Category Archives: Uncategorized

“The building doesn’t represent or resemble anything other than itself.”

I was delighted to be sent this excellent article about Battersea Power Station by Richard Garvin, who introduces himself as a writer and retired English professor with an interest in architecture. Richard recreates great buildings from Lego and then writes about them on his blog, combining his appreciation of architecture with his deep knowledge of literature. For Battersea Power Station, that means using an absolute ton of Lego red bricks – and then references to Shakespeare, TS Eliot, John Milton and, er, me – Richard drew much of the factual content of his post from Up In Smoke, my book on the power station.

Richard Garvin’s awesome model of Battersea Power Station

This served as a welcome reminder of the ability the power station still has to influence, inform and intrigue upon people’s thinking as well as the value my research has for others. Richard writes wonderfully about how the power station has been used in film and TV, something I explored in Up On Smoke but which he develops more fully. I also particularly enjoyed Richard’s thoughts on the strange, powerful architecture of the power station, which he astutely summarises is completely unlike anything else “other than itself” – which is precisely why it is been used so brilliantly in films and TV programmes such as Richard III, Children Of Men and 1984.

Read it all for yourself here.

The triumph of the Barbican

This is an article I wrote about the Barbican in 2015, which I am posting to mark the 40th anniversary of the Barbican’s completion

“How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?” asked travel writer HV Morton as he surveyed the ruined district of Cripplegate in 1951, 11 years after it had been eviscerated by German bombs. The destruction was so total that many buildings existed only as cellars, and to Morton, the damage seemed irreparable. But in 1965, a new town did indeed rise from these ashes. The Barbican was a masterpiece of urban planning containing more than 2,100 homes in a bewildering array of terraces, towers and crescents, as well as two schools, a church, lakes, gardens, elevated walkways, ancient monuments and a sports centre, all arranged around an international arts centre. There is nowhere quite like it in London.

“It’s the most complete piece of utopian planning in London,” says Jane Alison, head of visual art at the Barbican arts centre and editor of a book about the estate. “It’s extraordinary in its ambition and design rigour, and it is maturing very well. People are really beginning to appreciate it, and it’s increasingly home to artists and architect.”

It’s also home to Jane Smith, chair of the residents’ Barbican Association, who moved into the estate in 1992. “I’d watched it being built and admired the architecture and general attitude to urban planning ever since I moved to London in the early 1970s,” she says. “It’s a very nice place to live. It’s well-designed, the flats are very solidly built of thick concrete so you don’t hear the neighbours, there’s a sense of community, it’s very central, the estate has pleasant gardens and there’s an arts centre on the doorstep.”

Construction of the Barbican’s residential blocks began in 1965 (work on the schools had begun in September 1963), but the first plans were conceived decades before. In 1944, planner Patrick Abercrombie completed the Greater London Plan, which looked at the city’s numerous bombsites. He envisaged Cripplegate, a ward on the northern boundary of the City of London, as being restored to commercial use. For centuries this ramshackle quarter had housed writers, journals and booksellers as well as London’s rag trade – two particularly combustible businesses that were, unsurprisingly, burnt down with monotonous regularity. There had been a major inferno in 1897 when an ostrich feather warehouse caught fire and another in 1902 after a blaze at a hat factory. At this time, the area was known as Cripplegate – the Barbican was a solitary street that took its name from a long-demolished watch tower, originally built by the Romans and attached to the London Wall. On December 29th 1940, Cripplegate was swept from the map following a devastating night of German bombing; when it was reborn, it would be as the Barbican.

A year after Morton’s morbid visit, when London was still a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the sunlight in shattered walls, of cellars draped with willow-herb and Canadian fleabane”, the City of London began to consider reconstruction. Initial plans followed Abercrombie’s outline, consisting of warehouses, shops, offices and some housing, but the City had been depopulated by the war and there was a concern this might cost them their ancient status as a unique administrative entity. “That gave them the impetus to build houses rather than just offices,” explains John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a history of the UK’s post-war redevelopment. ”The first plan was scrapped. At first, the City was not sure they wanted all those people living there but their thinking gradually evolved. And the evolution didn’t stop until it was finished in 1982.”

In 1956, Duncan Sandys, the government’s Minister of Housing proposed “a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and amenities”, that would put people before profit. The land was compulsory purchased and the project handed to the architectural firm of Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon, who had created the nearby Golden Lane Estate. “The architects were very radical, inspired by Le Corbusier and modern utopian thinking about the perfect way to live in the city, and they had this wonderful opportunity to make happen,” says Alison, who notes this was a fortuitous relationship between architect and developer. “The City wanted to make a statement about bringing back life into the boundaries of the financial City.”

