When Boulez met the Womble.

Boulez-Womble-2-big-2

Boulez and Womble, West Ham Central Mission, 1975. Photographer unknown.

Edward Greenfield, writing in High Fidelity and Musical America, March 1975:

The Wombles, in their Disney-esque costumes, are an enormous success on television with children of all ages, and their signature tune was an enormous pop hit for CBS. Needless to say, Boulez had never heard of the Wombles but with a patience rarely given to such formidably intense artists, he willingly joined in the joke. 

These photos from High Fidelity form part of a report on the recording of two monumental Schoenberg works by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez. The recordings, for CBS – now Sony – were made in West Ham Central Mission – now the Memorial Community Church, Plaistow – which enjoyed a brief spell as a recording venue for orchestral music in the 1970s, until the interior of the building was altered and its spacious acoustic properties lost for good. Boulez was there to record Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Moses und Aron.

Schoenberg-session-big

Someone at CBS thought it was a good idea to send a Womble along to hug Boulez for a photo, and thus Orinoco (or is it Great Uncle Bulgaria?) greets the composer of Le Marteau sans Maitre. Just as one doesn’t expect to see Michel Foucault cosying up to Roland Rat, or Gore Vidal doing a turn on The Basil Brush Show, the sight of Boulez in such company is slightly disturbing. Apart from the CBS connection, Boulez happened to be chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time, and The Wombles were being relentlessly plugged by the BBC as a sort of corporate emblem; hence, the photo is a souvenir of a poorly thought-out PR opportunity, as well as a reminder of the mysterious reach of the Wombles and their co-creator Mike Batt. Inside one of the Womble suits was Chris Spedding, a virtuoso rock guitarist who was once (allegedly) considered as Mick Taylor’s replacement in The Rolling Stones, and who went on to produce records for The Sex Pistols; one would like to think that it is Spedding himself who is Wombling next to Boulez on the podium, but it probably isn’t. Apart from The Wombles, Batt also gave the world Bright Eyes, produced the likes of Steeleye Span and Cliff Richard, was sued by the estate of Boulez’s one-time friend John Cage for a joke at the expense of 4’33”, and who – in the imagination of Chris Morris – co-wrote the musical Sutcliffe!. Ultimately, however, he is bound to be remembered for this …

Anyway, Pierre Boulez turns 90 this week, so this is The London Column’s opportunity to offer the maestro a modest tribute. Your correspondent was a regular at Boulez’s concerts in London in the 80s and 90s; he represented a personal link to Stravinsky, Varese and the post-war avant-garde, and in today’s denuded cultural landscape it is hard to see who will ever replace him. Here is Yvonne Minton singing the Song of the Wood Dove from Boulez’s magnificent recording of Gurrelieder, the same one he was working on when Batt’s creature showed up. D.S.


Adventures in the Voice Trade.

Andy SecombeAndy Secombe. Photo © Ken Humphries.

NOT RESTING by Andy Secombe:

The address is a unit on an industrial estate in West London in the shadow of a mouldering brutalist tower block that would have looked ugly in Soviet-era East Berlin. Even though it’s a Sunday, 747s on final approach to Heathrow growl endlessly overhead and the traffic on the North Circular rumbles incessantly across a flyover not a hundred yards away. The unit’s door is locked and, after some minutes trying to get a response from the intercom entry system, you lose patience. You try several tactics: shouting, pressing the buzzer for sustained periods of time, eventually succumbing to violence, smashing the already broken intercom unit with your fist and, finally, your face. At last, as if by magic, the door opens. It’s a young chap in full evening dress.

‘Oh, hello. Bloody thing’s broken,’ he says, cheerily, indicating the now cracked and bloodied intercom. ‘Go on in – everyone’s in the green room.’ He pulls out a packet of cigarettes. ‘You all right? You’ve cut your forehead.’

You stare at him for a moment in disbelief. ‘You’re wearing a tuxedo.’

‘Oh, yeah.’ He looks a little sheepish. ‘Well, you know, I thought, James Bond…’

‘Sorry?’

‘Thought it might help me get into character.’

‘Character?’

‘For the recording.’

Andy Secombe EdinburghPhil Pope and Andy Secombe. Photo © Ken Humphries.

