About Me

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Al-Jazeera on the end of SARM studios

Just in case you think I am a stupid old nutter, ranting on about the modern world and how it's ruining London…. read this article on Al-Jazeera.

Yep, the Qatari-based news channel is running this story about the rampant greed that is currently destroying the cultural fabric of this strange "city" we live in.

The studio in question, SARM,  is famous for many reasons - Queen, Bob Marley, Band Aid and many others - but the point is that there are only so many of these iconic places left in London.

And the real point, behind this point, is that the people who own these places are now under irresistible pressure to sell up and move out. It no longer makes economic sense to run a a recording studio - that is, a space equipped for the production of a highly valued global commodity, popular music - in the central zones of this city.

A music factory - one week's recording of artists such as  those named above might produce a return of a hundred million over a decade - is simply not profitable enough in a "city" where similar sums can be made in a few days or weeks by hedge funds.

About the only creative industry that can still survive in central LOndon (apart from creative accountancy) is fine art  - and that is thanks to the curious bastard child of the art-marketing revolution of the 1990s, Frieze and all that - that fine art has become a high-value commodity on a par with arms or diamonds.

Earlier today, on the excellent Robert Elms Show on Radio London,  I heard a musician lamenting  there was only one full-size recording studio left in this city, Abbey Road.

 Once they've all been turned into expensive places for expensive people to spend a few weeks of the year shopping in expensive shops or doing deals - well, the next generation will have very little reason to be interested in this brutal Thames-side mudflat settlement that was once so attractive.

It is now,  visibly,  the place to come to spend the vast amounts of money you have acquired by crushing the spirits of millions of others in other parts of the world.

We live by the river. We watch Waterloo sunsets, we know it's the Great Wen. We don't do the Lambeth Walk and we don't want to go to Chelsea.  I was there this afternoon and I tell you, it is  dull, dull, dull these days.

SO, if we manage to dodge their 4 x 4 wagons on our bikes on our way to our little part-time jobs selling things to these very rich people, or pampering them, or building the next block they can invest in - what happens next?  Is there somewhere for us to live or must we move away, back to Croydon?

No, Croydon is undergoing re-generation and re-gentrification. You will have to go elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

New flying pig square, anyone?

Oh how I love Rachel Holdsworth! Her latest post on the Londonist regarding the Battersea Nine Elms project and its latest release of plans for Malaysia Square (or flying pig square, as she suggests as an alternative name) is both glorious and shocking at the same time.

Yes, that £800,000 studio flat is a strange notion - but maybe it will be just right for some of the young students attending this week's Nine Elms Career Expo, organised by London SouthBank Univeristy and the Nine Elms Vauxhall contractors.

As the press release  so helpfully points out, "Nine Elms Vauxhall is a 195 hectare redevelopment area in the London boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth and is set to be the biggest construction site in Europe".

I still prefer my own name for this development - Nine Elms Disease. But I am biased - it is blighting my life at the moment, and slowly but surely ruining the view from all vantage points to the south and  west of Vauxhall.

Still, let's not be unfair, and give these guys their due: they are building our future, after all.  And it's true there'll be plenty of new jobs down around the old power station. The fair, held today and tomorrow (2nd and 3rd December)  will include "demonstrations and workshops by the main contractors working on the development, giving the students the chance to learn about the future opportunities at Nine Elms Vauxhall".
"Contractors attending the event include companies such as Whitbread, Transport for London, John Lewis Partnership and the Berkley Group Foundation." 

Good news, then , for jobs in the retail, hospitality and construction sectors - but for those really big bucks, I'd head straight for the property developer booth - that's probably the only sort of employment that will get your name on the waiting list for one of these lovely new studio apartments.

Monday, 1 December 2014

How Great Thou Art: last chance to see amazing Charlie Phillips exhibition at Photofusion

How Great Thou Art: 50 years of African Caribbean funerals in London, photographed by Charlie Phillips. An exhibition at  Photofusion, Brixton

Another evening in Brixton to treasure: at the Library, listening to the 70-year-old photographer, Charlie Phillips, talking about his latest exhibition, How Great Thou Art: 50 years of African Caribbean funerals in London.

This exhibition, held at the Photofusion Gallery just round the corner in Electric Lane, focuses on  the funeral traditions of West Indians living in London from the mid-1950s right up to now. Two rooms of  beautiful photos and videos vividly and beautifully capture these living and changing traditions, which mix up African, Caribbean, Christian and West African religious customs.
The powerful resonance  and documentary value of those images was reflected in the crowd of people who filled out the upstairs hall at Brixton Library on a wet Wednesday evening to hear the master talk.

The show is only on 'til this Friday, December 5th - so get along there quickly!

Apparently the photos had been languishing in boxes in Charlie Phillips' house, until the Photofusion people - co-curators of this exhibition, Lizzy King and Eddie Otchere – came across them and realised their importance and quality. "I had retired" Charlie complains. "I wanted to look after my allotment." But the next six months was spent going though over 5,000 negatives, hours of video and  creating both a book and an exhibition out of the results. As a result, his allotments suffered a bit: "Sorry, it's  not going to be such a good crop this year".

Charlie Phillips,  a well-known Ladbroke Grove character with a taste in sharp suits and hats, has that aura of celebrity - not the cheap PR-manufactured type, but the genuine, hard-earned article. This is  something he shares with many of the great characters in his photos, these people who've put up with so much over decades and still smile and laugh and know how to party, but also how to parry when ever necessary.

Tonight he's in a white jacket, buttoned precariously over a tight dark shirt and brilliant orange tie, his white hair and moustache and mischievous, warm eyes flashing behind glasses giving him the look of a seasoned comic actor.

 The exhibition title comes from the hymn that for Charlie sums up all the funerals he's been to - it is that hymn, so dirge-like in the dull voices of an English congregation, that takes on new life and vigour and meaning when sung by generations of Jamaicans beside an open grave in Kensal Green cemetery.

He tells us his story - how, from being an altar-boy he grew into a rebellious teenager, hanging out with the youth at the shabeens and blues parties in the Notting Hill area,  how he got hits first camera (a Kodak Retina)  from one of the black Amercian GIs who brought their precious blues and jazz and R & B discs to these parties, helping to spawn the London sound-system tradition as well.

Charlie was entirely self-taught, and he did his own processing and printing using equipment bought on the proceeds of a paper-round. He would wait until all the rest of the household were asleep before using the bathroom as his darkroom.

But it was when he went to the funeral of Kelso Cochrane, the 32-year-old  Antiguan murdered by Teddy boys in Golborne Road in 1959, that the power of these these events really struck him and he took his first funeral "snaps" (as he insists on calling all his photos).

Over the next four decades Charlie became a must-have guest at the funeral of the great and the good and the bad and the ordinary families of African  Caribbean descent all over London.

The photos - which you can see until at Photofusion's small gallery up on the first floor of the Brixton MArket buildings - capture the joy as well as the grief of these vents. Everyone speaking tonight - which included the professor Michael McMillan and writer Empressjai - emphasised how the West Indian funerals pick up on the West African belief that the spirit does not die, but has to move on - it's the job of everyone at these funeral to help that spirit on its way, hence "the good send off". Hence the opening of windows at the wake or the Nine Nights (the night before the burial when the spirit is said to leave the body), even in the depths of a London winter.

"It's not all peace and love", he adds. Quite often a old family tensions  burst out at such events, there are fights, scuffles even over the coffin .

