Happy New Year from The London Column.
From J.M. Whistler’s ’10 o’clock Lecture’, 1885, reprinted in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us …
The recent fog in London, despite its inconvenience for air travellers, commuters, etc., proved to be quite a popular meteorological event: instead of invoking Bleak House’s November gloom it made the city look impossibly glamorous. The above photo was taken on the evening of Sunday, 1st November, during a wander along the Chelsea Embankment: Whistler territory. The great American painter was a local from 1859 until his death in 1903, and his ‘Nocturnes’ of the Chelsea/Battersea foreshore transform the Victorian industrial Thames into a Japanese world of shadows and fugitive lights. (Whistler was fond of applying musical terms to painting, so his nocturnes derive from Chopin: by the same token, Debussy was a fan and his orchestral Nocturnes return the compliment, evoking the Seine in the same mood as the painter’s Thames.)
The final nocturne was ‘The Falling Rocket’, a sort of proto-Abstract Impressionist take on fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden located roughly where Lots Road Power Station is now. You don’t need me to tell you that this is the painting condemned by Ruskin in terms incendiary enough (‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’) for artist to sue critic. Whistler won the case but was awarded joke damages and went bankrupt. No matter. Posterity has found in Whistler’s favour; he even has his own statue now, on the north side of Battersea Bridge.
This post is really a couple of years late, as there was a reportedly excellent show of Whistler’s Thames paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I say ‘reportedly’ because I was marooned on the south coast at the time and missed the bloody thing. But I’m back now, which is why I chanced to be walking along the Chelsea Embankment on Sunday night … (As it happens, I am writing this on Guy Fawkes night. Even in the pissing rain, I can look out of my 6th floor window and see the whole city lit up by sparkling lights. Some of them are even fireworks.) D.S.
Remember that old 70s movie, Network? It’s mainly famous for its catchphrase – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!’ – and for Peter Finch’s bravura performance (which earned him a posthumous Oscar) as Howard Beale, the newscaster who has a meltdown on television and gets the whole country saying it. On Saturday night I went to a private reading of a stage adaptation of the film, scripted by my friend Chris Brand (a fine actor as well as a writer) and produced by another friend, Peter Finch’s nephew Dallas Campbell. There are several reasons why it was a brilliant evening, and the first of them – before the evening even began – was the surprise of the surroundings.
We were in the old Water Board building in Rosebery Avenue in Clerkenwell. This sounds boring enough, and indeed we had only been told it was going to be in a ‘board room’. But this is grand municipal architecture, and this particular example harbours a secret at its heart.
The Water Board building was built on the site of a previous water company building – the old New River Company building, Water House. The New River is the river you can see a bit of, running through Clissold Park in Stoke Newington; it’s technically more of a canal; built by one Hugh Myddleton to bring water from Hertfordshire to a rapidly growing London. It was completed in 1613. Water House, built in the same year, was originally a ‘cestern house’ adjoining the reservoir, and included accommodation for the site manager.Many people had use of its residential accommodation (including Edward Sadler, who was also probably the founder of next-door Sadler’s Wells). This building grew over the decades to reflect the massive success of the New River company (King James, a key funder, lost money on it, and Hugh Myddelton was created a baronet). It grew larger and larger, and more and more respectable until finally it was a large house. In about 1693, one Sir John Grene, a wealthy shareholder of the New River Company, was living in Water house, and he commissioned an ornately carved set of pannelling for a room that became known as the Oak Room… You can read a long and intensely interesting account on British History Online.
In 1914, London’s water was municipalised and Water House had to go. Work on the new Water Board building began in 1915 – stopping between 1916 and 1919 due to the War – and the building, on a scale commensurate with the ambition of its civic status, was finished in 1920. For the past twenty years it’s been flats. When you walk in through its large stone-clad entrance, it feels plausibly Edwardian – but then the first thing you are confronted with is a grand, glorious, light-filled, pink-painted Art Deco ballroom. (This, however, is the former Rental Ledger Room, and used to host ranks of large oak desks.) The building is awash with light.
Turn left and through large glass doors to a wide, high, sweeping staircase with huge windows. At the top, back through the doors, turn down a little corridor, open another door, and you are suddenly in a rather unexpected time-warp: an oak-carved antechamber, which is the mirror of another oak antechamber, at the two ends of a dark, oak-panelled room. A marble fireplace looms in the middle of the long wall, with bookshelves in the alcoves on the sides, and intricate carvings above. Pride of place belongs to a magnificent lion and unicorn panel, where the unicorn’s horn stands free of the carving.
