About Me

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

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.