Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk, Thamesmead. © George Plemper 1976.
In late 1972 I made the journey to Leicester Square to see A Clockwork Orange. As with all Kubrick’s
films I thought the film was visually stunning and I loved the use of music throughout. The physical
and sexual violence seemed to me more theatrical than factual and I was astonished to hear a year
later the film had been banned.
All thoughts of the film had long gone when I crossed the footbridge across Yarnton Way
to Riverside School, Thamesmead in 1976. I had no idea I was entering a scene from Kubrick’s vision
of a desolate and violent Britain. My aims were simple; I was going to use the camera to show my
pupils that they were great, to show them that we were all worthwhile.
From A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain by Owen Hatherley:
It’s impossible to praise the original Thamesmead without caveats. There were never enough facilities, the transport links to the centre were always appalling, and the development was always shockingly urban for its outer-suburban context. Regardless, it is something special, a truly unique place. It always was, and remains so in its current, amputated form.
Unlike its successors, it’s flood-proof and still architecturally cohesive, after decades of abuse. Around Southmere lake you can see, just about, how with some decent upkeep and with tenants being given the choice rather than being dumped here, this could have been a fantastic place … This is basically a working-class Barbican, and if it were in EC1 rather than SE28 the price of a flat would be astronomical. Today it feels beaten and downcast, and it only ever gets into the news through vaguely racist stories about the Nigerian fraudsters apparently based here; but its architectural imagination, civic coherence and thoughtful detail, its nature reserves and wild birds, have everything that the ‘luxury flats’ lack.
Southmere Lake and Binsey Walk today. © David Secombe 2013.
Where Alex walked … watch him pitch his droogs into the cold, cold waters of Southmere Lake here.
Pinner Station at dusk. © David Secombe 2011.
From Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin*:
‘Londoner,’ said Bowman, shaking his head, ‘born in some tedious spot like … I don’t know… Pinner’.
From Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter:
ACCORDION MAN: We’re all going to hell. We’re all going to burn in hell. Thank you very, very much, sir. Thank you very, very much, madam. Thank you very, very much, sir.
Today marks the 150th birthday of The Tube – and for The London Column’s modest contribution to this anniversary I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the BBC4 repeat at 10 pm tonight of TLC contributor Edward Mirzoeff’s classic 1973 documentary Metro-Land, written and presented by John Betjeman. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, this film is a glorious relic of the golden age of the British television documentary, and takes as its subject the early 20th Century suburbs that grew up alongside the Metropolitan Line as it extended deep into rural Middlesex. As the poet laureate of inter-war suburbia and the Met line in particular, Betjeman is the ideal tour guide for this trip from Baker Street to Neasden, Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and beyond.
Pinner is the quintessence of inter-war residential development: serried rows of polite, cheerful villas and semi-detached houses spreading outwards from the remnants of an ancient hamlet. So whilst Pinner Village contains some very old houses indeed, the Metropolitan Line is the reason we are here: Met Line trains from Pinner station take just 25 minutes to reach Baker Street. Pinner’s tidy crescents and avenues were intended as havens from the dirt and clamour of the city – with desirable residences, clean air, the Met Line to take you into town, and the shops and cinema of the new parade just a few steps away, what more could life offer? Naturally, Metro-Land’s quasi-rural calm came at the expense of Middlesex’s actual rural landscape, which entirely disappeared beneath the streamlined semis, but this is a very English approach to Moderne living (as opposed to Modernism, which the British didn’t exactly take to their hearts) – tidy, domesticated, and hungry for acreage. Metro-Land is not so much a place as a state of mind, a dream of what life might be; a bucolic idyll with all the benefits that the Tube, the ring roads, the wireless and state-of-the-art plumbing could bring.
But the near-identical streets of Pinner, Eastcote, Ruislip, Rayners Lane and their neighbours are also an expression of a state of unease. The cosy, complacent sprawl of these suburbs comes at a price. The new suburban landscape goaded and inspired Betjeman (‘Your lives were good and more secure/Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner’), as it did George Orwell (Coming up for Air), Louis MacNeice ( ‘But the home is still a sanctum under the pelmets’), Graham Greene (‘a sinless, empty, graceless, chromium world’), Patrick Hamilton (The Plains of Cement) and other writers of the period. They saw fear behind the Deco stained glass. In Dennis Potter’s 1930s-set masterpiece Pennies from Heaven, his doomed travelling-salesman hero Arthur Parker lives in just such a suburb, and oscillates between a joyous fantasy life and an actual life of frustration and anguish. Metro-Land is a perennially vanishing landscape of promise. Close the windows and draw the curtains, a storm is coming.
… for The London Column.
Photo © David Secombe 2011.
David Secombe writes:
This photograph was taken on that faceless stretch of The Brighton Road which runs between Purley and the mean streets of downtown Croydon. Technically, I think we are in South Croydon – or perhaps Sanderstead. Purley Oaks maybe? The Empowerment Centre is still listed on Internet databases as ‘a function room and banqueting centre’, but business seemed a bit slow the day I took this picture. ‘Empowerment’ is one of those words that has become tarnished through endlessly repeated misuse, and prompts thoughts of other terms that have become similarly degraded: ‘passionate’ (mandatory for politicians and CEOs); ‘celebrate’ – and its evil cousin, ‘celebrity’; ‘inclusive’; ‘accessible’, ‘iconic’, etc. These words have suffered a migration of meaning that might be said to constitute a failure of language, or perhaps its defeat.
