A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.
David Secombe: Thirty years ago, I accepted an assignment to illustrate a book of ‘London Walks'; I might have approached this task with more enthusiasm if I hadn’t known that I was offered the brief because the publisher didn’t have the money to pay the author’s preferred photographer. I lost my own copy of the finished item long ago, but recently came across one whilst helping my girlfriend clear an elderly aunt’s house. Looking at it now, it’s obvious that it was a formative experience for me, and that my photos were terrible. In an attempt to expiate former sins, this is the first of two posts revisiting the territory in a bid to see if a grizzled hack can improve upon a callow youth.
On a wet evening last week, I traced the steps of the ‘Riverine Strand’ walk in the company of TLC contributor and bad wine specialist CJ of the Sediment blog. We met outside Gordon’s Wine bar at the bottom of Villiers Street, both of us soaked through and longing for a glass of anything a notch above foul. Gordon’s advertises itself as ‘London’s oldest wine bar’, and it remains an atmospheric place to drink, although it has become more of a corporate playground in recent years. On this occasion our way to the bar was barred by thronging suits, which is why this piece lacks a picture of the vaulted cellar which is Gordon’s USP. We moved on …
York Watergate. © David Secombe 2014
Opposite Gordon’s is a surviving fragment of the lost, pre-Embankment riverside landscape that once constituted this area: York Watergate, landing for York House, a palazzo which bordered the river for over 500 years. York House’s final, broke, owner, George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, flogged it to developers for thirty grand. As Wikipedia gelidly states: ‘He made it a condition of the sale that his name and full title should be commemorated by George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these streets are extant …’. For CJ’s benefit I pointed out that Samuel Pepys lived in a couple of houses on Buckingham Street, and that he also lived in the building where Gordon’s is now. CJ observed that it was still raining.
Lower Robert Street, Adelphi. © David Secombe 2014.
Lower Robert Street is an odd, subterranean thoroughfare that runs through what was once the undercroft of Adelphi Terrace, the centrepiece of the Adam Brothers’ Adelphi development. From The Encyclopedia of London:
In 1867 the Adelphi vaults were ‘in part occupied as wine cellars and coal wharves, their grim vastness, a reminder of the Etruscan Cloaca of old Rome’. Here, according to Tombs, ‘the most abandoned characters have often passed the night, nestling upon foul straw; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in these dismal haunts before the introduction of gaslight and a vigilant police’.
Dickens has David Copperfield wandering through this vanished maze, ‘a mysterious place with those dark arches’, which we can assume was an autobiographical reference. When I visited Lower Robert Street in the ’80s, for the purpose of illustrating the guidebook, it was still possible to see a dark courtyard beyond an iron gate: the basement of an Adam townhouse, seen from the POV of Victorian low-life … but that gate is bricked up now. (I dilated upon this factoid to an increasingly glazed CJ as drops of rainwater fell from his rimless spectacles.)
Above, the Adam houses reportedly were – as the houses that remain still are – a toy-town vision of elegance and grace. Of the Adelphi Terrace, E.V.Lucas wrote in 1916: ‘The Adelphi is still a favourite abode of men of letters, for it is central yet retired, and the brothers Adam planned rooms of peculiar comfort’. David Garrick, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, all lived there, making it a sort of riverside version of The Albany.
Adelphi Terrace was demolished by London County Council in 1936 and replaced by Collcutt and Hemp’s vast Deco block. The Adams’ Adelphi was the first neoclassical building in London, whereas Collcutt and Hemp’s edifice – grotesquely named ‘Adelphi’ – has been described by Ed Glinert (in The London Compendium) as ‘London’s most authentic example of totalitarian 1930s architecture’. Like Bush House at the other end of the Strand, it is a permanent reminder of loss, of a wrong inflicted upon the city. (NB: we are currently working on a survey of Boris Johnson’s skyscraper-nurturing programme.) In 1951, London County Council installed a plaque on one of the pillars of the ‘new’ Adelphi to commemorate the one they had connived to destroy. (The photo at the top of this post is of the Adam house which remains on Robert Street, facing Collcutt and Hemp, home to the Royal Society of Arts.)
Savoy Way. © David Secombe 2014
At this point, CJ wanly suggested going for a drink at the Savoy; but I reminded him that the last time we did that was five years ago, when both of us had money. Instead, we contented ourselves with a cursory inspection of the hotel’s rear quarters, a paragon of rationality, clad in the glazed tiles the Victorians reserved for only the filthiest urban environments.
