© David O’Shaughnessy.
My old friend David O’Shaughnessy has an exhibition currently on show at Stour Space, Hackney Wick (part of Photomonth, the east London photography festival). David’s show is called Zoo Logical, and is a study of the habitats of zoo animals in New York, Dublin and, as showcased here, London.
© David O’Shaughnessy.
The key word is habitat: the animals themselves are absent. The viewer is confronted with a series of disconcertingly empty rooms reminiscent of deserted stage sets: which is, of course, the point. The animals are expected to perform for our benefit, and their man-made surroundings either mimic their natural environment or display them as specimens in an alien setting. (As beautiful as Berthold Lubetkin’s penguin pool is, the birds themselves hated it.)
© David Shaugnessy
Walking round the exhibition last weekend, it struck me that David has selected the perfect location for his show. For those unfamiliar with the locality, Hackney Wick is a kind of giant guinea pig cage for hipsters. A stone’s throw from the Olympic Park to the south, and within sight of the looming bulk of Westfield shopping mall, the area offers an environment as fitted to the needs of well-heeled young urbanites as any zoologically engineered habitat. All the key elements are in place: retro-fitted brown field decrepitude, bars and cultural spaces sprouting from light industrial units, towpaths to cycle on, and a sprinkling of riverside new-builds. Anyway, this post is written in haste as Dave’s show ends on Monday: so allow me to suggest that you treat yourselves to a visit to Hackney Wick this weekend. Enjoy the exhibition, drink a craft beer or two and look at the men with funny hair.
From J.M. Whistler’s ’10 o’clock Lecture’, 1885, reprinted in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us …
The recent fog in London, despite its inconvenience for air travellers, commuters, etc., proved to be quite a popular meteorological event: instead of invoking Bleak House’s November gloom it made the city look impossibly glamorous. The above photo was taken on the evening of Sunday, 1st November, during a wander along the Chelsea Embankment: Whistler territory. The great American painter was a local from 1859 until his death in 1903, and his ‘Nocturnes’ of the Chelsea/Battersea foreshore transform the Victorian industrial Thames into a Japanese world of shadows and fugitive lights. (Whistler was fond of applying musical terms to painting, so his nocturnes derive from Chopin: by the same token, Debussy was a fan and his orchestral Nocturnes return the compliment, evoking the Seine in the same mood as the painter’s Thames.)
The final nocturne was ‘The Falling Rocket’, a sort of proto-Abstract Impressionist take on fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden located roughly where Lots Road Power Station is now. You don’t need me to tell you that this is the painting condemned by Ruskin in terms incendiary enough (‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’) for artist to sue critic. Whistler won the case but was awarded joke damages and went bankrupt. No matter. Posterity has found in Whistler’s favour; he even has his own statue now, on the north side of Battersea Bridge.
This post is really a couple of years late, as there was a reportedly excellent show of Whistler’s Thames paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I say ‘reportedly’ because I was marooned on the south coast at the time and missed the bloody thing. But I’m back now, which is why I chanced to be walking along the Chelsea Embankment on Sunday night … (As it happens, I am writing this on Guy Fawkes night. Even in the pissing rain, I can look out of my 6th floor window and see the whole city lit up by sparkling lights. Some of them are even fireworks.) D.S.
Everyone has a ghost story. My brother told me of a menacing boarding house he once stayed at whilst playing repertory theatre in the early 1970s: anomalous knockings in the middle of the night, dried blood splashes on the wall behind the bed, a general air of foreboding. The place was such a forbidding environment that my sister, staying the night after going to see a Saturday evening show, fled at 3 a.m., unable to take the threatening atmosphere. As she put it: ‘Something terrible happened in that house’.
For her part, my other sister has her own story about haunted theatrical digs. She was staying in the modern wing of an old house, and her room was at the end of a long corridor that seemed to take an age to walk down. As the week wore on she had a feeling something was coming … in bed one night she heard a child’s voice calling her name in her ear. She later discovered that this boarding house had once suffered a fire in which a child had died. After that experience, my sister was troubled to hear that a little girl had been seen by visitors staying in her own house.
