Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings'; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.
From Twenty-Five Years 1892-1916 (New York, 1925) by Viscount Grey of Fallodon, formerly Sir Edward Grey. Sir Edward Grey was British Foreign Secretary in August 1914; Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th.
Steamboat, off Rainham Marshes, Essex. © Bill Pearson.
Bill Pearson writes:
There used to be a pub called The Princess Alice on Commercial Street in Whitechapel. I passed it every morning on my way to work; it intrigued me because it had a weird pub sign depicting a woman in a Victorian outfit – which, on closer examination, you saw was actually a corpse wearing a crinoline dress. I didn’t make any connection between the name of the pub and the significance of the sign until I spent a day walking along the Thames with a friend who is intimately acquainted with the history of London and the Thames Estuary in particular. He told me the story of the Princess Alice, a Victorian paddle steamer at the centre of London’s greatest peacetime disaster, a disaster especially significant for London’s East End.
Seawall, Canvey Island. © Bill Pearson.
The Princess Alice was a passenger vessel used for pleasure cruises and day trips, opportunities for working class Londoners to visit places like Southend on Sea, Sheerness and Gravesend. On Sunday 3rd of September 1878 she was returning from one such trip, packed with east enders who had paid two shillings each for the privilege of visiting Rosherville Gardens in Gravesend. At about 7.40pm she was almost in sight of North Woolwich Pier, where many passengers were to disembark, when the Newcastle-bound collier Bywell Castle – a 900 ton coal barge steaming with the outgoing tide – came into view. Apparently the skipper of the Bywell Castle, Captain Harrison, had spotted the lights of the Princess Alice and had correctly set a course to pass to the starboard of her. However, the skipper of the Princess Alice, Captain William Grinstead, followed an old seaman’s practice of finding the slack water of an out going tide and this put the two vessels on a direct collision course. Harrison attempted to reverse engines, but to no avail; his heavy iron ship rammed the dainty pleasure cruiser and split her in two.
West of Grays, opposite Erith. © Bill Pearson.
To compound matters, raw sewage from the pumping stations at Barking and Crossness had been discharged into the Thames just an hour earlier. The Princess Alice sank in less than four minutes, and the hundreds of passengers on board were engulfed in a river of filth. Over 650 died, although the exact figure is unknown. After the disaster a Board of Trade inquiry found that Captain Grinstead, who had drowned in the tragedy, was responsible, although this verdict was widely disputed. The inquiry also found that the Princess Alice was substantially overloaded and offered inadequate means of escape for her passengers. As a result of the disaster a Port to Port regime “with no exceptions” was instigated for shipping on the River Thames, and this stands to this day.
Wood ship, near Coalhouse Fort, East Tilbury. © Bill Pearson.
A memorial cross paid for by public subscription was raised at Woolwich Cemetery , and there is a stained glass window commemorating the disaster in St Mary Magdalene’s Church in the same borough. An information plaque about the disaster is at Tripcock Point (marked on ordnance Survey map as Tripcock Ness, roughly opposite Creekmouth/Barking Barrier, where the Outfall Sewer walk finishes). And, it would seem, a public house was re-named to commemorate the tragedy. In fact, it seems likely that the name ‘Princess Alice’ may have been chosen due to the supposed Jack the Ripper connection to the disaster. Jack’s third victim Elizabeth Stride had claimed that she was a survivor of the shipwreck, and that her husband and children had been lost in the disaster. The unfortunate Elizabeth was murdered ten years after the Princess Alice tragedy, and was killed just a few yards away from the location of the pub. However, her story was a pathetic fabrication, as her husband had succumbed to TB and the couple had never had children. In any case, the tenuous link to Whitechapel’s most infamous tourist attraction obviously proved irresistible to one publican, and it is not the first time that a Whitechapel hostelry has attempted to cash-in on the area’s grisly heritage. In the 1970s The Ten Bells was re-named The Jack the Ripper which, given the fact that some of Jack’s victims had been patrons of said pub, was in staggeringly bad taste.
