Tag Archives: London

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.

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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.

The legacy of the Blitz

I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the way modern London is still shaped by the bomb damage of the Blitz. This was a subject I immersed myself for several weeks and the first draft of my article is very different to the version that was published. I thought it might be interesting to reproduce the original article on The Great Wen. 

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When travel writer HV Morton surveyed London in 1951’s In Search of London, it was still scarred by war. The Blitz had started on 7 September 1940 and more than a decade later, London was a “city of jagged ruins, of hob grates perched in the sunlight in shattered walls, of cellars draped with willow-herb and Canadian fleabane.” As Morton wandered sadly round Cripplegate – an area now covered by the Barbican – he looked “across an area of devastation so final and complete that the memory of it will always rise in my mind whenever I hear the word Blitz. Thousands of buildings have been burnt and blasted to the cellars. Here and there the side of a building rises gauntly from the rubble, a detached gateway stands by itself in the undergrowth, the towers of a few churches, or a spire, lift themselves mournfully, like tombstones in a forgotten cemetery…. How can anyone reconstruct a town from its cellars?”

The scale of this destruction can be gleaned from the bombsight.org website, which uses information from the National Archives to pinpoint every individual bomb strike, and The Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945, created by the London County Council and now published as a book, which show colour-coded bomb damage on a building-by-building basis. The maps were originally created for financial reasons, but post-war planning was always an issue. “The heart of it was insurance and compensation,” says Laurence Ward, the book’s editor and senior archivist at the London Metropolitan Archive. “But they had one eye on post-war reconstruction and the maps were essential tools for rebuilding London. They give a bird’s eye view of the damage and use a colour scheme that makes it easy to see areas that needed to be cleared.”

By cross-referencing Bomb Damage Maps with the A-Z and www.bombsight.org, London’s post-war evolution can be explored, with modern parks, offices and housing estates replacing black blocks of destruction. As Ward explains, “The maps help areas make sense, they show why the streets look like they do.” We look at six examples that show some of the ways the Blitz shaped contemporary London, and how that process is still continuing today.

Mayday Gardens, SE3

Alan Lee Williams was 10 when his home in Mayday Gardens, near Blackheath, was hit by a parachute mine. “It was meant for the Thames, but damaged 27 houses and took our roof off,” he recalls, now 84 and reflecting on a life that included a period as Labour MP for Hornchurch. Williams’ house was repaired but several houses – marked black for “total destruction” on the bomb maps – remained derelict throughout the war. “They became places for children to play,” says Williams. “They built a big water tank on them for the fire engines, and sometimes we’d swim in it.”

Visit Mayday Gardens now and you’d have no idea anything had happened here. Unlike other streets, where former bomb sites can be identified by the post-war housing blocks that interrupt Victorian terraces, the destroyed houses in Mayday Gardens were rebuilt exactly as before. “They look as if they have been there all the time and I’m sure most people living there have no idea what happened,” says Williams. Indeed, when a local resident – who declined to be named – was asked if they knew of the street’s history, they admitted it came as news to them. “There was no consistency with the reconstruction,” says Ward. “These have pretty good plots and they probably decided it would be easier to rebuild a couple of houses then build a low-rise block.” One issue would have been the material available, with bricks remaining in short supply until the 1950s despite the LCC’s ability to salvage 140 million from damaged houses. The reconstruction of these middle-class homes, though, comes as stark contrast to the way many working-class districts were treated.

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Co-Op, Brook House, Shooters Hill, SE18

A short walk from Mayday Gardens on the corner of Shooters Hill and Corelli Road is an ugly squat building housing a supermarket. This was the site of the Brook Hotel pub, which was hit by a V2 rocket in November 1944.

Alan Williams, then 14, was one of the first on the scene. “I was on a tram on Shooters Hill, when I heard an explosion and ran down the road just in time to see a No 89 bus explode,” he says. “The pub had been hit by the missile and the bus was passing and caught fire.”

Williams was pressed into service. “The fire officer called for silence so we could listen for people calling for help and we heard somebody,” he says. “The firemen were too big to go down, so they lowered me. I found a body still breathing and helped them pull it back up. We got to the top and the gas blew up beneath us – I never got out of a bombsite so quickly.”

He’d rescued a girl who had been playing with the publican’s daughter. “She lived in the same road as me, and her father was a high-ranking policeman,” says Williams. “He came to see us – my mother thought I’d been in trouble again!” In the carnage, 29 died but the pub was rebuilt immediately. “The pub was a lovely old building,” says Williams. “It was close to where soldiers were billeted so they rebuilt it before the end of the war.” Williams passes such bombsites frequently. “I still live in the area and I bow my head as I go past,” he says. “I can still see that 89 bus exploding. I always thought it was strange that there was never an explanation of what happened to these places. I thought they should have put up plaques. It’s always a puzzle why it didn’t happen, maybe they just wanted to forget.”

