About Me

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

Friday, 28 October 2016

The death of another cyclist, this time on Lavender Hill, hits home like nothing before

A young woman cyclist has been killed near this terrible junction where Lavender Hill meets Elspeth Road: three lanes into one as drivers ignore the left and right filters and use it like a drag-race grid to be first at the next set of lights. Re-design
this junction, tame the traffic, ban the six-axle lorries, police it!
Ever 15 minutes or so on Monday, BBC Radio London's traffic news warned drivers to steer clear of the Battersea-Clapham area because of a serious accident, and that part of Lavender Hill had been closed by police for investigations.

Later that day the accident moved from traffic to mainstream news: it became clear that a cyclist had been involved in an incident with a large truck, and that the cyclist had died at the scene.

A bit later the news websites changed the word "cyclist" to "woman".

A woman had died - been killed - in an accident on Lavender Hill involving a truck leased by a company known as British Gypsum, a big supplier of plasterboard and related building products.

Early reports included quotes from a witness who'd seen the truck with a bike stuck under the front wheels, driving along, with the driver apparently not realising anything had happened, until waved down by pedestrians. According to the Evening Standard the lorry eventually pulled up about 150 yards on from the point of impact, which was close to Battersea Police Station.

So why am I writing about this horrific incident? Because I have become so aware of the danger of huge trucks being driven so fast along these roads in recent years, I have just been dreading something like this happening.

-  Because I live less than a half a mile from where this accident happened.

-  Because I am a cyclist and have cycled up and down Lavender Hill most days over the past 35 years.

-  Because I must have past the point where the 32-year old Lucia Ciccioli was killed on Monday, literally thousands of times. I passed there twice today, which is when I took these photos. 

And because on one occasion, I avoided being hit by a lorry by such a small margin that I know I will never forget that sensation of a brush with death.

It was 8 years ago, at a point just after the crossroads with Elspeth Road. In fact, within a few metres from where this poor young woman died. I was cycling west towards Clapham Junction. I pulled away from the junction, where three lanes of traffic suddenly become one. Traffic at this point is competing for position in the queues that always build up on Lavender Hill.

As I crossed the junction a big refuse truck from the company that does the bins for Wandsworth Council stormed up behind me. It wasn't merely close to me, the flange of its white painted front wheel arch touched my right arm. If I had continued on my course I would have been hit by the front wheel of that lorry.

Instead I made myself fall to the left, into a set of railings that have now, I think been removed. At the same time I rammed on the brakes, and sort of collapsed into the railings, without  any serious injury, but bruised and shaking like hell. The truck surged off into the distance, at what seemed like a speed well above the 30mph limit, and the driver clearly hadn't noticed me. I was so freaked out that I started to shout out obscenities at the top of my voice, but no cars or trucks stopped. A couple of pedestrians asked if I was OK and I realised that I was OK.

I was so lucky. A few years later I was knocled off my bike by a car in the same road, near the Queenstown Road junction, broke some bones but I survivied. I am so lucky.

No-one can really help the family and friends of this young woman, killed on her way to work at a new job on a cold south London morning. It is heart-breaking, as is every death on our hopelessly congested roads. But this one, it just got to me, and to many others, it seems.

The only thing we can try to do is to try to convert this tragedy into an energy to change things, to make such tragedies less frequent in future.

And yet, even now, after 10 years or more of efforts to make these gigantic trucks safer for other road users in heavily populated, mixed-traffic areas, these hideous incidents keep on occurring. What can we do, what can those with power do? Well, here are some ideas:
  • Look at the size of these trucks, measure their speeds.
  •  Check out the drivers' delivery schedules and  how they are paid. They have to get through dreadful traffic on congested streets in unreasonably short spaces of time. 
  • Crack down on the firms - and they are often suppliers to the construction industries - who impose these schedules and penalties.
  • Re-route heavy trucks - a vehicle this size shouldn't be on this road. And certainly not at 7.54am rush-hour time. It's absurd. What's the point of the Mayor and those powers if he never uses them?

Today (Thursday), Evening Standard journalist Rosamund Irwin writes about this tragic incident, as a fellow cyclist who also uses this street on her way to work. She's compassionate and, when it comes to trying to stop this carnage, she makes some very sensible suggestions. The Mayor Sadiq Khan's proposals to ban the most dangerous lorries from London streets is fine - but it will takes several years to implement. She wonders if this could be speeded up, perhaps by incentivising haulage companies, perhaps offering a discount on the congestion charge if they modify their trucks.

