The lights are going out all over Europe …

FOcleanersForeign and Commonwealth Office. © David Secombe 1993.

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below on which we were looking. My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.

From Twenty-Five Years 1892-1916  (New York, 1925) by Viscount Grey of Fallodon, formerly Sir Edward Grey. Sir Edward Grey was British Foreign Secretary in August 1914; Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th.


Bvsh Hovse.

396767_10151003954584731_1420573269_n

Bush House from Kingsway. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

Bush House, the imposing 1920s edifice which dominates the Aldwych and looms over Kingsway, was once declared to be “the most expensive [building] in the world”: by 1929 its construction had cost its American backers £2,000,000. It was built on the site of Wych Street, an ancient survivor of the Great Fire that was ruthlessly destroyed by London County Council circa 1901.

Built of Portland stone, with extravagant use of marble for its cavernous halls, and fronted by forbidding columns surmounted by statues symbolising ‘Anglo-American friendship’, Bush House embodies its era just as much as the Deco Telegraph Building on Fleet Street, or Collcutt and Hemp’s monolithic Adelphi. (The chunk of old London flattened for the Adelphi was the Adam brothers’ graceful riverside development of 1768.) Like the ‘new’ Adelphi, the sheer bombast of Bush House trails unfortunate traces of Fascist architecture; but where Colcutt and Hemp’s stridently moderne behemoth might look at home in Mussolini’s Rome, Bush House’s gigantic faux-classical styling prefigures the more stolid brand of ‘Totalitarian Retro’ that came to be favoured by Hitler and Stalin.

270990_10150941241414731_778193871_n

Main entrance. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

246532_10150959912369731_2088966487_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

The BBC established offices in the building in 1941, and for over 70 years Bush House was home to the BBC World Service, originally known as the BBC Overseas Service. George Orwell was a BBC staff member during the war, and the interiors of the building – in particular its canteen – informed his conception of The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four. (It’s clear that the exterior of Orwell’s Ministry was modelled on Senate House in Bloomsbury, and Room 101 was said to be located somewhere in Broadcasting House, but the echoing, labyrinthine interior of Bush House invites us to imagine Winston Smith lost within it.) It might be easy to resent Bush House – for what was sacrificed for its creation, for its monumental scale, and for the sheer absurdity of that portico (which echoes, in the Latin script above its main entrance, the opening titles of a certain famous 1970s TV series: I CLAVDIVS). You could even say that the payoff for the loss of ancient Aldwych is nothing more than a faceless autostrada with a giant conceited lump at its southern end.

252619_10150978680944731_1087818264_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

577226_10150885639804731_536193090_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

But London is a restless, shape-shifting city, and Bush House has come to stand for more than the pretensions of its sponsors and designers. With the good fortune to house an institution that infused its overblown rhetoric with genuine purpose, it has become a great London building by default. Orwell’s ironic attitude to the BBC aside, during WW2 it acted as a hub for displaced European intellectuals, who broadcast to their besieged home countries from its offices; coded messages aimed at resistance fighters and SOE agents were transmitted to occupied Europe from its studios. It became a symbol of the War Effort. (It was damaged by a V1 flying bomb that hit the Aldwych in 1944; the V1 landed on the Air Ministry directly opposite, leading to worries over the eerie accuracy of those early cruise missiles.)

Even its grandiose classicism may be said to have a claim to authenticity: workmen laying Bush House’s foundations unearthed Roman statuary beneath the dust of Wych Street. A bust of a Roman noble was duly and reverently put on display in the new building’s lobby (even if there are doubts as to its provenance …).

542881_10150885622984731_1137426412_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

These photographs by Bogdan Frymorgen – a studio manager for the World Service – were taken just hours before the BBC finally left Bush House in July 2012, when the humming bustling halls and studios were already silent. Even as a series of absences, they capture a real sense of the urgency and activity that had so recently been going on. They’re full of love for a building and an institution that came to occupy an important place in British cultural history. It’s too easy to forget the esteem in which the BBC World Service is held by its distant listeners; it’s not television – therefore not sexy – but that is what gives it its reach, as radio waves can go anywhere and radios can be found everywhere. The World Service is a unique and magnificent public service; it’s Reithian; and, as such, it’s permanently under threat.

542454_10150957193414731_1046116087_n

© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

But the BBC’s activities at Bush House weren’t confined to the World Service. Amongst other things, a great deal of radio drama was produced there, and in the past weeks I’ve been thinking of this again. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days working  on a radio play at Bush House under the aegis of Claire Grove, one of the most innovative and successful radio drama producers of our time. Her funeral was last week. Her Guardian obituary gives a rough idea of her professional brilliance, but it is hard to sum up such a vital person within the confines of an ‘Other Lives’ entry. Lemn Sissay’s appreciation gives some hints of the energy and life that occupied Claire, and indeed Bush House.

538150_10150941301284731_1602257616_n

Studio 8, cleared out. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.

Amidst current refurbishment, Bush House is now occupied by a law firm and HM Customs and Excise. The love really has left the building. D.S. (with K.E-B.)

… for The London Column. Copies of Bogdan Frymorgen’s photographic tribute to Bush House may be ordered from him at frymorgen@googlemail.com or via his Facebook page. 