West of Canvey Island, © Bill Pearson.
Before I could take a close-up of The Princess Alice’s sign, the pub was unexpectedly refurbished and re-named Culpeper; this is after Nicholas Culpeper, a Doctor, Herbalist and radical Republican who had set up a pharmacy in Spitalfields in the 1630’s. The Culpeper link is undoubtedly more appropriate for the 21st Century East End; where once was violence and grinding poverty, now there are designer outlets, stratospherically expensive houses and family-friendly pubs. Anyway, another link to London’s greatest ever civilian disaster seems to be lost, although the new owners of the Culpeper did tell me that they intend to keep The Princess Alice sign and put it on display. My own memorial to the tragedy is the pictures I have taken of the Thames Estuary, of the shores that would have been familiar to those aboard the Princess Alice, ghosts of the routes the doomed paddle steamer once plied.
© Bill Pearson. For more detail on the Princess Alice tragedy, see the page on the Thames Police Museum site.
© Martin Usborne.
I was born right by Old Street roundabout on January 1st, 1927. Some of the kids used to beat me up – but in a friendly way. Hoxton was full of characters in those days. The Mayor was called Mr. Brooks and he was also a chimney sweep. Guess what? Before the coronation, he was putting up decorations and he fell off a ladder and got killed. Well, it happens. Then there was a six-foot tall girl, she was really massive. She used to attack people and put them in police vans. Maria was her name. Then there was Brotsky who used to kill chickens with a long stick. His son’s name was Monty. That’s not a common one is it? ‘Monty Brotsky’.
© Martin Usborne
I worked two years as a cabinet maker in Hemsworth Street just off Hoxton market. But when my sinuses got bad I went to Hackney Road putting rivets on luggage cases. For about twenty years I did that job. My foreman was a bastard. Apart from that it was OK. But if I was clever, very clever, then I would have liked to be an accountant. It’s a very good job. And if I was less heavy … you know what I’d like to be? I’d like to be a ballet dancer. That would be my dream.
© Martin Usborne
I don’t mind people taking pictures of me. But I wouldn’t let a girl take a picture of me. She might have a boyfriend. I don’t want any trouble. And who knows, he might think she wants to run off with me. You got to be careful where you go nowadays. Martin, if you want to take this picture you had better be quick. I don’t take a good picture when my bladder is full.
© Martin Usborne
If I try, I can imagine the future. It’s like watching a film. Pavements will move, nurses will be robots and cars will get smaller and grow wings … you’ve just got to wait. They will make photographs that talk. You will look at a picture of me and you will hear me say: ‘Hello I’m Jospeph Markovitch’ and then it will be me telling you abut things. Imagine that! I also have an idea that in about fifty years Hoxton Square will have a new market with an amazing plastic rain cover. So if it rains the potatoes won’t get wet. I don’t know what else they will sell. Maybe bowler hats. Nothing much changes round here in the end.
© Martin Usborne.
There’s no point crying about things is there? People don’t see you when you’re sad. Best just to keep walking.
Do you know that I can’t eat lettuce? I’ve got no teeth, not for ten years. It’s hard to like lettuce if you haven’t got teeth.
… taken from I’ve Lived In East London for 86.5 Years, photographs by Martin Usborne, the debut publication of Hoxton Mini Press. More details may be found on their Kickstarter page.
Jeremy Ramsden in his darkroom at Labyrinth, Bethnal Green. © David Secombe 2011.
One of the things that is being lost in our back-lit, screen-bound digital world is the texture associated with older forms of image-making. As someone who became a photographer because I liked the idea of making something, of leaving something tangible behind me, I mourn the gradual passing of the physical photograph: the transparency, the negative and the print.
