Street singer, Brick Lane, 1982. © Marketa Luskacova.
I have not found a better place than London to comment on the sheer impossibility of human existence. – Marketa Luskacova.
Anyone staggering out of the harrowing Don McCullin show currently entering its final week at Tate Britain might easily overlook another photographic retrospective currently on display in the same venue. This other exhibit is so under-advertised that even a Tate steward standing ten metres from its entrance was unaware of it.
I would urge anyone, whether they’ve put themselves through the McCullin or not, to make the effort to find this room, as it contains images of limpid insight and beauty. The show gathers career highlights from the work of the Czech photographer Marketa Luskacova, juxtaposing images of rural Eastern Europe in the late 1960s with work from the early 1970s onwards in Britain. There are overlaps with the McCullin show, notably the way that both photographers covered the street life of London’s East End in the early ‘70s. Their purely visual approaches to this territory are remarkably similar: both shoot on black and white and, apart from being magnificent photographers, both are master printers of their own work. The key difference between them is that Don McCullin’s portraits of Aldgate’s street people are of a piece with his coverage of war and suffering — another brief stop on his international itinerary of pain — whereas Marketa’s pictures are more like pages from a diary, which is essentially what they are.
Marketa went to the markets of Aldgate as a young mother, baby son in tow, Leica in handbag, to buy cheap vegetables whilst exploring the strange city she had made her home. This ongoing engagement with her territory gives Marketa’s pictures their warmth, which allows her subjects to retain their dignity. They knew and trusted her.
Marketa’s photos of the inhabitants of Aldgate hang directly opposite her pictures of middle-European pilgrims and the villagers of Sumiac, a remote Czech hill village — a place as distant from the East End as can be imagined. Seeing these sets alongside each other illustrates her gift for empathy, and some fundamental truths about the human condition.
Two images on this page are of men singing: the second is of a man singing in church as part of a religious pilgrimage in Slovakia. This is what Marketa has to say about it:
During the pilgrimage season (which ran from early summer to the first week in October), Mr. Ferenc would walk from one pilgrimage to another all over Slovakia. He was definitely religious, but I thought that for him the main reason to be a pilgrim was to sing, as he was a good singer and clearly loved singing. During the Pilgrimage weekend the churches and shrines were open all night and the pilgrims would take turn in singing during the night. And only when the sun would come up at about 4 or 5 a.m., they would come out of the church and sleep for a while under the trees in the warmth of the first rays of the sun [see pic below]. I was usually too tired after hitch-hiking from Prague to the Slovakian mountains to be able to photograph at night, but in Obisovce, which was the last pilgrimage of that year, I stayed awake and the picture of Mr Ferenc was my reward.
Mr. Ferenc, Obisovce, Slovakia, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova
Marketa’s pictures are the kind of photographs that transcend the medium and assume the monumental power of art from the ancient world. As it happens, they are already relics from a lost world, as both central Europe and east London have changed beyond recognition. Spitalfields today is more like a sort of theme park, a hipster annexe safe for conspicuous consumers. In Marketa’s pictures we see London as it was, an echo of the city known by Dickens and Mayhew. And the faces in her pictures …
Spitalfields, 1976. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sleeping Pilgrim, Levoca, 1968. © Marketa Luskacova.
Spitalfields, 1979. © Marketa Luskacova.
Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
Tailors, Spitalfields, 1975. © Marketa Luskacova.
Bellringers, Sumiac, 1967. © Marketa Luskacova.
The photo at the top, of a man singing arias for loose change in Brick Lane, has featured on The London Column before. It is one of the greatest photographs of a performer that I know. We don’t know if this singer is any good, but that really doesn’t matter. He might be busking for a chance to eat – or perhaps, like Mr. Ferenc, he just loves singing – but his bravura puts him in the same league as Domingo or Carreras. As with her picture of Mr. Ferenc, Marketa gives him room and allows him his nobility.
