About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 23 December 2013

Filthy rich cities drive creative types over the edge

Fascinating piece on the baleful influence of the super-rich on the cultural life of their favourite cities on the Al Jazeera website this week.

Sarah  Kendzior's article quotes Patti Smith's advice to young would-be artists and musicians thinking of coming to New York City to kick off their careers. The advice - quite simply - is, "Don't!" She and another ageing musician of punkish origins, David Byrne, make the obvious point that cities like New York and London have become "unliveable" to all but the richest one percent. Everyone else is there on sufferance to serve the needs of the super-rich, and then to fuck off back to their miserable ordinary little lives in the outer suburbs.

We've had strong versions of these arguments many times before - recently with that last UB40 generation in the early 1980s, that end-of-the-dole-queue poet era, when you could live in a Brixton squat one week and the next be presenting some new Channel 4  arts prog.

In those days, there were still cheap bits of London that penniless arty-types could flee to. Once Camden and Notting Hill became too pricey, they moved East sand colonised Hackney, SHoreditch, Bethnal Green and Bow.

And now that these areas have themselves become plums in proerty developer portfolio, so the struggling arts types shift to south-east London, Peckham for example, or north-east out to Hackney Wick and Walthamstow.

We've also had the "Occupy" protests in London and other cities.

But Ms Kendzior's piece goes well beyond these anger-fuelled attacks on the new rich and the bankers, the property-billionaires. She digs deeper into the meaning of creativity, and why cities - which once were fertile breeding grounds for artistic movements - are fast becoming the reverse of this.

In NYC there's a company, Sitters Studio, which hires out artists to work as sort of cultural nannies to the children of the most affluent - "This is the New York artist today: A literal servant to corporate elites, hired to impart "creativity" to children whose bank accounts outstrip their own."

The vile reality is that "creativity" in the plutocratic circles of these world cities is encouraged, or at least tolerated, if it can be seen as a useful commodity, one that might help their kids make even more money in business or the professions.  They love creativity when it is applied to accounting and tax bills.

But when it comes to taking risks, or to attacking the values on which the moneyed depend, their attitude to "creatives" can change very quickly. All this media talk about "edgy" fashion and movies and music, well it only goes so far. They love "edgy" when it  makes them look smarter and sexier than their peers, but only when does not threaten their wealth.

But if - as say in the case of a Hirst dot painting or an Emin bed - edgy can earn them handsome profits at auction, then bring it on!

Friday, 13 December 2013

When a novel sucks you in

If you read much recent fiction you'll sometimes get that feeling that - yes, that is exactly right, I have been there, this is precisely how I felt, I know this place, I know these people.

It first happened when I was reading  Geoff Dyer's autobiographical novel The Colour of Memory.
There's a bit where he's describing a sunset over Acre Lane, Brixton, and I imagined myself cycling in the opposite direction, from Clapham and into that exciting exotic world that so many of us wanted to inhabit, back then in the early 1980s.

That was a book that was making me kick myself every other page - why hadn't I written this, or something like it?

Reading John Lanchester's London blockbuster, Capital, I'm getting even more hyperlocal vibrations, in fact at times I feel like I am trapped inside the book. The sensation is there in a way that it is not in many other novels based partly or wholly in this part of south London, simply because he makes it clear exactly where most of the action is happening. And most of it is within a quarter mile of where I am sitting now.

With its cast of multi-ethnic characters - from the posh white Anglo-Saxon bankers to the Polish builders, the Hungarian nanny, the Pakistani shop-keepers, the Zimbabwean refugee traffic warden - this novel could seem a little too obvious.

It has one of those spiralling or tessellated plots, with a fragment of one plot line laid down on top of the part of a previous one, building up to some strong false climaxes. It's based around such stock London subjects as greedy city types getting their comeuppances in the 2008 crash, mistaken arrests of Asians  under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Banksy-style street art pranks, car parking, the curious world of premier league footballers and their managers, etc.

So yes, it is a bit clichéd - and you can find similar cast-sheets in the big London novels of the past decade , including two Zadie Smiths, one Alan Hollinghurst,  Blake Morrison's South of the River , etc -- but its got a lovely rolling plot-line that keeps you reading.

Though perhaps if you're not a Clapham resident the urge to read on to find out exactly which street Pepys road is based on will be lacking. The amount of research Lanchester must have undertaken is impressive - or perhaps he just lives here. He must have visited the hospice up the road (Trinity Hospice) and its sister church on the Common, Holy Trinity.

He gets most things absolutely right; maybe it's stretching it a bit to suggest a 17-year-old Senegalese football prodigy would relax by listening to Fela Kuti, but then again, why not - his dad might have introduced him to the Black President way back.

It's odd how these patches of the city have been so thoroughly trampled over by writers, though. The Common is a character here just as it is in Green's End of the Affair or Nell Dunn's Up The Junction.
You start thinking about what book Penelope Fitzgerald must have been writing in her study in Alma Road while Angela Carter was blending Clapham and Camberwell for her magic toyshop. Clapham often features as the low-point residence in a number of writers' ;lives - Sylvia Plath, Greene, Natsumi Soseki - and it is certainly no longer offers much in the way of a hospitable climate for the impoverished literary exile.

Just plenty of juicy and venal subject matter for highly clued-up writer-reporters like John Lanchester.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Doing nothing

"Doing nothing is a profession. It's very hard."
Maybe the hardest thing there is…"
Marguerite Duras
The North China Lover, 1992

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Me and the Bialetti family: the love just keeps growing

Summary for the impatient: You want a nice cup of Italian-style coffee and you don wanna spend £2+ at some high street costa-bucks? Simple answer: buy a pack of Lavazza Espresso ground coffee (£2.50 or so at Tesco etc) and a Bialetti (or rip-off) 2 or 6-cup Moka Express machine for between £15 and £25 at John Lewis or Italian delicatessens all over town. Or even cheaper at TK MAxx sometimes.

You will get the strongest home -brew coffee, a perfect espresso in 5 minutes. If you need frothed milk spend another £10 or so on the cappuccino maker. Or just whisk boiling milk.

What you must not do is buy any of those mini-Gaggia style electric coffee bar machines for £200+, they might be good if you have friends round every day for coffee and you need to impress but they are hard work and need to be kept very clean. They are simply not worth the investment unless, as I say, you make more than 8 cups a day, every day.

NB - if cost  or flavour is a factor steer well clear of Nespresso and similar capsule-based espresso machines. These are basically money-making scams like razor-blades and printer inks. Yopu pay through the nose for these little capsules and you don't get the pleasure of choosing either the blend or the roast or the grind of your coffee, nor how much you pack in. It's nothing to do with the real thing. If you are tempted then just stick with Costa, at least it gets you out of the house. And  if you think a cafetiere will make you decent coffee, then pass on by, you are reading the wrong blog.
Now, to the autobiographical, totally unnecessary, bit.

Let me tell you about a thirty-five year love affair between a lanky lonely English man and a silvery, shiny, steaming hot Italian legend.

I first met members of the Bialetti family in (what seemed to us) the rather grand and stylish home of our English teacher. It was the long, glorious summer after our  O-levels and this elderly teacher had offered my friend and myself money to re-decorate his "book room".

Fine-ground dark roast Arabica coffee packed into this little Moka-express machine , resulting in a  full-on caffeine hit for the housebound coffee addict. Works out at about 21p per small cup.As well as a reasonable daily rate (I can't remember what) he also gave us lunch - a lunch that gave us a new blueprint for meals for the rest of our lives.

The table was laid, and first came a starter - often some type of paté - and then a main course, the most memorable of which was a beautiful beef stew made with red wine.

To drink we had as much cider as we liked (wine was strictly for the evening).

