I have a piece about 90s Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear in the latest Uncut to mark the 30th anniversary of their single, “Her Jazz”. Here’s Huggy Bear performing the song on The Word. Apparently you can see three members of their labelmates Cornershop in the crowd. It’s a thrilling performance and I remember watching it at the time, impressed and slightly scared.
Although I was not a huge Huggy Bear fan – frankly, they intimidated me – I couldn’t miss the fact that in the music press, Huggy Bear got a tough time in a manner that seemed completely out-of-proportion to their actual size. NME and Melody Maker were known for their snark, but the usual targets were the self-important big stars – Bono, Sting, Morrissey – or the current flavour-of-the-month, such as Suede or Manic Street Preachers (a band that have some interesting similarities with Huggy Bear). But for the latter, the nastiness was usually balanced by regular cover features, positive reviews, news pieces and a general boosting of the latest indie hero.
With Huggy Bear – a small band on an indie label whose fan base barely filled a couple of pubs in north London – it seemed like it was all snark. The vitriol was relentless; Huggy Bear were the eternal punchline.
Talking to the band – mostly via email as even after 30 years they were still reluctant to trust a journalist so wanted to retain control of their words – it was clear they’d had experience this as, in one member’s word, “spiteful bullying”. And it wasn’t just the press. Other bands refused to sign to the same label as them, or created such hostility they couldn’t drink in the usual indie haunts in Camden. Some of their peers even went to gigs just to heckle. It was vicious.
What was everybody’s problem? It wasn’t Huggy Bear’s music, it was their politics – and more to the point – the sheer conviction with which they held their views. Huggy Bear believed in the underground community of fanzine culture and DIY gigs, and they believed in – and passionately espoused – gender and sexual equality. They were fierce feminists and that scared the boys. It still does. To care so much was unforgivable in the early 90s, as the affected ennui of Generation X was about to give way to the destructive irony of Britpop and Loaded – an irony, of course, that heavily favoured the views of white men.
After that performance on The Word, there was an interview with a pair of identical twins who modelled for Playboy and proudly declared they were “bimbos”. Huggy Bear and their friends in the crowd heckled, while guest Henry Rollins and presenter Terry Christian smirked awkwardly. Terry Christian is a good guy with sound views but he couldn’t handle being upstaged – on The Word for chrisake, which was explicitly created to manufacture controversy – and had them all thrown out. That earned Huggy Bear an appearance on the cover of Melody Maker. It was not The Word‘s finest hour.
Back then, Huggy Bear were sneered at for being “right on” and “politically correct”, even in the ostensibly left-leaning NME, which regularly carried a column by comedian Simon Munnery based on his Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character, which targeted this tiny but easy-to-mock demographic. Ironically, this terrible column was far more humourless than Huggy Bear themselves, whose songs brim with wit as well as fire and compassion.
These days, that terrible lazy “W” word would be deployed to diminish their opinions.
It must be annoying for them to know that Huggy Bear were right. About pretty much everything.
This was originally published by the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront newsletter in 2016.
It was while working on Time Out’s annual pub guide in around 2000 that I heard the tale of the Camden castles. A reviewer claimed that there were once four Camden pubs with castle in their name – the Edinboro, Windsor, Dublin and Pembroke – and these had originally been built for navvies digging Regent’s Canal. The gist was that each national group – Scots, English, Irish, Welsh – was assigned a pub to keep them happy, or more precisely to stop them from scrapping with one another. It’s now found all over the internet, with variations. Sometimes, the Caernarvon Castle is included, and often they are said to have been built for the later railway navvies.