As they say in showbiz, always finish with a song: this seems like a good point for me to hang up The London Column. I have enjoyed writing this blog, on and off, for the past eight years; but other commitments (including another project about London, currently in the works) have taken precedence over the past year or so, and it seems a bit presumptuous to name a blog after a city and then run it so infrequently. And, as might be inferred from my comments above, my own enthusiasm for London has suffered a few setbacks. My increasing dismay at what is being done to my home town has diminished my pleasure in exploring its purlieus (or what’s left of them).
It seems appropriate to close The London Column with Marketa’s magical, timeless images. I’ve been very happy to display and write about some of my favourite photographs, by photographers as diverse as Marketa, Angus Forbes, Dave Hendley, David Hoffman, Dmitri Kasterine, John Londei, Homer Sykes, Tim Marshall, Tony Ray Jones, etc.. It has been a great pleasure to work with writers like Andrew Martin, Charles Jennings, Katy Evans-Bush (who has helped immensely with this blog), Owen Hatherley, Owen Hopkins, Peadar O’Donaghue, Christopher Reid, Tim Turnbull, Tim Wells, and others. But now, as they also say in showbiz: ‘When you’re on, be on, and when you’re off, get off’.
So with that, thank you ladies and gents, you’ve been lovely.
David Secombe, 30 April 2019.
Portobello Rd., 1978.
From London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew, 1851: Concerning street musicians, they are of multifarious classes. As a general rule, they may almost be divided into the tolerable and the intolerable performers, some of them trusting to their skill in music for the reward for their exertions, others only making a noise, so that whatever money they obtain is given to them merely as an inducement for them to depart.
We’ve had the pleasure of showing Marketa’s photographs of London on these pages before, and the pictures on here today are from her new book To Remember — London Street Musicians 1975–1990. This volume draws on Marketa’s intimacy with east and west London, as almost all the images are from the street markets around Brick Lane or those of the Portobello Rd..
Cheshire St., 1978.
Marketa is photographic royalty, a point emphasized by a couple of contributions to the new collection by two of her admirers. Shortly before he died, John Berger wrote the book’s foreword; and, opposite the dedication page, is a 1978 photo of Marketa and her young son Matthew travelling on a bus, an image by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Cheshire St., 1982.
The world Marketa documented has to a large extent disappeared; apart from anything else, both east and west London have been transformed by gentrification and ‘social cleansing’. Some of the street performers in her pictures look as if they might be illustrations out of Mayhew’s 1850 accounts of London street types; these photographs have a timeless quality. Ironically, the pictures that seem slightly tied to period are the ones of younger, ‘alternative’ street performers, a phenomenon indelibly associated with the 1970s and 1980s.
Covent Garden, 1978.
As I’ve said before, Marketa has an amazing gift for empathy and an ability to get inside a situation without imposing her presence on it. It is clear that she knew many of these performers very well; and if you look carefully, you can see the infant Matthew in a couple of the pictures, his presence a reminder that Marketa had to keep her eye on him as well as the musicians she was photographing. This is photography as a way of life, as a way of being. She was meeting the street performers on an equal footing; she was as much a part of their landscape as they were of hers.
Portobello Rd., 1975.
You don’t need me to tell you how moving these photographs are. In the previous entry we devoted to Marketa I wrote about her astonishing picture of a man singing in the street, which for me is one of the greatest photographs of a performer made by anyone anywhere. A few of the street musicians in her photos have clearly lost hope; but it is the images of those giving their all that are the most poignant. I have no idea whether ‘Caruso’ in the image at the top of this page was a good turn or not – but on the basis of this picture I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. If anyone was ever prepared to ‘fail better’ it had to be him. (I am also, inevitably, reminded of this famous recording which has at its heart the song of a homeless man on a London street.)
Notting Hill Gate Underground, 1975.
Bacon St., 1977.
Portobello Rd., 1977.