This is Sir John Grene’s Oak Room – given new ceiling joists in the 1860s, and then carefully dismantled and reassembled in the new Water Board building – a nod to the history of the site. The room was dismantled again in the War and the panelling taken away for safe-keeping, but the ceiling could not be moved again and the central painting had to be restored again after the War. The room is very dark – it makes more sense when you know that in its day it had glorious windows on three sides, giving panoramic views over the Round Pond that was the New River reservoir, and its filter beds. It was even open to the public.
Accommodations had to be made when it was transplanted into the new building; in one corner we found a door which, opened, revealed only brick. It was on the outside wall of the building. It’s been not-a-door for almost a century, but for two and a half centuries before that, it was a door and people walked through it. And the doorways into the antechambers – two on each end of the room, with a central panel – will have been its other windows.
You could write a whole blog post just about the notion of civic pride and historical awareness, the respect for the past and sense of beauty and historical decency that made a company spend £2,000, back when that was proper money, to keep this in situ. Nowadays, they would more likely put it on display in an airlocked vault under perspex.
In the middle of the room is a giant black oval table. When we were there it was littered with scripts, plates of chocolate biscuits, and numerous large white candles. The room has electric light, too, of course, but the three-dimensional black walls seem to just absorb it. Those three walls of windows have been a bit of a loss, in fact.
So there we were. Friends on chairs around the walls of the room, with glasses of wine or gin & tonics. Around the table sat the actors. And the reading, in due course, began…
(See more here … )
Tarling Estate, Shadwell:
Located immediately to the east of Watney Street Market, Shadwell, the Tarling Estate was built c. 1950 to replace overcrowded slums and reduce the population density by half.
The run-down estate was demolished in 2003 and replaced by a higher density mixed-use development intended to both regenerate the area and create what the developer, Toynbee Housing Association, described as ‘a more mixed and balanced community’.
Samuda Estate, Isle of Dogs:
The Samuda Estate, completed by the Greater London Council in 1967, is mainly comprised of four and six story blocks arranged around a traffic-free square. There is also a 25-storey tower block of maisonettes – Kelson House – situated on a prime site by the river. The estate is in need of refurbishment and some residents believe that the estate’s owner, One Housing Group, are deliberately running it down so it can be demolished to make way for private housing.
St John’s Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Planned in 1952 by Poplar Borough Council and described by John Betjeman as ‘one of the best post-war housing estates I have seen’, St John’s Estate was intended as a new self-contained neighbourhood along the lines of the award-winning Lansbury Estate in Poplar. In this it has largely succeeded but One Housing Group, owner of this and three other estates on the island, are considering the possibility of demolition and replacement by new high-density housing which might include several tower blocks of 50+ storeys.
Kingsbridge Estate, Isle of Dogs:
Originally known as the Millwall Estate, Kingsbridge was built by the London County Council in 1936-7, with an additional block being added in 1958-60. Despite their age, the blocks are structurally sound and are liked by many of the residents. However, their riverside location means that the value of the land they occupy is very high. The estate’s owner, One Housing Group, is currently consulting on ideas for the future, which may involve replacing the blocks with new housing for private sale.
Photos and text by Mike Seaborne, taken from Estates of Mind, photographs documenting 20th Century social housing by the Transition Group. Twitter feed: @TransitionLDN #TransitionProject. The pictures below are by Michael Mulcahy. Thanks to Mike and Michael.
A Sunday in May, on the towpath by the River Lea, just south of Lea Bridge Road:
Ding! … Ding! … Ding! … Ding! Ding! Ding!
The cyclist (mid-20s, jutting beard, sickly smile, deeply hittable face) steered his vintage eBay treasure inches between myself and my young son. Fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday outing on the first really sunny weekend of the year and I was reduced to hissing violent epithets at various types of cyclist. Hipster cyclists, as above; Spandexed cyclists, often in entire family groups; unnervingly swift and purposeful cyclists with business on their minds; kids on mountain bikes; even a brace of fancy-dress cyclists, decked out in Edwardian gear – bowlers, waistcoats, plus-fours, spats – on authentically recalcitrant machines. Whatever their costume, they were all united by their fondness for those little silver bells, their peremptory tinkle an indication of assumed moral right. As a pedestrian on the towpath, on the Lea or a London canal, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that cyclists see you as merely a car-driver deprived of your vehicle. (Suggested collective noun: an entitlement of cyclists.)
