Category Archives: Uncategorized

In praise of scavenging

If there was anything good to come out of lockdown, which there wasn’t, it was the fact that many people took the opportunity to clear out their homes of supposed junk. This meant that during my state-sanctioned daily 60-minute constitutional around SE24, there was nearly always a house somewhere on my route were the owners had left a pile of books on the pavement for passers-by to scavenge through. Now, I cannot walk past a box of books without rifling through it, hoping that amid the crap – so many books about coding and old travel guides – there would be an wanted gem. The tiny victories I had in lockdown were a rare source of pleasure in a miserable time.

I struck lucky time after time. There was that set of National Geographic from the late 1990s, which made excellent bathroom reading for most of 2020. When those were done, I found four months’ worth of The New Yorker from May-August 2020, which took me another 18 months to work through, containing as they did many more reminders than I needed of that awful summer of Coronavirus, George Floyd and Trump. More happily, I had wanted to read Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde ever since I’d heard it was being adapted for cinema by Andrew Dominik, and there it was one afternoon waiting for me alongside William Maxwell’s marvelous novella So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I’d also long felt I needed to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and once more, there it was. And thank god I hadn’t had to pay for it because after three months and 150 painful pages I finally gave it up with considerable relief, placing it rather guiltily on my own garden wall for some poor sucker to take home.

Then there were the books I would never otherwise have read, such as The Dog Of The South by Charles Portes. This had a good cover and promising blurb, and I was intrigued to see that Portes had also written High Noon, but all the same it sat unread on my shelf for a year until I attended a birthday party where somebody gave this very same book to the host as a present. That was recommendation enough for me, and I devoured it in a few days. The novelisation of Wargames? A Jack London compendium? An unproofed review copy of Dan Hancox’s excellent history of grime, Inner City Pressure? Each one found a willing home.

I thought such bounties would end with lockdown but this week I had the finest haul of all. Check a load of these goodies below.

Such a haul, and not even a lockdown to suffer for it.

See you on the other side of summer, when I might have made my way through some of the above.

Performance in Powis Square

Performance is probably the greatest London film of all time. When this strange and unsettling fusion of counterculture and crime was finally released in 1970, it was accompanied by a novelisation – a cheap paperback by William Hughes published by Tandem – that I chanced upon last week behind the counter in the fabulous Bookmongers on Coldharbour Lane. I love novelisations, so this was a no brainer.

Although I’ve read a few books about Performance – the best is Paul Buck’s 2012 biography of the film published by Omnibus, which frustratingly lacks an index – I’m not sure I was aware there had been a novelisation. There’s a short review here, but there’s little about William Hughes on the internet, although his name does crop up on Abe Book alongside some other novelisations of the era – 1968’s Secret Ceremony, 1971’s Lust For A Vampire, 1974’s The Marseille Contract, 1976’s Aces High and 1978’s Death Sport among others. A follower on Twitter suggested his real name was Hugh Williams.

UPDATE Head to the comments for a great twist on the “who was William Hughes” question…

It didn’t cost 9p

What particularly appealed was the knowledge that novelisations are often written from early drafts of scripts, which means there are interesting differences between the plots as told in the books and what you get in the finished films. I was very keen to see how Performance the book differed from Cammell and Roeg’s final film, and also curious at how the author would tackle some of the stranger moments from the film, including the famous ending. Incidentally, apparently the film’s dialogue coach and underworld/counterculture figure David Litvinoff wanted to write it, but was declined.

The book is, as you’d probably expect, a lot more conventional than the film – but that isn’t saying a great deal, as most things are more conventional than Performance. William Hughes is a decent writer who has a great sense of pace and solid grasp of genre, so he is pretty assured when dealing with the first half of the story – about the gangster Chas who oversteps the mark and has to do a runner. This all unfolds at great speed, but we are also treated to some insights into Chas’s background, motivations and general sense of unease at his chosen career as a heavy. We learn that Chas lives in a “luxury flat in predominantly working class” Shepherds Bush, and his activities take him to various parts of London including Campden (sic) Town, where he terrorises a mini cab firm, Mayfair, Liecester Square (sic) and the Temple, where a lawyer’s chauffer is shaved while his Rolls-Royce is covered in acid.

In the film, things get much weirder when the action moves to the home of a reclusive rock star in West London – in the film this is located at Powis Square but here it’s named as 22 Melbury Terrace, “behind Notting Hill Tube”. Hughes handles that transition fairly well and there’s a sense of Chas’s discomfort as he encounters Turner and his two female friends, Pherber and Lucy. But while in the film this relationship becomes relationship increasingly complex and sinister, the book – presumably following the initial script – has the two worlds quickly come to an understanding. They develop a sense of mutual respect and it all feels far more comfortable than it does on film. There’s also much less sex. Or as one Twitter user put it..

Concise summary.

What that suggests is how ordinary a film Performance could have been without Cammell’s influence and without the performances of Edward Fox and Mick Jagger, whose uneasy sparring is one of the signature flavours of the film. Plot-wise, the most notable difference is right at the end, but there are other more subtle plot differences that affect the mood – for instance, at one point in the book we go into the garden at Powis Square/Melbury Terrace, while there’s also a pivotal, and topical, drug bust that never made it into the final film. Both these scenes would have diluted the claustrophobic, hallucinogenic nature of the second section of the film, which has one of the most peculiar atmospheres of any film by a major studio thanks, it seems, to the way Cammell and Anita Pallenberg manipulated Fox and Jagger. Oh, and the book also omits one of the greatest lines in the film: “Comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.”