I understand her point - but it is coming form the wrong direction.  These companies are making huge profits from supplying the vast numbers of building and regeneration and transport projects in central London. We need a much tougher stance to protect the interests of all road users from these thundering, murderous vehicles. I say this as a car driver (and road-tax payer) as well as a pedestrian, cyclist and local resident, sick of the stink and the damage caused by this relentless procession of huge lorries.

What is  such a huge truck allowed on Lavender Hill anyway? Surely the parallel route along the north side of Clapham Common would allow more space and less congestion? But no, strangely, this road - the one you might think would be the logical trunk route towards the A3 at Wandsworth - is the one with traffic calming measures. Is that to do with all those grand houses and posh private schools
that line the edges of the common? There you have the space to widen a road; maybe build a bridge for pedestrians. Get these speeding monstrosities off Lavender Hill!

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

On not leaving London 2: Africa on the Square, photography at Somerset House and some rich coincidences

Bukky Leo and Black Egypt transport a rapt Trafalgar Square crowd - out of cold, rainy London and straight into the heat of
Fela Kuti's Shrine, in the Kalakuta Republic, Lagos, Nigeria. For half and hour. And then the rain came down.
So by the following week, still not having left London, despite the increasingly grim view of the vile Nine Elms - Battersea development from the back of the flat, it would have been plain churlish not to go to Trafalgar Square for the Africa festival.

There are many such events on this square, always free, of course, and always endorsed by the Mayor of London. They include Chinese New Year, the Russian spring lenten festival, Maslenitsa, Diwali and so on. They are generally heavily sponsored by big corporate interests and the Tourism ministries of relevant countries, and often as a result a bit bland and worthy. Plus the square itself always struck me as one of the bleakest and least encouraging of communal meeting places of any major city I've ever visited.

But remember we now have a new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. This event is part of the annual educational exercise, Black History Month. It does have a big sponsor - Air France, but the media sponsor is The Voice newspaper. And if anyone can transform an awkward,  grey, ex-triumphalist colonial space into something good, it must surely be Africans.

And by god they did, from the bright colours of the different stalls and pop-up stands selling food, fashion, artefacts, books etc - to the non-stop upbeat patter from the two main presenters on stage. And one super-brilliant DJ. Read on...

So, having arranged to go to the Picasso exhibition at the NPG, we encounter the Square already bustling with people, and with some high-energy South African music echoing off the facades of the old colonial offices all around.

We stay in the square, and watch

We tear ourselves away from this, head to the NPG, even though the sun is shining. Inside there's a big queue for Picasso, so we head for another exhibition, across Covent Garden to Somerset House to see photos by the late Malick SidibĂ© of nightlife and beach-life in his native Mali. All the photos are black and white and taken on a Kodak Brownie 127 camera with flash gun, and they are superb, evening blown up to a metre square or more. It's a small show and unmissable for the absolute elegance and beauty of the people he cpaptures, their innocence and eloquence of movement, in the matter of body language and facial expression.

This small, unforgettable exhibition has an audio dimension as well, thanks to a background soundtrack of African music contemporary to the photos - that is to say, mainly 1960s, 70s and a bit of 80s.

It's gorgeous music, mixed up with ambient sounds from parties and streetlife of Bamako. This mixtape was produced by the DJ Rita Ray.

By 4pm I am back in the square and there is amazing music coming over the PA. The DJ is Rita Ray. The crowd is dancing, and it keeps on dancing through the three final bands of the day. And dancing even more when Rita Ray ends the whole thing with some astonishing mix-ups or mash-ups of god knows what dub and Afrobeat and tribal chanting and desert blues and who knows what else, but so expertly blended that the sound seems to make the ground slide beneath your feet.

Then the Algerian musician Seddick Zebiri comes on with his band Seeds of
Creation, mixing what sounds like classical Berber oud playing with some serious jazz-funk and a bit of far-out acid-rock riffing and drumming. He's another crowd pleaser! This guy is a crazy singer and mover and his band flies,  always shifting its musical ground, and after a short but fiery set they get a huge round of applause.

The amazing Algerian master musician Seddick Zebiri with his band, Seeds
of Creation, bring a unique brand of North African funk to the Square.
Then comes the final act - a band known as Black Egypt, led by the Nigerian afrobeat Saxophonist Bukky Leo. Yes, the same  Bukky who used to play Sunday evening sets at the Beufoy Arms inLAvender Hill, back in the early 90s I think, a true disciple of the Black Presidnet. ANd sure enough Bukky dedicates this set to Fela, who, he says, "was borh in this month and died in this month". SO Black History month is also Fela Kuti month. Sounds good to me. WOn't argue with that.

