Tag Archives: London

The triumph of the Barbican

This is an article I wrote about the Barbican in 2015, which I am posting to mark the 40th anniversary of the Barbican’s completion

“How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?” asked travel writer HV Morton as he surveyed the ruined district of Cripplegate in 1951, 11 years after it had been eviscerated by German bombs. The destruction was so total that many buildings existed only as cellars, and to Morton, the damage seemed irreparable. But in 1965, a new town did indeed rise from these ashes. The Barbican was a masterpiece of urban planning containing more than 2,100 homes in a bewildering array of terraces, towers and crescents, as well as two schools, a church, lakes, gardens, elevated walkways, ancient monuments and a sports centre, all arranged around an international arts centre. There is nowhere quite like it in London.

“It’s the most complete piece of utopian planning in London,” says Jane Alison, head of visual art at the Barbican arts centre and editor of a book about the estate. “It’s extraordinary in its ambition and design rigour, and it is maturing very well. People are really beginning to appreciate it, and it’s increasingly home to artists and architect.”

It’s also home to Jane Smith, chair of the residents’ Barbican Association, who moved into the estate in 1992. “I’d watched it being built and admired the architecture and general attitude to urban planning ever since I moved to London in the early 1970s,” she says. “It’s a very nice place to live. It’s well-designed, the flats are very solidly built of thick concrete so you don’t hear the neighbours, there’s a sense of community, it’s very central, the estate has pleasant gardens and there’s an arts centre on the doorstep.”

Construction of the Barbican’s residential blocks began in 1965 (work on the schools had begun in September 1963), but the first plans were conceived decades before. In 1944, planner Patrick Abercrombie completed the Greater London Plan, which looked at the city’s numerous bombsites. He envisaged Cripplegate, a ward on the northern boundary of the City of London, as being restored to commercial use. For centuries this ramshackle quarter had housed writers, journals and booksellers as well as London’s rag trade – two particularly combustible businesses that were, unsurprisingly, burnt down with monotonous regularity. There had been a major inferno in 1897 when an ostrich feather warehouse caught fire and another in 1902 after a blaze at a hat factory. At this time, the area was known as Cripplegate – the Barbican was a solitary street that took its name from a long-demolished watch tower, originally built by the Romans and attached to the London Wall. On December 29th 1940, Cripplegate was swept from the map following a devastating night of German bombing; when it was reborn, it would be as the Barbican.

A year after Morton’s morbid visit, when London was still a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the sunlight in shattered walls, of cellars draped with willow-herb and Canadian fleabane”, the City of London began to consider reconstruction. Initial plans followed Abercrombie’s outline, consisting of warehouses, shops, offices and some housing, but the City had been depopulated by the war and there was a concern this might cost them their ancient status as a unique administrative entity. “That gave them the impetus to build houses rather than just offices,” explains John Grindrod, author of Concretopia, a history of the UK’s post-war redevelopment. ”The first plan was scrapped. At first, the City was not sure they wanted all those people living there but their thinking gradually evolved. And the evolution didn’t stop until it was finished in 1982.”

In 1956, Duncan Sandys, the government’s Minister of Housing proposed “a genuine residential neighbourhood, incorporating schools, shops, open spaces and amenities”, that would put people before profit. The land was compulsory purchased and the project handed to the architectural firm of Peter Chamberlin, Geoffry Powell and Christof Bon, who had created the nearby Golden Lane Estate. “The architects were very radical, inspired by Le Corbusier and modern utopian thinking about the perfect way to live in the city, and they had this wonderful opportunity to make happen,” says Alison, who notes this was a fortuitous relationship between architect and developer. “The City wanted to make a statement about bringing back life into the boundaries of the financial City.”

