Category: London History

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.

First Blog Birthday

First Blog Birthday

Today is my blog-anniversary, A Little London Life is exactly a year old. Thanks to all of you who have been reading and commenting, I hope you’re enjoying the ride. I relish the writing process and it’s great to see that the blog is starting to build a sizeable readership. Spread the word if you feel so inclined and if there are stories out there you think I should be covering, let me know.

I finally went to see the RA Summer Exhibition today just before it closes. The collage above has some of my favourite bits.

Old Oval: As time goes by

Old Oval: As time goes by

Neighbourhood architects, Rolfe Judd, has its offices on Claylands Road SW8 in what was once a Congregational Chapel. (See above) It’s always been a local firm, starting out in premises on Kennington Road in 1968 and moving to its present site in 1982.

It now employs more than seventy architects and town planners and works on upscale projects at the Oval cricket ground and Nine Elms Point in Vauxhall. They recently held a summer fete where they displayed pictures of our neighbourhood from bygone days.

Kate Ludden, who works there as a business administrator, kindly sent me copies of the pictures which I thought you might like to see in case you missed their event.

I’ve mixed their shots with ones I took today.

Claylands Road

Clapham Road

Fentiman Road

A risk register of loathing

A risk register of loathing

Journalists: not a popular bunch by and large. In these turbulent days of supposed fake news, reporters don’t inspire much public trust. This is hardly new. Princess Diana died while being pursued by paparazzi and at the time I think the only person disliked more than reporters was her husband Prince Charles.

Back then, I was regularly sent out to do perhaps the most useless form of television journalism: Vox Pops. This is where you ask members of the public what they think about the topic of the day. When asked about the heir to the throne, people told me in pretty fruity language that he should never be King. Perhaps his star has risen a little since then.

Balkans

In 1992 a heady dose of pig-headed nationalism and long supressed violence got the conflict in the Balkans kick-started. Here the various warring parties thought that on balance, the best kind of journalist was a dead journalist. Obviously, reporters had died in conflicts before, caught up in the cross-fire, but as far as I’m aware this was the first time they were seen as the enemy and targeted. Someone I knew was travelling down sniper’s alley in Sarajevo in a van marked TV on the back door. To make his point a sniper placed a bullet right between the T and the V which struck and killed a young reporter inside.

But journos rarely see themselves as victims. We are Millwall: You all hate us, we don’t care.

Real Estate

Journalists could always take comfort in the fact that on the risk register of loathing there were at least two groups below us: Estate Agents and Bankers.

Apparently, such is the rake off in real estate at the moment that in Central London, the sale of one house is enough to pay the running costs of an agent’s office for a year and that includes salaries, rent and rates. Nice work if you can get it.

It’s the small things that irritate. When my family moved to Oval SW8 at the turn of the century it was a sleepy enclave dissected by major roads getting people and goods in and out of the city centre. Planning laws changed, and we now live a stone’s throw from the biggest building site in Europe that stretches from Vauxhall down Nine Elms Lane, past the new US Embassy and fetches up at Battersea Power Station. Whether there are enough oligarchs to buys these over-priced hutches is at best doubtful

Close to us, is a high-rise block that mimics the Flat Iron Building in New York along with a series of apartments in low rise townhouses. They are advertised as Luxury Apartments Built in Britain’s Famous Brick. Except they aren’t. They are built of steel and glass and clad in brick. It is real brick, I’ve had a close look, but it’s half an inch thin and stuck to a metal frame that’s attached to the side of the building. Built in brick? Fake news.

But as elsewhere in the economy, maybe times are getting tough in realty as American’s call it. I see hardly any For Sale signs on our streets, but what I do see is a proliferation of builder’s vans with houses everywhere being re-booted, with loft extensions put in for young adults who can’t afford to leave home and side returns for that dream dining room and kitchen you always craved. Not surprising really, if you sell a house and move you might as well, go into your garden armed with not less that £50,000 and chuck it on the barbeque. Doing up is the new moving out.

Giving the realtor community the benefit of the doubt, I walked into a local estate agent and asked if they no longer used For Sale boards. I was told that boards were still very much part of their sales approach. I said, there are none around here, business must be terrible. To which the reply came: ‘not at all, business is buoyant.’

Banking Barons

The financial sector, with its Banking Barons or in Tom Wolfe’s famous phrase ‘The Masters of the Universe’ doesn’t inspire much love either. Ten years ago, the Western World suffered the worst financial crash since the 30s. Following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the whole banking system was just hours away from turning turtle and taking us all down with it. In George W Bush’s words: ‘This sucker could go down.’