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Christ Church, Newgate

There are some memorials, if you know what to look for. Churches played an important role before and after the Blitz. Bombed churches were used as propaganda – a famous wartime photograph shows St Paul’s sheathed in smoke – and London’s churches took a pounding: 624 of 701 churches were damaged, of which 91 were destroyed. Many City churches were damaged by the fire bombs of 29 December 1940, which levelled entire streets.

Almost immediately, a debate began about what to be done with the most badly damaged churches. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyen argued in 1941 that “where there is no congregation I would leave the spaces occupied by destroyed churches as open”, partly as a memorial. In 1944, a letter in The Times presciently articulated this principle: “The time will come – much sooner than most of us to-day can visualize – when no trace of death from the air will be left in the streets of rebuilt London. At such a time the story of the Blitz may begin to seem unreal not only to visiting tourists but to a new generation of Londoners. It is the purpose of war memorials to remind posterity of the reality of the sacrifices upon which its apparent security has been built. These church ruins, we suggest, would do this with realism and gravity”.

The creation of these memorial-ruins was rooted in realism – with attendances in decline, churches simply weren’t always needed. The medieval church of Christ Church, Newgate had been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1687 after the Great Fire and then razed again in the inferno of December 1940. It has been left in its ruined state in memory of the Blitz, but in bastardised form.

In 1981, neo-Georgian offices were added in imitation of the 1760 vestry – these currently house a dentist. Two walls to the east were removed in 1974 in a road-widening scheme, while the tower – with a steeple that Ian Nairn considered one of Wren’s finest – was transformed into a 12-storey private home in 2006. Merrill Lynch’s office squeezes against the wall of the church and the fact these gardens act as a memorial to the Blitz probably goes unnoticed by local workers – it’s all far too tidy for one thing. A short-lived campaign was launched in 2013 to turn this into a more thoughtful memorial to the sacrifice of Londoners, of which there are few. Christ Church at least fared better than another memorial-ruin: St Mary Aldermanbury was sold to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri to act as a memorial to Winston Churchill. London still awaits a fitting tribute.

Old Market Square, Columbia Road, E2

A complex network of priorities faced London’s post-war rebuilders, many of whom had been agitating to reconstruct London since before the war. This bore curious fruit in Columbia Road in Bethnal Green, now the location of a flower market and genteel Victorian terraces but then considered a slum. On the first day of the Blitz, a bomb hit a shelter beneath Columbia Market, killing 38. “Columbia Market was a 19th century development founded by Angela Burdett-Coutts to regenerate the area and improve quality of life,” explains Ward.” The buildings were damaged during the war and subsequently demolished – but, it seems, they could have been repaired – the map notes that the main blocks suffered only general blast damage.”

Burdett-Coutts was a philanthropist and friend of Charles Dickens, and Columbia Market was a combination of market and social housing constructed in a dramatic neo-Gothic style that marked one of the first flowerings of Victorian social housing. The ambitious scheme was deemed a “splendid failure” by The Times in 1936 and after the war was being used for storage. Although salvageable and unquestionably important, it was demolished in 1960 and replaced by Ravenscourt Park and a modern tower block, named Old Market Square in a half-hearted nod to what was lost. This new estate is typical of the buildings that were thrown up after the war to solve the problem of slum housing. A campaign is ongoing to get a plaque erected in memory of those that died.

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In the haste to rebuild London, many important buildings were demolished, inadvertently spawning the modern heritage industry. “The idea of heritage and listing buildings only really started after the war, when things were demolished so rapidly we don’t know exactly what was demolished and what was valuable,” says Peter Larkham, professor of planning at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, who has written on post-war reconstruction. “It was launched as a problematic and ad hoc system that allowed councils to designate conservation areas. After development stopped with the 1970s oil crisis, conservation almost took over and we now have 10,000 conservation areas and half a million listed buildings. Some think we conserve too much.” The only remaining trace of Columbia Market is a section of railing outside a nursery. “It’s a fascinating building that most have cost a fortune and completely dominated the road,” says Ward. “Now you’d never know it existed.”

Palestra, Blackfriars Bridge Road, SE1

This 1990s office block sits atop a site with a fascinating jumbled history. In 1783, the Surrey Chapel was built amid fields by Georgian preacher Rowland Hill, who chose a circular – or octagonal – form as this meant there were no corners where the devil could hide. By 1910, it was being used as a warehouse when boxer Dick Burge decided to turn it into a boxing venue. The Ring was a success but was hit by a bomb on 25th October 1940 and then again in March 1941. According to the Bomb Damage Maps the spot was also later hit by a V1 flying bomb. Damage from one of these strikes can still be seen a few yards away under a railway bridge.