At Oscar Wilde’s first trial, the following exchange took place between prosecution witness Charles Parker and prosecutor Charles Gill:
PARKER: Subsequently Wilde said to me. ‘This is the boy for me! Will you go to the Savoy Hotel with me?’ I consented, and Wilde drove me in a cab to the hotel. Only he and I went, leaving my brother and Taylor behind. At the Savoy we went first to Wilde’s sitting room on the second floor.
GILL: More drink was offered you there?
PARKER: Yes, we had liqueurs. Wilde then asked me to go into his bedroom with him.
(In an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest, a solicitor arrives to remove Algernon to Holloway Prison for non-payment of restaurant bills at the Savoy, whereupon Algie retorts: ‘I am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End. It is ridiculous.’ Prior to his first trial, Wilde found himself held on remand at Holloway.)
It is tempting to imagine Oscar and Bosie hustling rent boys past the laundry bins and crates of vegetables on Savoy Way. CJ wondered whose laundry the gent in the photo might be carrying.
Savoy Chapel, Savoy Lane. © David Secombe 2014.
Adjacent to the Savoy stands one of those anomalous bits of medieval London marooned amongst anonymous offices. Savoy Palace, a vast 13th Century manor, once sprawled across the foreshore here; the Palace was entirely destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt but the chapel was later rebuilt as part of Henry VII’s Savoy Hospital, of which it is now the only survivor. I don’t know whether Oscar and Bosie ever came here to ‘cool [their] hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things’, but this happens to be the spot where another Savoy resident, the newly-electric Bob Dylan, telegraphed Subterranean Homesick Blues for D.A. Pennebaker’s camera, as Allen Ginsberg and Tom Wilson loitered meaningfully in the background.
CJ and I emerged from Savoy Lane onto the Strand whereupon it started raining again, so we redoubled our efforts to find a sane place to drink. Dodging umbrellas and puddles by the corner of Waterloo Bridge, we chanced to see Peter Ackroyd alight elegantly from a cab and dive into a Tesco Express. We thought of waiting to see what the biographer of London would do when he emerged, entertaining the wistful hope that he might pop into Maplin’s for some fuses or a remote-controlled helicopter … but my boot was leaking, so we went to the Lamb and Flag, where we stood outside and drank our beers in the rain.
© David Secombe … for The London Column.
Bow Street police station, WC2. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Tying in with today’s post on Wilde’s trials on Baroque in Hackney, we reprise this photograph and extract which were originally published in 2010 on Esoteric London.
From The Life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson, 1946:
[. . .] at some point between seven and eight o’clock that evening the police called at the Cadogan Hotel and knocked at the door of Room 53.
‘Mr. Wilde I believe?’
‘We are police officers and hold a warrant for your arrest.’
‘Oh really?’ He seemed relieved.
‘I must ask you to accompany us to the police station.’
Wilde got up, a little unsteadily, put on his overcoat, took his hat and gloves, and followed them out. They drove in a four wheeler, via Scotland Yard, to Bow Street. Robert Sherard asked Wilde, in view of his superstition on the subject, whether the cab horse that drove him from the Cadogan was white. ‘I was too much interested to notice’, said Wilde, having chatted away on all sorts of topics with the detectives, who thought him a most amiable gentleman. At Bow Street, the charges were read out to him, after which he was taken to a cell, where press reporters were allowed to peer at him through the grille, and where he paced to and fro all night, unable to sleep. Next day he was removed to Holloway Gaol.
* The above photo and the following text were found on the top deck of a 243 bus travelling through Dalston. The top of the A4 sheet was torn and the artist’s name was missing.
I make images because I am driven to commit a feeling to something visual. My work is endowed with a narrative quality. Through a personally charged perception I explore a range of issues relating to the formlessness of both individual and social reality. This evolves from a close reading of discourse and neuroses surrounding the condition of human existence. I translate the incoherence of lived experience into elements accomplished by a distortion of what is known. The real thus becomes charged with imagined specificity. By describing the world as I imagine, perceive and exist within it, this element of personal mirroring may also act as a reflective process for the viewer.
Precious Fragments, Café Oto 2011
The Interrupted Onanist, Camberwell Space 2012
This, Again, Is What I Saw, The Agency 2013
The Solomon Grouper Foundation Tablet (nominee)
Dilys Trend Memorial Beaker (runner-up)
Hackney Gazette Pop-Up Of The Week (finalist)
There are too many photographers. Far, far too many. As the truism goes, these days everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Not only that, but everyone who’s been photographed is a celebrity. Current devalued concepts of achievement in the public sphere mean that the ever-increasing number of portrait photographers are faced with a chronic shortage of real, vital personalities worth photographing. (Celebrity chefs, boy bands, soap stars and their ilk – really?)
