There is perhaps something about being late middle-aged that makes listening to familar music in a public place or watching a magical play a risky business. This being London there is an abundance of such pleasures, and the risk is becoming such that I really should remember to pack Ray Bans for the inevitable hollow, red eyes which seem to result from these forays. Provoking even greater lachrymosity than usual this week was a terrific musical with music and lyrics by Ray Davies, telling the story of the early days of The Kinks. As soon as his younger brother Dave (brilliantly played by George Maguire) picked up his guitar and crashed out the raw opening of “You Really Got Me“, stabbing his little portable amplifier’s single speaker with a flick knife ( I think) to get the right quality of harshness into the main riff, my eyes prickled with absurd pleasure and I was away. My wife covered her ears. It was 1964 again, and I was 12 or 13, and it was North London. They got me alright.
I didn’t know Fortis Green where the brothers lived in their little terraced house, but it wasn’t that far away from my Kensal Rise, which had a similar feel. I only wished I had seen them live at least once.
Architectural models are one thing, but a model of a city is quite another. Imagine a model of a dense urban area about 10 miles long, and 3 miles wide, a model updated on a regular basis as major new developments are proposed. You can go and marvel at it at the Building Design Centre in Store Street, London, until later this year. This is Piper’s detailed scale model (1:1500 scale) of London’s heart, focussed on the two banks of the river from Barking in the east to Paddington in the west, not unlike the area featured in the map at the top of this blog. The 12 metre long model is the centrepiece of an exhibition of the London’s present and future development, and it’s truly remarkable in its ambition and execution. The centre has other interesting exhibitions too, sometimes, and a nice and very reasonably priced cafe.
Store Street itself is one of London’s relatively unsung gems with a variety of interesting small shops in a refurbished terrace and wonderful plane trees. The vista to the east terminates abruptly in the Stalinesque bulk of the Senate House of London University. To my mind, this general part of London, Fitzrovia I suppose, lying either side of Tottenham Court Road has a raffish studenty flavour. In recent times media and advertising firms have dominated to the west of the main road, spreading northwards out of Soho Square which remains the home of the British film industry and TV production companies. Remants of the fashion and garment trade can be found too, which sort of spread eastwards Oxford Circus, the London College of Fashion marking its western edge. (Doctoring occupies the area lying to the west.) Northwards up Tottenham Court Road, Warren Street was once noted for its second-hand car trade.
In Chenies Street, an unusual pile of painted brickwork has been plonked most discourteously right in front of curving Victorian terrace. It looks like some kind of military bunker. In truth this is one of several access shafts hastily constructed close to seven stations on the Northern line of the London Underground. These constructions had their origins in a plan to build an express tube line alongside the existing line, by-passing many stations and helping to take the strain off it, a scheme which hadn’t got going before war loomed. Someone, in Whitehall perhaps, later had the bright idea of building the access shafts and short sections of railway tunnel to act as air raid shelters, with a view to joining them up to form the planned new express railway after the war…but this join-up never happened. The Chenies Street complex was the eastern entrance to the shelter complex built at Goodge Street Station, with the western entrance lying on Tottenham Court Road itself, and still also visible. The complex was used as an HQ by the allied commander General Eisenhower during the war, and is now a commercial document storage facility named after him. All the bombproof mass concrete structures remain at the various locations. They included ventilation systems, gas filtration equipment, stairs, lift shafts and sewage pumping arrangements for the shelters far below. Although completed in 1942, the complexes were not opened to the public as shelters until the return of air raids on London in 1944, this time consisting of attacks by pilotless V1s and V2s rather than manned bomber aircraft. Seventy years on, they remain as reminders of how the great model of London might well have looked rather different.
A French King of Spain from a family named after a biscuit fishes with his miniature rod for a goldfish in its circular glass bowl in his lap, while chatting to it amiably. A man with tights and no balls sings falsetto to help soothe the King’s agitation. He flirts with the Italian-born Queen in a hole cut into a forest. The English fleet threatens the empire. An actor who has just played Thomas Cromwell to great acclaim and is now a national treasure gets to play the King, his wife having written the play and given him some cracking lines. A few too many unwarranted fucks perhaps (where is the Lord Chamberlain when you need him?). Your author is identified by the King as a poacher, and fears for his dignity – a frisson of terror.. Fortunately he could not reach the stage even if summoned, as the audience is crammed in too tightly. The new Elizabethan densely intimate theatre made entirely of wood is lit by candles, and steals half the scenes.
