Tag Archives: Covent Garden

In the depot

I finally made it to one of the London Transport Museum’s twice-early weekend openings at their Acton depot. where they store the buses, trams and train carriages they can’t exhibit in Covent Garden.

It was brilliant. If you like that kind of thing.

(I wouldn’t like to say the event attracts a certain type, but these were the longest queues for the gents I’ve ever seen outside a football ground.)

I could have spent hours browsing the specialist books for sale, while the kids loved the model railways.

The following pictures are via @callyorange. And go to the next one in September.

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Photographing London in the 1970s

This is my mum’s brother, Wilfred Camenzuli. Born in Alexandria, Egypt and raised in Tooting, south London.

Back then, everybody in south London carried a shooter.

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Wilf was always taking pictures. Here’s one of my mum and dad, looking unbearably glamorous.

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He once made me and my sister watch a horror film so he could get a photograph of us cowering.

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And here’s another of me and my sister, this time feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I wonder how many thousands of similar photographs exist in photo albums around the world?

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Wilf also took dozens of photographs of London in the 1970s and early 1980s. I always thought he had a great eye. Here are some of the best.

Battersea Power Station, 1975.

Battersea Power Station, 1975.

Gamblers/businessman, back office, Old Kent Road.

Gamblers/businessman, back office, Old Kent Road.

Fixing a car with champagne, Royal Ascot.

Fixing a car with champagne, Royal Ascot.

The finishing line, Epsom Derby.

The finishing line, Epsom Derby.

Punch & Judy, Covent Garden.

Punch & Judy, Covent Garden.

Street performers, Covent Garden.

Street performers, Covent Garden.

Street people, Covent Garden.

Street people, Covent Garden.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner,

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Speakers Corner.

Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset filming The Greek Tycoon, Leicester Square.

Anthony Quinn and Jacqueline Bisset filming The Greek Tycoon, Leicester Square.

Cutty Sark.

Golden Hinde.

Cutty Sark.

Cutty Sark.

Big Ben.

Big Ben.

Strawberry picking, Epsom.

Strawberry picking, Epsom.

Tooting with dad.

Tooting with dad.

Disappearing London: Food For Thought

I have a piece in the Guardian about the closure of Food For Thought, one of London’s most charismatic and seemingly nuclear-proof (and I’m not just talking about the consistency of the scones) restaurants. It closes on June 21, rising costs – basically rents and wages to cover staff’s rents – forcing the owner Vanessa Garrett, to shut a business that has been successfully operating since 1971.

Food For Thought is one of those places that’s always been there. It was there when I prowled Neal Street on amateur shopping trips in the early 1990s. I knew, instinctively, that it was some sort of hippie joint, so went elsewhere, a teenage boy in thrall to the twin thrills of the Sex Pistols and bacon double cheeseburgers.

Years later, grown up somewhat, I began to eat there regularly, usually nabbing a takeaway from the ground floor during lunch breaks at Time Out. It always felt more than just a lunch venue. Without wanting to get too Sinclair about it, waiting in line at Food For Thought felt like a visit to polydimensional London, somewhere that had been quietly doing the same thing, for the same people, in the same place, for generations. Close your eyes, and you could be in 1970s London or even London in 2015. For secular souls, there are few areas that carry this atmosphere in quite such an effortless way, not so much a timewarp as timeless. It wasn’t dated, retro or old-fashioned, it just was.

I didn’t realise then quite how entwined Food For Thought was with the counterculture that spawned Time Out. When I tweeted about the closure of Food For Thought, the writer Richard King responded thoughtfully that: “FFT felt like one of the final remaining traces of the original Tony Elliott vision of London for Time Out.”

It was an astute observation. Food For Thought was born in the same spirit as Time Out, a desire to make London new, fresh, exciting, modern and funky, but also to make it, for want of a better word, good: cheap, utilitarian, healthy, an experience to expand the mind and reward the soul. London can still do this, but not in such a distinctive and understated political manner.

It went deeper. One of Food For Thought’s first chefs was Sue Miles, the wife of Barry Miles, founder of International Times, the underground newspaper from which Time Out hatched in 1968. Sue had learnt her trade at the Arts Lab, a counterculture take on the ICA that operated from Drury Street, and she later worked at Time Out, writing its first pair of London guides, which included enthusiastic reviews of Food For Thought.

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What’s particularly depressing about the closure of Food For Thought is that it wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was popular, it was serving good food at reasonable prices. They could have expanded, sought outside investment and gone into the franchise business, but they felt that would dilute the experience. Why should they change when they were doing what they wanted and doing it well?