Like many bombsites, The Ring wasn’t replaced until the 1960s. “Some materials required for building were rationed until 1954,” says Larkham. “Every bomb-damaged city was arguing with the government for their allocation of steel and you might have a site and a plan but you might not be able to do anything with it. Britain was selling steel to Australia because the economy was more important than rebuilding.” Eventually Richard Seifert’s gaunt Orbit House was raised on the site. Seifert, one of the UK’s most prolific post-war architects, loved to give his buildings space-age names, and this one also had a circular nod to The Ring. It housed records for the India Office.

But Orbit House’s time was fleeting. In the 1990s it was replaced by Will Alsop’s gargantuan glass Palestra, which is used by TfL. Peter Rees, the City’s former head of planning, once told me that modern office buildings have a life of around 30 years – something that has more to do with the changing requirements of office life than architectural trends – and that’s how long Orbit House lasted. But with his new building, Alsop paid reference to both of Palestra’s forefathers: like Orbit House, it is raised above the road on a pedestal, while its name comes from the Greek word for a wrestling ring. What’s interesting, though, is that as with much of London’s post-war offices – include huge swathes of the City – this site is already on its second generation of development. Larkham questions if that is sustainable. “One of the worst products in terms of sustainability is concrete,” he says. “The fact we can put these building up and then pull them back – is that really the best solution? We need to design for more flexible longer-term planning.”

Elephant Park, SE17

You won’t find Sayer Street on a map but you can hunt it down in photographs. One on the IWM website shows a family sitting at a dinner table outside the Blitzed shell of Sayer Street School eating egg and bacon supplied by American aid.

Another shows Sayer Street before the Blitz, when it consisted of five-storey tenements in one of London’s poorest areas around Elephant & Castle. Elephant was badly hit by bombs, and Sayer Street is riddled with damage on the Bomb Damage Maps. Before the war, the street contained a fishmongers, cat meat dealer, grocer, saddler, bookbinder; after the war, it was the location of a car park, one of the most popular post-war uses for bombsites. The NPC car park empire began with the purchase of a £200 bomb site on Red Lion Square.

In his memoir The Likes Of Us, Michael Collins writes how in the 1960s he explored Elephant’s remaining bombsites, “on which relics of former homes hovered, exposed broken fireplaces and floral or barley corn wallpaper that had witness births, deaths, Christmases, parties, tears, arguments, laughter and sex.” Sayer Street survived this half-life into the 1960s, when it was chewed up by the Heygate Estate. The Heygate was originally conceived as one of three gigantic housing estates that would stretch from Elephant to Peckham, linked by walkways and ramps for two miles. “It was said the planners decided which streets would be erased in the back of a taxi as they were driven around the neighbourhood,” writes Collins, who was forced from his childhood home. One of those to disappear was Sayer Street.

As Larkham explains, “some of the plans were incredibly radical, sweeping away neighbourhoods irrespective of damage and replacing them with high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in.” These were fuelled by idealism, but as early as 1945, the planner CB Purdom had warned of the dangers in How Shall We Rebuild London?, explicitly rejecting Le Corbusier and “the megalomaniac proposals of those who regard the metropolis as a hive of near termites speeding their existence upon escalators or in tubes.” Such pleas were ignored and towers went up on bomb sites all over London. Some were successful like the Barbican, but most were bleak, poorly built and badly maintained.

The Heygate was rarely popular but it housed many of London’s poorest and now it too is gone, having lasted 37 meagre years. Southwark sold it to Land Lease, a private developer and demolition began in 2011. Former residents have been shipped miles from London, displaced even more brutally than those who once lived on Sayer Street. In its place will come Elephant Park, a residential village of towers and plazas, where a three-bed apartment costs £2.5m. “It says a lot about where London is heading, how it is become more like Paris with those areas of social housing being pushed further out,” says Ward. The ripples from London’s post-war redevelopment continue to be felt, and from Blitzed streets and lost bombsites, another London arises. How long will this one last?

On Hackney Marsh with Jon The Poacher

One of the most enjoyable assignments have had in recent months was getting to spend a sunny late-spring morning on Hackney Marsh with John Cook, a forager who calls himself Jon The Poacher.

We wandered through parks and marshes for a couple of hours, filling a basket with wild plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms, before sitting at a cafe by the Lea and scoffing it all. John has grown up in Clapton and knows “every milimetre” of the vast east London marshland.

I touched on bits of the marsh when I explored the pre-Olympic Lea Valley with archeologist Kieron Tyler. That tour was all about the human impact on landscape (that, really, is the essence of archeology), so the walk with John made for a completely different experience, one in which we looked only at the natural aspect, the ways in which wild plants will seed in the smallest, most inhospitable space, and how we can harvest them without destroying their habitat. John essentially uses the marsh as a giant allotment, and believes almost anything can be eaten if treated correctly.