The photos show not just the big burial processions, but also the wakes - and especially the  crucial "Nine Night", that last night of the wake before the burial, when music and dance and drink and what have you often take upper hand.

There's some great photos there of these events - as well as some more recent videos, including one showing another professor, Gus John, giving a traditional libation at the funeral of the All Saints Road activist, Frank Critchlow, who ran the famous Mangrove restaurant and bar back in the 60s and 70s.

That libation speech was so good, you have to see it, especially when the guy sits down to take a few sips of the libation gin bottle. It illustrates one of the  big themes of this evening's talk - the way old African traditions have survived any amount of battering by the white missionaries. Their lasting contribution, on the other hand, is the hymn.

We had an expert, Dr Michael McMillan, talking about these traditions - and he made the point very clear that these "Black death cultures" are actually about life - the spirit that lives on, to join all those other spirits, good and bad, which get on with their business all around us all the time - the duppies and the jumbles and the djinns and the sprites,  the spirits of place, of the earth and the sky.

Dr McMillan noted that most of the cemetery chapels in London were far too small for a proper West Indian funeral,  hence the massive wakes and receptions before and after that event. The burial itself is different - relatives  don't just drop a few crumbs of earth onto the coffin, they cover it  and fill completely. But only after the deceased's favourites things have been sprinkled over the grave - maybe some flowers, some jewellery or clothing, some records or some rum or perhaps some ganja.

He picked out the  great images of a funeral wreath in the shapes of a giant pack of Rizlas, and another as a Singer Sewing machine - "Our traditions have single handedly revived London's floristry business!" -  and also noted how these echoed the Ghanaian tradition of burying people in coffins which reflect their occupation. A boat-shaped casket for a fisherman, a Mercedes Benz for a taxi-driver.

What a great evening this was - but Charlie had some regrets, as becomes clear in the more recent photos in the exhibition. He doesn't really like the way the younger generations have allowed the funeral traditions to become a bit diluted - how they often choose Frank Sinatra's "My Way" or even the "Simply the Best" as the theme music. And how there's now so much emphasis on bling and colour-co-ordinated clothing.

But as others noted, including Empressjai and Dr McMillan - the tradition is alive and changing, new traditions are being created. The evening ended with a big discussion on this issue, the changing trsiditions of different generation, with many people chipping in with their thoughts and their memories.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Faith in Clapham restored by Radio 4 and John Agard

Just when it seemed this district was hopelessly engulfed in dirty money and booze-swilling, Maserati-driving  rich kids, came a timely reminder on (of all things ) Desert Island  Discs, of what Clapham used to stand for.

The guest this week was poet John Agard, and the presenter gently persuaded him to recite one of his best-known poems, the 1986 satire on academic views of poetry, Listen Mr Oxford Don.

Agard didn't need much persuading and spoke the lines with as much passion and precision as he did nearly 30 years ago:

Me not no Oxford don 
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn't graduate
I immigrate 

Back in '86. of course, Clapham was still a truly mixed-up place, but the yuppies were already flooding in. 

Oddly enough I din't think Agard ever lived in this area. When he first came to the UK in 1977 he settled in Shropshire, and I think he's stayed there. The Clapham reference harks back to the arrival of the Windrush era immigrants, many of whom were temporarily housed in the deep shelter near Clapham South Tube station - in fact, on the Common, less than a mile from the church where the Clapham Sect met 150 years  previously.

 The full story is here on the History Today site.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Just when I was getting reconciled with Clapham, along comes this bugger

I've been trying hard over the past few months to remind myself of the things I used to like about Clapham, and to dig out other good things that make living in this land of the rich yob bearable.

Thought I was doing well until I started reading another local blog, which was going on about food and why the SW4 area was up there with the best in London. Well, given that said blog had recently run a paean to a series of new burger joints on the high street, I didn't set too much store by their views on cuisine. But what really turned  my blood cold was the author's use of the word (I can hardly bear to write it) "Clappers" - to refer to this most common of suburbs.

Why does this annoy me so much? Is it because I am an elderly curmudgeon and cannot bear the affectionate diminutives so often used for things these days?

Yes, in part, I am guilty of that. I don't like hearing people refer to "uni" for university and barbie for barbecue. That I suppose is part of the Australianisation of English can mainly be blamed on Kylie and Neighbours. Fine in Brisbane, annoying but unavoidable all over affluent south-east England.

But this one goes back further and deeper - it stimulates one of my deepest hate-glands, and it is all to do with ball games and the class system.

The only other bit of London that gets abbreviated in this was by a certain type of young male adult is Twickenham. And that is usually referring to the stadium where rugby is played. The people who call Twickenham Twickers often call rugby rugger and if they visit or live in Clapham (which is quite probable I fear) they might well call it….well, you get my dismal drift, don't you?

But seriously, is there anywhere else that gets this treatment? (excluding, of course, names that have the -ers ending in their full version, such as Chequers or Yonkers, or Arsenal's nickname…)

Well, at least this outburst of disgust led me to a new word. According to Wikipedia, this usage is a form of  "hypocorism", from the old Greek meaning "child-talk" and now often referred to as pet name,  term of endearment, nickname, etc. Another word, infantilism, springs to mind.

 I wouldn't have minded it at all if it was not for the rugby connection. You will deduce that I loathed that team game which I was forced to play for two of my most miserable years at an English boys' grammar school.

Odd, though, that some nicknames seem fine. I like Pompey for Portsmouth and Big Apple for NYC, The Smoke or the Great Wen for London. Auld Reekie is  just fine so long as it is said in a real Scottish accent. No, it's just the context, it's that attempt to revive the demotic of rich young Englishmen of the 1920s, the chaps and chapesses; it should definitely stay within the pages of P G Wodehouse, old fruit.

Ironic then that I should end up in this suburb full of beer swilling types with those wide-striped shirts with turned-up white collars.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Transpontine: my new favourite south London blog

Am here to praise a not so buried treasure - Transpontine. Just a quick note - but heavens, I could write a ream or roomful of words about this blog.

It's transpontine - like trastevere or oltrarno or rive gauche, so blah, blah and on - but do note it is specifically south east London, and as a south west London resident I applaud that. SE kept flag flying long after SW capitulated, the crowds crossing yahoo bridge - Chelsea, Battersea, you know.

So, this one has the feel, the great feel of a sort of student mag from the 70s, but still being written by the same people now in their 30s or 40s or whatever:  better writers, more mature, funnier.

It's actually a rather grown up blog of the twenty-whatevers, which keeps filling me in on all those gigs back in the early 1990s that I so nearly went to and then failed to get to. And on all the great things that are happening just a 35 minute 37 bus ride from my front door, almost all of which I shall miss.

Especially stuff at The Venue, New Cross, and so on. But this does seem to be the blog that digs deeper than most….love it.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

I love Brixton College for exactly the reasons many think it's obsolete

Lambeth College, Brixton - the college remains but the building will probably go.
Glad to hear that if it's true - but it probably won't be in this modest but
remarkably workable and friendly building, but something more like
 the flashy Clapham branch a couple of miles west of here.
Read on the excellent Brixton Blog that the future of the old Brixton College of FE site on Brixton Hill is  again under discussion.

I'm a part-time student at this place, which is one of the three campuses used by Lambeth College, and I have grown to love its 1960s utilitarian simplicity.

It really is a classic example of school/college architecture of that late 50s to 60s era - lots of metal-framed glass, block-colour panelling, hard floors, a simple, elegant quadrangular plan with a large dining area at one end with an equally spacious library on the floor above. The classrooms are what some Labour minister might have called bog standard - a run of rectangular rooms, spacious, all well lit, though the ones facing Brixton Hill get a lot of traffic noise.