V2 Woolworths disaster, New Cross, 25 November 1944.

Air raid shelter sign, Jerningham Road, New Cross, SE14. Photo © David Secombe 2010.

Today marks the 67th anniversary of the worst single bombing incident of the 2nd World War – when a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on a Woolworths store in New Cross. The V2 hit Woolworths when it was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers:  the official death toll was 168, but it was often said that the real figure was much higher – although it seems unlikely that a significantly higher casualty number could have been withheld until now.

The V2 was unlike the earlier ‘Vengeance Weapon’, the V1 (A.K.A. ‘doodlebug’, a cruise missile) in that it was impossible to detect – let alone intercept – before it exploded. The first impact in Chiswick in September 1944 was first thought to have been caused by a gas explosion. Their sudden deployment was a source of grave concern to Churchill, and prompted the construction of deep-level air raid shelters in Bloomsbury, Clapham and Stockwell. South and east London received a disproportionately high number of V-strikes, largely because of a British intelligence coup: the double agent Eddie Chapman managed to convince his Nazi ‘handlers’ that V1s were overshooting the centre of London (they weren’t),  hence the rocket launchers recalibrated and bombs began falling on Brockley, Woolwich, Deptford, Catford, Barking, Ilford, etc., and across Kent and Surrey.

The literal impact of these weapons may still be seen in London, where pockets of undeveloped bombsites remain – like the dead spot on Tottenham Court Road opposite Heals, final destination of a V2. South London is peppered with anomalous green spaces or abrupt changes in architectural style on a residential street, characteristic traces of Vengeance weapons. Perhaps the most bizarre legacy of the V2 campaign was the subsequent career of the project’s architect, Werner von Braun. The majestic Saturn V rocket which took Neil Armstrong towards the Moon was von Braun’s creation, the end result of his wartime experiments in rocketry and ballistics. As for Woolworths, they’ve put up a plaque. There is an Iceland store there now.

(The Londonist has a fascinating map of V2 bombsites on London; and further information may be found on the site flyingbombsandrockets.com.)

David Secombe.


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

© John Londei 1998.

John Londei writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

© John Londei 2011.


London Perceived. Text V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (5/5)

Bomb site, East End, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived *, 1962:

To the Londoner of my generation, the London sky has another dramatic significance which – once our present boredom with the whole subject is overcome – is memorable. It has been a battlefield. One day in 1940 in the entrance hall of the BBC I heard the sirens howl. One of the maternal ladies at the reception desk called out “Air raid please” (one is inclined in London to say “please” for everything, and one must certainly sauy it out of deference if a VIP like the Angel of Death is announced), but she was in fact telling the boys to close the steel shutters. I shall not forget that large white cloud bellying against the blue in the afternoon and, as my stomach turned over, seeing a flight of silver Spitfires dive into it. I froze with fear, hope, anger, pity. Many times afterwards, Londoners in the black-out heard the sky grunt, grunt, grunt above them, then howl and rock, or saw it go green instead of black, the whole 700 square miles of it twitching like sick electricity and hammered all over by millions of sharp gold sparks as the barrage beat against it like steel against a steel door. The curling magnesium ribbons that came slowly down were a relief to see, in that unremitting noise.

The sky shook London like a rug; the floor boards, the furniture, pictures, the glasses and plates, the curtains, the favourite vases, ferns, clocks, and photographs, the pens on the desks, the ink in the pots danced in their places throughout the night in evil monotony hard to endure. The sky was extravagant; the earth would occasionally come to life in scattered carrotty fires, and on the bad nights, when the docks, the East End, and the City were burned out, the tide being too low to give the firemen water, London turned crimson. Even then, people made the “historic” remark, the remark of experience. Nothing like this, they said, had been seen since 1666. One cloudless August afternoon near the end of the war, green snow fell in minute insulting particles over Holborn. We saw them when we got up from under our desks, where we had ducked when a bomb had fallen a mile or so away in Hyde Park and had blown the leaves off the trees into these mysterious smithereens. It had seemed for a moment, like a new venture of the London climate, which we knew to be capable of anything.

Several hundred thousand dwellings were damaged in the County of London, that is to say more than eighty per cent of the total. And of these, nearly a third were totally destroyed. Little was left of the docks or the City. And about 30,000 people were killed; more than 50,000 injured. On December 29, 1940, all Paternoster Row went, and a favourite phrase, imported from American films, was that “London could take it”, whatever that may mean. London did nothing so exhibitionist, showed none of the characteristics of the prize-fighters’ ring, as seen by publicity agents. London was quite simply morose, fatalistic, frightened, depressed and fell back on that general practicality of mind that counts as calm. The climate had predisposed us to expect the worst and disbelieve in the facts. Fatalism is the English religion. “London can take it” is just the beer talking. At the George in Great Portland Street, I do recall two drunks discussing the kind of funeral they wanted, with a lot of circumstantial detail about the correct amount of flowers, during a bad half-hour. And there is no-one who could not supply a list of old aunts, grandmothers, and so on who stuck the whole thing out, immovably, sustained by a vigorous social disapproval of the whole shemozzle. Private life rules the world.

It was the silence of London in the early evening that struck one. One had never known it to be dead quiet before. The machine had stopped. One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one’s heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I was fire-watching. They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course. One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]