A basic scheme of three towers and terrace blocks around a modest cultural hub – theatre, schools, concert hall – was agreed. The overall design changed regularly – it eventually incorporated 140 interlocking plans – but this core concept remained. Among the grander unbuilt ideas was one to construct a conservatory inside a huge glass pyramid, and another to use the Barbican as a repository for unwanted London landmarks such as Sir Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar and the London Coal Exchange. Instead, the estate constructed new icons in the form of three 400-foot towers, each with serrated balconies jutting out like concrete mandibles. For decades, these were the tallest residential buildings in the country.

Contractors began clearing the site in 1960, nearly 20 years after the Blitz, demolishing remaining buildings and removing roads, sewers, gas and electricity, while rerouting railway tracks, straightening lines and placing them in tunnels. A survival of this clearance can be found near the corner of Aldersgate and Fann Street, where a frieze from a gold refiners based at 53/54 Barbican has been erected. This survived the Blitz but was pulled down in 1962.

The first residents moved into the estate in 1968, but building didn’t stop until 1982, at which point there were 21 residential blocks covering 35-acres. These were built in a variety of styles and on a number of levels, with blocks linked by elevated walkways that raised pedestrians above street level. This network of “pedways” was intended to spread throughout the City, but was eventually limited to the Barbican, and it is one of the reasons the estate has earned a reputation for being difficult to navigate despite the yellow line painted on the floor to help people get around. Negotiating the Barbican’s maze certainly requires some thought, which is ironic given a frequent complaint about its architectural style. “One of the criticisms of Modernism is that it made things too bland, too similar, and removed complexity,” says Grindrod. “The Barbican is an answer to that by being massively complicated and constantly interesting as a result. It is a bit like a medieval street layout and I think people are annoyed that the Barbican has its cake and eats it – it’s both sleek and modern but also very complicated and idiosyncratic in a traditional way.”

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards. As a result, wondering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line will abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work. There are surprises around every corner such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mandelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre, close to exposed parts of the old Roman London Wall, is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where John Milton is buried. One fine spot is the roof of the theatre, framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Court and overlooked by a giant tower. This space, shaped like an amphitheatre, was initially conceived as a sculpture court.

“There are some interesting quirks in the design,” says Smith. “There’s a thriving launderette because when it was planned, people didn’t have a washing machine. There’s also a sort of heritage salvage store run by a couple of volunteers who assiduously collect original fittings people are chucking out so those who still have the old kitchen and bathrooms can try and match them up.”

This references another charm of the estate. The homes were built to a variety of plans ranging from studios to five-bedroom houses, but every kitchen was fitted with two sinks – one containing a device for removing waste material – and also a shallow sink in the toilet. Other aspects of life on the estate are more fully appreciated by residents, such as getting their rubbish collected five days a week, or having access to three communal gardens, one run by volunteers as a wildlife garden and two impeccably landscaped and maintained by the City.

It’s this careful maintenance that has ensured the Barbican has not aged as badly as London’s other post-war buildings, but that is not the sole reason. The Barbican was constructed with great care, to a high level of detail. Originally, it was to be finished in white marble but the architects settled on tooled concrete. This was an intensive process. The concrete had to dry for 21 days before handheld hammers exposed the coarse granite aggregate. While concrete is the dominant material, there’s also imaginative use of traditional coal-fired London brick, brass and ceramic tiles. “It was intended to be a refined style,” says Alison. “Even the concrete brings a decorative flourish to this robust, muscular, modern building.”

Alison says that one of her favourite spots is on the bridge across the lake from the arts centre. “You are surrounded by these vast piloti columns and when you stand underneath the building and look up you might notice the architects painted the underneath white,” she says. “It reflects the water beautifully. The towers are incredible too, I can’t think of any I like more. They really stand out against the skyline and look so much more interesting than other high rises around London now.”

