About Me

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

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Nine Elms disease

Each morning I look across London from the balcony at the back of my flat and each morning I see more cranes, and the first bones of skeletal skyscrapers,  sprouting out of the mudflats between me and the river Thames.

 I live at the top of an old house which overlooks, to the north and east,  the former swamps of Battersea and Vauxhall. Until recently there was a pretty clear view across to Westminster and beyond. Now,  where once I saw, in the distance, the towers of Westminster Palace, the Abbey, the dome of St Pauls, and on to the City, I now see the first growth of this latest and so-called  "biggest urban regeneration scheme in Europe".

It starts at Battersea Power Station (which is now brightly floodlit every evening) and it stretches all the way to the monstrosities of St George's Wharf at Vauxhall Bridge.

To judge from a couple of half-completed towers by the river, it's just going to be be much more of the same awful stuff we are getting all along the south bank of the river, from Rotherhithe down to Putney.
Nine Elms, in south west London, the site of one of the biggest urban redevelopment projects in Europe.Stupid, show-off residential towers, with what they say will be a new leisure and business  zone around the old Power Station and a few embassies. For some odd reason the US Govt has decided to relocated its embassy here, from Grosvenor Square.

Given the bleak plastic blandness of the architects' plans so far revealed, I guess the Americans will feel quite art home here - it looks like just another US city with its flashy towers and carefully accounted for green spaces and shopping areas. All planned down to the last square centimetre, no doubt. Becuase each one of those is worth a lot of money.

Looking at the future for this last bit of industrial wasteland within zones1-2, it looks exactly like the
future for every other little bit of free space in London - sell it off as a new quarter, a new residential zone, affordable housing I think so! I should fucking think so, affordable.

Sitting by the concrete works down Silverthorne Road, watching those massive mixer trucks come in, re-fill with the liquid stuff, zoom off round those sharp bends, back onto Queenstown Road, back to the sites of SW8, or where ever else - this old old process, digging up the earth, making new buildings out of the earth. Carrying the earth around, bit by bit. Ant-wise.

Well I'm sure it will all be lovely for those who can afford these affordable flats under the (don't worry, they will be made of lightweight plastics by then) towering chimneys of Battersea.

No danger of those collapsing on you as you go for your 6am jog along the river before getting the new spur of the northern line to your city job.

Bah! Humbug.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Can't get enough...of that Brockwell Park reggae stuff

Max Romeo and the Charmax band on stage at Brockwell Park, SOuth London, 21 July 2013
"Lucifer! Son of the morning, I'm gonna chase you out of eart!" 
Thank God for south London, for Lambeth, Brixton, and Brockwell Park. Thank Jamaica for the music that burned with a soul-healing heat on the second day of the Lambeth Country Show.

I would never have expected this - but these two days of music amount to the best I'ver experienced, the most joyous, since the early 1980s. Was it my age, was it the sunshine, the beautiful crowd?

Was it the great attitude of nearly all the performers, who seemed determined to give their very best to this free event, when they could so easily have cranked out the old numbers by numbers and gone  home for a shower ?

Something about Brockwell Park this weekend caused both young and veteran musicians to really extend themselves, to give their best, or so it seemed.

Arriving in the park around 2.45 this afternoon, there was the powerful magnetic tug of high-precision reggae rhthyms which surged up the hill and seemed to fill the entire Brockwell/Herne Hill valley like a lake of sound. As people approached, they walked faster and more and more in time with the rhythms, all the more eager to reach this already packed natural arena.

At first I thought it must be a record, then saw the main stage down the hill with a band on it, a tiny figure with a distinctly Marleyan look about him  singing songs of justice and struggle and so on ....I get closer, the little guy is really singing from his heart, he has an acoustic guitar but also a brilliantly sharp band who give just enough bass and drum to raise the thing, to raise the crowd.

I realise it's this  new star, name of Natty,  with his band the Rebelship. His songs are sharp and full of the righteous anger that marked the best of this music from the early 1970s - righteous anger, youthful idealism, that plaintive voice, again with a little of Marley's grain in it, but fast, the rap inflections just adding bite. Apparently he's born in the USA yet he sounds like a Jamaican Londoner. Check out his music, there's loads of great stuff on YouTube etc.

He's well loved and realises it and is all smiles after a while. He goes down a storm, and he's generous too, bigging up the old guys who will follow him as he leaves the stage.

It's a great taste of what's to come, this fresh  take on old old roots, fresh and new minted, yet with echoes of deep roots decades and the centuries of suffering that preceded them.