And it was this commitment to offering value for money – that deeply held desire to not rip off the consumer – that led to its demise. That was at the heart of what Food For Thought represented, and it is precisely the sort of thinking that doesn’t wash in rentier London, where even success is punished and landlords feel duty bound to wring more profit out of something they have done nothing to create, like Mafia bosses demanding their cut. People revolt when a government behaves this way, so why is it acceptable for landlords?

What a city we have created.

In defence of Midtown

I recently wrote a piece for The London Magazine about Midtown.

Midtown is the bastard offspring name for what people traditionally think of Holborn. For some reason, that really pisses people off. Perhaps it’s the very crassness of the name – Midtown – that deliberate literalness with its clear nod to grid-like American cities where entire areas are known by their compass points. In London, of course, we have nothing like that.

Except the West End.

And the East End.

And the South Bank.

Ah, but they are all different, aren’t they?

It is very easy to get annoyed about Midtown – the idea of it, rather than the place itself, which is pretty inoffensive – but what interested me is why. Why take on the challenge of renaming a traditional part of London? What’s the benefit? How do you summon up the gall? And how do you persuade locals it’s a good idea?

To answer those questions, I spoke to Tass Mavrogordato, Chief Executive of InMidtown, a very nice woman who appears to be permanently on her guard against negative attacks on her Midtown baby. She quickly explained to me that Midtown isn’t another name for Holborn at all. “It’s an umbrella term for the entire area between the West End and the City ,” she says. “We didn’t want to take anything away from the historic areas of St Giles, Bloomsbury or Holborn, and in many ways should help them as it helps to locate them in a wider area. We look at places like the South Bank and can see how these names with a geographical sense have been successful.”

Mavrogordato draws a straight comparison with the West End, an umbrella term that people happily use for a wider area that takes in some of London’s most historic and lovable quarters – Mayfair, Soho, Marylebone – without in any way detracting from them. Nobody has a problem with the West End. Why, she wants to know, can’t Midtown do the same thing, just a bit further east?

It all sounds very logical when she puts it like that, but I doubt people will be convinced.

Part of the problem is one of perception. People don’t like being told what to call places by other people with more money than them. InMidtown is a Business Improvement District and uses aggressive branding to push the concept of Midtown in ways that rubs people up the wrong way – even if the term Midtown predates the BID and has been in use by estate agents since the 1990s.

It’s this noxious aroma of branding that really galls, making Midtown appear distinct from the West End and South Bank, even though these are equally artificial constructions, placing rather spurious boundaries on areas that already had well-defined, historic names. But the latter two appeared more organically, or more to the point they appeared so long ago that nobody actually remembers how they came about, so they are accepted simply because they predate people’s perception of what London is, which was generally formed when they first moved to the city.

London, though, evolves far more quickly than people are comfortable with – and most people don’t actually want London to evolve at all, or at least only in ways that benefits them directly, in the form of better coffee shops or making their flat more valuable, but not so valuable that people a lot richer than them might buy it.

And that gets to the crux of people’s problem with Midtown, it’s change that appears to be directed from above, by outside forces, by money. That’s why people delight in using the ridiculous name Fitzrovia, an inter-war construct for an area that was previously considered to be an extension of Soho, but rejected Noho when that was proposed by developers as it just felt too damned American, too damned money, even if it was, in many ways, more appropriate and certainly no less daft. (Imagine trying to name somewhere Fitzrovia now – you would be laughed out of town, and rightly so.)

There is a consistency here, it’s just a very wobbly one.

And so it goes. Londoners will boast long and loud that London is the greatest city in the world, a barrel of fun for all concerned. Other people will come to London, push the property prices out of orbit and rename the streets so they can get from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Gower Street without looking at their phone.

And suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much fun.

So in Midtown, poor helpless Midtown, they draw the line.

Homeless in London

This is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote on London’s homeless tours in 2011. 

No amount of playful London nerdery can prepare you for the emotional thump that is an Unseen Tour. These walks are organised by Sock Mob, an informal group of volunteers who work with London’s homeless – and it’s the homeless, or former homeless, who take you on the tour. In their company, you’ll learn things about London you probably didn’t know, like where to find the Second World War shrapnel on the side of St Clement’s Dane church on the Strand, and you’ll learn things you definitely didn’t know, like which Covent Garden cafe gives food on credit to the homeless when they are short of cash.