A basic scheme of three towers and terrace blocks around a modest cultural hub – theatre, schools, concert hall – was agreed. The overall design changed regularly – it eventually incorporated 140 interlocking plans – but this core concept remained. Among the grander unbuilt ideas was one to construct a conservatory inside a huge glass pyramid, and another to use the Barbican as a repository for unwanted London landmarks such as Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar and the London Coal Exchange. Instead, the estate constructed new icons in the form of three 400-foot towers, each with serrated balconies jutting out like concrete mandibles. For decades, these were the tallest residential buildings in the country.

Contractors began clearing the site in 1960, nearly 20 years after the Blitz, demolishing remaining buildings and removing roads, sewers, gas and electricity, while rerouting railway tracks, straightening lines and placing them in tunnels. A survival of this clearance can be found near the corner of Aldersgate and Fann Street, where a frieze from a gold refiners based at 53/54 Barbican has been erected. This survived the Blitz but was pulled down in 1962.

The first residents moved into the estate in 1968, but building didn’t stop until 1982, at which point there were 21 residential blocks covering 35-acres. These were built in a variety of styles and on a number of levels, with blocks linked by elevated walkways that raised pedestrians above street level. This network of “pedways” was intended to spread throughout the City, but was eventually limited to the Barbican, and it is one of the reasons the estate has earned a reputation for being difficult to navigate despite the yellow line painted on the floor to help people get around. Negotiating the Barbican’s maze certainly requires some thought, which is ironic given a frequent complaint about its architectural style. “One of the criticisms of Modernism is that it made things too bland, too similar, and removed complexity,” says Grindrod. “The Barbican is an answer to that by being massively complicated and constantly interesting as a result. It is a bit like a medieval street layout and I think people are annoyed that the Barbican has its cake and eats it – it’s both sleek and modern but also very complicated and idiosyncratic in a traditional way.”

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards. As a result, wondering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line will abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work. There are surprises around every corner such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mandelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre, close to exposed parts of the old Roman London Wall, is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where John Milton is buried. One fine spot is the roof of the theatre, framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Court and overlooked by a giant tower. This space, shaped like an amphitheatre, was initially conceived as a sculpture court.

“There are some interesting quirks in the design,” says Smith. “There’s a thriving launderette because when it was planned, people didn’t have a washing machine. There’s also a sort of heritage salvage store run by a couple of volunteers who assiduously collect original fittings people are chucking out so those who still have the old kitchen and bathrooms can try and match them up.”

This references another charm of the estate. The homes were built to a variety of plans ranging from studios to five-bedroom houses, but every kitchen was fitted with two sinks – one containing a device for removing waste material – and also a shallow sink in the toilet. Other aspects of life on the estate are more fully appreciated by residents, such as getting their rubbish collected five days a week, or having access to three communal gardens, one run by volunteers as a wildlife garden and two impeccably landscaped and maintained by the City.

It’s this careful maintenance that has ensured the Barbican has not aged as badly as London’s other post-war buildings, but that is not the sole reason. The Barbican was constructed with great care, to a high level of detail. Originally, it was to be finished in white marble but the architects settled on tooled concrete. This was an intensive process. The concrete had to dry for 21 days before handheld hammers exposed the coarse granite aggregate. While concrete is the dominant material, there’s also imaginative use of traditional coal-fired London brick, brass and ceramic tiles. “It was intended to be a refined style,” says Alison. “Even the concrete brings a decorative flourish to this robust, muscular, modern building.”

Alison says that one of her favourite spots is on the bridge across the lake from the arts centre. “You are surrounded by these vast piloti columns and when you stand underneath the building and look up you might notice the architects painted the underneath white,” she says. “It reflects the water beautifully. The towers are incredible too, I can’t think of any I like more. They really stand out against the skyline and look so much more interesting than other high rises around London now.”

