About Me

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

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

An old punk and a new determination to come to terms with my neighbourhood

Main point of last post was to remind myself that, yes, truly, this thing called  the self was back in SW London, the fourth part of.

Point was rammed home on a chance listening to an interview with a man quite well-known to that London generation who were young in  1976, and even in 1974.

Man in question is one Paul Gorman,  a writer and generally well-grounded navigator of London's music scene in those deeply boggy years, 1974-78.  I always imagine he was involved all over place with likes of McLaren (the clothes and bands one) and the nameless fashion lady, the Pistols and the Clash, travelling with them on their various escapades, and other things like magazines. He was always up there at the front, on stage eve, while most of us shuffled around in the shadows.

Well, point being, this interview began with that sort of strange revelation - one that I already knew, and which still surprised. The interviewer (Robert Elms, of course - this is the podcast version of a 'Listed Londoner" interview from the BBC Radio London show) was most struck by how Gorman's latest work, a map of punk London, focused on three areas - Chelsea, Soho and Notting Hill. All west of centre. "That would't happen now…" No it wouldn't. Probably not.

The next revolution in youth culture or any sort of culture will not come from west London, nor east London. Nor London, I fear. But that's another parallel blog…..

Anyway, the thing that struck me harder was Gorman's answer to first question, what was his favourite area? The answer was a well-sprung surprise: Ealing.  It wasn't Clapham - although he did admit he had lived in this area for about 30 years, having  become "transpontine" in the early 80s…same time I did in fact. Until about four years ago, when he wisely moved back north and west.

So, odd. Not very odd, just personally odd. I've never read any of his books but I will, I liked the sound of the guy, he knew so much about things that matter to me, and he was both perceptive and modest.

I loved the way he heaped praise on the queen of suburbs, and reminded me of so many of my own childhood treks across the city, from deep south to Camborne Avenue, W13, where my old gran and my aunt lived with their corgis.

I also liked how underwhelmed he was about  Shoreditch etc ("ridiculous") while at the same time agreeing it had plenty of good things going on.

Strange that we lived in the same post-code for so long…and I do remember another acquaintance asking me, as she poured out more wine, if I knew Paul Gorman, the one from that Clash film*, who lived in Clapham?

Of course I didn't. He could have lived next door to me and listened to the same music at the same time and shopped at the same supermarket, we might have sat next to each other on the tube or met in the same evening classes in Elms Road (OK, maybe not, and btw that's Elms Rd Adult Education centre, rip, nothing to do with the erstwhile Blitz Kid), and I still might not have known him at all!

Turns out, if you read his very good blog, he was surrounded by the illuminati of the time. I knew McLaren lived in Clapham for a while, with Westwood I think, but how come I didn't realise Charlie Gillett also lived here? I became a Gillett devotee: he was that other eminence of BBC Radio, who replaced John Peel in my affections once the latter became a TOTP character. Gillett was on BBC Radio London, or GLR as it was for a while, as well as World Service. The quality channels. Late night shows featuring brilliant mix-ups of African, Jamaican, Cuban, rare groove, funk, reggae, punk, indie….you name it. This was I first heard Blue Canary by the weirdly wonderful Japanese duo, Frank Chickens, but also (I think) Suicide, Laurie Anderson and Courtney Pine.

His book - the Sound of the City - taught me most of what I know about the roots of pop.  And his GLR programmes formed my music tastes from about 1979 onwards to the late 80s…I think. He definitely got me listening to African music, beyond the Fela Kuti and Osibisa stuff I was already into. I especially remember Dudu Pukwana and District Six and the Indestructible Beat of Soweto, as well as a lot of Latin stuff, lots of reggae, jazz, the Last Poets, the beginnings of hip-hop, soca, Cuban music, and on…and on.

 I remember meeting Gillett in the middle of an edgy carnival Sunday in about 1986 and trying to tell him how much I owed him…he said something nice and melted into the crowd.

I had no idea he was living in the same borough…apparently.

Anyway…all this is by the way of saying, well it would seem I am back here now and probably for good. So it is always good to find retrospective insights into the area, and to realise that it really did have a bohemian edge, not so long ago…Just don't look too hard now.


Hats off to Mr Gorman, late of this parish, and now proud resident of the Queen of the Suburbs.

 Punk London: In The City 1975-78, Paul Gorman in collaboration with Herb Lester Associates.
Copies of the map are available at £6 each from:

* Of course my memory (or my friend) was wrong. It wasn't Gorman who was in "that" Clash film (Rude Boy) but another character out of that blurry punk past, Ray Gange. A very different kettle of fish….? Or maybe not so different…he's still kicking as well, it seems. Read this interview, it's excellent. I have no idea if Gange ever lived in Clapham (why should he have? He seems to suggest a Brixton childhood, though) ...but wouldn't it be odd if he had?

Monday, 22 February 2016

Failed escape attempts: the flight south, parts one and two

I'll get up and fly away…well I did, or
so I thought. But few weeks later I was
back again. Notice southern England
under snow in the early hours of Sunday
17 January
They say you'll never appreciate where you live until you've spent some time living somewhere very different.