It’s a great yarn, but if it seems too good to be true, it’s because it is. The theory is carefully taken apart in the November 2014 newsletter of the Camden History Society by David Hayes who points out that the pubs weren’t built at the same time but “gradually appeared over a period of 130 years”. The Dublin Castle on Parkway, now a music venue, is the oldest. It featured in rates books in 1821 and may just have been frequented by Irish navvies, as the canal was completed in 1820. But next was the Edinboro Castle on Mornington Terrace, which opened in 1839, two years after the railway line to Euston. Not only did this open too late, it had facilities – a tea garden and library – aimed at an upmarket clientele. The Pembroke Castle in Primrose Hill opened in the late 1860s and was probably named after its address – 1 Pembroke Terrace – while the Windsor Castle on Parkway was an off licence until 1953, when it reopened as a pub. It’s now a restaurant. As for the Caernarvon, this originally opened as the Pickford Arms – named after a nearby depot – changing its name in around 1870, possibly to join the trend, as Camden pubs became synonymous with castles.
Where then did this rumour came from? To seek an answer, I turned to In Camden Town by David Thomson. This is a diary covering a year in Camden in 1980, combining social history and personal reminiscences. Thomson spends much of his time idling with locals in Camden pubs – the Windsor, Edinboro and Dublin Castle all feature – and he also writes about the building of the canals. However, he never brings the two together, either to spread or dispel the rumour, by saying his favourite pubs were built for navvies. That suggests the story had not yet been formulated.
Of the canal navvies, he writes that “it is difficult to find out much about the… homeless thousands of men who carved the channel out by hand”, noting later that “public inquiries… showed their food, shelter and conditions of work were as wretched as those of the railway navvies later.” This was a dangerous and exhausting life. One accident near Camden in August 1813 saw a cutting collapse, burying a dozen men, several of whom died. “A navvy’s life was less valuable than a slave’s”, says Thomson, who says navvies were “like an invading army but without discipline, tents, billeting officer or commissariat.” Many were Irish and spoke no English. “‘They use only their Gaelic tongue,’ wrote one engineer. ‘And it’s by sign we direct them and thus they have little traffic with the English and keep them apart.’”
Of the railway navvies, Thomson writes. “Navvies were reckless in their leisure. They came and went to the next job in hordes, shared hardships and pleasures peculiar to their homeless life, helped each other in adversity, had a strong sense of justice, were loyal to the gang and to fair employers, and fiercely violent against those who cheated them of food or pay.” The navvies had their own traditions, including “broomstick weddings” – a marriage ceremony described thus in 1846: “It consists of the couple jumping over a broomstick in the presence of a room full of men, met to drink upon the occasion, and the couple were put to bed at once in the same room.”
Navvies were perceived to be heavy drinkers and sporadically violent. At a ceremony in Camden’s Cumberland Basin in 1816 to mark the opening of one section of Regent’s Canal, the navvies “were presented with several hogsheads of beer. Plenty of quarts and pint pots were provided, but not finding these large enough, many held out hats for a full up and drank copious draughts from those.” There were occasional fights – most notably between canal workers in Sampford Peverell in 1811 and Barrow-Upon-Soar in 1794 – as there was among railway workers in Camden in 1846 when a riot broke out between English and Irish labourers at the Round House that lasted several hours and left many injured.
A trip to the Canal Museum in King’s Cross brought more information from The Canal Builders by Anthony Burton. The canal navigators were, he writes, “strangers of uncertain origin” who carved canals the length and breadth of the country using spade and barrow, experience and muscle. Again, he notes how little trace they left on the printed record, as they became “such an accepted part of the landscape that writers and travellers rarely felt it worthy of mention”.
Originally made up of part-time agricultural workers from the English and Welsh farms, by 1795 there were an estimated 50,000 navvies working on the canals, “a mixture of English workers… and a specialised work force from Scotland and Ireland, specifically to work on the canals.” The Irish and Scots were extremely poor and these “roving bands of migrant workers” were much feared, described as “banditti… the terror of the surrounding country” in 1839.
And what of their living conditions? These sound uncannily like that of migrant workers today. Burton says some were encouraged to lodge in the towns in which they worked to defuse some of the fear and friction caused by so many unfamiliar men living close together but most lived in jerry-built temporary accommodation, travelling encampments of 600 or more, with navvies living in “a turf hovel” and subsiding on “dull plain food”. Some canal owners discussed improving conditions, raising places for workers to eat and drink, but only in the form of tents or booths. Many were paid in tokens that could only be redeemed at certain stores, invariably those owned by the canal owners. Would four brick pubs have been constructed for such poorly treated, poorly regarded men who never settled in a single place for long? Not a chance.
