Tag Archives: Books

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton

This review will appear in the January edition of the London Society journal.

News that a book has been commissioned on the back of a popular twitter account is often a cause for eyebrow-raising annoyance peppered with professional jealousy, but that wasn’t the case when Verso announced they were publishing a book based on @municipaldreams, the twitter account run by John Boughton. That’s because Boughton’s tweets (and superb blog) were on the history of social housing, about which Boughton has become the sort of house historian. Boughton’s posts would study in close detail a different housing estate, outline its social history and architectural appearance and then explain the various ways it had been neglected by local councils committed to Thatcherism, either through force or ideology.

munidreams

In the book of Municipal Dreams, Boughton takes a broad overview of the history of council housing from the Victorian era to the present day. Although there are occasional forays overseas to see how things are done elsewhere, his history is largely confined to England and increasingly to London, where “the spate of high-profile housing struggles in recent years testify to the dysfunction of the London housing market”. Boughton is a reassuring guide through this story. He’s a sincere and convinced advocate for state-built housing and praises the ambition and idealism exhibited by post-war planners, but he isn’t blind to the failures nor is he so politically motivated he cannot accord success where it’s been earned. This balance is particularly relevant in the later sections, covering the post-80s era when the consensus about the moral need and positive benefits of state housing was ended by Margaret’s Thatcher Conservative government, an attitude that continued under New Labour. Boughton fumes throughout this sorry era, but also gives credit on the few occasions it’s deserved.

boundary

London is a major part of this story, starting with the pioneering Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green, which opened in 1900 for the working poor and now offers two-bed flats for a monthly rent of more than £2,000 to City bankers. Boughton looks at numerous London estates, from the vast and rather dull Becontree Estate to the wonderful post-war estates built in Camden by Neave Brown, the only living architect to have all of his UK work officially listed. Historical nuggets are liberally applied – a particular favourite was the news that at Staleg Luft III, the Second World War POW camp from which the Great Escape took place, a group of prisoner took a break from depositing earth down their trousers to conduct a debate on Abercrombie’s County Of London Plan (see the poster below).

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It’s the post-1979 section that feels most important though. Boughton carefully and painstakingly takes us through the various government interventions that led to the “residualisation” of council estates – that’s the process by which social housing became repositories for the poorest and most desperate of society. As Boughton points out, this was not the original intention of state-built housing but as soon as councils began treating estates this way it was always going to start a race to bottom – and the self-fulfilling prophesy that council estates, in and of themselves, would be seen as breeding grounds for crime and deprivation. While he’s unimpressed by New Labour’s record on housing, Boughton reserves most scorn for David Cameron’s 2016 promise to “blitz” poverty by demolishing 100 of the “UK’s worst sink estates” noting that the conditions Cameron decried were caused by the policies Cameron advocated.

That brings us to the place of social housing in London’s recent deranged housing market. Boughton looks at various important recent London stories, including the ugly destruction of the Heygate Estate, the artwashing of Balfron Tower, Lambeth’s attempts to demolish Lambeth’s Cressingham and Central Hill, and the campaign to protect the residents of the New Era in Hackney. He ends with the horror story of Grenfell, pondering the role the tragedy may yet play in shifting our housing policies. I think Boughton actually underestimates the role the issue of housing has already played in contemporary politics – notably the surprise result of the 2017 general election – but Boughton ends with cautious optimism, suggesting that a new era of public housing may be coming thanks to “the failure of the free market to provide good and affordable homes to all those who needs them”. That still feels some way off as it would require an embarrassing climbdown from the media and Conservative party to admit that the flagship policy of Thatcherism, “right to buy”, has been a national disaster. But it also feels inevitable, as the case for a return to state-built housing will soon become too pressing to ignore.

Municipal Dreams by John Boughton (Verso)

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RIP Martin Stone – guitarist, bookseller, hustler

I first met Martin Stone, who died this week of cancer in France, at at exhibition in a Mayfair bookstore. It was a display of countercultural ephemera and included a flyer advertising a gig by Mick Farren’s Deviants. Stone, thin, toothless and full of mischief, regaled me with a terrific anecdote about the time he saw Mick Farren – “once one of the three coolest men in London after Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix” – doing a rather desperate book reading in front of a barely interested audience at a branch of Borders in California. He cackled a little in the telling, obviously amused by the fall of one of the underground giants of the 1960s.

stone

Stone himself was an intriguing figure who in later years looked a little like a more crumpled William Burroughs and came with a fascinating back story and the vibe that you wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. When I wrote about early 1960s R&B in south-west London, his name recurred as one of the best guitarists on the scene, able to hold his own against the likes of Page, Beck and Clapton. He was even said to be on the shortlist to replace Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. Stone stayed in music throughout the 60s and 70s – he played for a variety of bands including The Action, Mighty Baby, Pink Fairies and 101ers – but later branched into bookselling, where he became a mythical figure, “running” books from one shop to another, which basically means finding something underpriced in one place and selling it for its true value in another.