On Sunday I got back home to London after six weeks away: not long, by any standards, but still long enough to get out of routines, to forget the taste of the water and weight of the air.

Until very recently I loved living in London. Driving back from the east each weekend for years, there was always that moment where you reach a crest of a hill on the M11, just before the M25 junction, and there was the city in all is monstrous, smoggy, sparkling glory.

And then it changed. Throughout that long, dark, wet, bloody, dirty November and December, at least twice a day, I was feeling the urge to get the hell out of this terrible cauldron. London and its demented, semi-criminal property racketeering business, driven by infusions or transfusions of dirty money from the crooks and dictators and torturers of five continents, is the same old whore as ever. It opens its legs wide to these super-rich, the oligarchs and the war-lords, now so comfortably ensconced in their Canary Wharf towers or their Kensington multi-storey underground leisure centres and Ferrari parks.

London was always the world's biggest whore, we always knew that. No questions, no comeback, nothing to answer. Just pay up and enjoy, however stupid, cruel, gross, or perverted you happen to be. As long as you have the cash.

So, not having any of that cash myself, I was looking for other ways to escape. I took myself to Hastings for a weekend and found what seemed to be like a small sliver of London bohemia from about 30 years ago, getting on with their lives. There was a DIY classic cinema club in an old church hall, where they were showing a beautiful old Bergman film (Smiles of a Summer Night), with a ticket and a small bottle of local ale coming to a fiver or so.

Fishermen's huts in Hastings, Sussex
The old fishermen's huts at the set end of Hastings, Sussex.
Just to the right is a brand new Jerwood Art Gallery, and the
area around is already well known as Stoke Newington-by-Sea
But this was Hastings: an old Sussex fishing town colonised by people seeking refuge from London for many reasons…old age, money, fear, dislike of the modern world...

But it's as far as you can get from a Frinton or a Bognor or a Bournemouth. The built-in knee jerk suspicion of outsiders of say a Clacton-on-Sea does not seem to be present here.

It's an interesting place, full of lovely people who look you in the eye and see, yes, another potential fugitive...but like Brighton rock its essence is printed throughout in red sugar: saucy old english seaside town. Naughty, with a bit of a history of rebellion.

On the other hand, much of it is as drab and grotty as any south east London suburb and colder to boot. And it is not far enough from London; the south suburban mindset is already there.

At around the same time I applied for a teacher training placement in Spain, and after an intense group interview day in London, I was offered a place.

It all happened so quickly. Early in January I packed a big suitcase, put down plenty of buckets in my flat to collect water from the leaking roof, and took off for the first part of this experience….not Spain, but a week's pre-placement training at an encampment in Bucks which seemed like some sort of penal colony.

I did my month and it changed me a bit. But is also reinforced a deep-seated feeling which I wish I could overcome - that, however much I recognise the glories of the southern European lifestyle, the superiority of their way of living, how their priorities are so much more sensible and human….That, even experiencing, on an hourly basis, how very much more civilised life is there…that even so,  I want to get back to this scurrilous dishonest pretentious hypocritical country full of arrogance, violence, deceit, ugliness, bad food and expensive wine…why? Why?

Because I am as ugly, arrogant, immoral, dirty, stupid, violent, greedy, venal, corrupt, lazy….as the next person, Actually, much worse than all the rest.

And England - specifically, a scruffy south London suburb - is the only place that seems right,  where I fit in, sort of, by not fitting in. I become just another member of its sorry and cheerfully disgraceful populace. I can disappear  here and chuckle to myself in Asda without anyone thinking I'm any weirder than the next nutter.

SO here I am, no longer inflicting myself on the good people of Valencia. Like it or lump it, I am back.
Besides, if I stayed in Spain with good red wine available for under 2€ a bottle…I'd be dead in a year.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

If Spain can afford beautiful public libraries like this one….why can't Lambeth?

This is the children's library - about one eighth
of the total floorspace of the splendid
Biblioteca di Gandia

Gandia, at the southern end of the Spanish province of 
Valencia, is not only the home of the infamous Borja 
family of popes and one saint, it is also where you find 
the best paella in Spain…and one of the best public 
libraries it has ever been my privilege to visit.
Apologies for long silence on this here blog thing. Have been holed up in a quiet and lovely Spanish city, an hour's train ride from the big bad port city of Valencia.

The small city in question is Gandía, and despite being the birthplace of the Borgias (or Borjas, as I have now learned to called them, yes they of the lurid 2011 TV drama starring Jeremy Irons etc), it's an immensely civilised place - at least in the winter, before the tourist hordes arrive.

I'm here to teach English, on a brief training placement paid for by that magnificent institution, the European Union, via an even more admirable, erudite and loveable body known as Erasmus. It's not a holiday: I teach 21 hours a week, in a Catholic secondary school, with classes of up to 40 13 to 18-year old kids. They're very noisy, sometimes a bit cheeky, but essentially they are delightful. It's absolutely worth the sweat we all put into it, on average two hours' prep per one hour teaching.