Certainly won't argue with this band's top-class renditions of a string of Fela classics, Zombie, Water Get No Enemy, Coffin for Head of State....the voice and the sax are so good, the band is great, even though much smaller than the full Egypt 80 or whatever band Fela had at the time. You could almost imagne the iron hand of Fela himself leading the tight, deadly accurate and beautifully-rehearsed ensemble playing. Trafalgar Square has surely never before resounded to such a fabulous onslaught of music straight out of the Kalakuta  Republic. Love!

Monday, 17 October 2016

On not leaving London 1: National Poetry Day at the Festival Hall

Some days you feel, how much longer can we stick around here? This swamp of  bad money and poison air, especially in this area, stricken as it is by deadly Nine Elms Disease.

Falling out of love with London happens increasingly often in this household, and yet it never lasts more than a day or two because the city has a winning habit of serving up something wonderful, just in time.

Last week it did this again. It was National Poetry Day and a series of readings and discussion was advertised at the Festival Hall. This happened in the Clore Ballroom area, a big space underneath the main auditorium, but a useful performance space in its own right, where most of the Southbank's biggest free events are held.
Poet Ian McMillan and his team prepare for the live recording of Radio 3's
The Verb on National Poetry Day, at the Southbank Centre, London.

There was a full programme, all free. A lot of the earlier sessions were aimed at schoolkids, and the place was packed at 3pm. Poet after poet went up and did their stuff: I was looking at the art show in the basement (the excellent annual event featuring art by people in prisons and young offenders institutions) but every so often came the cheering and chanting and stamping of feet on the floor above.

As the afternoon went on, the school groups left and more and more men and women of a certain age and look arrived and found seats. These people looked to be in their 40s, dressed in tight black clothes, austere of look, thin people. They were quite likely fans of one of the poets due to appear - the singer P J Harvey was in fact top of the bill. And to be perfectly honest, I too was there, above all, to see the scarily wonderful singer of so many powerful songs, in person.

But first, the poets. At 4 o'clock, the poet and radio broadcaster Ian McMillan took to the stage with  four poets to record a live session for his Radio 3 programme, The Verb. He's a brilliant master of these strange ceremonies, and calmly proceeds to get the by now rather staid looking audience whooping and cheering and even chanting responses to certain words, as he take the mickey out of pre-conceived notions of what a poet looks like.

One by one he talks to the line-up of four poets, and each reads some of their work. Meanwhile, the resident cartoonist Chris Riddell is busy sketching his own interpretations of the event. So while Luke Kennard reads one of his pieces featuring a very knowing wolf, Riddell has quickly drawn the most insouciant, upper-crust fanged leader of the pack you could want.

All this is thrown up onto two big screens.....but of ocurse it has to be described for the radio listeners...It's a hilarious event, with McMillan making the most of his power in this situation to get his audience to particpiate in repeating all manner of curious and surreal  lines.

You can listen to the finished programme here.

After that - more poetry, and the highlight of this session was Salena Godden

She's a powerful performer, highly political, hilarious as well. She'd written "Citizen of Nowhere" specially for the day, a poem full of anger which grew stronger as the way we treat refugees from wars we have helped to start became clearer.

Her finale was "Die Wasp!" - a long angry hilarious piece inspired by a recent stay in Berlin. She's in a cafe, watching a very young and beautiful woman being very young and beautiful and cool as she works on her laptop, and comparing this vision of calm and collected smartness and brilliance with her own unconfident, messed-up accident-prone self. A wasp bothers her. It does not touch the girl. Hence the title, the chorus. It is so funny, and so harsh, and so beautifully true.

Several of the pother poets were just as good, just as moving - it was an eye-opener, a tear-duct opener. 
Sabrina Mahfouz for example, read "The most honest job I've ever had" - a poem in the voice of woman working in the sex industry. Many of these young poets were first or second generation immigrnats to the UK< and several of them are contributors to the new anthology The Good Immigrant which is currently being serialised on BBC Radio4. 

So that by the time we got to the climax, many were already emotionally exhausted. Not what you'd want to be if you were waiting for a performance from  the high priestess of extreme emotional expressiveness, PJ Harvey.

