Tag Archives: Brixton

Pirate radio in London: The Clash, Keith Allen and biscuits

There’s currently a small exhibition at the ICA looking at the history of London’s pirate radio. The Guardian recently ran a great photogallery on the subject.

pirate

Not coincidentally, I’ve been reading a new book on pirate radio, London’s Pirate Pioneers by Stephen Hebditch, who formerly edited a magazine dedicated to pirate radio. It’s a great book, crammed with detail and utterly absorbing.

My knowledge of pirate radio was restricted to the 1960s offshore stations, and then the 1980s dance stations. I knew about the latter because I sometimes stumbled upon them while retuning from Capital Gold to LBC in search of football results. There would be a javelin of static, a man shouting, booming bass and a general feeling of chaos. I also diligently watched Lenny Henry, so knew all about the illegal broadcasting activities of Delbert Wilkins, who ran the a pirate radio show in Brixton.

Hebditch’s book mentions Henry, who was a supporter of probably London’s most famous pirate, Kiss FM, which like many others broadcast using transmitters stuck above shops on Westow Hill in Crystal Palace. But he also talks in detail about aspects of pirate radio that are much less well known. The book looks at developments in the pirate scene year-by-year from the 1960s, starting with a general overview taking in major shifts in technology, approach, licensing laws and law enforcement, followed by a longer look at a couple of  the year’s most important stations, and then a round-up of all the other stations that broadcast that year – some of them only surviving a week.

The detail is astonishing and what really fascinated me was the range of stations that existed. Many were playing jazz, dub, soul, funk and reggae – and the story of the way Black Londoners embraced pirate radio in the 1980s is an important one. Hundreds were later playing dance music, but there was also stations for heavy metal, classic rock, pop, and rock and roll as well as for local community groups: Poles, Greeks and South Indians all had stations. There was even said to be a far-right station, Radio Enoch, broadcasting in the Midlands, which was shut down after members from one London rock station went to pay a visit.

From these stations came numerous DJs we know today – Tim Westwood, Gilles Peterson, Annie Nightingale, Pete Tong, Judge Jules and Steve Lamacq – but also a hint of the variety of music and programming that the radiowaves could support. Many paid their costs by charging advertisers; some even charged the DJs for the right to present.

A station like Phoenix (1981-1985) would play early indie – Ellery Bop, Nightingales, Inflatable Boy Clams – mixed with “dub, jazz, industrial and African”, with guest presenters like Robert Wyatt and The Monochrome Set. Similar was Network 21, that played alternative rock and dance, while also covering news, cinema listings, concerts, plays and exhibitions.

concord

Then there’s Radio Concord, which grew out of the west London squatting scene between 1972 and 1976, sometimes broadcasting from the house in Maida Vale where Joe Strummer lived with the 101ers. This was a politicised counterculture station, and would comment on issues like Northern Ireland and housing rights. “They have even been critical of the Queen,” the Daily Mail reported. One time, they were busted while broadcasting so stuck  a mike through the letterbox to try and interview the law live on air.

Then there was Radio Amanda, that lasted from 1982-1984 playing a pre-Resonance diet of space rock and electronic music. At roughly the same time, there was Our Radio, a station started by anarchists that had shows devoted to feminists, gay groups and Brixton-based anarchists. It had few listeners but the police hated it: in one court case it was described as an “anarchist, terrorist, homosexual” radio station.

Radio Wapping broadcasting briefly in 1986 to support the printworkers striking after News International’s move to Wapping. And in 1983, comedian Keith Allen launched Breakfast Pirate Radio, which was broadcast “using helium-filled balloons over Notting Hill” (ahem) and featured “comic-characters, malicious celebrity gossip, radio outtakes and the names of supposedly bent coppers.” Robbie Coltrane also featured and you can listen to it here.

Best of all, though, was a station called The Home Of Good Baking which broadcast for a few weeks in 1989 using a jingle from United Biscuit Network, the 1970s in-house radio station at United Biscuits in Hayes.

