About Me

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

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Opening windows on a love-hate relationship with Christmas

Terrible, to think we're only 12 days away from the 12 days - that we are now halfway through Advent.

It's several decades since I last opened the cardboard window of an Advent Calendar to reveal….well, in those days, it was a badly-drawn scene from the nativity story. I loved that ritual, each morning revealing the next episode. Each year I longed to reach the climactic moment where you looked through the stable door to see Joseph and Mary and a donkey and a crib and lots of golden hay. Coloured cellophane. The cut-out shape of the star of the East. The shepherds with their crooks and glowing lanterns. Hold it up to the light boy!

These days,  kids get sweets, chocolates, trinkets, and for all I know gold, frankincense and myrrh each time they pull back those little flaps.

This year I'm hooked again. No cardboard flaps, though. I've  become an addict of the Advent Calendar of podcaster, Daniel Ruiz Tizon. As he points out so well in the first episode,  for kids the excitement of Christmas is all about the countdown, the expectation - and not about the day itself, which was often a terrible let-down.

OK, we have already got to Day 12 but there's still time to catch up. You can binge on Advent Calendar podcasts on iTunes, instead of one of those boxed-set TV shows. It costs less (well, nothing actually) and it goes straight to the point of our existences on the surface of this planet. In all honesty,  what could be better?

These daily nuggets of storytelling share some of the bitter-sweet observational humour of  the weekly show on ResonanceFM, Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available, which has already had a few mentions on this blog.

The theme is familiar – can jaded, life-battered adults ever recapture the magic of Christmas? – but the treatment is entirely and absolutely Daniel's own. It's sad, it's funny, it's obsessive, it's moving, its addictive. And if you were brought up in England at any point between the 60s and the 90s it's going to get your memory-strings reverberating in interesting ways.

The presents you longed for but never got; the ones you dreaded being given. The visits to no-longer existing department stores. Christmas TV of the 70s and 80s. Christmas pop. Above all the pain, the fights,  the embarrassments and occasionally even the joys of being part of a family.

Each day's episode is only 10 or 12 minutes, so although we're already past the half-way mark of this advent season, you can quite easily catch up. And I recommend you do: you will very soon be as captivated as I am.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's Threatened Libraries part 3: The Minet Library and Archive

Solid, functional, built to last: the Minet Library is not the sort of place that looks likely to take kindly to fashionable
notions of pop-up gyms and unstaffed libraries-lite….it's an archive, for heaven's sake!

However you arrive there, the Minet Library is always a surprise. Coming from the traffic-snarled grime of the A23 and Loughborough Road, it seems like an oasis of tranquillity, keeping an eye on the massive housing developments of past (Angell Town) and present decades (Oval Quarter) to either side.

Sat there in the middle of leafy Knatchbull Road, a street of fairly grand Victorian, Edwardian and later houses,  it has a strange crouching presence, with the outward appearance of a low-lying suburban redoubt. There's even what at a first looks like a drawbridge leading up to the entrance, which is in fact  a wheelchair access ramp.

That impression is perhaps not entirely misleading. The original Minet Library, built in the 1890s, was destroyed during aerial bombardment in 1940. This building, judging from old photos, was a neo-gothic affair with an octagonal reading room.

It was built at the expense of William Minet, the great-great-grandson of Huguenot immigrants to London who became major landowners in the Camberwell and Lambeth areas in the late 18th century.

At this point, I will quote from the wonderfully detailed  Myatt's Fields Park website:

"Minet Free Library and a parochial hall opposite St. James’ were…[William Minet's] bequests to the neighbourhood. William Minet was interested in the Co-operative Movement and the library was built by a company which he formed on co-operative lines.

"Myatt’s Fields Park was an integral part of the philanthropic projects undertaken by the Minet family for the estate. As Sir John Betjeman, who found the area ‘a strangely beautiful place’, put it in 1978, ‘Thank God for the Minet family’."

Have to agree with Sir John there…though Lambeth residents already knew the areas between those brutal trunk routes, the A3, A23, and A2, were beautiful, nothing strange about it.

Pre-war, the library was run jointly by Lambeth and Southwark boroughs. It also, then as now, had a dual function, being both a public lending library and the home of the local council archives.
Open door policy: the public are welcomed into the Lambeth Archive, and
have access to the same expert advice form staff as any academic

These, fortunately, were stored safely in a deep basement and survived the blitz.  The new library, built by Lambeth in the early 1950s, has that austere, brick-built solidity of the post-war era: functional rather than decorative, but admirable in its functionality.

It's saying, this time, we're here for everyone, and we're here to stay. As you enter, there's a large vestibule full of interesting things - and two big glazed entrance doors. One leads straight into the library, the other into the archive. Both are equally accessible to all. This is 1950s democracy in solid brick, wood and glass.

Strong, permanent: the library sits there, challenging by its presence the shiny architecture of the new Oval Quarter being thrown up a bit to the north. But we're entering a new age of austerity (for some)  and wealth (for others) and conflict, and the Minet's going to need all the help to can get, so it would seem - just at a time when it could in fact act as a hub for an even bigger community.

But, as we know the Minet is one of three libraries Lambeth is threatening to turn into gyms. Lambeth say the archive will stay in the Minet "for the time being".

Like all the other threatened libraries, the Minet has an active Friends group which has been keeping everyone informed on the council's moves, representing local interests at meetings, and which is now organising campaigns to challenge the threats to this institution, which remain, after months of protest, pretty much unchanged.

Yes, look how much goes on here:  is all this to be
be squeezed out to house some running
Friends of Minet Library are part of the Minet Hub which also represents the nearby Myatt's Fields Park and the Longfield Hall, a well-used community space which house a dance academy and much more, just two door up the road.

Lambeth made the Minet its official archive. Everything that has been documented in the government of this borough is there. There's an excellent account of the way this archive is run, and its value, by Ruth Waters on the Brixton Blog.

As we've already reported, the longer-term future for the building is far from safe. 

It's not a re-development prospect right now because of surrounding residential property, but that can change very quickly.