Then came the fruit and  cheese courses. Our first encounters with Camembert, Brie, Emmenthal, and a smoked Bavarian cheese with little bits of ham in it.

And then, the best bit of all - making the coffee.  He opened a jar of dark roast beans, poured them into the grinder, screwed on the clear brown plastic lid, then held the device at arm's length, and switched it on, off, on, off, on off.

The sound changed from the initial clattering racket to a crunching, swooshing sound and finally to a smooth, higher-pitched buzz. This meant the coffee was properly ground.

All the time the coffee aromas were increasing. He then upended the grinder, slapped the base to empty the ground  coffee into the lid, unscrewed it, and then, with a teaspoon, began to fill the small shiny perforated bowl of the Bialetti.

His "Moka Express" had seen better days, it must be said. The cast aluminium body was by now a dullish grey rather than the shiny silver of a brand new model. But, as he tamped the last spoonful of aromatic grounds into the bowl, our mouths were already watering, our olfactory nodes preparing themselves for an overpowering and deliciously exotic, unfamiliar blast of … coffee, Italian style, a thousand miles removed from this semi-detached bubble on the outskirts of drear south London.

The love affair began there and has never wavered since. Only hardened, intensified. Anyone who thinks they can make drinkable coffee with some fiddly plunger thing - cafetiere or whatever - just, please, just try the polygonal Italian alternative.

And if you are worried about grinding your own coffee, get one of those little German electric grinders (£20 or less), or if like me you are a manual fetishist go straight for the Japanese option, the Hario Slim. This lovely clear acrylic hand-grinder with ceramic burrs is beginning to seem like a new member of the Bialetti affair. A love-triangle - and so we become a threesome.


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Why is so much of London's recent public sculpture so horrible?

Poor old Charlie Chaplin, knocked off his
place in Leicester Square and now demoted
 to  entertaining the queues outside the Prince Charles Cinema, London
Wandering through Broadgate yesterday - as, if you have much sense, you do not do very often - was
struck by two or three things.

First, just how much of this corporate architecture has gone up in this area in the past decade or so. Broadgate is like a little town all of its own, with its barren streets and squares and shopping areas and  even a little park.

Second - what a sad contrast between the stately Victorian architecture of the old  Liverpool Street Station canopy, and the mock-classicisim of all that flashy 1990s stuff.

Third - the completely repulsive piece of public sculpture, the massive 5-ton bronze nude Broadgate Venus.

In fact this work by a Colombian artist is absolutely perfect for the place; a grotesquely fat, featureless, personality-free female floating pointlessly in the middle of a space surrounded on three sides by identikit office blocks and on the fourth by the rail terminal at  Liverpool Street.

 It's a real cheek calling her Venus - she's got about as much to do with love or sex as an over-inflated barrage balloon. But as symbol of the ugliest sins of the city around her - avarice, cupidity, sheer greed, excess  - she is perfect.

Which is more than you can say of much of the recent public sculpture in this town.

It seems to range from the brash but competent show-off - such as Rudy Weller's  Four Bronze Horses of Helios (1992) rising out of a fountain at the corner of hideous 1980s building near Piccadilly Circus - to the totally naff.

That flashy new development in Knightsbridge overlooking Hyde Park - often referred to as having the most expensive apartments in the world - comes complete with some equally tasteless public sculpture.

I've no idea who it's by but it's a fairly extreme example of what seems fairly dismal public sculptures adorning various commecrial and residential developments in this  city of obscene wealth.

Sadly, even publicly-commissioned work to celebrate the great and the good somehow seem to always go bland. The horribly cliched Charlie Chaplin is one example, now mercifully moved from a prime site in Leicester Square to a dark turning off Lisle Street, as if relegated to the naughty corner.

The strange Oscar Wilde tribute behind St Martins -in-the-Fields is another. But to find the truly horrible modern sculpture you have to turn to the private sector - the stuff that now seems to be obligatory on every posh new residential apartments development anywhere in London.

Richard Serra's Fulcrum, Liverpool Street Station, LondonEvery cynical new block of "desirable" riverside apartments snow seems to have to have its own bit of dismal art. Look at these ghastly characters down by Battersea Bridge adorning one of a thousand similar recently-built Thameside estates for the very rich.

WHy, you wonder, can't these very wealthy people not commission something good - like Elisabeth Frink's work in Piccadilly, or the one great bit of modern sculpture in the CityRichard Serra's Fulcrum  (1987)  at the back entrance to  Liverpool Street Station.

Even if not great art, it knocks you sideways. Meanwhile, there's virtue in comedy - and who cannot but laugh or at least smile when meeting the three-dimensional déjeuner sur l'herbe in Soho Square.

OK, I have to admit - it has to be better to have some naff art, some horrible public art, than to have no public art at all.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Lease-lend Cottage, final chapter: Four new houses in the space of one

The building of the spuriously named Wardell Mews seems almost complete. Last week a massive crane on wheels sat outside and lifted massive blocks of concrete out of the building site, over my roof, and into waiting trucks.

Smart young men with clipboards are going in and out of the new houses; garage doors have been fitted and lights are going on and off in the many rooms in well-randomised sequences. Estate agents boards are up.

It's the end of the story of Lease Lend Cottage, the strange old house built out of bomb-site rubble in 1946 on a plot of land - also a bomb site -  hidden behind these blocks of flats.
US Press photo from 1946 shows Lease Lend Cottage, Clapham,

I've written too much about this already but I was prompted to finish the story when I rediscovered this picture of the original. This is US Press photo from 1948, and must have been taken from one of the flats or staircases in the Macaulay Court mansion block.

This photo was up for sale on ebay. But to me it seemed to good to me to be hidden, and important part of  the history of the crazy suburb.

When I first found this photo on the internet, last year, it also showed the writing on the back of the print, as follows:

 "Housing solution - This house in the London suburb of Clapham was built of 20,000 second hand bricks salvaged from bombed sites all over London. Faced by a shortage of new materials, Charles Hancock, a master builder, constructed it - and at a cost of only $425." The house is recently been subject to a planning application which would have to its demolition."

The big ugly terrace behind is where I live now ( on the top floor above the washing!).
Not really a mews - but maybe the name sounds better than Lease Lend Cottages
And, to illustrate the great speed and wonders of human progress, here are the new houses.

As I noted before, these are now on the market for  £1.8 million or so, and upwards, ever upwards.

I wonder if the people living down there will invite us in for tea and a tour of the gardens?

Or will try to sell me an old Citroen?

Or will hold small hours jam sessions with African drums and Hendrix-style guitar solos?

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Ana Mendieta and Dayanita Singh: Hayward delivers double dose of inspiration

It's a bit like a homecoming, entering the Hayward Gallery, once you've got past all the 21st century detritus plastered everywhere outside. Inside the cool concrete caverns of London's first post-WWII purpose-built gallery for modern art, you're immediately given a sense that art is to be taken seriously - in fact that it is the only important thing inside these walls.

This was  where, in 1968 or so I was taken by my sister to see the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibition, which to me was like  mainlining a highly addictive drug - 35mm black-and-white photography.

I became and instant addict and started saving for my first 35mm camera - it was a poor-man's Leica, the Soviet Zorki 4, bought from the USSR state import agency Technical and Optical Equipment on New Oxford Street, as I remember.

This must have been one of the Hayward's first big exhibitions, though I can find no record of it. I can still remember going through room after room of beautifully mounted prints, running back sometimes to check something I'd seen, then staring out of the long windows of the upper gallery across the river towards Charing Cross. Soon after I went to another exhibition of Soviet  art, and fell in love with the replica of Tatlin's Tower built on the Hayward's roof, a bright red steel lattice spiral of a   tower of Babel soaring upwards. You really got a feeling of how inspirational such a tower might have been to the Russians had it ever been built.