A photograph in Michael Ware’s A Canalside Camera shows a group of navvies, dressed in rags, surly and exhausted. The navvies had a terrible reputation, but Burton is sympathetic. “Take thousands of poor, uneducated men, remove them from home and family, send them out to sweat away at hard, dirty and dangerous work, and you cannot be surprised if the end result is a gang of men who frequently find their repose in outbursts of drunkenness and fighting.”
Here it is apparent how – if not when – the story of the Camden castles was formed. Canal navvies would have been prominent in Camden during the first half of the 19th century. They were often drawn from the poorest Irish and Scottish labourers, bolstered by English and Welsh workers. Attempts were made to keep the disparate national groups apart as they were known to fight with each other and the public. They were also famed for consuming heaps of ale, traditions later continued manfully by the railway navvies, who enjoyed a terrific tear up in the centre of Camden in 1846. And so, from these disparate truths, a cohesive myth was born, spun by some enterprising soul with a rich imagination, possibly even a lubricated barfly, enjoying the continuing hospitality of one of Camden’s many, but entirely coincidental, castles.
The Pembroke Castle, Edinboro Castle and Dublin Castle can all be found around Camden Town. The London Canal Museum is at 12-13 New Wharf Road, N1 9RT.
I have written a cover story about the Ramones in the current issue of Uncut. One element of the Ramones story is their two gigs in London in July 1976, when the band played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls before audiences of around 5,000 at a time they were drawing around 150 back in New York.
These are considered key dates for the punk revolution in the UK, giving a kickstart to the three pioneering London punk bands, the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash. The truth is a little more complex. One of the reasons the Ramones even got a record deal was because of interest in the New York scene in the UK. As Craig Leon, who produced Ramones for Sire, told me: ‘There had been inklings in the British press that something was happening and Malcolm McLaren had been over for a while managing the New York Dolls and took a lot of the scene – mainly Richard Hell’s dress sense – over to London, where it began developing in its own way. Sire felt that if we could make a cheap album and then get our money back in Europe it wasn’t a risky proposition.’
So even before the Ramones went to London, they knew the city was familiar with the CBGBs scene. For a band that loved English pop, this was quite a thrill. As Tommy Ramone explained, ‘They said the UK was interested and we’d grown up with all our favourite bands coming from the UK [Tommy told me that “Judy Is A Punk” was basically based on “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits] so we were very excited and we thought it might give us our break. We went over for a few days and played the Roundhouse and Dingwalls. We met a lot of the English bands, who came to the soundcheck at Dingwalls. We knew that we had sold out these place so we had an idea something was going on.” The success of the Camden shows did nothing for the band’s reputation back home, however. When they returned they continued playing in front of small crowds. In fact, as the Pistols gained in notoriety, being associated with English punk acts was more of a hindrance.
Nonetheless, Danny Fields, the band’s manager, felt the Ramones appearance gave London a crucial fillip. ‘To be the toast of London was incredible. There were people line up to meet them, to sleep with them, to sleep with me. All the would-be bands were there to see them. The dressing room was full of people from the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols. They were amazed that a band could put out a record like this, that they would even be allowed to play. We sat with Paul Simonon before the show and he said to Johnny he was in band but they weren’t good enough. Johnny said, “You’re going to see us for the first time. We suck, we can’t play. But don’t worry about it, just do it.” Johnny Rotten had to climb up knotted sheets. They took inspiration and thought the Ramones were exotic. The inspiration was, “We stink, stop rehearsing, start playing.’”