As it happened, Polly-Jean was as cool and collected as a recently harvested cucumber in a chilled room. She strode up to the mic, opened her book, and read away, announcing each poem with a few very straight to the point words. Maybe she was more nervous than you'd expect of a seasoned performer: her voice sounded a bit strained, it was the voice of a newly-qualified English teacher in her first week at a school in Surrey.
She never really let go. She was almost the opposite of the PJ Harvey we knew from tracks like Rid Of Me.  Beautiful, cool, calm, reading splendidly crafted poems about people and places she had experienced, in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and in the USA. Some of the well-turned images and metaphors were read with almost audible quote marks around them. We clapped each poem, politely.

She's such a brilliant singer and exponent of that spare, blood-curling brand of electric punk blues-rock music, that you wondered, why is this beautiful, slighly diffident lady behaving in this prim manner? Personally, I think her poetry is already there in her music, and it is not  fully expressed in these quite careful, restrained poems about very bloody, horror-filled situations. Maybe we've already seen too much.

The only one that really seems to smoulder a bit was a poem about the countryside, from a new book she's working on. That seemed more like it: raw, bloody nature.

Rock stars who become poets ften have htis problem, and it was fascinating that PJ's set came just a week or so before the Dylan-Nobel prize news broke. Why people get so hung up about definitions of poetry I don't know. If someone uses words and music to have an effect that could not be imagined or achieved any other way....it is poetry, just as an unaccompanied song is just as much music as is a full orchestral performance.

Another poet who had a big role that afternoon was Inua Ellams, who was one of the MCs along with Indigo Williams for part of the event. He's one of that generation of young black poets, inspried as much by hip-hop and rap as by European writers; inpsired by jazz and politics,  and as you can see on his excellent website, he's inspried even by a visit to the office of a quantity surveyor. But today he performs a piece which gets straight to my heart. It's called the ‘Saxophone Player’s Mouth’, and its a sort of warts and all tribute to the great dead Nigerian musician, the inventor of Afrobeat,  Fela Kuti.

Which leads naturally on the next episode of this occasional series....

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The day Brixton came to Clapham (and Clapham tried not to notice)

It was undeniably a moment to relish - the sight of a crowd of chanting people, placards and banners waving, approaching Clapham Common. A big demo, marching on Clapham? When did that last happen?

Well, it happpened for a few hours on Saturday afternoon,when   #standuptolambeth's "Pink Protest" took a whole bundle of Lambeth issues across the streets of the borough, all the way from Windrush Square in Brixton to the statue of Temperance on the north-east corner of the Common.

It was the day the people under threat of eviction from their homes on threatened Lambeth estates such as Cressingham Gardens and Central Hill at Crystal Palace joined forces with the "Defend the Ten anti-Library-cuts campaigners, plus representatives of small businesses kicked out of their premises in central Brixton - as well as a big group opposing the building of the Garden Bridge.

So it was a highly diverse group of about 200 people, united in spirit at least by their disgust at the way an elected Labour  council can take such an arrogant stance on so many deeply-felt issues.

As the march rounded the corner of Acre Lane and into Clapham Park Road, you could hear the chanting. "Clapham! Join Brixton! Oppose the Lambeth cuts" or stuff to that effect. The heart skipped a beat - maybe "radical Clapham" would turn out not to be just a topic for local historians?

But as the march began its final descent on what, for many, is now yuppy central, you realised that this bit of Lambeth is really much more interested in shopping at Waitrose, eating and drinking at the chi-chi caffs and posh restaurants lining the common, or pushing its designer sunglasses down and looking away. The very rich cashmere-draped types who have a disporportionate presence in this part of town do not like to be reminded that they share this patch with actual poor people.

I have no idea how many - if any -  Clapham residents joined the march. Some bystanders looked bemused, a few boozers jeered, but most (or so it seemed) did their best to ignore it.

Until, that is, the march reached one of the busiest traffic intersections in the area: the bit where the A24 splits from the A3 and also meets the Clapham Common one-way system.

At this complex junction, about half the marchers got across two roads and into the Common. Then th elights changed and the rest of the march, including the main sound system and the most vocal of the chanters, were stuck at the lights, with a couple of cops looking on.

As we waited, a couple of people sat down, and then one of the guys with a megaphone claled on everyone to sit down, and one by one people did, some sitting on the yellow box juncxtion of two of the busiest roads in Clapham.  The two or three police there made a few polite requests for people to get up and move once the lights had changed, but they didn't.
The great Clapham Common roadblock of October 2016. It lasted for all
of 15 minutes, but it didn't half annoy the local yuppies.