For much of my life this was the number one location for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in London - right up until the opening of Tate Modern in 1999. Then the Hayward - already way out of fashion in the age of tacky post-modernism - fell into some sort of doldrum. There were still some great exhibitions, but sometimes you had the feeling the organisers were having to apologise for the spaces they were showing in.

I don't know why but I have always loved the place, and entering it again last week was  happy to that great concret ramp still cuts across the huge ground-floor gallery, and chart there's still that strange arrangement of different levels.

In fact, the bare concrete floors and walls now have a patina, they have aged beautifully.

It was certainly the perfect gallery for the main expo, the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. She's described as a feminist conceptualist, an artist who was aligned with all those movements of  the 1970s/80s/90s
Cover of SBC's November 2013 programme devoted to Ana Mendieta, Cuban-American conceptual artist and pioneering photo self-portraitist
avant grade, landscape art,  performance art, video art,  etc.

But what's so clear here (as surely with any other artist truly worth the subsidised entrance fee) is that Mendieta was a one-off, a complete original, who just happened to use and exploit all the means that were surrounding her as a young and beautiful art student from the "alien" culture of communist Cuba in the 1970s USA.

She is certainly one of the great users of the materials closest to hand - i.e. her own body, usually naked, or covered with grass or rocks or earth or her own blood or feathers.  The "feminist" tag is strongest in her earliest stuff - the series on  rape victims, where basically she recreates the crime scene, turning herself into the victim, and then invites male audiences to experience these horrific tableaux.

But after these, it seems it's more to do with her own Cuban roots - so much of this work is about ancient ritual, she goes back to Cuba, she re-interprets and re-enacts rituals from Mexican and even Maltese societies, she lies in her own grace, sets fire to her own image, she floats like a drowned bird on th edge of the ocean - maybe a bird that was trying to get back to its homeland, across the water.

She died so young, we have no clear idea where all this was leading - but what is now very clear is that she could be regarded as the spiritual godmother for the "selfie" generation of internet-obsessed art students.  Go on any of the arty blog sites such as tumblr and flickr and you'll find there are hundreds of people trying to turn their bodies into art, using paint, blood, felt-tip pens, ash, flour, razor blades….you name it.

Part of it is the adolescent thing - "look at me, I am hideous, fat, I am killing myself, I am slicing my arms, I am starving myself to death, I am a ninja, I am a whore, I am a monster, I am hermaphrodite.." etc. But what's so different between these often disturbing, often repulsive, sometimes worryingly attractive pieces of online imagery and what Ana Mendieta did back then?

Well, thing is, in almost every case, she did it first, and did it better. And if she didn't, then you can be sure Cindy Sherman did. Or maybe, Albrecht Durer, who must stand as the god-dad of the narcissistic selfie.

They hayward imperfect for this show. Its wall and floors and numerous alcoves and hidden spaces under steps and  ramps make for a totally unobtrusive background for work ranging form small framed photos and notebooks through to huge wall pieces, floor-mounted art, sculptures, slide-shows, film and video pieces.

Even better, you reach a certain point and are then directed to the upper gallery, where a very different artist has her own exhibition which is a strangely perfect complement to Mendieta's.

Dayanita Singh is a young and prolific photographer who seems to have set herself the task of documenting - almost archiving - the people and cities and professions and religion and industries and artists, and the dispossessed of her own country, the massive country, the sub-continet.

Many of the photos are displayed as small "museums" or archives,  using old wood, glass and brass hinged shelving and filing systems from some Raj-era library of imperial bureaucracy. She likes to create albums and books, and again her exhibition follows this path. There are very few, if any photos of the artist herself here - and if there are she's not telling.

But in a way it's another slanted take on the online world of near-infinite archiving you can enjoy with flickr and Google and dropbox and so on. But the virtual clouds just will not do when we can have what she shows here - great installations of images, treasure troves of beautiful photographic prints, folding leaves, books!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

One more overworked word like "curate" and I am going into meltdown

Oh and here's another thing…. having moaned on about pop-ups ages ago, I now (ONLY now) remember the other word - sometimes connected with pop-ups - that I have come to loathe, in its manifold mis-uses, more than any other.

That word is the verb, to curate. What I hate is that it is now used quite, it seems to me, thoughtlessly,  as a way of adding a bit of cultural heft to any old rubbish. (note to self: is not "heft" another of those words you should really not like? ed.) (note to ed, or to the note-maker: Look here! You are probably right but give a recovering journalist a fucking chance, won't you!?)

Ok, back to curate. I might as well say I am curating this blog, or  even worse, I am curating these silly little words and sentences and paragraphs that I am typing onto a little window on a little screen on a 13in MacBook.  Yes, just the same. Just like a dear old shepherd up on the Welsh Hills is curating his bloody sheep.

Back in the 20th century, a curator worked for a  museum or art gallery, and had the job of organising the exhibits. The aim of any curator was first to make sure the exhibits were safe (to curate, from curare, to care for), that they were presented in the best possible way so that the audience could  enjoy them, understand them, and understand their place in the history of art or whatever.

A really good curator could do much more than that - it was certainly an art-form and I am not arguing against the importance of the people who bring things together, display art and artefacts to enrich all our lives.

But at some point in the early 21st century - probably in London or New York - the word began to be used interchangeably with "editor" or "organiser" or "director". So that when it came to be Jarvis Cocker's turn to choose the musicians to play at that year's Meltdown Festival on London's Southbank Centre, he was described as the person "curating" this event.

That was ok for that moment - I mean, it was a fair  metaphor for the job in hand. The Meltdown festival was all about re-discovering treasures from the vaults of popular music, dusting them down a bit and bringing them to one of the stages. You could see it was a bit like organising Tutankamen at the British Museum.

Sadly, though, the word went ballistic, to the extent that club DJs would suddenly be curating deep Chicago house nights or whatever, while other long-in-the-tooth pop musicians or even pop critics would "curate" special editions of of Saturday colour supplements, and so on.

Even worse, with the rise of  easier-than-breathing blogger sites such as tumblr, every single solitary art student or would be art student is suddenly the curator of their own online art/photography/fashion/ or whatever gallery.

The sad truth being that while one or perhaps less than one percent of tumblr blogs are marvellous, imaginative, original, sparked on by the true genius of the curatorial inspiration, most are not.

So today, I was reminded of all this reading an article in a free magazine whose main aim is to promote local businesses in order to raise local property prices. You know the sort of mag that gets stuffed through every London letterbox?

Here's the quote:  "There are so many lovely boutiques in the Fulham area, but my favourite must be (name deleted) on the Kings Road,  because they have a real talent curating merchandise to suit their customer's (sic) need."

Yes, well, indeed. Personally, I am well impressed by the curatorial skills of the manageress of my local Save the Children Charity Shop on Clapham High Street. It is superb. Seriously.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Fun, fear and loathing at London's first arts theme-park

South Bank Centre, London : roof gardens green the grey of the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Prelude: A beautiful bright crisp dry Tuesday morning. Bad time for the psyche, no work, fuck the esteem or the steam, I want simply to remember how to live properly.

The sun is there - an amazing enough thing in London at this date and time – and I have energy enough to cycle to the the river, and then along it, past the sad glass snake of Waterloo's now redundant Eurostar platforms and on towards the Festival Hall, the South Bank Centre - which looks more and more like a jolly old theme park, given all the retro 1951 Festival of Britain stuff of recent years.

The back door route to the South Bank Centre has some advantages over the recommended scenic route over Hungerford Bridge. The riverside entrances are now rather tacky with just too much cheery community arts stuff, graffiti, lights, flags, banners and so. As though writing big meaningful words and phrases in bright colours on the lovely dirty rough cast concrete walls of the QEH and Hayward, or spraying identikit "street art" all over the  same - or painting those chunky staircases bright yellow -  actually does any good.

