About Me

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

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Akasha at The Bread and Roses - bringing the love magick back to SW4

For every entry  published on this blog, another 10 or 12 are left to rot in the drafts folder. But I'm going to publish this one, because this semi-local band playing at a local pub gave me more pleasure in one brief free gig than I've had at any music venue in years.

Among dozens of unpublished blog pieces gatheirng dust in the vaults of this site are several about gigs at The Bread and Roses pub in Clapham Manor Street. It sometimes feels like an unappreciated SW4 treasure, this trades-union-run pub.  I've several times been to their free music nights to find the audience almost outnumbered by band members.

But not last Saturday evening, which belonged to a band from the Brixton area named Akasha,  whose performance left me eager for more, buzzing with that strange energy you get from great music - and also kicking myself for not having followed their every gig for the past 20 years or so. There was a good crowd, and at least half were dancing wildly by the end - well, some of us were at least shuffling from foot to foot.

Akasha (a name they share with a few others, being the sanskrit word for "air" or  "aether") started in  1994 as a duo, Charlie Casey and Damian Hand, but have now grown into the seven -piece band which crammed the small pub stage last week.

The band was a pioneer of  jazzy, electronics-infused, spaced-out hip-hop fusion style which was emerging back in the early 1990s, and became the signature sound of the highly influential Wall of Sound label.  Some called it trip-hop...but the music was much too diverse and agile to get trapped in such a name.

The two originals - Casey on guitar, vocals and MacBook Pro,  Damian Hands a sort of new-age Roland Kirk on all manner of reeds and deeds and woodwinds - were backed up by a rock-steady demon of a drummer, a fabulously 70s-looking keyboards player, and solid trumpet, bass and alto sax players.

The sound system wasn't really up to such an adventurous band - and it took about half an hour of the engineer traipsing between stage and mixing desk to get things right. But once they got going, the gates to a new musical heaven opened in the skies over southwest London. Well, that's how it seemed to me, and I wasn't even on anything, apart from Guinness.

Akasha's music is catchy, exciting, incredibly danceable, unpredictable and mind-blowing at times, risk-taking (or so it seems); and it has that magic ingredient - wit. No wonder they were such a big influence on loads of their more commercially-minded label-mates (whatever happened to the Propellerheads?)

No wonder that so many big names wanted to work with them - and many did, notably Neneh Cherry, the true godmother to all this jazz-hip-hop-punk-funk crossover stuff. I've never got over seeing  her fronting Rip Rig & Panic under the Westway back in about 1983. And also Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne and the guy from Faithless - Maxi Jazz - who, coming from a similar milieu, had all the worldly success that eluded this band. But Akasha has the sort of success that others long  for - they're still loved and respected by their original fans, and winning new followers with every set they play, worldwide.

This night, Akasha played plenty of their old favourites, ratching up the involuntary dance factor with each number. I listened very hard when they played a song about their musical influences - but the vocals were drowned a bit by the poor PA. At a guess I'd say they would go for James Brown, Miles Davis, maybe Charlie Parker, Roland Kirk, maybe the Sugarhill Gang, maybe Curtis Mayfield or maybe Stockhausen? Herbie Hancock? Coltrane? Gil Scott Heron?

So, will have to go to next gig and hope they play it again. Also, buy the CDs. Next gig? One of the band said they were playing the Railway Tavern in Tulse Hill sometime soon. I think. Go!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Farewell old friend: Battersea Power Station disappearing behind more new apartment blocks

A pair of medium-sized apartment blocks have been rising for the past few months just south of Battersea Power Station. Now they've reached the point where they're ruining the view of what had been the best-loved local landmark for thousands of SW11/4/8 residents.

These two new blocks - one of which is still swathed in scaffolding - already appear to be just as dull as most of the other stuff that has risen out of the mud of Nine Elms since 2011. All that most of us will be able to see of the renovated power station are the chimney-tops - and these of course are not the originals! (But - it doesn't do to carp - they'e made a damn fine job of replicating them).

Oddly, very little mention is made of these two new blocks in the flashy online brochure for the Battersea - Nine Elms development.

Those sweeping great aerial views of the whole zone, with their computer-generated impressions of all the new towers, simply don't show anything that far from of the river.

You have to look at their interactive map to find out that this is the so-called Battersea Power Station Development Zone 4a - otherwise known as the Battersea Exchange site. It's separated from the rest of the development by Battersea Park Road, and seems to be the main location for the much reduced number of so-called affordable homes, plus a primary school and a health centre.

It's hardly mentioned on the main glossy marketing sites. But if you look closely at the photo above you can see they've put a great big ad on the side of the bigger block - batterseaexchange.com

Go to this site and you find it's part of the TaylorWimpey firm. You'll also see an impression of the finished buildings - looks like the bigger tower will also be white with those deep fins you can see on the smaller one, making them look a bit like electrical transformers. This might be relevant as there is also a major electricity substation being rebuilt on this site....but probably isn't. Some remarkably similar blocks are going up right now along York Road opposite Waterloo Station as part of the old Shell building redevelopment.

These two blocks in themselves are no worse than any of the rest of the development, and less ghastly than some of them. Looking at the brochure, it looks like these towers will not actually be the "affordable" flats (prices seem to be in the £550k - £1m region) - so they must be in the smaller brown blocks fronting the road?

What is sad is that the mile or more of these stubby towers, strung out along both sides of Nine Elms Lane, simply do not work together; they don't coalesce, they don't complement, they don't form anything like an interesting cluster. Even Canary Wharf is beginning to get that 'Manhattan' effect where the sum of the parts is much better than most of the individual buildings.

Around here, the reverse seems to be true. Perhaps it will be better when the massive new towers  at the Vauxhall end go up. I'm personally hoping they will block out my view of the most-hated tower of the lot - that killer cylinder, I think they call it St Georges Tower - the one that downed a helicopter a few years back.

Longer term of course, all this stuff will return whence it came. Like so many worm-casts thrown up on a mudbank, it will all sink back into mire. Maybe sooner than we all expect.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Open House London weekend celebrates 25 fantastic years: hurray! But what's with this Clapham Old Town walk?

Here we go, into the radical redesign of Clapham Old Town on the new cycle-friendly pathways....sort of.
If you're into London's Open House weekend, then your annual treat is getting very close, and this year's free booklet is packed with even more potential pleasures than ever before.

What's more, this year's weekend - on the 16th - 17th September -  is the 25th anniversary of Open House London, which took a brilliant, simple idea and made it happen: why not open up interesting buildings - however grand or however modest - to the public, just for one weekend in the year?

This year's catalogue includes a great Top 25 of the most popular buildings it has featured over the years - the perfect trigger for debates. It also includes several topical essays on the big issues facing the city now, notably affordable housing, transport and traffic congestion, and accessible open spaces.

As a creature of bad habit I turn immediately to my local borough - Lambeth - and find amidst a well-stocked selection of local treats, this slightly curious entry in the Walks & Tours section:

"Clapham Old Town and Venn Street: This guided walk...looks at a radically redesigned public realm which re-balanced the street environment in favour of the pedestrian and cyclist..."

This refers to the recent tarting up of the old Polygon area which was commented on by this blog back in 2014.
So here you are at the end of Bromells Road. Cars have to turn
left across the pavement. No signs to say what bikes should do,
even though a bike path starts just across the road...