I can't be certain, but it looks like "system built" or CLASP (Consortium of Local Authority Special Programme) college. Between 1957 and the 80s, CLASP provided a set of basic, approved  architectural designs for community buildings - not just schools, but clinics, libraries, community centres and even fire stations) for use across the UK (for more on this system, read Chris Matthews' fascinating piece on the legacy of CLASP buildings in Nottinghamshire and beyond on his blog,  Internet Curtains ).

 Economies of scale, partial prefabrication, standardisation of sizes of classrooms and gyms and assembly halls - all of these things made for cheaper but not necessarily poorer quality buildings. If the basic design had been hideous or hideously wrong, it would  of course have been a different matter - but these modest buildings, in schoolyard Corbusier  manage to fit in, to rub shoulders with many older styles without seeming to be rude or aloof.

Yes, they were designed for a time when  education theory was different: there was optimism, the child was to be at the centre of learning, the schools were as far as possible open plan and filled with light. These were anti-austerity buildings in a way, modernist, but they were also utilitarian in the good sense of the word - they served a purpose (I hate to use the modern version of that phrase, 'fit for purpose').

So, back to Brixton Hill - and just look at  the courtyard or quadrangle. Even in its current entirely neglected state, it's a godsend, a breathing space, a lovely echo for Brixton's ESOL and other students of the classic style of old universities. To modern ways of thinking, it is just a waste of space.

The building is friendly, unshowy,  and it works - although I've no doubt it costs too much to heat in winter and that it probably gets over-hot in summer. These issues could have been addressed with adequate investment, maintenance and improvements back in the 80s and 90s.

Instead, they let the building get a bit run down, then say no-one likes it any more. Half the site has already gone to a so-called free school. Now the remaining bit, fronting Brixton Hill, seems destined to be destroyed. It still houses most of Lambeth's ESOL classes and at certain times of day the place is buzzing with hundreds of different languages.

It's true the place is underused, especially in the evenings, and staff cuts mean the excellent library is not  open late, which is a real shame.

I tell you, I infinitely prefer the old school style of this place to the stomach churning colour schemes, garish carpets and gormless sloganeering of the modern equivalents -- all those purples and green carpets, the silly wooden cladding,  those inane slogans you get painted in huge letters on the walls of  21st century schools and colleges, the annoying curves and confusing layout. Visit the newest Lambeth College building, at Clapham Common, and you will see what I mean - it's a nightmare to find your way around this place, and after less than a decade it is already looking a bit frayed.

Maybe I am just a 60s nostalgist  - but I will miss this place, and am glad at least I chose to do a course there in its latter days.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Stendhal Syndrome: the confessions of a chronic sufferer

 "I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling."
Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, 1817

So Stendhal was a sufferer from his own syndrome. 

I wonder, as I read it for the fiftieth time, if what Stendhal is really saying is that only truly great men like him are capable of experiencing these 'celestial sensations'….and yet I'm sure I have, a few times, also felt the same.

Once was in Volterra. Another was this ecstatic response to greatness.But this can be related to another psychological condition also described by the great French writer - Limerence - "an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attachment to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one's feelings reciprocated."

Stendhal wrote about this in  On Love, and used "crystallisation" as his metaphor for the birth of love - or perhaps, as we say, "falling in love."

There's a current writer who has caught some of that absolutely distinctive sensation Stendhal Syndrome defines - and that's Geoff Dyer.

And some of the things he writes make me think he is the writer I - with about four million per cent more ability and talent and courage - could have been. Especially when he writes this:

"He knew also that as soon as he was told that they did not want him to do this shit any more he would realise how desperately he wanted to keep doing this shit that he did not want to do any more."

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, 2009

Angry old fool nearly run over on Clapham Old Town's insane new traffic system

Has the re-modelling of Clapham Old Town's traffic flows really improved anything?

As one who tries to get from Wandsworth Road to Clapham Common tube station each day on foot or by bike, I'd say no, the reverse. The new bike lanes are insane and confusing, and moving the pedestrian crossing, which used to be outside the old public library, about 50 yards further north, is infuriating.  In fact, downright dangerous for old fools like me with ingrained walking habits.

Not only has the crossing gone,  the road has also become two-way. Yesterday I strode across, forgetting there might be traffic coming from the left - which there was . I  caused a Ford Focus to brake rather heavily. I survived.

But what about all those people coming out of the training centre or the new "arts" centre (the Omnibus, about which I have nothing to say as I cannot afford their ticket prices)? Most of them want to get up to the tube station asap.

But they have to walk north first, to cross the road.

Once again, cars win over pedestrians.

So what has improved, after so much spending? Not very much - although it must be good that they have at last re-surfaced the Rookery Road/Northside stretch. This used to rattle cars, trucks, buses and especially bikes almost to the point of disintegration.

Tasteful street furniture? You know where they can stick that.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Obelisk vs tower block at St George's Circus - may the better phallus win!

Interesting to see the public protest against mega property developer Barratt's plan to build a 27-storey block of flats in Blackfriar's Road, close to St George's Circus, as reported on the London SE1 blog.

One of the main points made by  opponents to the scheme is that the tower will dwarf the obelisk in centre of the square. This used to help people work out where they were in this incredibly confusing area of radial trunk roads.

I love obelisks and wish this one were ten times as tall.  Unfortunately, this nice but diminutive obelisk is already pretty heavily obscured by nondescript office buildings of the past four decades.

As one who would almost on principle oppose any scheme put forward by this firm - the company responsible for so many  blots on the English landscape, those estates of houses where you're worried if you take  a dump after 9pm cos the kids are sleeping the other side of that bit of plasterboard?
But how much space does an average human need to take a dump in?  OK halve it and build five thousand units…

 Yeah, that lot, or was it Wimpey?

It's  quite boring, really, but see  how often critics now attack Britain's dreadful record on building mass housing, how the profession seems to have turned its back on the ideals it used to have in the day of Goldfinger et al - homes not for heroes but for homes for people who were more than 5ft tall and liked to play music loud occasionally, to hang out the window,  make a fire,  brew some beer, hold a party, dance or just build shelves.

So I am no fan of Barratt or any of their ilk - and when I turn to their website I see that they have already  - in oh such a responsible, community-supportive way, agreed to lop 3 whole storeys off the planned tower, and have completely scrapped plans for a second tower.

Here's where I get egged. I'd rather they built a 60 or 80 or 120 storey tower here. Get all those rich bastards into as few of these silly buildings as you can. Provide big sewer pipes to take their copious shit as far away as possible.

The last thing London needs is any more half-cocked compromise non-skyscraping mediocrities. Ugly stumps. Surely the Shard has already cracked that old chestnut - once you get over the prevailing  8-12 storey norm, it doesn't matter. You've already fucked everyone else's view at 14 storeys (see Nine Elms Disease, passim). And, as the stupid Wlkie-Talkie has already demonstrated , width - thickness - is as big a factor as height, especially when you swell out to some  sort of moronic brow.

But then they say, well, one day you'll love the Walkie-Talkie, and die to defend it. Oh really? Well, perhaps. It is ugly enough, it gets noticed.

So, do something people will really hate - and maybe come to love. You have to go really high to impress these days. Erect, impress! Get a decent SE1 cluster going that will shame the Shard and make the City look like legoland. Well, it already does, a bit, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Deep autumn blues blown away by red-hot sax on Clapham Common

Sax player on Clapham Common helps blow away autumn blues with some great John Coltrane phrasesLife can seem like shit at this time of year in SW4, especially if you are broke and adrift and 61 years of age.