Not that long ago, this stretch of the Lea was a backwater; and the landscape still offers those with a taste for brownfield-rural the opportunity to participate in an Ian Sinclair-ish topographical narrative in a lush setting. There are overgrown meadows, deserted municipal sports facilities, mysterious structures to negotiate, structures often covered in an abundance of picturesque graffiti (whilst photographing the uncharacteristically polite cyclists walking their bikes under the East Cross Route, I noticed a young man posing his girlfriend for snaps on the other side of the decorated pillars). Of course, this riverside has been ravaged in recent years by the Alphaville of the Olympic Park, and the new residential developments that line the western bank south of Lea Bridge are testament to the burgeoning popularity of East London-lite: Hipster London, Foxtons London, Fatuous London.
Yet somehow, the houseboats remain aloof from it all; and the beauty of the Lea leads to daydreams of buying one, the idyll of having your very own piece of river within (distant) earshot of the churning city. A friend of mine has his own boat, a proper sea-going job, which he occasionally sails from Lowestoft to Limehouse Basin, where he moors it as his London base. This always struck me as simultaneously butch and civilised, an impression only slightly marred by a desperate call I once received from him en route, somewhere near Sheerness, asking if I’d heard the Shipping Forecast because his radio was broken. Several of the vessels moored on the Lea have all the appurtenances of the riverside ‘luxury apartments’ touted by Foxtons and their ilk, and it is not too exotic to imagine some of them actually sailing somewhere. A London houseboat might be the nearest thing to bucolic living anywhere within the M25; but a cursory inspection of some of the more ramshackle examples give one pause. More than a couple appear to be actually sinking, invoking thoughts of Viv Stanshall’s houseboat foundering on the Thames near Chertsey. A houseboat is not a very safe place to store a life’s work, and much of Viv’s life sank with The Searchlight. Even if your boat is watertight, there are other dangers: Malcolm Hardee drowned in Greenland Dock during a drunken attempt to access his houseboat after a night out. (Eddie Mirzoeff has just pointed out to me that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Chelsea Reach-moored houseboat sank not once but twice in the early 1960s, inspiring her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore.)
Still the temptations persist … walking south, we encountered a riverine barbecue-cum-jam session, two barges lassooed together, a party of expert folk musicians playing together in an atmosphere of easy familiarity and home-brewed ale. I’m generally allergic to the claims of folk music but even I was charmed and wondered whether the water offered a better way of life for those in the know … but only a few yards further south, jungle was being played at industrial-noise level from a flat in a new block, obliterating the reels from upstream and putting paid to idyllic wonderings. Any remaining notions of hippie-ish promise were soon trashed as we reached the East Cross Route, where the aggressive post-Olympic new builds proved demoralising enough for us to turn back. Perhaps there is no such thing as a backwater in London any more; a sage with a tin of spray paint helped articulate this thought by stating the obvious on a bridge …
Back at Lea Bridge, the Prince of Wales was doing brisk business as football played on the TV. A massive new development is under construction on the north of the Lea Bridge Road. For real peace, you have to go further upstream, way beyond Springfield Park and up into Tottenham Marshes; if you moored there, maybe you would have a shot at a life of tranquility. If you saw a naked cyclist, it would be someone who did it every day. And that would be fine. Just an unpretentious houseboat, not too big, easy to manage through the locks, kitted out with obsolete technology – VHS tapes, audio cassettes – and overflowing with old paperbacks you could read by paraffin lamp. You know where to find me …
… for The London Column.
See also: Before the Blue Wall.
Back Hill and Ray Street, Clerkenwell. © David Secombe 2010
From The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury, ed. Sir Walter Besant 1903:
Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him. Hockley in the Hole is referred to by Ben Jonson, Steele, Fielding, and others. It was abolished soon after 1728.
The Coach and Horses pub – reflected in the mirror in the picture above – now occupies the site of Hockley Hole, one of the least salubrious entertainment venues in London’s history. The pub rests at the bottom of a curious depression in the heart of Clerkenwell, behind the old Guardian building on Farringdon Road – which itself marks the course of the river Fleet, which Victorian engineers – eventually – paved and tamed into a churning sewer. (Supposedly, the original Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames.) This dingy, hidden locale is a beacon for anyone of a Psychogeographical persuasion, as three centuries of real and imagined associations intersect here. We have touched upon Hockley Hole before, but a passage in Lucy Inglis’s fine new book Georgian London: Into the Streets prompted us to revisit the immediate environs. In her book, Lucy provides further details of the delights afforded by Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole) :
By the turn of the eighteenth century, baiting had moved north of the river – to Hockley-in-the-Hole, in Clerkenwell. In 1710, there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate-market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … which goes fairest and fastest in, wins all. Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ Hockley was the centre of bull terrier breeding in London, and so perhaps it was natural that the sport would move there. In 1756, Hockley disappeared with the continuing Fleet development, and bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields. Increasingly unpopular, it was soon confined almost exclusively to market towns.