Meanwhile, I am stuck in the vestibule, looking at the amazing balsa-wood model of the future of Brixton, as seen by town planners in 1967. This table-top model is all that remains of the grandest, most radical redevelopment scheme in the borough's history, and it reminds us of that time, just before the Six Days War and the ensuing oil crises, when the car was king and every city was going to be modelled on Detroit or Birmingham.
Brixton as it might have been -  in 1967 the whole of central Brixton
was to be redeveloped as part of the inner-London orbital motorway
 scheme, and now this model in the Minet LIbrary is (nearly) all that's
left of it….

A six-lane inner South London orbital motorway flys over central Brixton, lands somewhere on Acre Lane and ploughs off through Clapham Common to the A3/South circular interchange near Wandsworth Bridge. That little stretch down to the river at Wandsworth Bridge was the only bit that was actually built in south west London, apart from the Coldharbour Lane barrier block, which was designed to insulate its residents from the worse impact of traffic speeding past their kitchen windows.

There are two groupings of slightly wonky 50-sotrey residential towers (eat your heart out, Nine Elms), built on the stacked threepenny bit model you can still see in a more modest form above East Croydon station.

And can just about see the notional aerial recreation centre, suspended on a gantry bridge above the motorway, just like one of those early service stations on the M1, such as Watford Gap. Just think, Brixton might have had the first glass-bottomed swimming pool in the UK, 50 years earlier than the one planned for the well-heeled residents of the future Battersea Power Station.

Poignant exhibits in the miniature Brixton Museum,
showing until December 8th in the foyer of the Minet Library
Just think…and then thank god for OPEC and the quick binning of all those road-building schemes. As a result we still have Brixton, rather than a zone 2 version of Croydon on this stretch of the Brighton road.

All this and I haven't even got into the library yet. Ok, but hang on over to the left there's another exhibit: the Brixton Museum, an art installation by Anchor&Magnet,  a space for "dialogue, reflection and exchange". It's only there for a few more days so get along to see it and contribute if you can.

Into the main library, and again it's a light, welcoming space, and it is being used by all age groups. Just like Tate SOuth Lambeth and Carnegie, this is a popular, busy public library, serving the community with print and digital media, advice and information, and maintaining spaces that used by so many community groups.

If you're feeling like you need some exercise after your
visit to the Minet Library and Archive, why not go for a
stroll in beautiful Myatt's Fields, two minute's walk
 down Knatchbull Road?
Check the various noticeboards to see just how much goes on here - it really is an amazing variety of activities. You only have to glance at the news pages and twitter feeds of the Friends of  Minet library to realise how important this library is to local residents, and how deeply felt the affection for this place is. You can't help feeling Lambeth council has taken on a bit more than it reckoned with, when you visit this  marvellous place.

And, if you're in need of a healthy workout after your visit, walk the 100 yards or so to Myatt's Fields, a park very carefully and sensitively restored by the council a few years ago. Here surely is the true healthy living centre of this part of Lambeth.

Why ruin a cherished library so that a few hundred of the thousands of local residents can build their muscles up to a point which will probably be difficult to sustain into their late middle age?

Was that a fair question to ask you, Lambeth Co-operative Council? Was it? Was it?
Is this a busy library, or what? Just where are all these activities going to go if - as proposed - Lambeth decides to install a GLL-run keep fit centre into this building…?

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Correction: Peter's non-stop closing down sale is still on

Catch it while you can…Peter's second-hand store on Prescott Place
survives to trade another day or two, but it won't last for ever...
My one hundred percent record for getting things wrong when it comes to reporting the demise of Greek-owned local businesses remains unblemished, you will be relieved to hear.

Five days ago I reported that Peter's second-hand lock up, in Prescott Place just off Clapham High Street, was finally closing. Yesterday, there he was, the lock-up was  unlocked,  stuff on the pavement, clothes on the rails,  books and bric-a-brac on the shelves, customers nosing out bargains, just like always.

For me it was a delightful reprise of my summer debacle,  prematurely reporting the departure of Andy the Barber on Landor Road. You can see why I never got far as a journalist.

For chapter and verse on Andy's 50 years in SW9, his plans for the future and the views of some of his most loyal customers, please listen to the two-part podcast interview  by Daniel Ruiz Tizon.

But back to Peter. In fact it wasn't quite like always, as his usual crew were not with him, nor his son. He saw it this away: the owner wants to knock down the lock-up and build some sort of luxury accommodation in this tight little plot of land just off the High Street. "Well, they're not going to start building in the middle of the winter are they," he says.

Of course it's possible even probable the owner will resort to using bailiffs, but what would be the point? As Peter says, all he wants to do is clear his stuff. He's keen to finish with this business, and perhaps sell a few Christmas trees on the side.

So - what could be better than  have Peter's festive long-running closing down sale acting as a sort of necessary balance to the over-priced Yuletide fare on sale in the Venn Street farmer's market a bit to the west? Exactly. So get yourselves down there quick - this is one bit of old SW4 that once it has gone will never return.

Once they do start building, they'd better take care not to damage that grapevine.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Love letters to Lambeth's threatened libraries

Here's a case of a campaign banner which intrinsically explains why the campaign is necessary. Tate South Lambeth Library, November 2015
I'm not Joni Mitchelll's biggest fan, but two lines of one of her old songs have been playing over and over again in my head of late.

You know the lines…."Don't it always seem the way….", and if you live in Lambeth (and plenty other parts of London, etc) you will know how horribly meaningful it has become, in relation to pubs, cafés, shops, music venues, much-loved murals and even whole council estates…and now, of course, our libraries as well.

And that nagging refrain is driving me mad, sending me out to make sure that at least I will know what we had until it was gone, if the plans laid out in the borough's "Culture 2020" programme actually come to pass.

So it became essential to revisit all of Lambeth's libraries, and especially the ones which are under threat of closure or having their hearts ripped out. There was a practical reason for this pilgrimage as well. I need to go out of my home to work. I don;t like working in cafés. Libraries are by far the best place.  But every time I've been to my own local library (Clapham) over the past few weeks it has been a problem finding somewhere to sit. The place has curiously limited desk space, there are strange little rooms where I don't think I'd be appreciated, and there some incredibly uncomfortable benches.

So - I'm off. Over the next few weeks I want to visit all 10 libraries in the Borough. I already use Brixton quite often (and that's at capacity as well).  A few weeks ago I wrote about the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill, so that, retrospectively, can be the first of this occasional and probably never-to-br completed series.