Other family stories concern an old house my parents once owned, situated in a beautiful but secluded spot in the Surrey hills. On one occasion, my brother was staying there alone one night when he was awakened in the small hours by voices and laughter coming from downstairs. Following the sounds, he went and stood by the door to the drawing room; from beyond it he heard the unmistakable echo of a cocktail party in full swing. He opened the door, turned on the light and – of course – the room was empty.
My girlfriend has a story about something she saw in a house in Brockley. Staying over after a party, she was sleeping on a sofa in the kitchen extension – where the original scullery might have been – and awoke to see a green figure standing in the room making an energetic motion which suggested ironing – but the motion was angry, desperate. As she watched, the apparition grew larger and less defined until it dissolved in a jade haze.
I first heard this story when said girlfriend told it to me in my own house in Brockley, just around the corner from where she had once spent a disturbed night. My place in SE4 was on a street which was struck by a V1 cruise missile in August 1944: according to ‘Flying Bombs and Rockets’, the rocket destroyed 6 houses and damaged a further 45 on Endwell Road, leaving my house as the end of a terrace. My girlfriend, my sister, my daughter and at least one other visitor independently identified a spot at the bottom of the staircase (a floor below street level) as, variously, ‘sad’, ‘eerie’, and ‘sinister’. In addition, they all reported the same sensation: as they headed up the stairs they felt that something was trying to catch hold of their foot. Nine people died in the V1 hit on Endwell Road; I never found out whether anyone was killed in my old house – but, for whatever it’s worth, my sister said that her impression of my basement was that there was someone trapped in it.
(But basements are always good copy: the best ghost story I ever heard relates to a club in Hoxton that had a persistent problem with its basement dance floor; but I told that story this time last year so I’m not going to tell it again.)
Needless to say, I have never had any supernatural experiences of my own. None. My existence has been so relentlessly quotidian that I would welcome an encounter with the uncanny. I have stayed in many houses that were said to be haunted and never sensed the presence of ‘the further realm’. Stanley Kubrick observed, when discussing The Shining, that all ghost stories are ultimately optimistic as they suggest the survival of the human personality. So laughter in a distant room, a inexplicably rattling doorknob, a child’s ball that bounces on its own, a voice in your ear in an empty chamber, may all be seen as comforting: they reassure us that the day-to-day is not all there is.
I was trying to think what images I could use to illustrate this piece and ended up digging out a selection taken in various locations around London in the late 1970as or early ’80s. Photography is a form of magic that we somehow take for granted: it fixes time and can resurrect the dead. These pictures of mine also present me with my younger self: an under-employed 20-something loitering on suburban streets, Leica in hand, hoping to find something worth photographing. Sometimes I’d get lucky but more often than not, not.
If I am haunted by anything it’s by my own photographs. I’m not just talking about the good ones, or the ones where I was consciously trying to capture atmosphere; all of them are fragments of a past life, people and places lost to me. (For example, the misty garden in the picture above no longer exists; nor, to my dismay, does the fir planting seen in the Hampton Court photo.) Cartier-Bresson said that if he tried to calculate the time his shutter had clicked over the decades, all those 60ths and 500ths of a second, it would probably only add up to a few minutes. Photography can take over your life but what are you really left with? Just a few moments. The upside is that those moments give your life back to you, not always accurately, but in ways that allow us to recreate the past in a way that suits us. Photographs let us become our own ghosts. D.S.
From A London Phantom by R. Thurston Hopkins:
I spent many evenings with Dowson in the Bun House. Though the name of this rendezvous has a doughy sound, it never at any time offered buns to its customers. It is just a London tavern, but it was part of the literary and newspaper life of the eighteen-nineties. It was there that I saw Lionel Johnson, the poet, John Evelyn Barlas, poet and anarchist who tried to ‘shoot up’ the House of Commons, Edgar Wallace, just out of a private soldier’s uniform, Arthur Machen in a caped ‘Inverness’ coat which he told me had been his regular friend for twenty years. …
After I had met Dowson a few times at the Bun House we would sometimes rove forlornly about the foggy London streets, initiated bohemians, tasting each other’s enthusiasms. … As we wandered about London at night we often played a sort of game which we called Blind Chivvy. The idea was to find short cuts or round-about-routes from one busy part of London to another by way of slinking alleys and byways which then were not well known to the average London man.