It is so easy to tell "official" sanctioned, paid-for-by-the-Arts-Council street art from real street art. For a start, real stuff is not likely to be tastefully positioned on the largest external walls of one of London's major art galleries, bang next to Waterloo Bridge, in plain sight of hundreds of police cameras. And it is always a bit neater, a bit better finished. To be harsh, it is fake, it might as well be in some art-world Disneyland.

And then there are all those weird excresences on the buildings - that nautical thing on the QEH, for example - which almost disguise the brutal beauty of the original buildings - which I guess was one the aims anyway.

It's all ephemeral, and the sooner it's all gone the better - I mean, they do try, but sometimes too hard I think. Whereas they didn't have to try at all to get the crazy skatepark underneath the QE Hall, it just grew there like fungus, but now - ironically - it is to be swept away.

Even worse right now are the mock-Germanic Christmas market booths along the riverside railings. At least yesterday they had enough sense of the ridiculous to play Bob Dylan's croaky versions of the old  yuletide songs.

But - but - a massive but - underneath this increasingly tacky surface,  the Southbank Centre is still pure gold, a wonderful, priceless place. The Festival Hall is still at the heart of the place, and when - as I was suing - you enter it by the side entrance you get a beautiful sense of the qualities of this strange building.

I was in fact aiming for the Hayward Gallery - but as it's there near the bike racks and so inviting I enter the Festival Hall itself by the ground-level side entrance.

First I find a loo - a rare enough event in central London - a free, clean, empty loo - and then, on the way out, I pass a full-length wall mirror and realise that across the floor in front of me several very beautiful young people are practising what look like very slow break-dance moves.

Across this beautiful polished parquet floor, and through a window past the cloakroom I see schoolgirls playing on a range of Balinese gamelan instruments. A small sign points down a few steps to a lower level still - the "Strength & Vulnerability Bunker".

Three rooms of art by inmates of HM Prisons and Young Offender institutions - some of it funny, frightening, frightened, sad, cheeky, brilliant, clever, stupid. The exhibition is curated by the rapper Speech Debelle, and its only on til the end of November - and I would never of seen it had I not wandered in by the side entrance.

Upstairs, there's a there's the 2013 World Press Photo exhibition, containing some of the most gruesome and stomach churning images I've seen for years - out of Palestine, out of Syria, out of India and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

You look at these images of suffering - a man, apparently someone who paid informers, is having his bare feet whipped by a member of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, as two others hold him down. A boy of about ten is being beaten on the hands by his teacher in a religious school in Afghanistan. Four freshly-slaughtered children lie in a makeshift morgue, their faces bloodied and burned by Israeli missile attack.

The hardest images are at the back of the exhibition, and as you go round you almost feel like warning others of what they are about to look at.

And then you make a quick shift across the next level, past the expansive dance-floor beneath the main hall, past the bars and into the gift shop where you can buy charming Christmas presents.

The people who run the SBC really need all the congratulation  available for the way they've kept true the spirit of the RFH - it  does truly seem to be an all-day arts centre for everyone of any age and inclination.

Picking up some of the copious printed material on the way pout (how can they afford to produce such lovely monthly programmes and brochures and give them away to all?) - I find one is called  "Help us make it happen - the Southbank Centre's New Festival Wing.

"More arts for more people" is the rallying cry, and as you read the plans , step by step, you just think well, this is all very laudable. But you senesce there's going to be a catch.  The new ideas - the "Glass Box" rehearsal space on top of the Purcell Rooms and Hayward - looks distinctly uncomfortable. It is exactly that in the drawing - a nice piece of rather bland 21st Century design sitting atop the craggy ramparts of the older art-fortress.

Then there's going to be Arts Education Studios, a Youth Village., a Children's House, a History House, a Word Space - and then of course the  "World-Food cafés" which are supposed to pay for all this. Nosing around the RFH yesterday I was amazed to see how many school kids and students were taking part in so many activities all over the building. You cannot but welcome the idea of more space for this sort of thing - but does it all have to be concentrated here? And do those cafés really have to take the space currently occupied by SBC's one and only true bit of organically grown community activity, the skate park?

Just how much food and drink do people need in order to get active in the arts?

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Another cycling death - and still the trucks race through city streets

Five cyclists die in London in 9 days - and three are on a so-called "Cycle Superhighway"
Five cyclists killed in nine days - the latest this morning on the Whitechapel High Street, a stretch of the now-notorious cycle super-highway 2.

They keep saying, the numbers killed on London streets are proportionately lower than ten years ago - but  ten years ago, few cyclists wore crash helmets. And five deaths in one city in nine days is desperate, especially when three of them were on the same so-called "cycle superhighway" between Aldgate and Stratford.

Many factors have been suggested. Last year, when there was a terrible spate of young women cyclists being killed, it was mooted that maybe it was the lack of experience or street confidence that was to blame. Some also cited the recklessness and apparent sense of immortality exhibited by younger gung-ho cyclists. London Mayor Boris Johnson himself called for cyclists to be more alert to danger on the BBC Radio 4 news this evening.

No such excuses hold good for more recent deaths - the 62-year-old hospital porter killed on the Mile End Road last Tuesday, for example, had no chance at all - he was hit from behind and crushed under the truck's front wheel.

The favoured theory is that the poor field of vision of drivers of huge dumper trucks and buses is the big problem. Surely they have angled mirrors to see the curb - or surely they would not be allowed on the road.

I'd add another factor - that so many of their drivers are working under heavy pressure to deliver on time, an appalling imposition for anyone trying to negotiate the hideously crowded streets of greater London. Cycle down Silverthorne Road, Battersea , to the junction with Queenstown Road. You pass on the busiest cement works in London, with a constant stream of massive trucks with those revolving green and yellow mixers on the back. They swarm around these small streets like big fat wasps, in , fill, out again in two minutes flat, no time to stop longer, feeding all those building sites along Nine Elms and further afield.

I've been both a commuting and recreational cyclist in central London since 1978. I've had two accidents involving broken bones - one of which was my fault, the other the fault of a right-turning driver who simply didn't see me and accelerated across my path.

 I've had two incredibly close shaves - once between a converging bus and lorry on Highbury Corner in 1981, the other between a light-jumping refuse truck and steel railing on Lavender Hill in 2010.

I was tempted to write a "how to stay alive" list of advice to cyclists new to London, but I know that quite often you will simply be in a position where there's nothing you can do.

However much care you take to make eye-contact with every driver emerging from side streets or turning left at traffic lights, however good you are anticipating hazards, avoiding danger spots, however careful you are always to use lights and high-vis clothing - there will come a time when someone in a nippy vehicle, on a tight time-schedule, will whip round a corner or between lanes of traffic and you will be in  the way, and in that case, all you can do is pray; you might live and you might die.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Entertaining advice for Northern Line commuters from Transport for London

"Northern Line commuters urged to walk or cycle". The BBC headline elicits a dry chuckle around these parts.

That thing where you get to the station at 8.15, needing to be in Wapping by 9.30 - and the trains pull up, and one or two squeeze in, some, you can see them, their jobs or lives simply depend on it, they throw themselves into the dense forest of angry humans.

 Others - self included - simply cannot face that. You stand there, watching the trains pull in and pull out. I have have counted fifteen, twenty, twenty five. I have stood there for  forty minutes. I have so often given up and gone home and phoned in sick. I have walked, and now I always cycle.

However urgent the need to get somewhere, you actually can not dive in, push others out of  your way, and then suffer their glaring, your head and neck bent under the mean Northern Line carriage ceilings, your legs delicately placed within a centimetre of six other pairs of legs.

You think to yourself, only one of the three hundred or so fragile souls in this carriage has to crack and we all go down.