Stone was friendly with Iain Sinclair (who wrote about him here), appearing as a character in one of Sinclair’s early books and as himself in one of the strange films Sinclair made with Christ Petit. This was an odd trajectory to take, from 60s counterculture musician to  bookdealer, but it’s worth recalling how many other musicians of that generation did something similar. Jimmy Page ran an occult book shop in Kensington, Pete Townshend ran the Magic Bus bookshop in Richmond and worked for Faber & Faber while Paul McCartney was closely involved with Indica. Thurston Moore is doing something similar today.

Stone developed a reputation as being an astonishingly adept runner, capable of finding rare books in all sorts of unusual places. Sinclair, naturally, believed he had some sort of mystical talent but having seen Stone in action and discussed it with others better informed than I, he was really just a man who knew his market and was capable of going wherever it took and spinning whatever seductive yarn was required to get his goods. He was a hustler essentially, with all that is impressive and sordid about that skill.

Having recently enjoyed Keiron Pim’s book about David Litvinoff, I’d put Stone in a similar category. A curious character with one foot in a London underworld, waspishly intimidating, unreliable but decent company, who flitted in and out of the lives of many people better known than he. His Wikipedia page gives a good flavour of this –   casually namedropping Michael Moorcock, Jimmy Page, Iain Sinclair and Marianne Faithfull.

I last saw Stone two years ago, wearing a pink suit and strolling casually down Cecil Court. He popped in to see a mutual friend, smiling and self-confident, delivered a couple of carefully barbed asides and then went on his way, looking for bargains and preparing to ambush the unprepared.

Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.

Secret London: dealing with the counterculture at Maggs

This article originally appeared in Dazed And Confused magazine in February 2012.

Maggs Bros Ltd rare bookshop is an unlikely place to encounter the counterculture. For a start, it’s located on one of London’s poshest squares in Mayfair, the heart of the establishment, and even boasts a Royal warrant just inside the front door. Inside No 50 Berkeley Square – an imposing Georgian terrace once described as ‘the most haunted house in London’ – earnest young men in expensive suits sit at desks covered in large old brown books, which they flog to largely millionaire collectors that occasionally step through the front door.

But round the back, a different world awaits. Carl Williams works in an office converted from the stable block, in a room that is full of wonders. Come here at the right time and you will find boxes full of punk fanzines sitting on chairs draped with Republican flags from Spanish Civil War. Ask Williams nicely and he may show you brooches made by junkie poet Alexander Trocchi from used heroin needles, a complete set of ‘Anti-Monopoly’ board games or a pamphlet drawn by Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter, the shadowy figure behind the Sidney Street Siege of 1911. This recent catalogue will give you an idea of the material. 

Aleister Crowley

Williams, a fast-talking Yorkshireman , is one of the few booksellers who deals in items related to the counterculture, a nebulous term which covers politics, the occult, avant-garde art, film and literature, drug culture, rock and roll and alternative lifestyles. The interesting stuff, in other words. ‘There’s no guide to the counterculture,’ says Williams. ‘It’s not doctrinal. It’s whether something has the right feel, the way it looks, where it came from. It’s folk art, it’s the Watts Towers, it’s Austin Osman Spare, it’s Aleister Crowley. It’s not like Marxism where everybody knows the key texts. There are things in the counterculture that are still being discovered. There are things lost in libraries that will take it in a completely new direction.’ And it isn’t just books: Williams deals in paintings, posters, games, clothes and records. The only requirements are that Williams can locate it somewhere within his own concept of the counterculture, and that he can sell it. He also puts on occasional shows in the gallery beneath his office, such as the recent Lost Rivers exhibition.