Well, the patch of artfully sown wild flowers at the northern tip of the Polygon (or is it "piazza" now?) is gorgeous. The new public space around the Polygon and Rose & Crown pub is certainly neat and tidy but to be honest it's a bit sterile. Especially now that the old public toilets have disappeared behind hoardings.

There are a few of those metal chairs scattered around, single seaters which look like they were designed to give bankers who have just been told their bonuses are frozen, somewhere to sit and contemplate their futures.

There's a very celebrated upmarket restaurant, a trio of pubs (if you include The Sun and The Prince of Wales across the road)  and...well,  a couple of cafes, also over the road...but not much else.

As for it being more cycle friendly: well, how, exactly?

After a couple of years of trying to get to grips with the remodelled and supposedly bike-friendly traffic flows,  they still seem at best puzzling, often confusing, and in some places downright dangerous to both cyclists and pedestrians.

Here it is - so off you go, heading north against the traffic 
Firstly, far from "reining in" motorists, they have given those coming from the north two separate routes up to the Common and the High Street. They can either be good and follow the B303 past Orlando Road and stop at the junction with the one-way system around Clapham Common.

But if they're in a hurry, or just typical motorists, there's nothing to stop them going the old way, up past The Sun pub and the local Sainsburys and a load of new flats, then pushing their way back onto the one-way system via The Pavement. It's a new rat run beloved of big white vans and equally big black SUVs.

Originally under the new scheme, as I remember, this road was gated at the northern end, and should have been for resident and delivery access only.

A few yards on you get to this bit, but no explanation why
you might want to turn right across the road...nothing!
Most of the pedestrians coming from Orlando Road, The Omnibus Arts Centre and the homes and many businesses on North Side want to get to the tube station. So they continue to cross the road at the point, directly outside the old Library (now The Omnibus) where there used to be a very well-used pedestrian crossing.

Mysteriously they have now moved that crossing just 20 or 30 yards further east, past the Starbucks, and just far enough to make it seem an annoying diversion if you're in a hurry.

The trouble is, this road is now two-way and there is also a bus-stand a few yards to the west. There are almost always a couple of 249 double-decker buses waiting there, which completely block the view, making it impossible to see approaching traffic until it is literally upon you. This is so dangerous for all pedestrians.

As for cyclists, well it seems like the cycle route has been sketched-in by some town planner at the end of  a long liquid lunch; clearly they all forgot that this bit of the scheme was never fully planned.

Not that anyone expects joined-up thinking from a council that has recently shut down one of the finest, best-loved and most-used libraries in London.  (In case you missed the stories, I mean the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill).

But a joined-up cycle route through this complex junction of roads would be good. The route as it stands is, frankly, bonkers.

If you do cross the road, you end up on this scary contra-
flow bike lane where you are glared at by drivers of big
black shiny SUVs (and OK, other vehicles too...)
If you're coming from the Brixton direction, or from Clapham Common tube station, and aiming for Lavender Hill or Wandsworth Road - well, you have to think hard about where to go. Most cyclists just follow the roads. The pavements around the tube station offer no bike routes (although quite a few cyclists use them, to the annoyance of crowds of commuters and school-kids milling around here at the busy times).

There are no signs to encourage cyclists to use, for example, Venn Street - which looks pedestrianised, but is it?

So the bike lane seems to start quite arbitrarily on the edge of the Common, 100 yards further north, opposite the junction with Bromells Road. This is a one way street with no bike lane. Cars and bikes have to cross the wide pavement to rejoin the road (which, confusingly, is called The Pavement at this point).

Cyclists can then cross the road and get onto a little bit of bike lane going north; but a few yards further on it sends them back across the road and onto a contra-flow bike lane which is frankly scary.

If you follow the cycle path past the above-mentioned wild flower patch, it sends you back west towards the Common - and to re-cross the main traffic flow, this time on a zebra crossing - so
As you can see, parked cars and oncoming traffic both
habitually impinge on the so-called cycle lane.
that you've negotiated four of the five sides of the Polygon to get back to a point a few yards from where you were 5 minutes ago.

There's a tiny bit of pavement here which has one of those joint use cyclist/pedestrian symbols in one paving slab - but who notices that? And the path is not wide enough for this dual use.

Like you, I hate seeing cyclists charging around recklessly on footpaths - but around here, it's sometimes almost understandable.

Lambeth Council is still open to changing these arrangements, apparently, so let's hope this Open House Weekend walk makes the crazy layout of these bike lanes clearer to all.

Plenty of really great stuff in the Open House programme, though. In Lambeth, the residents of the threatened Cressingham Gardens Estate have organised a tour, as have the residents of the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace. Both these estates were built in the 60s and 70s; a Lambeth architect, Ted Hollamby, was involved in both; they are both largely judged to be successful in meeting the need for low-rise, high-density, housing - important in the 70s, absolutely vital now.

In neighbouring Southwark, there's a chance to learn  more about the Dawson Heights Estate, a place that has always caught my imagination. From the distance, say in Brockwell Park,  it has the look of some re-imagined version of a medieval hill-town. Somewhere, in other words, where I always wanted to live!

There's so much to see, and only one short weekend to see it all in! Until 2018.

Meanwhile, September's also the month of the Lambeth Heritage Festival. Plenty of fascinating things are promised: must try to digest all this info, and get along to at least some of these events. Thanks!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The long and windy road to Woolwich (aka Get your kicks on the A206)

Less time to write this pointless blog as longer and longer journeys are required in search of the few hourly-paid hours of soft labour.

Less time needed, because stupid pointless blog no longer aims to do anything other than satisfy writer's solipsistic urge to see its verbal utterances smeared across a dirty Macbook screen.

Following the migration further out of town, further east, further south - writer finds itself cycling all the way to the Thames Barrier and beyond to what used to be Woolwich Dockyard.

Biggest surprise is actually getting as far as SE18 as there's so much incredibly interesting stuff to see on the way. From the leafy groves of Camberwell to the densely-packed historical delights of Deptford - we have to rush past them all, heading into the wind and the rain and the diesel fumes. And then, we dare not even mention....Greenwich.

All along the route, the sublime is buried under deep layers of ridiculous levels of pollution and aggression. The pollution from nose-to-tail trucks and buses on large sections of the obvious route is appalling.

The aggression, mainly from drivers. All along the Peckham Road, you try to beat the traffic lights and avoid all those huge angry powerful cars trying to push out across your cycle lane from their backstreet turnings. Bad enough even in the dog days of August; so much worse when schools are back.

The congestion reaches a peak in the bottleneck of New Cross Gate, every day, all day.  Hardly surprising, as this unfortunate stretch of what should be a High Street has to double as part of the trunk route out of London to Dover: it's a local, regional, national and international artery and it's about the width of three buses. And the pavements are hardly wide enough for two McLaren pushchairs to pass. It's bonkers!

So, for a superannuated cyclist, each journey involves cheating death many more than nine times.
I've tasted the tarmacadam of Coldharbour Lane too many times: I now have to make eye contact with every driver and every pedestrian before I dare to proceed.

But all the way to Woolwich? Madness. Last time this gormless blogger came this far south-east, it was to visit someone who was starting, and later finishing, an eight-year prison stretch, which began and half-ended at HMP Belmarsh, near Plumstead and Thamesmead.

This fellow always said he preferred the time in this modern high-security prison than the in-between years spent on a low-category wing somewhere near Nottingham, or  later spells in Rochester, Lewes and Brixton.

