Exiles and Mean Streets. (1/2)

London from the top of Gipsy Hill, 2015London from Gipsy Hill. © David Secombe.

From The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler, 1953: I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.

D.S.:  The other evening I was discussing Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye with my friend (and sometime contributor to this site) Andrew Martin. Andrew is a thriller writer so his opinions on Chandler’s novels are acute and unsparing; I mostly agree with him, although I am more prepared to forgive the incomprehensible plots for the sake of the terrific dialogue. The question of Chandler’s adolescence in London came up.  It’s hard to imagine Philip Marlowe sipping a dry martini (let alone a gimlet) in a south London pub, but I found myself arguing that Marlowe is a product of Chandler’s formative years in the city’s leafy southern suburbs. Chandler may have been born in Nebraska but by the age of 12 he was living with his mother in Upper Norwood, and was a fledgling day boy at Dulwich College, the venerable boys’ school that floats alongside the South Circular like a Pre-Raphaelite idyll.

At the bottom of the above photo you can just see the College’s Italianate campanile vainly asserting itself against The Shard; here’s a better view of it …

Dulwich College.

Chandler entered Dulwich in 1900, his first year at the school coinciding with P.G. Wodehouse’s last. It’s fitting that these two writers should have coincided at Dulwich as they are both examples of a rare breed, the true trans-Atlantic writer. Robert McCrum on Wodehouse: “No English writer of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, was so successful at relating the two cultures to each other”. The school and the surrounding suburbs informed their work in differing ways. For Wodehouse the school and the tidy streets and parks that surrounded it remained a kind of Elysium that he transmuted into the Never-Never land of his fiction.

Dulwich College’s cricket pavilion and the Crystal Palace transmitter.

Wodehouse achieved colossal success on both sides of the Atlantic (apart from the novels, he was also a Hollywood screenwriter and played a considerable part in the creation of the Broadway musical as we know it) and enjoyed an opulent existence in Le Touquet; yet for all that, he remained devoted to his old school, and was weirdly fanatical in following the fortunes of its sports teams. In his biography of Wodehouse Robert McCrum includes a poignant description of the great writer’s last visit to Dulwich, in July 1939, an image of ‘Plum’ sitting disconsolately in the pavilion watching a dull cricket match. No-one could know it then, but Wodehouse’s real exile was about to begin; he was trapped in occupied France the following year, and subsequently taken to Berlin where he was finagled into making broadcasts on German radio. For all the extenuating circumstances, his reputation never recovered in his lifetime.

Church Rd., Norwood.

A recent blue plaque marks the site of Chandler’s childhood home in Norwood: it’s a house typical of the district, a large, slightly Gothic, mid-Victorian number. It isn’t the fabulously ornate pile in the above photo; but if you’re looking for fuel for the young Chandler’s imagination you need only take a turn around the neighbourhood. The area was built up in the latter half of the 19th century, mainly after the arrival of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, transplanted from Hyde Park to Sydenham after the close of the Great Exhibition. The district is full of shadowy villas, houses suggestive of secrets, insecure money and dubious respectability. Victorian Gothic architecture often feels like a projection of repression and even now some streets are suffused with a sort of whispered dread (seems fitting that Gipsy Hill should boast a Cawnpore Street, the name memorializing a notorious massacre of the Indian Mutiny). No wonder Marlowe was unfazed by the Sternwood mansion in The Big Sleep; his creator had seen such houses before. Chandler was more reticent than Wodehouse on the subject of Dulwich College, but he was always proud of his classical education; moreover, his detective embodies some of the idealised values prized by the public school ethos.  Chandler called Marlowe a ‘shop-soiled Galahad’, and in some ways he is like a G.F. Watts hero in a powder-blue suit. The wisecracks camouflage a moral purpose. ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean …’ Philip Marlowe has a code of honour that separates him from contemporary fictional detectives like Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade or Continental Op, one ultimately derived from schoolboy romanticism in the twilight of the Victorian world.

Gipsy Hill.

I don’t want to stretch the point too much; it’s self-evident that it was Chandler’s return to America at nineteen that sealed his personality. He may have been writing bad poetry before he left England but he only started writing detective fiction in his forties, his first novel appearing when he was fifty. Moreover, Chandler’s California is not transferable to any other place (you only have to see Michael Winner’s British-set version of The Big Sleep to appreciate that). Frank MacShane asserts that if Chandler had stayed in Britain he would have stuck to sentimental poetry. Maybe. But I still like to imagine the mature Chandler looking for material in south London, using the city’s vernacular in the same way that, in our own universe, he used American speech.