The beautiful sadness of autumn can be thrilling if you have the heart for it, deeply depressing if you haven't. Anyway that's the sort of crap I was pondering on a recent walk around the common, late afternoon, after the school's out crowds but before the commuter rush.

Heading towards the  boating lake, the yearning sounds of  someone practising jazz tenor saxophone resonate across the  plate-glass water. There's a bloke in blue sitting on a bench on the other side of the pond, and he seems to be blowing his heart out with these repeated phrases, which sometimes seem almost to rip the fabric of the air they travel through.

Gradually he builds it up, adding a few notes each time, until it's unmistakably from Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Another man, perhaps his friend, joins him on the bench and just lies back to enjoy the music and his bottle of whatever. Solitary walkers and a few couples  are watching from other benches. I move closer, stop, listen, move on, walk back across towards the North Side, still hearing those fabulously melancholy yet paradoxically uplifting riffs.

If I hadn't already been a jazz fan this would have ignited my interest. Instead it re-0ignited this dormant  flame. Thanks, anonymous sax player. I wish I knew who you were.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Shell Centre plans take the glass box virus further east

Having been moaning about "Nine Elms disease" for months now as those dreary blocks of half-built flats gradually create a screen-wall along the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside, I was saddened to read the same thing is about to happen right at the heart of south bank - the old Shell Centre by Waterloo.

Ok, so I am a year behind the times on this - but alerted to it by a rather brilliant letter in today's Evening Standard, written by one George Turner, headlined, "These flats are part of the crisis".

As was clear a year ago, Lambeth's approval for this development of eight new towers surrounding the old Shell centre was hugely controversial. All the familiar arguments are made: you almost sympathise with the guy from Westminster who is worried about the impact on the view from St James's Park.

Turner's letter points out that the "luxury" factor in these developments is generally a sham. The flats themselves are not very different from the council blocks of the 1960s. But of course these too are now selling at massive prices.

What's really vile about this and  dozens of other recently-approved riverside housing developments is the utterly dismal, utterly cynical mediocrity of the architecture. I never much liked the Shell Centre but to see the cgi images of the proposed scheme is to see a rather dull city gent of the 1950s in a drab but beautifully crafted Saville Row suit surrounded by a gang of spivvy estate agents wearing Mr Byrite's finest Hugo Boss homage circa 1985.

The buildings just look cheap and nasty - as do so many of the apartments being sold "off plan" in the property pages these days, often before the first sod of inner-city soil is ripped out of the cold London ground. Just look at this unsurprising but miserable story from Loughborough Junction, a little further south.

The buildings, as with the stuff that has already ruined the south bank of the Thames from Battersea Bridge most of the way to Putney, are a sort of collective smirk, a vile grin on the faces of the types who can afford to buy a big property with a river view, their curving balconies jutting out from the towers like so many fat city-boys' beef-bellies after a particularly bloated champagne supper.

Actually, as this letter points out, the people who buy these flats probably never have to set eyes on them; they just pocket the inflated rents or the profit when they sell them on.

Also very recently,  another very much more distinguished voice (than mine, that is) has spoken out against the south bank blight of glass and steel: Peter Rees, architect and former chief  planner for the City of London.

Speaking at the RSA, he said these high-rise developments were not necessary, inefficient and did not provide the true high-density housing London needs.

"The idea of dotting them (skyscrapers) all along the river from Bermondsey to Battersea is absolutely awful and it's ruining London."

He refers to "skyscrapers" and this is where I differ - if any of these lumps could be truly called a skyscraper I might just about excuse them, at least there might be some excitement. But the only one anywhere near that is the St George's Tower and that is the dreariest tall building We've ever suffered in this country. It's tall but it is so boring, so ugly, that you don't care - no wonder an unfortunate helicopter hit the thing last year.

Then again, Peter Rees is also the guy who must have rubber-stamped the walkie-talkie. Good story on his speech here at the London SE1 Community Website.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

An appropriate Banksy

Having removed a real and really quite good if ever so slightly too subtly ironic Banksy work from the wall of one its gents' toilets, Tendring District Council at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex has suggested it would be only too happy if the artist were to come back and give them a more appropriate work.

The offending piece was removed - (presumably scrubbed off  the wall, rather than peeled off  or carefully painted over, in light of a potential sale later?) - after complaint that it was racist graffiti.

Not surprising, really, given how sensitive the public authorities must be in the town that recently lost its Tory MP, Duncan Carswell, to  UKIP, with a by-election coming up next week.

If as seems likely the Banksy is destroyed, you must feel a bit sorry for the poor fellow from Tendring District Council who ordered its removal. That was, of course, before an "official" Banksy statement claimed the piece as genuine.

The whole thing is almost a work of art in itself. The work was a straightforward enough dig at the little Englander attitudes of UKIP and co  re immigration. It was actually quite crude in that sense - the immigrant bird was an exotic parakeet-type, the native dull grey and black pigeons.

More interesting is how the whole event reflects on the knee-jerk world of politically correct reflex actions - one knee-jerk here that has lost the local council about half a million, or much more in lost tourist revenues if the artwork had been protected.

And of course, andy this is surely the real Banksy agenda, its very sharp implied comment on the whole sick business of the art market.

BBC News version of this story here. And see some great photos of the mural and some of Banksy's other recent work on the artist's website, http://www.banksy.co.uk

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Reading group : five winners in a row

I didn't mean to make this a reading diary, but I just have to record the four excellent books I have just read.

It is unusual to have such a lucky run - I so often start books and run out of  energy to carry on after about 60 pages. This time, though, the run seems to have been sparked by visiting the classics section of the new Clapham Library.

A Penguin Modern Classic that real is a modern classic - In praise of Older Women by Stephen VizinczeyBack in July I picked out a copy of Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women - a book which I remember being in my father's small bedroom bookshelf, alongside the Karma Sutra, Breakfast At Tiffany's, a book about the liberation of the concentration camps, and a Pears Medical dictionary. Two of these were of irresistible interest to my 11-year-old self.

There was something mysterious and slightly dangerous about this bookshelf, but Vizinczey's novel did not have quite the appeal of the others, at the time. Reading it now I was amazed at how good it was - how beautifully written, how devastatingly sad in so many unexpected ways, some good, some less so.

I made a mental note to read more of his work - The Rules of Chaos or An Innocent Millionaire, perhaps - but have not yet come across copies of any.

So I picked out another Penguin Modern Classic, one I had not heard of before  - Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati.

This was also about a young man trying to grow up - but in this case , the beautiful Antonio of the title , while he is even more popular with women than Vizinczey's Tomas, the poor fellow has severe psychosexual problems that render him more or less impotent, except with very patient prostitutes.

Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
It's another great read though - the background of upper-midle class Sicilian society of the 1930s, where Mussolini's fascists are viewed with a mix of contempt, ridicule and very real fear - is fascinating in itself. The translator makes great use of that strange young English slang of the flapper era, and it seems exactly right.

I move onto another unknown, again a Penguin Modern Classic: Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. You can see the links, right? Here the beauty is mainly female, and the sadness so poignant and piercing and yet so taken as normal by the characters - so Japanese in fact.  Ageing successful novelist, Oki, is driven to revisit the lover of his youth, Otoko, one he abandoned after an abortion and a failed suicide attempt, one who is now a successful artist living in Kyoto with a mysterious and equally beautiful 18-year-old apprentice.