This changed everything. It had been a peaceful, orderly demonstration, marching an agreed route with police escort.

Now it was a different sort of protest: a refusal to move, a blockage of three busy lanes of three busy roads. The police switched from demo-escort to traffic cops, holding traffic, letting one or two through when there was the chance.

We sat and awaited instructions from the de facto leader of this impromptu protest, a youngish guy with a beard and a sound system. He handed the mic around and people started trying to explain what they were doing and why  - and why if others didn't join in, we'd only have ourselves to blame when the cuts got worse.

It was a crystal clear example of that moment when sanctioned "democratic" protest turns into a rebellion, even if only a very small one.

There must've been no more than 30 or 40 people sitting on the road junction, and the police were no longer smiling benignly at the protesters.  Within minutes huge queues of buses and cars had built up in three directions. Peak Saturday afternoon shopping traffic!

The previously cheery toots of car horns egging on the march turned into a blaring cacophony of outrage as dozens of angry drivers lost their rags. Looking at some of the smart occupants of these expsnive vehicles, you got a sense of the ire behind the designer shades: "How dare these oiks disrupt our Saturday afternoon shopping trip!"

This is more like it! Anyone with even one rebellious cell in their bodies could not help feeling that thrill of knowing you are disrupting "normal" goings on in the name of causes you believe are worth the disturbance and possible retribution. Like many other waverers, I sat down, and was offered bread and apples by the sound system crew.  And thinking, if only we had 500 here instead of 50 - then it would perhaps make a real impact. Where is social media when you need it?

But an argument was breaking out. The ones who'd started the sit-down said it was essential to stay put, and not to move until the police physically moved them out of the road. This, they said, was the only way anyone would take any notice: all the democratic routes had been tried many times and had always failed. All that was left was direct action. Disruption. Peaceful resistance. Civil disobedience.

To a great extent what he said was true: just think of all those marches and demos and public meetings and lobbyings we went to as part of the anti-library closure campaign last autumn through to April 2016, and the final sad ending of the Carnegie Library occupation.

Mind you we sat in the street outside Parliament in March 2003, but that didn't stop them voting to go to war. Maybe because not enough of us sat there, and not enough of us had the strength or courage to keep on doing it.

Lambeth Council had certainly shown itself to be an absolutely world class when it came to not listening to public opinion. It seems they took their lessons from their old leader, back in the days of "New" Labour.

The police issued an ultimatum: move or we move you. After five more minutes only the hard core of protesters remained on the road, and they kept up a very loud critique of the ones who were no longer with them.

It was a strange, difficult moment. At a crucial point a flashing blue light of an ambulance stuck on the one way system jolted people into a different sense of priority: there might be someone dying in there! We have to let them through! Of course the cops got the ambulance through with no trouble, no-one was going to stop that. But what about the buses...all those people, maybe their difficult lives were going to be made even worse by our action?

At the end of the day...there's always thiss sad moment at the end of demos in London. What do we do with all the placards?
Being good responsible Lambeth citizens, the answer of course is to recycle them, responsibly - at the next dmeo.

These are thoughts of the guilt-ridden middle-class would be activist, ever the pinko-liberal, the fence-sitting impotent one.

The remaining half or two thirds of the marchers were standing around near the paddling pool, waiting for everyone to arrive. Finally the roadblockers took a vote, and decided to move on. So although the great Clapham sit-down could not match last month's much more prolonged and effective affair in Brixton, it was noticed by a lot of people, and even made a top story on the Evening Standard website.

But for a different view of the events, check out this lovely photo-journalistic report of Saturday's demo on ourcity.london.

There were some stirring impromptu speeches to a crowd that had dwindled to a few dozen.

In the background, the church where the Clapham Sect had hatched its schemes to begin the parliamentary abolition of slavery nearly 200 years back. Around the statue, activists and hangers-on (me) discussed what could be done.

It should have been a much, much bigger affair. But the fact that it happened at all is a huge positive. If only a handful of previously unconcerned locals were made to be aware that something is wrong - no, plenty is wrong! - in the state of Lambeth, then it was  a success.

It's there, in the words: Clapham Common. Bring it all back home!

Here are a few more snaps from the demo....

Friday, 7 October 2016

Is it art, or is it "art', with a capital "F"?

"I'm thinking about going to Frieze but not really sure if I can be bothered..." OK but it is only thanks to the organisers of the
current Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park that we get to see this rather fascinating work by Goshka Macuga for free in the
Frieze Sculpture Garden, open to all for the duration. So if what follows seems a bit bitter, a bit sour grapes,
please forgive me.
It's hardly news, but if you really do need to get your nose rubbed in the reality of what the "art" world truly is these days, then hop off the tube at Regents PArk.