And now, when you look east down the river  - which is visibly more an estuary at this point - you can see that these areas will soon be as "sought after" as Battersea or Rotherhithe have already become.

Woolwich is here and now, Plumstead is coming soon after. Apparently there's even going to be a Crossrail link at some point.

The good news is that the river itself is so majestic that even the shittiest of new developments on the riverbanks fade into insignificance. There's more river traffic down here, as well: dredgers, sugar boats, the occasional small cruise liner, and lots of those giant steel barges filled with rubbish, or with earth or sand, presumably coming from or going to the high-rise building sites all along the river.

The Camberwell Hokusai: read the fascinating
story of its creation and near-destruction
on the BBC website
So what's so interesting about this ancient west to east run?  Unless, that is, you are a rich property speculator.

To cycle the route from Clapham to Woolwich is to witness the creation of a new seam of property developer gold in the making.

The  newish apartment blocks with their bright green balconies along Coldharbour Lane are just an overture to the really Wagnerian stuff going on around Deptford Creek and all the way up the Greenwich peninsula, and then across the river...and back again into Woolwich itself.

But....but....against all this, there is so much to love on this journey.

There's still the pure joy of passing through Camberwell, one of the few bits that has yet to succumb to the particularly nasty strain of the gentrification virus that has consumed Clapham entirely and is now well ensconced in Brixton.

Camberwell has its long-term affluent enclave, all the way up the Grove and into the hills over to Dulwich. Salute Hokusai as you cross Denmark Hill, cutting through leafy Love Walk and back onto the grinding reality of Peckham Road.

And how, and how. All the way from Camberwell to Deptford, you see it, you feel it, you are crowded off to the curb by the thundering ready-mix trucks and the massive "motorway maintenance" lorries which seem to be more often found on narrow inner London streets.

This great old-school junk shop announces your arrival
in  New Cross Gate
Oh but cheer up - there's still plenty of old school south-east London on this route. Peckham is obviously requires a chapter or two all of its own; you daren't linger here, you'd never get away. Keep on until you get to the historic high street of New Cross Gate, signalled by the wonderful and genuine junk shop just before the railway station.

Amazing how the presence and huge influence of Goldsmiths College has never impacted on this high street in anything but a good way; the students and staff clearly care about their very special bit of urban streetscape.

Then on into Deptford: and this, like Peckham, or perhaps even more so, is such a deep well of history that the best thing is to shut your eyes and cycle on, else you'll be here for weeks. As you cross the Creek, you spot another dumped scooter in the mud.

Then suddenly you are in tourist heaven or Hell, whichever you prefer - and again you must keep the blinkers on, cycle on grimly through all that maritime stuff, the grandiose Wren, of Greenwich; stop if you like in the wonderful park for a sandwich and some water.

Because you're going to need all your strength for the next and final leg of this trip as you plug on east. There's a very distinct change in the atmosphere as you past the dark, almost northern looking chimneys of the big old power station, and as you enter the straggling suburban badlands east of Greenwich.

Cross that major artery, the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, at the nape of the neck of the Greenwich Peninsula - swing hard left onto the Woolwich Road and by God you get your first real sniff of life in outer-SE London.

Beware the stare of the plaster meerkat
The Road to Woolwich is lined with mythical creatures;
leave your best instincts behind, dear traveller, smell
the burning rubber!

 Here you confront a row of small animals, chained to the railings, all staring at you, blank eyed, as if traumatised.

Oh by the way, these animals are made of plaster, and belong to a shop selling mirrors. Nevertheless the way they sit there, tethered, to brave the great surge of traffic, is always impressive. The plaster doggie closest to the junction is a goner.

He's imbibed too much tyre dust, too much distilled diesel, to many hard stares from lads on nicked scooters. Then you see the dead stare of the plaster meerkat,  and you think, that's enough I'm going home.

But it's too late, you are now in fast-moving traffic, it'll take you through Charlton and on, and on... to the next big junction.

A big pub on the righthand, south side of the road catches the attention. It's name seems to be a rallying call to the heavy traffic surging up and down yet another feeder road for the tunnel. It's name - The Antigallican.

In plain, polite English, that pub's name means: "against the French"...

Now, given we're not far from the main A2 road to Dover and Folkestone and thus to Calais, you might be forgiven for thinking this area has it own special take on history.

The old military influence of Greenwich and Deptford, the Woolwich Dockyards and Arsenal - all that stored-up potential violence - prevails, of course it does, it is all relatively recent history.  And of course it all came back home again in 2013 by the murder of the soldier, Lee Rigby.

No coincidence that one of the more violent scenes of Clockwork Orange was filmed in the brutalist concrete estates of Thamesmead, while the supposed murder in Blow Up happens in Maryon Park  - one of the entrances to which we're passing right now.

This strange green space is like a maze or snail's shell, folding in on itself, a strange vortex, paths leading upwards past tennis courts, up to a peak where there are views across the Thames. It is a Tardis of a park: much bigger on the inside than its boundaries suggest.

As is well-known and documented, this is the park where Antonioni shot the key maybe-murder scenes for his wonderful and crazy 1966 film, Blow Up.

I search in vain for the antique shop where David Hemmings buys a wooden propeller, before entering the park with his Nikon F.

The shop has gone but the park remains very much as you see it in the movie - except that many of the trees have doubled in size, and most of that distinctive wooden fencing has gone. And the grass is just normally green, not painted green as the mythology of the film suggests the Director insisted on.

For me the part that really worked was cycling around past the tennis courts where, 51 years ago, a load of hippie extras from the the Living Theatre performed their mimed tennis game, and drove off in a batter old Land Rover.

The murder scene - then as now - is supremely dull and inconclusive. I sit on a bench somewhere near where the killing might or might not have happened.  People have been here. There's the usual mess of silver foil, fag packets, dirty tissues, energy drink tins, fast-food containers, empty prescription pill strips, used condoms.

I eat my 9-seed bar and from the corner of an eye detect movement; about five teenagers in school uniform have arrived, seen me, and turned back down the hill. I've occupied their favourite spot, by the look of it.

What were they planning? God knows. I get back on my bike and edge downhill to the A206, and take a detour down to the Thames Barrier Park, a not very convincing sliver of green space which does take you all the way down to the river - and one hell of a view of everything.

From this angle, the scale of the development around Canary Wharf becomes truly apparent. Just for once, I think the developers got it right. This was the right place for a dense plantation of high-rise luxury apartments, and they are still shooting up. Many of them look much more interesting than any of the dreary rubbish going up in Nine Elms.

And so on to the next roundabout, this one blessed with a big drive-thru MacDonalds, just before you get to a huge Co-Op funeral parlour.  Which is about as far as we're going today, just back down to the river and on to the weird former industrial estate where new enclaves of artists' studios rub shoulders with confectionery warehouses, police vehicle depots and abandoned factories. Just across the river, Tate & Lyle's Silvertown plant sucks a lot of the world's sugar production into the UK.

Right next to London City Airport, which quickly sucks in and spits out global executives looking for always newer, always better havens for their megabucks.

So, new stories begin.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

"More bad news from Battersea" - Oh, really? what a massive surprise

Is that some affordable housing going up just to the south of the rebuilt Battersea Power Station? Probably not. The developers have just been given the OK by Wandsworth Council to cut the numbers of affordable homes in the development from 636 to 389. That's a 250 home shortfall on the promised total. Meanwhile some of the poorest people in the borough continue to suffer the disruption, the pollution and the congested roads caused by this absurd development, aimed at an international super-rich market which has already moved on. 