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Ten weird London films from Pathe: featuring leopards, scooter jousting, Willesden oil wells and Peter Cushing’s toy soldiers

1. Japes! It’s a fight between students in Brixton over a stolen stuffed owl, featuring many flour bombs. These days, this wouldn’t lead to a jaunty newsreel as much as apocalyptic headlines in the Evening Standard. 1957

2. A secretary in Kensington takes her pet leopard for a walk, 1968.

3. Jousting on scooters in Wembley, 1957.

4. Marcus the chimp cycles around London, 1940s. 

5. Dog blessing ceremony in Swiss Cottage, 1939.

6. Ever wanted to see Peter Cushing play with his collection of toy soldiers? From 1956.

7.  Some great Pathe footage comes in the form of out-takes, like this silent colour footage of a man pogo-ing into a Soho strip club in 1962.

8. An oil well in Willesden, 1947.

9. Kentish Town children hold a protest march to demand a zebra crossing, 1962.

10. A look at fashion featuring I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and a couple dressed as Bonnie & Clyde pretending to murder a man wearing an Afghan, 1969.

Mount London – a book about London’s hills

Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City

I am surrounded by hills. North-east is Denmark Hill, south is Tulse Hill, west is Brixton Hill and beneath my feet is Herne Hill. From the highest point of Brockwell Park, I can see the wooded tip of Sydenham Hill and the Autobot mast of Crystal Palace, which sits on top of a stomach-looping hill at Cystal Palace. And there’s more – Knights Hill, Beulah Hill, Forest Hill, Streatham Hill –  all within a few miles, usually to the south on land that slowly undulates into deep suburbia.

One of the things I like about Herne Hill is that the hill it is named after takes the form of an easily ignored road that snakes up towards Camberwell while the town itself sits in a hollow at the bottom, where it often floods. You don’t usually get a flooded hill, but that’s Herne Hill for you. Maybe that’s in keeping with the contradictory nature of London hills. Elsewhere, a hill lifts you above the fray but London hills tend to accentuate the clutter, confirming the claustrophobia of London life.

Tom Chivers is from Herne Hill, and perhaps that prompted him to commission and edit, along with Martin Kratz, Mount London, a book of essays about London hills and other raised areas. A team of 23 urban topographers study 25 spots: famous viewpoints like Parliament Hill, suburban sprawls like Stamford Hill, lost City of London hillocks like Ludgate Hill, plus the odd, witty, wild card – Battersea Power Station’s chimneys or the emergency stairs at Hampstead Underground Station.

Early on, Sarah Butler captures the curious charm of London’s hills  – ‘I’d stand and look,’ she writes in her chapter on Dartmouth Park Hill, ‘and I would always be struck by the fact that London stretched right out to the horizon and as far left and right as I could see. Do the equivalent in Manchester, and you can see where the city ends, the edges fading out into fields.’ London has no edges.

Contributions are a mix of autobiography, psychogeography and history. One of my favourites was Tim Cresswell’s elegant take on Northala Fields, an artificial hill constructed from the rubble of Wembley Stadium and including the remains of London’s failed attempt at building an Eiffel Tower. Londonist’s Matt Brown demonstrates his usual nose for an oddity with his piece on Windmill Hill, a municipal dump on Moorfields constructed from dung and bones. Submarine author Joe Dunthorne takes on the Shard, astutely noting that ‘since the arrival of the Walkie-Talkie, it may not even be the most evil skyscraper in London.’

Chivers tackles Snow Hill – a place I always associate with terrible London-set computer game Driver – and in doing so manages to capture that strange, uplifting sight: the Fleet Valley from Holborn Viaduct. ‘To stand on the Viaduct and look over Farringdon Road is to experience London’s vertical axis; the city not as streetplan write large but a three dimensional environment with depth as well as spread. And even to the untrained eye, the view from the Viaduct is unmistakably that of a river from a bridge.’ This is a perspective almost impossible to capture in a photograph. I have always thought it had to be experienced in person, but Chivers has it nailed.

Chivers and Kratz are poets, and there is a bias towards a certain tricksy type of inward-looking London writing – the school of Sinclair – with particularly abstract or experimental musings coming from Kratz on Richmond Hill and Tamar Yoseloff on Farringdon shitheap Mount Pleasant. That’s fine, but I would have welcomed a little more variety in styles. Mary Paterson brings the only touch of fiction to her piece on Denmark Hill and while I enjoyed Katy Evans-Bush’s supernatural glimpse of Stamford Hill, even this was intensely personal. Amber Massie-Blomfield’s piece on Gypsy Hill is typical, interweaving 18th-century south London gypsies with musings about her grandfather, who once lived in a caravan in Lossiemouth,

But maybe such naval-gazing is in keeping with the very nature of London hills, and also the introspective activity of solo walking. London is not a city that looks particularly good from the air – notable exceptions being Parliament Hill and Greenwich Hill, neither of which feature here. Instead, elevated views merely reinforce the sense that we are stuck in the middle of an endless mega city. The only respite lies within.