The approach, as ever, was last minute:

‘Andy, mate, hi! I was wondering if you were available tomorrow. I know it’s short notice and, unfortunately, we can only offer expenses, but I’ve been lumbered. I don’t think you’ve met Terry – the guy who owns the studio – but he’s been asked to tender for a string of idents for a new commercial radio station. I wouldn’t usually ask, but things are pretty tight at the moment and we really need this. I mean, no one’s being paid – Terry’s taking a loss on this. The thing is, we’re in competition with a few other studios for this gig, so it’s got to sound classy and for that, of course, we need top talent, hence: this phone call. The thing is, if they like what we do, they’ll put a lot more work our way. It could be a regular little earner. It’s a James Bond spoof – should be fun.’

Let’s deconstruct this a little.

The upfront “Are You Available?” from “Mate” is designed to grab your attention; the promise of work sets any actor’s heart beating just that little bit faster. All hopes are immediately dashed, however, by the word “tomorrow”, which could not state more clearly that his first second, third and possibly fourth choices have turned him down. But as your capacity for dealing with disappointment and ignoring tactlessness has been honed by years of practice, you think, Hey, it’s a job, let’s not be too precious.

Then he hits you with, “We can only offer expenses”. The beautiful dawn of hope just risen in your breast – complete with birdsong and the gentle plashing of heavenly fountains – not to mention the wonderful vision of you striding manfully into your local NatWest with a large cheque (or even a small one) is replaced by a feeling akin to leaping from a hot air balloon clutching an anvil. This feeling, however, is short-lived as, almost immediately, with the realisation you’re being taken advantage of, pressure builds in the magma chamber of rage called your heart, which, swollen by years of poor pay, poor conditions, and being taken advantage of by ‘Mates’, searches for release. Knowing this, and anxious not to have his eardrums blown out by your pyroclastic fury, he follows up almost immediately with the “I’ve Been Lumbered” ploy, designed to both deflect blame away from him and to prevent you from venting your molten rage which you must now swallow.

After all, it’s not his fault, but the fault of someone higher up the pecking order, in this case, the “Studio Owner”. This tactic implies that Mate’s hands are tied: that uncaring management is breathing down his neck and you are his only hope of salvation. This is not true. Mate – the studio recording engineer – and the studio owner are, in all probability, business partners and this little plan was no doubt hatched over a three-bottle-lunch at the local gastropub. And finally, the icing on the cake, the promise of future and regular work. This, both you and he know, is a myth but, paradoxically, is almost always the clincher.

You consider your options for a few moments.

‘When you say, expenses..?’ you ask.

‘We’ll pay your rail fare, petrol money… Tell us how much you need.’

Translation: We’ll give you a tenner.

‘When do you need to know?

‘Now.’

This is what’s known as the rush, designed to leave you no time to think or to talk things over with your spouse. And yet, however many times you hear this tired old argument and, despite knowing it’s all bollocks, you somehow still find yourself saying,

‘Well, OK.’

After all, it might not be a bad way to pass the morning: there’s bound to be someone you know there and it’s always nice meeting old friends. Besides, the studio – on Greek Street – has got leather sofas, a coffee machine, free Wi-Fi and Sky Television in the green room.

‘Oh, by the way, our studio’s being refurbished – so we’ve had to relocate temporarily. We’re on an industrial estate near Acton – I’ll email you the address.’

You put the phone down, feeling used and slightly soiled. Nevertheless, somewhere between the phone and the kitchen, you somehow manage to convince yourself that allowing yourself to be exploited by people well able to pay you is a noble calling.

Spouse sits at the kitchen table, elbow deep in bank statements and bills, and immediately you have one of those tingly, out-of-body experiences, born of the sudden recollection that tomorrow you promised to look after the kids while Spouse’s rich best friend – who has a lead part in a long-running soap – was going to treat her to lunch at the Ivy: a long looked-forward to treat; a little oasis of glamour in the otherwise endless grey desert of child-centred domesticity.

‘You’ve done what?’

‘Well…’ you begin unsurely, ‘As you said yourself, I can’t really afford to turn anything down at the moment and…’ You find yourself reiterating the lies Mate has just fed to you. They sound even more ridiculous in your own mouth. You talk of the future: although there’s no money this time, who knows what may happen further on down the line? It could lead to more work… I could be in on the ground floor of something huge!

The rest of the day passes in tight-lipped silence and, following the unwritten laws that underpin marriage, you cover yourself in ashes and pay penance. You take out the rubbish, you walk the dog, you rush to change every shit-soiled nappy, you cook supper – her favourite: seared tofu in quinoa with grated raw celeriac – you eschew watching the final episode of Breaking Bad in favour of Strictly Come Dancing and, when it seems you can sink no lower, you find yourself phoning her mother to thank her for the fingerless gloves she sent you for your birthday and allow her to tell you the details of her recent hysterectomy.