Williams was born in 1967 – ‘the autumn of love’ – in Scarborough. Despite failing his O-Levels, he went to the LSE to read sociology, where he discovered the library and ‘read indiscriminately’. In 1997, after a decade of odd jobs and working in book shops, Williams returned to the LSE to do a Masters just as the library was selling off its old stock during a refurbishment. Almost by accident, Williams became a ‘runner’, a pejorative term that describes something which, in essence, all book dealers do. ‘Running is a pre-internet term, now it’s much more transparent, but it means taking a book quickly from one dealer or auction house, to another dealer or collector and selling it for more money than you paid,’ says Williams. ‘The idea is that you get it from A to B without B finding out how much you paid A.’

RED FESTIVAL 77 POSTER

With the LSE library at his disposal, Williams was blessed with early success. ‘I was able to sell all these political economy and philosophy books,’ he says. ‘But although I knew the books I didn’t really know what they were worth. I realised this when I took one dealer the first Western European edition of the Koran, and walked out with £500 when it must have been worth thousands.’

As the stock from the LSE ran out, Williams began frequenting other dealers and auction houses to find sellable books. In February 1999, he wandered into Bloomsbury Book Auctions, where he picked up a book from 1864 called The Pure Logic Of Quality by William Stanley Jevons. ‘Jevons thought this book would revolutionise how we understood logic, but he only sold six copies,’ says Williams. ‘I’d never seen one outside a library. I took it to a dealer, Pickering and Chatto, and a man called Jolyon Hudson asked if he could keep it for a day or two.’

Hudson recognised the book had been stolen from the London Library. The police were notified and Williams’s discovery unravelled what the Guardian described as ‘the most systematic plundering of Britain’s great libraries ever carried out by an individual’. William Simon Jacques, a dealer, had stolen books worth more than £1 million. He was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. (Jay Rayner covered the story here.)

‘I was devastated,’ says Williams, ‘because I thought I’d tried to sell a stolen book, but it turned out to be a blessing because Hudson told the Guardian that I had behaved impeccably and that gave me an entry into the higher levels of the trade.’

Williams began working at Maggs Bros, selling books on the internet and looking after the catalogue. ‘I got to know the customers. There was one guy who had been coming in for 20 years. He’d usually walk out with a travel book, but one day they asked this guy what he actually wanted and he said he wanted books on drugs.’

The man was Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian billionaire, and Williams sold him a painting made by a Mexican artist after he had been injected in the neck with LSD. Santo Domingo was in the process of putting together one of the great private collections of drug books and paraphernalia, a stunning selection of material that ranges from ancient books about Chinese opium smoking to a bicycle that belonged to Syd Barrett. ‘I worked for Julio [who died in 2009] for three years,’ says Williams. ‘His collection is one of the great untold stories of the 21st century. It’s not just drugs, it’s sex, rock and roll, the occult, erotica and art. And it’s not just books. It’s everything.’

Santo Domingo had a remarkably open concept of what to collect, not just concentrating on the old and valuable but hovering up anything with drug connections. ‘Somewhere in it is a McDonalds coffee stirrer from the 1970s,’ says Williams. ‘It looked like a coke spoon, just in plastic rather than silver. There were press rumours that it was the hillbilly coke spoon and so McDonalds discontinued the range, but I found an original. What do you do with that? Sotheby’s don’t want it, Christie’s don’t want it. But it’s gold. So that’s what I do.’

McDonald's coffee stirrer

Williams operates in a rarefied world, selling unusual and arcane items to billionaires and academic institutions. Some are interested in the subject, others are professional collectors, and still more are collectors who collect other people’s collections, as investments and for the pleasure of ownership. ‘It’s a very small world of dealers and a very large world of buyers, who work on the basis that they should buy now when it is relatively cheap and is all still out there,’ says Williams. ‘And some of it is cheap. The 1960s stuff isn’t because it is more mainstream and the top Beat stuff is far too expensive, although I’ll still buy manuscripts.’

New items are acquired from auctions and the internet, book fares, private sellers and other dealers. A recent haul brought in the first issue of Heat Wave, a British Situationist International magazine written in 1966, which nobody has seen outside the British Library for decades. There’s a file full of items William Burroughs collected during his short-lived immersion in the Church of Scientology. There are four skeletal marionettes that used to live in an amusement arcade in Hastings. There are posters of Black Panther Bobby Seale, complete collections of short-lived No Wave fanzines, cloth bags designed by Yoko Ono and the programme from Michael Clark and The Fall’s collaboration on the ballet ‘I Am Curious Orange’, which took place at Sadler’s Wells in 1988. And there are books, loads of them, by Richard Neville and BS Johnson and Gregory Corso and Timothy Leary. Some of this stuff is hard to sell, partly because it’s difficult to know how much it is worth – ‘there simply isn’t a precedent for some of these things, so you’ve nothing to compare it with.’