You can buy Marketa’s book at a few good bookshops (Whitechapel Gallery Bookshop, The Photographers’ Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, London Review of Books, Koenig Books Charing Cross Rd., Pages of Hackney, Donlon Books, Burley Fisher Books, Book and Kitchen, De La Warr Pavilion Bexhill-on-Sea) … or direct from Marketa herself.
All photos © Marketa Luskacova.
To launch To Remember, Marketa will be discussing her work with Andrew Dempsey on Monday 13 February at Leila’s Shop, 15–17 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP. From 6.30 pm.. To reserve a seat (recommended) email email@example.com.
View from the saloon, south London, 2016. © David Secombe.
Recently overheard in a south London pub:
Have one, come on, have one. Look, I’m celebrating, I was acquitted. This afternoon, yeah. Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, I didn’t land a blow. Felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. I was up before this judge who was an MP – yeah, an MP, stuck up git, probably a nonce, he’ll be up in court himself next week. I tell you who he looked like, Pluto – Pluto the dog. Did you see my barrister? She was all right, nice looking she was. Put her hand on my arm she did. Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. [looks at racing on pub TV] My jockey’s an idiot – look at that div, looks like his bollocks haven’t dropped. Looks like a rent boy. Anyway, thrown out it was, it was thrown out, the fucking CCTV didn’t work. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing. Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell. Where is this cunt anyway?
Boarded-up pub, Bermondsey, 2010. © David Secombe.
See also: A Fragment of Bar Life.
© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.
D.S.: In 1960, the young American photographer Bruce Davidson made a lengthy trip around England and Scotland. He was on a magazine assignment, and his itinerary is a catalogue of characteristic British tropes: you get the seaside, old ladies playing bowls, fox hunting, the pre-clearance terraced streets of Northern towns, the absurdities of class distinctions, etc. But this visit was obviously important for other reasons: it’s as if he’s still trying to define his own style, which may account for the slightly shy, hesitant manner of some of the pictures. He seems more obviously in charge of his material when he returned later in the 1960s to photograph Welsh miners, but there is a touching and empathetic quality to these early British pictures, a terrific sense of time and place, and a genuine feeling for lives being lived.
© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.
Inevitably, those of us who weren’t alive in the ‘pre-Beatles, the black and white 60s’ (did George Melly coin that term?) mediate the era through film and pop culture; hence, for me, a couple of these pictures have a Pinteresque quality. The sailor – The Pool of London still a working port in 1960 – and the bored girl in the pub could be bit players in The Servant, swelling the chorus of murmured non-sequiturs as James Fox orders another one at the bar. ‘I had a bit of bad luck today. A real bit of bad luck. It’ll take me a while to get over it.’ At any rate, it is a classic image of a failed bid for excitement, of last drinks drained or forgotten. It’s closing time and she’s still not having any fun. The girl in the Soho club (has to be Soho, look at those pin-ups) is also up for a bit of fun, but she looks like she has an invite to go on somewhere else: The King’s Road maybe, where Dirk Bogarde is throwing a party.
© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.
On the other hand, the image above seems eerily modern; it is one of a famous pair of photos taken during a long London night Davidson spent in the company of rootless young people much like himself. As a schoolboy, I remember an English textbook that used this image and invited pupils to make up their own story about the scene. Davidson has already given us a bit of detail about this encounter, but the picture still has currency as contemporary comment. It could have been taken last night. These young people might be pioneer travellers but they aren’t gap year tourists. They are timeless strangers navigating another huge impersonal city on an endless journey through huge impersonal cities. No return tickets available. The melancholy of freedom.
© Bruce Davidson; courtesy Magnum Photos and ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica.
After that, the photo of the nannies in Hyde Park brings one up sharp, reminding us how long ago these images were made. These women are old enough to have lost their sweethearts in the Great War, which might account for their choice of occupation. And those ‘baby carriages’ really look like they should be drawn by ponies.