On comes a local mixed-race reggae band, The Soothsayers, they are good but are they good enough for this place? Natty's a very hard one to follow, but this band has a trump card to play - they bring on the veteran singer, Cornel Campbell, and things suddenly catch fire. There's a whole segment of the audience - chiefly, I'd say early-middle-aged Brixton mums, who seem to know every word of his back catalogue.

Each time he starts a song, he gets about four bars in and then  cries , "pull  it back", and it grinds to a halt. Then he starts again to a new surge of cheers. Is this him telling the band they're getting things a bit wrong or what? No-one seems to mind, and there's just so much good feeling around, and some to spare - it surely need to be bottled for future use.

This Cornel, in his dark suit and shades, his 1978-look dreadlocks, still jet black, he sings high and clear like a young man, his moves are supple, and yet he must be not too far off 70 maybe? Or at least mid-60s.

The sun is getting hotter, the crowd is still building, and Brockwell Park is beginning to look like a raggae sunsplash site from back in the 80s. What helps is the clarity of the sound in this still, warm air - it'sa very good sound system.

The next act up is the "special guest" Mikey General, backed by the Charmax band. He bounces onto stage in a big fawn corduroy suit and black shirt and big black dreads and you think, "hang on, what?"....but he's already many steps ahead and delivers a blistering short set, enjoying every second of it and working the crowd with great expertise.

You begin to wonder if poor old Max Romeo, the headliner, is going to be able to carry this crowd, so expertly built up by each  act, and even the failings of the sound system (a couple of records seem to have had a few too many plays) are happily tolerated .

And then, here he is, in a mustard yellow, loose-fitting ensemble,  dreadlocks now ash-grey but still full and extending down to knee-level, and god he is moving so well, and his voice is still  fluid as he rushes in with War in a Babylon.

The man has real mastery of this crowd, he has a powerful dignity about him, a deep presence, and he seems to have no doubt how much we love him. He expects us to know the lyrics of each song even before he's two bars in, and amazing;ly, a substantial  proportion of the audience does know them, but not well enough perhaps...

( "I'm gonna put on a iron shirt, and chase the devil out of earth....Brixton, you cannot be serious, I cannot hear you. Again: "I'm gonna put on an iron shirt, and kick satan out of the eart....send him to outa space, to find another race....!)

Near the end  he gives his little speeech on the problerm of poverty - where's the serum, to eradicate it? - and then he slink offstage, and then he's come back, and does a blistering, initially unaccompanied Redemption Song. Tears well up above impossibly wide smiles. Bliss, emotions cranked right up past maximum.

Astounding. Two short afternoons of beautiful music in beautiful weather in a beautiful location, and I am ready to fly the flag for Brixton,  for South London, for reggae music, and - OK this is a joke, Lambeth Council -  and everything that goes with it, just like it's still  1981.

And as for LoveBox, etc, Victoria Park and Hyde Park and what have you? North of river?


One love!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Sheer joy: Osibisa in Brockwell Park

Osibisa on the main stage at the 2013 Lambeth Country SHow, Brockwell Park, Brixton
Ay-ee-ko-b-i-a, oh my Lord!







Oh my God, another crazy nostalgia trip for old sod in Brockwell Park, as Osibisa play all their old favourites with such energy and joy that even the crowd of demob-happy GCSE-age school kids just can't help themsleves and start dancing to this music that - 40 years ago - introduced London to contemporary African pop and rock and jazz - a sort of North London version of Santana mixed with a bit of Sly, and this well before most of us had even heard of Fela Kuti.

Ok, I admit it. This blog - is it a blog really? - has been getting too damn moany of late, too grumpy old fool, all the usual targets of the post-midlife male sourpuss. But today I can only gush ridiculously, in a way that I haven't been able to do since at least last year's carnival.

I have a new reason, and it's just like all the old reasons to be cheerful, it really is like a throwback.

(And yes, I loved Ian Dury so much, and yet I only saw him once - at a free concert at Crystal Palace back in 1981, the royal wedding day. A free concert, you get me).

I have been so stingy all my life - but then I have managed to see and enjoy many, many great things, many great musicians and bands - without paying. Quite often thanks to Ken Livingstone or other elected London local government people.

So, today I had another reason to be cheerful for  the minimal outlay of a bottle of fizzy water. The Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park is one of the last big London events that still reminds me of those massive free GLC festivals of the 1980s. It's one of the last of those big public-sector events, and it has all the benefits and the drawbacks that such an event would have, in this age of cuts and health & safety and all the rest of things that make 2013 very unlike 1986.

