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.
London 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 …
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.
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.
All photos © David Secombe.
From Ghost Club by Andrew Martin and David Secombe:
Synopsis: The three members of the North Yorkshire Paranormal Investigation Society are engaged in a night-time vigil at a country house on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Moors.
Act Two, Scene 1:
It is now 11.30 pm. We find the three in the middle of their second ’session’. They occupy the three disparate seats, as before. Everyone looks jaded and more disheveled, but at least the electricity appears to have been restored – the lighting is from the Anglepoise lamps set up on the table. Quite atmospheric. As before, the aim is to maintain silence in hopes of contacting the beyond. PETE has commandeered a second seat, for the purpose of resting his legs and is reading a paperback – Elmore Leonard or similar.
Pete … have you had any experiences that really gave you the, like, willies?
How long have you got?
Pause; considering something.
Actually … No, forget it.
No, actually – what?
Pause. PETE looks at both his companions in turn. Puts his book down.
I worked as a security guard once. In London. After I left college.
Yes, Classics is hardly the most useful degree –
On my first day, they sent me to an abandoned maternity hospital in Finsbury Park that was waiting to be demolished. My job was to sit by the front door and patrol the place twice in an eight-hour hour shift. That’s all. I arrived at seven a.m. on a bright summer’s day, relieved the night shift – who I noticed was sitting outside – and sat down in the old reception booth and tried reading P.G. Wodehouse. But I couldn’t shake off a feeling of being watched. There was a telephone ringing somewhere in the building, but all the lines were supposed to be dead: I had to communicate with my manager via a callbox in the street. My first round was at ten. The place was an absolute shambles. God only knows what had gone on in there. It was a hot day but a storm was brewing. By the time I did my second round, at three, the sky was so dark it was difficult to see into the corners of the wards. Up on the second floor the heat from the day seemed to vanish and the air was very cold. That’s when I heard footsteps. First I thought they were my own echo: but they seemed to carry on after I’d stopped. They seemed to be getting closer each time, gaining on me.
I felt it was time to leave. I ran out of the building and used the call box to phone in my resignation. They were very apologetic: seems it was someone’s idea of a joke to send me there on my first day, as no-one liked working the place.
Pause – then PETE tells another one:
Later on, I was working at a club in Shoreditch. Used to be a pub, but it was all leather and sparkly lights when I knew it. The building was Georgian, but you’d hardly guess from the front. It had been bombed in the war and during rebuilding they came across medieval corpses. An unhappy spot. Didn’t stop them turning the basement into a dance floor. It was always cold; we’d try turning up the heating but the walls just ran with condensation. The landlord’s rottweiler refused to go down there. Once, I found some traumatised queen bleating that he’d followed someone into the toilet and seen them walk through the wall. Not quite the encounter he was expecting.
I was cleaning up one morning-after-the-night- before, and I distinctly heard a voice close to my ear say “This one’s not afraid to be down here on his own”. … You’d have some nights down there and I used to wonder how many live bodies we had in and how many from the other side. You’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.
Silence. JOHN pours himself some more wine.
© Andrew Martin & David Secombe 2008-2013.
Ghost Club has yet to have a proper airing, although an earlier draft was presented as a rehearsed reading at the Jermyn Street Theatre in 2010, featuring David Warner as JOHN, Miles Richardson as PETE and Kieran Hill as IAN. We present this excerpt as our annual Halloween offering.
Holy Ghost Zone, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
When playing Monopoly my father was always determined to acquire Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, and to build on them as soon as possible. It’s the most modest portfolio on the board, with houses on Old Kent Road, as I remember, costing little more than a hotel on Mayfair. ‘You might laugh,’ my father would tell us in baleful tones, ‘but everybody always lands on Old Kent Road.’
I’m interested in the Old Kent Road as a sort of social counterweight to Hampstead, but my friend David, a South London partisan, is a genuinely keen on it, and gave me a guided tour this week.
Tesco, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2004.
