About Me

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

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.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Oi, you! Property developers and your ilk - can we have our words back, please?

I can think of a fourth two-word phrase ending in "OFF" which might be the best response to these corporate language thieves, seen not long ago outside the former IPC building in Stamford Street, not far from Blackfriars Bridge
First they take your words, then they take your city.

This seems to be part of the strategy of the corporate property developers who are gobbling up huge areas of what used to be a fairly open city. They grab the land, then they put up big fences. Then they write big friendly lovely words all over these fences to make you think they are wonderful people!

But even as they decorate the barriers - sometimes employing very skilled artists and copywriters to do it - behind the hoardings, they are busily privatising and colonising not only the land but also the sky above it.

Yes, that's right: we must indeed be innovative, and highly collaborative.
Thanks for the advice, Battersea Power Station Development people!

Watch out for these smug and vacuous phrases that are being painted in tasteful colours and elegant fonts on hoardings all around us, as if the words actually bring the ideas into existence!

I mean, seriously, what the hell has Rachmaninoff and Blue Note got to do with a massive block of luxury apartments that has taken over what used to be IPC Magazines HQ in Stamford Street, near Blackfriars Bridge?

Yeah, what? As though by putting the words close to each other the goodness of the first two will somehow rub off onto the badness I at least associate with the others, such as "target market" and "luxury apartments".

Look at those words above written on the miles of fence on Nine Elms Lane; "innovative", "collaborative" ....oh, yes, of course.

OK, so the blame for this sort of nonsense cannot all be laid at the feet of estate agents. It started, as so much else rotten did, in the advertising industry and was then picked up by marketing and "brand" executives, especially in the 80s.

Remember the time when perfectly sensible company names were changed to vague, often made-up words, such as "Aviva" or  the Post Office's temporary pseudonym, "Consignia"? Or when the Philip Morris tobacco firm became "Altria?" (For other horrors of this nature, read this great article in Time Magazine).

In the late 90s, under the shining eyes of Mr Blair, this trend moved into the public sector, and suddenly schools around the land were changing their names and adopting gormless or worthy slogans instead of homely Latin mottos: "Excellence for all" was a favourite; "Embracing diversity" - yes, a great thing, but are you really doing it? "Integrity, Diligence, Civility" - yes, all of those please!

No doubt it's good to have lofty ambitions: you just wonder sometimes if those schools with their flashy new buildings and lurid new uniforms can live up to the hype of their marketing.

Politicians have always loved dreadful slogans, but even the least offensive of these optimistic phrases can turn your stomach when they are over-used. A case in point at a recent London Mayoral event. while the crowd waited patiently for the arrival of delayed Mayor Khan, they played a short marketing video about London at least 20 times. The theme, "London is open" in a whole range of carefully chosen accents, thus embracing diversity as well. The trouble is by the 12th or 13th hearing of someone like the ubiquitous Jarvis Cocker mumbling "London is open" you begin to question those words. Is it really open? To whom? People with enough money? Clever buggers only?
No, actually you are NOT improving the image of construction,
not even slightly. And yes I do mind if you don't smoke.

Which brings us back to property developers and that annoying phrase you see on building sites everywhere: "Improving the image of construction".

Oh yeah? Whenever I see that I think, "Oh no you're not". If you think the way you're building that horrible pile of expensive flats that no-one living around here can hope to afford is in some way an improvement on the people who built St Paul's Cathedral, then you should think again.

Maybe we should have some new by-laws about words on hoardings. Maybe like fag packets they should be forced to print some home truths, some "health warnings" in equally trendy fonts.

Something like this, perhaps:

"Buying a flat in this development will not only bankrupt you it will also make you the laughing stock of all your even richer friends and the enemy of everyone living in the estate over the road".