There's a very welcome lack of that oh yeah teenage "attitude" that I've seen so much of in the UK. Most of these kids are more interested in learning English than in seeming cool. But then to them English (or at least American) is cool, so we have an advantage.

Beautiful, spacious, cool, clean and stuffed with books and
resources and lots of helpful staff. A public library,  Spanish style,
helping to equip its citizens for a tough century ahead.
So, it's not exactly the EU gravy train I'd imagined. The work is exhausting, the accommodation is paid for but basic. I am unpaid but have a subsistence allowance, which covers most of the food and drink and travel.  Food and drink from the local Mas Y Mas supermarket is excellent and excellent value, compared with Tesco - or even Brixton market.

And you can get a good coffee or beer or glass of wine plus a massive tortilla sandwich in any bar, spend an hour using their wi-fi,  and come away with plenty of change form a five euro note.  Plus a smile and as much conversation as you can manage.

If you're lucky, like I was, you might fall into conversation with a photographer who retired here after half a century of astonishing, world changing photojournalism. This guy was German: he fell in love with this area thirty years ago, after a career working in South Africa, photographing Mandela and the ANC.

He also enjoys the café culture, where the unemployed, the migrant, the teachers, the bankers, the ex-pats, the students, aspiring writers, artists,  and the wealthy all meet to drink and talk in the same place.  The local cafe. Good coffee and good food: a simple human right. No-one here would dream of paying more than a euro (75p) for an espresso. They'd laugh at Costa Coffee. A simple human right.

Like a good library.

Where can you do that in so-called sophisticated, metropolitan, multi-cultural London? Here, they split off into cliques and clubs and age-groups. Horrible. So, where in London is my ideal Spanish café?

Tell me, tell, please tell me. And this is provincial Spain.

The apartment looks like it was abandoned in 1971, and even then it was badly in need of new plumbing. There's no internet, a big problem for someone used to doing all my lesson planning online.

So every night, I go out in search of wi-fi, and have visited many interesting and a fair few rowdy bars in this quest. Which brings me to the main point of this entry.

Complaining about this lack of connectivity in the absurdly small staffroom (there'd be a teacher riot if this was in a British school), my charming, always helpful mentor suggest I might try the local Biblioteca.

It's three minutes walk from the school, housed in a beautiful medieval building in a sun-drenched square complete with impossibly tall palm trees. I walk up to the door; it slides open. To the left is a relaxation area, about the size of the main room at Tate South Lambeth; there are comfortable chairs, tables with computers, racks of magazines and newspapers. To the right through another sliding door is the library proper. I pass the desk. Two staff are there to answer all queries. There's a big children's library, and beyond that a courtyard with orange trees, and a small cloister with  and a pemrnanet display of local historical photographs. I begin to learn a bit about Gandia's important role in the SPanish Civil War (this whole region was one of the most strongly anti-Fascist areas , and it was singled out by Franco for some particularly vile treatment.

I wander into the cafe for a cortado and a boccadillo, fresh chewy bread filled with newly-made, warm tortilla. Well stuffed, I go back to the main desk to ask about wi-fi. There's a sign there giving the pass word, and one of the staff points me upstairs. On the first floor is the main adult lending library (again with a floor area about the size of most of Lambeth's branch libraries), as well as a study area
(five groups of four-seater classroom style tables); a computer room (PCs at individual desks lining three walls) and a big music and DVD collection.

On this floor there's also a lecture room.

But there's another floor above housing specialist academic collections, as well as a big collection in the local dialect (Valenciano) and other languages, again with plenty of study space in three rooms.

Above that there's the city archive.

On each floor there are four or five staff at work, working toilets and bathrooms, power points for charging your laptop, stationery to borrow. It's a dream of an ideal public library and it is always busy, but never uncomfortably packed, even though I arrive towards the end of the year's main exam season. Oh yes, because of these exams the library is open up to midnight on weekdays.

As a whole this library brings together aspects of our very own Minet, Carnegie and Tate South Lambeth Libraries in a building that's bigger than the Brixton central library, more spacious, better equipped and better staffed. I'm not sure if the staff here are as knowledgable and friendly as you lot in Lambeth…in fact I doubt if they could be. But they have secure jobs….

Anyway, this place becomes my spiritual home, and I can't help thinking….Gandia is a small city, 80,000 population, and this is not its only library. Most of Spain has been hit far harder by the 2008 economic crash than the UK. I'm not an economist but I see that Spain's GDP per capita is about 29,000 pounds per annum compared with the UK's 44,000 pounds…

…But then we need all that extra cash to buy our ludicrously overpriced apartments, oh and for all the advanced features of our society that, as well know, don't really do much to add to the sum total of human happiness.

So for as long as I can I will enjoy the marble-floored, light, cool spaces of this library. I know that until recently I would have told a SPanish teacher that at least in Lambeth you will find some good local libraries, where you can work, relax, study, meet people. Now, of course, I know that this will not be true for large areas of that borough very soon…unless.

Will be back I hope in time for the next big march. Thanks and love to everyone working so hard to Save Lambeth's wonderful libraries!