Andy SecombeAndy Secombe. Photo © Ken Humphries

You push past the Moss Bross-suited youth and find yourself standing on a thin, water-stained carpet in a dank reception area smelling slightly of damp – hardly the womb-like, leather-clad, luxury experience you were looking forward to. Following the sound of voices, you pass down a small corridor which eventually opens out into a sort of green room, equipped with the latest in used Styrofoam cups and melted plastic spoons. The instant coffee jar is empty because most of it’s in the sugar bowl and the only tea bags on offer are the squeezed-out ones lined up by the kettle. The young cast lounge on a selection of ancient, mismatched furniture of indeterminate colour. The sofa, as specified in the standard non-Equity contract, is mouldy, stained and leaks stuffing like a squashed cockroach. On a small table in front of it is a large foil dish on which are the remains of lunch – your lunch. In a tangle of Clingfilm lie half a tomato, a green smudge of mustard and cress, a dollop of egg mayonnaise and half a sausage roll. You search in vain for a familiar face, then feel a slap on the back as someone bellows in your ear,

‘Andy, my old darling, how are you?’

You turn and find yourself staring into the face of a man you hoped you would never see again. Indeed, after the last time you worked together, you told yourself you would rather eat your own liver than repeat the experience. To the list of people one should never work with, just after animals, small children and, of course, amateurs, should be added, The Desperate.

‘Michael,’ you say, attempting to replace your look of horror with something approaching friendliness. You can’t. Your face is beyond your control, like an alien clamped to your head it refuses to obey your commands and draws itself instead into a half-scowl, your lip curling upwards while your eyes narrow beneath knotted brows. You end up looking like a dodgy impersonation of Bert Kwouk.

Michael grabs your arm and pushes you into a corner. ‘So, how are things?’ Without waiting for an answer, Michael leans in, too close, and mutters ‘I haven’t worked for nine months,’ as his fingers crush your forearm, his stale breath brushing your cheek like the stench from a recently-opened tomb. After twenty minutes or so, when Michael draws breath in the middle of a deeply disturbing anecdote about a dresser, a pasty and a tube of KY, you ask if there’s a script. Michael, momentarily wrong footed, pauses long enough for you to free yourself from his iron grip and go off in search of what are known in the business as ‘sides’: the loose leaves of script that are usually provided on these occasions. Your eye lights on a pile of tea- and tomato-stained pages on the table.

As you read, your heart sinks even further – it’s beyond execrable. You consider walking out the door. But you can’t. Mate sometimes does pull you in for the odd paid job, and, despite his unforgivable exploitation of you on this occasion, you want to keep in his good books.

You’re stuck.

When you look up from the script, Michael catches your eye again, so you hide in the loo.

Twenty minutes later, Mate comes and finds you, asks if you’ve had everything you need, whether you had lunch, if you’ve had a coffee.

‘No,’ you say.

‘Great,’ says Mate. ‘Have you seen the script?’

‘Well…’ you begin.

‘Great,’ says Mate again, ‘I was up all night working on it. I’m rather pleased with it. You’re playing Q – you know the sort of stuff, lots of jargon. It’s just the one scene, with Moneypenny and Bond, should be very funny.’

One scene, you think – how long can that take?

Thankfully – as Michael is likely to argue with anyone who will listen about the interpretation, pace, volume and intensity of every word – your scene is not with him; it is with the evening-suited youth and the blonde ingénue playing Moneypenny.

Andy SecombeAndy Secombe. Photo © Ken Humphries

At last, the cast is assembled around the microphone, scripts in hand.

‘OK,’ says ‘Mate’ over the headphones, or, ‘cans’ as they’re known in the business. ‘I’ll give you a green.’

The green light just under the microphone blinks on and off. Nothing happens. “Moneypenny” has the first line, but remains dumb, frowning intently at the script as if it’s one of Kierkegaard’s knottier propositions.

Mate comes over the cans. ‘Anything wrong?’

You realise what the problem is: “Moneypenny” is not wearing cans. ‘Hang on,’ you say, taking a pair of headphones hanging from the mic stand and passing them to her.

She looks at you as if you’re something stuck to her shoe. ‘Do I have to wear those? They’ll ruin my hair.’

‘Yes, you have to wear them, otherwise the recording engineer won’t be able to communicate with you.’

She grabs them bad-naturedly, placing them deliberately but delicately over her expensively-coiffed hair.

‘Right, can everybody hear me now?’

“Moneypenny” scowls up at Mate beaming through the glass window of the control box. ‘OK, yah.’