D.S.: We at The London Column like to think of ourselves as being in the vanguard of the Ernest Dowson Revival, but we can’t deny that our Ern remains something of a niche interest. My friend CJ – one half of the award-winning (really) wine blog, Sediment – is unconvinced by my claims for the poet who wrote the quintessential ‘decadent’ poem of the 1890s, Cynara. That said, CJ liked the sound of ‘Blind Chivvy’ and agreed to join me for an afternoon in a bid to play it. Admittedly, we were doing it on a bright July day rather than a murky November evening, and a few things have changed since Dowson’s time, but the promise of some light lunchtime drinking rendered CJ putty in my hands. We met at The Port House on the Strand, an Iberian sherry bar located in the building that was once The Bun House. In the candle-lit gloom, CJ and I munched tapas, drank white wine and attempted to visualise the interior peopled with the bohemian talent of decadent London. We failed. The ambience in the Port House is that of a bodega in Madrid, and there was no way we were going to conjure up the shades of Dowson, Johnson, Machen or anyone else. But it was a start.
Emerging from the Port House, I led a dubious CJ into a narrow entrance next door. Exchange Court is one of those ancient pathways off the Strand that bears witness to a lost London landscape. Halfway up this remnant of 17th century town planning there is a courtyard behind a new (early 1990s) bar called The Porterhouse. Before the construction of this establishment, it was possible to come here – a spot no-one had any reason to visit – and discover a genuine fragment of the ‘Great Wen’: a desolate cul-de-sac that Dickens would have recognised. When I visited in 1984, you could still see the original box office window of the Adelphi theatre, complete with Victorian London prices, bricked up in an alcove. Then they built the pub and the alcove disappeared. Now they store barrels here and the court seems almost cheerful.
We followed Exchange Court to the end and emerged in Maiden Lane, CJ looking around him like a lost Japanese tourist. ‘Where are we now?’ Doing my best Peter Ackroyd, I replied that Maiden Lane was one of the oldest thoroughfares in the West End – and, in the same mode, indicated a plaque above the Adelphi’s stage door commemorating the murder of William Terriss. ‘Who? What?’ On cue, the shutter of a loading bay was yanked open and for a moment we had a glimpse of the business end of a working theatre. The sight of the vast maw of an empty auditorium brought back memories of other West End venues, not to mention Proustian associations of childhood visits backstage. Me: ‘What’s playing here now?’ CJ: ‘Kinky Boots’. We moved on.
We crossed the road to look in the window of Rules, ‘the oldest restaurant in London’ (est. 1788). To celebrate the august history of its dining rooms, Rules’s website features a poignantly misjudged piece of copywriting which is worth reproducing here:
As well as being frequented by great literary talents – including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells – Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Dick Francis, Penelope Lively and Claire Rayner.
Whilst studying the menu I asked CJ if a publisher had ever taken him to Rules and he looked at me beadily, suggesting that I might be confusing him with someone else; Ian McEwan, maybe. Or Marian Keyes, perhaps.
Rules faces Bull Inn Court, another alley where Dowson might have gone to find company (‘absinthe makes the tart grow fonder’ is his line); in July 2015 it is a spot where office workers go to juggle cigarettes and smart phones. But a couple of doors further along, the tone is abruptly elevated by the ecclesiastical majesty of Corpus Christi. Mirroring the promise of the Adelphi, its doors were invitingly open, affording views of ‘the grey twilight of gothic things’ (or the 1870s repro version) in WC2. Dowson converted to Catholicism in the last years of his short life, so it’s at least possible that he took communion in Corpus Christi. In any case, we yielded to the lure of its gilded interior and behaved like a pair of sightseers, taking photographs and lighting candles (25 pence a go).