The mirror in the picture above is located on the wall of a huge industrial building (now home to one of Central St Martins design campuses) which straddles Back Hill and lower Saffron Hill. In The Fascination of London, Walter Besant quotes an earlier writer’s description of Saffron Hill as “narrow and mean, full of Butchers and Tripe Dressers, because the Ditch runs at the back of their Slaughter houses, and carries away the filth.” Besant takes the opportunity to add that ‘in later times Italian organ-grinders and ice-cream vendors had a special predilection for the place, and did not add to its reputation’ – but he also acknowledges that ‘all this district is strongly associated with the stories of Dickens’. In Oliver Twist, set in 1838, the year it was written, Dickens describes the Artful Dodger leading Oliver to Fagin’s lair:
‘They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.’
College window, Back Hill. © David Secombe, 2010.
On the same turf 150 years later, a real-life match for Dickens’s characters is described by the late John Londei, a much-missed photographer, writer and contributor to this site. As John wrote in 2011:
Some people might think little Jimmy Cleary eccentric, but to me he was a walking landmark: someone whose presence brings a touch of magic to an area. Whenever I saw Jimmy I knew I was in Clerkenwell. Jimmy’s speciality was annoying motorists. He would not tolerate errant parking; his life seemed devoted to chasing drivers on from yellow lines. And woe betide anymore who ignored his orders! Bringing out a tattered notebook he took their number, and created such a commotion that the poor motorist found himself the centre of attention.
Jimmy Cleary, ‘King of Clerkenwell’, Back Hill. © John Londei 1983.
Returning to the photo at the top of this page, the modern white building in the reflection lies on Warner Street, formerly Great Warner Street. In the 18th Century, this street was the home of Henry Carey, author of Sally in our Alley: ‘one of the very prettiest of old London love songs.’ Walter Thornbury, writing in 1878 (Old and New London Vol.2; Clerkenwell) provides this biographical snippet:
Henry Carey … lived and died at his house in Great Warner Street. Carey, by profession a music-master and song-writer for Sadler’s Wells, was an illegitimate son of the Marquis of Halifax, who presented the crown to William III. The origin of Carey’s great hit, Sally in our Alley, was a ‘prentice day’s holiday, witnessed by Carey himself. A shoemaker’s apprentice making holiday with his sweetheart, treated her with a sight of Bedlam, the puppet-shows, the flying chairs the elegancies of Moorfields, and from thence proceeding to the Farthing Pye House, he gave her a collation of buns, cheesecakes, stuffed beef, and bottled ale; through all of which scenes the author dodged them. Charmed with the simplicity of their courtship, he wrote his song of Sally in our Alley, which has been well described as one of the most perfect little pictures of humble life in the language. Reduced to poverty or despair by some unknown cause, Carey hung himself in 1743. Only a halfpenny was found in his pocket.
In the 19th century, Great Warner Street was bisected by Rosebery Avenue,a Victorian creation forming part of the general ‘ventilation’ of Holborn, clearing away many of the old houses in the area.
Staircase to Rosebery Avenue from Warner Street. © David Secombe 2010.
… for The London Column. Georgian London is published by Penguin.
Blackwall Tunnel southern approach, SE10, 1997. Photo © David Secombe.
David Secombe writes:
The mock-Tudor building in front of the gas holder in the picture above is the former home of the 1980s comedy club The Tunnel Palladium, so called because the building sits only a few yards way from the mouth of the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. The club was run by the legendary local comic and promoter Malcolm Hardee, and it played host to many key figures in the alternative comedy circuit at the start of their careers.
Amongst the legions of anecdotes concerning Malcolm Hardee, three are worth retelling here . . .
1) At the 1983 Edinburgh Fringe, he became annoyed by excessive noise from an adjacent comedy tent where Eric Bogosian was performing, and retaliated by stealing a tractor and driving it, naked, across Bogosian’s stage during his performance.
2) He stole Freddie Mercury’s 40th birthday cake and gave it to an old people’s home.
3) He pioneered a stage routine (later taken up by Chris Lynam) in which the performer sings There’s No Business like Show Business whilst holding a lit firework between his buttocks.
Malcolm Hardee died in January 2005, drowning in Greenland Dock, where his houseboat was moored; the Coroner’s verdict was that he had fallen into the dock whilst drunk. According to the police constable who retrieved Malcolm’s body from the water, he was found still clutching a bottle of beer in his right hand.
… for The London Column.