A Psychogeographical Christmas. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Cleveland St Workhouse Telecom Tower 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.

See also: The London Nobody Knows – revisited, Christmas on Greek Street

The Rainbow. Photo & text: David Secombe.

Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, formerly The Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

The Rainbow Theatre, as the Art Deco Astoria cinema was renamed in 1971, played host to some of the most seminal moments in rock music history, from the first concerts held there in the 1960s until its closure as a music venue in 1981. It was here that Jimi Hendrix first burnt his guitar, where Eric Clapton had his all-star ‘comeback’ concert in 1973, where Pink Floyd tried out Dark Side of The Moon, where The Clash played host to their own riot in 1977 and where Frank Zappa was pushed from the stage into the pit by a disaffected audience member in 1972. My only personal experience of the Rainbow as a rock venue was seeing Muddy Waters play to a capacity crowd in (I think) 1979, cheerfully oblivious to the full-blooded fistfight raging in the stalls. Just as cherishable was my impression of the extraordinary interior, an Arabian Nights fantasy of palm grottoes under a nocturnal desert sky. This exquisite interior is surely the main reason for the building’s listed status; it would have been lovely to have secured a picture of its fabled decor  …

Following the closure of the Rainbow in 1981 the building was largely disused until it was bought by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian Pentecostal Church, in 1995. The former Rainbow is now the Church’s UK headquarters. I knew nothing of the Church or its activities when I visited to photograph the exterior of the building, but I discovered that the Church is sensitive about its image: an agitated young man dashed out of the ‘Moorish’ foyer (can a church have a ‘foyer’? Discuss), ran across the street to where I was photographing and grilled me on my intentions. He deflated a little when I mentioned my interest in the building’s musical past, but insisted that I needed permission from the Church to take photos, at which point the conversation became rather less civil.

A cursory internet search helped explain my interlocutor’s jumpiness, as it appears that the UCKG has acquired a rather dubious international reputation; but more immediately sensitive to local sensibilities is the involvement of a former pastor of its Finsbury Park outpost in the Victoria Climbie case, adding yet another level of shame to that sordid and preventable tragedy. The Rainbow stood as something noble and glorious in its way; the headquarters of UKCG is something else, something monolithic and far less culturally benign.

London Gothic. Photo & text: David Secombe (2/5)

Parkway, Camden. Photo © David Secombe 1989.

From This is London, 9th November 2006:

Serial killer Dennis Nilsen confesses to first murder

London serial killer Dennis Nilsen speaks today about his first victim – a boy of 14. In an extraordinary letter sent from his prison cell, Nilsen tells how he picked up Stephen Holmes in December 1978 in a Cricklewood pub. He took the boy to his home where he killed him. It was the beginning of a series of gruesome murders of young men that went on until his arrest in 1983 after human remains were found in a blocked drain at his Muswell Hill home. In the letter sent to the Evening Standard Nilsen, 60, confesses: “Stephen Dean Holmes was the first of 12 homicide victims.” In fact it is known he killed at least 15 men, among them rent boys, students and the homeless he lured back to his homes in Cricklewood and Muswell Hill. At least seven victims remain unidentified.

Nilsen promises to help police identify the rest of his victims although Scotland Yard has ruled out ever knowing definitively the names of the other men he murdered, usually by strangulation. Nilsen, a civil servant who had previously worked in the Army and police, was never charged with the offence because at the time of his trial in 1983, Stephen could not be identified. But a photograph of the boy, who was reported missing by his family, was shown to Nilsen last year by police visiting him at Full Sutton. The killer confirmed to detectives that the boy in the photograph was his first victim.  He kept the body stuffed under the floorboards of his flat in Melrose Avenue, Cricklewood, for eight months before burning the remains in the back garden. He used the same method to dispose of several victims. Nilsen was only caught out after moving to a flat in Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, where he lived in the attic and had no access to a garden. He chopped up three victims and stuffed their bodies down the drain. After complaints about the smell, a plumber found 30 to 40 pieces of human flesh beneath the manhole cover, leading to Nilsen’s arrest and eventual conviction on six counts of murder.

David Secombe:

Nilsen’s grim story is well know and has been much picked over by writers (e.g.Brian Masters in Killing for Company) seeking to examine the nature of evil and the way London – or any big city – swallows the unwary. The police hadn’t been looking for a serial killer, Dennis simply made his victims disappear without trace – until Dyno-Rod were called in to investigate a blocked drain.