So where does all this lead? Well, I live in Upper Norwood, which is in full suburban bloom just now. Over the bank holiday I visited several local hostelries in search of photos and Chandleresque moments. In one bar, an unavoidably hipster establishment, there was an exhibition of stick-figure cartoon art entitled It’s Going to be Okay (a title I could take issue with). I overheard one good line when I was in there: ‘So what does a full-time Anarchist do? Do you celebrate Christmas?’ After that I retreated to an Irish pub, taking refuge in my old paperback edition of Farewell My Lovely as the other patrons watched big screen football. D.S.

Gipsy Hill.

All photos © David Secombe.

 


West End World.

Park Terrace east side, November 2016

Park Crescent east, November 2016.

From Georgian London, John Summerson:

The earliest architectural feature of Regent’s Park is the very lovely, unpretentious, neatly detailed Park Crescent (1812). It opens out at either end to the New Road (Marylebone Road of today) and is continued northwards by Park Square (1823-5). The design of the Square is less happy, the facades being crowded and coarse in design, but the arrangement as a whole, considered as a formal approach from a thoroughfare to a landscaped park, is admirable, and the simple appropriateness of Park Crescent with its Ionic colonnades is beyond criticism.

It’s not every day that you see a Nash Terrace being destroyed. As of November 2016, this is what the west side of Park Crescent looks like:

Park Terrace west side, November 2016

As a footnote to the entry above, Summerson adds: ‘In recent years the whole of Park Crescent has been rebuilt, the new facades, however, being scrupulous copies of the old.’ He was writing in the 1960s; Park Crescent had been damaged by bombing in the war and the facades cleared and replaced in the 1950s. So in fact, the familiar Regency terrace was never, in my my lifetime, anything more than a simulacrum.

Park Terrace east side, November 2016

An architect friend notes that the firm carrying out the work have good credentials for restoring historic buildings and, in any case, Nash’s first priority was always the scenic exterior. Summerson sums up Nash’s Regent’s Park terraces with this chilly flourish: ‘Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of magnificence and bathos …

Park Terrace west side, November 2016

So it was conceived as a fake and was remade as a different kind of fake in the post-war era. This knowledge should make me feel better, but somehow it doesn’t. The reason the site is being developed, inevitably, is to provide luxury homes for the super-rich; and, should you be super-rich, you can watch a video of the development here and browse one of the flats for sale (for £5.5M) here.  The blurb for the 3 bedroom apartment mentions an ‘indulgent’ master bedroom, and a photo of the en suite shows a television installed in a cabinet above the bath (handy for keeping tabs on financial markets via Bloomberg or catching the latest edition of Supermarket Sweep). The illustrative interiors in the sales material as are tasteful and antiseptic as any expensive hotel suite anywhere in the world, which is the default mode for such developments. These are dwellings fit for any self-respecting Master of the Universe or dictator in exile, although any resting despots would undoubtedly want to tart up their London pied-a-terre more than just a bit.

Park Terrace west side, November 2016

We have banged on before about the aggregate of unease that, post-Boris, post-Cameron, London is being transformed into a theme park replica of itself: a city made over for the (very) well-heeled to live and shop in, a sanitized urban consumption zone. It isn’t just a town planning issue or a conservation issue, it’s a usage issue. Summerson’s disdain aside, there was something strangely comforting in the knowledge that behind Nash’s sweeping facades were ramshackle structures consistent with the building philosophy of Georgian London (or, for that matter, the post-war era). The sheer opulence of the new quarters behind Park Crescent makes one choke; it is just another case of planning consent granted to nurture the sensibilities of the platinum Lamborghini set. Who is this brave new city for?

park-crescent-east-detail

Work has already started on the evisceration of Park Crescent east … the Amazon Property hoarding has appeared near the junction with Portland Place – and outside no. 7 we noticed the poignant notice below …

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All photos © David Secombe 2016.

 

 

 


Heartbreak Hotel, Holborn.

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Photo: Tim Hadrian Marshall.

From Barton Fink, Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990:

Chet: Are you a trans or a res?

Barton: Excuse me?

Chet: Transient or resident?

Barton: Oh, I don’t know. I’ll be here indefinitely.