It has been a terrible few weeks for London, but a fascinating time to observe how the London Evening Standard, under the new editor George Osborne, has been covering the successive disasters and tragedies.

No opportunity has been missed to ridicule the prime ministerial qualities of Theresa May. That is entirely as expected. Slightly more surprising is its more cogently critical approach to residential property developers, and this recent headline - "More bad news from Battersea"  - is a case in point.

I've written lots - maybe too much - about the damage this unnecessary and vulgar development is causing, how it is blighting the lives of thousands of local residents from Vauxhall right through to Battersea. I used to prefix these entries with "Nine Elms disease" - but not any more, as that suggests a natural disaster, unavoidable. In fact it's a very human disaster, caused by human greed, and so highly avoidable.

The long-suspected impact on air quality of so much construction work in one area is given added credence by research published last month (see: South Bank construction boom sends London air pollution soaring, London Evening Standard, May 8 2017). There's also the noise, the congestion caused by endless roadworks and closures and the convoys of ready-mix trucks doing the circuits from Silverthorne Road to Vauxhall and back again. The chewed-up streets, the spilling of pebbles so dangerous to the eyes of cyclists, the way these bulky vehicles dominate the road space, just as the new buildings colonise the sky above us.

Now parts of the development are nearing completion, we get an influx of estate agents with their stupid pennants fluttering outside their "marketing suites". Of course they had some bad news too: in March 2016, well before the EU referendum, demand for the sky-high-priced flats (aka safety deposit boxes in the sky) fell back and prices slumped by 20 per cent and more. Demand is said to have recovered a bit since then due to the weaker pound, but it's still far from the 2015 level.

And this week there's further damning news about this place, again reported in the Standard: the developers now want to cut the number of "affordable" flats from 636 to 389, just 9 per cent of the total. This is because their profit expectations have fallen and they need to prop them up - presumably to keep shareholders happy.

They say the other 250 affordable properties could still be built later on - depending on the future state of the market.

Meanwhile they are still using the fact they have rescued a crumbling national icon - Battersea Power Station - as justification for their greed. Well, they might have rebuilt the chimneys very nicely, but unfortunately the whole building is now walled in by such massive banks of apartment blocks that its impact on the surrounding urban environment is totally lost.

The building of high-rise residential towers has gained a painful new topicality since the Grenfell Tower  fire. Last week the people building and buying apartments in the new "luxury" developments were the target of an excoriating attack by novelist Will Self, on BBC Radio 4's A Point of View.

Self, who lives in the Stockwell area, was audibly trembling with rage throughout his 10-minute talk. But he never let the anger get the better of the precision of his speech. Architecture, he said, was unique among the arts in that it had a direct social impact - and thus a moral dimension.

He saved some of his most deliciously withering language for the Nine Elms development: "The very sight of these infantile-looking structures being doodled into being now turns my stomach" he said.

The majority of  these new residential towers, he said, were "as ugly as they are bad, enshrining as they do not the civic virtue of providing housing for people on low incomes, but the corporate vice of profit maximisation".

Well said, Will Self!

Friday, 12 May 2017

Taking a view on redevelopment....Battersea and Nine Elms, 2012 -2017

The first cranes appeared in 2012

There used to be a good view from the back of the small block of flats I live in.  It's in north Clapham, near the Wandsworth Road, and is on the last bit of the higher ground that forms Lavender Hill. So there's nothing but the Battersea marshes and the river between here and central Westminster.

But where once we had views of the old city, now what we see most of are the nasty little boxy blocks and towers scattered along the river, the increasingly baleful evidence of the Battersea - Nine Elms redevelopment. I've watched as the  four chimneys of Battersea Power Station came down, then went back up again. Now the huge building is being engulfed by equally huge blocks going up around it. The old gasholders have gone to be replaced by holders of billionaire owners' tax avoidance schemes.

Battersea Power Station from a fourth floor flat in Clapham: left, on July 6 2012; right, April 2017

Westminster and London Eye from Clapham; left, July 2012, right, April 2017
No point complaining of course...it's not as though we have a protected view. Not that even that status carries much weight in this world of vulture-gangster property developers. Look at the Richmond Park affair.

The funny thing is, I suppose, that all these new buildings are losing value as England commits its xenophobic hari kiri. Perhaps one day soon a penthouse apartment in Nine Elms will be as cheap as it looks.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Two films, two Brixtons, many gentrifications

Went to Ritzy to see A Moving Image, the new film about gentrification in Brixton. Emerged 75 minutes later without much new light on the topic and rather disappointed. Another, very different two-part film, coming at the same topic from a different angle, was far more evocative of at least two of Brixton's dispersed communities. This film, For What We Are About To Lose - was coincidentally the centrepiece of a small exhibition in Brixton Library, next door to the Ritzy.

Talk about keeping it local!

A Moving Image started with a strangely low-key sequence of a young woman emerging from Brixton Tube station into the street with a smart wheelie suitcase. The underground arrival in Brixton is surely one of the great full-on London experiences, but it seemed underwhelming here. Maybe deliberately, as this young woman was supposed to be returning to Brixton after a few years out east in the artistic community of Shoreditch. Maybe Brixton seemed rather unthrilling to her, what with her memories of an even livelier high street of the early 2000s.

 If so it underlined not only the problem of gentrification, but also  the whole concept of the movie, which was constantly struggling against itself.

On her return to her home patch, this young mixed-race woman, Nina,  played by Tanya Fear, stays in an enormous and ridiculously fashionable loft apartment owned by a friend of a friend. She explores the area, wandering the streets with her top-end digital SLR, filming what she sees.

She has debates with her equally smart girlfriend who agrees to help with her "project". At first she doesn't know what she wants the project to be but when she gets mixed up in a Reclaim Brixton demo she decides that's her subject - gentrification. Not a documentary, mind you, but an art piece, a piece of art.

One great moment in the film only works if you see the film in this cinema: during the demo we see the Ritzy strikers calling for boycott of the Picturehouse group cinemas until they're all paid the living wage. It was one of the few moments in the film that triggered some cheering in the audience.

It takes a while to dawn on Nina that she is part of the gentrification, even though her friends keep telling her, and interviewees make it clear. It's as clear as day to the audience, because the dear girl is wearing a totally different designer outfit in every take, and speaks the lingo of the casually moneyed hipsterish young.

She befriends a young black guy who is meant to be part of the community but he's also an "artist" and the art and music he makes is a truly terrible. The villain of the piece is a young and very successful white actor who falls for the girl and has bought a flat in formerly-squatted Rushcroft Road - you know the buildings - as a "good investment". He's a villain, sure, but he's also, as we learn later on,  a working class lad from Bermondsey made good, whose own family have been driven away from their old neighbourhood. One of the admirable things about this film is that it shows just how complicated this gentrifcation busines is.

In the course of making her art, Nina interviews a few people, and these are the highlights of the film; the bloke from Peckham is especially entertaining. The black members of a local community group are suspicious of her motives and one of their members cruelly tells her that her project "doesn't mean shit".

By the end of the film you can't help but agree with him. It was really much more about Nina's internal struggles with depression (rather clumsily revealed by the discovery of a strip of anti-depressants) and her romantic life.  Maybe it was me, but  the scene where she makes the white boy actor dance with her was very odd: were we supposed to be entertained or what?