While the estate contains many treats, most visitors know the Barbican for its arts centre. This has galleries, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and a library, but was originally conceived a small auditorium for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, one of two schools on the site. “The arts centre only became a bigger entity when the Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra expressed an interest,” says Alison. As the arts centre grew, the architects had to adapt their plan, eventually scooping a large hole out the ground and plonking the arts centre inside it. It was opened in 1982 and offers an adventurous, mixed programme from music and theatre to art and film. “Some residents are undoubtedly attracted because of the arts centre,” says Smith. “It’s quite an interesting balance having an international cultural attraction in the middle of a residential development and there are tiny bits of friction but we generally have a good relationship. I like being able to walk to the theatre and cinema and probably go to one or two marginal things simply because it’s so close.”

It’s this combination of art, architecture, public space and community adhesive that makes the Barbican such a special place. “What makes it important as a development is the sheer number of different things they managed to do,” says Grindrod. “It embodies more than any other post-war rebuilding scheme a successful way of doing all the things people were talking about after the war, like the separation of pedestrians and cars, the use of tower blocks as landmarks, the joined-up maisonettes. There’s civic functions like the school and arts centre, and great transport links. They combined all those different things into what is a very historic site, which still has Roman walls and medieval churches. They did all this, and they made it work. That’s a real triumph.”

Book review: Raving Upon Thames by Andrew Humphreys

I’ve often wondered why three of the 60s most acclaimed rock guitarists – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – all came from the same small corner of Surrey. And why a nearby section of suburban south-west London provided an early base for the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds in the form of the Crawdaddy, as well as several other venues including one of London’s most unusual ones, the glorious, bonkers Eel Pie Island. The Thames Delta around Richmond seemed to constitute a scene and a sound every bit as fascinating and important as what happened with Merseybeat but one that has never been properly chronicled, mythologised, analysed or explained.

Until now. Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story Of Sixties London by Andrew Humphreys finally fills that gap. When Andrew, a friend and publisher of my history of Battersea Power Station, moved from Soho to Richmond around 12 years ago, he began to realise that Richmond hadn’t always been the sleepy, well-heeled suburban town it was today. There were murders, connections to Aleister Crowley but most of all there was a lot of music.

He was particularly fascinated by the pub opposite the station, which had once been home to the Crawdaddy, where the Stones got their big break. Why Richmond? And what about that weird place just down the road in the middle of the Thames, Eel Pie Island, where jazzers and rockers had spent long summer evenings through the 50s and 60s, smoking pot, listening to music and looking like deadbeats?

The more he dug, the more he found. There was the strange coincidence of Beck, Clapton and Page, all Richmond regulars and born within a few miles of each other. Was it true that Richmond was home to London’s first dedicated Met Police drug squad? That Eel Pie Island’s club was started as a social experiment? That Richmond had a nascent folk scene? That the Eel Pie Island hotel was ultimately taken over by hippes and burnt to the ground by developers? He soon realised there was enough untapped material here to warrant a book and began asking established music writers if they were interested. When none could be persuaded, he did it himself, bringing diligent research, fine writing and, most important of all, a fresh eye to the story.

He spoke to hundreds of those involved in the Richmond scene, from the jazzers that started it to the squatters that where there at the end. In the process, he produces a rich and fascinating tale of how myriad overlapping London countercultures developed, perhaps uniquely, in a single part of London. It’s a glorious celebration of the era, but not one swamped by nostalgia or stale war stories. This is vivid and detailed, particularly rich on the major characters involved – Arthur Chisnall, who founded Eel Pie Island; Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed the Stones – but also on the lesser known aspects of the story, such as the folk clubs and hippie squats.

It is accompanied by stunning photos, many of which I have never seen before, that really help tell the story of what was happening during this youthful awakening that defined the 60s. Yes, it was about music, but at the end of the day, it was really all about the kids.

Picture by Mike Peters
Picture by Mike Peters

Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story Of Sixties London by Andrew Humphreys.

Ghost signs

I first met Sam Roberts around ten years ago, when he cycled to my house in south London from Stoke Newington to discuss the possibilities of him writing professionally about his love of ghost signs. For the uninitiated, a ghost sign is a faded painted advertisment on a wall that has survived decades of weather and human intervention to continue celebrating often long-vanished businesses and products.

I can’t remember precisely what I told Sam, but I am pretty sure I would have told him it was a great idea but with numerous warnings and caveats. At the time, Sam was running a brilliant website and twitter account filled with ghost sign sightings, and he also conducted the occasional tour. He was London’s undisputed master of the subject and while there were existing books on the subjects, there was nothing particularly worth shouting about.

Until now.

Sam, working with Roy Reed in a project founded by Kickstarter, has just published Ghost Signs, and as a supporter I received my copy this week. Here it is below.