 

Williams found his niche with a little help from Edward Maggs, the man who inherited the family firm. ‘There might have been something brewing in Ed’s mind that we needed to cover this demographic,’ says Williams. ‘It really began when I started cataloguing all this proto-counterculture American Beat stuff from the 50s and it did really well, I sold about 80% of it. I designed a catalogue based on Ginsberg’s Howl, the same size and typeface. It did well, people liked it and I realised I had the right skills for the subject.’

And what are those skills? Williams pauses. ‘It’s judo,’ he says. ‘I have one real ability. I can pick up a book, look at the front, open it, look at the back and I can usually understand what that book is about, condense it, understand where it came from and put a price on it before I’ve put it down. That’s not a talent many people have. It’s like judo, you’re fighting an opponent who is much bigger than you but you don’t need take on the whole thing at one time if you are going to defeat it. It’s an intellectual work-out every day. I have to explain each item, do the research, understand its value, and then I try and sell it.’

Unstable at Maggs Bros Gallery is on until June 8, 2012.

London bricks

‘The bricks – laid Flemish bond, headers and stretchers alternating – were all old London stock bricks, but of many kinds and colours: rust red, beige, grey, brown, nearly black. Here and there were yellow ones – malm bricks made with an admixture of clay and chalk. The cumulative effect was pleasing – the variety gave texture, interest and warmth to the surface of the wall. The eye approved the range of colour, the uneven look, the way in which each brick differed from its neighbour and yet was in subtle harmony. But, more that that, to look at it was to see the way in which this wall arose from the ashes of many buildings. Studying it, Matthew saw in his mind’s eye warehouses and churches, factories and shops, terrace houses like this one, blasted to the ground perhaps on some furnace night of 1940. He thought of how the city lifts again and again from its own decay, thrusting up from its own detritus, from the sediment of brick dust, rubble, wood splinters, rusted iron, potsherds, coins and bones. He thought of himself, living briefly on top of this pile, inheriting its physical variety and, above all, the clamour of its references. The thought sustained him, in some curious way, as he sat at his desk in the flat which was not yet a home, or as he moved through days and through the city, from Finsbury to Docklands to Covent Garden to Lincoln’s Inn.

Penelope Lively in ‘City Of The Mind’ (1991, Andre Deutsch).

A punch up the bracket: BS Johnson and Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock

In a comment on my previous post about BS Johnson,  BB writes: ‘To issue a threat ending in “up the bracket” is so much of its time it made me laugh out loud. I had a couple of jobs that involved working with men in their late 50s and early 60s, real Londoners,  and they had a particular argot and mode of expression, which was always making me laugh. Enquiring as to whether you wanted a punch up the bracket was a regular occurrence.’

I also love this phrase, and associate it with another of my heroes, Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock, the greatest British comedian of all time. (There’s a great piece about Hancock here, noting the similarities between Hancock and Seinfeld as well as Hancock’s use of ‘punch up the bracket’.)

Hancock and BS Johnson have much in common. Both were aspirational working-class/lower middle-class men defined by the 1950s who spoke in the language of outer-urban post-war London. Both were men of keen wit and sharp intellect who enjoyed – or couldn’t help – skewering their own occasional lapse into pomposity. Both were depressives with a gift for pointed, painful comedy. Both killed themselves. They even looked similar: thick, heavyset men with wounded eyes. And, most importantly, both referenced Chelsea in key texts (Hancock in ‘The Football Pools’ and Johnson in ‘Albert Angelo’).

 

I once interviewed Tim Lott – or was it Toby Litt? – who suggested that Hancock was London’s answer to the Angry Young Men of 1950s northern working-class fiction, and there’s something this, though I’m not sure Sillitoe or Wain ever came up with anything as dark as Galton and Simpson’s ‘The Poison Pen Letters’, in which Hancock is so consumed by self-loathing he starts sending himself hate mail in his sleep.

But this is something you can imagine BS Johnson writing, another angry, sad, brilliant man who went raging into the tragedy of premature death.

Love is…

Another book on London maps, for a tenner, from Charing X Road. Yes, I had to get it for myself, but there’s no shame in that. Happy Valentine’s for those so inclined, I’m off to recline with John Rocque