While the estate contains many treats, most visitors know the Barbican for its arts centre. This has galleries, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and a library, but was originally conceived a small auditorium for the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, one of two schools on the site. “The arts centre only became a bigger entity when the Royal Shakespeare Company and London Symphony Orchestra expressed an interest,” says Alison. As the arts centre grew, the architects had to adapt their plan, eventually scooping a large hole out the ground and plonking the arts centre inside it. It was opened in 1982 and offers an adventurous, mixed programme from music and theatre to art and film. “Some residents are undoubtedly attracted because of the arts centre,” says Smith. “It’s quite an interesting balance having an international cultural attraction in the middle of a residential development and there are tiny bits of friction but we generally have a good relationship. I like being able to walk to the theatre and cinema and probably go to one or two marginal things simply because it’s so close.”

It’s this combination of art, architecture, public space and community adhesive that makes the Barbican such a special place. “What makes it important as a development is the sheer number of different things they managed to do,” says Grindrod. “It embodies more than any other post-war rebuilding scheme a successful way of doing all the things people were talking about after the war, like the separation of pedestrians and cars, the use of tower blocks as landmarks, the joined-up maisonettes. There’s civic functions like the school and arts centre, and great transport links. They combined all those different things into what is a very historic site, which still has Roman walls and medieval churches. They did all this, and they made it work. That’s a real triumph.”

Book review: Raving Upon Thames by Andrew Humphreys

I’ve often wondered why three of the 60s most acclaimed rock guitarists – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – all came from the same small corner of Surrey. And why a nearby section of suburban south-west London provided an early base for the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds in the form of the Crawdaddy, as well as several other venues including one of London’s most unusual ones, the glorious, bonkers Eel Pie Island. The Thames Delta around Richmond seemed to constitute a scene and a sound every bit as fascinating and important as what happened with Merseybeat but one that has never been properly chronicled, mythologised, analysed or explained.

Until now. Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story Of Sixties London by Andrew Humphreys finally fills that gap. When Andrew, a friend and publisher of my history of Battersea Power Station, moved from Soho to Richmond around 12 years ago, he began to realise that Richmond hadn’t always been the sleepy, well-heeled suburban town it was today. There were murders, connections to Aleister Crowley but most of all there was a lot of music.

He was particularly fascinated by the pub opposite the station, which had once been home to the Crawdaddy, where the Stones got their big break. Why Richmond? And what about that weird place just down the road in the middle of the Thames, Eel Pie Island, where jazzers and rockers had spent long summer evenings through the 50s and 60s, smoking pot, listening to music and looking like deadbeats?

The more he dug, the more he found. There was the strange coincidence of Beck, Clapton and Page, all Richmond regulars and born within a few miles of each other. Was it true that Richmond was home to London’s first dedicated Met Police drug squad? That Eel Pie Island’s club was started as a social experiment? That Richmond had a nascent folk scene? That the Eel Pie Island hotel was ultimately taken over by hippes and burnt to the ground by developers? He soon realised there was enough untapped material here to warrant a book and began asking established music writers if they were interested. When none could be persuaded, he did it himself, bringing diligent research, fine writing and, most important of all, a fresh eye to the story.

He spoke to hundreds of those involved in the Richmond scene, from the jazzers that started it to the squatters that where there at the end. In the process, he produces a rich and fascinating tale of how myriad overlapping London countercultures developed, perhaps uniquely, in a single part of London. It’s a glorious celebration of the era, but not one swamped by nostalgia or stale war stories. This is vivid and detailed, particularly rich on the major characters involved – Arthur Chisnall, who founded Eel Pie Island; Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed the Stones – but also on the lesser known aspects of the story, such as the folk clubs and hippie squats.

It is accompanied by stunning photos, many of which I have never seen before, that really help tell the story of what was happening during this youthful awakening that defined the 60s. Yes, it was about music, but at the end of the day, it was really all about the kids.

Picture by Mike Peters
Picture by Mike Peters

Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story Of Sixties London by Andrew Humphreys.

Ghost signs

I first met Sam Roberts around ten years ago, when he cycled to my house in south London from Stoke Newington to discuss the possibilities of him writing professionally about his love of ghost signs. For the uninitiated, a ghost sign is a faded painted advertisment on a wall that has survived decades of weather and human intervention to continue celebrating often long-vanished businesses and products.