The other main character in the film is Big Ben, a mysterious, homeless black busker and ranter who acts as a sort of conscience of the movie. She films him a lot, and perhaps he should be the real subject of her movie. But as soon as she realises this he dies. There's a nice scene where she dreams he's in her flat and sitting on her bed, and then he disappears in a ball of blinding light.

 So, perhaps that's it: the revelation that the true soul of Brixton has already departed.

The interviews with anti-gentrification people from New York and Berlin popped into the film were intriguing; it's only when you go to the community bit of this film's website you realise these videos are part of a bigger project to collect voices from threatened communities around the world.

In other words, the director of A Moving Image, Shola Amoo, is trying to do exactly what Nina is doing: he is Nina, and suddenly it all sort of makes sense.

All in all, a film's a curate's egg; it's intriguing and ambitious, but also annoying, and it seems that some opportunities are wasted. But, if you've never visited Brixton you at least get some moody rooftop views; but not enough, even of this, for my liking.

Still, you have to commend the director for attempting such a complex project, and the film has had plenty of good reviews in the media, so please don't take my criticisms too seriously ( I know that won't happen!)

The other film, For What We Are About To Lose, is a very well-crafted example of the traditional documentary style, with many interviews intercut with archive photos and some lovely footage of Brixton in the 50, 60s, 70s and 80s.

It was made by the Clapham Film Unit, and is in two parts. The first 20 minutes covers the history of the Carlton Mansions squat from the 70s to the final evictions of 2014; the second half looks at Somerleyton Road community. Together the short films are a precious record of what was once the true heart of Brixton, that little bit where Coldharbour Lane crosses Railton and Atlantic Roads, which is now undergoing transformation as part of the Somerleyton Road redevelopment scheme.

You might say that the Carlton Mansions film is only representative of a small fraction of the old Brixton community, the squatters, and that would be true. "Maybe we were all misfits," says one of the  first occupants.  Former squatters are interviewed inside the astonishing and huge buildings where they made their homes and workshops and studios. There were poignant moments, and also painful memories.

One of the original squatters, Dale, reveals how they were actually invited into the building by Lambeth Council, which at the time ran progressive short-life housing schemes, helping people set up housing co-ops and handing out grants to make the places habitable. Dale also worked with Brian Barnes on the famous Nuclear Dawn mural on the huge side wall of the mansions - a mural which is still there but rapidly disappearing under new graffiti.

 Another guy talked about how they had to secure and guard their squat because Brixton was such a "difficult place" in the 80s. It was not only sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There were hard times, hard winters, fights, a suicide, rows. But also a lot of creativity, and we hear from several successful artists and makers who got their first big break in the Mansions.

The Somerleyton Road part of the doc is only 10 minutes or so but an utterly joyous film. Some former residents are brought together in a community centre on Railton Road, and they talk about their lives back in Somerleyton Road back in the 60s and 70s - even before the Barrier Block went up.

There are some wonderful memories of blues parties, some fantastic old footage of Brixton market, and even an impromptu performance of by former members of a lover's rock group, who reminisce about the excitement of seeing Jamaican DJ Peter Metro at a Somerleyton blues before letting on they were part of a group of  five women who took over the stage from him...."we were not deejays but sing-jays, we took a broadway melody and we ride the rhythm...."

One woman at the end sums up the process which is sometimes referred to as social cleansing: "It seems like a plot. They sell your house, move you into a block of flats. Why are we knocking wonderful buildings down to build atrocious things like that?  To me it was like a con. That was the beginning of the change."

You must watch these films! Catch them on the Clapham Film unit website now; there's also a very good, well illustrated free booklet about the films; copies were available in Brixton library, last time I was there.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The new Nine Elms: even uglier than expected

Let's hope that when the new Wandsworth Road tube station is built in the the foreground of this pic it will block out the view of that ugly bunch of apartment buildings behind. 

Some of that cluster of hefty buildings around the old Sainsbury's site at the eastern end of the Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall development are nearing completion - and God help us, what a terrible blot on the landscape they are.

Take one look at these pictures, that's all you will be able to stand. The shapes and colours are just so dull, the positioning of each building in relation to its neighbours seems wrong. Imagine the poor buggers who are spending their life savings on an apartment on the 9th floor of one of these dingy erections (OK - no normal people have such life savings, only City rooks and crooks and speculators and you won't feel sorry for them).

You couldn't even call them towers; they are neither high-rise nor low rise. They are hunched, bad tempered, and they lean awkwardly towards each other, like a badly-posed group photo of people who loathe each other.

It has to be said they are wilfully ugly. In an age when computers allow architects to design buildings of almost any shape, and materials can be supplied in almost every colour, how on earth did they think these shapes and colours would do for this location? The facings are dark grey, tan, off-white and a sickly yellow. The tan is particularly horrible - the colour of the last shoes on the rack in a Clark's sale when everything else has gone.

One  thing is clear - there's not going to be any shortage of contenders for the 2017 Carbuncle of the Year awards, many with an SW8 post code.

Which is a shame, because I have been longing to be proved wrong on this development. It surely will all be wonderful when finished.

A singularly depressing bunch of buildings hits your eyeballs
as you head west down the Wandsworth Road and see this
new Barratt Homes development nextto the new Sainsburys.
The new Sainsburys has been open for a while. I went there, as I used to quite like the "old" 1980s Sainsburys at Nine Elms that attracted customers from an astonishingly wide hinterland, south east down to Camberwell, locals in Vauxhall and Stockwell, and most of Clapham, Battersea and beyond before "local" supermarkets popped up every few yards.

The new one - oh, I am sorry to have to say this - is underwhelming. For a start , it is all up two steep flights of stairs. When you enter that shiny gold and orange building, you walk into a bland car-park foyer with those annoyingly slow travelators going up and down. Who, in 2017, builds a supermarket designed chiefly with motorists in mind in such a central location?

The shop itself occupies the normal large space, which could just as well be used for offices, storage, a call centre...a mass dormitory....a rave venue; and who knows, if it last long enough it might see  all these uses.

It shares the floor with a couple of not convincing concessions. One is called Habitat but  it's hard to see much connection with the original yuppies' favourite furniture store in their offerings; not much sign of the Conran dedication to good, useful design is visible.

What a shame. No-one expects to love a supermarket, but there was a time when people admitted to some affection for the old Sainsburys, where you would keep bumping into people you knew. These days the store seems to be just an adjunct to the property developers; indeed, with all its inner city Local stores, it seems Sainsburys is a bit of a player int this field itself.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The day Theresa May stole Clapham's big radio moment

Clapham High Street - here and now, but not on the BBC Radio London Robert Elms show last week thanks to Mrs May's election announcement...but where, oh where, was the wonderful Maxwell Hutchinson?
Was listening to Radio London Tuesday morning.

As, to be honest, I often do....working at home, you know, self-employed teacher....freelance writer and editor...you know, well I will get back to jobseeking when I've had one more coffee. And listened to the wonderful and Reverend Professor Maxwell Hutchinson on the Robert Elms radio show on BBC Radio London - a local radio station that is often more interesting and intelligent than many of the national channels.

That man - the very Rev Prof Max - is quite a wonder. He's a great entertainer and educator on his many and various special subjects - architecture and the built environment, music, the Church and all manner of ecclesiastical matters....and much more. I think he is a world authority on Frankincense. And myrhh.