Yes, tfl, it obviously better to walk or cycle to Stockwell, I have had to do that dozens of times. In fact I gave up using your shit service to get to work in 2006.

Meanwhile, if you really want  people to find other ways of getting to work from Tooting, Balham, Clapham South, Clapham Common, Clapham Norht - then give them a financial incentive to do so. Or shut the fuck up and improve your service.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Does the Cheesegrater have mystical powers?

Late autumn sunshine creates an eerie effect on the sloping face of Richard Rogers' latest London landmark, the so-called Cheesegrater in Leadenhall Street
So much talk about London's new skyscrapers - for example, the vile Walkie-Talkie's propensity for frying people on the pavement when the September sun hits its concave face - but no-one else, so far as I can tell, has yet to comment on the strange optical effects of the even bigger new building on Leadenhall Street.

The merits and otherwise of Richard Roger's massive new tower (at 50 storeys, about 100m taller than its near neighbour, Rogers' widely-lauded Lloyd's building) have been widely discussed. There's a story, confirmed by Rogers himself, that its wedge shape was arrived at  entirely to save the view of St Pauls.

In doing this, he seems to have created a reflective effect that is, in its way, almost enough to produce a  religious experience, though whether this was intended I do not know.

One bright October morning, I looked out of the bathroom window, east across London, and saw this strange column of what seemed light swirling light rising above the Leadenhall building. The sun was bright, but in its autumnal mode, hit the wedge-shaped southern face of the skyscraper in such a way as to reflect almost vertically upwards, through layers of dispersion early morning mist.

The effect was series and spectacular - I tried to capture it, and the photo below does not really convey the full strangeness of this event. It was as though the building were acting as a sort of celestial prism, perhaps sucking the light and goodness out not eh City! What, is there some goodness to be found in that square mile? OK, No, clearly not the right interpretation. SO we are back to cheesgrater rather than soul-sucker.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Battersea visions: digging deep into BAC's amazing past

Allen Ginsberg appears at Battersea Arts Centre, Lavender Hill, London SW11, in November 1981.
Just £1.10 to see the late, legendary beat poet Allen
Ginsberg and friends at the Battersea Arts Centre
 in 1981. It was a great night - so why has
it taken me 33 years to go back?
It took a visit to the Battersea Arts Centre on Lavender Hill to really nail the fact that Battersea is a more fascinating, historically rich and surprising place than any of the surrounding boroughs, and that the BAC itself is the pearl in this particularly gnarled oyster of a south London suburb.

Not that that would be too difficult - the surroundings comprise the high-yup suburbia of Clapham, Wandsworth and Putney. Battersea was always more extreme than these places, even though it has had more than its share of gentrification since the early 1980s.

Was at BAC for - of all things - a pilates class, arrived too early, checked out a tiny exhibition on 120 years of the Battersea Town Hall building which it now occupies. Displays of old leaflets and programmes in the glass-fronted frames around the room, covering the anti-closure campaigns of the 70s, through beat and punk poetry of the 70s-80s and the radical fringe theatre of the 80s and 90s.

But the real shocker for me was to discover that the Allen Ginsberg event I went to happened in 1981. That was four years before I moved to this area, I was living either in Dalston or in Croydon - both quite a hike from Lavender Hill.

The bigger, more shaming shock here was the realisation that I have only been back for one performance since - and that was a children's film club in 1992, when my son was 3, a Saturday morning screening of  old Disney cartoons.

Why was I not at BAC for all those groundbreaking performances and plays? From John Cooper Clark in 1978 to the amazing theatricals of the 1990s, I missed them all, even though - once I'd moved to Clapham - they were only a 10-minute walk away.


Still, I did enjoy the bar occasionally. Memo to self - make up for this by going to BAC regularly.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Is crazy paving Wandsworth's answer to community cohesion and urban regeneration?

All around Clapham Junction the streets are being paved - not in gold, but in some rather expensive-marble-looking multicoloured patchwork quilt effect.
Sous les pavés, quoi? New crazy paving for riot-torn shopping street - St John's Road, Battersea, being repaved by Wandsworth Council

Yes, urban regeneration is afoot, street furniture is being torn up and rep[laced with more street furnitutre. The old, bloodstained riot-age pavings and railings are being torn up in hugely disruptive stages.

That whole area - St John's Road, Battersea Rise, Lavender Hill, Falcon Road - is undergoing a very thorough post-riot tarting up. Except that I think it all started well before the riots. But that would spoil my entry.

So what they - Wandsworth Council - are doing is covering the pavements and roads in that sort of marble paving, three colours, different sizes, the un-crazy paving of a million architect's impressions.

It looks quite nice at first, and then you see more and more it it, and you start to wonder why - what is this saying to us all, post riot?

That this is now a nice place, like those desirable residential developments in provincial towns or new-build gated retirement resorts on the Algarve, or the patios of gangster-villas in Marbella or Bishop's Stortford, all the better for burying dissenters beneath?

The new paving stretches several hundred yards from the epicentre of the August 2011 events, up to the LIbrary on Lavender, all the way up St John's Road, and large tracts of the worst-hit street are now getting this harlequin-check treatment.

Two or three uncharitable thoughts: first,  it must cost.

Second, is it worth it? Already, where this new paving has been in use for a few weeks, the staining is  just the same as  the old pavements, the unmistakeable chewing gum blots and McDonald's grease spots. The vomit-splashes and urine trials.

Third - most urgent - where are the new bike racks? They've taken down all the old railings around Arding & Hobbs, etc - and so far only a dozen or so new individual bike stands have appeared. These are mostly of the dismal 'n' design, hopeless for attaching more than one bike. And this at a time when the numbers of cyclist-commuters in London  is growing at record rates.

The kindness of strangers

The Queenstown Road/Lavender Hill junction, heading south at 5.50pm. An unusually warm late October afternoon, traffic heavy, slide inside two buses to get into the bikes only bit of the intersection in time to turn left into Wandsworth Road when lights change.

The bike's one working brake squeals as I pull up next to a 50-ish looking homeless guy, leaning against the traffic light pillar in a pose straight out of Hogarth. Watery grey-blue eyes, a straggle of long grey hair, jeans trainers teeshirt. He looks exhausted, finished. The hand that's not supporting his wieght seems cupped in readiness for aphantom special brew or at least a fag.

Then the door of the big white Ford Transit van in the outside lane opens, a tall, lean black guy levers himself out and - leaving the door wide open  - strolls across the road towards Sainsburys.

Is he crazy? the lights are about to change, he will never get whatever it is he wants in time.

He's not going to Sainsbury's, but only as far as the guy on the light-post. He hands him this vintage-look suede bomber jacket with a fleecy lining, says a few words, to the effect "can you use this?"

The homeless guy,  surprised,  takes it, blinking,  and as the black boy moves back across the road and into the Transit, the older man holds up the coat he's just been given and mouths a thank-you. Then he tries it on , it fits, it looks good on him.

The lights change, I see the driver - an older black guy, also in working clothes - smile faintly as he  heads off right into Lavender Hill. WHat was it made them do this at that moment, this kind impulse? Or is it something they do regularly?

Whatever, it's just one small random act of kindness that makes today seem a huge amount better than yesterday. Thanks to the two blokes in the white van.

Friday, 18 October 2013

FInally get to see Macca 50 years late and for nothing

Well-earned praise: Paul McCartney and band showered
in smartphone love by a surprised crowd at his free concert
 in London's Covent Garden
Dipped into BBC News website at 12.36 and read that Paul McCartney had announced a free gig in Covent Garden starting at 1.

While I loved the Beatles in the late 1960s I was never a big McCartney lover; typically, I preferred snotty bitchy John. But then I never saw him either - I might just have caught a glimpse of Harrison and Ringo at some festival or other, at the time when they al off playing in other people's bands.

