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.
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.
Portpool Lane & Leather Lane. © John Londei.
One – Two – Three by Joanna Blachnio:
One person can’t do it all, I said to my neighbour, Mrs Carlton, the other day. You mustn’t let them rely on you so much, I said, a husband and two grown boys can lend a hand around the house once in a while. My John, he doesn’t shy away from housework, only today he is still sleeping in after the pub.
I always wanted to have three kids. It was a trial when they were small – the whole lot born in less than five years. Mike drives the bus, Katie helps her husband in the shop, and Jenny, my youngest, is still at school. It’s her that comes up here most, even though she doesn’t do as much washing. She wants to be an astronomer. She took me with her one night and explained about the stars, but I couldn’t see half of them. I said to her, what’s the point of looking at them here in the city, with the streetlights and all? Anyway, I prefer it here by day. There’s always so much going on under those roofs across the road. They’re just roofs, like ours, but they look pretty today. You don’t get this kind of light at any other time of the year. You can tell autumn is coming – before long it’ll be too cold to put the washing outside.
Mrs Carlton lives across the road, just there. What would she do if I appeared now, out of the blue – out of the blue sky? It’s always ‘Mrs Carlton’: I’ve been here over twenty years, but close friends I haven’t made. It’s all fine, you talk and talk about the things you like, and suddenly the other person gives you this look. And there it stops, and never goes further. I do have the flowers, though. John says they’re just weeds, getting in the way of our veg, but I always look out for them. Last year the cold came early, and they didn’t appear at all – and now I’ve got three.
There’s Mrs Carlton bustling about the kitchen. I wonder what she’s thinking seeing me hang out my washing in that dress. There was only one like that in the shop, my size, and like tailor-made for me. I looked inside the purse: one – two – and that was all; so for a month I saved a bit of money, bought less food for myself, switched the lights off whenever I could – and when I came back to the shop, my dress was still there! I don’t know why I put it on this morning. It seemed different – everyone asleep or gone, and the house so quiet.
This air, you could swim in this air. I don’t really like washing. Cooking, cleaning, I don’t mind, but washing I’ve never cared for. Except we’ve got the new lines. I bought them only last week, and John put them up here. They’re so smooth, but solid, too. You could almost stand on them. Drop the bag of clips, leave the duvets – sitting in the basin for a little while longer won’t do them harm – prop yourself up, then stand. Now, first one foot, then the other. As long as you get through the first step, you can walk to the other end, and then – who knows?
I know it’s only a washing line. So what?
… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio 2011.
Photo © John Londei 1983.
John Londei writes:
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.
I’d always wanted to photograph Jimmy. He’s an elusive person and I knew it would be difficult to persuade him. I couldn’t believe my luck when he said yes. On shoot day we picked Jimmy up in a van – he enjoyed being in a vehicle – and took him to the location I’d chosen.
I was ready to take the shot, then a car decided to go up the road where Jimmy stood, only to meet by a car coming the other way. Each refused to move, it became a stand off and Jimmy was mesmerised watching the ensuing argument.
The standoff went on for twenty minutes, the weather deteriorated and the shoot was under threat. When they’d finally settled their argument I was at last able to take Jimmy’s picture.
It’s strange how serendipity can contribute to a shot Were it not for the delay I’d have missed that moment when, fleetingly, the sun broke through a cloud, hit a bronze tinted office window across the street, and bathed Jimmy in a pool of golden light.
© John Londei 2011.