We meet at Temple, that aged hive of streets dominated by the vast grey Victorian Gothic splendour of the Royal Courts of Justice. Mark and Viv, the tour guides, have spent long periods sleeping rough and few people can have as strong a relationship with the streets of London as those who used to sleep on them. The next hour-and-a-half is a powerful mix of autobiography and ancient history. One minute Viv is talking about the Knights Templers, who lent their name to the area after building a circular stone church here in 1185, the next she’s telling you about the night she got chased from her ‘bash’ (a makeshift shelter constructed every night) under Waterloo Bridge by a gang of ‘rough elements’, a group of homeless women pursuing a petty feud. This truly is another London, and one that most of us will never have to discover. It is a bitterly cold night and as snowflakes fall , the bleak doorways that Mark once called home look especially uninviting. London can look like something from a fairy tale in the snow, but not this night.

As we move into Theatreland, the tour develops the ebb and flow of performance art as comic vignettes – a singalong of ‘The Muffin Man’ on Drury Lane – are mixed with upsetting accounts of the vicious treatment the public can hand out to the homeless. Mark and Viv have harrowing stories of their time on the streets. They talk of rough sleepers who have been spat on, robbed, punched and even set on fire by passers-by. ‘Somebody called me a tramp last week,’ says Mark, more indignant at this verbal slight than with the physical abuse he has received. Despite these dangers, this area between West End and City has always been popular with the homeless: the narrow streets are largely free of cars but receive plenty of pedestrians, often tourists on their way to the theatre, pockets jangling with change. Mark and Viv point out safe alleyways, often frequented by rough sleepers, that have been their former homes; or they take you to areas that the owners have rendered unusable for sleepers through the erection of barriers or removal of anything that may have acted as a shelter.

The walk concludes at Lincoln’s Inn Field, a large green square in Holborn surrounded by imposing terraces. With a fresh fall of snow on the lawn, it’s a majestic sight but this was once a vast homeless campsite called Tent City. In the early 90s, the homeless were noisily evicted, part of an ongoing campaign against rough sleeping that Mark and Viv say is escalating, with long-running soup kitchens being banned by councils and rough sleepers forced to move from favoured spots in the West End out into the suburbs where they can be ignored. There is danger here – previously rough sleepers found safety in numbers, but now the forces of the state, as well as private security firms hired by companies to protect the public appearance of their premises, crack down on large groups of homeless people. The number of homeless on London’s streets is rising, but that is harder to discern than it was in the 1980s, when there were huge homeless camps like Waterloo’s Bull Ring and Holborn’s Tent City. The state has sanitised the streets and tried to tidy the homeless away. They do not fit into the narrative of London as a great city of opportunity, reward and cash. But they still exist. 

The tour finishes on this disconcerting note, and Viv and Mark depart for their hostels in a flurry of kisses, handshakes and farewells and I wander off into the snow, back to my warm home and family. London will never seem quite the same again.

There are Unseen Tours in Camden, London Bridge, Covent Garden, Shoreditch and Brick Lane. For more information and to book tickets, see here

The many voices of Bon Scott

While there’s no such thing as a romantic rock death, there are few as bleakly pathetic as that of Bon Scott, the AC/DC frontman who died drunk in the passenger seat of a Renault 5 outside a friend’s flat in East Dulwich, just a short distance from where I live.

I wrote about Bon Scott’s life in the current issue of Uncut, which allowed me to revisit some of the fabulous archive footage of Scott and AC/DC you can find on You Tube. The band spend much of the late 1970s based in London, where they were able to build up a large fanbase thanks to regular gigs at the Marquee. Here Scott is interviewed by Australian TV while walking through Covent Garden in a pair of the smallest shorts I’ve ever seen. I’m still not entirely sure where he produces that banana from.

A considerable amount of Scott’s charm as well as his brilliance as a vocalist is captured in this coruscating video for “Let There Be Rock”. Just watch it all the way through, and you can see how Scott worked the camera almost as well as he did the stage.

This is the Bon Scott I knew and loved, but researching the article I discovered more about Scott’s Australian life pre-AC/DC when he performed a pair of bands that were radically different from both each other and from AC/DC. Try this out for size, it’s Scott’s Perth-based teenybop 1960s act, The Valentines, singing, er, “Nick Nack Paddy Whack”. The main singer is Vince Lovegrove. Scott stands at the back next to the drummer, you can see his embarrassed grin at around 90 seconds. (The Valentines also recorded a jingle for Coca-Cola, which lifts you up when you are feeling down apparently.)

