New Year’s Eve.

photo (2)National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge, December 2013. © David Secombe.

It’s been a smeary, wind-tossed festive season in London and the UK, and I am in a rush to go to a party in Walthamstow – but by way of farewell to 2013, here is an iPhone image of the National Theatre in which Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist masterpiece resembles a giant boiled sweet.

I don’t know about any of you but I am hoping for better things in 2014: let us hope they start tonight. Thanks to all our readers and contributors and a very Happy New Year.

David Secombe.


Christmas in the city.

1528556_740165375993652_454158685_n

The Crown, New Oxford Street. Photo: © Tim Marshall 2013.

Merry Christmas from The London Column.


Bvsh Hovse.

396767_10151003954584731_1420573269_n

Bush House from Kingsway. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

Bush House, the imposing 1920s edifice which dominates the Aldwych and looms over Kingsway, was once declared to be “the most expensive [building] in the world”: by 1929 its construction had cost its American backers £2,000,000. It was built on the site of Wych Street, an ancient survivor of the Great Fire that was ruthlessly destroyed by London County Council circa 1901.

Built of Portland stone, with extravagant use of marble for its cavernous halls, and fronted by forbidding columns surmounted by statues symbolising ‘Anglo-American friendship’, Bush House embodies its era just as much as the Deco Telegraph Building on Fleet Street, or Collcutt and Hemp’s monolithic Adelphi. (The chunk of old London flattened for the Adelphi was the Adam brothers’ graceful riverside development of 1768.) Like the ‘new’ Adelphi, the sheer bombast of Bush House trails unfortunate traces of Fascist architecture; but where Colcutt and Hemp’s stridently moderne behemoth might look at home in Mussolini’s Rome, Bush House’s gigantic faux-classical styling prefigures the more stolid brand of ‘Totalitarian Retro’ that came to be favoured by Hitler and Stalin.

270990_10150941241414731_778193871_n

Main entrance. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

246532_10150959912369731_2088966487_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

The BBC established offices in the building in 1941, and for over 70 years Bush House was home to the BBC World Service, originally known as the BBC Overseas Service. George Orwell was a BBC staff member during the war, and the interiors of the building – in particular its canteen – informed his conception of The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four. (It’s clear that the exterior of Orwell’s Ministry was modelled on Senate House in Bloomsbury, and Room 101 was said to be located somewhere in Broadcasting House, but the echoing, labyrinthine interior of Bush House invites us to imagine Winston Smith lost within it.) It might be easy to resent Bush House – for what was sacrificed for its creation, for its monumental scale, and for the sheer absurdity of that portico (which echoes, in the Latin script above its main entrance, the opening titles of a certain famous 1970s TV series: I CLAVDIVS). You could even say that the payoff for the loss of ancient Aldwych is nothing more than a faceless autostrada with a giant conceited lump at its southern end.

252619_10150978680944731_1087818264_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

577226_10150885639804731_536193090_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

But London is a restless, shape-shifting city, and Bush House has come to stand for more than the pretensions of its sponsors and designers. With the good fortune to house an institution that infused its overblown rhetoric with genuine purpose, it has become a great London building by default. Orwell’s ironic attitude to the BBC aside, during WW2 it acted as a hub for displaced European intellectuals, who broadcast to their besieged home countries from its offices; coded messages aimed at resistance fighters and SOE agents were transmitted to occupied Europe from its studios. It became a symbol of the War Effort. (It was damaged by a V1 flying bomb that hit the Aldwych in 1944; the V1 landed on the Air Ministry directly opposite, leading to worries over the eerie accuracy of those early cruise missiles.)

Even its grandiose classicism may be said to have a claim to authenticity: workmen laying Bush House’s foundations unearthed Roman statuary beneath the dust of Wych Street. A bust of a Roman noble was duly and reverently put on display in the new building’s lobby (even if there are doubts as to its provenance …).