The Tate South Lambeth Library was next  on this itinerary, admittedly because it was on the route home from where I was working last week.

What becomes immediately apparent, as you enter each of these libraries, is how very different each is from the next. And how expertly each one has adapted itself and developed services to meet the needs of their surrounding populations, again so different across this hugely diverse borough.

This handsome old library was a case in point. It was also where the protest march of three weeks ago ended, and where the Councillor who devised the 'healthy living centre' plan was holding her surgery. It's a well-positioned building, bang in the middle of the Little Portugual section of South Lambeth Road and facing that colourful parade of  Portuguese cafés, delicatessens and restaurants.

The big banner outside, "SALVE A NOSSA BIBLIOTECA" says it all really. This library is real hub of the local community, including the large Portuguese-speaking community.

From the outside it's an imposing Victorian municipal building, red-brick with ornate terracotta tile work, grand but inviting. Inside the two main rooms are light and airy, but every square foot of space is being used - and even at this quiet time (2.30 on a Tuesday, before schools are out) there's a good mix of people using the building, the photocopiers.

Given to the people of Lambeth nearly 120 years ago, the
library has survived two world wars, depressions and
recessions, only to face the indignity of perhaps being turned
into a gym. So much for social progress.
It's only when you look at the noticeboards or the Friends' website that you realise wheat an amazing range of activities are held here - from a gardening club through to IT sessions for blind and partially-sighted people, a classic film screenings, ESOL classes, a knitting group….the list goes on. In other words it is doing exactly what a branch library should be doing, and would do much more of if it had the resources.

Lambeth's ongoing so-called consultation on the future of this and other libraries has put forward the idea that either Tate South Lambeth or the Durning Library, a mile and a half away in should become a "Town Centre" library for this part of the borough.

Whichever one is chosen, the other will be doomed for conversion into a bookish gym.

This is a desperately unfair and invidious tactic, pitting two of their own libraries, one  against the other, when the staff in each  are working so hard to meet the needs of their own users,  with quite different needs despite their proximity. Is this how a co-operative council behaves?

Next stop: The Minet Library

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Peter bows out: a bit of Clapham High Street that should forever be Greece has gone. Almost...

Peter the Greek's final, final closing down sale last week: another bit of old, untidy Clapham is about to disappear
to meet the tidy, buttoned up and thoroughly steel-gated demands of London's property vultures.
2015 will be remembered for plenty of bad reasons. For some of us, amongst much else, it will probably go down as the year in which two of the pillars of Clapham's small but tenacious Greek Cypriot community finally chucked it all in, and called it a day.

If you've been listening to ace SW8 podcaster Daniel Ruiz Tizon's marvellous interviews with Andy, the Greek Cypriot barber of Landor Road, (Part 1 here and Part 2 here)  (and if not why not?) you will know that he is now really on the verge of retirement, after half a century of expertly wielding the clippers and the cut-throat razor to the astonishing parade of characters who have navigated this important furrow between SWs 2, 9 and eventually 4.

So, if you believe him, Andy will be back on the isle of his birth, tending his vines and the olive trees, in January 2016. Meanwhile, it seems that Peter,  the Greek second-hand-goods dealer of Clapham High Street, has also finally had to shut up shop. His lock-up on Prescott Place will soon disappear and be turned into yet more expensive residential property.

His final day was officially  Monday 23 November - as the often repainted "Closing down sale" banner made clear. But by the end of that day the bailiffs had not turned up, so Peter kept on trading a little longer….and then, a few more days…but one day soon, he will be gone.

The vine begins in the soil of a tiny garden
outside  St Peter's Catholic Church...
You wander down Prescott Street today and the shop is shut-up. But even when the single storey lock-up is demolished, there's going to be a durable reminder of his two or three decade presence here. It's a grape-vine, which was planted back in about 2009 in the tiny bit of garden by the side of the catholic church, which by happy coincidence is dedicated to St Peter.

Amazingly the vine has thrived, twisted itself round the corner, and started out on a long journey towards the joys of Clapham High Street. If you look at it even now there are clusters of this autumn's black grapes still hanging down.

According to Peter, once it was established the vine needed very little maintenance, "Just a little cutting back in the spring".

Will he be there to do it next spring? "Who knows."

It has now advanced about two-thirds of the way along the wall of the Two Brewers bar and nightclub on its way to the main road. Peter's hoping he'll live to see it make  the full distance. He;s got another growing along the alley-way behind his flat. It seems vines like Clapham soil, and like Andy, Peter clearly knows how to cultivate.

Unlike Andy, Peter's not planning to return to his birthplace. He likes Clapham and wants to stay here. It seems though he still has further battles, to do with where he's living, to get through.

And it continues along the wall of the Two Brewers, one of Clapham's most
famous gay bars, on its way to the wide-open spaces of the High Street
But, as for the shop, from what he told me, he did not intend to oppose the closure, as he's ready to give it all up. The shop had been quite busy recently, and whenever I visited there were plenty of people trawling through the boxes of books, records, glass, china, and the rails of clothing.

For Peter himself, maybe not such a bad outcome - but for this curious bit of Clapham, which had hung onto its 1980s feel far longer than you'd expect in an area now swamped by a second or even third generations of blond and blazered and chubby-cheeked ex public schoolboys and their well-groomed gals - it's a serious loss. One more of a very small and fast dwindling number of independent, totally  ungentrifiable business ventures, makes its exit, stage left.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Anyone want to run a café in Clapham Library?

Some caffeine with your Kafka madame?
Looking forward to this bookish café, but hoping it'll
spill out onto the pavement otherwise there won't be
anywhere for anyone to sit - students, readers, coffee
sippers will all be competing for already limited
seating and desk-space!
Interesting fact: Lambeth is inviting bids from anyone interested in opening a coffee shop on the ground
floor of Clapham Public Library.

The flyer put out by Lambeth's agent, Lambert Smith Hampton, says the café would be given 60 square metres of space on the ground floor, and that customers "will be able to acesss…additional seating at mezzanine level".

A café has always been part of the plans for the library and in theory it's a nice idea. A good book or magazine and a decent mug of frothed milk instant: what could be better?