There is a rich seam of modern folklore surrounding Nilsen. There are Nilsen’s own work colleagues at the job centre in Denmark Street – he was popular – who helped him move between Cricklewood and Muswell Hill (‘What have you got in here, Dennis? Bodies!’ ‘Yeah’) or who drank his punch at the office Christmas party, Dennis doling it out from the same enamel pot he used to boil heads in.  A man living adjacent to Nilsen’s Cricklewood house who was plagued by ghoulish treasure hunters. The woman who went to look at an ‘amazingly cheap’ flat in Muswell Hill and was about to make an offer when a work colleague asked if it was a top floor flat in Cranley Gardens? (She didn’t buy the flat, it was then sold to a foreign couple who discovered what had gone on there after they’d bought it and then couldn’t live there … ) I have met people who have told me all of these stories – although they didn’t actually happen to them, but someone they knew. In a way, Nilsen has become a much a part of London folklore as Sweeney Todd – except that the latter (‘Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/His skin was pale and his eye was odd’, according to that alleged lyrical genius Stephen Sondheim) never existed in reality as anything other than a Penny Dreadful ballad. Nilsen was the real thing: nemesis in the form of a good samaritan helping a homeless youth; the friendly chap propping up the bar at The Salisbury or The Coleherne, always willing to buy a stranger a drink and offer him a bed for the night.

… for The London Column.

The London Nobody Knows – revisited. Photos & text: David Secombe (3/4)

Sidney Street, Whitechapel. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

From The London Nobody Knows, Geoffrey Fletcher, 1962:

Half a century ago, the East End remained a closed book to the rest of London; hence the alarm created by the Hounsditch murders and the ensuing gun battle of Sidney Street. Londoners realized the unpleasant fact that there were gunmen in their midst and a vast floating population of refugees and anarchists living somewhere or other only a short distance from the opulent City. Peter the Painter, that elusive, unsatisfactory figure, and his gun-toting frienfds have always fascinated me, and I have visited the scene of their operations time and time and again. Whenever I go, in spite of modern changes (though there is a great deal left unchanged), I seem to see the top-hatted figure of Winston Churchill peering round a doorway during the gun battle, and policemen with walrus moustaches stare of the past, along with loungers in greasy cloth caps.

Sidney Street is more orderly today, and on the site of the siege the houses have been replaced by flats, but I remember the besieged house clearly … I also remember also a local coming out to watch me draw the house and telling me how he had watched the siege and the smoke coming out of the roof.

David Secombe:

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Sidney Street Siege, and the full text of The Guardian‘s contemporary report may be read herePeter the Painter, the legendary leader of the terrorists, was never found and uncertainty as to his real identity – indeed, doubts as to whether he ever actually existed – persist to this day. (In Julian Fellowes’s recent Titanic TV series, he had Peter the Painter on board the ill-fated liner, which prompted a few derisive guffaws round my neck of the woods.) In 2006, Tower Hamlets Council named a social housing complex on the corner of Sidney Street and Commercial Road after the mysterious renegade, a decision which brought complaints from the Metropolitan Police and others. The above photo was taken a few yards from the spot where 100 Sidney Street stood.

Fletcher’s account of the environs of Sidney Street was written fifty years after the siege, and The London Nobody Knows is all of fifty years away from us. Since Fletcher described the area with his antiquarian eye, the locale has developed newer sets of associations, newer urban mythologies. One strand of modern folklore which was brewing at the time of Fletcher’s early ’60s rambles eventually bore bloody fruit in a pub round the corner: a few steps from Sidney Street, on the Whitechapel Road, is The Blind Beggar, where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966, and now a fixture on the unofficial London underworld coach tour. The Kray Twins were local, of course, and famously lauded as a positive force by a vocal assortment of cartoonish East End stereotypes. Local boys who made good and took care of their neighbours – a bit heavy handed sometimes, but they only fought their own. Violent but fair. That sort of thing. But that implausible golden era of neighbourly, family-loving criminals is as distant from us now as the Sidney Street Siege was to them, so it is no wonder that the 1960s East End seems impossibly exotic today. Back in the early ’90s, I spent an afternoon sightseeing in the East End with a former Kray associate, and we had lunch in Bloom’s, the famous kosher restaurant in Whitechapel High Street. As we entered the rather grand premises, my companion wistfully observed that ‘a few of the lads considered knocking this place over, back in the sixties. Lot of money used to come through here, all those nobs heading east for a bit of a thrill.’ Bloom’s finally closed in 1996, its heyday long past.

In the last three decades, Whitechapel has become predominantly Bangladeshi in its ethnic make-up, and the East London Mosque, opposite the Blind Beggar, is a kind of 20th century counterpart to Hawksmoor’s great Christ Church, Spitalfields. And, with a certain historical inevitability, present-day suspicions of the ‘immigrant’ community crystallise around their perceived terrorist potential – so in that respect, the East End of 2012 is remarkably similar to that of 1911.

… for The London Column.