I can’t remember precisely what I told Sam, but I am pretty sure I would have told him it was a great idea but with numerous warnings and caveats. At the time, Sam was running a brilliant website and twitter account filled with ghost sign sightings, and he also conducted the occasional tour. He was London’s undisputed master of the subject and while there were existing books on the subjects, there was nothing particularly worth shouting about.

Until now.

Sam, working with Roy Reed in a project founded by Kickstarter, has just published Ghost Signs, and as a supporter I received my copy this week. Here it is below.

It is a fantastic piece of work. One of the most depressing things is when a book takes a great subject and does it badly. Conversely, there is something truly wonderful about a book taking a subject you are interested in and treating it far better than you could ever have imagined.

So while most books on this subject would have gone photo heavy, Sam has chosen a more scholarly approach – although Roy’s photos are still fabulous. Cleverly, the hundreds of ghost signs are arranged by subject matter – food, building, clothes etc- rather than geographically, and considerable research has gone into the practicalities of how signs were made, how sites were located, what was being advertised and why some have survived. As such, it offers a fascinating insight into the advertising of the era, and a reminder that the Edwardian city must have been a spectacularly colourful time, with brightly painted adverts adorning so many walls.

All of your favourite signs are there – Peterkin custard, Brixton Bovril, Walker Bros fountain pens, Black Cat cigarettes – but the joy is in the detail and the mention of so many signs I have never even noticed or been aware of before.

It’s a terrific book. Congratulations Sam and Roy and Isola Press for their work. And make sure you buy a copy here.

In the nick: Bow Street police museum

I recently made a rare visit to central London to see the opening of a new museum, the Bow Street Police Museum in Covent Garden.

This tiny independent museum hidden down a side street off Bow Street occupies part of the old Bow Street police station and magistrate court. Bow Street, of course, is one of the oldest and most important locations for organised law enforcement anywhere in the world, and the museum’s excellent written material explains that an early form of policing existed on this street before even Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners.

It’s a small museum with only a small number of original objects. There’s the dock from the courthouse, a replica Bow Street Runner uniform and several small items donated by former police officers who served at Bow Street. I recently interviewed one of those officers – Norwell Roberts, the Met’s first black officer. It was a harrowing and humbling experience.

Instead of objects, the museum at Bow Street prefers to rely on the atmosphere of the location – the corridor in the (terrible) photo below contains a number of cells that would have been used to house overnight visitors. Within each cell, information boards relate the history of the Metropolitan Police, the Bow Street site and some of the famous figures who may have spent a night in these cells or at the holding cells for the neighbouring magistrate court.

Corridor with cells at Bow Street Police Museum

The courthouse is now a hotel and the museum has been created as part of that development. Campaigners have wanted to build a museum on this site for decades, and it becomes one of the very small number of “blue light” museums in London alongside the ones at Wapping and in the City. There’s also the Met’s own Crime Museum, which is closed to the public.

It’s a space that has the potential to be used for small temporary museums, talks, events and as the start or end location of walking tours around the local area. It’s worth a trip but also keep an eye out for its programme of events as that starts to gets underway.

The Parakeets of London

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview 90-year-old Angela Allen for the Telegraph Magazine. Allen was a script supervisor, or continuity girl as it was originally called, for a host of great films including The Third Man.  I was asking her specifically about her experiences on The African Queen, which she filmed in the Congo jungle with Bogart, Hepburn and John Huston.

At the end of an enjoyable interview, I needed to ask one last question. About parakeets.

Big mistake.

“Oh don’t started me on the parrots,” she sighed. “Everybody says the London parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen but there were no birds in the film and we didn’t bring any animals back to England, so I’m bored of hearing that one. I don’t know where that rumour came from but I didn’t see a parrot in London or Africa. I was once filming in Rome with Zeffirelli and somebody started blaming The African Queen for the parrots they now have in Italy.”

So there you go. However, if you do want to know more about the history of London’s parakeets, a new book has all the answers. The Parakeeting of London is the latest book from Paradise Road, the London independent publishers who did my Battersea Power Station book. It’s fantastic.