All the more remarkable, then, that Lambeth has managed to keep this show on the road, and to keep it so good, so damn good, that they can bring on acts of such stature to play full-length sets. And if you don't get the value of an event paid for out of your Council Tax, just look around - everyone who wants to be here is here. No-one is here on a corporate freebie. There's no sponsorship, no VIPS, no 3m high steel fence. It's not SW4 or any other of those ghastly yuppie-fests on Clapham Common - thank Christ the Lord. 

This afternoon kicked off  with the Manasseh sound system, perfect warm-up for the Madness spin-off Ska orchestra of Lee Thompson, they wroked so hard and it eventually paid off, they had everyone moving by the end. And they were a fine support band for the big, big, legendary main act of the day.

Legendary? Osibisa? It's quite hard to remeber how big they veryu nearly were, back at the endof the 1960s, it could have been them - instead it was Bob marley and Fela Kuti who really broke through.

But even so Osibisa were big and they were a vital component at hat time, in that emergence of Afrobeat and funk and sould and reggae.Well, they are to me, because I remember my best friend at school urging me to listen to this LP, back in 1970 or so - African music, even before we had heard of Fela Kuti, despite the efforts of Ginger Baker.

And this afternoon, Osibisa were brilliant. The crowd was very mixed - the family show is a wonderfully diverse event, bringing dog-grooming, dressage and organic farming into close and intimate contact with a bit of dub step here, some grime over there, loads of wannabe gangster rappers  and maybe some traditional African dance there plus all the hippy-trippy stuff that Herne Hill can muster on a hot summer afternoon. Plenty, in other words.

Plenty of variety, most it boozed up and most already happy after the ska knees-up set from the Madness gang, all sweaty in their tight suits and pork-pies. All boozed and gassed up, all aftere their different things, all happily soaking up the sounds and the sun, which, with a sort of miracle-like retunr from retirement, shone for at least three-quarters of the afternoon.

Yes, today was bliss. I am still living it, and thank Osibisa, Lambeth, and everyone there for an unforgettable afternoon of music and dance.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Rest in peace, Lease Lend Cottage

Lease Lend Cottage, Clapham, London - the final days
September 2012: The last days of the Lease-Lend Cottage, Clapham. 
I need to find out more about a house which no longer exists,  about 100 feet below the balcony at the back of my flat in Clapham, south London.

The Lease Lend Cottage - built on a plot of land behind the houses and flats on four converging residential streets on the borders of Clapham and Battersea in south London, was a beguiling, green oasis, overgrowing with trees and flowering shrubs and vines that seemed to stick two fingers up to the yuppie-fired property boom that was taking hold of this area in the early 1980s.

It was not just a secret garden, but a secret house as well.  And now it is gone, replaced by three - or is it four -  new houses for people with a million or two to spend. 

Back in the summer of 1985, my mother, who lived on the Sussex Coast, still loved coming to London to see a play or a film.  It was a good summer, and she liked to sit out on the roof terrace and watch the planes coming in. She especially enjoyed the Concordes, which would whistle overhead on their way down to Heathrow, twice a day. As they passed over the house the sound would change into an doom-laden roar which made the windows rattle and the walls vibrate.

But something more earthbound caught her imagination above all - it was directly beneath our flats, a quirky country-cottage style house with pitched roofing and a huge conservatory, surrounded on three sides by densely-planted gardens.

The house had an an eccentric, slightly bohemian look - each window seemed to be different, there were round porthole-style openings on the landings. It occupied an irregularly diamond-shaped space between the Victorian terraces of The Chase and Hannington Road,  and the back of a large block of mansion flats on the corner of Macaulay Road. We looked down and tried to imagine what it must be like living in this strange, secret place.

A few years later I bought a car - a Citroen BX16 - which my brother-in-law had found for me in Eastbourne. I loved the car from first sight, but it was full of problems. I looked for a local Citroen garage and was pleased to find a good one very close by  - the Polygon Garage in Old Town Clapham.

After two or three expensive visits to this garage I found out that its owner - Timothy Kinross - lived with his wife in the hidden cottage.  He was in the process of selling the garage, and told me that from now on he'd be working on cars in the garages of his own backyard. I went round, and was given a quick tour of the house.

He was a delightful man, and often joked that he felt guilty taking so much money from me just to keep this rather ridiculous car with its crazy hydro-pneumatic suspension system on the road. He was  even trying gently to consider buying a new Citroen from him.

The house was just as beautiful as my mother had imagined, a hidden paradise for a lucky family. But what I remember most is his description of how each bit of the house had been built from the bricks and slates and wood from various bomb sites, mostly local, but also from others across London.

And, as I have discovered since, the land that it was built on was itself a bomb-site (a big clue would be the block of modern flats to its west on The Chase). No wonder my flat is in such rickety condition).