The only problem with Fields’ narrative is that the Pistols and Clash already were playing. Indeed, both bands actually missed the Ramones show at the Roundhouse because they were playing that same night, at the Black Swan in Sheffield, while the Stranglers were supporting the Ramones. The Damned made their debut a day after the Ramones show at the Dingwalls on July 6. So Rat Scabies, Damned drummer, thinks the influence of those London shows was more subtle. ‘Their influence on British punk rock is negotiable, because the London bands had already started,’ he says. ‘We were rehearsing, the Sex Pistols and Clash were doing the odd gig. But I remember listening to the Ramones debut album with Paul Simonon and we thought it was great as it was exactly what we were all about, three minute pop songs about life. We felt an immediate connection and it was confirmation: we realised we weren’t the only ones doing it. What was important isn’t ‘who came first?’ but the fact the same thing was happening in different parts of the world. It wasn’t just London frustration, it was the next generation getting angry. It made us realise we weren’t alone.’
In that sense, the Ramones shows were more like the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, when the hippies, ex-Beats, freaks and flower kids all turned up at the same place for the first time and realised they had a constituency, that the happenings they were organising in silos could be fed into a collective scene. It’s a glorious movement for any youth movement, the realisation you are part of something bigger than yourself. Even the underground wants to be popular.
The Ramones shows then have passed into punk legend, to be reinterpreted by new generations. ‘There’s a comic book called Gabba Gabba Hey that talks about the Ramones trip to London and how we were so concerned about the economic conditions, the UK depression, unemployment, children out of work,’ says Fields. ‘In truth, we were there for three days and the last thing anybody was thinking about was whether the British state was unfair to unwed mothers. They only thing they were worried about on the flight over is whether we had enough t-shirts to sell and what if nobody speaks English.’
Here’s an excerpt from the Ramones documentary End Of The Century talking about the Ramones in London.
This piece originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine.
Beer Street by Hogarth
Is it a renaissance, or a revolution? In 2006, when Young’s left its brewery in Wandsworth to move to Bedford, it felt final orders had been called on brewing in London. The city that was once swimming in beer – literally, when a brewery exploded in Tottenham Court Road in 1814, causing the Great Beer Flood –had become a desert; only a handful of breweries remained. Six years later, everything has changed. London now has 21 breweries, in every corner of the capital, with more opening all the time.
‘London was once the brewing capital of the world,’ says Paddy Johnson, director of the Windsor & Eton brewery but speaking for the London Brewers Alliance, formed in April 2010 to represent London breweries. ‘It was bigger than Burton-on-Trent or bloomin’ Munich. We want to return to that. At our first meeting there were 13 brewers, ranging from Windsor & Eton, who had just done our first brew, to Fuller’s the biggest, oldest brewery in the capital. At our last meeting we had 21, and another six are on the way. It’s a vibrant scene. There is a real buzz about London beer. The public have cottoned on big time.’
So, why the change? It’s partly about microbrewing – a movement that began in America among people feel they weren’t getting sufficient taste, value or variety from the conglomerates that rule the beer world, so begin brewing their own. Microbreweries reached the UK in the 1980s and flourished after 2002, when tax rules were relaxed. London took a while to catch on, people put off by the barren London beer scene and the high-cost of starting up.
Camden Town Brewery
Under a railway arch down a cobbled mews in north London, Rob Gargan, brewmaster at Camden Town Brewery, takes a break from overseeing the production of 16,500 litres of beer a week to explain. ‘London is one of the last areas of thecountry to open up,’ he says, amid gleaming hi-tech equipment. ‘People realised that the beer they were drinking was from up north but there’s no reason why we can’t do it here.’ First to the pump was Meantime in Greenwich in 2000, but the new wave really began when Sambrook’s opened in 2008 in south-west London. Through 2010 and 2011 it felt a new brewery was opening every month as the resurgent London scene became the talk of the beer world. It isn’t just about microbreweries, either, Chiswick’s huge and venerable Fuller’s is a keen member of the LBA. ‘It’s not about micro it’s about local,’ insists Johnson. ‘Local beer for London is our mantra.’