Mate gives a thumbs up. ‘Let’s try that again. Green coming.’

The cue light blinks on again. Nothing, again.

‘What’s that little green light for?’

As patiently as rage will allow, you answer: ‘It’s a cue light. When it blinks, you speak.’

‘Oh, right. Yah.’

‘One more time. Green coming.’

The cue light blinks. She speaks. ‘Right, now look here, zero-zero seven…’

Mate’s voice crackles in your ear. ‘Um, sorry, Matilda, it’s “Double-O Seven”.’

‘Well it’s written, zero-zero seven.’

‘Um… yes, I suppose it is, but it’s pronounced, Double-O Seven.’

‘Look I got a 2:1 in Third Century Middle Eastern Ceramics, so I can read. There are three figures here: two noughts and a seven. In my book that’s zero-zero-seven.’

This dents even Mate’s ever-cheerful carapace. ‘Er… Good point, but the thing is, as Double-O Seven is the name he usually goes by, we’re going to stick with that.’

‘The name who usually goes by?’

‘James Bond.’

‘Who?’

You stare at her incredulously. Even “Bond” is aghast.

‘Er… Ian Fleming? You know – Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Dr. No…?’

‘No.’

‘Have you never seen the films?’

‘Is this from a film?’

You can sense Mate’s patience wearing thin. It’s the only enjoyable moment of the day so far.

‘Ah,’ says Mate, ‘It’s like this: Moneypenny is M’s secretary, and-’

‘Who’s M?’

‘Yeah, um… er… Andy, you can probably explain better than me…’

Bugger him.

‘OK, er, Matilda, is it?’

She stares at you like you’ve just dropped your trousers.

‘It’s like this…’ You explain, as succinctly as possible, the set up, the history, the mores and quirks of a franchise that has been running for nigh-on sixty years, at the end of which she gawps at you incredulously.

‘Sounds like something my grandfather might have watched.’

‘He probably did.’

‘Well how am I supposed to know about it then?’

‘Well, it is common knowledge amongst most people who haven’t spent the past decade studying Persian ceramics.’

‘Assyrian, actually. Are you taking the piss?’

When you finally leave the studio it’s dark. Managing to avoid Michael and his inevitable invitation to go for a drink (you’d be paying), you melt away into the night. Trying as best you can to purge your mind of the memory of the day, you pick up a bottle of Chateau Londis on the way home. In your mind’s eye, Spouse greets you at the door, sees past the wilting offering to the thought behind the gesture and beams her gratitude.

‘Oh, you poor thing,’ she says, ‘Your day sounds awful. Well, don’t worry, Matthew’s asleep, I’ve made a chilli and we can settle down in front of the TV with a film.’

The reality doesn’t live up to expectation. You walk through the front door to World War Three – the baby is screaming, a smell of burning pervades the kitchen and your flowers look even worse in the cold light of disdain. Now, you reckon, is not the moment to tell her that you’ve blown the tenner you were paid on wine and flowers.

Spouse orders you to take charge of the kitchen while she puts the baby to sleep – again; you open the wine and are halfway through the bottle by the time dinner – slightly singed – is ready.

Finally, settling down on the sofa in front of the news, with a steaming bowl of what might have once been minced meat, but now has the consistency of grit, you ask your beloved how her day has been. Compared to your day, she has been through the equivalent of the Anzacs’ landing on Gallipoli. With an attempt at levity, you say, ‘Well, it’s better than working…’ This is not wise.

Dawn slants in through the venetian blinds and worms its way under your eyelids and you wonder, not for the first time, when you last spent the night sleeping on the sofa.

Never again, you promise yourself. From now on I will value myself and my talent and on no condition let myself be exploited by unscrupulous “Mates”.

Happy with your resolve, you roll over and try to move your body into a position where the sofa’s broken spring is not poking you in the back. Then, just as you are drifting back to sleep, the phone rings.

‘Hi, Andy, mate. Look, I feel really bad about asking you this…’

But this time, you tell yourself, things will be different

WattoHSWatto (voiced by Andy Secombe) from the Star Wars franchise.

… for The London Column.


The lost London of Marketa Luskacova.

Homeless men, Spitalfields 1975Homeless men, Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa Luskacova is a Czech photographer who has been largely resident in London since the early 1970s. She first made her name in the late 1960s, with a project documenting religious pilgrims in central Europe and a series of photographs of life in Sumiac, a remote village in Slovakia. These images show life rooted in a barely-changed medieval past, the realities of the 20th century banished by the sheer force of history. This subject matter might seem distinctly eastern European; but when she came to live in London in the early 1970s, she brought her unique sensibility (which I would characterize as a balance of grace, empathy and visual power) to the street markets of the east end.

