Tag Archives: Hackney

Tightrope walking: pub life in East London

One of my favourite recent commissions was for Norwegian Air’s magazine, N, who asked me to write text accompanying Jan Klos’s terrific photographs of East London pubs that, as he says, “capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction.” The article is here.

I visited several pubs, interviewing the landlords about the difficulties of running a pub in London. “London’s pub landlords are tightrope walkers,” I wrote. “Maintaining a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.” What fascinated me about successful pubs was how they balanced their role as “a communal living room” as Pauline Forster, formidable landlord for The George Tavern described it, with their need to draw custom by programming events, from the ubiquitous pub quiz to the more avant-garde offerings at somewhere like the Jamboree on Cable Street. Even that is not always enough, and the George is under threat of development.

jan

All the pubs had been photographed by Jan for his project, the Photographic Guide To The Pubs Of East London. He explained to me via email how it came about:

“I was looking for a project and I was playing with the idea of examining London’s tourism industry. The idea of photographing pubs was born from (believe it or not) cycling by Parliament Square and Big Ben and watching all the tourists. I really hate crowds and landmarks. There’s much more to London than Big Ben, double decker buses and telephone booths and I wish more tourists would see that.

I thought of all the tourists who come to London following travel guides full of landmarks and return with home with exactly the same boring photographs as everyone who has ever visited. I felt it a duty to show them what they are missing out on. Around the time I started plotting the project, more and more articles started appearing in the press about gentrification, pub closures and the death of East London. I’m a massive fan of East London’s pubs and slowly a way in to my project took shape.

I thought it made perfect sense to combine a “tourist guide” idea with a documentary approach to capture a distinctly British culture that is facing extinction. It gives insight into London’s pubs as a good tourist guide would, but, most importantly, it documents these fantastic institutions and groups of people – “families” – who run them. The family portrait approach I have taken also highlighted how close the teams are and how strongly they feel about their survival: many of the staff I encountered have other jobs but still do an odd day of work  in the pub, just because they enjoy being part of a close-knit community.”

Advertisements

London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

poo

London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

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.