Sir Paul McCartney plays a free gig in London  to publicise his latest recordAnyway, at 12.37 I got on my bike and was in Covent Garden Piazza by 1.15. The crowd was small and well-behaved and a bit puzzled as nothing seemed to be happening. By 1.30 a feeble attempt to start slow-hand-clapping protest fizzled out mercifully quickly - what do these people want, blood with their free music?

Then they came on and you had to say Paul looked incredibly much like he did in the early days of the Beatles, the black suit/white shirt thing and the hairstyle.

They kicked off with the new single - called New - which looked back to some of his jollier tunes of the 60s.

In fact all the four songs they played sounded to me much like some of the stuff he did with Wings - heavy on the 4:4 rhythm, determinedly chirpy and upbeat, and they filled the square very nicely, and everyone was happy, if a little disbelieving.

A total feelgood experience. You have to hand it to Sir Paul - he does work very hard at his trade, and he does seem to have the gift of making people smile and squeal in delight, even at 71. Good day, sunshine.

A few minutes later I saw a tourist showing her incredulous friends pictures of Paul McCartney on her camera - "I tell you it was him, it was, just down there. But he's finished now."

Thursday, 17 October 2013

From Boo Hewerdine to Afro-funk via Damo Suzuki (who, unfortunately, I am not)

It  starts in a pub cellar in Clerkenwell, a Tuesday evening in October, 2013. We are at that charmingly-named pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, to see a band - or rather, two men with guitars - known as State of the Union.

Already four pints down we stumble into dimly lit basement performance zone where an earnest young  band with a curtain haired Kurt Cobain type of lead voclaist are crammed into one dimly lit corner and are playing that sort of neo-country folk-rock as though their lives depended on it (which I suppose in a way they do).

I realised I have sat down in a space recently vacated by a hippyish looking guy and am told I have just nicked the seat of one of the great steel slide guitarists of our times. Brooks Williams. Sitting next to him is Boo Hewerdine. Yes, this place is that intimate, that cosy - the main act and their friends are watching the support act  in a spirit of absolute decorum - they are quiet when they need to be and applaud enthuisastically.

The young band are good - but the two older guys put on a show of  such accomplished performance that you  are in danger of forgetting what went before. It is just two blokes and two guitars and two voices, and yet so solid a sound, the songs seeming to come out of some long-lost American songbook from the dust-bowl era.

Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams are both seasoned performers with fiercely loyal followers: together they're a great  big solid  chunk of Anglo-Americana, whatever that means - it's more American than English, and although Boo is a studious looking native of Cambridgeshire, he sounds like he was also born somewhere along Highway 61.

The songs are catchy, instant classics: the one that really gets me has as its refrain the phrase, 23 Skidoo.

It stuck in my head, and I was even thinking - yes, there was a band, maybe Boo was part of it? And so I resort to Google and learn all about the linguistic roots of the phrase (turn of 20th century New York cop slang, the  Flatiron intersection, blown-up-skirt stuff it is thought) - but also re-confirm that 23 Skidoo was indeed a band, but about as far from Boo's fiercely cheerful rootsy-folk as you could want.

As you all except me know 23 Skidoo was part of that  late 70s, early 1980s post-punk neo-funk Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop-ready alt-rock electro-anarcho-dub-pop goups along with the likes of The Pop Group and the On-U sounds lads. Not surprisingly their first ep emerged from the rancid musical sweatshops of one Genesis P Orage & Co.

How odd that I should be led to them 30 years late by an old folkie.

But how much odder that in seeking out this latest fault-line in my own musical education, I came across another. Looking for 23 Skidoo records in Berwick Street I took a quick look at a Fall disc , live in SF I think, and noticed it had a version of I Am Damo Suzuki.

And this, children, is what they used to call a cassette: The Fall's This Nation's Saving Grace
Best song on Fall's best album?
I Am Damo Suzuki, track 4 side 2
Why - again - had it taken me nearly 30 years to register this direct tribute to (or as some would have it, piss-take of) the Cologne band by Mark E Smith?  I must've heard the song 100 times, mainly  on this cassette: The lyrics are wonderful, the assault and battery delicious, even if the bassline is just a bit too doomy, too Bauhaus perhaps.

But above all, why do I  see these two revelations to be part of the same epiphany? Well it must just be a personal thing. But am exploring the great Damo Suzuki's website. It is sublime, of course.

I am taken off again in directions, the obvious Acid Mother's Temple thing, and on....old E M Forster just did not know what he was kicking off when he issued that command: "Only connect".

Monday, 14 October 2013

Penguin pulls off classic wind-up with Morrissey autobiography

This Thursday, Penguin is to publish Morrissey's autobiography in the black covers of the revered imprint, Penguin Classics.
A Classic tease: Smiths frontman Morrissey achieves every late 20th century angst-ridden teen dream. Becoming a Penguin Classic.

And so, another notch is cut into the stock of the big fat gun used by cultural relativists to blast elitist traditionalists out of their rank and stinking waters. Or is it the other way around?

Penguin justified their decision by suggesting the Morrissey tome could indeed one day be regarded as a classic. A very large question is begged here, blatantly - but there you go.

Penguin founder Allen Lane might well be thumping his coffin lid - but there again, if so, he would have been splintering the boards with much violence already, many times over.

The thing is, all of the people most likely to kick up a stink - people, let's face it, who most probably left school in the 1950s or 1960s and spent most of their 5/- pocket money on a 3/6d Penguin Classic such as Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album or The Bhagavad Gita - are now, in terms of cultural clout, totally impotent.

And most of that lot - the Penguin fetishists, and there are plenty of them, believe me - for I am one - would tell you that the Classics really lost their way back in the 1980s, when Penguin started messing around with formats and colour bands and so on.

Or maybe the rot set in even earlier, in 1961, when the original "roundel" design covers were replaced by Germano Facetti's first Black Classics.  Or a few years later, when the original Penguin Classics editor E. V. Rieu - translator of  the first Penguin Classic in 1946, The Odyssey – was replaced by Betty Radice and Robert Baldick.

(I am still searching for a copy of a strange Penguin classic, Betty Radice: The Translator's Art. Her reign at Penguin, in my view, was the golden age).

There are still some much younger types ready to put up a fight. For example, Brendan O'Neill, a writer for Spike,  but here blogging for  the Daily Telegraph, maintains that Penguin has at a stroke destroyed its own reputation for upholding the highest literary standards - at least in this area of its catalogue.

But his argument is cliché-laden: "Plato, Julian of Norwich, Darwin – they must all be spinning in their graves right now. In essence, Penguin is sneering at the public."

But is it sneering? The public gets what the public wants, as one of Morrissey's rivals once offered.

The public loves Morrissey, or loves to loathe him or find him loveably odd and irritating and puzzling. He's another of the many national treasures that the post-punk generation was so good at producing. All that Manchester lot, or at least the ones who survived. Mark E Smith. John Cooper Clark. The one who was not Ian Curtis. Shaun Ryder. Etc. Still a bit unpredictable, you know, and therefore - classics.

And then the lads from Sheffield. Jarvis, they are all called Jarvis. .

Look at them - they now run BBC Radio 4. Or so it seems sometimes. Anyway, why should they not be Penguin Classics, all of them?

Wasn't one of Brixton's favourite sons also a Penguin Classic? Didn't Linton Kwesi Johnson get his poetry into one of those slim volumes, a few years back? He did. It was called, Mi Revalueshanary Fren.  Yeah, but he was only a "Modern Classic". In the same league as Kafka, F Scott Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Lorca,  Camus, etc.