He's been doing this for ages, alongside running a successful architectural practice and being president of the RIBA, as well as a lay deacon. A couple of years back he had a bad, serious stroke. He was off air for months. But Mr Elms and his very loyal, very solid band of listeners, kept the idea of Max alive. By his own account, Mr Elms and his many listeners helped to keep Max alive. And Max came back and again turns up on the show every week, often on location as a sort of Kolly Kibber character - find Max in your Manor!

This week, the Rev Professor was supposed to be in my manor. I did not know this til 10am Tuesday when I tuned in my dodgy transistor to 94.9fm.

Poor old Robert Elms was having to deal with people from Clapham; he could hardly conceal his distaste for the place. He cheered up when someone pointed out Clapham Junction was in Battersea and it was only through snobbery they changed the name to Clapham.
A crescent moon over the bell-tower of Clapham's Holy Trinity
church: maybe Maxwell Hutchinson was somewhere around
this historic building, marooned like a ship on Clapham

You could sort of tell from the way he enunciated "Clapham" (and even slipped in a naughty "Cla'am" which was bound to annoy some SW4 listeners) that he did not have his usual enthusiasm for this Manor: too posh by 'alf, too silly, was what he  perhaps was half-secretly thinking. ALso it has the disadvatage of being south of the river, and just south of Chelsea.

I sort of agree with Mr Elms ...but I also agree with the caller who said Clapham had always been up-and-coming. But it never actually arrived. Which is (in my view) its saving grace. The High Street is still pleasingly scruffy. It's quite a horrible place but it is also mixed enough to remind you that the Henrys and Banker-wankers and so on are only the most recent and actually quite thin layer of this suburb's social geology.

There is still enough social housing in Clapham to ensure that the Henry&Henrietta brigade never completely colonise. Nor any other group of transients, my own lot of of 80s chancers included.

Then Mr Elms was talking to some chap who represented Clapham Common, a preservation society. He was in fact in Spain as he spoke. He did a so-so job, hardly exciting much interest in the long and outrageous history of this odd open space. Instead he kept telling us there were lots of fun runs. 'Fun run' is surely oxymoronic. He mentioned also 'Australian rules' football and dog-walkers. Yes, alas he was right - that is now what the Common is about. Sport, fitness, dogs and their owners. And in summer, young people eating huge picnics and drinking lots of champagne or prosecco from Sainsburys then leaving all the rubbish on the grass afterwards.

What about the 1985 (?) AntiApartheid free concert? Dr John? Alternative Miss World? Sunsplash? Archaos? Desmond Dekker at the Bandstand? Remember that, do you? etc?

Look, you know I am  a big critic of what has happened around here, and I wouldn't trust myself to defend it now, to be honest, even though it has served me well over three decades - but when we're on a global radio show, we need to stick together, right?

Well, I was waiting with some trepidation to find out what would be said.

Or maybe he was here, Old Clapham Library on the North Side of the
Common. This building was eventually saved and became what is now
the Omnibus, a well-used arts centre which is currently showing
Jim Grover's excellent photos of Clapham High Street life,
low, high and higher.
I was waiting for the chance to ring and tell Mr Elms about the Bread and Roses pub, almost the last place in Clapham I still feel very positive about. A trade union pub with music, free music, theatre and more! The Studio Voltaire contemporary art organisation also seems like a very good thing, deserving of much more praise than it gets. I'd have tried to mention that as well.

But I was also waiting for Jim Grover, the photographer of 48 hours on Clapham High Street, who was due to appear on the show to talk about his book and photo-exhibition at the Omnibus Arts centre.

And above all - I was waiting to find out where in Clapham the Rev Prof had chosen - and even more trepidation as to who he might meet. I began to fantasise. Maybe he will be outside the Holy Trinity Church on the Common - home of the Clapham Sect, one of the key places where the abolition of the slave trade gained momentum.

I think that would be the obvious place for Maxwell Hutchinson to set up shop - a church (albeit not that interesting, architecturally) - with some powerful history, and right by the popular paddling pool and temperance statue to boot.

Or maybe he was at the the new Library. Flashy noughties public-private rip-off architecture. No café any more!
This would have been a good place for the Prof Maxwell Hutchinson to hang out
with his Radio London crew: outside the new Clapham Library, half way down
 the High Street. Andrew Logan's mirrored artworks spelling out "Library"
are popular with all age groups and are arguably more interesting than
the building they stand in front of. 

Or perhaps in one of the leafy upper-crust streets or squares...or in Venn Street, a pleasant enough place. Or maybe he was at the Old Library, now the Omnibus Arts Centre - that would have made sense, especially as those High Street photos are on exhibition there right now.

So yes, I was waiting....and then Theresa May said she wanted a general election, and that was that! The rest of the show was devoted to political analysis and speculation, inevitably and properly, of course.

Ah well, maybe it was for the best.

Clapham is such an odd place now. I don't think it fits Robert Elm's idea of the sort of place real "one of us" Londoners live. Maybe it was once. It does not seem that sort of a place any more, even though, in reality, it of course is.

Clapham. Marginal but not edgy. Common, yes, very common. But not cheap, and certainly not very cheerful. Unless you have a city bonus to spend.

Why I write this stupid blog/ Why do I write this stupid blog?

Macaulay Road, Clapham, in autumn. Sometimes it is good just to celebrate the beauty of the place you live in.
It's always a joy to have some time - and the necessary drive - to write something for this blog.

What's wonderful about writing a blog named Microgroove 33 is that i can write about anything I bloody well like.

It doesn't have to be local, it doesn't have to be news, it doesn't have to be about music or art or people or linguistics or bicycles or Penguin Classics or charity shops or architecture  or even about London - although those are all things I'd love to be expert enough to write a blog on.

It doesn't even have to be about dogs.

Like I said, I have been looking back at the blog, and especially at dozens -  five dozen in fact -  of unpublished entries that are scattered around in the blogger editing and design area, like so many unfinished projects in a bike workshop.

I trip over them, frequently - especially two or three unpublished updates to the totally subjective south-west London charity shop survey for bibliophiles first published in 2013.

Ever since I have been promising myself to update and extend this series, and have even written new stuff, about the charity shops of Streatham, and Stroud Green, and Kilburn, for example (there are lots, and lots).

Recent visits to the Barnado's shop in Brixton confirm and re-confirm my feeling that this would be the number one shop if I were to update that silly top 10. It's solid on my staples - books and music and good old clothes - and it keeps throwing up interesting oddities. This week there's a whole glass case full of vintage cameras, and a whole shelf of cut-price bath products.

Not long ago it had a rack-full of over-size string vests - you know, the type some Rastas wore back in the 80s? But these were not just in the Rasta red green and gold, but in the colours of lots of other African flags. Reader I bought one - but no-one outside this blog will ever find out, and no-one will ever see me wearing it either!

So, there you go ....maybe one day I will complete some more of these beached, stranded stories.

Like the one on the strange increase in people getting caught short and crapping on the streets. Twice within 150 yards of where I am now sitting, in the past two months. I'm talking humans, not dogs. Young humans. I could continue but I will not.

Or the story on the mystic Xanadu of Dawson Heights.

Some of the articles are no more than a headline that  for some reason I liked at the time. In a long career as a mediocre journalist, I remember how every so often a sub would come up with a perfect headline for a story that did not exist, and we'd try to find that story and write it.

