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?’)
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.