‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.
As a counterweight to David Hoffman’s images of urban protest which we ran last week, here are a few of David’s pictures of a more peaceful London. Peaceful and largely vanished … these photographs have an elegiac quality to them, glimpses of a city that seems almost as remote as the one pictured by Thomson or A.L. Coburn. In any case, they require no further comment from me … D.S.
As part of East London Photomonth, David’s images are on display until the end of this month at a variety of cafes forming the ‘Roman Road Cafe Crawl’. David’s show at Muxima cafe runs until 27th of November. More details here.
From Ghost Club by Andrew Martin and David Secombe:
Synopsis: The three members of the North Yorkshire Paranormal Investigation Society are engaged in a night-time vigil at a country house on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Moors.
Act Two, Scene 1:
It is now 11.30 pm. We find the three in the middle of their second ’session’. They occupy the three disparate seats, as before. Everyone looks jaded and more disheveled, but at least the electricity appears to have been restored – the lighting is from the Anglepoise lamps set up on the table. Quite atmospheric. As before, the aim is to maintain silence in hopes of contacting the beyond. PETE has commandeered a second seat, for the purpose of resting his legs and is reading a paperback – Elmore Leonard or similar.
Pete … have you had any experiences that really gave you the, like, willies?
How long have you got?
Pause; considering something.
Actually … No, forget it.
No, actually – what?
Pause. PETE looks at both his companions in turn. Puts his book down.
I worked as a security guard once. In London. After I left college.
Yes, Classics is hardly the most useful degree –
On my first day, they sent me to an abandoned maternity hospital in Finsbury Park that was waiting to be demolished. My job was to sit by the front door and patrol the place twice in an eight-hour hour shift. That’s all. I arrived at seven a.m. on a bright summer’s day, relieved the night shift – who I noticed was sitting outside – and sat down in the old reception booth and tried reading P.G. Wodehouse. But I couldn’t shake off a feeling of being watched. There was a telephone ringing somewhere in the building, but all the lines were supposed to be dead: I had to communicate with my manager via a callbox in the street. My first round was at ten. The place was an absolute shambles. God only knows what had gone on in there. It was a hot day but a storm was brewing. By the time I did my second round, at three, the sky was so dark it was difficult to see into the corners of the wards. Up on the second floor the heat from the day seemed to vanish and the air was very cold. That’s when I heard footsteps. First I thought they were my own echo: but they seemed to carry on after I’d stopped. They seemed to be getting closer each time, gaining on me.
I felt it was time to leave. I ran out of the building and used the call box to phone in my resignation. They were very apologetic: seems it was someone’s idea of a joke to send me there on my first day, as no-one liked working the place.
Pause – then PETE tells another one:
Later on, I was working at a club in Shoreditch. Used to be a pub, but it was all leather and sparkly lights when I knew it. The building was Georgian, but you’d hardly guess from the front. It had been bombed in the war and during rebuilding they came across medieval corpses. An unhappy spot. Didn’t stop them turning the basement into a dance floor. It was always cold; we’d try turning up the heating but the walls just ran with condensation. The landlord’s rottweiler refused to go down there. Once, I found some traumatised queen bleating that he’d followed someone into the toilet and seen them walk through the wall. Not quite the encounter he was expecting.
I was cleaning up one morning-after-the-night- before, and I distinctly heard a voice close to my ear say “This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own”. … You’d have some nights down there and I used to wonder how many live bodies we had in and how many from the other side. You’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.
Silence. JOHN pours himself some more wine.
© Andrew Martin & David Secombe 2008-2013.
Ghost Club has yet to have a proper airing, although an earlier draft was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010, featuring David Warner as JOHN, Miles Richardson as PETE and Kieran Hill as IAN. We present this excerpt as our annual Halloween offering.
From Building Design, 19 November 2010:
The controversial plan to tear down the Robin Hood Gardens estate will move a step closer in the next few days when a winner for its replacement is named. Proposals by Tower Hamlets Council to take the wrecking ball to the housing estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, caused outrage among the profession, with more than 2,000 people, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, backing a BD campaign to have it listed. This week Simon Smithson, architect son of Alison and Peter, again condemned the decision to knock the estate down. “If it’s pulled down I think history will view it as a real act of vandalism,” he said.
In the wake of our recent pieces on Balfron Tower, we present another feature on a controversial, maligned and generally unloved piece of 1960s architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a mere stone’s throw away from its Goldfinger-designed neighbour, was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s golden couple, theorists-cum-architects, ‘the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK’ (it says here). Unfortunately, the location could not be less promising: Robin Hood Gardens teeters like a cliff above the northbound carriageway of the A12 exiting the Blackwall Tunnel, although motorists on the southbound lanes get a clearer view of its looming bulk. As a motorist who has used the Blackwall Tunnel for over a quarter of a century, this view of RHG has always reminded me of a discarded set from Alien or Space 1999 that has been inexplicably dumped in Poplar. Regardless of all other considerations, its fabulously disadvantaged position alone mitigates against 21st century rehabilitation. Not for Robin Hood Gardens the executive-friendly make-over of Balfron Tower; discussions of RHG’s qualities invariably involve a stand-off between those calling for demolition (past and present residents, Tower Hamlets council) arrayed against those who want it listed and thus preserved (Brutalist apologists, mid-century modern aficionados).