In reality, of course, it's a different matter. On a Monday afternoon, that 60sq m at the front of the building was filled with young students working at tables. The mezzanine area was also full. Most of the private study spaces on the way up that spiral ramp were occupied.

Things get even busier when exam season approaches - and these days exam season is most of the school year. The trouble with this building, which looks awfully good in the brochures, is that it makes very poor use of the space it encloses. There's a great big void in the middle that's pleasing enough but not really very useful for people wanting somewhere to sit and read. The little benches on the spiral ramp are too narrow for anyone over the age of about 7 to sit comfortably on.

Add to this the fact that Lambeth says that Clapham, as one of the "safe" town centre libraries, will take in exiled users of the libraries it is planning to close or convert into gyms, and you see the potential for severe overcrowding. That's if people can face or afford the bus or tube journey to Clapham High Street from Kennington or South Lambeth.

With these considerations, and with the proposed rent "in the region of £25,000pa" you wonder if the site is going to be very attractive to bidders. You have to hope there'll be restrictions on the type of food they can offer, or the whole book stock will soon be smelling of stale fried onion. 

It seems OK that parts of the library are reserved for "teens" or mothers and babies. There's quite often a seat free down in the kids' area, which is also a performance area - but you'd need a stronger sense of entitlement than I have to face off the glares of the SW4 mumsnet contingent.

Maybe they should have a designated dossers' zone for old lags, layabouts and buffers like me. We are on the increase, you know.

But I don't want to carp: I use this library all the time and overall it has to be one of the better examples of public-private joint development. The staff are great and it has a good and imaginative stock of books, etc…I just wonder how, if it's got a hope of being commercially viable, a café is going to be squeezed in there and what will be lost as a result.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Breathless in Nine Elms, more shocked than awed

One Nine Elms development at Nine Elms, Vauxhall, London - a 56 storey tower will be "breath-taking"
Have to agree, it is truly breath-taking. I want my breath back, please!
I am guilty of under-selling the creative skills of  the One Nine Elms developers'  marketing people.

Couple of weeks back, posted a joke item on the slogans on the big fences surrounding the site.

Item showed the words: ONE NINE ELMS: JAW DROPPING

So yesterday I walked past the site again and realised they'd come up with a whole family of two-word adjectival phrases, for example: ONE NINE ELMS: BREATH TAKING



Breath-taking? Yes, they're right. The massive amount of pollution caused by the tens of thousands of truck-miles the must've been clocked up as bits of these monster buildings are brought to the site is quite enough to take our breath away, thanks.

All through the summer the air was full of dust and grit. It was truly breath-taking, lung-irritating stuff.

As for awe-inspiring, well the architect's impressions of the finished development rather suggest not. Shocking, maybe, but not much awe.

It looks like a great deal more of  the same old staggered filing-cabinet style apartment towers, rising up to 56 storeys - a bit higher  than the existing St George's Wharf tower. I mean, how could that inspire "awe"? It would need to reach up at least twice that height, up into the clouds, to make anyone used to craning their poor old necks towards the Shard to feel anything other than bored.

I like tall buildings, I just hate bland architecture and towers full of bland "luxury" flats that are designed specifically to inoffensive to any potential buyers, who nearly always are not going to live there but sell them on.

One Nine Elms says it will be offering "Luxurious riverside living". There will also be a "luxury 5-star hotel" to service the apartments (whatever that means). The promotional video is a slick bit of computer animation with the statutory tall blonde lady gliding around an apartment admiring the views…which include the not-too-distant prospect of the Canary Wharf towers, where maybe she works.

Anyway, as those Nine Elms people are so keen on phrases to describe their work, here are a couple more possibles to write in big script up on the fence: daylight-thieving, view-ruining, wind-tunnel-effect-creating, yawn-inducing, stomach-churning…oh, there's plenty more.

But don't get the impression Microgroove33 just loves to snipe and groan: where there's good news, we are ready to blast it out, full volume. And so today it's great to report they have provided a cycle-path of sorts on the otherwise closed northbound side of Wandsworth Road. It's a bit of an obstacle course,  with plenty of cheery blokes in orange waving you through. But it beats trying to dodge the oncoming trucks on the other side.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Old Town old school big night out: Maroon Town bring classic ska back to Clapham Manor Street

Maroon Town at Bread and Roses, Clapham, 20 Novermber 2015. Come
back soon, please!
Everyone knows Bread and Roses in Clapham Manor Street is a great pub, perhaps the only pub left in SW4 you feel good going into.

Apart from being the only trade union-owned pub I know of (anywhere), this pub has always been a delight to visit, if only because of just how unlikely it even exists any more, least of all in banker-rich SW4.

But here it still is, the beer prices are still a bit less than your average Clapham boozer, and they still put on great nights of music, comedy, poetry, theatre, the lot.

Last night was a case in point. The normal irresistible urge, to head uptown on a Friday or Saturday night, was easy to resist as temperatures plunged to zero.  Somewhere I'd read that a well-known ska band was playing at Bread & Roses this weekend.

I had seen the band - Maroon Town - ages ago, maybe late 80s, and always wanted to see them again. Last night in Clapham Manor Street I realised why.

Even tuning up the band were capable of sending the electric charge down your spine, when suddenly a rocksteady guitar chop meets a bass-line on the way down, and a drum kicks in at exactly the right wrong moment.

For a while there were more musicians on stage (nine) than audience, or so it seemed - but  there was a good last-minute influx, looked like some good old original skins were there, pork-pie hat identified, buzz cut boys now in the mid to late, but still swearing well.

Clear as hell this band are going to demand a party, and there's no way they'll be playing much if people don't move. People moved all right, alright, they need not have worried.

People were there to dance. There were the loyal fans, the friends and family, all dancing beautifully. And lots of young Europeans, all dancing lustily.

Can't remember much - the music was like the blood in your veins, pulsing very healthily. There was a ska version of the Herbie Hancock standard Chameleon which had tears streaming down my face (why? cos this was the tune my daughter chose for her GCSE dance piece).

Though, to be honest, it takes very little to get my tear ducts over-producing these days.

That and four pints of London pride.