‘Some friends once lived in a double-fronted Georgian on Brixton Water Lane,’ writes Karen McCarthy Woolf of Brixton Hill. ‘Their garden was large and L-shaped and a good proportion of it used to be the car park of the pub now called The Hootenanny. Their garden also had a well in it that sank into the subterranean Effra.’

I know that Georgian, I know that garden, I know that well. In London, no matter how high we climb, we will never escape from each other, and from other hills.

Mount London: Ascents In The Vertical City edited by Tom Chivers and Martin Kratz (Penned In The Margins, £12.99).

Bus stops and Brockwell Park: exhibition in Herne Hill

Martin Grover, an artist based in South London, has an exhibition at Le Garage in Herne Hill until Thursday November 1. His paintings are mainly of Brockwell Park, old record covers and bus stops, making him the ideal visual companion to my life.

His bus stop art has now extended from 2D prints into 3D sculptures/installation – in other words, he makes actual bus stops and writes strange slogans on them.

His Brockwell Park paintings are lovely. They are painted from sketches and photographs, although he confesses he makes a lot of it up in the studio, which is why Batman or James Brown might occasionally turn up in one.

Then there are the record sleeves, perfect reproductions of old 45s: often Stax and Motown but also plenty of country and Dylan.

South London Purgatory System at Le Garage until Nov 1, 2012. Mon-Fri, 10.30am-5.30pm; Sat, Sun, 10am-6pm. 

‘Ladies who bus’

This is a piece I wrote for the Speed issue of the excellent Completely London magazine. 

Sometimes, it feels like there are few slower ways of getting round London than by public transport. And the bus –so often a victim of roadworks and burst water mains – can be the slowest of all. But for some, that slowness is part of the attraction. Jo Hunt (67), Mary Rees (68) and Linda Smither (64) are ‘ladies who bus’. Since March 2009, they have been taking all of London’s buses in numerical order, starting at No 1, travelling each route from one end to the other, and then writing about it on their blog. As a way to pass the time, it is a distinctively London thing to do. There are, after all, over 500 routes in London; more if you include those that start with letters, like the A10 or X68.

File:London Bus route 23.JPG

‘It began when I retired from my last job,’ says Jo, the head buskateer and a former teacher. ‘People asked what I was going to do. I said I’d just loll about or play computer games, but then I decided I’d get every bus in London.’

From that moment of whimsy came a plan, which became a blog and has now evolved into something like a mission. Jo, Mary and Linda have acquired matching sweatshirts with their blog address on it – these proved to be handy in winter when one bus’s central heating was broken – and they have printed business cards to hand to drivers at the end of journeys to explain what they are up to. Online, they have built up a following among London nerds and bus enthusiasts.

Jo got the idea when she got on a bus and saw it was terminating at Ponder’s End. ‘I thought, “Where’s Ponder’s End?”’ and elected to find out. ‘Then I thought if I was going to do one, I should do them all, and if I was going to do them all, I should do them in the right order.’ Linda and Mary were both ready for retirement as well, so – armed with their Freedom Passes –they agreed to come along. Jo’s son created a blog, and 200 buses later we are now travelling by bus from Brixton to Mitcham on one of the hottest days of the year.

And here I must make a confession. I also spent a couple of years on the buses, writing a weekly column for Time Out about exactly this topic – taking every bus in London in numerical order, from end to end. Well, it started as a weekly column, but soon lethargy took over, the column became fortnightly and then monthly and in the end I never made it further than the low 60s. Jo, Linda and Mary have persevered, resolve stiffened by each other’s company – and by Jo’s determination to complete the task. ‘Jo is the leader,’ confesses Mary. Jo plans each route a week in advance, working out how they are going to get to and from the stops that bookend the route, and she and Linda take turns writing them up on the blog.