This young acolyte decides to take revenge on her teacher's behalf, and does so by bedding both Oti and his son. As in the previous two novels, the atmosphere is both highly erotic and the sex, when it occurs, quite explicit,  yet completely and utterly non-prurient, neither sensational nor self-consciously liberated, nor smutty, in a way that no novel written by and Anglo-Saxon author ever could be , or so it seems.

So to the final, very different novel - a book which reads much more like a piece of high quality journalism. Tahar Ben Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light (as Maureen Freely's review in the Guardian from 2004 explains) recounts the experience of a young Moroccan army conscript who was thrown into military prison after being forced to take part in a failed coup against  King Hassan II back in 1971.

It's a tough read. Thirteen years in a hole in the ground, no light, constant terror, starvation, torture, mental and physical: the descriptions of what became of all civilised notions of life in these almost unthinkable circumstances become all too thinkable in this excellent translation.

I almost had to stop reading when it got to the scorpions. A must-read, though, for obvious reasons in 2014, when more and more people are suffering similar loss of everything and anything anyone has ever considered a human right.

This Blinding Absence of Light 
by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Linda Coverdale 
195pp, New Press, £14.99

And as a coda - the fifth book, picked up again on the basis of its title and cover photo (OK, it is another Penguin modern Classic) is also a winner - Daniele Varé's The Maker of Heavenly Trousers.

It's another oddball, I guess; a quiet enough book, with delightful accounts of life in early 20th century Peking, described through the wide-open, unprejudiced eyes of a an anglo-Italian diplomat, presumably Varé himself. The Russian elements of the plot might drag the whole book perilously close to historical fantasy and magical unrealism, and yet - there's a childlike wonder in this book that is simply adorable.

So what is it about these five? Why did I find them so refreshing, so thrillingly enjoyable, and so different from all the heavy stuff I'd got into the habit of reading - you know, the Cloud Atlas, Life-of-Pi, Capital, Booker-prize nominated stuff.

The obvious - none of these was written by a native English speaker, and most are translations. If they share anything it's that "continental" sensibility - a rather old-fashioned idea, I know, as we like to feel we are all very European these days. But we're not. For a start, Anglo-Saxon writers just can't do sex, or eroticicism. Three of these five books are deeply erotic - not in the steamy sex scene way (that, in fact, is anti-erotic to my   mind) but in their unspoken understanding that there is an almost unbearable pleasure awaiting us all if only we know where to find it and how to approach it.

Friday, 19 September 2014

I'm not even a little bit keen on Waitrose: there, I said it.

I was going to use a harder-hitting headline: I hate Waitrose.

I was moved to do this by discovering that La Bella Sicilia in Warwick Way, Pimlico, one of the few decent, unpretentious Italian delicatessens remaining in London,  has been replaced by a "Little Waitrose".

It's quite a big little Waitrose, and it's directly opposite, as is so often the case, a small Tesco Metro, and just around the corner from a big Sainsburys. So, badly needed, then.

On reflection I realised that it's almost impossible to hate Waitrose - even a class warrior, who might
This new "Little Waitrose" in Warwick Way, Pimlico, London SW1 is not little enough for my liking
well despise it for its unapologetic middle-classness, middle-of-everything approach (and its mystifying support for Duchy Originals) - would have to admit it's got a better record on employment rights and ethical behaviour than any of the other supermarkets.

So it supplies a decent dollop of middle class guilt along with the hummus, if, like me, you avoid it for purely selfish reasons.  By which I mean the fact that it charges a great deal more for most of the things I like (notably red wine but also cashew nuts, figs, Pecorino cheese, and red grapefruit). Waitrose is just too nice, too honest, to clean, too well-intentioned, too fair, too sensible, to be entirely true.

 But that does not stop it muscling in on high street slots where it is not necessarily welcomed.

Another reason I object to Waitrose is that it's possibly the worst offender in the use of annoyingly unnecessary adjectives in its marketing and labelling.

It's not just basil but "majestic basil". Not plain oregano, but "sun kissed" oregano. Their own-brand chocolate spread has, it seems, to be "seriously chocolaty".


Why does everything have to be given silly little adjectival pre-fixes? Why can't we just have tomato and basil soup,  rather than "aromatic, heart-warming" soups?

OK, this is all minor stuff. They say, what would you prefer, a scuzzy old cornershop with mouse droppings under the biscuits and cockroaches around the chilled cabinets, stale bread and manky fruit, or this sweet little Waitrose?

I'd rather have the scuzzy old cornershop, thank you very much indeed.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Oh the horror! Roundabout succumbs to Nine Elms ravages

Watch out, Nine Elms Disease is coming your way.

It's spreading fast, its viral spores shunted around at speed by massive concrete mixer-trucks that rush up and down Silverthorne Road, spilling a little of their load as they go. If you're a cyclist, you are quite likely to get one of their little pebbles shot into your eye from under the fat tyre of a speeding car.

I'm astonished the council (Lambeth or Wandsworth?) hasn't stepped in to do something about the destruction of the road surfaces, particularly at the junction of Silverthorne and Wandsworth Road and down by the one-way junction of Silverthorne and Queenstown Roads.

This is where the trucks - which have just feasted on fresh ready-mixed concrete from the massive silos of McALpine's London Concrete Ltd - storm off in a cloud of dust to dump the material at some building site or other.

But the latest horror is the speed with which it has destroyed that perfectly harmless old floral roundabout hub at the south-east entrance to Battersea Park.

It's hard top cycle through any of this area at the moment because the air is so full of dust. When they were destroying the old MArco Polo House, it felt like sharp bits of marble were shredding the linings of your throat and lungs. Now it's the powdery cement dust sieved over everything by those speeding dumper-trucks and mixer-lorries.

God help us, residents of SW8, 4, and 11. God help us one and all.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Nine Elms Disease spreads west: the demolition of Battersea Power Station's chimneys

A strange slow motion spectacle is unfolding three hundred feet above the terraced slums and industrial wastelands of Battersea, south west London.

The developers of the new riverside ghetto of luxury apartments and embassies is, as promised, carefully dismantling the first of the four cast-concrete legs of the Giles Gilbert Scott's upside-down kitchen table.

There's a strange green cage around the top of the chimney, and it is gradually sinking, maybe only a few feet each day.

Apparently the people responsible for all this - Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC) - are going to replace the chimneys with replicas, "using the same techniques and materials". Looking forward to seeing these going up - but somehow can't imagine that the sight of the power station will ever again be the same. 

Like so much of the rest of London now, the rough edges, the decay, the patina of decades, the ingrained dirt, the cracks and the weeds - all that will be gone. Nine Elms disease, unlike most natural blights - does not leave scars and blemishes - it does the reverse, it abolishes them, leaving just a bland Hollywood style film-lot.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Dread, beat and mud - London's sodden bank holiday weekend of music

Revellers undeterred by non-stop rain at London's 2014 Notting Hill Carnival
Far from dampening spirits, the non-stop rain on Monday seemed to make Notting Hill Carnivalists all the more exuberant. As one DJ, "Rain a bad thing? Don't you know Jamaican girls love the rain?"
The scars of last weekend's dance music festival on Clapham Common are still there for all to see; in fact it looks like a World War  One battlefield, except that instead of empty brass cartridge cases, the ground is littered with tiny shiny silver nitrous oxide gas cylinders, used by the young ravers for a quick-hit legal high.