I loved their opening number, Boom! Ska! and I loved their Afro-Cuban-Latino stuff as well. And then they did one of their classics, I think it's Average Man - anyway, by then all inhibition had flown, and ill-advised feet were lifting far off the floor, knees angling away, head down, fingers pointing down, oh gawd.

Sorry, anyone I bumped into, anyone whose enjoyment of this evening was lessened by the spectacle of an aged string-driven animated skanking scarecrow.

Thanks, anyway, to Bread and Roses and the whole Maroon Town community.

And if you'd like to check out some of their music, here's a good place to start: Average Man.

And here's another one.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

A half-century of cutting hair in SW9 – Andy, the barber of Landor Road, tells his story

After a couple of weeks of increasingly depressing news about the future of Lambeth's most valuable branch libraries, what a massive relief it is to listen to sanity - the voice of the best mens' hairdresser in all the important SW postcodes.

After 50 years of cutting the hair of just about every bloke in the Clapham
North and Stockwell (west) areas, as well as Ferndale Road, west Brixton
 and much further afield, Andy the barber  of Landor Road is retiring.  Now,
thanks to a great local broadcaster, we can listen to Andy in perpetuity.
Yep, I'm off: this is about one of my favourite subjects. Andy, the legendary Greek Cypriot barber of Landor Road, who is on the verge of retiring, has been interviewed by another legend - the SW8 broadcaster, Daniel Ruiz Tison, famous for his ResonanceFM show amongst much else.

The first part of this free-ranging conversation with Andy and many of his customers, is available now.

It's an audio treat for anyone with any interest whatsoever in this area, or in the social history of London, or in the business of cutting hair, or in being human…

Listening to this just now, it was almost as if I was in the chair, I could almost hear the buzzing of the clippers. I could almost feel that sense of relief I always get as the grizzly overgrown bits of my wayward barnet are expertly harvested. The movements so swift and precise, you hardly realise it's happening.

And Andy holding forth, on whatever topic took his fancy. Not just football and Chelsea's latest disasters. Not just the cost of keeping an old Mercedes on the road. Not just the joys and pains of gardening and keeping an allotment, not just the craziness of local government bureaucracy.

 Last time, it was the good sense the ancient Greeks had to have a dozen gods (one for everything that mattered, and one left over for anything else).

Soon, this brilliant bit of online radio, or podcasting, or whatever you call it - will be all we have left to remind us of the hours we spent at Andy's barbershop on Landor Road.

Because, as is by now known across the nation, Andy is really and truly about to retire, and go back to live in his native Cyprus. This is what he has told me for years, and this time I know it is really happening.

Catch the programme now, and if you live within a day or two's travelling distance of Landor Road (Clapham North or Brixton or Stockwell tube stations, 322 bus) and need a haircut, well, Andy is your man.

Council unmoved by 10,000 signature library petitions: welcome to local democracy, Lambeth style

All in vain? Two weeks of protests, petitioning, marches and meetings
and have failed to sway Lambeth councillors, who last night voted
through proposals to convert "at least two" libraries into bookish gyms
So, it was to be a climax. A full meeting of the council of the London Borough of Lambeth, with its plans for the future of the borough's library service on the agenda.

The opponents of the proposals were there to submit petitions with 10,000 plus signatures from Lambeth residents, none of whom want their local libraries to be closed or turned into gyms. How could this not make a seismic impact on the assembled councillors who witnessed it?

Well, as we all very rapidly learned, it was actually very easy for the councillors to take no notice of the public (oh, the ones who pay tax and vote) and to carry on just as if they were in some private club, with a few oiks pressing their noses up against the windows.

In fact we were in Elmgreen School in Tulse hill. A smart new building, very light and spacious, with a hall big enough, it seems for 1,000 school kids. But tonight it is arranged so that the public gallery is squeezed up against one wall. The Mayor of Lambeth and the officers are up on the stage, the councillors arranged in some sort of occult crop circles below, with the golden mace as a focal point.

All this ceremony and symbolism does have a good purpose - it's to remind the elect that they are no longer just themselves, but representatives of their electorate. They have been granted power, but it is entirely dependent on the trust of th epeople who voted for them.

Sorry. You can tell it is many decades since I last attended a full council meeting…and it is with renewed respect for local news reporters that I continue this personal account of my disappointment as a witness of Lambeth Council on the 18th November, 2015.

A good local reporter has to deal with this quasi-masonic ritualistic stuff all the time. They know how to decode some of the more runic exchanges, and how and when to challenge when something needs challenging. And, talking of good local reporters - read the Crystal Palace News service account of last night's proceedings.

As for the rest of us - well, there's heckling, and silent protest.

First up, however, was a "debate" on the refugee crisis, with input from invited experts - the  South London Refugee Association and the Calais Action group.  Lip service was paid, of course it was, to their excellent work, and to Lambeth's pledge to house 10 refugee families. A powerful address came from Unjum Mirza, a Brixton-based tube driver, a child of refugee parents, who invited councillors to join him on his next trip to experience the reality of the Calais refugee camps.

Other deputations made their cases, and were politely ushered away with soft reassurances that their  concerns had been noted.

Then came the Save Lambeth Libraries deputation. Its chair, Laura Swaffield, presented the case against the proposed changes with such eloquence and controlled passion that you felt certain that heads, and hearts and minds of the assembled council would surely be turned.

How could they not see that everything that is so good about public libraries in Lambeth has been built up over decades by professional and dedicated library staff working within their communities, and that  at least half of this is about to be swept away?

Sadly, the answer was: very easily. Because here we are in a separate bubble world, a council chamber, even though a temporary one - it's not the real world.

And so, for all the passion and the truths, the heckling and the placards and the signatures, the councillors were unmoved.

Yes, welcome to local democracy, London style, 2015 style. This was Alice in Wonderland meets Oliver Twist. We in the public gallery were Oliver, being told very clearly by the Red or Blue or even Orange Queen that we must not on any account ask for "More!" Or even,  for what we had already.

We did our bit of chanting and holding up of placards; it was a bit like being at a pantomime. And the mayor smiled for a while and then hh-hmmd a bit and things went back to normal.

In the background, Mad Hatters, Tweedles Dum and Dee and other upside-down characters, nodded away. It was clear that really we did not count for very much at all.