Written by “gonzo ornithologist” Nick Hunt, the book looks for the earliest reported sightings in London and explores the many urban myths surrounding their history. It also looks at the way the parakeets live, travel and feed and the impact they have on other wildlife. And the book explores the nature of the relationship that Londoners have developed with this “invasive species”, asking some pertinent questions about the concept of native and immigrant species that ties into wider, non bird-related, socio-political questions.

You can get The Parakeeting Of London from the Paradise Road website.

Reversing the ferret: affordable housing at Battersea Power Station

The Evening Standard, usually a reliable cheerleader of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment, reports that the already limited affordable housing commitment is being slashed in half.

The argument appears to be that as the bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because of entirely predictable problems of over supply, the developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually need. The commitment had originally stood at more than 600. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, my book about the history of Battersea Power Station, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Some of these have since been moved to another location – ie, nowhere near the posh flats going up round the power station itself.

The Standard says the developers now want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering. That’s because following escalating costs caused by Brexit, they need to focus their finance on renovating the power station itself and building the new Northern Line extension. It’s the sort of trick used by developers all around the country as they attempt to weasel their way out of already meagre commitments, and at Battersea they can do this without making a new planning application or holding a public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. Conservative Wandsworth Council, whose commitment to a developer-led solution to the power station has been steadfast despite three decades of excruciating and occasional hilarious disappointment, are unlikely to object.

Ah, the irony. When I interviewed the amiable Rob Tincknell, the development’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was only the developer’s commitment to the Northern Line extension  (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units.

Now the argument is reversed. Because they have to build the NLE, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. It’s a classic piece of power station sophistry to match that of the recent decision to transform some planned residential units into commercial, despite earlier assurances that they having developed the perfect ingredients for a mixed use scheme they’d be fools to change their minds.

Tincknell told me in 2014 via email: “BPS makes its section 106 planning contributions in two ways. The first is a £200m plus contribution to the Northern Line extension (NLE), the second is 15% affordable housing or 565 units – the largest amount ever built in Central London.

The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double. Therefore, without the NLE the density at BPS would be about half (like the previous planning consent) and therefore even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30%, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Suddenly, all that has changed.

The developers claim they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Big Capital – Anna Minton

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There is no bigger issue in London politics than housing. It’s probably the most significant reason London voters of all ages and from almost every social background turned to Labour in such numbers in last week’s election, and I wonder if the demographic changes caused by the capital’s out-of-control housing market had wider repercussions, as yet unexplored.

Was it partly responsible for the hollowing out of the Tory vote in Kensington, where the wealthy British are being replace by non-voting non doms? Are suburban constituencies being affected by the presence of recent graduates, unable to afford property of their own, and living with parents in the previously Tory-voting shires? What about those who have been forced to leave London because of prices – are they going to turn the country red wherever they end up? For many people under 50 – as well as older, concerned for their children and grandchildren – it is housing, not Brexit, that is the prism through which everything is viewed.

So how did we get here? Anna Minton’s Big Capital provides many of the answers. A few decades ago, this would have been published with a blue cover by Pelican, one of those great, short, cheap books that simply and effectively explained a moment in society for a wider audience.

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With the minimum of fuss, Minton explores the historic reasons for the housing crisis – right to buy, planning laws, changes in the way benefits are distributed, overseas investment – and then shows how these have affected London. She shows how the luxury housing bubble has impacted Londoners further down the scale and highlights what happens to people and property after councils, frequently Labour ones, elect to blow-up estates and sell the land on the cheap to developers. She even spends some time in the marketing suite at Battersea Power Station, where she discovers the way developers are encouraging people to invest in a lifestyle rather than simply buy a home for their family.

Minton is interested in what this has meant for people, and she talks to renters, campaigners, developers and politicians, as well as those who have been forced out of London by hostile redevelopment.  She wraps things up by looking at a handful of possible alternatives to the mess we are in – the most simple yet impossible of which is that the state starts taking responsibility and builds places where its citizens can live.