We are in Frieze season. A whole lot of horrible white plastic prefabs are dumped on the that south-east corner of the park, and people with lots of money or friends in the business are encouraged to dress up a bit and go and look at a few thousand square metres of what the world's most successful galleries reckon are the hottest things in contemporary art.

But because it's in London, England, it has become much more about who goes, when, and with whom, and where they go afterwards, and what they wore. And what food was served, by whom.

Oh, the art? Yes, that was...interestingly... the same old stuff, served up by some of the same old names, and a few newer names. The sieve has been shaken (as it is each year) and few more jewelled characters are allowed to enter the great sandpit of modern art.

Frieze has become one more bit of London's social season, a nice return to elitism after the mock democracy of the Proms.

This is the art world equivalent of the arms industry beanfeast down at Excel in docklands. It's just another very successful trade show; a place to sell, a place to buy.

But to take part you do need to be a serious player. Try to visit. Try to cross the outer circle road in the park, as gleaming black Mercs and Bentleys and Audis and Range Rovers swish through, a sort of funeral cortege for everything anyone ever held dear in the name of art.

Make sure you have your complimentary tickets at the ready, or that you are on Deutsche Bank's corporate sponsor guest list. Or that you have fifty quid or so at the ready to buy your way in. Just like Wimbledon or London Fashion Week or the Proms or (for all I know) Royal Ascot you need to be determined to get into these big society events during the season. It's all part of the territory, dearie, and it always has been ! (Says bitter and very twisted ex-hack).
Let's all thank Frieze for reminding us of this wonderful 1959 work by Lynn
Chadwick, Stranger III. It should stay here for ever.

Can you remember when Frieze was new and radical and belonged to bright anti-eastablishment things, all fresh out of Goldsmiths, or wherever?

No. Oh god, no. No dear, it was never like that, they were never banned from the established galleries. They were not the impressionists nor the expressionists nor the dadaists. They'd already learned lessons from Great Uncle Andy and daddy Charles.

The YBAs cohort knew much much better: they were the contemporaries of the bright kids who went into the big commercial banks in the newly-built Canary Wharf and knew how to leverage an equity release, how to talk up stock, how to play the media game, how to disappear at the crucial moment. But they are old hat, yesterday's papers anyway.

The new lot are even smarter. They know that cities like London being filled with brand new ultra-expensive apartments, all of which need art on their walls, just as they also need public sculpture in the spaces between the gigantic blocks and towers. What an opportunity! And what a wonderful vacuum for Frieze participants to fill, with plenty of love and care and devotion.

That's the new art. Try looking for it in Regent's Park. It could make your fortune - or it could bite you in the ass like half of one of that man's pickled sharks.

Or be like me, the eternal hypocrite, the voyeur, the gormless and grinning observer, the grateful flunky. The one who bows, scrapes and takes it up the backside for 40 years in exchange for a few hundred nectar points, and then eventually suffocates in his own regurgitated bile.

Enjoy the spectacle, lick up the salty morsels the super-rich scatter around themselves. They can't help it, it confirms their wealth.  At this year's Frieze they have allowed a few lovely pieces of sculpture to escape the fold, they are in the "free" zone. Go and see them: they might be better value than the stuff inside.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Soseki statue that never was: a tale of two suburbs

Japanese author Natsume Soseki. This grave, diffident, hyper-sensitive soul spent many hours wandering on Clapham
Common, at the end of a street he was living in, unhappily. It might have seemed fitting to have a statue there to
memorialise those formative experiences of a great novelist. No such luck. You can see this nice 2010 bronze at the Soseki Museum in Clapham - but only until 2017, when the museum closes due to lack of funding.
A recent visit to the Natsume Soseki in London Museum reminded me of a row that blew up a quarter of a century ago relating to this deeply revered Japanese author, soon after I first moved into the area. This was the sad case of the Soseki memorial statue that never was.

It was a story of mutual cultural misunderstandings, of groaning bureaucracy, particularly on the British side, stirred up by a bunch of self-appointed guardians of local amenities, with (oh, surely I am not mistaken?) a nasty little dash of bad old English racial prejudice or xenophobia stirred into the mix.