‘When the evening sun’s like this,’ he said cheerfully, as we skirted a sofa that had been thoughtfully set out on the pavement, ‘it’s got a sort of I’m-in-a-scary-part-of-LA charm.’ We were walking past the Old Kent Road’s array of cosmopolitan food shops, beauty parlours, international cash transfer places, evangelical ministries, van washing businesses. As the cars screamed by, David would stop every now and again to photograph the lowering clouds over some light industrial unit or brutalist block of flats. He seemed particularly taken with the visual possibilities of the flyover at the southern end of the Road. ‘A friend of mine owns a flat that looks right on to that,’ he said enviously.
I looked at a price list outside one of the Road’s pubs: it advertised a cocktail called a Slippery Nipple, consisting of Sambuca, Bailey’s and Grenadine. You could have a jug of Slippery Nipple for £12.50. Another sign forbade anybody wearing a hat to enter the pub. You knew there was some insight into human behaviour behind this, and that it had been won the hard way.
Re-branding exercise, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
‘If Dickens were alive today he’d be down here all the time,’ said David as car came crawling noisily down the Road with only two of its tyres inflated. David then attempted, with windmilling arms, to direct the dazed-looking driver to a nearby sprawling depot called Madhouse Tyres.
As he did so, I reflected that the Old Kent Road does have the look of suburban LA or Chicago – that rangy wildness – and it occurred to me that this is what happens to British streetscapes when middle class vigilance is reduced and planning controls relaxed: they begin to look American.
Chinese Elvis restaurant, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2002.
David pointed out East Street, which goes off the Old Kent Road. Its market features in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, in which Rodney and Del Boy inhabit a tower block inevitably called Nelson Mandela House. David took me to Mandela Way, which intersects with Old Kent Road, and where there is a small patch of green space occupied by a tank that has been painted pink and decorated repeatedly with the stencilled word ‘Scab’. ‘If this was North London,’ I marvelled, ‘there would be letters in the Hampstead and Highgate Express every week until it was taken away.’ ‘Really?’ said David, snapping away, ‘it’s been here for years.’*
Tank, Mandela Way. © David Secombe 2004.
In the streets off Old Kent Road, you never know what you’ll find: a battered looking Georgian house with an ice cream van parked in the front drive and a lone security camera staring at it; a tiny house with a sign saying ‘This property is protected by guard dogs’ – that’s dogs, plural; sudden bombsites with rampant buddleia, the scars of the Second World War still seemingly fresh. There are also surprising runs of pristine Georgian and Victorian houses with obviously middle class occupants.
Almshouses, Asylum Road, SE15. © David Secombe 2008.
You could argue that Old Kent Road is going upmarket. The famous old Dun Cow pub is now the Dun Cow Surgery, and the Thomas A Becket, the even more famous boxing pub, built on one of the many sites where the Canterbury pilgrims took liquid refreshment, is now an estate agency, a sign of the times to an extent almost ridiculous. ‘You’d think there’d be a plaque acknowledging what it used to be,’ I said to David. But he frowned and shook his head, ‘That’s one of the great things about the Old Kent Road,’ he said, as we trudged on, ‘a profound lack of sentimentality.’
© Andrew Martin. This article originally appeared in Andrew’s Class Conscious column for The New Statesman in 2004.
(*The tank is a Soviet T-34 placed on Mandela Way as a protest by a disgruntled property developer following the rejection of a planning application.)
Lincoln’s Inn Fields, west side. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
The Haunted House
If ghost stories arise from the Gothic tradition, which was as much architectural as literary, it is also the case that persistent ghosts need a persistent location in which to manifest. So no wonder houses are haunted.
Haunted houses tend to be old and big. Such properties appeal to the romantic idea of faded grandeur, and also a baser snobbery. Every account of Borley Rectory, ‘the most haunted house in England’, describes it as hideous, but when I look at the pictures I wonder how much it would cost today if it were still standing, and whether the seller would take a low offer in view of its poltergeist infestation. Reading ghost stories we are torn: yes, a malevolent spirit stalks the east wing, but at least there’s am east wing for it to stalk. Ghost stories, both real and fictional, sometimes come with floor plans of the haunted area – literally, property particulars – and very mouth-watering they usually are.
