About Me

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

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!