A nice distinction that Penguin used to make - a soft grey spine for the writers whose impact in the 20th century was such the they would almost certainly become fully-fledged classics in time - but not yet so long dead and so much studied as to get the full black of Balzac, Gogol, Dostoyevsky or Dante.

Morrissey, on the other hand - well, how could anyone deny him his place at this table?

Friday, 11 October 2013

Still missing you, Kastoori: the unforgettable flavours of Tooting's best restaurant

Some famous restuarateur type has said he's about to open a new fried chicken place in Tooting.

Obviously it will be a posh fried chicken place - a la "gourmet" burger joints - and thus a bit pricey.
But what is more annoying was  his claim that  - until he arrives - Tooting had no "name" restaurants.

NO,  maybe it doesn't - not anymore, perhaps he's right. But it DID once have some of the finest Indian vegatarian places in London. And the best of all was Kastoori.
Whatever happened to Kastoori and its owner, Mr Thanki and his family? We long to hear that it will re-open somewhere nearby soon.
A sad sight - all that's left to remind us of
Tooting's finest  vegetarian restaurant, Kastoori.

How often we'd hit the tube to Tooting Broadway and walk up the high street to this very special vegetarian restaurant.

From the outside, Kastoori looked like any old 1970s style unimaginative British-Indian restaurant. It occupied part of a big old 1930s-look store, the front of which had undergone some pretty hideous transformation later on, in a typical outer  London high street retail style.

Indise it also seemed bland - rows of tables with yellow covers, high backed chairs, just another rather overdone suburban Indian restaurant.

Onle when you startted reading the menu did you begin to realise how different this place was.
There was some explanation of the history - how the owner's family, originally from Gujurat province I think -  had been based in East Africa, how this subtly changed their Gujurati approach to cooking, and so on. And just as you were reading this Mr Thanki senior, the owner, would tend to come over to introduce himself and perhaps make gentle menu suggestions.

The food was very good, very different - the starter dahi puri "taste bombs", the amazing tomato and banana currys, the masala doss, and - my personal favourite - the bean curry, all were excellent and very different from your average Indian vegetarian fare. Something about the spices they used, perhaps.

Mr Thanki was always keen to total, some crazy stories about cooking for maharajahs in India, how people came from all over the world to Tooting for  a Kastoori meal. And now it has gone.

We worry about the family - Mr Thanki , I think , had diabetes. Some of his sons worked in the restaurant, there was talk of them re-opening a Kastoori somewhere nearby. But nothing.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

In (reluctant) defence of Clapham

Murder on Clapham Common - the nicest residents are crows
Murder on the Common: some of my best SW4 friends are crows. 
Heartily in agreement with all the Crap Towns stuff about how awful London is published earlier this week (See Daily Mail, etc). But a much better demolition job on the capital can be found on the Vice magazine website.

Not only did this say everything we all hate about London in a far cleverer,  funnier way than I could ever have managed - it also distilled another of my feelings: that if London is the worst place in the UK - no, the world - then Clapham is definitely the worst place to live in London.

So these days, when I say I live in Clapham (and sometimes I even lie and say I live  sort of in Stockwell/Vauxhall/Battersea borders) - I find myself adding things like, well it 's very convenient for transport or, well when I moved here it was still quite bohemian - etc.

Because all the things  in that Vice piece are true - especially the bit saying that, above all, what makes Clapham so, so ghastly is the people.

Not just the banker families with their SUVs parked nose-to-nose in Lilieshall Road, nor the scrubbed infants being dragged to the private schools on the common by their nannies, not just the stupid city boys renting their £600 a week shitty flats in identikit new build blocks on "Wingate Square",  not just the perfectly-formed gaggles of posh girls jogging and braying in their lustrous pink lycra, not just the shouty ex-squaddies running their profitable boot camps on the Common, not just the posh middle aged ladies with their three or four pedigree dogs moaning about their East European workmen....no, there are loads of other ghastly types living in this once unremarkable and now totally insufferable suburb.

But - and god I know hard this can be - we should remember these appalling characters are merely the most noticeable stratum of the local population, not the whole lot of us. These people are like the vile skin on a rich custard.  But I would also like you to believe that, crushed beneath this foul layer are  many perfectly good people who are indeed in need of your sympathy.

But not too much sympathy, because the area is in fact not too bad to live in, once you learn how to filter out or avoid the above-mentioned annoyances.

So here goes,  here are 10 not quite so awful things which perhaps make it possible to live in Clapham, all the above notwithstanding:

1. The charity shops, including a great Save the Children shop  near Clapham North tube, the FARA shops in Northcote Road and Lavender Hill, and the four Trinity Hospice charity shops. The latter vary greatly reflecting the social mix of their locales - cheap and cheerful on the High Street, a bit posh and pricey in Old Town, yummy mummy-rugby daddy in Northcote Road, and a wee bit Up the Junction on Lavender Hill.

The last bastion of bohemianism in Clapham - Rectory Gardens2. Rectory Grove/ Rectory Gardens -  the last of the Clapham's old bohemian residentsfight repeated attempts by Lambeth council to evict them. Do read this brilliant entry on the Faded London blog, and especially the fascinating comments by jakartaass etc. See also some amazing photos on Sam C.'s Mixbook
of life in this tiny L-shaped street of early 19th century cottages. Arriving as squatters in the early 1970s, they gained short-life housing tencies from Lambeth, but are having to fight for their survival here as the stench of fat fat profits insinuates its way in the nostrils of their local authority landlords.

Slavery abolitionists including Wilberforce remembered at Holy Trinity Church, Clapham3. Clapham Common itself - a great place to get mugged on, to be gay-bashed on whether you are gay or not, to to be hit in the face by rugby balls and frisbees, to tread in dog shit, to be barged out of the way by joggers or shouted at by cyclists. Oh yes, that's just the start of it.
Still a nice place to lie down on and undress on a hot, a rare hot day. And it is home to some of Clapham's least offensive residents - a fine murder of crows.

4. The Clapham Sect  - the group of wealthy Christians who drove the movement for the abolition of slavery in the late 18th century used Clapham's Holy Trinity church as a base. They were also not great believers in alcohol, which is apparently explains the lack of pubs in many of the area's oldest residential areas.

5. Vivienne Westwood: apparently she still lives here, and has always said how much she likes Clapham, unlike so many famous people who once they make it get out. Wonder if Thunderclap Newman still breathes the air of SW4?

6. The new Clapham library: after years of expecting the worst, many of Clapham Public library users agree that the new building, inspired by the spiral-ramp design of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, is
actually rather good. Andrew Logan's installation of broken mirrors and  bric-a-brac is also popular.
Another possibly good thing to come out of this is the  new Omnibus  community arts venutre being created in the old Library building on Clapham Common Northside.

Reflected glory of Clapham:  artist Andrew Logan created these ornate letters, spelling out LIBRARY, outside the new Public Library in Clapham High Street
Andrew Logan's mirror-mosaic-bric-a-brac
 sculptures outside the new Clapham
Public Library
7. Transport:  good that it has three tube stations, shame that they are all on the Northern Line. Buses are good and trains from the Juntion to anywhere in the universe - unless you want to get to Clapham High Street.

8. Angela Carter, Natsume Soseki, Graham Greene, etc, lived in Clapham for a while. OK, they are all dead and at least one of them hated living in Clapham - but at least the place has some literary connections. Amazing how often it appears in novels as the default place for lonely, failing types to live in bedsits, in the early 1960s.

9. Which leads straight on to Trinity Hospice  itself - the oldest hospice in the UK, and occupying a beautiful house  with even more beautiful gardens on the north side of the Common - which might seem more like a good reason, not  so much to live in Clapham, but to die there.

10. Finally, perhaps the best thing of all about this place - it's only about 10 minutes away from Brixton.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Jah will forgive you, Mr Independent man!