It began in the early 1980s, when Japanese scholar and businessman Ikuo 'Sammy' Tsunematsu created the a museum in London dedicated to the Japanese author Natsume Soseki, which I wrote about last month. At around the same time he got support for the idea of erecting a statue to Soseki on Clapham Common, a short distance from the flat in which he spent the final 16 months of an unhappy but creatively crucial time in London.

No sooner was the idea out than the combined forces of local worthies, the Tory opposition on the council and the establishment (in the shape of its most deadly weapon, Whitehall bureaucracy), conspired to derail it.

At the time I was so annoyed by the opposition to the statue that I wrote to a local paper. The letter was never published but I am still puzzled by the animosity that the plan to erect a statue of a Japanese author on Clapham Common aroused. So puzzled that a few weeks back I visited the Lambeth Archives in the former Minet Library building on Knatchbull Road, to remind myself of the roots of this Anglo-Japanese co-operation pact that was never consummated.

I say "former" library - in fact, as you enter the Archives, you can see the dormant public library through the windows,  intact and abandoned, books still on shelves, a sort of Marie Celeste of a once much loved local library, a resting place and a refuge.

But thank god the Archive is still operating, and there are friendly staff on hand to help me unravel another little bit of the Soseki in London story - though this is actually about a non-event, and something that happened - sorry, didn't happen -  about 70 years after the great Japanese novelist's death.

I'd found the archive reference online and quoted the reference numbers. Within minutes I was sitting at a table with two neatly laced-up bundles of papers in front of me. I carefully untied the bow and began to go through hundreds of carbon copies, artists' impressions, architect's drawings and photocopies; letters, memos, telegrams, newspaper articles, the lot.

Not being a proper historian, I whizzed through these docs, looking for stories. What follows may not be a precise chronological account, but I hope it captures the spirit of that strange episode.

The idea was first mooted in public, so far as I can tell, at a conference on Soseki held in London in about 1986. It was at the Park Lane Hotel, and among the participants was the noted British poet, translator and Japanese literature expert, Anthony Thwaite.

The idea was fleshed out, and a suitable memorial with statue was designed in Japan. The municipality of Shinjuku, where Soseki was born, were involved and backed the idea, and Lambeth Council was approached for permission.

At the time Lambeth was keen to extend its town twinning programme, and it seems it jumped on this request as a good opportunity to build up a relationship with Shinjuku - which includes the commercial district and transport hub of Tokyo.

So Lambeth quickly gave its approval in priniciple to these plans. Little did it know that an exceedingly long and drawn out struggle was to follow, almost six years of it in all.

The first item I looked at was a set of drawings of the first version of the proposed statue. It depicted a life-size bronze statue of Soseki standing on a stone plinth of almost the same height, with a large bronze relief inscription set into the stone.

This was to be surrounded by a circle of stone benches, the whole thing covering an area of around 10 by 8 metres, to be built on the strip of the Common directly facing the southern end of The Chase.

This was the proposal that was agreed in principle by the Lambeth Amenities committee, but as soon as the agreement was made public, in June 1988,  there was uproar. Opponents of the scheme on the Council were soon joined by the conservationist groups, the Friends of Clapham Common and the The Clapham Antiquarian Society. The local press jumped on the story with glee - what an opportunity to run plenty of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, schoolboyish headlines.

The Evening Standard of 24 June 1988 had a field day: the "left-wing councillors" of Mrs Thatcher's least favourite London Borough had "red faces", it claimed, once they realised they were trying to twin Lambeth with the "famous red-light district of Tokyo".

It couldn't resist the seaside postcard approach: "Too much Eastern promise" ran one headline. Inevitably it got a quote from Lambeth's most famous madame, Cynthia Payne of Streatham.

Lambeth was not initially too bothered by this ridicule ( this was the era of constant attack on the so-called "loony left" politicians of the GLC). The joke was on the press, given how they seemed ignorant of the fact that Shinjuku was the location of  a wealthy and powerful commercial district at the time far outstripping the City of London.

The council regarded the whole plan, including the Soseki monument, as "a tangible demonstration of Lambeth's commitment to and celebration of  the cultural and ethnic diversity of our population".

Soon after this the plans were put out for public consultation.  There were 13 objections to the original proposal, with most of the complaints focusing on the inappropriate size of the memorial. Some were concerned the statue would  be a magnet for vandalism, others wondered whether certain British authors were not more deserving of a memorial here. (OK why not? Wouldn't it be lovely to have statues of Graham Greene, Pamela Hansford Johnson and Angela Carter as well? We could even have a literary sculpture park).