For me, Davidson’s British pictures of this time evoke that nostalgia for something we haven’t experienced, something familiar yet impossibly distant. They have all the atmosphere and romance of travel, and all the greyness of English domestic life. (My father always commented on how grey things seemed in the 1950s – and that decade was conspicuously good to him.) Davidson’s shows us England just before it shed its post-war veil. Things were about to get a lot livelier, but who in these pictures knew? Maybe that girl in the club.
Thanks to ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica. ROSEGALLERY is exhibiting photographs by Bruce Davidson, Evelyn Hofer, Martin Parr and other other artists at Photo London, Somerset House, 19- 22 May. (Stall B7.) Bruce Davidson’s England/Scotland 1960 is published by Steidl.
Katy Evans Bush:
Hackney Wick – that seedy, industrial, inaccessible part of Hackney down by the river that languished forgotten for decades – is still holding onto its wasteland aesthetic. There are desolate streets, decrepit warehouses, and graffiti all over every available surface as far as they eye can see. But these days, this appearance is a choice – it’s an aesthetic – and Hackney Wick costs money. Forget what you’ve heard about Dalston, or Peckham – they’ve gone, tipped over the edge. The real hipster epicentre is Hackney Wick.
The warehouses now house bars, the vans sell veggieburgers and pastries, the air carries an aroma of artisan beer and the graffiti covering all those brick walls is just as likely to be ‘street’-style advertising as actual tagging. But it’s apparently not quite as simple as that: there’s a war being fought for the spirit of Hackney Wick, and the battleground is its brick walls. Two Sunday afternoon trips a couple of weeks apart revealed the speed with which one covers the other, and is covered again.
Even the graffiti brings with it the subtle but unmistakeable whiff of money. The burgers aren’t cheap. The warehouses house galleries. The labels on the single-hop beer look very similar to the pictures on the walls outside. Last weekend there was a Christmas tree seller in the middle of Queen’s Yard (apparently the epicentre of the epicentre), with trees selling for anywhere £35 to £75.
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, alongside the intensely calm beardy cyclist fellows, the main demographic you see is the well-dressed bourgeoisie. Walking about. Being given the tour by their offspring. Eating artisanal food. Taking photographs. Like the tall, slim, puffa-clad French family we saw the other week, heading for their Range Rover, looking round and all exclaiming at once. Your correspondents felt a pang of kinship for one person: an older, scruffier man with a toddler on his shoulders, stopped between a narrow boat that is a prosecco bar and a warehouse pizza place that offers craft beers and walnut-&-stilton pizzas, conferring with his friend and looking slightly flummoxed.
The area is ringed – that is, more or less defined – by large ‘upmarket residential developments’, smooth-faced expanses mostly with big locked gates at the street entrance. Some have well-lit interiors, personal touches visible in their plate-glass windows, and balcony gardens; others are barren. Along the prime real estate River Lea they look across at the remnants of the Olympic Park, and down over a hotch-potch of narrow boats, whose riverine ‘broken-chairs-tarpaulins-&-cables’ aesthetic evocatively offsets the penthouses. In front of one block – its retail premises empty on the ground floor – is an old industrial chimney, standing all alone, with a plaque on it.
Near this, across from the entrance to Queen’s Yard, is a vacant lot where once stood the Lea Tavern, demolished in 2008 for reasons which are opaque; the site is overgrown with buddleia. Along the top of its hoarding (a battleground of the graffiti war) is an ambiguous and badly punctuated sign:
It is as well to remind oneself that the great thing about London – the truly great thing – used to be the way that people of all sorts shared a neighbourhood: council blocks jostled with mansions, terraces of 2-up-2-downs gave onto parks and mansion blocks onto motorways. The narrow boats have suffered over recent years with increasingly punitive rules about mooring, but they do even now offer – if you can stick the lifestyle – relatively cheap housing. And in this neighbourhood, even the tattiest canal boat has sculptures in front of it.