It is a fantastic piece of work. One of the most depressing things is when a book takes a great subject and does it badly. Conversely, there is something truly wonderful about a book taking a subject you are interested in and treating it far better than you could ever have imagined.

So while most books on this subject would have gone photo heavy, Sam has chosen a more scholarly approach – although Roy’s photos are still fabulous. Cleverly, the hundreds of ghost signs are arranged by subject matter – food, building, clothes etc- rather than geographically, and considerable research has gone into the practicalities of how signs were made, how sites were located, what was being advertised and why some have survived. As such, it offers a fascinating insight into the advertising of the era, and a reminder that the Edwardian city must have been a spectacularly colourful time, with brightly painted adverts adorning so many walls.

All of your favourite signs are there – Peterkin custard, Brixton Bovril, Walker Bros fountain pens, Black Cat cigarettes – but the joy is in the detail and the mention of so many signs I have never even noticed or been aware of before.

It’s a terrific book. Congratulations Sam and Roy and Isola Press for their work. And make sure you buy a copy here.

In the nick: Bow Street police museum

I recently made a rare visit to central London to see the opening of a new museum, the Bow Street Police Museum in Covent Garden.

This tiny independent museum hidden down a side street off Bow Street occupies part of the old Bow Street police station and magistrate court. Bow Street, of course, is one of the oldest and most important locations for organised law enforcement anywhere in the world, and the museum’s excellent written material explains that an early form of policing existed on this street before even Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners.

It’s a small museum with only a small number of original objects. There’s the dock from the courthouse, a replica Bow Street Runner uniform and several small items donated by former police officers who served at Bow Street. I recently interviewed one of those officers – Norwell Roberts, the Met’s first black officer. It was a harrowing and humbling experience.

Instead of objects, the museum at Bow Street prefers to rely on the atmosphere of the location – the corridor in the (terrible) photo below contains a number of cells that would have been used to house overnight visitors. Within each cell, information boards relate the history of the Metropolitan Police, the Bow Street site and some of the famous figures who may have spent a night in these cells or at the holding cells for the neighbouring magistrate court.

Corridor with cells at Bow Street Police Museum

The courthouse is now a hotel and the museum has been created as part of that development. Campaigners have wanted to build a museum on this site for decades, and it becomes one of the very small number of “blue light” museums in London alongside the ones at Wapping and in the City. There’s also the Met’s own Crime Museum, which is closed to the public.

It’s a space that has the potential to be used for small temporary museums, talks, events and as the start or end location of walking tours around the local area. It’s worth a trip but also keep an eye out for its programme of events as that starts to gets underway.

London street signs

A book for typography lovers: London Street Signs tells the story of the  capital's cherished nameplates | Creative Boom

Imagine London without its street signs? They are the sort of thing we take completely for granted but which, at some point in the past, required somebody to sit down in an office and settle upon a uniform style, design and material to cover all London streets. Despite such attempts at consistentcy, there are still numerous varieties of London street sign out there and Alistair Hall seems to have photographed all of them.

The results are collected in London Street Signs published by Batsford. This is a photographic survey of London’s many different types of street sign – black and white enamal, milk-glass, tiled, painted, carved, faded and every possible type in between. If a sign has a missing apostrophe, Hall has found it. There are ghost signs, there’s a carved kerbstone, there’s the graffiti ridden Abbey Road and there’s even the huge light up Electric sign that sits above Electric Avenue in Brixton.

As well as taking thousands of pictures, Hall has written excellent text exploring how London’s signs developed and looking in closer detail at different types and spectacular individual examples.

Font fans will enjoy it for sure, but it’s most admirable for having that unapologetic attention to detail and slightly obsessive touch that a book of this type really requires. Hall is clearly no street sign dilettente; he knews his stuff and is able to share his knowledge and enthusiasm in an accessible manner that anybody fascinated by the detail of London life will admire and appreciate. All photos below taken from the book, where they feature alongside hundreds more.

Kate Bush’s guide to South East London

I have written the cover story for the current issue of Uncut about Welling’s greatest daughter, Kate Bush.

The piece looks at Bush’s formative years from her first musical compositions to the release of her debut single, “Wuthering Heights”, which must be one of the most surprising and memorable debut songs ever released.

KB

Much of this story takes place around south-east London, where Kate Bush was raised. She grew up in a rambling old farmhouse in Welling that many interviewees think influenced her idiosyncratic outlook.