And it is more than the rediscovery of a lost art, it’s about introducing a new drinking experience into London. There’s a running joke in ‘Asterix In Britain’ about the Englishmen’s baffling fondness for warm, flat beer, and while these classic brown ales are still brewed in London, the new breweries often look across the Atlantic for inspiration. Peter Holt, landlord at the award-winning Southampton Arms, explains: ‘English beers would be a bitter or mild made with Kentish hops, for an older generation. But a lot of the beers we sell use New World hops. Hops are measured in alphas and while English hops might be three, American hops are 13, 14 or 15. It’s much more intense.’
The Southampton Arms, the Campaign For Real Ale’s London pub of the year, only stocks beer and cider from small, independent breweries. It’s one of a growing number of London pubs to steer clear of mass-produced lagers and foamy bitters. ‘People are much more aware of what they eat and drink,’ says Holt. ‘People are conscious that you can buy Aussie lager in the supermarket for very little, so why go to the pub to pay three times as much when they have decent beer that can’t be found elsewhere?’
It’s not just locals. ‘Tourists desperately want to drink local beer,’ says Johnson. ‘When they go to a pub, they ask what’s local. London now has a huge range of award-winning beers to offer them.’
Most popular among these are the American-influenced pale ales (IPAs): golden, citrusy, stronger in alcoholic content, gassy and cold. Asterix and Obelix would approve. ‘Pale ale is the big thing,’ says Mark Dredge, a beer writer turned communications officer at Camden Town Brewery. ‘Most breweries sell more of them than anything else. It comes between a lager and a cask ale, so if you’re an ale drinker you can appreciate the flavours, and if you’re a lager drinker you can enjoy the texture and the fact it is colder. It’s the sort of beer anybody feels they can drink.’
Camden Town does a popular IPA, while the ones bottled by Kernel, a brewery near Tate Modern, have beer-lovers in raptures. But there’s variety among London brewers. Sambrook’s – founded by Duncan Sambrook, an accountant who attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Earl’s Court, realised no London beers were available and decided to do something about it – specialises in traditionalBritish beers. He talks me through the beer-making process. It’s a complex business. Who ever realised that if you got some barley, soaked it to the point of germination, and then rotated it on a flat floor with a large rake so the seeds didn’t know which way is up and can’t break into shoot, you could roast this malted barley, boil it, add hops, cool it, add yeast, add a fish’s bladder, call it beer, drink it and not kill yourself?
Adapt this basic method, and much can be made. Meantime does lager, pale ale, fruit and wheat beers, you can get a great thick bottled stout from former solicitor Gary Ward’s Redchurch Street Brewery in Shoreditch, while Redemption – which was opened by banker Andy Moffat in Tottenham in 2010 – and Brodie’s – run by a brother-and-sister team, James and Lizzie Brodie, in Leyton since 2008 – make beers that come somewhere between the pioneering Kernel and the traditional Sambrook’s. And that’s just for starters.
Camden Town’s big seller is lager. The brewery was founded by Jasper Cuppaidge, who realised that the beers he liked came from abroad so decided to make some himself. His beer is now in 120 pubs, mainly in London – for most London breweries, distribution is limited to the M25, although the LBA helps organise festivals of London beer all around the country, as well as having regular London beer showcases in different London pubs each week.The LBA also set up a marquee at London Zoo during their late-night summer openings, which was very popular among customers in their 20s and 30s. Many of the breweries themselves are run by similarly young, self-taught enthusiasts.
The LBA give these tyros the help they need. ‘A lot of our members are young so we assist them with distribution and technical problems,’ says Johnson. ‘We want to raise the bar for everybody brewing in London. We’re competitors, but we act co-operatively. If more people drink more London beer we all benefit.’
The Muppets have a long relationship with London. That’s partly because Jim Henson lived in Camden from 1977 and opened his workshop, the Jim Henson Creature Shop, in the area, filming many of the Henson films in London. A rather fantastic Muppets walk with all locations – including a Muppets bench on Hampstead Heath – can be found on the Camden website here.