But The Empowerment Centre’s fate seems appropriate to its location. Central Croydon is a pitiful 1960s attempt to construct an international city on the corpse of a Surrey market town. It is particularly anomalous to discover such futuristic pretensions to civic grandeur in that peculiar interzone between the South Circular (A205) and the M25: an aggregate of 20th Century suburban housing, golf clubs, retail parks, and marooned remnants of historic or industrial ‘heritage’ (there’s another one). This ‘edgeland’ has something in common with J.G. Ballard’s beloved west London suburbs, but none of their seedy glamour: the ancient village of Heathrow made way for London’s main air terminal, and the decommissioned rump of Croydon Airport – its Art Deco terminal hall and a shabby, decorative turbo-prop airliner – is a sad and perfunctory reminder of the district’s lost prestige. The airfield – its runways too short for post-war, inter-continental passenger jets – has long been built over, affording a misty, sylvan setting for an array of retail units.
John Betjeman’s poem Croydon evokes memories of a sweeter time, one of his idylls of lost suburban innocence …
Croydon by John Betjeman
In a house like that
Your Uncle Dick was born;
Satchel on back he walked to Whitgift
Every weekday morn.
Boys together in Coulsdon woodlands,
Bramble-berried and steep,
He and his pals would look for spadgers
The laurels are speckled in Marchmont Avenue
Just as they were before,
But the steps are dusty that still lead up to
Your Uncle Dick’s front door.
Pear and apple in Croydon gardens
Bud and blossom and fall,
But your Uncle Dick has left his Croydon
Once for all.
© Tim Marshall 2011.
From London’s Historic Railway Stations, John Betjeman, 1972:
“For the last ninety years almost, Sir Gilbert Scott has had a bad Press. He is condemned as facile, smart, aggressive, complacent and commercial.When at the top of his form Scott was as good as the best of his Gothic contemporaries. He was so firm a believer in the Gothic style as the only true ‘Christian’ style – Scott was a moderate High Churchman – that he was determined to adapt it for domestic and commercial purposes. St. Pancras Station hotel was his greatest chance in London and well he rose to the occasion.
I used to think that Scott was a rather dull architect, but the more I have looked at his work the more I have seen his merits. He had a thorough knowledge of construction, particularly in stone and brick. For St. Pancras the bricks were specially made by Edward Gripper in Nottingham. The decorative iron work for lamp standards and staircases and grilles was by Skidmore of Coventry, who designed the iron screens in some English cathedrals for Scott. The roofs of the hotel are of graded Leicestershire slates; the stone comes mostly from Ketton. Scott’s buildings are so well-built they are difficult to pull down. He had a grand sense of plan and site. The Grand Staircase, which alone survives of the hotel’s chief interior features, ascends the whole height of the building, by an unbelievably rich cast iron series of treads with stone vaulting and painted walls. The chief suites of rooms are on the first floor and the higher the building, the less important the rooms, until the quarters for the servants are reached in the gabled attics – men on one side, women on the other – and separate staircases. Yet even these are large and wide and compare favourably with more modern accommodation. The building has been chopped up and partitioned inside for offices. It is odd that it is not used again as an hotel especially now that hotels are so badly needed in London.”
Edward Mirzoeff writes:
Not long after this book was published I approached British Railways proposing a BBC documentary on London stations, with Betjeman. BR insisted on charging a facility fee at the same daily rate as that for feature films – which killed the idea, doubtless as intended.
Pepys Estate, Deptford, 1970. Photo © Tony Ray-Jones/RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
Edward Mirzoeff writes:
Bird’s-Eye View was a pioneering series of 13 films shot entirely from a helicopter. For the first of these, The Englishman’s Home (BBC2 5 April 1969) John Betjeman wrote in the commentary about the new high-rise blocks. At the time his strongly-felt views were very much against progressive liberal thinking on the subject, and what he wrote was attacked and derided. By now most people have come round to his old-fashioned but humane way of thinking.
Betjeman refused to fly in the helicopter, but wrote his commentary, in verse, over weeks in the cutting room, once the picture-editing had been completed.
[Edward Mirzoeff was the producer of Bird’s Eye View.]
Pepys Estate, Deptford by John Betjeman:
Where can be the heart that sends a family to the 20th floor
In such a slab as this. It can’t be right, however fine the view
Over to Greenwich, and the Isle of Dogs.
It can’t be right, caged halfway up the sky
Not knowing your neighbour, frightened of the lift,
And who’ll be in it, and who’s down below
And are the children safe?
What is housing if it’s not a home?”
[Tony Ray-Jones was one of Britain’s finest photographers, whose early death – at just 30 – in 1972 robbed us of an artist of acute insight and integrity. His book A Day Off is celebrated as one of the definitive post-war photographic studies of British life, and influenced a generation of native photographers, not least Martin Parr whose early work showed an obvious debt to Ray-Jones. Until I went searching for means of contacting the Ray-Jones estate, I was unaware of his work for Architectural Review in 1970: a total of 138 pictures that are now in the RIBA photographic library. These are images of the impact of modern housing, and he responded to the brief with characteristic power; he seems to have been especially engaged with the London subjects – Deptford, Thamesmead, the Old Kent Road, etc. – and some of these pictures are the equal of his better-known work. The London Column will be running a further two images from TRJ’s series on the Pepys Estate later this week. Special thanks to Robert Elwall at RIBA Library Photographs for allowing us to reproduce them here. D.S.]