Given the effort involved in collecting those 10,000 plus signatures so deftly brushed aside by the architect of the  Culture 2020 libraries plan, Cllr Jane Edbrooke, it's surprising anger wasn't even more strongly expressed.

But this evening, red and blue were inverted. The Labour council made a good shot at putting forward a version of John Major-era Tory ideas about libraries being marvellous things, but just not possible any more. The Tory opposition were for a while sounding like Atlee-era socialists: libraries are a vital part of democracy. That £4million  is "a drop in the ocean!" Of course we can afford them, especially as our economy is doing so splendidly and we have a such a marvellously generous government!

Yes, you can see why there was a certain discomfort on the public benches. It got to the point where we were applauding the tall tory and booing Labour councillors. This cannot be right!

It was not right. And it got more and more wrong. Shouts of "Shame on you" greeted the rushed voting, which saw the anti-library cuts motion brushed into the waste bin.

Should we have been reassured that at least this council is not going to let Boris Johnson and his pals push on with the expensive and annoying Garden Bridge project, because a least Lambeth has the unique power to stop it, at least from the south bank perspective?

Well, I'd love to know. Because Lambeth leader Lib Peck's response was so fast and so opaque…that I have not the faintest idea whether her answer was yes, no or something much ruder.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Listen up! This is why libraries are so important in Lambeth...

The ongoing campaign to save all ten public libraries in the Borough of Lambeth, against the schemes of an aloof and unresponsive council has prompted a great deal of debate around here.

Some people wonder why we get so passionate about these places. They ask, with local authorities facing truly savage budget cuts, isn't it more important for the "core" services of housing and public health, social services and education to be safeguarded?

Thing is, for many of us, libraries are – and always have been – core services. We've depended on them for access to information, for advice, for education. For books, magazines, and archives.  Now the roles of libraries are much wider - almost by default they have become a vital part of the social fabric of communities, especially communities like Lambeth's.

If you need to be convinced, listen to the latest episode of the brilliant ResonanceFM radio show, Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available. In his latest show, he explains how the threatened libraries of Lambeth are right at the heart of his community in Stockwell. He makes the point much better than I ever could: you can also listen to it via iTunes,  here.

Daniel's bit about libraries comes towards the end of the 30 minute show, which as usual is a delightful, hilarious and occasionally surreal auditory excursion through the streets of SW8 and beyond. This week touching on the joys and horrors of municipal swimming pools in winter, the perennial problems of men's winter outerwear, Close Encounters on Stockwell Road, the Nine Elms development, cafe life, and Vauxhall's place in TV drama. Oh and much more. Just be careful you don't become an addict like I have.

Anyway, back to the matter of the moment (especially as Brixton Buzz reports that all libraries have closed today due to staff staging a protest walkout, all strength to them!)

Yeah, just to say, public libraries have always been about more than books, and in the past decades, library staff have worked wonders to transform their old buildings into real playgrounds of the imagination for children, into learning zones for people with disabilities and access problems of various types; places where adult literacy classes can be held, and where less formal learning of IT and language skills is happening all the time.

Check the noticeboards of any Lambeth library to see the amazing range of activities and meetings and entertainments that are held every single day.

But now, with the decline of the old-style (i.e. cheap and cheerful) local pubs and the replacement of cheap cafes with expensive  coffee houses, libraries are one of the last refuges for the lonely, the unemployed, the homeless, the skint, the wanderer, young or old, looking for a bit a warmth and someone to return a smile.

This is why they must not close branch libraries: the bigger town centre libraries they say are safe are already over-subscribed. I use the new Clapham Library on the High Street. It's an interesting place which I've described elsewhere. It's doing well providing space for children's activities, and study space used mainly by school and college students doing coursework or revising for exams.  But it's often hard to find a seat.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Lambeth's library-loving residents get angry at extraordinary Carnegie Library meeting

Herne Hill's Carnegie Library packed with angry residents for a meeting to
discuss ways of resisting Lambeth's weird 'bookish gym' scheme
A meeting at Herne Hill's threatened Carnegie Library on Monday (November 17) evening sent out a loud, clear message to the council which is planning to close or re-purpose half of the borough's ten public libraries. The message was simply: "no!"

The library was packed. It was standing room only. The Lambeth library-using demographic was thoroughly represented, and the crowd, cheerful to begin with, grew increasingly angry as the absurdities of the council scheme, and the real danger of the loss of at least three treasured libraries - were examined in forensic detail by members of the Friends of Carnegie Library, by a Lambeth Unison rep, and by many, many speakers from the floor.

What became clear was that the Lambeth plan to hand three libraries - Carnegie, Tate South Lambeth and the Minet - over to GLL - were not merely unpopular and almost universally derided as "bonkers".

They were also strangely thin on detail - fuelling suspicion that there's a hidden agenda here, and that a real long-term aim could be to flog off some of the buildings (but not until the next local elections are safely in the past, that is post-May 2018).

Such speculation was based on some good digging-up of intelligence:  a land registry map of the Minet Library, for example, showed how it was not yet ripe for the property-development plucking, as there are two adjacent residential properties with windows overlooking the site.

Then there was the matter of the formation of a "shadow trust" to run the new "Healthy Living Centres".  As the same names of the same councillors cropped up time again, it seemed this was again just a hastily-formulated attempt to formalise the scheme. "Anyone can set up a trust. You just download a form from the Charities Commission, and fill it in."

A degree of scepticism was also noted regarding Lambeth's rejection of the librarians' own proposals to save all ten libraries. Their neat plan to save the requisite cash was rejected for lack of "a proper business plan".

We were then shown the business plan submitted by GLL: looked like one and half sheets of hasty Microsoft Word processing. No detailed financial breakdown.  The vagueness of it all - for example, the estimated cost of £1 million per library for conversion into a gym - was perplexing. Normally these planning and property developer deals are very efficiently cloaked in acres of luxuriant verbiage, charts, diagrams, spreadsheets, computer animations, and what have you.

One thing that is clear is that running gyms and leisure centres seems to be a damn good way of minting money. Apparently GLL, the Greenwich Leisure group that has been picked for this plum job, has been embarrassed by the money it has made from running Lambeth's recreation centres, and has generously decided to reinvest a million or so into these new bookish gyms.