This is, in a way, still real life. Tags and posters, hipster street art and the retro, angry, non-ironic article, fight for space and fight each other (as per the re-written speech bubble emerging from the mouth of this dazed stereotype).
This wraith, not far from a set of ‘Sweet Toof‘s ubiquitous teeth, might be shaking his fist at a sign listing property prices.
The battle lines are clearly drawn.
Hackney Wick station looks a bit sinister by night, but it is probably getting more traffic than ever before. The studiedly ‘urban’ look of the area gives the lie to the sanitised gloss of the recent ‘Spirit of 2012′ (though it feels fair to suppose that this look owes as much to Jean-Michel Basquiat and the iconographised dirt of eighties New York than to anything more organic); but the biggest surprise in Hackney Wick is its proximity to Stratford Westfield Shopping Centre.
Stratford, of course, was the local station for the Games, and the town centre had a massive do-over for the tourists. Facing east, looking past the couples strolling along the waterside like animated architects’ mock-ups, past the Olympic park and Anish Kapoor’s Brobdingnagian toy town tower, the backdrop for all this is a familiar, and surprising, sight. The beacon of the middle class. An unflashy, but insistent, glowing sign: JOHN LEWIS.
Neighbourhoods are mortal. Change is constant. The really important thing to remember is that the really big developers are already moving in. The second Battle for Hackney Wick has probably already been lost; the artists, pizzateers and canal-dwellers will be shunted to the provinces, the cute little prosecco boat will give way to a big slick floating bar where you have to book, and we will rue the day when we thought these little concrete galleries with bike racks were the actual problem, not just the symptom. And the real old London will be that little bit more lost.
© Katy Evans Bush. All pictures © David Secombe.
Katy’s new collection of essays Forgive the Language is published by Penned in the Margins.
Marketa Luskacova is a Czech photographer who has been largely resident in London since the early 1970s. She first made her name in the late 1960s, with a project documenting religious pilgrims in central Europe and a series of photographs of life in Sumiac, a remote village in Slovakia. These images show life rooted in a barely-changed medieval past, the realities of the 20th century banished by the sheer force of history. This subject matter might seem distinctly eastern European; but when she came to live in London in the early 1970s, she brought her unique sensibility (which I would characterize as a balance of grace, empathy and visual power) to the street markets of the east end.
This milieu is recognisable to us from Don McCullin’s pictures of down and outs, the footage of drunks in The London Nobody Knows, and from other photographers and film-makers who have covered the same turf: the lost and dispossessed in the dark heart of the east end. But the crucial difference between these familiar images and Marketa’s photographs of the same territory is that she wasn’t there as a social anthropologist with a Leica; she was there to buy food. The traders shown in these photographs were the ones she saw every week; they were her friends. Her pictures might be a document of a time and place, but they are also a memoir of a life.
Marketa’s images of London stand as some of the most poetic and heartbreaking photographs ever made of the city. As with all her work, these photographs exhibit an almost supernatural gift for faces. They are also an evocation of a London irretrievably lost to us; these are not scenes you will see in today’s east end. Marketa’s hawkers and street musicians are receding from us, as lost in time as the peasants of pre-industrial Europe. Marketa’s photographs of Whitechapel show a world as remote as the rituals of Sumiac.
Marketa Luskacova’s work has been in some ways neglected in comparison with other photographers of the same generation who have covered the same sorts of material. That said, her work has been widely exhibited and championed by the likes of Roy Strong, Bruce Bernard and John Berger – not to mention erstwhile Magnum colleagues such as Rene Burri, Josef Koudelka, Eve Arnold and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who selected one of her pictures for La Choix d’HCB, an exhibition of his favourite photographs. Her eye is unflinching, but her photographs brim over with feeling that never tips into sentimentality. The final picture here is, for me, one of those photographs which renders any attempt to analyse it utterly trite: I will say that it manages to be as funny as it is sad, and as mysterious as it is beautiful. True greatness. D.S.
‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.