I am not sure when he came to the house, or whether he'd had any role in ts building. Soon after the Citroen died, in about 1999, I bought a diffferent car and no longer had any excuse to contact the Kinrosses.

At some point in the late 1990s they left the house, and for a while it seemed to be abandoned. The garden grew and overgrew and foxes flourished.

One year, maybe in 2000,  it was taken over by what seemed like a bunch of young kids, possibly squatters.

Or maybe, definitely squatters.

For a long summer they seemed to be having non-stop parties in the beautiful conservatory and garden.

I can remember lying in bed on a summer's night listening to their parties and wishing I was there with them. Some days there'd be the sounds of a band practising, a drummer and guitarist,  and I loved these sounds.

To my surprise, I've found this short video on YouTube which seems to confirm these strange, half-dreamed memories:

All these years later, this short video makes me even more jealous of this riotously bohemian household, surrounded as it was by houses and flats chiefly occupied by a new influx of bonus-fuelled city types.

Then it all stopped.

The garden grew thicker and wilder. I used to see foxes walking tightrope-style along the ridges of the walls, probably looking for cats or other pets to eat.

And then I got a letter from Lambeth council's planning people. It was a planning application, inviting responses to a proposal to knock down the cottage and build four houses in its place.

As the local preservation group, the Clapham Society pointed out, this application  proposed

"a rather dense scheme to redevelop the site with some large new houses, ingeniously laid out so as not to disturb neighbours, but at the expense of their own poor quality of outdoor space".

And now, it is almost finhsed - the four houses are almost complete and are about to go on the market under some ludicrous names, chosen , of course to appeal to snob-values.

But then I unearthed another nugget - in 2012 a photo taken for an American press in 1946 was sold on eBay.

The photo was of Lease-Lend Cottage, and on the back of the print, these words:

 "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."

So, I wasn't  dreaming. 

But I might as well have been.

I should have tied myself to the trees in that beautiful garden. Instead, I let it happen.

You can still see this photo on a site called worth point.com . It all seems terribly sad to me, especially when you see what they have done with the plot of land.

See here.....
Once a beautiful house and secret garden, now cramped homes for millionaires in Hannington Road, Clapham

Thursday, 4 July 2013

SUV menace: Is Ginger to blame?

No secret,  I hate SUVs, and as a cyclist in London almost every day I get that near-death feeling at  the business end of some chunk of over-heated metal driven by some over-cool yummy daddy or mummy  - is it a BMW, and Audi, a Merc or one of the originals, the Range Rover series? - as  they push their chrome-plated noses across the mini-roundabouts of South Kensington.

And then I think back to one of the great heroes of my youth, the jazz and rock drummer Ginger Baker.    And I think, fuck you Ginger - you helped kick off this whole SUV thing in 1971 by driving one of their first models across the Sahara, on your way to the shrine of shrines for all jazz and rock drummers of the time - Fela Kuti's Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria.

So, swerving out of the way of one of these monsters, I had this thought. If you'd stayed back home, or gone by plane,  Ginger, would London today be quite so clogged up with these inflated and unnecessary automobiles?

The new film,  "Beware Mr Baker", is a wonderfully entertaining documentary about that strange period in London's musical history - late 50s through to 1970. Thanks to the producer/director/writer/narrator Jay Bulger's bravery, it was an unusually good film, revising and reviving ideas about these old rock idols, and yet never detracting from the skill and showmanship that made Baker such a natural star in the first place.

But he deals with other stars in that strange 1960s/70s constellation, as well.  Oddly, Eric Clapton came out of the whole thing smelling only of the finest roses.

But Ginger! Oh dear! Now, everyone seems to agree he is a monster, a violent, selfish bully who also happens to be a drum genius. And a bit of a sad case, in his old age.

Well he surely was a great drummer,  even though some of us found those solos a little overpowering. And at least 20 minutes too long. Unless it was live and we were there, moving.

I love drumming, and I love the way Mr Baker, etc, made us all think back to the origins of the rhythms of jazz, just as Miles and a number of others did, in those days, the very early 1970s, that time of Tony Williams, Miles, Sly, James Brown, the amazing wake-up call we were just beginning to get from Jamaica.

By 1971, when that veneer of fame was begining to wear a little thin, perhaps, Ginger decided to check out these roots in person. He would go to Nigeria. He would go in a large British vehicle built by that  British establishment bastion, Rover. And the whole thing would be filmed by the BBC TV arts director of the moment, Tony Palmer.

The resulting film - Ginger in Africa - now seems like half a brilliant advertisement for Rover's brand new offering, the  Range Rover, a gentrified version of their military/agricultural workhorse, the Land Rover – and half a fascinating pilgrimage of one our best jazz/rock musician's search for his rhythmic roots in West Africa.