542881_10150885622984731_1137426412_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

These photographs by Bogdan Frymorgen – a studio manager for the World Service – were taken just hours before the BBC finally left Bush House in July 2012, when the humming bustling halls and studios were already silent. Even as a series of absences, they capture a real sense of the urgency and activity that had so recently been going on. They’re full of love for a building and an institution that came to occupy an important place in British cultural history. It’s too easy to forget the esteem in which the BBC World Service is held by its distant listeners; it’s not television – therefore not sexy – but that is what gives it its reach, as radio waves can go anywhere and radios can be found everywhere. The World Service is a unique and magnificent public service; it’s Reithian; and, as such, it’s permanently under threat.

542454_10150957193414731_1046116087_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

But the BBC’s activities at Bush House weren’t confined to the World Service. Amongst other things, a great deal of radio drama was produced there, and in the past weeks I’ve been thinking of this again. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days working  on a radio play at Bush House under the aegis of Claire Grove, one of the most innovative and successful radio drama producers of our time. Her funeral was last week. Her Guardian obituary gives a rough idea of her professional brilliance, but it is hard to sum up such a vital person within the confines of an ‘Other Lives’ entry. Lemn Sissay’s appreciation gives some hints of the energy and life that occupied Claire, and indeed Bush House.

538150_10150941301284731_1602257616_n

Studio 8, cleared out. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

Amidst current refurbishment, Bush House is now occupied by a law firm and HM Customs and Excise. The love really has left the building. D.S. (with K.E-B.)

… for The London Column. Copies of Bogdan Frymorgen’s photographic tribute to Bush House may be ordered from him at frymorgen@googlemail.com or via his Facebook page. 


Dmitri Kasterine’s portraits.


Kingsley & Martin Amis, London 1975
Martin & Kingsley Amis, London, 1975. © Dmitri Kasterine.

David Secombe:

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?)

Dirk Bogarde, London, 1981Dirk Bogarde, London, 1981. © Dmitri Kasterine.

David Niven, Hertfordshire, 1979David Niven, Hertfordshire, 1979. © Dmitri Kasterine.

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.

Roald Dahl, Great Missende, Bucks., 1976Roald Dahl, Great Missenden, Bucks., 1976. © Dmitri Kasterine.

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.

Germaine Greer, London, 1975Germaine Greer London, 1975. © Dmitri Kasterine.

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

Michael Caine, London, 1973. © Dmitri Kasterine.

Paul Theroux, London, 1974Paul Theroux, London, 1974. © 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.

Anthony Powell, Somerset, 1984Anthony Powell, Somerset, 1984. © Dmitri Kasterine.

Francis Bacon, London, 1978Francis Bacon, London, 1978. © Dmitri Kasterine.

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.


A thought for the Undead.

Rotherhithe playground

Playground, Rotherhithe. © David Secombe 1988.

From The Lancet, August 23, 1884:

Burying Cholera Patients Alive 

It is not so much undue haste as inexcusable carelessness that must be blamed for the premature burying of persons who are not really dead. Such heedlessness as alone can lead to the commission of this crime is not a shade less black than manslaughter. We speak strongly, because this is a matter in regard to which measures ought to be at once taken to render the horrible act impossible, and to dismiss all fear from the public mind. If it be a fact, as would seem to be indisputable, that during the last few weeks there have been cases we will not attempt to say how many or how few of burying alive, a scandal and a horror, wholly unpardonable in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, have to be faced; and the sooner the full truth is known and rules of safety established the better.

Let it be once for all decided that measures shall be taken to ascertain the fact of death before burial. Why not revert to the old practice, and always open a vein in the arm after death, or pass a current of electricity through the body before the coffin is finally screwed down? It may be held that these unpleasant resorts are unnecessary. We do not think they are. In any case enough is known of the possibilities of ‘ suspended animation’ to render it unsafe to bury until the evidences of an actual extinction of life are unmistakable ; and, as it is impossible to wait until decomposition sets in in all cases of death from infectious diseases, it would be prudent to adopt what must certainly be the least of evils.

… our obligatory Halloween post. See also: London Gothic, Halloween, The Haunted House.  


King’s Cross Stories.

St Pancras Midland Road Exit

St Pancras, Midland Road exit. © Tim Marshall.