Other speakers noted the importance of Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey's  referral of the Lambeth library scheme for judicial review. This, as one expert member of the audience pointed out, could be the real scheme-breaker, as Lambeth would have to prove they were not failing in their public duty to provide library services, and to give detailed reasons why they appointed GLL, and whether all due legal processes had been adhered to in deciding to hand public buildings over to a private concern.

The Friends of Carnegie Library were themselves consulting lawyers on the legality of the proposals.

As for the morality of the proposals - well, you don't need a Pope or Archbishop to tell you that the idea of an elected council deciding to dispose of properties that were donated to their local communities by individuals (Carnegie, Tate, William Minet) on strict conditions they should remain as community assets - is not merely wrong.

It is actually - if you'll excuse an outbreak of upper-case - BORDERLINE FREAKING CRIMINAL!

This meeting began at 7pm: by 8pm, when it should have ended, it was just hotting up.

People were volunteering, lists were being drawn up of skills, contacts. A local resident who'd run public consultations on a new park in New York offered to help with drawing up a business plan. A man from Wandsworth Libraries gave an account of their similar struggle two years ago, and how they'd emerged with some success - but only by keeping totally united.

By 8.30, people were arguing the merits of  a sleep-in at the Carnegie, should our worst fears be realised,  on April 1 2016.

The spirit of 68, or was it  76, or 81, or 89 (do I mean 1989 or 1789? I mean both!) was in the air. It was a brilliant meeting.

The next one is Wednesday 18th, at 6.30 at the Elmgreen School in Tulse Hill.

This is a full council meeting: The Friends of Carnegie and the Save Lambeth Libraries campaign will be handing in their petitions, all of which will have sufficient signatories to ensure the campaigns have the right to send deputations to the meeting. So it will be a crucial one.

PS: People wondering why the council is holding its big meetings in schools were reminded that the main council chamber in Brixton is currently closed. The old Town Hall on the corner of Acre Lane is being redeveloped, and the council is building a new town hall further up Brixton Hill. At some expense. A bit more than the cost of keeping these libraries going….? No, surely not.

Monday, 16 November 2015

A lovely new library with lots of books and no PE equipment has opened…in Camberwell

 So new they haven't finished the paving yet: Camberwell Library is in the London Borough of Southwark, but only about 100 yards from the border with Lambeth, where libraries face closure or conversion into gyms
So new they haven't finished the paving yet: Camberwell Library is in the London Borough of Southwark, but only
about 100 yards from the border with Lambeth, where libraries face closure or conversion into gyms

Talk about greener grass and fences and so on, but while Lambeth's library-loving residents are battling a council plan to turn three of their libraries into gyms, so a brand new library with some 27,000 real books and other media is opened just a few yards from the borough's border, in lovely Camberwell.

The new Camberwell library was opened on November 4, treating residents to an elegant, light-filled, dedicated  building on the east side of Camberwell Green. There are no expensive flats above, no mini-supermarket embedded within the building.

It's not a showy statement building like Peckham library just down the road - an award-winning design by architect Will Alsop, built in 1999 – but it doesn't need to be. It's a pleasing, warm, functional space filled with books on shelves, computers on desks, and people using them.

Cross the road, walk up Denmark Hill, and you'll soon get to Herne Hill's Carnegie Library which is one of the three earmarked for changing into  "Healthy Living Centres". But the Carnegie is in Lambeth. Camberwell, like Peckham, is in the borough of Southwark.

A week ago, 600 of Lambeth residents marched from Brixton to the Tate South Lambeth library to express their dislike of these plans. Especially to the councillor behind the scheme, one Jane Eddington, who was inside the TSL Library at the time the demo arrived. But she was not willing to meet them, nor to discuss things further - as has been pretty much the case throughout. Lambeth seems determined to press on with these salt-rubbing-into-wound style cuts regardless of what its council-tax-paying, vote-casting, library-loving residents think.

So what is Southwark doing that Lambeth isn't? How can it build new libraries while Lambeth wants to close beautiful and much loved gems of the public library movement?

 Is Southwark taxing its residents more? Is it cutting other services more deeply? Is it running up a huge debt? It's not actually doing any of these things to any significant extent. Both boroughs are under heavy  central government pressure to reduce spending.

The former Camberwell Library occupied two old shops, where it had been
since a much grander old building was destroyed by bombs during
the London blitz.
And yet, Southwark currently has 12 public libraries compared to Lambeth's 10, five of which are likely to close or be turned into gyms. Both boroughs have more than the the average social deprivation. But Southwark has a slightly smaller population than Lambeth (288,000 against 303,000) and is also slightly poorer.

Both boroughs are Labour controlled, though both have had Lib Dem coalitions in the past.  Southwark has more surviving council housing (in fact it has the highest amount of all London boroughs) but both boroughs have been criticised for selling off prime sites to private developers.

They both have similar annual budgets of around £320million. They even look like mirror images of each other on a map.

But in terms of priorities, it seems they are as different as possible. Or am I missing something?

Next step: There's a public meeting on the Carnegie Library's future at 7pm tonight, 16th November, details here.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Clapham: it looks so much nicer when you can't see it properly….

Tired of words for the moment. Last week there were two or three foggy mornings. I got my arse in gear and took some misty autumnal shots of my regular routes (yes I am like a rat, I have runs, well-worn paths through the undergrowth….)

Here's what I saw (and better still, what I didn't see…)

foggy morning runners on clapham common north side, london sw4

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Another cyclist hospitalised: the inevitable cost of 21st century construction techniques in a 19th century city

Cycling down the Wandsworth Road this morning, the sound of helicopter blades close overhead, then the sight of the red air-ambulance setting down in Larkhall Park, and then all the blue lights flashing further down the road.

Take a detour, across to Stockwell, dreading to read the online headlines.

Reading the online headlines an hour later at work: on the Evening Standard site, Wandsworth Road crash: cyclist trapped under cement truck.

It happened at 8.30am, and one of the witnesses said precisely what I was feeling: "When I saw the aftermath, I thought 'oh no, not again'".

As pointed out elsewhere on this blog, Wandsworth Road beyond this junction has in effect become part of the Nine Elms building site. One lane is closed, and huge trucks line up to have their cargo hauled off by cranes and bolted to the new skyscrapers which are rapidly blocking out daylight from this part of the world.