But they are clearly enjoying themselves as well. There is much to appreciate about a lazy morning spent taking a bus for no other reason than the sheer fun of travel, watching London knit together while everybody outside rushes about their daily business without time to stop and absorb the city around them. As we slip languidly through south London streets, the trio note familiar landmarks and reminisce about other routes that have passed this way. They are also able to recall what an area was like 5, 10, 20, even 40 years previously. ‘It’s evocative,’ says Linda of the experience of revisiting old haunts. She also comments on how they have watched London change in the two-and-a-half years they’ve been doing the routes. When they began, the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle was a building site – now it’s one of the tallest buildings in London. A rapid transformation, observed at leisure.

They are fascinated by London’s arcane history of– such as the Balham estate we pass that was reported to be Hitler’s choice for a home if he successfully invaded Britain – but also by the present, especially in Tooting, as South Indian restaurants slowly give way to West African clothes shops and Mary contemplates hopping off to pick up three crates of mangoes for £10.

London as seen by bus is a city of delights and surprises. ‘I’ve been surprised at how good the drivers are,’ says Jo. ‘I’ve really enjoyed being able to understand how London ties together. And sometimes you’ll be bumbling along and then suddenly you are in the country, surrounded by green. It’s like you’ve reached the end of the world.’ Or the end of London, which sometimes feels like much the same thing.

Secret London: Brixton’s Windmill

I finally got round to visiting Brixton Windmill during Open House Weekend. I first heard about the windmill ten years or so again, when I would go to gigs at the Windmill pub and pop out between acts to try to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary building in the nearby park, lost and derelict like an abandoned spaceship.

The windmill was built in 1816 and run by John Ashby of Brixton Hall. It was originally on a hill in fields, surrounded by outbuildings like a mill cottage and bake house, where bread was baked with the mill’s stone-ground wholemeal flour and sold to locals.

By the 1850s, Brixton was starting to grow and new housing blocked the wind, hampering performance. In 1862, the Ashby’s took their milling business to the Mitcham watermills along the Wandle, but the Brixton Windmill somehow remained, used for storage. The sails, though, were removed and sold for firewood.

In 1902, the windmill was returned to use, albeit as a location for a steam-powered provender mill. The mill was finally closed in 1934 and left empty until the LCC purchased it in 1957, after at least one attempt had been made to demolish it and cover the site with flats. Despite the sails being restored in 1983, the windmill, now owned by Lambeth, was allowed to run almost to ruin, which is how it appeared when I first saw it.

Since then, a major restoration project has taken place and the windmill is now open again to the public around once a month. The Friends of Windmill Gardens, a local residents association, also hope to start grinding flour again, using the provender mill that still survives on the first floor.

In celebration, here are the Fuck Buttons playing at the Brixton Windmill pub.

London riots and football hooliganism

‘People were determined to smash and destroy. Windows were being smashed and the looters saw their chance. A road sign went straight through the middle of the window. Two people moved in with cardboard boxes and filled them with jumpers. These would be highly resaleable. [Others] were concentrating on the jewellers’ shops and a good few were looted. People who were probably  law-abiding citizens at any other time just went berserk. The faces of people as they went into a smashed shop and grabbed goods were amazing; all signs of reason had disappeared from their eyes. One guy came out of a shop with his eyes rolled up, his tongue hanging from an open mouth and breathing heavily. His trip into the shop had been a physical experience, and he was beginning to smile. He had dared and won. In a very short space of time, the streets had been transformed into a madhouse. Sirens blared out and police vans screeched around the streets.’

Was this Tottenham last Saturday? Brixton on Sunday? Battersea or Croydon on Monday? Manchester on Tuesday? Surely it must be from one of those occasions this week when England was forced to confront the reality of a ‘sub-educated, feral underclass’ in a post-Thatcher ‘something-for-nothing society’ (as Andrew Roberts so colourfully described it).

Well, actually no. This was way back in 1983, in tiny Luxembourg, where England fans went on a smashing and looting spree after failing to qualify for the European Championships. Football hooliganism was approaching its nadir after a 20 year spiral that had almost destroyed the national sport and left the authorities baffled at how to control it.

Mob looting by football supporters dates back to at least 1976, when Liverpool supporters descended in large groups to rob shops in St Etienne, where they were watching a European Cup tie. It soon became assimilated into the away trip –  usually while being escorted back to the station, away supporters would smash up city centres, fight the police and, if the opportunity arose, loot goods from shops: a jeweller here, a clothes shop there. Whatever could be easily lifted and carried back home.