The anti-Japanese feeling sparked by the treatment of British p-o-w's during World War Two was also there, still bubbling away.

As a result, the Shinjuku team put together a revised and scaled down proposal. But although the new memorial was much smaller, it still provoked a storm of complaints. The Evening Standard excelled itself with the October 4 1989 headline, "Clapham fights the Japanese". In the story the Clapham Society was said to be "preparing to repel a Japanese invasion". The memorial was described as a "ponderous monstrosity" likely to be defaced.

The Minet archives contain a great deal of correspondence between Lambeth council and its equivalents in Shinjuku, all very friendly and civil if rather stilted and often deadly slow. The mayor of Shinjuku, Katsutada Yamamoto,  paid two visits to Lambeth during this time, and he was always eager to praise the beauty of the trees on the Common, comparing them with the beauty of the cherry blossom season in Japan.

He was keen to stress that the statue should  enhance the "beauty of Clapham": it would not be on a grand scale like Nelson's column, but "not so small as to be hidden by the summer shrubbery".

The monument, he said, would become "A lasting symbol of UK- Japanese goodwill and friendship".

Despite these attempts to address the criticisms of the first proposed statue, the complaints did not go away. English Heritage said that while it did not categorically oppose the plan, nor did it wholly approve: it felt the statue was "just too big" and suggested one of its own blue plaques on the house where Soseki stayed would be a more fitting memorial.

The Hon Secretary of the Clapham Antiquarian Society was also a tireless campaigner against the "unwanted memorial".

"I can find no evidence that London played an important part in his life," he wrote. "In fact, quite the opposite, he hated it while he was living here."

Well, yes, perhaps he did. He was certainly depressed for much of his short time in London. But there are plenty of literary experts who maintain that it was the difficult London experience that made all the difference to Soseki's writing style, and set him on the course for greatness. You only have to read his few short pieces set in London to see how his imagination had been sparked by the place. See Soseki's The Tower of London.

Another local luminary, James Watson of the Clapham Society, wrote: "The Common is common land, not the suburb of a foreign city of which the people of Lambeth know little or nothing".

Yes, perhaps his assumption was right, but it seems odd to use ignorance as a good reason for not doing something to alleviate it.  Surely this was an opportunity to allow the people of Lambeth to learn a little bit about this distant land, so different and yet in some ways so similar to our own?

So the debate rumbled on, letters and telegrams and phone calls went back and forth, more official visits were arranged. 1988 became 1989, and then on 18 December the council approved the revised scheme. However the case was referred to the Department for the Environment and it still needed the Secretary of State's seal of approval. And this was not forthcoming.

On February 20 1990 the mayor Lambeth advised his peer in Shinjuku to get the Japanese ambassador in London to appeal directly to Chris Patten.

Events moved on at the ultra-slow pace known only to bureaucratic officials who - if not under instruction to kill a project by the slowest possible method - at least appear to be. Reasons for and against the statue continued to be traded throughout that year and the next.

One letter from a distinguished local resident to the Department of the Environment offered the only genuinely aesthetic objection to the monument that I could find: Mr Norman Marsh, CBE, said that the proposed statue looked like something designed for "a late Victorian or Edwardian cemetery".

As used by Natsume Soseki
Still in use - the Victorian cast-iron post box
50 yards up the street from where Soseki
lived, now a part of the Soseki in London
Maybe he was right. Who knows. A new enquiry began early in 1992, by which time there had been a mayoral election in Shinjuku. All changed, suddenly. There was a new mayor, and it was his sad duty to inform his Lambeth equivalent that it now seemed that funding was "unlikely to be forthcoming".

And then, yes, both Lambeth and Shinjuku authorities designed it was best to call it a day.

So ends the story of the Soseki statue, although you can see a fine portrait bust of the man in the museum at 80 The Chase.

Also, as is clear whenever a large coach of Japanese students pulls up outside, they have other ways of remebering the great writer. Often I have seen groups of students and even schoolchildren walk up the road to the late Victorian post-box. Many selfies are taken. This is the same box into which Soseki posted his many letters home, 114 years ago.

Then there's the English Heritage blue plaque. The occupants of that (now incredibly expensive) house must chuckle at the way their first floor windows are so often photographed in the summer months. Or maybe they don't notice.

Soseki himself, we can be sure, would have been greatly amused by the whole business.

* As a postscript, it was good to see that the local business website thisisclapham.co.uk has included Soseki in its promotional hoardings up by Clapham Common tube. Perhaps they could help press for a proper celebration of the centenary of his death later this year....?