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D.S.: Tim Marshall, a regular contributor to The London Column, recently brought this set of photos to my attention. They are souvenirs of a bleak period in his life when, in search of ‘a quiet place to hide’, he checked in to one of those big Art Deco hotels that loom like sentinels across Holborn. Tim’s state of mind is indicated by the fact that he renewed the booking on a daily basis, which meant that he was constantly shifting from room to room, becoming both transient and resident at the same time.

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Photography is full of sad hotel rooms; Tim’s pictures remind me of canonical images by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Egglestone and others. They also bring to mind scenes from 1940s film noir, not to mention the aforesaid Barton Fink and, of course, The Shining. But all those references are American; most of the sad hotels referenced in British culture are of the sad, faded or seedy boarding house type, the ones found in Graham Greene or Patrick Hamilton novels, Larkin’s poems, Rattigan and Pinter plays, etc. (Over thirty years ago I found myself spending a winter’s night as the only guest in a B&B in Scarborough, a huge Victorian house where the landlady was a gentle widow. I remember her showing me the accommodation and commenting that she had many backpackers staying in summer, and that she regretted not travelling when she was younger; as she spoke, snow began to fall past the bedroom window. That encounter struck me as the quintessential British bed and breakfast experience.)

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Anyway, here is Peter Ackroyd on the subject. He too is invoking the drabness of small Victorian or Edwardian hotels, but the melancholy of the temporary resident in the metropolis is nicely evoked: ‘London has always been the abode of strange and solitary people who close their doors upon their own secrets in the middle of the populous city; it has always been the home of ‘lodgings’ , where the shabby and the transient can find a small room with a stained table and a narrow bed’.  (London the Biography).

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I wouldn’t wish anyone to think that Tim is in any way strange or shabby; but five pictures of anonymous hotel rooms amount to a working week’s worth of hell.

All pictures © Tim Hadrian Marshall 2005.


Blind Chivvy.

Brydges Place, London, 2015Brydges Place, looking towards St Martin’s Lane. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

Interior of The Port House tapas bar, Strand, London, 2015.Ernest Dowson has left the building … The Port House, Strand. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

DS & CJ reflected in the tradesmens' entrance, Rules restaurant,Your correspondents reflected in the doorway of Rules. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

Bull Inn Court, from Maiden Lane, 2015.Bull Inn Court. © David Secombe 2015.

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).

Interior of the Catholic church of Corpus Christi in London's CoCorpus Christi. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

Mariachi band on the steps of the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, LoMariachi at English National Opera. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

House on the corner of Bedfordbury and Goodwins Court, Covent GaBedfordbury, looking into Goodwin’s Court. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

Hank's Guitars, with Centre Point tower block behind, Denmark StHanks, Denmark St.; Centre Point behind. © David Secombe 2015.

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 …

Graffiti on the hoarding in front of the old 12-bar Club, DenmarHoarding where the 12 Bar Club used to be. © David Secombe 2015.

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.

Graffiti on doomed buildings on Denmark Place, behind Denmark StDenmark Place. © David Secombe 2015.

(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?’)

See also: In Search of Old Wych, The Riverine Strand.

 

 


Susan Grindley: Expedition to Greeneland.

graham-greeneGraham Greene, Antibes. © Dmitri Kasterine 1983.

Expedition to Greeneland by Susan Grindley

There was a problem with the spellings
of Yeastrol, or Yeastrel, and Tontons Macoutes.
I was the office junior, despatched
with marked-up galley proofs to Albany.

I washed and ironed my hair the night before,
wore my shift dress from Peter Robinson’s
new Top Shop with white stockings and white
patent shoes from Elliott’s of Bond Street.

I’d cracked the secret code to all his books –
women who thought that they were loved were not.
He kept them parked and waiting in the margins,
all that religious stuff – just an excuse.

I didn’t see him. I just left the envelope
with the top-hatted porter at the lodge.
I told them casually back at Production,
‘GG is lunching at his club today.’

Regular readers will have spotted that we have run this post before; we are running it today in memory of our dear friend Sue Grindley who died last week. The poem is from Susan’s collection New Reader, published by Rack Press.


Robin Hood Gardens.

unnamed-2Robin Hood Gardens, looking north, Balfron Tower behind. © Craig Atkinson.

From Building Design, 19 November 2010:

The controversial plan to tear down the Robin Hood Gardens estate will move a step closer in the next few days when a winner for its replacement is named. Proposals by Tower Hamlets Council to take the wrecking ball to the housing estate, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, caused outrage among the profession, with more than 2,000 people, including Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, backing a BD campaign to have it listed. This week Simon Smithson, architect son of Alison and Peter, again condemned the decision to knock the estate down. “If it’s pulled down I think history will view it as a real act of vandalism,” he said.

