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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.

The Unwelcome Guest: Get outa here

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that on occasion I talk about my prostate cancer treatment under the title The Unwelcome Guest. It’s been pointed out that this more serious stuff sits uncomfortably with the flippant flim-flam and fol-de-rol that I usually turn out here.

That being the case, The Unwelcome Guest has been packed into a removal van and dragged kicking and screaming to its own blog. If you want to keep up with the little bastard this is where you need to be as The Unwelcome Guest won’t be appearing on A Little London Life in the future.

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.

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Bumper crop: Urban market garden

Green-fingered Mrs Preen is responsible for a bumper crop in our modest market garden this year. I guess the industrial strength sunshine may have helped a bit too.

Favourable Spring weather, meant the tomato plants went in early and as you can see from the pictures, we are overwhelmed by the little beauties.

The cucumber plant we call the chicken plant; it lays a new cucumber every day. They sprout so fast, I swear you can see them growing.

Peppers are tricky in our temperate climate and we are only growing them this year because we were gifted a free plant, but as we now live in what seems like Southern California rather than Southern London we have four incubating.

We are growing broad beans following a project management cock up at the highest level. Mrs Preen meant to order runner beans, but because of an administrative error scored broad beans instead. Now I love a broad bean as much as the next man, but they are tricky to grow and are suffering as they went unwatered for a week while we were away. The poor loves seem to be bouncing back, but broadly speaking, there’s not much bean action.

The only ne’er-do-well, lazy backsliders in our garden are the strawberry plants. Beautiful, healthy looking specimens they may be, but totally unencumbered by any fruit. Shape up strawberries, or you’ll be ripped up by the roots. It’s survival of the fittest round our way.

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Sunday Market

Nine Elms Lane SW8 5AL: 9am-2pm

New Covent Garden Market is just over the road from the Battersea Power Station development. It’s the fruit and veg capital of the UK with produce coming in from all parts of the globe and then being shipped out to all parts of the UK. During the week, from the very early hours, it reverberates to the shouts of barrow boys, the squeal of fork lift trucks and the thunder of departing trucks. On a Sunday, the nation’s greengrocers get a day off and it becomes one of the biggest markets in London.

The day I went, the sun was beating down, prices were being beaten down, police were clamping down and the new US Embassy was gazing down on Nine Elms Sunday Market. It was my first visit in years.

Superficially, not much seems to have changed. If anything, it’s even busier, perhaps there are more Slavic and Russian accents and a few more Polish stalls than before. It’s still very much a working-class event, with a high proportion of immigrants both buying and selling. New Covent Garden on a Sunday is a world away from the old Covent Garden in the West End. There’s no artisan cheese, craft gin or organic chocolate on sale here.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the sizeable police presence. I chatted to a few of them but in true plod tradition they were keeping it pretty tight lipped. In total I guess there were about twenty police officers present made up of two groups. One were officers impounding counterfeit goods – I saw at least two clothing and handbag stalls being closed down – the other group were police supporting Immigration Enforcement officers from the Home Office who were clearly tracking immigration offenders. They were in urgent conversation with various individuals, but I didn’t witness any arrests. Talking with stallholders and punters, it seems that in the last two weeks the police presence has risen sharply. Checking for fake goods and fake IDs looks like hot work for those who go to work in a stab proof vest.

So, what’s the shopping like? Arming myself with an excellent flat white from ‘Full of Beans’ (which came with a complementary choc chip cookie) I went in search of bargains. Trainers are a big sell with brand names such as Vans going for £20. Whether these are real or of real interest to the police I couldn’t say. Builders’ kit is clearly a big draw with men coming from all over to get tooled up with electric saws, drills, spirit levels and the rest.

If you want to take a break from shopping, check out the many global food outlets. Curry and Chips (see above), that’s fusion cooking Nine Elms style. Then there are several ‘Head Shops’ where those with an interest in illegal weed can score their rizlas and other cannabis related paraphernalia.

Inevitably, stalls sell electrical items such as mobile phones, second hand laptops, satellite dishes and there’s no end of clothing, mostly T shirts, jeans and sports shirts and it has to be said a fair amount of plastic junk. Get your dodgy cigarettes and tobacco on the way in.

Many people clearly love the place and use it as a popular day out to meet friends, have a bite to eat and pick up some bargains. It’s not posh, plush or pretty but it is cheap, and the place has a real energy about it. I accept some won’t like it, but it’s here, it’s on our patch, and you should take a look.

Fancy running a stall yourself? Here the low-down: A 3×3 metre pitch costs from £55 a day and you can hire tables and other market gear to display your goods. All new traders have to register and provide some form of photographic identification such as driving license or passport. Casual traders must go to the market office at 6.30am. Once you’ve registered and paid, you will be given a pitch for the day. If you want a permanent pitch, then that’s the time to ask. A regular pitch is cheaper and means you are in the same place every week, so your customers know where to find you. Contact: info@saundersmarkets.co.uk. Tel: 01483 277640

Vexed in Vauxhall

Vexed in Vauxhall

With apologies to Noel Coward and his poem ‘There are bad times just around the corner’.