There has been a consensus against council housing for decades but as the election showed, there is a renewed appetite for state spending where it’s clearly seen that the market has failed. A national policy of housebuilding should be simple vote-winner but as long as the Conservatives view right-to-buy as the flagship achievement of the Thatcher years, they won’t be able to face up to the continuing disaster they helped unleash in the 1980s, assuming they even want to. Labour under Corbyn do not have such a shibboleth, which goes some way towards explaining their success in London despite any discomfort with the party’s policy towards Brexit.

Big Capital is a short and angry book, filled with data, case studies, interviews and personal opinion. This was a style Minton first used for 2009’s Ground Control, a prescient and important study of New Labour regeneration on UK cities. Minton was the first person to seriously highlight nagging doubts about New Labour’s regeneration policy, looking at the way communities had suffered because of failures of planning, design and basic humanity. Most memorably, she looked at the issue of private control of public space, an increasingly important topic in an age when developers are given larger and larger areas of land with which to do as they please, making their own rules along the way. It was groundbreaking, as so much of this seemed to have happened while people were looking the other way, seduced by the buoyant economy before the crash of 2008.

Big Capital isn’t quite in that category. There’s little here that isn’t already well known or hasn’t been covered many times before. Its value, though, is to join the dots and to gather everything together in one place. As a textbook primer on where we are today, it’s essential.

 

Francoise Hardy dans le Londre pub

I wrote a piece for the August issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine about the appeal of Françoise Hardy.

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Hardy was pretty much the only one of France’s 60s pop singers to have any sort of impact in the UK, scoring a couple of hits – even one in French – and some camera time with Mick Jagger. Johnny Hallyday may have recorded with the Small Faces and Jimmy Page, but he achieved little by comparison. Ditto Hardy’s super-cool husband, Jacques Dutronc (watch this clip for a brilliant piece of agitpop), let alone yé-yé singers like France Gall or Sylvie Vartan.

Hardy benefited from being the first French singer to have a hit here, and the UK market could probably only take one foreigner at a time. She had excellent songs of course, but also an appealing vulnerability – it’s in her music as well as the body language in the image above. Unlike most of her French, English and American compatriots, Hardy never seems to smile on her single and album covers. She also had an androgynous Moddish look that was very mid-60s, a little like a French answer to Julie Christie. You can see the attraction to a generation of Euro-sympathising spotty English art school students with intellectual pretensions.

Hardy’s popularity in London was such that in 1965 she made a French TV special in the capital, visiting several sights – palaces, the docks, the parks – and recording songs in unlikely locations such as outside a mew house, in the back of a black cab or while wearing her pjs in bed on the back of a flatbed truck driving round Piccadilly Circus. She also visits a street market and, delightfully, a pub. Some of the visuals are brilliant, such as the scene in which she performs against a backdrop of advertising hoardings.

A selection of stills are below, followed by the entire film.

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The before and after of Hardy trying a pint are a personal highlight.

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The whole film is here. It’s marvellous. Tres chic.

 

“I loved the brutality of it”: Suede and London

I wrote about Suede for the current issue of Uncut. This was something of a revelation for me, as I was able to remind myself how excited I was when I first heard Suede – I remember playing “Animal Nitrate” over and over again in my bedroom, thinking that I’d finally discovered a band I loved as much as The Smiths. Before interviewing the band, I went to see them play at the Roundhouse and all of that old energy was still there, and I was just as thrilled as I had been at 16.

One angle covered in wide-ranging interviews with Brett Anderson, Mat Osman and Neil Codling was the importance of London to the Suede aesthetic – this was a band that even renamed themselves The London Suede, albeit under duress, for their American releases.