Andrew Martin, Notes From The Railways, The Independent, Aug 31 2006:

If, like me, you cycle through King’s Cross most days, the description of Staggs’s Gardens in ‘Dombey and Son’ will seem familiar: ‘…bridges that lead nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations…’

When you remember that a Stag was a railway speculator, that Staggs’s Gardens is supposed to be in Camden, the whole scene is a remarkable prefiguring of the bringing of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link into St Pancras and the associated works, such as the transformation of the streets east of King’s Cross into ‘Regent Quarter’ (which is somehow ten times more irritating as a name than ‘Regent’s Quarter’ would have been) and the development of the old goods yards north of King’s Cross.

Corner of York Way

Corner of York Way.  © Tim Marshall

The developers contend that ‘no one can be nostalgic for the old King’s Cross.’ Well, that depends what you mean by ‘old’. There was so much shilly-shallying over whether King’s Cross or St Pancras should receive the CTRL that the area has been blighted for at least twenty years. (And many locals, incidentally, still wonder why Eurostar is coming into North London at all, given that South London is closer to France, and that the Waterloo terminus seems to be doing perfectly well). Immediately before the blight, the area was, according to Albert Beale of Houseman’s book shop on Caledonian  Road, ‘pleasantly seedy’, as opposed to the heart of darkness, which it became.

Kings Cross Station Pancras Road Exit 2

King’s Cross, Pancras Road exit 2. © Tim Marshall.

Pre-blight, there were dark pubs where the beer mat tended to stick to the bottom of the glass, but King’s Cross was full of interesting transients, and with a sooty, crepuscular, train-haunted feel. When coming down from York as a teenager, I would drink in two wonderful old pubs in the south end of York way. The first was the Duke of York. It’s now called ‘Offshore’. Nipping in there the other day, I asked the Antipodean barmaid if she knew what the pub had been called before. A rather cruel experiment, I admit. ‘As far as I know it’s always been called Offshore,’ she said. I wonder if she also thinks it’s always been painted sky blue, and carried the slogan ‘Backpacking the world’ as it does today. This would certainly have made it stand out in 1860.

The second pub was The Railway Tavern, which had a black and white tv as late as about 1995, and was full of railway men, with those distinctive box-like shoulder bags. It is now hidden behind a hoarding, waiting to re-emerge, hung, drawn and Regent Quartered. I suppose it’ll be a Juice Bar.

McDonalds, Pentonville Rd

McDonalds, Pentonville Rd. © Tim Marshall.

In Staggs’s Gardens, the nice old Ham and Beef Shop suddenly becomes the Railway Eating House, and the word ‘Railway’ is imposed on everything, even buildings that have as yet only a façade. My fear for King’s Cross tends in the opposite direction. I worry it will lose its railway character. I could be wrong. Most of the old buildings on the Railway Lands are to be preserved. And many of the locations used in the Ladykillers – which was made in 1955 when getting on for forty trains a day were still coming into the goods yard – still survive.

King's Boulevard

King’s Boulevard. © Tim Marshall.

The house of the old lady, Mrs Wilberforce, tended to flit around a bit. Some of the exteriors were done in Goldington Crescent, which is just as elegant as ever. For her rear garden (from where the bodies of the crooks were dumped onto coal trains) a patch of grass on top of Copenhagen Tunnel was used, and if you go along to the end of Vale Royal, off York Way, you can see the very spot. A man keeps horses there. The top of the tunnel is all black, cracked Gothic battlements, and the trains still thunder underneath towards the mass of X’s that form the points leading into King’s Cross.

I do hope this prospect is preserved. If not…well, The Ladykillers is just out on DVD.

© Andrew Martin. His new novel The Night Train to Jamalpur is published by Faber on 7 of November. Tim Marshall‘s album King’s Cross Stories is on his Tumblr site.


East Ender.

redwall_(c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne.

Joseph Markovitch:

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’.

cafe (c) Martin Usborne

© 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.

Joseph (c) Martin Usborne

© 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.

exciting (c) Martin Usborne

© 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.

Joseph M (c) Martin Usborne

© 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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 140 other followers