I also want to write about the beauty of the wisteria in three streets, and the beauty of Californian Lilac in another three; or maybe one just about the beauty of the residential streets of SW8 in spring.

I could write a hundred more posts on my curious work pattern, which takes me to Vauxhall, Bermondsey,  Camberwell, Dulwich, Forest Hill, New Cross and New Malden on a regular basis, sometimes in the evenings. And once to Stoke-on-Trent.

And to converted shops in Angell Town ...

I want to write about the writers I love, and about places I love; about bikes and bike shops.

But I'm sure I will soon be back to ranting about Range Rovers, posh types and luxury apartments.
It's so much easier to write when you're really stirred up with anger!

Monday, 10 April 2017

The first warm weekend of the year and look what happens

Why is the grass of Clapham Common so green, so lush? Maybe we don't want to know...
It's the first really warm weekend of the year, and as always, most of the population of this locality go a bit crazy.

By 4pm today, the temperature in this part of south London topped 24 degrees, and as if by some cosmic ordination, everyone of a certain age and social inclination left their homes - their stuffy shared flats or luxury apartments - and went and sat down on the green grass of  Clapham Common.

So many people went out, it looked like Brighton beach on an unexpectedly hot Bank Holiday.

Cycling past on way home , seeing all these happy souls basking in the long-forgotten warmth of London sunshine, it is so easy to be seduced - why not join them for a while, the grass looks so green.

Oh, ill-advised one. You weave your way through the little groups of people, you find your patch, you stretch out on the grass, you relax. And then it hits you - a faint but distinctly unpleasant smell, but more than a smell, it is a tang, something almost hormonal. It is also as though your skin is being touched by something bad.

You look around. Can't all these people smell this smell? Is it just me? Am I in fact the source of this pong?

Then it dawns on me: there has not been any rain for weeks. Not real, heavy rain. The last few days have been warm. But every day, hot or cold, every single day, thousands and thousands of dogs from all the houses in all the vast tracts of residential streets surrounding Clapham Common - yes, all those dogs are taken out, every morning, every afternoon, every evening, to relieve themselves on the
grass of the Common.

The solid waste from these dogs is usually removed from the Common in small plastic bags. Most of it. But the liquids - these are sprayed onto the grass and the earth, and they stay there. Including the wee of randy male dogs and on-heat bitches.

That's the smell we are all enjoying today!

The rich, doggy aroma of south west London's biggest free dog toilet.

Friday, 31 March 2017

It's not just Nine Elms - even Mecca is suffering at the hands of property developers

View from the Abraj al Bait tower while it was under construction, looking down into the sanctuary of
Mecca's Holy Mosque. Note the areas cleared for more construction in the background.
Photo: Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons
Unless you are a Muslim, your chances of visiting the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia are approximately zero. But a short film, shown at last week's BBC Arabic Film festival, reveals that even this most sacred of places is being ravaged by property developers - remarkably similar to the ones working their grim way along the south bank of the Thames.

What this film, Prayer for Mecca,  brings home so sharply is how rampant redevelopment - which has the full support of the government and presumably the religious authorities - has already wiped out parts of the medieval city, and in doing so has also destroyed a slice of communal memory. A recent Guardian article reports local anger at the way their neighbourhoods are being erased to make way for new roads and hotels.

Directed by Matteo Lonardi, the film follows the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater as he attempts to document the rapid change being inflicted on his city. This young man - clearly at some risk to himself - is photographing what he can of the old city, as well as the redevelopment.

Much of the film, like the city itself, is dominated by the gargantuan Abraj Al Bait hotel complex, a grouping of massive skyscrapers which loom over the most sacred part of the city, the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Mosque) and its courtyard where millions of pilgrims gather each year, to circle the Kaaba, the most holy cube-shaped shrine at its centre.

A famous ancient Ottoman fortress was demolished to make way for these new buildings, which contain shopping malls and office premises as well as ultra-luxurious hotel accomodation, car parks and even helipads.

The central tower, with its huge clockfaces and spire, looks a bit like a kitscher version of the already kitsch Big Ben, but for its height - at 601m about seven times as tall - and the crescent moon at the tip. The forest of cranes surrounding the central area is painfully reminiscent of the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside development.

Of course it's the massive increase in numbers of pilgrims which provides the main justification for this redevelopment, along with some tragic incidents when the old city's infrastructure could not cope with the crowds.

But it's the brashness and show-off style of these buildings that is upsetting for some locals, according to Ahmed, who notes that they seem entirely at odds with the spiritual nature of the place. Apparently there's even a Starbucks in there somewhere. The minarets of the great mosque are dwarfed, and the new sykscrapers throw deep shadows across the courtyard.

The area where he grew up - an old quarter, with a maze of narrow alleyways - has been bulldozed.

Makes you wonder what Canterbury might look like if they had 14 million pilgrim-visitors going there for the same week every year....

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Photographer gets under the skin of Clapham High Street's Jekyll and Hyde character

This uninspiring photo of Clapham High Street is by me: to see this much-maligned thoroughfare in a totally different and much more interesting light, check out Jim Grover's photos on the BBC Online site or better still get along to his exhib-
ition at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham, April 3 - 20
Thanks to photographer Jim Grover, the south London Babylon otherwise known as Clapham High Street is being shown to the world in all its glorious ghastliness - and even a bit of unexpected beauty -  on the BBC website.

 Jim Grover's amazing photo essay has been chosen as this week's  BBC Online"Picture This" feature  - a few days before the photos go on show locally at  Omnibus (the arts centre in the old Clapham Library building on Clapham Common northside).

Jim hit on the brilliant notion of treating his subject, rather like Hieronymous Bosch, in two parts - heaven and hell, and photographing them differently, one in colour, the other black and white.   The division is between night and day - cleverly working on the split personality of this singularly unattractive thoroughfare.

And he works some real alchemy with his camera: sometimes it looks almost beautiful, sometimes as sordid and threatening as a Mean Streets era New York. The real stars of the show, however, are the people, and thankfully there's hardly an upturned-collar rugger shirt in sight.

His daytime shots beautifully capture a suburban world of shoppers, street cleaners, mums, kids, shop keepers, rough sleepers, pensioners, commuters, itinerants; the same old Clapham set. These photos are all in colour, and are all taken on the south side of the street.

The nightlife shots are all black and white and are all taken on the north side of the street, focusing on the true inferno of Infernos, the notoriously tacky night-club, and that strip of bars leading down towards Clapham North. You don't get too much sense of the literal tackiness of this street on a busy summer night, when your shoes can stick to a pavement awash with puked-out Baileys, half-digested kebabs and a mixture of human and canine urine.

Generally he's very kind to Clapham - he doesn't mock or caricature it, and the yuppie-buppie-yummie-mummy-rugger-bugger set don't get too much of a look-in. They tend not to use the thoroughfare that much anyway, in my experience, sticking mostly to the "Old Town" area of max wealth, the plus Venn Street and the pubs around Clapham Common tube station when there are big matches on.

Jim Grover makes gold out of the base metal of this conflicted bit of Lambeth. There are many beautiful photos, even on the BBC site: I am eager to see more at the exhibition.  Favourites so far include some of the long-term shopkeepers and some very atmospheric shots of made-up revellers, and of my favourite bit of the street including the old Greek restaurant (Sappho) and that strange mystical charity shop.