Traditionally, the relationship between photographers and their printers was not always easy; not every photographer could print their images like Eugene Smith or Don McCullin, and even if they could, they couldn’t always spend hours in the darkroom when they were busy shooting. Some printers would – justifiably – resent having to fix their clients mistakes or deal with photographers who didn’t really know what they wanted their prints to look like. But others took a more lenient view of photographers’ foibles and would, where necessary, give them an informal technical training to go with their prints. And from the mid-1980s,advances in reproduction technology and an increasing acceptance of colour negative film as a serious format for serious photography ushered in a new era of image-making. Professionals were liberated from the unforgiving tyranny of the transparency – more room for manoeuvre after the shoot, more latitude of exposure and expression, a level of freedom previously available only to those who shot black and white. It was in this arena that colour printers like Brian Dowling and Jeremy Ramsden reigned supreme.
Jeremy Ramsden, who died last week, was one of the finest colour printers of his generation. Jeremy could take a frame of anyone’s film and turn it into a work of art on paper. The quality of Jeremy’s work is only partially discernible on a website, because the sheer physical beauty of his prints, their intensity and almost holographic clarity, can only be experienced by personal appointment. Jeremy’s fanatical attention to detail was apparent in the way he would, as a matter of course, produce a variety of prints from the same frame, with each print having its own distinct mood and character. Variations on a theme, if you like, the creation of totally different images from a single piece of film. And when you got your negatives back, you’d see his meticulous notes written on little strips of masking tape affixed to the protective sheets. Jeremy went to these lengths because he cared, because he was an enthusiast for photography. And when you consider the names on his client list – which included the likes of Tim Walker, Elaine Constantine, Harry Borden, Brian Griffin – the breadth of his achievement becomes clear.
Jeremy was Australian (not for nothing was his erstwhile lab in Shoreditch called Outback) and he arrived in London as a merchant sailor in the early 1970s. He knocked around London’s photo scene in a variety of capacities – studio assistant to the likes of Brian Duffy and Angus Forbes, freelancing as a photojournalist (he was a very fine photographer in his own right) and mastering all aspects of the arcane art of colour printmaking. His experiences of the glory days of Soho in the advertising boom of the 1970s and 80s would have made a very interesting book. Jeremy had a stereotypical Ozzie enthusiasm for travel, people and a good story – but, above all, he liked sharing his enthusiasm for the world and how we see it. He was generous with his time and, like our friend John Driscoll, who died last year, he was a champion of photographers. Having Jeremy or Brian or John in your corner was like having a secret weapon; if you had the nod from them, you could breathe a little easier. They knew the score. I always thought it was important to earn the respect of the people who handled my pictures, and I think most photographers would agree – although there were some ‘celebrated’ photographers who relied a little too heavily on the expertise of darkroom staff to produce their meisterwerks. But Jeremy spoke of his clients very warmly, and this was because he was reluctant to print for anyone he didn’t respect; so an unsolicited compliment from Jeremy was worth far more than one from almost any picture editor.
It is hard to write a piece like this without sounding nostalgic or merely old; but it seems to me that apart from the loss of the tactile aspect, the ubiquity of digital imaging has led to the erosion of a social element within photography. I’m not the only one who misses that. It is hard to think of Jeremy not being there to work his magic on a print, to offer his take on it, see the potential of a negative fully realised – and then discuss the competition and swap stories over a pint. A couple of years ago, Jeremy co-founded Labyrinth, a darkroom in the East End which has become a mecca for new and established photographers. Jeremy was full of excitement for the young talents who were bringing their pictures to him, the brave ones who had chosen to render their images on film rather than as pixels on a chip. He was rejuvenated by the challenge and, apart from anything else, it is a tragedy that he will not see his fledglings develop and mature.
He gave a great deal and asked for very little in return. Personally, I owe him a huge amount – and the shock of his sudden passing still hasn’t sunk in. I can’t quite believe it. The industry will feel a lot colder without him. The world will too.
… for The London Column.
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.
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.