Greenwich Park, 1993. © David Secombe.
This Christmas season has a peculiar flavour, distinct from any other I can recall. The sheer weirdness of world events has imbued it with a sense of foreboding; and although I am old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War and the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction, what we are living through now seems uniquely tawdry and surreal. Everyone seems to be casting around for historical parallels to contextualize the strangeness of the present. Thought For The Day pieties don’t really belong on The London Column, so I won’t rehearse the obvious. But, given that so many are casting around for runes to foretell the future, we might as well invoke the pagan underpinnings of the festival that is now upon us.
The picture above was taken in Greenwich Park in December 1993; the roe deer skull in the photo belonged to my companion on the day, an art teacher who was taking it into her class as a subject for a still life. It was she who remembered that we were standing near the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple, and she produced the skull as an fittingly atavistic prop. In its day, the temple in Greenwich Park was an excellently situated facility; an ancient world insurance bureau, handy for any last-minute sacrifices you wanted to make to Poseidon (or whoever) on your way to the Kent coast. And by 400 AD there might have been a lot of anxious sacrificial blood-letting at this temple, what with all those hairy Saxons and Picts … The retreat of the Romans from Britain has always struck me as being as comic as it is poignant; I’m thinking of the Romanised Brits, all those comfortable farmers and aspirational merchants, watching in dismay as the props of civilization gradually disappeared. No wonder so much treasure got cached at this time, buried for safekeeping and then forgotten. I imagine a party of bewildered civilians standing on the beach at, say, Richborough, waving off the last Roman galley, saying that the lads wouldn’t be gone long and that normal service would soon be resumed. I wonder how long it took for the reality to sink in.
And on that note …
Happy Christmas everyone.
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:
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.
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 …‘
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.
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?
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 …
All photos © David Secombe 2016.
Photo © Jody Porter.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
N16. © David Secombe.
In London these days, a not uncommon sight,
but something Mexican-macabre about it all the same:
lashed to a post, or to railings, a bicycle painted entirely white –
white handlebars and frame,
white gears, brakes, wheels, spokes, pedals and chain –
and decked with florists’ bunches, satin-bowed and in cellophane.
There may be cards and messages as well. Toys, too.
Often a doll or a teddy.
But it’s the white that’s so striking. What does it mean to you?
Ghostliness? A skeleton? A bicycle being skeletal already…
Oh, get over it, it’s the vernacular now; and what’s not to like
about ‘Out with the whited sepulchre! In with the whited bike!’?
Christopher Reid, © 2016
Piccadilly Line 2013. © Estate of Dave Hendley.
There are times when The London Column feels like an obituary strand; and last week saw the death of another contributor, one who also happened to be a very dear friend.
King’s Cross Station, 2011. © Estate of Dave Hendley.
Dave Hendley was many things: a photographer, a DJ, teacher, printer, art director, reggae fanatic, mountain bike aficionado, snappy dresser, record collector, record label founder, Leica collector, writer, seaside-dweller, bon viveur … yet he was never a dilettante, he was fully authentic in every one of his diverse activities. I knew him through photography. We were first introduced, sometime in the late 1980s, by our mutual friend the late John Driscoll, as we belonged to a scene that centred around the darkrooms, photographic suppliers and pubs of Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. At that time Dave was a printer and sometime freelance photographer. I didn’t learn the extent of his involvement in music until much later, when he casually showed me a box of prints of portraits of reggae stars that he had taken in the 1970s. It turned out that this unassuming, softly-spoken Londoner was a very considerable force in the reggae scene and played a key role in the dissemination of the music. (Radio 1 Extra played its own tribute to Dave a few days ago, a broadcast that filled a few gaps in my understanding of his musical activities.) Dave’s Jamaican portraits are wonderful and are their own testament to his devotion to reggae.
It took me a while to catch up with developments but I gradually realised that Dave Hendley had become one of the most contented people I knew. His life on the north Kent coast struck me as nothing short of idyllic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone look so totally at peace as Dave was in his garden in Tankerton – or, for that matter, in the bar of the Continental Hotel. And, finally, his work was gaining wider recognition. His Jamaican portraits are being collected into a book and his street photography is being celebrated in Japan, and both of these developments were sources of great satisfaction to him.
In St.James’s Park (early 1970s). © Estate of Dave Hendley.
Amongst Dave’s thousands of photos, this particular one is a special favourite of mine. A picture of two men on a bench in a London park that shows what photography is capable of revealing, or appearing to reveal. We don’t know what the actual relationship between the two men in the photo really is but Dave gives us a novel’s worth of speculation. It manages to be poignant, sinister and hilarious all at the same time, a Pinter play condensed into a twelve by nine and a half inch print.
Dave Hendley in the ‘Tokyo Camera Style’ pages of Nippon Camera, Dec. 2014.
Everyone who knew Dave will have their favourite image of him: working in a darkroom maybe, teaching at St Martin’s certainly, DJ-ing somewhere, riding his bike in the Forest of Blean, wandering a city street with Leicas at the ready, and so on. But whatever he was doing he was always reliably, quintessentially Dave, and he was always exhilarating company. For me he was simply the perfect English gentleman. Decent, level headed, kind, understatedly elegant and elegantly understated, knowledgeable but unpretentious, modest but capable, gently melancholic yet wildly enthusiastic, local yet international – constantly, uniquely himself, whether he was in Tokyo, Trenchtown or Tankerton. He even lived in a bungalow, and you can’t get more English than that. We need more like him in the world; but of course there could only ever be one.
The first thing I noticed was that the beigels had gone
and there was a run on fried egg sandwiches.
Katie Hopkins became a nice person.
The free newspaper on the bus had actual news in it.
It turned out there actually was £350 million for the NHS.
Farage said he’d buy those of us left a pint,
which was fortuitous ‘cos Wetherspoons had cut their prices.
No more forelock tugging for us, Squire,
‘cos what with all the empty houses
each and every one of us got a luxury flat,
each of which came with a rent cap.
The radio could have been better. They’d decided no Kate Bush,
no P.J Harvey but there was a hell of a lot of Coldplay.
Employment was a doddle. I’d always wanted to be a doctor,
or a plumber, or have me very own fish and chip shop,
and these days all the education was free so it was
certificates all round. Gilt edged ones with a crinkle cut at that!
At the job my working day had been halved, pay doubled,
holidays extended. The light began to dawn.
© Tim Wells. Written after the United Voices of the World picket of 100 Wood Street, 29 June 2016.