These aren’t the only differences. Chas runs to Powis Square/Melbury Terrace because he murders a rival, Joey Maddocks, bringing down unwanted heat on the mob led by Harry Flowers. In the film, there are strong suggestions that Chas and Joey were former lovers and that Chas’s repressed homosexuality is part of the “performance” but in the book this relationship is made explicit. By contrast, Flower’s own homosexuality, alluded to on film, makes no appearance in the book.

Being trivial, I also enjoyed some of the moments of trivia. We learn the name of Turner’s band – Turner And The Spinals, or Turner And The Spinal Cords – and the fact they scored seven No 1s and three No 2s. In fact, “not one of his singles ever missed the charts. Up until the end, I mean”, says his still faithful housekeeper. It turns out that Turner was such a star he shook the Queen’s hand at a film premiere. At one point, Chas even hums one of his hits.

“Of all the crap I ever perpetuated, that was the vilest, man,” says Turner.

Crowley’s London

Several years ago, I commissioned a writer at Time Out to go and explore what we then described as one of occultist and writer Aleister Crowley’s few remaining London homes – an apartment at 73 Chancery Lane, that was about to be turned into offices. In these rooms, Crowley had set up a temple for his magical friends, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and our writer made a valiant attempt at conjuring up a spooky atmosphere from what was probably a rather forgettable set of empty rooms. He even quoted a builder working on the site who claimed to have discovered a human skull and pentangle formed from sticks.

Time Out article on Crowley’s temple, Jan 18 2006

This seemed an entertaining and fairly useful thing to do because even though London is replete with memorials and blue plaques to long-forgotten politicians and music hall artists, there are no blue plaques for Aleister Crowley. London has a plaque for the dog that inspired the HMV logo, but even today, the one-time “wickedest man alive” is beyond the pale for the heritage industry despite his decent literary output and outsized influence on popular culture. (I have written about one such story here.)

Phil Baker’s fabulous new book, City Of The Beast, corrects that oversight. This is a biography of Crowley told through London locations – 93 in all, a number with magical significance for Crowley’s Thelamic religion. Baker, whose biography of artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare is a minor classic, began the book as a lockdown project, listing London places associated with Crowley as something to do to pass the time and stop worrying about the end of the world. He’d soon listed dozens of Crowley homes thanks to Crowley’s inability to settle anywhere for long. That residence at Chancery Lane is mentioned, along with numerous apartments around Piccadilly plus others in Chelsea and Fitzrovia. At times, Crowley resided in such unlikely spots as Streatham, Surbiton, Richmond and Paddington, sometimes living for only weeks, fleeing in advance of creditors as his circumstances declined. It’s likely that most of us will have walked past one or two of Crowley’s front doors and certainly visited the same shops or drank in the same pubs. London overlaps – that’s one of the reason we like blue plaques. As Baker notes at one point, Caxton Hall in Westminster, the site of a public performance of a Crowley rite in 1910, was also the location of “Churchill’s election speech; the assassination of Sr Michael O’Dwyer in revenge for the Amritsar Massacre; the founding of the National Front; and the wedding of Ringo Starr”.

This is more social history than psychogeography, thank goodness. Drawing from Crowley’s unpublished personal diaries, Baker presents Crowley’s rather sad progression through homes and temples as well as the museum, shops, restaurants, printers and courtrooms of Edwardian London. We follow Crowley’s dramatic, even thrilling rise and then a rather pathetic long decline, a petering out, as he hops, heroin-addicted, from home to home, desperately trying to maintain his image and reputation. That must have been awful for a man who once supped with giants – Augustus John, Anthony Powell, WB Yeats, Nina Hamnett, W Somerset Maugham, Auguste Rodin – and in the diaries, some of the frustration comes through. We also get to meet many other remarkable figures who are now largely forgotten such as Labour MP and Crowleyite Tom Diberg, Allen Bennett, who lived with Crowley at Chancery Lane and later became a leading proponent of Buddhism in England, and composer and occultist Peter Warlock, father of the great art critic Brian Sewell. A typical entry will introduce a character like JFC Fuller, a successful soldier who loved yoga the occultism and fascism, becoming one of only two Englishmen invited to Hitler’s 50th birthday parade.

Crowley’s magical and philosophical beliefs are explored in outline, as are his literary achievements, his impressive sexual exploits (these were carefully recorded as Crowley practised sex-magic) and, rather wonderfully, his recipes. Crowley loved to cook and enjoyed strong flavours: a Crowley recipe book could surely be created for the niche occult-gastronomic market, although it would take a brave soul to sample some of these recreations.

Baker presents Crowley as a man whose outlook was formed in the decadent 1890s, one who never really adapted to the changing world, his own age or the reduced circumstances that meant a gentleman without money could no longer shop at Fortnums and live on Jermyn Street and would, instead, have to spend some time in a bedsit near Praed Street drinking at the Royal Oak. He quotes Cyril Connolly’s observation that Crowley bridged “the gap between Oscar Wilde and Hitler”, and that’s a neat way of looking at Crowley both in terms of the age he occupied and the principles and philosophy he espoused. That makes this a very rewarding social history – a look at London in the first decades of the 20th century, still clinging to the veneer of Victoria, like Jeeves And Wooster with magic.

It’s ultimately a very human study of the man, stripping him of much of his mystic allure without making him seem ridiculous, which could easily be the case when dealing with figure who did as many ridiculous things as Crowley. It’s hard not to see Crowley as analogous to those pop stars of the 1960s who worshipped Crowley’s libertarianism and whiff of stage-conscious evil who are still living a priapic life with full heads of hair, clinging to those glory days. And frankly, who can blame them?

City Of The Beast by Phil Baker (Strange Attractor).

“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.