Number 18 Folgate Street, in the Spitalfields district of London, is quite something. I went to visit on a crisp, cold December evening, with an appointment for 8pm or so – last of the day. It’s best to view it this way, because it means each of the rooms in the house is quite likely to be empty of other visitors and the experience is all the more magical.
Each room over the floor floors is just as one would expect to find in a comfortable middle class London home of around 1724, complete with fires burning in the grates. In fact, it would seem that the family who lives here has just stepped out briefly, perhaps to visit a neighbour, leaving books and newspapers on the chairs, the candles flickering, and the evening meal remnants to be cleared away by a housemaid at any moment. One could carp about the family’s failure to organise repairs to the ceiling, for in places the plasterwork looks about to collapse, and also the meanness of the freezing attic or garret in which their servants must live. But that is a perspective from the future, and this was then (and how easy it is in this place to believe one is back ‘then’, undertaking an eighteenth century viewing arranged through an bewigged estate agent based around the corner in Bishopsgate, while the owners have discreetly popped out for half an hour or so so that the would-be purchaser is not distracted.
Visits to No 18 by appoinment are conducted in complete silence, with not even a solitary question to the sphinx-like attendants. Only one sound from the modern era intruded while I was there – the slight rumble of the Central Line trains some way below the street.
I wrote this post in an earlier now defunct blog, but make no apologies for reviving it here a few years later, mainly because I like the random interconnections:-
I enjoy my weekly drawing class. It’s held near the Old Vic, where Rebecca Hall crossed the road in full view of her own audience and they didn’t see her (apart from me); it’s near the General Lying-in Hospital (founded 1767) where my mother was born in 1919; it’s apparently near to the site of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes; it’s not that far from the various haunts of the young Charlie Chaplin; it’s also near the fairly hideous St George’s, the RC cathedral for the Southwark diocese, where I went to be interviewed by a world-weary Irish catholic priest as part of my first wife’s decision to cap our civil divorce with a Declaration of Nullity, even though we had not been married in a catholic church, she wasn’t a even a catholic when we’d got married, and she had no plans to marry in the Church or anywhere else*; and it’s near Lambeth Walk, where one would have to strain very hard now to hear the song:-
- ‘Any time you’re Lambeth way
- Any evening, and day,
- You’ll find us all
- Doin’ the Lambeth Walk.
- Every little Lambeth gal,
- With her little Lambeth pal,
- You’ll find ’em all
- Doin’ the Lambeth walk.
- Everything’s free and easy,
- Do as you darn well pleasey,
- Why don’t you make your way there,
- Go there, stay there.
- Once you get down Lambeth way,
- Every evening, every day,
- You’ll find yourself
- Doin’ the Lambeth walk….Oi!’
I thought the song was an old one, but discovered it was written in 1937 for a stage musical, becoming a huge international hit, and that it was condemned by the Nazis a few years later on the grounds that it was written by the wrong sort of person.
Today our model was once again the lovely, lithe Andrea whose lack of girly curves makes her rather hard to draw, in my book (a true Artist always blames the model!). But to get at long last to the bottom line, just as I was about to curl up my Andrea collection into a roll and put an elastic band around her slender forms to take home, I experienced an attack by an adjoining easel which launched itself at me sideways, quite unprovoked, leaving me with a spot of mild concussion, as may be evident from the pointlessness of this post.
* A bureaucrat writes: One of the two grounds in canon law on which the allegation of nullity was proceeded with reads as follows:- Grave lack of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and obligations which are to be mutually given and accepted on the part of the respondent. I stand condemned. I’d forgotten completely about the interview until I went to the first of my classes a few weeks back, and passed the entrance to the ferocious-sounding “Southwark Metroplitan Tribunal” where I had been judged and found so wanting. I also passed the interview. (Did you see what I did there?)