Major cultural figures are in short supply. Perhaps more to the point, the ones we’ve got don’t occupy the same space that they might have done 30 or even 20 years ago. Artists, writers, and thinkers used to be listened to as public figures; we’ve got no time for that now. For an ambitious portrait photographer, there are forums for the dissemination of photographic portraits as art, but such well-meaning, prize-giving endeavours seem culturally marginal and a more than little academic, when you compare them to the oracular power of a photograph that everyone was going to be looking at, of a person everyone was listening to.
Enter: a portfolio of limpidly beautiful portraits by Dmitri Kasterine, derived from his career as an editorial photographer in London and New York from 1960 to the 1990s. Looking at these pictures now, it is hard not to think, a little bitterly, that Dmitri was fortunate to be working before the internet, the population explosion, and a thousand TV channels splintered our attention forever; but it is also clear that he has the rare ability – it is genuinely rare – to photograph any human being with sovereign insight. His portrayal of everyday English life may be seen in this series of posts we ran in 2011; today, we are showing a selection from his chronicle of London’s intellectual life during the 70s-90s.
Part of Dmitri’s shtick (it almost looks like a shtick, these days) is an unassuming method: unobtrusive lighting, plain backgrounds, tones in the middle register … With simple means and an instinct for the essential, he penetrates his subjects’ defences far beyond the remit of a magazine portrait. Take the portraits of the actors on this page. There is genuine pain in his study of David Niven; Dirk Bogarde was reportedly unhappy with Kasterine’s portrait, its piercing honesty too much for the old matinee idol; and Michael Caine, denied his usual opportunity for Bermondsey charm or gangster menace, is revealed as a shrewd tycoon in ‘70s eyewear. Roald Dahl poses jauntily enough in summer gear, but his reptilian stare flatly contradicts his clothes’ carefree attitude, and forbids the viewer to find anything amusing. Paul Theroux, on the other hand, appears as if playing the part of a novelist: dominated by his accessories, he seems uncomfortable with the costume that wardrobe has assigned him.
Michael Caine, London, 1973. © Dmitri Kasterine.
Dmitri’s portrait of Kingsley and Martin Amis is a forensic document of English letters’ most awkward dynastic double act – Kingsley in his proto-Thatcherite pomp, the broken arm a possible souvenir of a drunken bender, and Martin exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to write better novels than his father. Anthony Powell determinedly maintains his aristocratic poise in the face of encroaching age, but the price is a whiff of camp – by contrast, Francis Bacon defiantly shows us the youthful hustler he once was.
Dmitri moved to America in 1985 and continued his career in New York: his Stateside subjects range from Saul Bellow to Cindy Sherman, Johnny Cash to Jean-Paul Basquiat, Steve Martin to Mick Jagger. Like Irving Penn, he captures his sitters by stealth. Now 80, he lives in Newburgh, New York, where he has been photographing the city and its inhabitants since 1992.
So many photographers are called to the profession with the burning desire to document the world, and that’s a noble thing. The gift is actually to be able to see it.
… for The London Column.
Tennyson Street, Battersea. Photo © David Secombe 1982.
From Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907:
It was not till the winter was well advanced that he began at all to explore the region in which he lived. Soon after his arrival in the grey street he had taken one or two vague walks, hardly noticing where he went or what he saw; but for all the summer he had shut himself in his room, beholding nothing but the form and colour of words. [. . .]
Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlours of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner. As he went farther afield a sense of immensity slowly grew upon him; it was as if, from the little island of his room, that one friendly place, he pushed out into the grey unknown, into a city that for him was uninhabited as the desert.
At 11.30 a.m. (UK) today, Thursday 4 July, Radio 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Arthur Machen and his ‘disturbing’ visions of a world beyond our own.
I love my body at the moment…..it’s not that I think it looks good (according to whatever criteria one uses to define a good looking body)……..it’s just that it is all I’ve got but this bloody disease is chipping away at it and I am hanging on to what physicality I still have…….and maybe that is why I do so much photography and filming in the nude………..well, partly why………..I do feel that clothes make statements which is fine but a body is just you, unadorned…….and it says so much more…….no I can’t tell you what more it says for I am a bear of little brain………..