Henson’s first workshop was at 1b Downshire Hill, NW3. It was initially used for the production of The Dark Crystal but remained in use from the late 1970s to 1990. It is said it had to be closed after neighbours complained about the strange smells coming from the factory, which reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
You can watch a (rather scratchy) tour of (I think) the second Creature Shop here.
I visited this second Creature Shop in 2000 on the invitation of a model-maker who I met in a Camden pub. There was a definite magical/spooky Roald Dahl quality to the experience. This Creature Shop was located on Oval Road overlooking the canal, and was a huge mysterious building filled with puppets of all sizes. This is where the puppets for Animal Farm, 101 Dalmatians and The Muppet Christmas Carol were made.
The Creature Shop closed in 2005 and the building has since been demolished, but you can see London’s influence on the Muppets in a number of films. Here are five of my favourites.
1 ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’
This is from the time when Chris Langham was writing the Muppets. It’s an early, possibly rather clumsy, stab at celebrating London’s multiculturalism, and thus the sort of thing that would make Rod Liddle cry.
2 Burlington Bertie From Bow A great version of one of the great London Music Hall songs, a repeated inspiration for Muppets songs.
3 The London Fog Kermit reports from ‘London, England’ and interviews a cockney frog and a Beefeater.
4 The Muppets Christmas Carol The superior Dickens adaptation is all London, obviously, but this first meeting with Michael Caine’s Scrooge sets the scene nicely. Plus: singing pigeons.
5 Wotcher (Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road) Another Music Hall classic, with Fozzie Bear dressed as a Pearly King (or possibly as an Old Compton Street stroller).
This newsclip of the London Anti-University from 1968 is wonderfully evocative, not just for the interviewees’ earnest insistence that they could change the world of education, but also through the grim tattiness of late 1960s Shoreditch, reproduced in glorious colour.
The London Anti-University was formed after participants at 1967’s Congress on the Dialectics Of Liberation at the Roundhouse decided they wanted to continue to explore some of the themes and conversations that had started there (sample debates: The Future of Capitalism; Black Power; Imperialism and Revolution in America).
Based at 49 Rivington Street – previously home of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign – the Anti-University was opened in February 1968 by David Cooper and Alan Krebs, and featured lecturers such as Cornelius Cardew, CLR James, Robin Blackburn, Bob Cobbing, RD Laing, Yoko Ono, Jeff Nuttall, John Latham and Alex Trocchi – all key figures on the intellectual left-wing of the 1960s counterculture. The Anti-University syllabus covered three main areas: radical politics, existential psychiatry and the artistic avant-garde.
An idea of the direction of the Anti-University can be gleaned by a reported exchange at Joseph Berke’s course on ‘anti-universities, anti-hospitals, anti-theatres and anti-families’.
He asked the class: ‘How can we discuss how we can discuss what we want to discuss?’ After a long silence, somebody answered ‘Maybe we don’t need to discuss it.’ Berke pondered this for a while and then left; the class continued for an hour despite his absence.
The Anti-University lasted almost a year, which isn’t bad by the standards of the time, but it’s premises soon became squatted, and the landlords, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, reclaimed the campus.
But the Anti-University’s most important legacy may have come from a conversation in the classroom of psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, who lectured on literature and psychology.
One of Mitchell’s students, Diana Gravill, had inherited some money and was intending here to spend it on a women’s refuge. Mitchell instead persuaded her to put it towards a bookshop. This she did, and the shop, named Compendium, was opened by Gravill and her partner Nicholas Rochford on Camden High Street in August 1968.
Over the next thirty years it became one of the world’s great bookshops, stocking everything from academic studies of the women’s movement to punk fanzines. It was still going strong when I used to go there in the late 1990s, fascinated and intimidated by the content of the bookshelves. It eventually closed in 2000, a sad end to one of London’s greatest counterculture institutions, but a longstanding tribute to the ideas and passions raised by the London Anti-University.