We backtracked west along Maiden Lane, down Chandos Place and thence into Brydges Place. We have featured Brydges Place on The London Column before, so I won’t dilate on this atmospheric passageway here – except to note that there were more homeless pitches since my last visit and the stink of piss was overwhelming. Brydges Place debouches into St Martin’s Lane next to E.N.O., where we emerged to see a Mariachi band posing on the steps of the Coliseum. Mexican dance music seemed like a bit of a departure for English National Opera, but the band looked fun and an obliging gaucho performed some impressive lasso moves for the cameras. Diverting as it was, this wasn’t the woozy, drink-soaked metropolis we were looking for, so we repaired to The Salisbury to re-group. The Salisbury was once a well-known gay pub, extensively referenced in the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, and where the serial killer Dennis Nilsen cruised in the 1970s and 80s – but any flickers of the city of dreadful night were banished by the holiday crowd ramming the bar. The Salisbury’s ghosts were as lost to us as those at The Bun House. We sat behind an etched glass window, drank London Pride and swapped stories of career disappointment. The phantom of Thurston Hopkins’s essay, who they fear is haunting them on their nocturnal rambles through London, is a man Dowson described as having ‘a face like a wizened bladder of lard’ – but in the noisy saloon of the Salisbury, CJ and I were merely haunting each other.
Opposite The Salisbury is an entrance to another 17th century survival, a passageway called Goodwins Court. Needless to say, Goodwins Court was a surprise to CJ, who remarked upon the beautiful bowed shop-fronts (18th century, I am told, although they are no longer shops, and it is hard to tell exactly what they front now). When I was a boy my parents took me to a show-business party in the house at the end, the one that abuts Bedfordbury. The host was the late Tony Sympson, an actor whose family were instrumental in preserving Goodwin’s Court against destruction. I remember a jewel-box of a house composed of implausibly large rooms, their Regency elegance constituting an act of defiance: as late as 1978, the threat of wholesale demolition still loomed over Covent Garden. The house is still someone’s home; perhaps the most desirable place to live in all the West End. Next door is Giovanni’s, a discreet Italian restaurant popular with old-school actors and producers. I have purple memories of this place too: a lunch with an actor friend which deteriorated into an afternoon lurid enough for me to give up drinking for months afterwards. After mistily reminiscing on all of the above, CJ pointed out, not unreasonably, that those anecdotes are specific to me, and that the state of my liver was of little interest to him.
Taking the hint, and with time against us – CJ’s dinner beginning to call, in far distant Mortlake – the rest of our dèrive went at something of a galop. By this stage, I had a destination in mind, a spot with more recent associations than the 1890s. We walked swiftly up Garrick Street, crossed Long Acre towards Seven Dials, cut up West Street (past The Ivy and those strangely conjoined twins of tourist theatre-land, The Mousetrap and Stomp), crossed Shaftesbury Avenue, continued north on Stacey Street – alongside the vast bulk of the Covent Garden Odeon and beyond the fragile greensward of Phoenix Garden – and finally arrived in crumbling, doomed Denmark Street.
In the 1950s Denmark Street (‘London’s own Tin Pan Alley!’) was London’s music business quarter, an Expresso Bongo world of post-Suez Britain. Then, the street was the domain of the impresario Larry Parnes, (much-mocked svengali of improbably-named singers like Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle, and some others who actually made it), songwriter Lionel Bart (‘King of Denmark Street’), the jingle writer Johnny Johnston (Softness is a thing called Comfort, Beanz Meanz Heinz, and 5000 others), and all the other personalities of the pre-Beatles universe. In the 1960s The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Donovan, Bowie, Hendrix all came here to record, in studios carved out of 17th-century basements. Ten years later it was the turn of the phlegm-flecked protégés of Malcolm McLaren (the ’70s version of Larry Parnes) The Sex Pistols, who rehearsed and lived here for a while. And, whilst he is unlikely to get a blue plaque, Dennis Nilsen – abovementioned, hanging around the Salisbury – spent the early ’80s working in a jobcentre that used to be on the corner with the Charing Cross Road. This jobcentre’s speciality was the catering industry, and for one Christmas staff party Nilsen made his colleagues punch in a large cooking pot he brought from his home, the same pan he used for boiling his victims’ heads.
