A Personal History of Indian Cuisine.

Tandoori restaurant, Deptford

Tandoori restaurant, Deptford. © David Secombe 2001.

David Secombe:

It is 1975, I am 13 and, like most white British people of my generation, my experience of Indian food is limited to a small, local curry house. Remote, distant Cheam in the remote, distant 1970s offered few opportunities for culinary experiment and a trip to an Indian offered the prospect of an exotic night out. Visits to The Partition of India – or whatever it was called – were made in the company of my two elder siblings; I was taken there with some ceremony by my sister and no ceremony at all by my brother. (I was never taken there by my parents, who were not attracted by its charms.)

The suburban Indian restaurant is one of the cultural phenomena of post-war British life, signifying social change, and a broadening of the scope of what is considered our national cuisine. But the 1970s offers very few excuses for Proustian reverie; even as a teenager I was aware that my local Indian didn’t cut it, as the food was barely adequate and served by staff who seemed either torpid or desperate. I also knew that part of its appeal was its very inability to deliver the experience you were looking for; it confirmed my adolescent conviction that the suburbs were a pale shadow of the real, yet-to-be-discovered world. (Incidentally, the restaurant in question appeared to be popular with adulterers. This was my brother’s theory, and we would giggle at furtive couples in corner booths, whispering as best they could over the sitar tape whilst poking at bits of Bombay Duck. Adulterous or not, these couples were also seeking a dining experience that was clearly not forthcoming.)

By the early 1980s I had arrived in the flesh pots of south London; just a few miles away from provincial Cheam, yet Wandsworth, Clapham and Tooting were home to tempting, ‘authentic’ Indian restaurants which delighted in their specific regionality – Nepalese, Goan, Bengali. Fabled establishments like The Concert for Bangladesh, Midnight’s Kitchen, and Sherpa Tenzing offered dishes worlds away from the generic beige goo I knew from my sheltered youth. But you could still get caught out: during a meal at an unfamiliar establishment in Battersea, circa 1985, an ordinary-looking lamb passanda arrived at my table and, before anyone could say anything, the waiter produced a can of UHT whipped cream and sprayed foam all over it. It was a brilliant comic gesture, but it was supposed to be my dinner. Despite such misadventures, my local dining preference remained the curry house; I bypassed Nouvelle Cuisine and other foodie trends and stayed true to my suburban roots.

The ubiquity of Indian restaurants has generated an urban mythology particular to them. A sudden closure was darkly ascribed to the discovery of a skinned dog in the kitchen. Tales were told of a legendary establishment which offered a Chicken Bastard, a dish so hot that it was not intended to be eaten. ‘Witnesses’ spoke of an unwise party who took the challenge, goading the waiters who brought him his order, forcing it down with Carlsberg as kitchen staff emerged to watch, and of the ambulance that was summoned to take him to A&E. Such stories were clear evidence of cultural antagonism, but my own favourite tall tale is actually quite sweet, and is very possibly true. I knew a pair of Egyptian brothers who were my schoolmates at a boarding school on the outer fringes of London. It was said that at the end of term, they went into Leatherhead, ordered three dinners from the Siege of Delhi, packed them in their luggage (did they order poppadoms?), got a cab to Heathrow, flew to Cairo, and consumed the congealing banquet with their father as a festive, homecoming dinner: the ultimate Indian takeaway.

After decades of enjoying Indian food in almost every postcode within the M25, my love affair with it ended in a way my brother might have predicted. I became romantically involved with someone who remained very slightly married, and our lunchtime venue was a classy Indian in St James’s. The Cawnpore Massacre is one of London’s best restaurants, but its convenience for my beloved made it a kind of hell for me. As the months dragged on, I became all too familiar with the delicacies on offer, and the wonders of its kitchen paled against the looming inevitability of my defeat. To paraphrase Robert Shaw in Jaws, ‘I’ll never order Rhogan Josh again’.

© David Secombe 2013.


A Psychogeographical Christmas. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Cleveland St Workhouse Telecom Tower The Cleveland Street Workhouse and the BT Tower. Photo © David Secombe 2011.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse was built in 1775 as a workhouse infirmary and ended up as part of the Middlesex Hospital until that institution closed in 2005. According to  The Cleveland Street Workhouse it ‘has survived largely unchanged since the Georgian era. Its austere appearance is a rare testimony to the bleak and utilitarian institution it was designed to be. Its back yard was a graveyard for the poor, full of dead to a depth of at least 20 feet.  Recent research has revealed that the building was the likely inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, since the famous author lived a few doors away, on the same side of the road, for nearly five years of his young life, before he became famous as ‘Boz’’.

As it is Dickens’s bicentennial year, I offer here a glimpse of the grim edifice that loomed over the infant Dickens’s early years in the city. He was only two years old when his parents, fresh from Portsmouth, found lodgings in Norfolk Street – now Cleveland Street – in 1814. At that time the area still had a semi-rural character, with fields and farms lying just east of Tottenham Court Road – although the grand houses of Fitzroy Square were under construction and the churning awfulness of Oxford Street was only a few yards away. Dickens’s friend John Forster said that the novelist was able to recall vivid details of his early childhood, so it is an attractive proposition to believe that the workhouse in the picture above marked itself indelibly upon young Charles’s imagination during the three years (not five) in which he and his family lodged in the district. By 1817, Charles’s father had got a job in Chatham, and it was another five years before Dickens returned to the city, leaving his idyllic years in the Kent countryside for a more permanent engagement with ‘the great wilderness of London’.