We remained very happy with the 1958 house as our second autumn here got under way in a blaze of gold. As the leaves swirled down from the many trees aroundabouts, we watched the ‘weather’ rolling in from the west across a wide valley. Full frontal banks of dark cloud head straight for us sometimes, and we can judge how long it will be before the rain arrives. Rain and storms have been of considerable interest, because until just recently the flat roof was leaking. Even though that is now fixed, we are perched on a bank that we sometime fantasise will crumble down into the road below and take us with it in a heap of rotten timber and ‘Blackheath beds’. These beds are a strata of Thames Basin soil full of slidy little pebbles from the sea – how on earth, pray, did these get into our garden, up here on the rim of the basin, near the gentler side of the North Downs, so far from and above the river (300 feet above), and indeed far from Blackheath too? Our comfort is that worrying about a landslip makes a pleasant change from worrying about how to stop the groundwater, surface water, rain, sewage and Quaggy stuff invading the previous house when the day comes – as it will – that the upstream flood water coming down the Thames meets the incoming storm surge coming up the same. This will leave the little old Quaggy with no place to go except sideways, in the way it always used to before it got channelled, canalised, culverted in the cause of human progress.
Now we can worry that when that terrible day arrives, we may be safe and dry up on the rim of the Basin but we will be flooded by people instead of water, all looking for food and shelter, some of them armed and possibly dangerous, as is the norm for Lewisham residents*. Our urban paranoia was fuelled a few years back by a mockumentary which depicted a major London flood, which included the immortal words, spoken I think in a meeting of COBRA or somesuch…”Lewisham will have to go”. Tough choices!
This bad daydream reminds me of the days after we moved into the house near the Quaggy in 2000 and were disturbed by circling helicopters – an armed raid was in progress on our local Sainbury’s. We joked about the badlands of south east London to our distant friends and then when one friend bravely came to visit a few days later he found a dead body on the pavement outside our new home and he was no longer laughing. Pausing to wonder what to do about it, he soon found the body not quite as dead as it had appeared to the uninitiated, and he let himself into our house to ring for help and fetch some blankets and a pillow. The ambulance crew merely said ‘Oh, you again…’ to the former corpse, a familiar local character, and took him away to dry out again somewhere warm and cosy, like Lewisham Hospital. It’s not these sorts of London characters that we will need to worry about if the big flood ever comes – they seem unlikely to be able to walk this far.
Thinking about those we have left behind in the move here, I am further reminded that further up the hill hereabouts are the remains of an iron age fort, from perhaps 200 BC. As one might expect after 2200 years of weathering, there is not a lot to see except a long straight ditch or two, unnaturally deep and angular, partly hidden in the woods on the common. I am not clear whether this was built by Londoners of the day to keep out the Men of Kent (or the Kentish Men), or by the latter to keep out the noisy cockernees from the basin below. The men of Kent were Cantii, and I sometimes imagine I hear ghostly cries echoing through the woods along the lines of ‘…’ere, wot you lookin’ at, you Fracking Kants!** as the uncouth residents of the Thames Valley prepared to charge the fortifications. Some things haven’t changed.
* Don’t take this too seriously. Lewisham is a great pace to live, actually.
** Fracking exploration licences have been granted recently. not too far from here.
Somewhere in Holloway, N7, lies Brickfield Terrace, a modest street of Victorian houses, off the Holloway Road I fancy, one of which (The Laurels) in 1888 was the wonderful newly-rented home of Charles Pooter and his slightly plain wife Carrie. Only a mile or two further south at Upper Street, merely the Holloway Road by another name (also the road to Edinburgh, it may be noted), is the King’s Head, the last remaining pub-theatre in London, another fine Victorian building. The two worlds are connected by more than the A1, as the tiny independent theatre is currently showing a very funny stage adaptation of Mr Pooter’s diary, The Diary of a Nobody. This modest journal was affectionately transposed into a series of illustrated Punch stories in the 1890s by George & Weedon Grossmith, and is surely the prototype for all personal blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates. It should haunt the imagination of everyone who attempts to write anything of their own circumstances in the first person in anything like a diary format. No matter how hard we may try, something of the Pooterish quality in all of us shines through all of our accounts of our daily doings, such was the Grossmiths’ comic insight. As Pooter’s own introduction to his slim volume says “I have often seen the reminiscences of people I have never heard of, and I fail to see[ ] why my diary should not be interesting”. Amen to that!