There are still music shops to be found on Denmark Street, but the redevelopment of St Giles has been the cause of much anguish amongst London’s music lovers, as first the Astoria and then the 12 Bar Club have been laid waste in favour of Crossrail and a looming corporate/retail zone. Around 1900, the year Dowson died, the great loss London suffered was the destruction of Wych St. and environs to create ‘new’ Aldwych and Kingsway (the subject of one of our previous walks). That particular act of civic philistinism didn’t just obliterate some of the prettiest streets in the capital, it cauterized life on the streets – which is exactly what it was intended to do, removing ‘unwholesome’ theatres and booksellers and erasing one of London’s cultural centres. The destruction of the area around Denmark Street is the 21st Century equivalent. How do we characterise it? London dans le style Boris, perhaps, London après Cameron, London sans coeur, etc. Chalked graffiti on the hoarding in front of the remains of the 12 Bar was eloquence itself …
By now CJ and I were starting to feel generally chivvied out. The day-glo office blocks opposite St.Giles in the Fields measured the gulf between the city of our imaginings and the one we are actually stuck with. Calling it a day, Charles headed for Waterloo and his train to Mortlake, and I boarded a quasi-Routemaster 38 to Hackney. Sitting on the top deck, in an interior as retro as the Orla Kiely catalogue, I considered the dilemma: if Soho is dead, if the West End is dead, if Chelsea is dead, if Shoreditch is dead (no cheering please), what is left? A Bright New World safe for out-of-town consumers to play in – but not somewhere you would want to live, even if you could afford to. Hence London becomes the new Dubai, and Margate the new Peckham. Good for Margate, perhaps, but London as a place of invention and creativity becomes no more than a historical footnote. Don’t look for culture here, mate, only ad agencies can afford the rent. Live music? Try the relocated 12 Bar Club – it’s on the Holloway Road (if you can find it). No call for it round here, pal. The revolution will not be televised – but you can download it as a podcast.
(I have just noticed that this post is the 250th on The London Column. I was going to apologise for the fogeyish tone, but then thought ‘why should I?’)
Remember that old 70s movie, Network? It’s mainly famous for its catchphrase – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ – and for Peter Finch’s bravura performance (which earned him a posthumous Oscar) as Howard Beale, the newscaster who has a meltdown on television and gets the whole country saying it. On Saturday night I went to a private reading of a stage adaptation of the film, scripted by my friend Chris Brand (a fine actor as well as a writer) and produced by another friend, Peter Finch’s nephew Dallas Campbell. There are several reasons why it was a brilliant evening, and the first of them – before the evening even began – was the surprise of the surroundings.
We were in the old Water Board building in Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell. This sounds boring enough, and indeed we had only been told it was going to be in a ‘board room’. But this is grand municipal architecture, and this particular example harbours a secret at its heart.
The Water Board building was built on the site of a previous water company building – the old New River Company building, Water House. The New River is the river you can see a bit of, running through Clissold Park in Stoke Newington; it’s technically more of a canal; built by one Hugh Myddleton to bring water from Hertfordshire to a rapidly growing London. It was completed in 1613. Water House, built in the same year, was originally a ‘cestern house’ adjoining the reservoir, and included accommodation for the site manager.Many people had use of its residential accommodation (including Edward Sadler, who was also probably the founder of next-door Sadler’s Wells). This building grew over the decades to reflect the massive success of the New River company (King James, a key funder, lost money on it, and Hugh Myddelton was created a baronet). It grew larger and larger, and more and more respectable until finally it was a large house. In about 1693, one Sir John Grene, a wealthy shareholder of the New River Company, was living in Water house, and he commissioned an ornately carved set of pannelling for a room that became known as the Oak Room… You can read a long and intensely interesting account on British History Online.
In 1914, London’s water was municipalised and Water House had to go. Work on the new Water Board building began in 1915 – stopping between 1916 and 1919 due to the War – and the building, on a scale commensurate with the ambition of its civic status, was finished in 1920. For the past twenty years it’s been flats. When you walk in through its large stone-clad entrance, it feels plausibly Edwardian – but then the first thing you are confronted with is a grand, glorious, light-filled, pink-painted Art Deco ballroom. (This, however, is the former Rental Ledger Room, and used to host ranks of large oak desks.) The building is awash with light.