The traditional Christmas is in many ways Dickens’s own creation, marked in particular by his characteristic juxtaposition of seasonal conviviality against the bleakness outside: ‘exaggerating the darkness beyond the small circle of light’ as Peter Ackroyd puts it. Dickens described composing A Christmas Carol whilst walking ‘the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed’ and, for all its fairy-tale sentiment, it succeeded in rousing the conscience of his contemporary audience. The following year he produced The Chimes, another seasonal polemic. According to Ackroyd, The Chimes was partially inspired by a complacent review of A Christmas Carol and also by a story in The Times concerning a young woman, terrified of the workhouse, who had thrown herself and her baby into the Thames – the baby drowned, but the mother was rescued and condemned to death for murder of her child. The Cleveland Street Workhouse was Grade II listed in 2011 and, given Dickens’s agitating for reform of the Poor Law and his disdain for old buildings in general, he would probably have been appalled that this symbol of misery had been preserved for the nation – but there’s no question that the building retains its cruel power, an emblem of the darkness and suffering against which Dickens created some of his most brilliant effects..

Further north on Cleveland Street is the BT Tower, built as The Post Office Tower in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), its construction flattening a block of Workhouse-era buildings on the corner of Howland Street, including the one where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived during their stay in the city. The cylindrical form of the Tower was intended to lend stability in high winds – especially, it was darkly muttered, those from a nuclear blast. The Tower is also Grade II listed, and it too is an emblem of its time, redolent of the Cold War and the avowed technological modernity of the MacMillian/Wilson ‘White Heat of Technology’ era. When it opened in 1965, it boasted a revolving restaurant at its top, a concession operated by Billy Butlin; but if a nuclear exchange had taken place, the Tower would have been essential in maintaining contact between whatever was left of Britain and whatever was left of everywhere else. Today, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower almost as obsolete as its neighbour the Workhouse. The revolving restaurant was closed after an IRA bomb incident in 1971, and plans to re-open the venue for the 2012 Olympics were quietly shelved – which is a pity, as it would have made a suitably elevated position for the ego of some superchef or other. But, as this is a Christmas post, it is pleasing to report that on Christmas Day 1984, Noel Edmonds’s Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show was broadcast from the top of the Tower, an event described by its coiffed and beaming host as ‘one of the greatest communications projects ever put forward’. Noel went on to present several such Christmas Day TV events from the Tower throughout the 1980s, thus associating an icon of post-war modernity with the traditional late-20th Century Christmas: bored, over-fed and in front of the telly.

(NB: My friend and colleague Chris Brand has just pointed out that I have overlooked the Post Office Tower’s finest moment, in The Goodies’s Kitten Kong episode. Was this a Christmas special? Who cares.)

And on that tenuous and tortuously established link, we would like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas.

… for The London Column.

See also: The London Nobody Knows – revisited, Christmas on Greek Street


Up My Street. Photo: Dylan Collard (3/5)

The Archway Cafe. © Dylan Collard.

David Secombe writes:

The genius of photography is the commemoration of the ephemeral; this is the reason why some of us are beady on the subject of digital photography, as it represents the commemoration of the ephemeral by means of the even-more-ephemeral. No such qualms arise from this week’s images by Dylan Collard, which were made using defiantly old-school methods. For his photos documenting the Holloway Road, Dylan lugged his massive Gandolfi ‘field’ camera (a device the size of a large hatbox, bolted to a hefty tripod) up and down that windswept, Stalinist boulevard to record scenes as quotidian as one could imagine.

In today’s photo, the proprietor (it can be no-one else) of the Archway Cafe poses for the camera in a way that we believe – we know – to be characteristic. Of course, he is having us on; he is playing the part of a surly cafe owner for our benefit, he knows that he is being memorialised for posterity – and Dylan’s limpid image preserves the shrewd glance of this short-order chef as if in amber.

Yet, if current trends continue, this commonplace scene is likely to disappear within a few years. The formica and the plastic condiment bottles already look like period pieces in this context, where they are employed as functional items rather than archly retro decor.  This is not a cafe for budding screenwriters with their MacBook Pros, or middle-class mums with Range Rover-sized prams and Orla Kiely infants, but it can only be a matter of time. The hipster-friendly make-over of the Holloway Road is upon us with the inevitability of a melting ice shelf. And perhaps that is why our man in the Archway Cafe is so watchful, he might be keeping an eye out for the wrecking hordes: the girls with oversized glasses, cut-off shorts and day-glo leggings, the thin young men with buttoned-up plaid shirts, skinny jeans and implausibly bushy boybeards … an army of destruction as potent as any in history.

… for The London Column. 

Up My Street is Dylan Collard‘s project documenting shops between Kentish Town and Archway. His exhibition The Twelfth Man is currently showing at Exposure Gallery, 22-23 Little Portland Street, London W1. Dylan is represented by the Vue agency. 


Street traders. Photo David Secombe, text Susan Grindley. (3/3)

Bobby Redrupp and customer, Chapel Market, 1990. © David Secombe.

Leakage in Chapel Market, N1

She’s hanging on. I go to lunch.
An old man with a dewdrop on his nose
shuffles towards the market, inching round
a rotting mango and the discarded cartons
propped against the shop that takes my eye
with its display of candyfloss-pink chairs.
A boy reads from a placard to his friend
that Superman has lost his fight for life.
It’s only the cold wind that fills my eyes
and cyclamen in a new shade of purple.

© Susan Grindley.


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