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?’)
Tarling Estate, Shadwell:
Located immediately to the east of Watney Street Market, Shadwell, the Tarling Estate was built c. 1950 to replace overcrowded slums and reduce the population density by half.
The run-down estate was demolished in 2003 and replaced by a higher density mixed-use development intended to both regenerate the area and create what the developer, Toynbee Housing Association, described as ‘a more mixed and balanced community’.
Samuda Estate, Isle of Dogs:
The Samuda Estate, completed by the Greater London Council in 1967, is mainly comprised of four and six story blocks arranged around a traffic-free square. There is also a 25-storey tower block of maisonettes – Kelson House – situated on a prime site by the river. The estate is in need of refurbishment and some residents believe that the estate’s owner, One Housing Group, are deliberately running it down so it can be demolished to make way for private housing.
St John’s Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Planned in 1952 by Poplar Borough Council and described by John Betjeman as ‘one of the best post-war housing estates I have seen’, St John’s Estate was intended as a new self-contained neighbourhood along the lines of the award-winning Lansbury Estate in Poplar. In this it has largely succeeded but One Housing Group, owner of this and three other estates on the island, are considering the possibility of demolition and replacement by new high-density housing which might include several tower blocks of 50+ storeys.
Kingsbridge Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Originally known as the Millwall Estate, Kingsbridge was built by the London County Council in 1936-7, with an additional block being added in 1958-60. Despite their age, the blocks are structurally sound and are liked by many of the residents. However, their riverside location means that the value of the land they occupy is very high. The estate’s owner, One Housing Group, is currently consulting on ideas for the future, which may involve replacing the blocks with new housing for private sale.
Photos and text by Mike Seaborne, taken from Estates of Mind, photographs documenting 20th Century social housing by the Transition Group. Twitter feed: @TransitionLDN #TransitionProject. The pictures below are by Michael Mulcahy. Thanks to Mike and Michael.
Marketa Luskacova is a Czech photographer who has been largely resident in London since the early 1970s. She first made her name in the late 1960s, with a project documenting religious pilgrims in central Europe and a series of photographs of life in Sumiac, a remote village in Slovakia. These images show life rooted in a barely-changed medieval past, the realities of the 20th century banished by the sheer force of history. This subject matter might seem distinctly eastern European; but when she came to live in London in the early 1970s, she brought her unique sensibility (which I would characterize as a balance of grace, empathy and visual power) to the street markets of the east end.
This milieu is recognisable to us from Don McCullin’s pictures of down and outs, the footage of drunks in The London Nobody Knows, and from other photographers and film-makers who have covered the same turf: the lost and dispossessed in the dark heart of the east end. But the crucial difference between these familiar images and Marketa’s photographs of the same territory is that she wasn’t there as a social anthropologist with a Leica; she was there to buy food. The traders shown in these photographs were the ones she saw every week; they were her friends. Her pictures might be a document of a time and place, but they are also a memoir of a life.
Marketa’s images of London stand as some of the most poetic and heartbreaking photographs ever made of the city. As with all her work, these photographs exhibit an almost supernatural gift for faces. They are also an evocation of a London irretrievably lost to us; these are not scenes you will see in today’s east end. Marketa’s hawkers and street musicians are receding from us, as lost in time as the peasants of pre-industrial Europe. Marketa’s photographs of Whitechapel show a world as remote as the rituals of Sumiac.
Marketa Luskacova’s work has been in some ways neglected in comparison with other photographers of the same generation who have covered the same sorts of material. That said, her work has been widely exhibited and championed by the likes of Roy Strong, Bruce Bernard and John Berger – not to mention erstwhile Magnum colleagues such as Rene Burri, Josef Koudelka, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who selected one of her pictures for La Choix d’HCB, an exhibition of his favourite photographs. Her eye is unflinching, but her photographs brim over with feeling that never tips into sentimentality. The final picture here is, for me, one of those photographs which renders any attempt to analyse it utterly trite: I will say that it manages to be as funny as it is sad, and as mysterious as it is beautiful. True greatness. D.S.
‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.
As a counterweight to David Hoffman’s images of urban protest which we ran last week, here are a few of David’s pictures of a more peaceful London. Peaceful and largely vanished … these photographs have an elegiac quality to them, glimpses of a city that seems almost as remote as the one pictured by Thomson or A.L. Coburn. In any case, they require no further comment from me … D.S.
As part of East London Photomonth, David’s images are on display until the end of this month at a variety of cafes forming the ‘Roman Road Cafe Crawl’. David’s show at Muxima cafe runs until 27th of November. More details here.
Jeremy Paxman, Dannie Abse, Helen Mort, Forward Poetry Prize jurors 2014. © David Secombe 2014.
Perspectives – five paragraphs for Frank O’Hara by Dannie Abse:
I sit in L’Artista, our local Italian restaurant.
Outside, a rain-thrashed queue waits for their bus.
At an adjacent table, a man with liquorice hair
is shouting to himself; but soon I discover
he’s phoning someone. At 1.50pm I order
Fusilli all’ Ortolana and their house-red poison.
A waitress bending forward to pick up a spoon
bothers me in more ways than two.
She moves with such grace and femininity
the very earth is richer where she stands
It surely makes all the clientele forget
their ‘nostalgia for the infinite’ and to understand,
perhaps for the first time, ‘the nostalgia of the infinite’.
Umbrellas pass by the window as I eat my pasta.
Some of it spills onto my trousers, dammit.
Why does this make me think of how those poets
who write enigmatic nonsense become famously
the darlings of the professors they most despise?
At 2.23 p.m. I drink my cappuccino and glance
at the TV that’s flitting behind the counter.
The 2012 dogs of war are pissing on the dead, Frank.
It could by Syria. Could be Afghanistan.
At 2.40 p.m. the Renoir beautiful one
brings me the bill (£15.10p). She squawks. Pity
her voice like a very active yak makes me shiver.
Outside the rain’s gone North. A 2.41 droplet
of pure silver falls from a high tin roof.
Dannie Abse, 1923 – 2014. Thanks to Baroque in Hackney. The results of the 2014 Forward Prize for Poetry will be announced tonight at the Royal Festival Hall.
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.