The difference between the two views is interesting. While Kieron lamented the Lea Valley’s problem with Japanese knotweed – something the Olympic authorities spent millions on eradicating – John notes that if you cook it with a little sugar, knotweed tastes much like rhubarb.

My article about John appears on the Canal & River Trust’s Waterfront blog.

Croydon Till I Die: the flyover of life

I’ve written a piece about the concrete conundrum that is Croydon for the Guardian.

I have a peculiar relationship with Croydon, which seems appropriate as Croydon is a curious place. Growing up just outside Sutton, Croydon was Sutton’s scary big brother. The scary big brother everybody laughed at. Croydon had a reputation. It was ridiculous and people mocked it in a way you never seemed top get with nearby towns like Epsom, Sutton, Kingston or Bromley.

Perhaps as a result, I rarely went there, preferring to spend Saturday afternoons in the tedious safety of Sutton and then later in the West End.  It was only in my late teens that I really discovered Croydon.

By then, I could drive, and that seems relevant as Croydon was a town built for cars. In the sixth form I’d drive into Croydon with schoolfriends during breaks in the timetable to shop at Beano’s and have lunch – with girls! – at McDonald’s. And at weekends, I’d meet friends in the goth-metal Ship or in the Firkin beer garden.

That drive was thrilling. I’d soundtrack it to Aladdin Sane, which is ironic given David Bowie’s later comments about Croydon. I always entered Croydon from the south, via the flyover and that flyover was extraordinary and intoxicating. It was like nothing else around, certainly not in the dull suburbs of south London.

As I approached Croydon from this elevated position, the 1920s terraces spread out below, I always had a lingering desire to drive straight over the side into oblivion. It wasn’t a suicidal or maudlin, it was more like Butch Cassidy or Thelma And Louise, to exit in triumph.

When I left home, I came to increasingly dislike Sutton for the atmosphere of violence, racism, desperation and small-mindedness that I noticed every time I returned, seemingly growing worse each time. But with the benefit of distance, Croydon seemed far more interesting, an adventure in creating a new kind of suburban living that hadn’t quite worked but still left behind a town centre that was unique.

If only Beano’s was still around.

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.

Three new London books: then, now, forever

I’ve been immersed in a trio of complementary London books in recent weeks, each of which adds further depth to any understanding of the city’s built environment.

London: Architecture Building And Social Change is a very useful, glossy overview looking at how London’s architecture has developed – or not – with the city’s needs. Sometimes the architecture has led to social change; sometimes social change has led to new architecture. Author Paul Knox focuses on 27 districts – largely central, which is understandable but slightly annoying – exploring how landowners and developers combined to give them their character, before looking at a dozen key buildings in closer detail. There’s rich detail here, as well as nice pictures and helpful maps. I was particularly grateful for being introduced to the word “super-gentrification” to describe London’s current toxic situation. Knox is particularly good at emphasising the city’s sense of scale – how it has repeatedly rejected density in favour of a more humanising style of urban living in the form of terraces or mansion blocks – and showing how this is once more under attack. The overall feel is a little like seeing London through a microscope: first the overview, then closing in on a specific area, then seeing how all this maps on to a single building. It’s also a terrific reference book.

If Knox’s angle is how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’, Tom Bolton is more interested in what ‘now’ obscures of ‘then’. Vanished City: London’s Lost Neighborhoods hunts the streets for traces of London districts that have been eradicated by time, developers, fire and bombs. Bolton embraces the history, delving into archives to restore to life forgotten quarters such as Ratcliff, Cripplegate, Wellclose, Clare Market and, particularly fascinating, the strange lost towns of Old St Pancras. There’s much incidental overlap with Knox, but Bolton fills in some of the gaps, bringing us the stories of the people who lived in these lost towns rather than simply telling us who owned the land and what was built on it. Brilliantly researched and breezily written, the only drawback is a lack of maps, which would have really helped the reader pin the past on to the present. Instead, as with Bolton’s previous book with Strange Attractor, SF Said adds suitably spooky imagery.

Finally, the reprint of Ian Nairn’s Nairn’s London is a must for any Londonphile. Filling a space between Bolton’s largely historic musings and Knox’s contemporary report, Nairn looked at London at a very specific point in time, the mid 1960s, as the post-war redevelopment of the city was really getting underway. In this way, it makes a nice companion to HV Morton’s In Search of London, roving, individualistic, romantic and revealing. Nairn conceived it as “record of what has moved me, between Uxbridge and Dagenham”, and his idiosyncratic eye meant he was able to celebrate vernacular masterpieces like the Granada in Tooting (“Miss the Tower of London if you have to, but don’t miss this”) while waspishly dismissing some of Wren’s lesser works. Vivid and memorable, it’s like a three-dimensional A-Z. If you don’t already own it, snap one up.