Pinner Station at dusk. © David Secombe 2011.

From Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin*:

‘Londoner,’ said Bowman, shaking his head, ‘born in some tedious spot like … I don’t know… Pinner’.

From Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter:

ACCORDION MAN: We’re all going to hell. We’re all going to burn in hell. Thank you very, very much, sir. Thank you very, very much, madam. Thank you very, very much, sir.

David Secombe:

Today marks the 150th birthday of The Tube – and for The London Column’s modest contribution to this anniversary I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the BBC4 repeat at 10 pm tonight of TLC contributor Edward Mirzoeff’s classic 1973 documentary Metro-Land, written and presented by John Betjeman.  For anyone that hasn’t seen it, this film is a glorious relic of the golden age of the British television documentary, and takes as its subject the early 20th Century suburbs that grew up alongside the Metropolitan Line as it extended deep into rural Middlesex. As the poet laureate of inter-war suburbia and the Met line in particular, Betjeman is the ideal tour guide for this trip from Baker Street to Neasden, Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and beyond.

Pinner is the quintessence of inter-war residential development: serried rows of polite, cheerful villas and semi-detached houses spreading outwards from the remnants of an ancient hamlet. So whilst Pinner Village contains some very old houses indeed, the Metropolitan Line is the reason we are here: Met Line trains from Pinner station take just 25 minutes to reach Baker Street. Pinner’s tidy crescents and avenues were intended as havens from the dirt and clamour of the city – with desirable residences, clean air, the Met Line to take you into town, and the shops and cinema of the new parade just a few steps away, what more could life offer? Naturally, Metro-Land’s quasi-rural calm came at the expense of Middlesex’s actual rural landscape, which entirely disappeared beneath the streamlined semis, but this is a very English approach to Moderne living (as opposed to Modernism, which the British didn’t exactly take to their hearts) – tidy, domesticated, and hungry for acreage. Metro-Land is not so much a place as a state of mind, a dream of what life might be; a bucolic idyll with all the benefits that the Tube, the ring roads, the wireless and state-of-the-art plumbing could bring.

But the near-identical streets of Pinner, Eastcote, Ruislip, Rayners Lane and their neighbours are also an expression of a state of unease. The cosy, complacent sprawl of these suburbs comes at a price. The new suburban landscape goaded and inspired Betjeman (‘Your lives were good and more secure/Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner’), as it did George Orwell (Coming up for Air), Louis MacNeice ( ‘But the home is still a sanctum under the pelmets’), Graham Greene (‘a sinless, empty, graceless, chromium world’), Patrick Hamilton (The Plains of Cement) and other writers of the period. They saw fear behind the Deco stained glass. In Dennis Potter’s 1930s-set masterpiece Pennies from Heaven, his doomed travelling-salesman hero Arthur Parker lives in just such a suburb, and oscillates between a joyous fantasy life and an actual life of frustration and anguish. Metro-Land is a perennially vanishing landscape of promise. Close the windows and draw the curtains, a storm is coming.

… for The London Column.

* You can read Andrew Martin‘s hymn of praise to the Tube here – and buy his wonderful history of same here.

See also: Pepys Estate, Nights at the Opera, St Pancras, Jubilee, Dmitri Kasterine, Underground, Overground, London Gothic, Trainspotters, Halloween, The Haunted House, A Haunted Bus.

London Monumental. Photo & text: David Secombe (5/5)

Gill’s Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, 99 Portland Place, W1.  Photo © David Secombe 2010.

The artistic legacy of Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) has been irretrievably sullied by the revelations made public in Fiona MacCarthy’s 1988 biography.  MacCarthy quoted passages from Gill’s diaries in which he recorded a grotesque catalogue of perversions, including incest with his sister and daughters, as well as a passing liason with the family dog.  Gill’s reputation was thus transformed from brilliant bohemian, who fused medieval craftsmanship with modernist practice, to that of a paedophile whose erotic carvings and prints are queasy evidence of a diseased mind.

Many of Gill’s admirers were appalled that MacCarthy had put this knowledge into her book, a sharp contrast to previous biographers who had resolutely ignored the evidence of the diaries. (That MacCarthy was blamed for her act of biographical integrity is appalling in itself.) At any rate, it is no longer possible to survey Gill’s huge output – his many religious carvings in cathedrals and churches, his monuments to the fallen carved in the wake of the First World War, his engravings, even his supremely elegant typefaces (Gill Sans, Perpetua, etc.) – without confronting the upsetting truth about their creator.

There are some fine examples of Gill’s public art in London: in Westminster Cathedral, on 55 Broadway, above St.James’ tube station, and his epic embellishments to the BBC’s flagship headquarters, Broadcasting House in Portland Place.  B.H. features a cluster of works by Gill, most prominently his awe-inspiring Prospero and Ariel, two monumental carved stone figures which loom above the main entrance. There are many photographs of Gill working on the statues in situ: dressed in his customary monastic habit (affording passers-by glimpses of his genitals, as he considered underwear an ‘abomination’), Gill resembles a medieval stonemason carving for his God – or, perhaps, an extra who has wandered off the set of a period epic being filmed by Alexander Korda at Denham Studios.  Broadcasting House is a sleek hymn to the Moderne set in Portland Stone, a Deco jewel keen to slip its moorings and set sail down Regent Street. And, for all Gill’s avowed medievalism, his sculptures are in keeping with the spirit of the times: Prospero and Ariel look fully at home at the prow of the BBC’s own dry-docked ocean liner.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.