Category: London History

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.

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

Terror on the tube: Inspector Sands to the rescue

I don’t want to alarm you but if while riding on the tube you hear an announcer say: “Would Inspector Sands report immediately to security” you may be part of an unfolding terror attack.

Apparently ‘Inspector Sands’ is the bland formulation used to alert staff, but not the public, that trouble might be brewing. What you don’t want in times of crisis is an announcer going into the ‘we’re all doomed’ routine, so the fictitious inspector fits the bill.

I know about this because my 14-year-old daughter told me and as far as can be established said 14-year-old has never been wrong about anything, ever.

Following some in depth google-research on my part it seems there might be something to it. Apparently, it originated in theatres and was used in case of fire. The name Sands being selected because they used sand to put out the fire.

And now you’re thinking: For heaven’s sake Jim, Inspector Sands because they use sand to put out the fire? Well please yourself, but the 14-year-old claims to have heard the announcement twice: once at Clapham South and once as Waterloo. She came through without a scratch.

It’s out of this world as Londoner beats the odds

It’s out of this world as Londoner beats the odds

We are just back from grabbing some summer sun in Florida. And if you’re thinking it’s all very well for some, but what on earth does this have to do with London? Then bear with me.

Our hotel, located on the ‘Space Coast’ was a forty-five-minute drive from the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. I could tell you what a fantastic museum it is, about how you can see the space shuttle, the Apollo rockets, the moon buggy, get to touch moon rock, but that stuff you can find on Trip Advisor.

Walking by one of the Saturn rockets that sent Armstrong and Aldrin hurtling towards the moon there are a series of front pages capturing the excitement of the moment. A Saturn rocket may be an awe-inspiring sight, but a splash about the moon shot, for an old news hound such as myself, is impossible to resist.

Working through the headlines: “First footprints on alien world” –  “Everything ‘Go’ Astronauts walk in lunar dust” – “Moon is magnificent desolation” –  “Old Glory hoisted by first moon men” my eye was caught by the headline: “Briton gets $24,000. Landing Pays off.” It was a short article at the foot of the Tulsa Daily Herald from 21st July 1969 and tells the story of David Thelfall who, in 1964, placed a bet of £10, that a man would set foot on the moon before 1971. At the time £10 was twice the weekly wage.

Threlfall later said: “In 1963 I heard President Kennedy make a speech in which he said there would be an American on the moon by the end of the decade. I thought if a bookmaker was prepared to offer reasonable odds it would be a common sense bet.”

Threlfall contacted William Hill and was duly offered the odds of a thousand to one. When Neil Armstrong took his ‘giant leap for mankind’ and the bet was won, the bookmaker presented Threlfall with a cheque for £10,000 live on TV from a London studio. In today’s money that’s around £150,000.

William Hill never revealed who their representative was who offered such absurd odds and as for Threlfall, he went out and bought an E-type Jag.

Thick fog smothers Tate Britain

Thick fog smothers Tate Britain

Peeking out from behind swathes of mist and murk great paintings emerge at Tate Britain’s ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition, but you have to wade through some dreadful muck to get there.

I know you won’t take a blind bit of notice of what I say, but if you plan to visit this exhibition,  do wear trainers. You’ll want to go at quite a lick.

Room 1: With the Prussians beating the bejesus out of Paris in1871, French artists, including Camille Pissarro, Charles-Francois Daubigny and a young Claude Monet decamped to London in many cases to paint pictures of Sydenham. I mean I have nothing against Sydenham, but with your home city in flames, doesn’t London have a bit more to offer? Nothing to see here, keep moving.

Room 2: By now you really want to be building up a good head of steam, perhaps whip out a skateboard and marvel, as you glide by, at the awfulness of the Quality disporting themselves in paintings by James Tissot of well, the Quality disporting themselves. These paintings are why photography was invented so nobody has to do this stuff anymore.

I’m also not sure what any of this has to do with impressionism, looks more like expressionism to me.

On! On! past Alphonse Legros doing his worst and as quick as you like through the room dedicated to the ‘celebrated’ sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. I don’t know about you, but I only notice sculpture when I’m backing up to get a good look at a painting and then bash into it.

By the time you reach Room 5 you’ll have reached optimum velocity, but hold up is that a painting worth looking at? Yes, it is and it’s Monet’s ‘Leicester Square at night’, great splodges of greasy reds and blues. Perhaps not Monet in mid-season form, but certainly worth a glance.

It’s funny I’m sure I used to like Pissarro, I remember enjoying a couple of his paintings at the Ashmoleum in Oxford years ago, but now they look incredibly trite, almost chocolate-box, paint by numbers kitsch.

By the time you enter Room 6 you may be losing the will to live, but help is at hand in the form of three paintings or nocturnes by the American artist James McNeill Whistler. They are simple washes of grey blue, with lonely stick figures haunting the canvas, but taken together are magnificent. They are owned by the Tate but don’t often get a run out. Oscar Wilde commenting on his friend Whistler’s work in typical Oscar style said: ‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’

This exhibition really ought to carry a weather warning as the dense fog leaks from Room 6 and blankets the next room. It’s a regular pea-souper in Room 7, which holds Monet’s celebrated pictures of the House of Commons and Big Ben. You can hardly see the nose in front of your face.

Monet, in his sixties, came to London for three consecutive winters saying he wished ‘to sum up…impressions and sensations of the past’ and there is a melancholy, retrospective quality to the pictures. Staying at The Savoy, one room for sleeping and one for painting, he would venture out into the gloom at about 4 o’clock to capture the sun going down. Surely, these must be some of the greatest pictures of London. Fog swathes Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster as the fading sun hits the Thames; they make London look as beautiful as Venice.

Here’s the question: when these pictures were complete and put on sale how many were sold in London? Not one, nada, zip. We don’t want that weird, modern, foreign rubbish round here thank you very much.

The ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition is 60% dreadful, 20% mildly interesting and a further 20% utterly magnificent. It costs £19.70 to get in, you do the maths. For me the three Whistler paintings alone are worth the price of admission.

Open until 7th May 2018

On my way out I spotted a fantastic exhibition by Bernard Cohen, an artist new to me. It’s free and definitely worth a look. Here’s one now.