In fact, the weather was dry for the whole of the SW4 Festival (Saturday and Sunday only). The heavens opened soon after the last fireworks on Sunday night, and it rained for 24 hours.
Clapham Common  becomes a mudbath as trucks move
 in to clear up after the weekend's SW4 Festival
of dance music

All those muddy furrows were caused, not by 20,000 whigged-out young ravers jumping about to DeadMau5, but by the big trucks that went in on monday and Tuesday to dismantle and carry away the giant stages and other structures, including several hundred portable toilets.

Laughing gas has been used by ravers for at least the past ten years, but I have never seen more empty canisters or burst balloon fragments on the ground, especially in the gutters of side roads along the north side of the Common.

Across the river in the W10/W11 districts things got going in glorious sunshine on the Sunday. But 4pm it seemed to me as packed as any other Notting Hill Carnival - and this was only the so-called "Children's Day".

I had my Carnival highlight very early on. Coming down an empty street from Chepstow Road toward Ledbury Road I heard the metallic crackle of a sound system just firing up, and then the first bars of Pressure Drop began ringing off the walls and spearing me to the pavement with a sport of instant flodd of emotion. It was in fact the Pineapple dance music system, just warming up - probably the nicest thing they played all Carnival. But I have to thank them deeply because they flicked my mood switch so perfectly - from god, so tired, why bother? to a sort of helpless, gormless joy and love of everything in sight.

Stayed in the area for over  four hours, did two complete circuits of the route, hardly spoke to a soul - yet  eye contacts during Carnival confirm a very different atmosphere to normal London street crawling.

But the big day - Monday - started with torrential rain and continued with torrential rain. It looked like about a quarter of the normal crowd lining the streets of the Carnival procession, but the big popular sound systems such as Rampage and Channel One were as busy as ever.

There was a bit of blitz spirit in the air - if the performers, often in next-to-no-clothing, could cope with the rain and the cold, then so could we. The idea that water could quench carnival spirit was again proved to be crazy - these people seemed barely to notice the weather, they were so high on music, booze, love, and similar drugs.
No laughing matter? Everyone seemed to be getting high on
party balloons filled with nitrous oxide out these shiny little
fizzy drinks cylinders.

It was definitely quieter, and the good thing was the lack of causal tourists: most there were hard-core revellers. Felt sorry for many of the food and drink sellers - things are definitely bad when one of the bars in Portobello Road was offering four cans of Red Stripe for a fiver.

A fair bit of bad violence was reported, and there were definitely some very aggressive, boozed-up kids around, looking for trouble. But at least there was usually enough space to avoid them - unlike  in the years of the steamers.

So, in a Bank Holiday that was cold and wet even by London Bank Holiday standards, a good million or so souls were able to bath their battered psyches in the music of their choice, and get taken out of themselves by the collective energy of crowds all flying on the same aerobatic drum and bass-line.

Thank god. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Live and free - two brief musical encounters in one London weekend

Seb Rochford and Polar Bear work up a storm of sound during the 2014 Canary Wharf Jazz Festival, Canada Square gardens, London E14
Polar Bear play the 2014 Canary Wharf Jazz Festival.
Drummer Seb Rochford has his eye on you.
From sweet Cuban sounds in SW4 to a full blast of the hot and icy jazz wastes of Polar Bear in the far east - just another weird London wet and windy august weekend.

Saturday afternoon, and for once am at home in south London. I was restless and needed some food. I thought I'd cycle the scenic route to Asda, i.e. across Clapham Common. As the sun was out I went the long way round, and noticed crowds around the bandstand area.

First thought -  just another corporate sports event. But closer up, I realised there were two unconnected events going on.

First, lots of people in loose skater-style clothing were tying long streamers between trees, then walking along them and doing stunts. A tightrope walkers' convention of some sort….but with music, nice Latino sounds.

Then I saw the band on the recently-renovated bandstand stage, an eight-piece in full flow. Turns out this was a separate concert, the band being Here to Havana, a London-based Afro-Cuban big-band re-working traditional dance music.

They looked good in their black and red gear,  and their sound had enough of that always surprising rhythm to get even my feet and hips moving. A bit. They had a battle on, though. Sudden gusts of wind were blowing the sound away, and the casual audience of young parents and their pushchair-bound kids, the dog walkers and weekend cyclists, joggers and outdoor drinkers, needed some working up.

This they did, very well, and the audience grew from a few chance passers-by to an almost-crowd with some people actually dancing! Tiny children racing around the edge of the bandstand chased by their young dads and a skinny dog which seemed to actually enjoy the music, completed the scene.

In my head I was back in the 80s, when we'd get events like these throughout the summer; in fact, when I first saw them, I thought this was Happy End all over again. The second trombonist, a woman with cropped blonde hair, looked just like Annie Whitehead had back in that strange day, even down to the print top over black leggings.

Yes, this was a powerfully anachronistic event - no signage, no one selling anything, no brighter borough claiming credit for the "Arts in the community"event.  Just sweet music, and friendly and happy crowd.

Today, I was determined to keep riding on this cultural wave. I search for interesting events, find none, and decide instead to head for the Docklands museum in West India Dock, as I had never visited it before and it has an exhibition about bridges.

I go to this area - the Canary Wharf commercial district - as little as possible, as I always think of it as a sort of fake Dallas, a hostile gated community of money-makers dumped on the mass graves of old maritime London.

Arriving today, it seemed more real, or at least more permanent. Odd how quickly these places get rooted in London's wet and sticky soil. Tens of thousands now live and work and shop and eat around here in jobs and supermarkets and bars and homes that did not exist 15 or even 10 years ago.

Above all, it was well populated, and the gigantist architecture seemed a little less show-off flash harry, a bit greened in and a bit stained.

But, it is still an unwelcoming place, despite the best attempts of all the authorities. Not that they don't try. Confused by the maps I walk past the Canada Square skyscrapers and immediately hear the weirdly inappropriate sounds of a 1970s progressive jazz-rock band. It might be Colosseum or the National Health - but no, it's a band called Nostalgia 70 or some such and they are very determined to give an authentic performance. There's a hardy crowd, clad in oilskins and carrier bags as clearly there has just been a downpour.

It all seems so odd, I can hardly believe what am I seeing. But as I walk through this odd crowd of well-dressed people sitting on squares of Canary Wharf plastic on the wet grass, I get a whiff again of that other world - the London of the early 80s, free gigs, and as I pass by by I read a poster. It's the Canary Wharf Jazz Festival, and next up are Polar Bear - a band I got very keen on three or four years ago via drummer Seb Rochford's other band (Acoustic Ladyland) - and then forgot about.

SO I make a hurried tour of the museum, memo myself to make a return visit when i have more time, and rushed back to Canada Square just in time to catch Polar Bear tuning up.

By now there's a real crowd, lots of grizzled jazz fans and  serious young jazzistas mixing with what I imagine are the cooler of the local residents, young couples and young parents, most very smartly turned out.

Polar Bear have not mellowed with age: the wall of sound they create hits the HSBC building and the On Canada Square skyscraper and for a moment I imagine this aggressively anti-establishment music bringing down the walls and trading floors of E14's neo-capitalist temples.

I love the way they veer off on mad and dangerous rhythmic adventures, then they all seem to get back together on a lovely funky freeway to pleasure, but they can never allow this to last - they never  take the easy route. Reminds me of Miles Davis at his most experimental, the era of Get Up With It, Live Evil, etc.