They’re miffed at the Nine Elms intersection

They’re vexed in Vauxhall, outraged at Oval

And Fentiman Road, so I’m told, is on the verge of insurrection.

The President of the United States has been at it again and people round our way are not happy. First, when commenting on the new US embassy, he called our neighbourhood ‘off location’ – bloody cheek. Now at a rally in Michigan over the weekend he ramped up the war of words calling our locality ‘lousy’ and ‘horrible’ ahead of his planned visit to the UK in July.

Time to fight back south London and extol the benefits and merits of life (just) south of the river. So, with my Tourist Authority of Lambeth (unofficial) hat screwed firmly on my head here is why you, along with the most powerful man in the world, should take a stroll round our manor. Dodge the deadly bullets of Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon and M&M World and take a trip to Lambeth.

  • First up there’s Battersea Park, perhaps the best park in London, which now boasts an excellent restaurant, the Pear Tree Cafe.  You can go boating on the lake or dangle from a zipwire, play football and marvel at the remnants of the Festival of Britain.
  • There’s a thriving gay scene headquartered at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern just south of Vauxhall Station.
  • There are so many bonkers buildings along Nine Elms Lane, including the new US Embassy, perhaps we should be marketing ourselves as the New Dubai.
  • We have art galleries: Tate Britain  and Damian Hurst’s Newport Street Gallery that was designed by the same Swiss architects that brought us Tate Modern.
  • Then there’s Little Portugal spread out along South Lambeth Road which includes the Estrella Restaurant  where you can sit outside and enjoy the sun, while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on a nata.  A little further along is the local favourite, the Canton Arms, a gastro pub of note. I’ve not tried it yet, but we have a new place on Clapham Road: 24 The Oval which looks promising.
  • People are raving about Wright Brothers Seafood Restaurant at Battersea Power Station. They specialise in oysters, in case a basket of bi-valves is your thing. While there, you’ll also be able to take a look at the Battersea Power Station restoration; one of the biggest housing developments in Europe.
  • There is the huge Nine Elms Sunday Market, which can be a little on the scummy side, but if you want to indulge your inner Martin Amis you might want to give it a go. Close by is the newly located New Covent Garden flower market, but for this you are going to have to get up early. It opens at 4am. Come Christmas, it’s fun to pick up your Christmas tree there for a fraction of the normal London price.
  • Underneath the railway arches and strictly for the more adventurous we have Urban Axe Throwing and you can get to grips with the VauxWall climbing centre.

We should encourage Donald Trump to come to our neck of the woods and see what he’s missing. I’m sure we can assure him of a rousing reception.

(Now it’s over to you, local inhabitants, what have I missed?)

Want to be healthy and happy? Live in London

Want to be healthy and happy? Live in London

We learnt some things about health and happiness recently. First up the shocking news that four in ten adults fail to manage even one brisk 10 minute walk a month.  

Then we discovered that the way to defy depression, disease and early death is to – yes you guessed it –  exercise. Latterly, a counter-intuitive report from Oxford University revealed that city-dwellers are happier and healthier than those who live in the ‘burbs or the countryside. 

Time to put two and two together.

When my wife and I started living together we each owned a car and discussions ensued about maybe getting rid of one, but no, we couldn’t possibly do that as both cars sat outside our house doing nothing very much at all. Thankfully one of the cars was nicked and we made the astonishing discovery that one car was just fine.

Ten years ago, we dumped the family car and have never looked back. We live in central London, close to two tube stations, busses, a Boris bike stand on our street and the now ubiquitous Zip cars that can be hired by tapping a card on to the car’s windscreen. We are not alone. None of our close neighbours have cars. There are empty parking slots on our street all the time which are only filled by builders’ vans on the weekend when parking is free.

Tell country folk or suburbanites that you don’t own a car and they give you a pitying look that says they didn’t realise you were that poor. During a recent talk at my daughter’s school they were encouraged to work hard so they could get ahead in the world and thus be able to buy a car and not have to travel with odd people on public transport. I wasn’t especially happy about that.

You visit the countryside and everyone seems to drive everywhere, they even drive to a location to take a walk. My wife’s family live in small town in the North East of England where there is a magnificent country park on the site of a former mine. Lottery money helped make it a wonderful spot for hiking and dog-walking, but hardly anyone uses it.

Not so us townies without a car, we walk. We walk to the shops, we cycle to the gym we take the dog to the local park – Battersea Park in our case, which is a never-ending source of joy for me and Rusty. We take exercise without even thinking about it. It’s just been pointed out to me that my new iPhone has a health app that tracks how far I walk each day. My average is about 7k a day.

If you live in London and you haven’t already done so, dump the car, walk and live a happy healthy life. The bucolic countryside may not be all it’s cracked up to be, I know, I was brought up there.