Spitalfields, 1976Spitalfields 1976. © Marketa Luskacova.

This milieu is recognisable to us from Don McCullin’s pictures of down and outs, the footage of drunks in The London Nobody Knows, and from other photographers and film-makers who have covered the same turf: the lost and dispossessed in the dark heart of the east end. But the crucial difference between these familiar images and Marketa’s photographs of the same territory is that she wasn’t there as a social anthropologist with a Leica; she was there to buy food. The traders shown in these photographs were the ones she saw every week; they were her friends. Her pictures might be a document of a time and place, but they are also a memoir of a life.

London street musician, 1979Street musician, 1979. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa’s images of London stand as some of the most poetic and heartbreaking photographs ever made of the city. As with all her work, these photographs exhibit an almost supernatural gift for faces. They are also an evocation of a London irretrievably lost to us; these are not scenes you will see in today’s east end. Marketa’s hawkers and street musicians are receding from us, as lost in time as the peasants of pre-industrial Europe. Marketa’s photographs of Whitechapel show a world as remote as the rituals of Sumiac.

Spitalfields 1977Lion cub and greyhound, Spitalfields, 1977. © Marketa Luskacova.

Spitalfields 1977Spitalfields, 1977. © Marketa Luskacova.

Spitalfields, 1975Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.

Marketa Luskacova’s work has been in some ways neglected in comparison with other photographers of the same generation who have covered the same sorts of material. That said, her work has been widely exhibited and championed by the likes of Roy Strong, Bruce Bernard and John Berger – not to mention erstwhile Magnum colleagues such as Rene Burri, Josef Koudelka, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who selected one of her pictures for La Choix d’HCB, an exhibition of his favourite photographs. Her eye is unflinching, but her photographs brim over with feeling that never tips into sentimentality. The final picture here is, for me, one of those photographs which renders any attempt to analyse it utterly trite: I will say that it manages to be as funny as it is sad, and as mysterious as it is beautiful. True greatness.  D.S.

Street singer, Spitalfields, 1982Street singer, Spitalfields, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.

marketaluskacova.com

 

 


And so it begins again …

Altered sign, Lincoln's Inn, London, 2014.Portugal Street, WC2. © David Secombe 2014.

2nd of January and we are just waking up … Here’s to 2015. DS


Party time.

C79-4Christmas Party at an old peoples’ lunch club in Tower Hamlets, 1975. © David Hoffman.

As Christmas draws near, The London Column’s seasonal offering is these two exquisite photographs by national treasure David Hoffman.

C81-29© David Hoffman 1975.

I would like to wish all our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous new year. D.S.

 


Susan Grindley: Expedition to Greeneland.

graham-greeneGraham Greene, Antibes. © Dmitri Kasterine 1983.

Expedition to Greeneland by Susan Grindley

There was a problem with the spellings
of Yeastrol, or Yeastrel, and Tontons Macoutes.
I was the office junior, despatched
with marked-up galley proofs to Albany.

I washed and ironed my hair the night before,
wore my shift dress from Peter Robinson’s
new Top Shop with white stockings and white
patent shoes from Elliott’s of Bond Street.

I’d cracked the secret code to all his books –
women who thought that they were loved were not.
He kept them parked and waiting in the margins,
all that religious stuff – just an excuse.

I didn’t see him. I just left the envelope
with the top-hatted porter at the lodge.
I told them casually back at Production,
‘GG is lunching at his club today.’

Regular readers will have spotted that we have run this post before; we are running it today in memory of our dear friend Sue Grindley who died last week. The poem is from Susan’s collection New Reader, published by Rack Press.


In search of Old Wych.

East window, St.Mary le Strand, London, 2010.St. Mary le Strand. © David Secombe.

‘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.

House on Strand Lane, London, 2014Strand Lane. © David Secombe 2014.

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).

The Law Courts in a puddle, 2010.The Law Courts in a puddle. © David Secombe 2010.

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.

Carey-StEntrance to New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, Carey St. north side. © David Secombe 2014.

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. 

Royal College of Surgeons, London, 2014.Royal College of Surgeons. © David Secombe 2014.

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?’

Lincoln's Inn Fields, Nov.2014Corner of Remnant Street and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. © David Secombe 2014.

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.

Wig-window‘The Wig Box’, Seven Stars, Carey St.. © David Secombe 2014.

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.

See also: The Riverine Strand, A Short Walk Down the Old Kent Road, The Haunted House.


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