Croydon. Photo & text: David Secombe.

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
Hidden deep.

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.


Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Photo & text: John Londei.

© John Londei 1998.

John Londei writes:

This photograph features Chelsea Pensioners – or ‘Gentlemen’ to give them their correct title – and was taken in the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Armistice that, on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, brought the First World War to an end.

Charles II founded the Royal Hospital in 1681. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building. The painting of the Resurrection on the domed ceiling of the Chapel, by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci, dates from 1714 and it’s believed to be a donation from Queen Anne. Back then compulsory services were held twice daily in the Chapel.

Seventeen of the Gentlemen in the shot were jokingly called ‘The Spice Boys’ because they always volunteered for such events. Nine days earlier they’d taken part in the Lord Mayor of London’s annual parade appearing on a float depicting The Royal Hospital’s history. But for me the real ‘star’ of this photo was Albert Alexandre, the last veteran of the First World War still resident at the Royal Hospital [the centre row of floor squares point directly to him sitting in the 1st row].

Albert was born in Jersey. Both his parents died when he was six, and he went to live in an orphanage. In 1917 Albert, who looked older than his years, lied about his age (he was 15) and enlisted in the Guernsey Light Infantry. He saw action at Passchendaele, outstanding among the battles of the war not only for its cost in life and limb (almost half a million allied casualties), but also for the weather. In the heaviest rain for 30 years, men, horses and pack mules drowned in the deep shell holes caused by constant bombardment. He witnessed men being blown to pieces all around him, and took part in hand-to-hand fighting. A phrase from one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems sums it up: ”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”.

Albert was discharged in 1919, but re-enlisted into the Royal Garrison Artillery serving in India during World War Two. When Alfred’s wife died in 1992 he moved to the Royal Hospital where he remained until his death in January 2002 aged 100.

A large framed print of this sitting now hangs in the Gentlemen’s Ward at the Royal Hospital. With the passing of time that print, like those old soldiers therein, will just fade away…

© John Londei 2011.


St. Pancras. Photo: Tim Marshall, text John Betjeman.

© 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.



Washday. Photo John Londei, text Joanna Blachnio.

Portpool Lane & Leather Lane. © John Londei.

One – Two – Three by Joanna Blachnio:

One person can’t do it all, I said to my neighbour, Mrs Carlton, the other day. You mustn’t let them rely on you so much, I said, a husband and two grown boys can lend a hand around the house once in a while. My John, he doesn’t shy away from housework, only today he is still sleeping in after the pub.

I always wanted to have three kids. It was a trial when they were small – the whole lot born in less than five years. Mike drives the bus, Katie helps her husband in the shop, and Jenny, my youngest, is still at school. It’s her that comes up here most, even though she doesn’t do as much washing. She wants to be an astronomer. She took me with her one night and explained about the stars, but I couldn’t see half of them. I said to her, what’s the point of looking at them here in the city, with the streetlights and all? Anyway, I prefer it here by day. There’s always so much going on under those roofs across the road. They’re just roofs, like ours, but they look pretty today. You don’t get this kind of light at any other time of the year. You can tell autumn is coming – before long it’ll be too cold to put the washing outside.

Mrs Carlton lives across the road, just there. What would she do if I appeared now, out of the blue – out of the blue sky? It’s always ‘Mrs Carlton’: I’ve been here over twenty years, but close friends I haven’t made. It’s all fine, you talk and talk about the things you like, and suddenly the other person gives you this look. And there it stops, and never goes further. I do have the flowers, though. John says they’re just weeds, getting in the way of our veg, but I always look out for them. Last year the cold came early, and they didn’t appear at all – and now I’ve got three.

There’s Mrs Carlton bustling about the kitchen. I wonder what she’s thinking seeing me hang out my washing in that dress. There was only one like that in the shop, my size, and like tailor-made for me. I looked inside the purse: one – two – and that was all; so for a month I saved a bit of money, bought less food for myself, switched the lights off whenever I could – and when I came back to the shop, my dress was still there! I don’t know why I put it on this morning. It seemed different – everyone asleep or gone, and the house so quiet.

This air, you could swim in this air. I don’t really like washing. Cooking, cleaning, I don’t mind, but washing I’ve never cared for. Except we’ve got the new lines. I bought them only last week, and John put them up here. They’re so smooth, but solid, too. You could almost stand on them. Drop the bag of clips, leave the duvets – sitting in the basin for a little while longer won’t do them harm – prop yourself up, then stand. Now, first one foot, then the other. As long as you get through the first step, you can walk to the other end, and then – who knows?

I know it’s only a washing line. So what?

… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio 2011.