Haunted houses also come with libraries, and with servants. The protagonist in a ghost story is quite alone in his huge house … except for his fifteen servants. The reader might not know about the servants until one of them hesitantly knocks and enters the master’s study on the final page and finds him slumped in his chair ‘With a look on his face, the like of which I’ve never seen …’
The author denigrates the house, but also slyly boosts it to engage our snobbery. In Walter de la Mare’s story, Out of the Deep (1923) the protagonist, Jimmie, inherits his uncle’s ‘horrible old London mansion’. But how horrible and old can a London mansion be? In Moonlight Sonata (1931) by Alexander Woolcott, one of the two principals inhabits ‘the collapsing family manor house to which he had indignantly fallen heir.’ The owner is down to his last gardener, who tends the ‘once sumptuous’ grounds, but the place doesn’t sound too bad to me. The Mystery of the Semi-Detached by Edith Nesbitt (1893) seems, from its title, to be bucking the trend, but the house is ‘commodious’, with several sitting rooms.
I myself grew up in a semi-detached of a more modest sort. We were its first occupants, and I was proud of inhabiting a new house. Those of my contemporaries who lived in old houses seemed to me to be taking a considerable risk. They were living in houses in which people had died, and people they didn’t know at that – people that nobody currently alive knew. It must be like living in a tomb. There would have to be certain echoes. In grappling with the subject, in his collection of sightings, Apparitions and Haunted Houses, Sir Ernest Bennett plaintively wonders, ‘Can it conceivably be the case that in some inscrutable fashion the woodwork and masonry of a house may exert some physical or mental influences which cause certain individuals to see the phantasmal figure of a former resident?’
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Elsewhere in his fine book (an overview of the British ghost story tradition), Andrew examines Charles Dickens’s fascination with ghosts and how they impacted on his fiction. The above photograph shows the Inigo Jones mansion – on the right – believed to have been the model for the chambers of Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer in Bleak House. Although Bleak House is not ostensibly a novel about ghosts, it deals with the dead hand of the past weighing upon the present; and Dickens’s treatment of Lincoln’s Inn is appropriately atmospheric, menacing and grotesque. Here is the opening of chapter 32:
‘It is night in Lincoln’s Inn — perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day — and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangour about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge. [. . . ] It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business’.
Camberwell. © David Secombe 1988.
From Ghoul Britannia (2010) by Andrew Martin:
THE AVOIDED HOUSE
In a street of any length, there’s one of these: a vacant house, or one that changes hands too often, or not often enough; a house in shadow or being taken over by its own garden. There were a couple of these on my paper round when I was a boy. One had cracked windows, and a decaying Transit van parked immediately in front of the front door. Another had the curtains permanently closed and a front garden filled with rubble. I was encouraged by this rubble. I thought: ‘One day soon they’re going to use it to construct something marvellous like a pond with a fountain.’ But the rubble just remained. I never saw the occupants of either house and I didn’t want to. I found it hard to imagine them going into Ellis’s newsagents and paying for the papers I delivered to them. That would require a degree of normality incompatible with the state of their homes.
It didn’t take much for me to condemn a property; it didn’t have to be semi-derelict. For example, I wasn’t very keen on any of the house facing our own because they didn’t have the sun on them in the morning; and some of my friends’ houses just felt wrong inside. I am not going to broach the subject of psycho-geography because I find myself dying with exhaustion at the typing of the word, but it has been argued that houses with a reputation for being haunted occupy sites where ley lines intersect. Also blamed – and I like this – is carbon monoxide poisoning. This occurs where carbon combustion occurs with too little ventilation, and there’s quite a neat fit with ghostliness in that the symptoms can include anxiety and hallucinations. People burning wood or coal, or using coal-gas lighting in a shuttered room might be at risk, which connects the condition with Victorian winters – a fertile time for ghost stories.
When I first came to London I was amazed at the number of avoided houses. They constitued about fifteen percent of the total stock.
© Andrew Martin. Ghoul Britannia is published by Short Books.