I love this film.  Watch it if you can. Or, if you can't find it, watch the new documentary - parts of  Tony Palmer's original documentary seem to be in there. But pleae, if you live anywhere in the UK, apart from on a large farm, please don't buy a Range Rover or any other SUV. Unless, like Ginger, you are planning to drive it across the Channel, across Europe, across Algeria, across the  Sahara Desert.

And then on to Lagos.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

When saying nothing is a crime

One of those awful moments of epiphany, but in a bad way - the moment the rose-tinted specs were suddenly ripped off your nose. Today, on the District Line, Earls Court Station, platform 2-3, Eastbound, at about 5.20 pm.

Two trains arrive at the same time, there's that interval of uncertainty where people are trying to decide which one to get onto as both go East. But one will leave a minute before the other.

I choose the emptier train, the one going, I think, to Upminster. I am followed into the carriage by three jovial middle-aged men, casually dressed, chatting in what seemed a good natured way about the vagaries of the tube system.

As we wait for the doors to close, the impression that these are three nice  gentlemen is reinforced as they joke with people jumping onto the train. They look like three good dads on a day out, late 50s maybe, all a bit stocky, checked shirts and chinos and trainers, nothing unusual there, they're just a little bit noisy.

Yes, they are talking rather more determinedly, more pointedly, than you'd expect at this commuter time of day, as though they'd been drinking a little. But still good natured, cheery.

The doors close and then one of them says something in a way which - suddenly, decisively - transforms the atmosphere in that half-full carriage, and turns the solid contents of my bowels into water.

He says something so shocking I cannot remember the exact words, and he says it in such a way - in such a different, aggressive way to the way he had been speaking -  that you know it is his intention that everyone in that carriage should hear him and understand his meaning.

He says, "Well, well,  this carriage is almost all white."

As he says this I think, what does he mean? And I actually look up at the ceiling of the tube carriage and see that it is off-white but quite clean and think for about a millisecond that this must be what he means.

And then of course I realise that that is not what he means because his two mates are grinning and swivelling their heads around looking at the people in the carriage, and nodding, and I think I hear one of them say "Yeah not many scum here" or something to that effect, and looking around too I realise that indeed what he meant by almost all white was that there were no black people in the carriage.

But there were a couple of women who were already sensing something extreme and unpleasant in the air.

The train drags itself through Gloucester Road, and now every yard of its progress seems to take forever, as though their words had not only  polluted the air, but made it heavier. I try not to listen.

I continue to read my Evening Standard, I fold over the page, and the man who spoke earlier looks very hard at the page I folded.

"I can't believe it", he said. "Look at that. That fucking scum. That fucking shit, and those other shits those  scum, look at that, they're at the 02. At the O2. Can you believe it?"

As he says this he's trying quite hard to catch my eyes but I bury my face deeper into the newspaper. Already I know what he's referring to. The page I have folded away from me to face him has a quarter page ad for a benefit conceert at the O2 for the Stephen Lawrence foundation, with a stylised portrait of Lawrence superimposed onto a Union flag.

I feel that at exactly that moment everyone else in the carriage also realised we were witnessing a display of hard-core racist provocation.

Perhaps  they feel safer in the "almost all white" carriage, but I don't think that is it.

It's clear they are saying these things in this new and completely frightening tone with the specific purpose of challenging anyone there to take them on. To challenge this utterly astonishing racism.
And to make it so that if you do not challenge them you are actively condoning what they are saying.

And no-one does challenge them. So they continue, and then one of them says, "Well perhaps we should quieten down becuase it looks like we're upsetting a few people here."

But still no-one says anything, there's that sort of stupid stretched skin smile on a few faces, heads down for most.

So this is my greatest shame for today. I imagined saying out loud, something, anything, just to show that I'd heard what they were saying and that it was not OK to say those things like that. I should have said something like "fuck you, you racist pigs, get back to your styes in the shit-filled fields of wherever you emerged from into this sad world, so much sadder thanks to your presence within it."

But I didn't say a word. I din't even give them a filthy look.

For pity's sake - in 2013 in London - why?

Pure cowardice. When I looked at them again I realised it. These were the same men - older, plumper, but the essentially the same  men - as the thugs I'd last seen in the wallowing down the King's Road chanting racist obscenities as they went to their football match.

Here, they were committing a crime and we were all accessories. These men were testing the water, and they must have felt very satisfied at the result, even though they would really have loved  a fight, the chance to put the boot in.

By not saying anything, I have strengthened racism in Britain in 2013, and I am ashamed of myself.