“The house when it was built would have been in the countryside,” Joe Boyd told me. “By the time Kate was growing up it was suburbia, but right on the edge with fields out the back. There are barns and stables and horses. It does feel as if her upbringing gave her one foot in both new and old, and I know she really valued that place and what it gave her. It’s one of those old London houses that have somehow never been demolished, where you can squint and imagine the past.” Boyd likened it to an old Georgian mansion that survives in Notting Hill, somehow having avoided redevelopment and now a portal to another history. I told him it sounded like Brixton Windmill, and Boyd told me of a spell he spent in Brixton prison in the 1960s, on remand for possession. The windmill, he said, became his beacon of hope.

When Bush left home, she continued to stay close to her family living in the top floor of a Victorian house in Brockley – her two older brothers occupied the two flats below. It was in SE London that she first rehearsed and performed with the (still performing) KT Bush Band, touring the London pub scene. Here she is performing “Come Together”, one of the few recordings that survive from this period.

Anyway, here are some of the key locations from this part of Bush’s life. For more, you’ll have to buy the magazine.

KATE BUSH GUIDE TO SOUTH-EAST LONDON

East Wickham Farm, Wickham Road, Welling

The Bush family homestead, parts of which are more than 400 years old. The farmhouse remains in family ownership today.

 

St Joseph’s Convent Grammar School, Woolwich Road, Abbey Wood

Bush’s school, which she attended until 1976 getting 10 O Levels. She wrote poems for the school magazine, including “The Crucifixion”, “Blind Joe Death” and “Epitaph For A Rodent”.

 

44 Wickham Road, Brockley

The Bush family bought this house and installed the three Bush siblings in flats on each floor. It was where Bush would perfect the songs that appeared on The Kick Inside.

 

Greenwich Swimming Baths, Trafalgar Road

In a room next to the boiler room, the KT Bush Band held their first rehearsal ahead of their short life touring London pubs, clubs and hotels.

 

Rose Of Lee, 162 Lee High Road, Lewisham

Scene of the debut KT Bush Band show in March 1977 in front of an audience of around 30. Crowds would grow over the next few weeks as the band returned.

 

South East London Entertainment, Rushey Green

Musical equipment shop where the KT Bush Band bought PA equipment with money provided by EMI. They also bought mics from Fender Soundhouse in Soho.

Save the canal’s statue garden

When I lived on the canal in Lisson Grove, we would often head west along the canal towards Kensal Green and Notting Hill, either by foot or narrowboat.

Whenever we did, we’d pass a small sculpture garden of  garden ornaments and gnomes on the offside (non-towpath side) of the canal. This occuped a thin strip of land between the canal and a brick wall, which seemed to be the back of some housing. Every time we passed, the sculpture garden would have grown a little and paintings and mirrors started to appear on the wall itself. As far as I recall, we never saw anybody in the garden – it just seemed to mutate organically, as if the statues were breeding during the night.

I left the canal more than a decade ago and rarely returned, until a couple of years ago when work took me once more to Kensal Green. I was delighted to see that the statue garden still survived. Indeed, it had thrived. What had once occupied a single house now took over an entire terrace with what appeared to be more than a hundred statues and other decorations.

I took a quite bad photo, which gives you a vague idea of what it looks like.

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I never knew who made this garden. It just seemed like one of those glorious London eccentricies that somebody willed into existence and then nurtured, simply because they could. They had the time and the talent and the inclination, so why not. They may will have had their own internally coherant reasons for creating it, but that scarcely mattered as it brightened the canal and the lives of everybody who passed.

Today I learnt much more via twitter. The garden is called Gerry’s Pompeii and was created by Gerry Dalton, who was born in Ireland in 1935, moved to London in the 1950s and after a career as a postman, factory worker and gardener retired and began to create his garden. As you might expect when you think about, this was not contained to the canal. This alternative universe began in Gerry’s own house, took over his garden and then spilled on the canal. By the end, it featured an astonishing 200 concrete and mixed media sculptures, around 170 wall mounted works and a 50 meter long mural.

If he had not died this year, one imagines that it would have just kept growing all the way to Camden. This video gives a great taste of what he created.

A crowdfunding project has now started to try to save Gerry’s Pompeii, either by raising £700,000 to preserve it in situ by purchasing his home from the housing association that owns it, reconstructing it elsewhere, or removing, storing and archiving it for the future.