I'm looking forward to seeing these pics at the Omnibus - especially as I have been trying to do something similar in words for years, and failing.

For as long as I can remember the authorities have been trying to clean up and gentrify the high street, to make it more yuppie-friendly. I remember when the Sainsbury's opened on the site of the old bus depot (and later, British Transport museum) - when, for a while, people thought this might be the beginning of an invasion by upmarket retail "brands".

Thank God, it never happened!

Instead it remains as scuzzy as ever, even after the building of that posh new library and health complex with its classy (but vandal-friendly) Andrew Logan artwork spelling out "LIBRARY".

As Jim's photo essay confirms, Clapham High Street remains a real Jekyll and Hyde of a street, a bit down at heel during the day, and an all-out alcohol fuelled war-zone every Friday and Saturday night.

It's rather quaint and old-fashioned in its way. It has nothing to do with the world of cool, arty nightlife so highly prized in places like Shoreditch and Dalston and Deptford and Peckham. It is totally uncool, unfashionable, and un-smart. And yet it remains incredibly popular, mainly it seems, for the kids from the further-out south west London suburbs. In short, it's a rite of passage place for kids with fake IDs.

They come to get hideously drunk in the bars here, they hope to pull, but most seem just to wander up and down in groups, vomiting occasionally, and shouting loudly to each other (I heard one say last week, "Guys, I really have to take a shit right here right now") - before tapping their phones to rustle up some sort of Uber car to take them back to dad's post-divorce black-leather-lined bachelor pad in Putney or Purley.

But, like so many other of London's suburban high streets, the real boss here is the traffic. Like the A23 through Brixton and Streatham, this is a trunk route, combining both the A24 as well as the A3. It is just too big a road to tame.

The pedestrian crossing lights are some of the most ruthless anywhere in London - you get half way across and they start blinking at you. Impatient drivers in their white vans, Audis and Aston Martins - they are  all in such a hurry. You run the last yards and off they go, heading perhaps for lovely gated homes in Nappy Valley, or further out, in Surrey and Hampshire. Heading north, they're looking for posher places to spend their bankers' wad of an evening.

They don't care that they are on Clapham High Street.

But there I go, fantasising again. See the reality of 48 Hours On Clapham High Street in Jim Grover's great exhibition at the Clapham Omnibus, April 3 - 20.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Clapham Library café update

Good news: people are once again allowed to sit in the ground floor café area!

Other news, neither good nor bad: the café itself is still not back in business, so you can't buy drinks and snacks, even though the kitchen and all its equipment seems to be intact.

Bad news: you still can't use the toilet.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Clapham Library's cafe remains closed – pity they didn't take some tips from Southwark

It's odd but true that two neighbouring south London boroughs, Lambeth and Southwark, have such different approaches to public libraries, despite having so much else in common.

These and several other thoughts emerged as I sat hunched on the terrible little narrow bench that passes for seating in the public library in Clapham High Street.

Clapham Library, half five on a Friday, the café is shut, and no-one can
use the seating. 
Thought one was: I should sue Lambeth council for doing my back in, as sitting on this bench for 20 minutes trying to find some info had revived long-buried lower back pain.

The bench was one of the only vacant seats in the library late on a Friday afternoon.

There were lots of empty chairs and tables in the café. But the café is closed. It seems no-one can enter what used to be the biggest seating area at ground level in this strange building, and it also seems that this café - which opened less than a year ago - has already shut down, at least temporarily.

No-one could explain why it was closed again last Saturday morning - surely a potential peak time. Have the operators decided to cut their losses? All the equipment is still there.  And why on earth can't we use the seats, whether or not it's selling its pricey hot drinks and snacks?

Absurd or what?

Given that most library users are schoolkids, students, OAPs, or young parents with toddlers attending storytime groups etc, it would seem that the cafe was aiming at the wrong market. The 30-something folk who love to spend their high earnings on small cups of coffee with silly names would not really need to come here - this area is full of twee little coffee shops, not to mention the obligatory Starbucks etc.

If the cafe had sold cheap and cheerful coffees, teas, and some simple grub, it might have worked. No item more than £1.

Mind you the café was well used, particularly in the exam season when there was really nowhere else to sit and study - but probably most of those customers bought one drink and then stayed the whole morning, revising or whatever.

You couldn't really blame the cafe operators - they probably thought Clapham, that's a wealthy area, let's go for the yuppie market. But the yups ain't there, they're all over the road at Cafe Nero. It was surely the fault of the council for agreeing to let this bit of public space for a private business.

They even threw in the toilet as part of the deal - outrageous or what?

Well, I'll check out this café again later in the week. Maybe if they have gone the council will be seeking another taker for this space...who knows. Maybe they should offer it to a food bank?

But then, this new library building was always a bit compromised. We only got it because they let the developers build that clunky edifice of expensive flats above and around it.

This library is rightly popular for its wide range of events and classes, especially for very young kids. The staff are great and someone clearly goes to a lot of trouble to try to maintain an interesting stock of books.

But from the start, it's been clear it's not really a very good space for what should be a core library activity - reading!

Yes there are some "teen" study areas, and a very cramped little general reading area up the top, plus a few small PC rooms. These are nearly always fully occupied. Right at the bottom there are cell-like meeting rooms, which are hidden away; you feel you are not really supposed to be there. The large floor area at the very bottom of the building has several tables and chairs for studying and a couple of sofas - but this is generally considered to be the children's area, and again you feel like you're breaking rules if you go down there to read.

In fact as I sat on my tortuous bench, two women with young kids came down the ramp, one saying in a very loud voice, "Oh I do hate it when grown-ups sit in the kid's area, it's creepy..."

Well I wasn't in the kid's area but halfway down the ramp. Every so often very young children zoom down the ramp on their scooters. Any moment you expected to hear a thump followed by much wailing. Luckily, no such disaster today.

All this made me think again what a wasted opportunity this library was, especially when you compare it with some of the much older libraries Lambeth has been closing or compromising under its heavily criticised scheme.

Lambeth only has to look east towards its much more competent neighbouring borough, Southwark, to see how to run libraries.

I've been working in Borough High Street for a couple of days a week, and have got to know the Harvard Library, close to St Georges Church and the tube station.

Despite its historic origins, explained on a blue plaque, this famously-named library also now occupies a fairly modern building, quite a bland one compared to the over-designed Clapham project.

There's nothing very pretty or exciting about it - it is simply a good, sensible building, which could just as well be offices or shops. But it provides plenty of space for all the activities a modern library has to offer.

So, there are lots of computer workstations for schoolkids and students as well as local workers seeking somewhere to wile away their lunch-breaks when it's cold and wet outdoors.

There's a kids' area of course. And yes, there is a café. It's right at the front of the library, but unlike the Clapham one it does not usurp any reading space. Anyone can sit in that large area, where they have sensibly located the magazine and newspaper racks. Anyone can stay there all day reading and not buy a single coffee.

But every time I've been in there, the café has been busy. It's a lunch destination for local workers, an after work place to relax for a while before meeting up with friends. And a wonderful sanctuary for all the drifters, the lonely, the homeless, the old, freezing construction workers, the young, tired tourists, whoever happens to pass.

That's what a public library should be! And by the way, they had two different complete translations of Proust on the shelves,  and their CD loan collections were amazing - 40p for a week's loan.

Talk about grass being greener over the administrative boundary fence.