After The Valentines broke up, Scott did a complete turnabout and joined Fraternity, a bunch of Aussie hippies who lived in a commune in Adelaide and wanted to be The Band. Here he is, bearded and playing recorder, on a profoundly serious cover of “Seasons Of Change”.

No wonder, then, that he leaped at the chance to join AC/DC, and release some of his natural impish spirit. Here he is doing “I’m A Rocker” in London in 1977, the very image of the 1970s hard rock frontman and one of the best of his generation.

Scott’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” is one of the great songs about being in a band. Scott wrote it from the heart. He knew. And that is why he could sing it like this, from the Marquee in 76.

And this is where it all ended: 67 Overhill Road, East Dulwich. How about a plaque, Southwark? It’s the least the man deserves.

At the Poll Tax Riot

I attended the Poll Tax Riot by accident. I was at the theatre with my family on Charing Cross Road when the lights came up at the end of the performance and the house manager told us there had been a little disturbance outside so we would have to remain in our seats for a short period. As we did so, this was taking place on the street above.

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We’d seen the coaches parked up as we drove into London, but I had little interest in politics. I knew who the Prime Minister and  leader of the opposition were, but that’s about as far as it went. I would have recognised other names – I watched and enjoyed Spitting Image – but none of it really meant very much to me. Perhaps that’s as it should be when you are 14. Questions of policy were largely irrelevant so the anger towards the Poll Tax Riot had passed me – and my Daily Mail-reading parents – almost completely by. And, boy, were people angry.

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When the house manager gave us the all clear, we climbed the stairs – the theatre  was in a little basement – and emerged on to a devastated Charing Cross Road. What I most remember is the stench from all the overturned bins, debris spilling on to the streets, and the complete absence of traffic, people and noise. It was spooky. That smell I can still recall, a horrible, fatty, sweet stink of rot and decay. London then was a dirty city, but this was something else.

My father – surely in a state of some fear – ushered us through back streets towards the car park in Soho but I remember little of this journey, which surely would have taken us past smashed shops, mobs of protesters and riot police desperately trying to get their shit together. Once we reached the car, my father visibly relaxed but one junction, he had to hit the accelerator while we waited at a red light. He later said he’d seen we were about to be sandwiched between a bunch of rioters and some police and decided this was not a time to obey the laws of the road. Once again, I’d missed this sight.

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I thought about all this again while reading a pamphlet I picked up recently for £2 in a local bookshop. Produced by ACAB Press (an acronym for All Coppers Are Bastards) and ‘dedicated to all working-class heroes’, Poll Tax Riot: 10 Hours That Shook Trafalgar Square contains 12 eyewitness accounts of the riot. The interviewees all appear to be anarchists, and are as equally contemptuous of the traditional Left – Militant are particularly despised, and there are amusingly barbed references to George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan – as they are the police. Most of them seem to have had a great old time, chucking stuff at coppers, smashing windows and setting fire to South Africa House. This is about revenge.

‘Off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End, everything a target, everything subject to our rage and deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.’

Cars are turned on their roofs, shops looted, the Hippodrome smashed and the police attacked whenever they are seen. There are no dissenting voices to the general feeling the Met finally got what they had deserved for a decade. One protester who ended up in a cell even claims that his fellow cellmate was a prison officer who joined in the fun because he ‘fucking hates the cops’.

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The pamphlet is so gleefully celebratory of the riot that it has to distance itself from the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, set up to help those that had been arrested, even as it promises it will give them all proceeds from its sale. It also announces that ‘this pamphlet is anti-copyright and can be freely reproduced by any revolutionary group. But copyright protects it from being used by journalists, rich bastards, etc.’ I hope they don’t sue.

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Look At Life – London newsreel bonanza

I’ve just come across a treasure trove on You Tube of old Rank Look At Life newsreels, each ten-minutes long and looking at different aspects of London life. There are some real treats to be found, but here are a few I enjoyed when I should have been working, or at least making a cup of tea.

Members only, 1965 – inside London’s private clubs

Coffee bar, 1959 – the new world of Soho’s coffee shops

Goodbye, Piccadilly, 1967 – a portraiof Piccadilly Circus

In Gear, 1967 – an iconoclastic look at Swinging London

Top People, 1960 – the crazy world of highrise living

Shopping By The Ton, 1960 – Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate markets

Report on a River, 1963 – a love letter to the Thames