If you can help, give some cash here. And get down to the canal to see this before it goes, as it’s a real London gem.

 

 

 

 

 

Morrissey and I

There is a tendency to romanticise the past, but looking back on it, I got into Morrissey at precisely the wrong time. The Smiths split before I was 12 so passed me by, but in August 1992 I belatedly discovered their music. This was because I’d got tickets for Madstock! in Finsbury Park and wanted to know more about the support acts – Ian Dury, Flowered Up and Morrissey.

Ah Morrissey, what a terrible moment to fall for his charms.

morrissey_flag

I bought July’s Your Arsenal and loved it. Reviews in the NME and Select noted one song title, “National Front Disco”, and alluded to other questionable views he’d expressed. But I shrugged that off. At Finsbury Park, Morrissey waved a Union Jack and was bottled off stage by Madness fans, leading to further questions about his political beliefs, but I was now diving headlong into the Smiths’ delicious back catalogue, helped by the release a week after Madstock of Best… I.  Like so many teenagers, I became obsessed, buying and absorbing every Smiths record I could find. Morrissey understood me. He felt my angst and expressed it wittily, with sardonic melodrama and waspish sensitivity. He was exactly like me, only funnier.

Plus, unlike every other pop star in the world, he wasn’t having any sex either.

There was much here that I could identify with.

There were other bands and singers I loved deeply, but none with whom I felt such kinship. He was like an external manifestation of my id, an embodiment of my core being, an expression of my soul.

But. But But. Journalists continued to query his attitude towards race. And while I wrote stern, painfully alliterative, pseudonymous letters to the NME in his defence, I knew. Deep down, I always knew.

“Reggae is vile”. “Life is hard enough when you belong here”.  “Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black.”

As soon as I read those quotes, I knew.

This was a man whose lyrical sharpness was his everything. He was never lazy or clumsy. The idea he was saying these things accidentally or without forethought was ludicrous. Yet I continued to ignore what was in front of my eyes. Right through (the frankly magnificent) Vauxhall & I and even after (the frankly abysmal) Maladjusted, at which point I stopped buying his records. A long, very detailed, critical feature  in Uncut gave me momentary pause, but I was still excited enough by his comeback at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002 to write an enthusiastic preview in Time Out – albeit not excited enough to actually attend.

I still listened to to the Smiths. I even bought Autobiography, bristling briefly, for old time’s sake, at the criticism it received.

But always, deep down, I knew. I knew.

Now, it’s all out the open. Although some would say it always was, and they’d be right.

Why did I refuse to see what had been obvious from the very start? The human capacity for self-deception as a survival instinct is extraordinary powerful. Add the obsessive love of fandom, that cultish need to identify, and you have something that is very hard to step away from. So much is invested in this person that the truth about them becomes impossible to process.

Love takes a lot, but it gives a lot back too. Through Morrissey, I discovered amazing music, films, books and plays. My adolescence was enlightened. My teenage pain was soothed. But was it worth it?

All I know is that I can’t listen to the Smiths now without feeling a huge loss, an emptiness, a sadness. That might seem like an excessive response but the initial love was excessive too. That’s how it works.

I am now too old to have heroes, but I wish as a teenager I had picked Bruce Springsteen.

Spies Of London

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Apparently this “drab” office block in St James’s was for many decades a London base for GCHQ and is now being sold off to developers. It reminded me of the time I was writing an article that briefly alluded to GCHQ. The piece was mainly about Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, and I remember talking over the phone to the author of Walsingham’s biography to try and confirm whether Walsingham’s portrait was still hanging in the lobby of GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Then, completely out the blue, a chap from GCHQ called me at the office, wanting to know what I was writing about. He refused to say how he’d found out that I was writing about GCHQ, indeed he seemed to take great delight in not telling me – and he did allude to general suspicions about Time Out given the magazine’s radical history. He did eventually confirm that GCHQ had a portrait of Walsingham, before signing off with what sounded suspiciously like an evil chuckle.

There was almost certainly an innocent explanation.

But it was also incredibly creepy.

To add to my sense of paranoia, I was at the time living in an old SIS office on Westminster Bridge Road. This was Century House, MI6’s HQ until they moved to Vauxhall. Rumours abounded about the secrets that still lay within the basement. Were there really old prisons cells? And a special tunnel that led directly to the nearby Lambeth North tube station? Any ex-spooks with knowledge of the building, feel free to tell me what you know. Just don’t call the mobile, that would really freak me out.