Ultimately that didn’t happen as the government decided the taxpayer should step up and bail out the ailing banks. Very decent of us, but as a result we’ve all had to live with austerity and reduced public services for a decade and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.

But what of the bankers who caused this mess? Was anyone prosecuted or held to account? They were not. It seems that ‘Masters of the Universe’ can make hay with their massive bonuses when the sun is shining, but when things turn nasty, it’s up to you and me to pick up the tab. And just in case you are concerned the poor loves are suffering, the bonus pool in UK finance last year was £15 billion, the largest since 2007.

There you have it, a risk register of loathing: Journos, Estate Agents and Bankers, what a threesome! Where bloggers fall in this register, I’ll leave up to you.

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

London & New York: Twin capitals of the world (2)

Hard times in the city

In my previous blog about the twin metropolitan giants, London and New York, I mentioned an essay by E.B. White called ‘Here is New York’. I imagine quite a few readers scratched their heads going E.B. who? Well, if you don’t recognise the name you may recognise the books. He wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and if you haven’t read the books, I’m guessing you know the films.

White’s essay, written in 1949, is a love letter to his beloved New York (albeit one that carries warnings), which is written in the elegant, effortless prose style, that writers from that era perfected in columns for the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The article surfaced again after 9/11 because of a resonant paragraph towards the end of the piece about how vulnerable New York is to destruction. He says: ‘A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers and cremate the millions.’

While White could never have imagined the damage wrought by passenger planes used as weapons of war, he knew then as we know now that London and New York have a certain terrorist priority. He writes: ‘In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm’.

On that terrible day I was at work in London, doing my job, which as improbable as it sounds, is to train people how to deal with crises. My wife, working on a national newspaper, texted me that a plane had flown into a building in New York. When I told the people in the room, they initially thought it was part of the training.

Thereafter, I remember walking home and watching television for hours trying to make sense of what was playing out live in front of our eyes. We saw the buildings come down and the crowds running from the swirling clouds of dust, ash and smoke; it was gripping and depressing in equal measure.

My birthday falls in September and that year (2001) my wife, had very kindly bought airline flights to New York as my present. Immediately after 9/11 all flights were cancelled, and passengers received a refund. Our tickets were dated about a week after the event and by then airlines, possibly feeling the pinch, said there were to be no more refunds. Do we go, or do we stay?

We discussed the pros and cons, and while, in the short term, the likelihood of another attack was vanishingly small, the thought of going on holiday to a place that had suffered so much death and destruction did seem a little odd. Frankly, I knew pretty quickly that we would go, but what I couldn’t have predicted was the reception we received.

After an uneventful flight (I like them that way) we checked into The W Hotel in Midtown. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by someone on reception when trying to check into a hotel. Although we hadn’t cancelled our booking there was a clear expectation that we would never show up. Locals seemed to think that tourists would never return, but there we were, being celebrated by New York’s hard bitten finest.

But of course, there were very few tourists, the city was eerily quiet. We paid a brief, respectful visit to the smoking ruins of the Twin Towers and walked for miles through deserted streets, occasionally coming upon small parks with pictures posted everywhere of the missing.

Two nights into our stay, Broadway opened its doors and of course we went to see a show. Later that evening we joined friends at a piano bar in Greenwich Village where we all belted out songs from Broadway shows. Drink was taken, the singing may have been terrible and some of the songs ridiculous, but it seemed like a small, splendid act of defiance.

The daughter of a family friend was studying in New York when the catastrophe happened, and her parents asked us to find her. We made contact and I remember seeing her sitting out front of her boarding house looking very small. She had been helping look after those who had been rescued and at 18 years old had found the experience overwhelming. We sought shelter in the best kind of New York sanctuary, a diner, where we ate eggs over easy with hash browns.

Then it was our turn. On the morning of 7th July 2005, exactly thirteen years ago today, terrorists struck London. Four suicide bombers with rucksacks packed with explosives travelled from Leeds to wreak havoc on the capital. Just before 9am three bombs exploded on the London Underground and a little later a fourth was detonated on a red London bus at Tavistock Square. Fifty-two people died, and more than 700 were injured.

Sitting at the desk I’m sitting at right now, I heard the news on the radio. My mobile and landline phone promptly stopped working but I managed to get an email through to my wife and received a reply to say she was OK. All emails then went down.

Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London at the time. To many he is now a somewhat discredited figure, but his rallying call to Londoners and his message to terrorists in the heat of the moment, was pitch perfect.