In Colin Ward’s classic account of terrace culture ‘Steaming In’ (from which the above passage also came), he describes Chelsea fans after a game in Luton: ‘The trip back to the town station saw the mass destruction of the town centre. Shops were looted and a train was set on fire… It was said that one guy who didn’t like football but had a fetish about smashing shop windows went along to have a good night out. Nutters often tag along with football crowds just for the buzz.’

The past week’s violence certainly seemed unprecedented – and in some ways it was – but there are significant parallels with the way overwhelmingly young football fans routinely behaved in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s the casual disregard for other people’s property, the mania of the crowd, the opportunist thieving and violence, the loose organisation into gangs, the sheer thrill of anarchy, the speed of movement and the power of being able to catch the police wrong-footed.

The fear is that mass lootings will become a commonplace event, another part of our lives, as criminal gangs realise what they can get away with if there are enough of them around and as long as the law and lawmakers remain clueless at how to respond. It certainly took the authorities a long time to get a handle on how to police football, but the experience has now been completely transformed, partly because of tough sentences for hooligans, partly because of the disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough but also because the football establishment itself realised it had to change the way it regarded football supporters if the behaviour of fans was to improve.

When I watched a small group of 20 or 30 kids terrorise Hackney in broad daylight on Monday afternoon while the police stood and watched, my first instinct was that they would never have let a bunch of football supporters behave like that these days. There are always lessons to be learnt from the past, if you look in the right places.

Secret London: Toulouse-Lautrec in Catford

Say what you like about South London, but it clearly has something about it. Why else would a trinity of the world’s greatest 19th-century artists have come here?

You probably know about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in Brixton because of the play from a few years ago. Van Gogh lodged in Hackford Road, Brixton in 1873 and regularly walked from there to Covent Garden where he worked as an art dealer.

This is the only surviving picture he sketched during this period It’s of the Georgian houses on Hackford Road itself.

Van Gogh also lived in Isleworth in 1876, at 160 Twickenham Road, when he later returned to London as a teacher. Hackford Road now has an English Heritage blue plaque for Van Gogh, and there used to be a Van Gogh Cafe on Brixton Road, but it’s closed down.

Camille Pissarro painted around a dozen pictures of Sydenham and Dulwich during his time in South London in 1870. I particularly like this one, of Lordship Lane Station.

As Michael Glover writes in the Independent: ‘The painting shows us a new kind of modernity. Here is London being mightily transformed by the growth of housing and the ever onward thrust of the railways in the second half of the 19th century.’ Pissarro lived at No 77 Westow Hill and then on Palace Road, and married at Croydon Registry Office. He returned to London a number of times. Lordship Lane station was demolished in 1954. A non-English Heritage blue plaque adorns the site of his house on Westow Hill and a restaurant called Pissarro is in Chiswick, but I’m pretty sure that’s named after his son Lucien.

Best of all, though, is the fact that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did time in Catford in 1896. The diminutive brothel-loving soak was a huge fan of cycling and in 1896 was asked by a company called Simpson to work on a poster for their new bike, which used a new type of chain. This, according to Wiki, ‘was composed of linked triangles forming two levels. The inner level was driven by the chainring and the outer drove the rear cog. Instead of teeth, the chainring and cog had grooves into which the rollers of the chain engaged.’

I’m not sure what that means, and probably neither did Lautrec, so he came to the newly built Catford Velodrome to watch the bike in action during special races, set up by Simpson to advertise their product. Lautrec produced a couple of images during his visit. The poster was one of the last he designed before his death in 1901.

The velodrome was knocked down in the 1990s and there is no trace of it left (it’s location was approximately around Sportsbank Road), but there is at least a brasserie in Kennington called Toulouse-Lautrec.

But perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec had more influence on Catford than we may have thought?

Consider this, a famous poster advertising one of Lautrec’s favourite clubs by one of his contemporaries and very much in Lautrec’s style.

And this.

If you do not wish to go all the way to Catford to pay homage, an exhibition of Lautrec’s work goes on display later in June at the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House, where you can also see Pissarro’s lovely picture of Lordship Lane Station.