Stunningly crazy playing by all, I adored the two sax players, the bassist, the Apple Mac man. Seb himself is such a sweetie - he seems so shy, mumbling a little between songs, clearly rather embarrassed about the giant code-ups of his face on the three big screens around the square. As a drummer he makes maximum impact with apparently minimal display - not much evidneceof the flailing arms and pumping legs of a Ginger or a Jonh-Paul. Seb's rhythms drive it all, though, and they are always surprising and intriguing.

One piece he said, was as yet untitled but was basically about how we should all love each other.

I love him and his band, and for a short time I almost loved Canary Wharf.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Back on the track of London's disappearing public loos

One of London's fast disappearing conveniences, this old cottager's dream on the North Side of Clapham Common, London SW4, is now up for rent.
The way of all London's bogs? This once splendid cottage-style public
 convenience on the north side of Clapham Common is up for grabs.
It will become either a ridiculously expensive nosherie or some
 bonused-up banker's stinky pied a terre. Whither our free
piddling places, I ask?
Time Out's Alexi Duggins uses his page this week to bemoan the decline of London's public toilets - reminding me of a blog post I started to write two years ago and never published.

As one who has (as if cursed to do so) toiled around the inner zones of London for most of the past four decades, I have an internal, instinctual map telling me when and where I have to alter my itinerary in order to find a place to pee.

This has become all the more important as age and the ripening prostate gland push up against the weakening bladder.

So I started a sort of widdler's guide to free peeing in zones 1 and 2. I will begin again, but with some very good news right from the heart of things - from Soho, London W1. In fact, the centre of Soho - the public toilets in Broadwick Street, near where it crosses Berwick St - are open again, and still free!

When they closed a year or two back I feared that they would never re-open and become yet another trendy place for a piss-up instead of a piss. If they did re-open I imagined they'd be the new fangled type with a turnstile and a charge of at least 50p, like all the now horrible toilets in all of London's railway termini.

 How lovely, then, to find these classic Soho toilets (well, the  gents at least - even for the sake of this survey I did not risk descending into the ladies) completely unchanged. Except that they seem to have removed the great slabs of sheet steel bolted between the stalls that were presumably meant to discourage cottagers taking peeks at their neighbours' bits.

Moving on towards Oxford Circus, there was another free underground loo, entered from the Regent Street traffic island on the north side of the junction. Is it still there?

If not, I would make for another good old fallback position - the toilets in John Lewis, easily accessible from the staircases on the Square side.

Moving south, I used to make frequent use of the gents in the subway of Piccadilly Circus tube, the exit that used to lead directly into the basement of the now defunct Tower Records flagship store. Such a useful convenience, this one was, allowing you to empty everything before prolonged browsing through the racks.

Now, I think, it has also gone. The door is still there but always locked.

On to Trafalgar and Leicester Squares - you pay through the nose in both for the horrible WCs. Instead, I make for the crypt of St Martin in the Fields, a great place for a cheapish lunch and a free pee, as well as brass rubbing and regular photography exhibitions.

It always makes me feel a bit guilty, entering museums and churches and shops and so on, just to relive myself - but it can't be helped. If only I had more nerve I would do what so many London flaneurs always did, and stride confidently into the poshest hotels to use the luxury facilities, precious fragrances and fluffy towels and knee-scraping flunkies and all! But I know I would be shooed away before I even penetrated those plate glass rotating doors.

With the sad changeover of the Covent Garden piazza toilets to pay-as-you-piss, I find that whole area now a bit of a piddler's desert. You can go to the British Museum, of course, or all the way up to Russell Square gardens where there's still a free loo beside the cafe. Likewise, I think, in Lincoln's Inn Fields….again, that is tbc.

Move a bit north, and there was marvellous old style public loo just by Coram's Field, but I fear that has now closed, just  like the magnificent old loos with glass cisterns by Chancery Lane tube station.  There are plenty of free loos in the Barbican complex, but getting out of there is always a gamble. Old Street tube station's subways are blessed with two fine things - a cut-price bookshop (Camden Books) and an old fashioned free London Transport bog.

I am pleased to report there's still a good subterranean  toilet in what remains of  Old Spitalfields market, over in the corner by the cashpoint.

The Brick Lane, Shoreditch and Hoxton area - use the pubs is all I can say. I'm sure these super-trendy areas have splendid community crapperies, but I have yet to experience any of them.

Angel is hopeless - I looked for a pisser in Chapel Market but it had gone. The Angel Bar - a reliably busy Wetherspoon's boozer - is a good place, and you can get a pint for the price of a piddle in some of London's more upmarket institutions.

Islington Green has one of those awful igloo things. Highbury corner, which looks so promising, seems to have nothing. I could've sworn the Overground station had a toilet once, but no such luck now. I've been known to leg it all the way down Roseberry Avenue to Sadler's Wells theatre to use their nice free toilets down the stairs.

Now we're out in zone 2, which is fast becoming a public convenience desert. Camden, Kentish Town, Maida Vale, Paddington, Notting Hill - where, oh where, are the toilets of yesteryear? Dalston,  you cry? Hackney? The town hall in MAre Street, I remember, had good loos. There must surely be a grisly market toilet in Ridley Road. Need to check out out. And something very organic on London Fields, one hopes.

Moving very swiftly south of the river, if you're caught short in Brixton head for Pope's Road behind the market, and there's a fine free Lambeth loo waiting for you there.

Excellent free loos in glorious festival of Britain style abound in lovely Battersea Park - yes, amazingly,  Wandsworth Borough Council must have forgotten about these very egalitarian poo-ing places.

By contrast, Clapham, once so well provided for, indeed famously a cottager's delight - now has very little. The bogs by Clapham Common tube are now a bar (WC, ho-ho!), and the one by the old Library (now an expensive arty place, the Omnibus) is closed and up for sale or rent. If stuck, head for Sainsburys in the High Street or the new library. But beware - the library's unisex loo is very well equipped for disabled people, so do not pull the cord thinking it will flush the loo - it sets off a very loud alarm.

Further south - give up. Either piss on one of the commons, or dive into one of the many pubs heaving with drunken yuppies.

And of course this crazy runaround has left many gaps, and missed out many hidden treasures of the world of public sanitation. If you can fill them, please do so. But do remember to adjust your clothing before you leave. Thankyou.

Monday, 11 August 2014

At last I have seen the light about the London Beam

Late last night, back from a brief holiday in the beautiful south of France, I stuck my head out of the back door in the hope of catching a glimpse of the much-trumpeted 'super-moon'.

I saw that large pale disk ascending over Canary Wharf, pretty much my eastern horizon, but what caught my eye first and much more firmly was a very bright,  dead straight line, a veritable edge or column of light, poking up from somewhere near Vauxhall Bridge to a massive but indeterminate height. A huge beam of light, bigger than any I had ever seen (and there have been plenty over the last few years).

I immediately jumped to some prejudiced conclusions.

As it appeared to originate in the Nine Elms area, close to the ghastly killer tower, "The Plunger" as it is known in Pimilico - I imagined it was just another publicity stunt by the Nine Elms Disease gang. In fact I thought they had stolen the New York twin towers 12th anniversary memorial idea (the twin beams of light) and were using it to celebrate some new victory over the GLA or Lambeth planning authorities.

I'm referring to the property developers who are spreading steel and glass boxes across the old Battersea Marshes like there's no tomorrow. I read somewhere they'd gained permission to build yet another huge tower, this one to be in Bondway,Vauxhall - known, until very recently, as the location of a big hostel for the homeless.