Turn left and through large glass doors to a wide, high, sweeping staircase with huge windows. At the top, back through the doors, turn down a little corridor, open another door, and you are suddenly in a rather unexpected time-warp: an oak-carved antechamber, which is the mirror of another oak antechamber, at the two ends of a dark, oak-panelled room. A marble fireplace looms in the middle of the long wall, with bookshelves in the alcoves on the sides, and intricate carvings above. Pride of place belongs to a magnificent lion and unicorn panel, where the unicorn’s horn stands free of the carving.
This is Sir John Grene’s Oak Room – given new ceiling joists in the 1860s, and then carefully dismantled and reassembled in the new Water Board building – a nod to the history of the site. The room was dismantled again in the War and the panelling taken away for safe-keeping, but the ceiling could not be moved again and the central painting had to be restored again after the War. The room is very dark – it makes more sense when you know that in its day it had glorious windows on three sides, giving panoramic views over the Round Pond that was the New River reservoir, and its filter beds. It was even open to the public.
Accommodations had to be made when it was transplanted into the new building; in one corner we found a door which, opened, revealed only brick. It was on the outside wall of the building. It’s been not-a-door for almost a century, but for two and a half centuries before that, it was a door and people walked through it. And the doorways into the antechambers – two on each end of the room, with a central panel – will have been its other windows.
You could write a whole blog post just about the notion of civic pride and historical awareness, the respect for the past and sense of beauty and historical decency that made a company spend £2,000, back when that was proper money, to keep this in situ. Nowadays, they would more likely put it on display in an airlocked vault under perspex.
In the middle of the room is a giant black oval table. When we were there it was littered with scripts, plates of chocolate biscuits, and numerous large white candles. The room has electric light, too, of course, but the three-dimensional black walls seem to just absorb it. Those three walls of windows have been a bit of a loss, in fact.
So there we were. Friends on chairs around the walls of the room, with glasses of wine or gin & tonics. Around the table sat the actors. And the reading, in due course, began…
(See more here … )
Tarling Estate, Shadwell:
Located immediately to the east of Watney Street Market, Shadwell, the Tarling Estate was built c. 1950 to replace overcrowded slums and reduce the population density by half.
The run-down estate was demolished in 2003 and replaced by a higher density mixed-use development intended to both regenerate the area and create what the developer, Toynbee Housing Association, described as ‘a more mixed and balanced community’.
Samuda Estate, Isle of Dogs:
The Samuda Estate, completed by the Greater London Council in 1967, is mainly comprised of four and six story blocks arranged around a traffic-free square. There is also a 25-storey tower block of maisonettes – Kelson House – situated on a prime site by the river. The estate is in need of refurbishment and some residents believe that the estate’s owner, One Housing Group, are deliberately running it down so it can be demolished to make way for private housing.
St John’s Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Planned in 1952 by Poplar Borough Council and described by John Betjeman as ‘one of the best post-war housing estates I have seen’, St John’s Estate was intended as a new self-contained neighbourhood along the lines of the award-winning Lansbury Estate in Poplar. In this it has largely succeeded but One Housing Group, owner of this and three other estates on the island, are considering the possibility of demolition and replacement by new high-density housing which might include several tower blocks of 50+ storeys.
Kingsbridge Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Originally known as the Millwall Estate, Kingsbridge was built by the London County Council in 1936-7, with an additional block being added in 1958-60. Despite their age, the blocks are structurally sound and are liked by many of the residents. However, their riverside location means that the value of the land they occupy is very high. The estate’s owner, One Housing Group, is currently consulting on ideas for the future, which may involve replacing the blocks with new housing for private sale.
Photos and text by Mike Seaborne, taken from Estates of Mind, photographs documenting 20th Century social housing by the Transition Group. Twitter feed: @TransitionLDN #TransitionProject. The pictures below are by Michael Mulcahy. Thanks to Mike and Michael.
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.
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.