A truly weird piece in tonight's Evening Standard, so odd you wonder what the hidden agenda might be. Ostensibly it's a brief lament by Amol Rajan, the editor of The Independent (a Standard stablemate) - bemoaning the lack of decent reggae nights in London these days.

First reaction - yes, agree - you get much better reggae nights in Leeds, or Brighton, or Dusseldorf, or Osaka these days. So much as I sympathize, it just seems odd - and pretty damn obvious. Reggae as we knew and loved it , roots rock reggae -  peaked in the mid-1970s with artists like Marley, Toots, Culture, Burning Spear, and their many many friends, followers, and copiers.
Rastafarianism was at the heart of much of the best Jamaican reggae music of the 1970s - such as Burning Spear's Social Living

Some would put the golden age even earlier, with the Studio One recordings of the late 1960s or with Joe Gibbs, King Tubby, etc, and then Lee Perry's Ark.

So the best reggae is already around 40 years old, the music of a generation who are now pensioners. Why would there be great reggae nights in London? It is a reivivalist thing, just like 60s pop and prog and punk and 80s and disco. But roots rock reggae has yet to have that sort of revival in London. "Cool" young Londoners seem to prefer cheesier stuff,  music they can get ironic about, tacky things that have kitsch value.

But, stranger still, Mr Rajan goes on to berate the new generation of London MCs for pumping  out too much rastafarian propaganda and being rather too, well, anti-establishment.

At one point at a Shoreditch nightclub he says he was almost moved to get up on stage to defend the capitalist system.

As the great Joseph Hill of Culture laugh-shouts on "Two Sevens Clash", "he said wha-a-a-at?"

If he doesn't like the rebellious bit, or the spiritual bit, what on earth is it about reggae that this fellow liked so much 15 years ago? Take way the Rastas, the roots, take away the rebellion, and you take away about three-quarters of the good stuff. You're left with a bit of dear old Greg Isaacs when he got all smoochy and sexy, the lover's rock people, and dancehall.

No doubt many of the tenets of Rastafarianism do seem a bit dotty to sophisticated north London secularists of 2013, but without it you'd not have some of the most beautiful, powerful songs of that era. The Congos, War in a Babylon, Exodus, Do you remember the Days of Slavery, Do not forget Old Marcus Garvey, the Twinkle Brothers' Since I threw the Comb Away etc etc etc etc ad infinitum, all the way to Armagiddeon Time itself!

When reggae did break away from the rastas, from its roots and its consciousness, under commercial and political pressure in the 1980s,  it went pretty bad in place. So bad it was rather good, sometimes, but also pretty horrible in others. Rasta was replaced by sex and crime and violence and boasting and  bling. Dancehall reggae, ragga, all that stuff packed with syn-drum beats and exaggerated bleeps and crude mixes, the big bad trouser mob, MC Hammer etc, the toasting duelling types, you know.

If you reckon a dub-step MC in Shoreditch is getting too rootsy, too damn righteous and religious,  what you be looking for? You want it to snuggle up to the big brands, the big money, the TV ads? Do you want UB40 or do you want reggae?

What did Mr Marley say about hitting  us with music? What was reggae  but rebel music? What did LKJ say about reggae? What did Fela Kuti say about music, being the weapon? There are "conscious" reggae artists around now, including the Marley son Damien, and lots of young people all around the world. Often they try too hard to sound like Bob, and don't really take it any further.

It's difficult to untangle such a universal sound as reggae, which is now used  for so many marketing purposes, a billion miles from the original messages, from the backstreets of Trenchtown, the police, the thieves, and the all-knowing, everlasting mercy of Jah.

Now reggae is just another beat tuned into a billion music apps, the rasta colours just another fashion statement for the likes of Adidas.  Some of the worst offenders should know better: the Marley family themselves, using Bob's inheritance to sell fizzy drinks.

Shame on them all!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Disgrace and the notion that we read what we need to read

How strange it is that, so often, books appear to offer themselves up to readers, as if they know what is needed, they are aware that they are so closely attuned to what is going on in reader x's life.

Back in 1980, even before the dust and blood and rubble had settled in Beaufort Street, I read Anna Karenina and I had no idea why, but it was a sort of literary equivalent of being in the ring with Mohammed Ali. Every argument I tentatively held up to try to justify my indiscretions with an older, more intelligent, supremely beautiful married woman were retunred with such powerful and almost vindictive velocity by the text that I was dumbfounded, floored, forced to think again.

Maybe if I had read Madame Bovary instead I would have had a more comfortable Christmas?

Anyway, I had an echo of the same effect in the last few weeks when reading in quick succession, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and  Disgrace,  the Booker  and Nobel Prize winner by  J. M. Coetzee.

I had no idea that both books centred on the chaos caused by men in their late 50s having affairs with much younger women, girls in fact. On Beauty is thought of as Zadie Smith's tribute to the E M Forster school of big English novel of families, their sense and sensibilities. And indeed there is so much going on that it is possible to pick your own route through it and concentrate on that. Needless to say I concentrated on the far-from-pitiable figure of the art-historian dad.

He has it all, it seems; the reasonable successful academic career, the beautiful Trinidadian wife, the trio of interesting children - and above all, as Zadie Smith leaves us in no doubt about - he's an attractive and witty man, even in his late 50s. Oh yes, and he also has a bigger-than-average penis. Both he and Zadie know that this latter fact is truly at the root of his being.

So this novel has little choice but to show him messing up in a big way, which he does, against a skilfully painted landscape of ealry 21st century Anglo-American life, with all its social, religious, ethnic and political richness.

Disgrace is much tightly focussed on a man of similar age, similar career,  and similar predispositions. It is set in a harder landscape - South Africa in immediate post-apartheid years - and everything is rather sharper, tougher.

He's a divorced womaniser; when his intense but one-sided relationship with a beautiful call-girl ends abruptly, he's thrown into a bit of a crisis. "He ought to give up, retire from the game. At what age, he wonders, did Origen castrate himself?"

Well, that's the sort of question that really hits home. I wonder how many men of this sort of age in these sort of social positions ask themselves this one? Might one, he asks himself, approach a doctor and ask for it? "Severing, tying-off". Yes, we know this feeling, we also eye the kitchen knife, we also remeber Mathieu in Sartre's Roads to Freedom.

Ageing is not graceful, and old men are a hideous sight, with their priapic thoughts, and their wrinkled bodies.  I'd go for it: chemical castration on the NHS. That's why these two books fell quite by chance into my hands.

Of course, like x in On Beauty, he does not go for this drastic option and lands himself in a heap more trouble, in very similar circumstances. Which provides the grounds for the rest of the novel -  his disgrace and his struggle against notions of redemption.

The book clearly ticked all the boxes for the judges, but it does so in such a beautiful and economic stlye that you cannot begrudge its success. His stumbling steps towards redemption, the suffering he inflicts on himself and perhaps also his daughter, all these are  deeply  moving as well as shocking.

Maybe the knife is the answer after all.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Was the Rev Francis Kilvert the original grumpy young man?

The Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840 - 79) has got me hooked. On page 26 of the old Penguin selection from his Diaries, (edited by William Plomer), in an entry written on Tuesday April 5 1870,  he visits Llanthony Priory, a few miles from his home in Clyro in the Brecon Beacons.

Yes, we were also tourists at
Llanthony Priory, deep in
the Black Mountains of
south Wales. What would
the Rev. Kilvert have made
of us?
Much to his horror, there are two  tourists visiting the site, identifiable by  their "staves and shoulder belts all complete, postured among the ruins in attitude of admiration..."

Kilvert had some very interestingly modern views, especially on the subject of tourists:

"Of all noxious animals too, the most noxious is a tourist. And of all tourists the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist."

Oh yes!