Traffic coming west along the Wandsworth road includes empty cement trucks, rushing back to Battersea for a refill at the Lafarge depot in Silverthorne Road. At the Lansdowne Road junction they meet diverted eastbound traffic, which is nearly always snarled up. Cyclists try to dodge round. The lights have not caught up with the roadworks. Horns blare.

Cars, buses and vans trying to get to Vauxhall are infesting the backstreets around Lansdowne and Clapham Roads, mixing with the existing school run traffic, cyclists, pedestrians…it is just another south London transport nightmare. But a particularly dangerous one, as today's accident makes all too clear.

This disruption, this violence, and all the attendant pollution, should come at a very high cost indeed to the developers who will be the main ones to profit from the Nine Elms development.

Maybe they could be forced to become the new reluctant  Carnegies, and pay to maintain Lambeth's ten libraries.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Black pudding, the after-life and the best barber in south-west London: Daniel Ruiz Tison is still available, thanks be

Dear reader (s) (in the hope that there's more than one of you),

Please let me draw your attention to the latest episode of a south London radio series which is a bitter-sweet classic of an as yet not fully-defined genre.

It's Daniel Ruiz Tison Is Available, Episode One Hundred and Two, first broadcast on ResonanceFM on Monday 10 November 2015, but now available in perpetuity (until hell freezeth over) as a podcast from iTunes via Daniel's own website.

Unforgivably I was not aware of his series until he stumbled across a piece I'd written about the the best men's haircutter in all of the south-west London postcodes, Andy's of Landor Road. He has now interviewed Andy – who sadly for us, is on the verge of retirement – for a special podcast which is expected go live very soon.

Meanwhile I am struggling to find time to catch up with his back-catalgoue, as well as keeping up with the weekly broadcasts.

Last night's was another classic, and it had me doing that thing which I don't really do anymore: laughing out loud in private.

I was laughing inwardly, with only my cheap Phillips headphones for company, most of the time.  About the hipster coffee shop somewhere in north-east London. About Solo Electric in Clapham High Street in the 1980s, and everyone else, failing to get Daniel's name right.  About the English and languages.  About the wearing of winter coats. Gingevitis.

About what we're going to find in heaven when we die, assuming we get there. Free music lessons, apparently, on a synthesiser. So not as good as Lambeth back in 1983 then, when you could get free lessons on a range of musical instruments, if you were unemployed.

Honestly, I don't laugh easily, but as soon as the show starts, I am primed. Like all great commentators on our times, he has his obsessions. He has certain phrases which, in his voice, open up great chasms of absurdity. As soon as 'Attempts on the gate' are mentioned, I get this surreal image in my head, and…I laugh inwardly.

It was when he got the bit where he overhears a Portuguese trucker speaking Spanish in a South Lambeth Road Portuguese cafe that triggered the explosion of hysteria.

Daniel repeated some of overheard Spanish dialogue, which was all about the full English breakfast they had just been served. Seems they were wondering why it included hash browns but not black pudding.

He then translated the punchline: "Black pudding is nice. Anything with blood is nice."

Reader, believe me, I woke the sleeping bankers up and down this wide and tree-lined Clapham street.

But like I said it's bitter-sweet. You must also listen to this to get the latest news on Stockwell - on Brenda's fruit and veg stall,  or to be reminded of Jack Cornelius, the wrestler of Stockwell who ran a cafe which is now the Sainsburys local. Or the graffiti about Jazzman of Battersea.  I remember that graffiti, I also remember thinking it must have been about George Shearing…but somehow Shearing and graffiti don't seem to mix.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Lambeth Libraries demo: true grassroots protest flourishes in the rain

Speakers at Brixton Library at 11am promised us there'd be sunshine when we got to the Tate South Lambeth Library in that bit of the borough known as Little Portugual.

The 600-strong march stretched half-way down Stockwell
Road,  en route for South Lambeth
Their words fired people up wonderfully, making the mile or two's march seem like nothing.  The guy who spoke about the importance of libraries for disabled people was especially good, as was the Green Party councillor for Streatham St Leonards, Scott Ainslie, who said he wouldn't've been here today but for the Edinburgh public libraries that opened his eyes to education and history and politics, back in his youth.

So many of us could have told similar stories. I was bowled over by the warmth of this crowd, and have to thank the lovely team from Upper Norwood Library for the loan of their orange "I love libraries" umbrella. (I will get it back to you soon, promise!)

 They also had a banner, "A library saved my life" which I would happily have carried, but it was definitely a two-person affair.

Among plenty of imaginative banners and placards, the prize must go to the polystyrene tombstone proclaiming, RIP Carnegie Library, 1906 - 2016". It was even entwined with ivy.

This guy led some great chants, wish I could remember all
the words...
Great also that library staff from Barnet (where a strike is planned) and Wandsworth joined the demo.

The organisers reckoned about 600 people marched, and that seems a fair estimate. The police are saying about 100. Judging from photos, it was certainly more than that.

Whatever the true figure, it was more than enough to make an impact, stretching half-way down Stockwell Road. There was plenty of encouragement from the pavements and from passing cars and vans. Even a cabbie tooted his approval.

The crowd was cheerful and the chanting - while not the angriest I've heard - occasionally had some bite. I mean, we're library lovers, much more used to keeping quiet…instead of yelling in unison (and with Unsion at times), the following:

"No ifs,  no buts, no more Lambeth Library Cuts!"

"What do we want?"


"When do we want them?"


And many other much better ones whose words I have already lost….

In fact it was raining even harder in SW8 than it had been in SW2. But it didn't matter a jot. This was a real grassroots protest and as everyone knows, grass thrives on rain.

Almost the end of the road: after a warm welcome from Tate South Lambeth Library staff,  three young marchers went inside to hand a petition over to councillors, who were holding their surgeries.

So, the Lambeth councillors inside failed to come out into the rain to meet us (see more on this in the comments section of Brixton Buzz story).  Sad but not surprising. The time will come, maybe next Tuesday...

The next step: on Tuesday 10 November, there's a public meeting 6.30 pm at the Lilian Bayliss School, 323 Kennington Lane. It's a chance to question elected representatives on the library policy, so should not be missed!