In the wake of our recent pieces on Balfron Tower, we present another feature on a controversial, maligned and generally unloved piece of 1960s architecture. Robin Hood Gardens, a mere stone’s throw away from its Goldfinger-designed neighbour, was designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, Brutalism’s golden couple, theorists-cum-architects, ‘the leading architectural thinkers of their generation in the UK’ (it says here). Unfortunately, the location could not be less promising: Robin Hood Gardens teeters like a cliff above the northbound carriageway of the A12 exiting the Blackwall Tunnel, although motorists on the southbound lanes get a clearer view of its looming bulk. As a motorist who has used the Blackwall Tunnel for over a quarter of a century, this view of RHG has always reminded me of a discarded set from Alien or  Space 1999 that has been inexplicably dumped in Poplar. Regardless of all other considerations, its fabulously disadvantaged position alone mitigates against 21st century rehabilitation. Not for Robin Hood Gardens the executive-friendly make-over of Balfron Tower; discussions of RHG’s qualities invariably involve a stand-off between those calling for demolition (past and present residents, Tower Hamlets council) arrayed against those who want it listed and thus preserved (Brutalist apologists, mid-century modern aficionados).

unnamed© Craig Atkinson.

A great deal has been written on the failure of Robin Hood Gardens. Those who defend the building speak of the spaciousness of the flats themselves, of the noble attempt to create a space of  ‘central greenery’ in the site’s layout, and the Smithsons’ genuine feeling for the humanity that would eventually inhabit their design: ‘Belonging is a basic emotional need … from it comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.’ Robin Hood Gardens has heavyweight admirers; thus sprach Lord (Richard) Rogers of Riverside: ‘It has heroic scale with beautiful human proportions and has a magical quality. It practically hugs the ground, yet it has also a majestic sense of scale, reminiscent of a Nash terrace’.

unnamed© Craig Atkinson.

Its fans have something of a hard sell. Even the most ardent Smithson admirer has to admit that the site is hideous. A friend of mine, an architect from the Caribbean, spoke of her numbed disappointment on seeing RHG for the first time; in her eyes what had seemed eloquent and rational as a plan failed hopelessly as an actual environment. (In researching this piece, I stumbled across a fascinating item comparing RHG’s central green space to WW1’s battlefield of Ypres.) In 2009 RHG was denied the protection of ‘listed’ status (with English Heritage voting firmly against listing) and in 2012 Tower Hamlets Council announced demolition of the estate as part of a wider ‘regeneration’ scheme for the area. There isn’t room here to excavate the arguments and sheer heat of the ensuing debate, which is taking place even as RHG is being dismantled; but whilst nostalgia for the legacy of Brutalism might be compared to a fondness for discredited utopian certainties, the current complexion of London’s skyline makes one shudder at what is likely to be erected in RHG’s place.

unnamed-1© Craig Atkinson.

These photographs by Craig Atkinson (from a fine new edition published by the ever-admirable Cafe Royal Books) give an indication of RHG’s imposing mass as well as its shortcomings as an urban environment. But it is the last picture in this sequence that is so telling; the view across to the 21st Century Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula. There’s the new money, and what all of London will, most likely, soon resemble. There goes the neighbourhood. DS 

Further reading: the invaluable site Municipal Dreams published two articles on Robin Hood Gardens in April this year, and they are mandatory reading on this topic.  

See also: Balfronism, Balfron Remembered, A Clockwork London 1, A Clockwork London 2, Pepys Estate.


On the natural history of gentrification.

Monumental chichuaha, Poplar, London, 2014Chihuahua by Irony and Boe, Chrisp St., Poplar. © David Secombe 2014.

A London street artist writes:

I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.

I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.

ROA rabbit, east end, London, 2014Rabbit by ‘Roa’, Hackney Road. © David Secombe 2014.

This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.

Irony and Boe bird, Broadway Market, Hackney, 2014.Bird by Irony and Boe, Broadway Market, Hackney. © David Secombe 2014.

Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.

Graffiti, Southbank Centre, London, 2014.Southbank Centre. © David Secombe 2014.

Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.

ROA-birdBird of prey by ‘Roa’, off Rye Lane, Peckham. © David Secombe 2014.

The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.

 … for The London Column.

See also: Sugary Fun, On the South Bank, A Clockwork London, Sweet Toof.