A great deal has been written on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens. Those who defend the building speak of the spaciousness of the flats themselves, of the noble attempt to create a space of ‘central greenery’ in the site’s layout, and the Smithsons’ genuine feeling for the humanity that would eventually inhabit their design: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Robin Hood Gardens has heavyweight admirers; thus sprach Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside: ‘It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace’.
Its fans have something of a hard sell. Even the most ardent Smithson admirer has to admit that the site is hideous. A friend of mine, an architect from the Caribbean, spoke of her numbed disappointment on seeing RHG for the first time; in her eyes what had seemed eloquent and rational as a plan failed hopelessly as an actual environment. (In researching this piece, I stumbled across a fascinating item comparing RHG’s central green space to WW1’s battlefield of Ypres.) In 2009 RHG was denied the protection of ‘listed’ status (with English Heritage voting firmly against listing) and in 2012 Tower Hamlets Council announced demolition of the estate as part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme for the area. There isn’t room here to excavate the arguments and sheer heat of the ensuing debate, which is taking place even as RHG is being dismantled; but whilst nostalgia for the legacy of Brutalism might be compared to a fondness for discredited utopian certainties, the current complexion of London’s skyline makes one shudder at what is likely to be erected in RHG’s place.
These photographs by Craig Atkinson (from a fine new edition published by the ever-admirable Cafe Royal Books) give an indication of RHG’s imposing mass as well as its shortcomings as an urban environment. But it is the last picture in this sequence that is so telling; the view across to the 21st Century Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. There’s the new money, and what all of London will, most likely, soon resemble. There goes the neighbourhood. DS
Further reading: the invaluable site Municipal Dreams published two articles on Robin Hood Gardens in April this year, and they are mandatory reading on this topic.
Tommy Cooper, Thames Television Studios, 1967. Photo © John Claridge.
On Tommy Cooper by Garry Lyons:
It’s all for you, isn’t it, Tommy? All the time – even offstage – you’re thinking: how can I get noticed? How can I get a gag out of this? You’d piss in the gutter to make a drain laugh, wouldn’t you? You’d shoot your granny for half a titter.
You leave that gutter out of this.
These lines are a characteristic interchange from the two eponymous comics in my play Frankie and Tommy. Frankie is my dad aged 23, as I re-imagined him. His oppo is none other than Tommy Cooper. The play tells the story of their brief and ill-fated double-act, entertaining the troops in Cairo in 1946.
It was commissioned by John Godber for the 21st anniversary of Hull Truck Theatre Company, and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. It caused a bit of a stir. I didn’t see my play as an exposé of a celebrity so much as a bitter-sweet Everyman tale about lost opportunities and faded dreams. For me, the story was a universal one about the shadow cast over youthful illusions by a brief, fleeting brush with true genius. It was about lost opportunity, and coming to terms with one’s failures and mediocrity.
The play is like a variety show Amadeus, with my dad as Salieri and Cooper as Mozart. It’s as much a professional tribute to Cooper’s stage brilliance as it is an unveiling of Cooper the man. It was an attempt to show the fez-wearing buffoon in all his perfectionist complexity, an artist in whom emotional inadequacy was the spur that drove his hyper-nervous and shambolically skilful act – an act full of fumbled magic tricks and painful wordplay acting as armour-plated defence mechanisms from too much inquiry into the inner self.
The invented dialogue of Frankie and Tommy – which owes a lot to Morecambe and Wise, Barker and Corbett and similar duos – is full of puns and evasions in which Cooper constantly undercuts a serious point with a wisecrack or non sequitur. It’s the technique of the inveterate joker who can’t bear to face reality, yet in dodging it not only makes us laugh but often presents us with an even more profound truth.
Perhaps, in the end, that is the enduring force of Cooper’s humour. He wasn’t, as some have claimed, the first ‘alternative comedian’. There was nothing politically anti-establishment about his mainstream, commercial television style. But it was certainly subversive in the way it used ineptitude as comic strategy, satirising the empty slickness of much light entertainment and reminding us that at heart we’re all fools within.
… for The London Column. © Garry Lyons 2011.
This post appeared on The London Column in 2011; we are reposting it as John Claridge’s photos of Tommy Cooper are currently showing in the auditorium of the Museum of Comedy, implausibly located the crypt of Hawksmoor’s St.George’s, Bloomsbury. Museum of Comedy, The Undercroft, St Georges Church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SR (open Tuesday – Sunday 12pm – 5pm).
A London street artist writes:
I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.
I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.
This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.
Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.
Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.
The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.
… for The London Column.