In the luminous glass box of the Guardian Gallery, situated in the foyer of the newspaper’s offices in King’s Cross, I am surrounded by images of one man. This man is not a cultural figure or head of state; he is an ex-solicitor from Surrey who took early retirement following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The occasion is the private view of Over The Hill: A Photographic Journey, subtitled ‘One man’s confrontation with his own mortality’, an exhibition (sponsored by Parkinson’s UK) featuring the work of 30 out of the 240-odd photographers who have photographed Tim Andrews since 2008. I was invited because the image above was selected – by The Guardian – as one of the exhibits.
Over The Hill is an unusual undertaking inasmuch as it is a form of extended self-portraiture by someone who is not an artist. Tim Andrews expresses himself by making himself available to photographers to photograph. One tries to think of precedents but the only one I can offer is that of a Renaissance prince, a Medici or similar, commissioning many portraits in order to contemplate his corporeal being. The difference between Tim Andrews and your average Medici is that Tim likes to be portrayed in the buff, and foregrounds this preference in discussions with the photographers. As indicated by the quote above, Tim equates nakedness with truthfulness, but this has always been contentious and is even more so when spoken by a subject keen to get his kit off for the camera.
At any rate, a wide range of photographers have been happy to photograph Tim and many have taken him up on his offer to disrobe; yet whilst their sympathy towards their subject is palpable, there are more than a few images wherein he appears as no more than a conceptual prop. The ex-solicitor is asked to represent weighty themes: the ‘identity of the body’, the nature of disability, and, yes, the confrontation with mortality. We see him as a wood nymph, as a saint, as Shiva, etc. Forensic psychological portraiture is at a premium (notable exceptions include Harry Borden and Alex Boyd) and there is also a note of competition, as big names and aspiring art photographers vie with each other to create the most eye-catching image of an increasingly desirable ‘scalp’.
What do we know about Tim Andrews? I can tell you that he is a very nice man who didn’t like being a solicitor – he really wanted to be an actor – who is one of the 127,000 people in the UK who suffer from Parkinson’s. I don’t know if Over The Hill tells us anything we didn’t already know about the condition – a difficult disease to depict in a still image – but it reveals something about Tim Andrews, and quite a lot about the nature of modern fame. His journey from frustrated provincial solicitor to art world pin-up has all the key ingredients of an Arts & Lifestyle feature: mid-life crisis, sudden illness, confessional memoir, nudity, and the glamour of association with celebrity (the distant connection between Tim Andrews and the famous subjects of the better-known photographers involved). I don’t doubt that Tim Andrews is anything less than utterly sincere, but it is hard to overlook the compulsive exhibitionism – masochism, even – of the project. And despite the accomplishment of much of the work in it, Over The Hill has the feeling of a scrapbook: Tim gives the pictures titles and adds a whimsical, inward-looking commentary that tends to smother them. No image is allowed to speak on its own terms. There is a lot going on here, but it needs someone other than the subject of the photos to unpack it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the project is the oblique insight it affords us into the mystery of portraiture. Some of the most memorable faces on the planet are people famous only for their appearance in a great image: August Sander’s farmers, Paul Strand’s blind woman, Brassai’s drinker, Don McCullin’s shell-shocked marine, Diane Arbus’s boy in curlers, Eve Arnold’s Chinese lady, etc. We know nothing about the histories of these people but the images are indelible. On the other hand, we have the Great photographed by the Great; so here’s Francis Bacon by Bill Brandt, Truman Capote by Irving Penn, Ezra Pound by Richard Avedon, Camus by Cartier-Bresson – and, for that matter, Graham Greene by Dmitri Kasterine. Such portraits have myth-making capacity. By contrast, the subject of Over The Hill is both anonymous and celebrated; an ordinary man made extraordinary by the elaborate attention paid to him. It’s a cute story but, inevitably, the law of diminishing returns applies. The endless repetition of Tim’s body, with and without clothes, becomes a hall of mirrors: the more distorted the reflection, the less we apprehend the person in the frame. What the viewer sees is Tim looking at the photographers looking at him looking at them.
But none of these caveats really matter. It is clear that being seen is Tim’s overriding concern, the images themselves are of secondary importance. His story is redolent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasy, and if he’d lived in an earlier era he might have inspired a novel by Arnold Bennett or Somerset Maugham. He is The Man Who Lived Again; and he has used his failing body to proclaim his existence.
Over The Hill runs at the Guardian Gallery, King’s Place, London N1, until 21st June. A selection from the project is also on show at the Farley Farm House gallery, Sussex, during June and July.