So, I turned my back on this astonishing beam. And today, just a few hours ago,  I read it was a work of art.

I quickly discover (thanks to these amazing photos on the Brixton Buzz website, plus reports on the Guardian and  Daily Telegraph websites ) that it is an artwork commissioned by the Mayor of London and Artangel. It was  called Spectra - a piece of art by the Japanese sound and light artist Ryoji Ikeda, to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was a cluster of  49 searchlights in Victoria Tower Gardens by the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. I should have realised immediately - this was real light and the usual stuttering green laser beam.

So - while I thought it was a self-promoting stunt by a property developer, I hated it. Now I know it was a great public work of art for a world-shaking centenary, I am outed as the great hypocrite I always knew I was.

So, I failed to get photos of either the super-moon or the super beam.

What an arsehole!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Old white guy has wonderful evening at Brixton's Black Cultural Archives inauguration

The original dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, performs for the Black Cultural Archives opening, Windrush Square, Brixton, London,

How often do you get to enjoy a full evening of great music,  poetry, dance, and inspiring speakers  on a warm summer's evening surrounded by thousands of happy people, then cycle home in 10 minutes with your soul fully re-charged? And all for free?

And how often would this event include one of your all-time heroes, the original Dub Poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson?

About once in a lifetime - if you are lucky. Well, tonight I was lucky, thanks to this evening's opening event for  Brixton's new Black Cultural Archives, a three-hour bash which (among many other things) made you realise what a great space Windrush Square really is.

So, thank God again for the people of Brixton, who seem to be the last part of this weird and scarily changing city who have the ability to make me feel truly alive. Even before the public celebrations began, you realised this was a much bigger event - bigger even than Brixton. The BCA is the result of a 30-year battle, and the victory that this evening represented reverberates right across the country, not just south London.

The new Archives open to the public tomorrow with a big inaugural exhibition, Re-Imagine: Black Women in Britain.

The  centre occupies the two completely refurbished  Regency townhouses (formerly Raleigh Hall) and a new education/refreshment area - an elegant piece of architectural melding and blending, which actually enhances this great space opposite the Town Hall and next to the Brixton Library and the (now sadly troubled) Ritzy Cinema.

Thanks, especially, to all the people who made this amazing new institution a reality. And the amazing performers who ripped up all your notions of the worthy benefit show. Especially good were the poet, rap artist, and blues singer Floetic Lara.
 We saw her two years back at the "Bob Marley Way" event. Then she seemed raw and exciting. Tonight she was even more exciting but far from raw. The layer upon layer of ironies and barbed line-endings, her sudden taking flight into deep Nina Simone or Aretha territory, it was moving, inspiring, funny, and amazing all at once.

It inspired me, a 61-year-old burnt-out case, so heaven knows how good she must have been for the 15-year-old aspirant artists in the crowd.

LKJ was a cool and white-hot as ever, the old stories fresh again as he reminds us of the New Cross Massacre, and all that followed back in 1981 - events which led to the determination to build this archive. When he read his poem about  the 1981 riots, Di Great Insohreckshan - well, at first you miss the heavy reggae backing of Dennis Bovell's band, but then you realise he doesn't need any accompaniment. There's already fire in the air, LKJ has ignited it.

The artists who follow him - spoken-word artists Akala and  El Crisis, and the calypsonian protest singer Alexander D Great, seemed to pick up on LKJ's mood. Unfinished business is very much in the air (see the latest Met revelations). We felt strong vibrations of 1981 and 85 and 1993 and - what 2014? in Akala's amazing Uzi-style delivery - he builds up to a hailstorm of words, each  so carefully and beautifully chosen, so sharp so deadly. You want him to slow down so you can catch it all but he can'tt slow down - and then his nice trick of separating the final word, so it hangs there like a barrage balloon of meaning.

Stuff  hanging in the humid air - there's still feeling of outrage here tonight, it was a night for white people (i.e., me) to be made very aware of how they (i.e., we) dragged their (i.e., our) feet through those decades. How much more we could all have done to help these beautiful, forgiving people who make this city so much better than it ever really deserved to be. Yeah, anyone can do more than nothing, which  with one or two exceptions (but not me, tbh), is what we did.

Read a good history of the project here on Brixton Buzz.

High-velocity spoken word artist/rapper Akala opens minds and hearts at the Black Cultural Archives launch event, Windrush Square, Brixton,

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A London swimmer's stolen summer days in the silky socialist waters of the Serpentine

It has become a bit of a ritual, but a summer is not a summer for me without at least one hot, sunny, stolen day at the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park.

I went three days ago, and the magic was still there, as strong as ever. As strong as it was, perhaps, way back in  1930 when the so-called "Lansbury's Lido" opened in Hyde Park, allowing mixed-sex open-air  bathing in the Serpentine for the first time.  See for yourself in this amazing footage from British Pathé.

George Lansbury, the radical socialist,  pacifist,  reformer, campaigning MP and Labour Party Leader (1932-35), who was determined to give ordinary Londoners a taste of the open-air bathing pleasures available at the seaside, right here in the centre of the richest, most royal area of the capital city.

I first went back in the mid-1970s, and kept going through to the mid 1980s. I remember being there on the day of Live Aid - a hot Saturday afternoon, I was listening on the walkman radio. You could feel the vibrations from Wembley in the hot air.

At the time the place was under threat, there were constant health scares about the water , and people generally grimaced when you said you'd been swimming there: "Oh, how could you, it's all slimy and stinky and all those old men in speedos…."

Back in those days I was a 27 year old in Speedos, and yes, there was a bit of slime under the toes as you inched your way down the slope into those greeny-brown waters. But it was benign slime,  a soft layer of weedy mud. This was real water - the Serpentine is fed by natural springs and the submerged River Westbourne - and it felt totally different to the chlorinated refined stuff you get in swimming pools. It feels soft and silky, it feels gorgeous against the skin

The crowds who went down to the Serpentine in those hot summers of 80 and 81 were very different to the diehard members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, the ones who did lengths every morning, every day of the year, before going off to work.

The "father" of the Lido, George Lansbury,
headed a successful campaign in the
 1920s to get affordable open air swimming for
 all Londoners in the heart of the city.
The great thing here was we could all co-exist - the serious swimmers and the hedonistically sun-worshippers, the narcissists and the creative skivers, taking a few hours out from their office jobs. God, how we all love that place, that little Oasis in the centre of the metropolis.

I would go with a book, a bottle of water, something to eat, Palmer's cocoa butter skin cream and plenty of cigarettes. I would lie there and wait, and sure enough before long the spaces next to me would be filled with all manny of chambering young and not-so-young swimmers. There was a strange community about the place - as if we all belonged to some slightly secret club.

We were the lazy ones, the sun-addicts, young and old, we mixed with the hordes of Spanish and Californian and Brazilian and Italian and South African and Australian backpacker tourists who found the place a bit like home from home.

The Serpentine Lido has so much going for it - a little bit of paradise, saved for the people of London and the world by idealistic socialists of the early 20th century.

The place still has that democratic feel. The entry fee is less than for most of the stingy local authority pools around the outer boroughs - and if the weather's good you get the feeling of being in some private club, soaking up the sun in your skimpy swimming gear as the crazy centre of capitalism goes about its greedy business a few hundred yards away.

Although, as one very long-term fan of the Lido  - she had been coming here since 1958 - told me,  they built the  Lido on the wrong side of the lake. "it's north facing, so to get the best of the afternoon sun you have to  turn away from the water," she laughed.