‘I know that you personally don’t fear giving your own life so you can take others, that’s why you are so dangerous. But I know what you do fear is that you will fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society.
‘And I can show you why you will fail in days that follow. You will see. Look at our airports look at our railway stations look at our seaports and even after your cowardly attack you will see people from Britain, people from around the world, will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.
‘They chose to come to London like so many have come before, because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. And nothing you do, no matter how many you kill will stop that flight, to our cities where freedom reigns.’

Perhaps you think that overly romantic, just political hyperbole, because I’m not blind to the fact that even on a good day London can seem brutal, daunting, even frightening. But Livingstone was right, people come here from all over the world to fulfil their dreams: the musician from a little village in Northampton, which he can’t stand a moment longer, the artist from Poland, who seeks a broader canvas and the builder from Romania desperate to send money home to his family.

In towns and villages all over Britain, all over the world, people right this instant are planning to come to London to make a go of their life, to accept the capital’s tough love. Now there’s something.

Want to be welcomed as a local in a Suffolk village? It might take two generations to find acceptance. Want to be a Londoner? Great, then be one, right now, immediately. Say it out loud: ‘I’m a Londoner’. And if that doesn’t give you a little chill, then perhaps this town isn’t for you.

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

Vauxhall Park model village gets suffragette makeover

The tiny houses in the Rose Garden of Vauxhall Park are getting a makeover. Nobby, aided by his trusty dog Sandy, said he was giving the crofts and cottages a lick of paint in the suffragette colours of purple, green and white.

Why the suffragette colours? February of this year saw the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which enabled all men and some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. Vauxhall Park has a connection.

Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) lived in a grand house on the site of the park. He was a Member of Parliament and was blinded at the age of 25 when shot by his father’s gun while the pair were out partridge shooting. Clearly a determined man he became Post Master General, started the parcel post and encouraged women to work at the Post Office.

Vauxhall parkIt was Fawcett’s wish to turn his garden into a communal park after his death. His wife, Millicent Fawcett, made it happen. Involved in the suffragette movement, she became president of the National Union of Woman’s Suffrage Societies in 1897. She also founded Newnham College Cambridge. Quite the power couple.

Talking with Nobby (or Nobby the Grab, to give him his full name) while he was taking a break from the painting and decorating, he told me the houses were made in 1948 by Edgar Wilson who sent a set of 30 to Melbourne, Australia by way of thanks for the food packages sent to us during the war. Next time you’re down under you can take a look.

There are also a couple of tiny detached houses in Brockwell Park near the clock tower.

As to the ones in Vauxhall, local hoodlums used to nick them until Nobby came up with the brilliant idea of filling them with sand and rocks so making them too heavy to shift. There’s only one original ‘Boat House’ left, the other two were made by the man himself. I should point out that Nobby does this on a purely volunteer basis, so if you see him about he deserves a big thank you.

Plastered at the Tate

Plastered at the Tate

In 1897 when the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) was nearing completion they got the plasterers in. And plasterers being plasterers, did what plasterers always do, they left a hidden note to be found by future generations. They got their wish.

This was placed here on the fourth of June 1897, Jubilee year, by the plasterers working on the job, hoping when this is found the Plasterers Association may be still flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so we can drink your health.

Signed: N. Gallop, F. Wilkins, H. Sainsbury, J. Chester, A. Pickernell (secretary)

The writer, perhaps the secretary, is hesitant to say whether plasterers fetch up in heaven or hell and opt for the ‘other world’ but given the lovely, humorous nature of the note I reckon it must be the former.

How much of their work remains, I have no idea, but I like to think that some of the UK’s greatest paintings hang in front of their smooth plaster work. This evening I plan to raise a glass and drink to the health of Messrs Gallop, Wilkins, Sainsbury, Chester and Pickernell.

Seventy years later

Just over seventy years after this note was written a callow youth visited the Tate for the first time. I was 16 years old and a pupil at a dreary boarding school in the Midlands. A school trip was arranged to visit the Tate Gallery in London. I didn’t have much interest in art and knew nothing about the artist whose exhibition we were going to see. All that mattered was escaping school and getting to London.

I’m not sure I’d ever seen pop art before, but I knew right away I loved it, particularly when we learnt that the artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, had made robots for the exhibition and at the last moment had carved them up and dumped them in a skip. When you’re a teenager at school in Rutland you feel like carving your life up and putting it in a skip. Here was something I could work with.

I think there were also some Warhol’s on display; possibly the Marylyn screen prints. It was all so new and so fresh, I couldn’t get enough of it. I now live around the corner from Tate Britain, but I’ll never forget my first visit.