first used for 2009’s Ground Control, a prescient and important study of New Labour regeneration on UK cities. Minton was the first person to seriously highlight nagging doubts about New Labour’s regeneration policy, looking at the way communities had suffered because of failures of planning, design and basic humanity. Most memorably, she looked at the issue of private control of public space, an increasingly important topic in an age when developers are given larger and larger areas of land with which to do as they please, making their own rules along the way. It was groundbreaking, as so much of this seemed to have happened while people were looking the other way, seduced by the buoyant economy before the crash of 2008.

Big Capital isn’t quite in that category. There’s little here that isn’t already well known or hasn’t been covered many times before. Its value, though, is to join the dots and to gather everything together in one place. As a textbook primer on where we are today, it’s essential.

 

The end of John Terry

Earlier this week, I went to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. It was also the last time I will ever see John Terry play there for Chelsea.

As I watched him play and score, I realised I was sitting exactly where I was when I saw Terry make his debut almost two decades before.

He came on as sub for Dan Petrescu in a League Cup tie. Terry’s debut was overshadowed by the fact Petrescu went off in a huff, Luca Vialli scored a hat-trick and Dennis Wise got sent off for one of the worst and most pointless tackles I’ve ever seen. In the years that followed, I’ve moved house, crossed the river, changed jobs, had children, got married, lost my hair, written books… but whenever I’ve gone to the Bridge (less frequently in the past decade), I’ve always had the same seat and Terry has nearly always been on the pitch.

I didn’t know much about Terry when he made his first appearance, but quickly came to admire him as a player. He appeared to have inherited Frank Leboeuf’s gift for hitting raking inch-perfect passes but also loved a sliding tackle, making him the sort of UK-EU hybrid that can excel in the Premier League. It swiftly became apparent he was an exceptional defender. Commanding in the air and strong in the tackle, but also with an outstanding ability at reading the game and comfortable with both feet. I always felt this part of this game didn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserved. Terry was a fantastic footballer, as good on the ball as any defender I’ve seen – including Carvalho and Rio Ferdinand, his partners in defence for Chelsea and England, and to whom he was often compared unfavourably. True, they both looked more elegant in command, but Terry’s first touch was better than both. He couldn’t carry the ball, but he could pass it like a dream. And his reading of the game was immense; it was the reason he rarely got beaten for pace despite so clearly lacking it himself. I saw him once in Harley Street; he was tall but not as solid as I expected. Terry was strong but he was no carthorse.

At some point, however, Terry got typecast as a throwback, a sort of Terry Butcher upgrade, cannon fodder, a lion from the trenches. The Guardian’s execrable but influential Fiver began mocking him as EBJT, while the tabloids lauded him for his bravery above all else. As a result, his game did change slightly – read here what Charlie Cooke once told me about how the press can influence a footballer’s natural style – as he threw himself eagerly into blocks where previously he might have looked to get a nick. He soon adjusted his style again, and until age caught up with him had an astonishingly clean record. In the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2009, when Chelsea spent almost the entire 180 minutes defending, he committed I think only a single foul.

As Chelsea captain, Terry had a role with far more importance at Stamford Bridge than almost anywhere else thanks to the stability and leadership he provided against a constant churn of incoming and outgoing managers. Terry often had to hold the dressing room together, most notably after Mourinho’s first departure when the team pulled together to reach the Champions League final despite the presence of out-of-his-depth coach Avram Grant.

Terry was often pinpointed as the troublemaker responsible for all this disruption but it always seemed to me that the continental-raised players – Ballack, Cech, Drogba – were usually at the centre of any shenanigans, raised as they were in a climate where it was more acceptable to confront coaches for poor decisions.

Still, the reputation stuck, along with much else. I’ve always tried to avoid judging players for things reported by the press, mainly because knowing how football journalists operate I don’t trust a word they write. I try to judge players only by how they good they are at football, so have no lacerating hatred of players like Suarez and Ronaldo or managers like Allardyce and Pulis – I think all four are brilliant. With Terry, that’s challenging. While some of the accusations made about him are hysterical – anything written by Matthew Syed, for instance – the volume of his indiscretions makes them hard to ignore. I cannot pretend I’ve ever warmed to the guy as a personality. Put it this way, he’s no Pat Nevin. But he is the greatest defender I’ve ever seen in my life and for much of the past 20 years it’s been a privilege to watch him do his job.