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When the band were formed, Osman and Anderson shared a flat on Hilever Road in White City “on the border with Notting Hill – bohemia one way, estates the other,” Osman said, and Suede’s music came to occupy this very same sort of space, the sort of London written about by Patrick Hamilton, Dylan Thomas, Gerald Kersh and Roger Westerby in those novels about outsiders arriving in London and being instantly swallowed by vice and excitement. Doing something similar around this time was the TV version of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha Of Suburbia, with a soundtrack by David Bowie – the combination of Suede and Kureishi is what led me to Bowie.

“London was a place where you can be what you want,” says Codling. “You can disappear, you can embrace any subculture, you can reinvent yourself and glamour is a possibility inherent in that.”

Anderson didn’t deny any of this. “I romanticised what London was,” he said. “I lived in a bit of a film fantasy. I loved the brutality of it, the loneliness and the hardness of it all. I really responded to that. But this is what we were living. I was part of this world I was writing about. I’ve always tried to find the romance in any situation I’ve been in and that happened to be the situation I was in. I’ve always loved art that deals with the prosaic. The Smiths aesthetic, I found that very powerful, ‘the riches of the poor’. There’s beauty in the brutality.”

 

Anderson told me he’s still inspired by London, often cycling the towpath from his home to West London to Camden, even if it doesn’t directly appear on the band’s new album. The excellent Night Thoughts is instead preoccupied by those unnerving concerns about children and fatherhood that keep Anderson – and myself – awake at night.

“I refute the tortured artist clichés, it’s bullshit, a lazy misunderstanding of what creativity is,” he said. “It’s not expected of authors and film-makers, Michael Haneke always seems very balance and his films are genius of discomfort. For me, a writer is finding those moments of friction, and those can occur in any existence, in any relationship, no matter how stable or content. There are always misunderstandings and moments of friction and this is what I write about.”

 

The Barbican Estate – a town reconstructed from its cellars

In the comments to my Guardian piece on the Blitz (yes, I read them, hungrily seeking affirmation) there were several interesting discussions about the Barbican. In the piece I’d described it as a “successful” example of post-war redevelopment, something others were quick to dispute, arguing that nobody liked the Barbican. I hadn’t considered my view particularly controversial, but then I do spend a lot of time talking to Brutalists and had also just written an article about the history of the Barbican for the excellent n magazine – in-flight magazine for Norwegian airlines.

You can read it here, where there are also some excellent photographs. And here’s a video of Unit 4 + 2 singing “Concrete And Clay” on the unbuilt estate in 1965.

While writing the feature, I spent a couple of hours exploring the Barbican more carefully than ever before. Although I’ve visited the Barbican Centre and the Museum of London on countless occasions, this has rarely led me through or over the estate itself. There’s something about any estate that doesn’t welcome visitors and during my walks around London I usually stick to “normal” streets, but the Barbican is well worth your time.

The Barbican, contrary to public perception, is a wonderfully walkable part of London. Yes, it can be confusing but it was built with the pedestrian in mind so amply rewards the willing walker. As I wrote:

The Barbican takes the City’s ancient complexity and expands it over three dimensions – you can go up and down as well as backwards and forwards, so wandering around the Barbican becomes an adventure. Curves envelope you, towers loom, narrow pedways disappear under pedestals and re-emerge as wide walkways enlivened by beds of wild flowers. Even the yellow line may abruptly disappear, eradicated by recent reconstruction work.

There are surprises around every corner, such as London’s largest conservatory outside of Kew Gardens, or the aged tree stump named after composer Felix Mendelssohn, who once sat by it in Buckinghamshire contemplating compositions. Across the lake from the arts centre is the Grade I-listed church of St Giles, where Oliver Cromwell was married and the poet John Milton is buried.

Another fine spot is the roof of the concert hall, initially conceived as a sculpture court, which is framed by the graceful curve of Frobisher Crescent and overlooked by a giant tower.

The Barbican is often chastised for being confusing and it can be, but this is precisely what many people like about the City, with a medieval street pattern that is often deemed charming. And is there anything wrong with getting lost in London anyway? I’ll report back on that thought in my next blog post.