Tag Archives: London

Songs in the other key of London

Here are 9 great songs about London that weren’t performed at last night’s Songs in the Key of London at the Barbican.

London, Sway, feat. Bruza and Baby Blue
Cockney translation, Smiley Culture
Five Nights of Bleeding, Linton Kwesi Johnson
African Headcharge in the Hackney Empire, Lee Scratch Perry
Bow E3, Wiley
Dettwork South East
, Blak Twang
Electric Avenue, Eddie Grant
Galang, M.I.A.
Brixton Blues, Ram John Holder

Now, what do they all have in common?

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No more heroes

Anti-art

Anti-art: Home and Childish

It’s best not to have literary or artistic heroes. Leaders will always betray you, and heroes will always let you down. As they slide into their dotage, as their work becomes weak and repetitive, someone will always taunt you with their latest fatuity, reminding you how much you once loved them (in my case a role usually played by my father). Their books and records on your shelves, their pictures on your walls, are like mementos of an ex you can’t bring yourself to chuck away. So, best not to have the heroes in the first place. Except: some people’s work grabs you, and you can’t let it go. In the mid-nineties, three people who fell into this category for me were Stewart Home, Billy Childish and Iain Sinclair. Not only for how or what what they wrote, but also because they wrote about an interweaving, overlapping knot of things that mattered to me: poetry, resurgent Londophilia, anti-art polemics, post-Trotskyist politics, popular culture and the Situationist International.

Both Childish and Home have a history of polemic against my old employer, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (worse than either heroes or leaders, places like that: if you make the mistake of forming an attachment they’ll rip your fucking heart out). Home imagines its violent destruction by the masses in Defiant Pose; Childish as recently as last year targeted the place as part of Art Hate Week. And now, in the space of two weeks, all three of them appear at the ICA, just when it’s going through one of its episodic convulsions (mass redundancies and a departed head of exhibitions; the chair of its council is said to be flinging papers across desks in fury and falling through chairs at meetings). It’s like… well, it’s like something out of an Iain Sinclair book. A storm of synchronicity. This can’t be missed.

At the Childish’s private view it’s good to see old colleagues and catch up on current horrors. The new Childish paintings are better than the ones I saw at L-13 a couple of years ago. Estuarine landscapes and defunct steamboats, portraits of Robert Walser’s snowy corpse, a character that Billy integrates his own self-image into, via Knut Hamsun’s yellow-suited Nagel. Essays in the accompanying Roland catalogue/magazine contain plenty of typical cringe-inducing combinations of forensic over-explanation and missing the point; Childish’s own writings and poems, and a short story by Walser are much more powerful. In the upstairs galleries, a wall of album covers featuring Pop Rivets, Headcoats (and Headcoatees) and Buff Medways, is a reminder of Childish’s prolific output in all creative fields. Poems as black vinyl words on the white cube cement the feeling that poetry can certainly be read in an art gallery, but preferably not on the walls.

A week or so later, Childish reads his poetry and shows some recent Chatham Super-8 films in the ICA Cinema. I’m prepared to be disappointed, and have a little bet with myself that he’ll sing The Bitter Cup (“whiskey runs through me like a sorrowful river”). Of course he does, but it’s also quite good, not least because he keeps up a self-deprecating anecdotal monologue (he offered to oil-wrestle portly Guardian art pontificator Jonathan Jones, apparently) between poems, and takes the piss a little out of the audience (who don’t look like a typical Childish audience, but what does a typical Childish audience look like?). Some of his intense hatred for family hypocrisy seems to have mellowed since he’s become a dad himself, and the patriotic stuff escapes me (a 20-minute movie about the re-enactment of a first world war march through France is the evening’s one bum note) but he’s hardly yet ready for treasure status. In both verse and person he remains committed to a open, egalitarian vision of human creativity, a harsh critic of art education and any kind of detachment from influence.

The talk by Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair is unconnected to the Childish exhibition, purloining its title from a forthcoming Verso book of urban essays, Restless Cities. Two such massive egotists on stage without a disciplinary interlocutor is always a risk: Sinclair begins by claiming that he may have invented Home as a character, or at least some of his ‘psychogeographical’ writings. Home puts him right on a couple of points about the London Psychogeographical Association and the Neoist Alliance (attempts to recuperate Italian left-wing communism through the establishment of one-man splinter groups) before launching into a series of anecdotes about the gangster antics of distant relatives. Home speaks in the same monotone he uses for his fiction readings, with an added air of weary resignation implying that he could tell you how everything really is, if only it was worth it. He’s oddly compelling: you think you’ll get bored of listening to him long before you do.

Sinclair reads a little from Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. He’s at his most convincing in his opposition to the Olympics and the clear-cutting of East London. I’ve come across  several people recently slating Sinclair for his adolescent pseudo-romantic solipsism and self-indulgent prose, but his consistent digs at the Olympics, as previously at the Dome, are an honourable sally. Sensitive to accusations of being a pair of ageing men only interested in the past, Home responds by mentioning his enthusiastic use of the internet (I can vouch that he posts a lot of videos on facebook), and the vastly improved quality of contemporary café food. Sinclair by contrast regrets the contemporary immanence of media: journeys of discovery are his bread and butter.

The subject of the ICA’s current crisis itself comes up: is it at risk of becoming a lost venue, like the Scala? Home mentions the notorious 1989 Situationist International exhibition at the ICA that historicised the SI (a trajectory aimed squarely at the gift shop) at the same time as it was coming into focus for the generation of avant-garde leftists that gave birth to the LPA. The first visit Home himself made to the ICA was to see an exhibition of Marvel comics in the bar. He mentions JJ Charlesworth’s analysis of the current crisis in Mute, and mounts a surprising (but half-hearted) defence of current director Ekow Eshun, arguing that the precarity and corporate orientation of the ICA goes back to Philip Dodd, and Mick Flood before him.

They seem in danger of historicising themselves. Sinclair offers that what matters to him, the work that he produces, is the connections offered by anecdote and coincidence. Old men trading on past glories? Here’s where the web tightens and pulls me in. The first time I visited the ICA was for the SI exhibition Home mentioned (people were handing out leaflets outside: who demonstrates outside an art gallery?). Childish is indirectly responsible for my early persistence in publishing my own poetry, via a friend, whose own chapbook, Jack the Biscuit is Skinhead, was inspired by Childish’s Hangman Press. I remember the friend who typeset Childish’s first novel, for another publisher, complaining about what a pig the job was (too fond of Celine, too particular about his ellipses). I used to send Stewart Home stamps in exchange for copies of Re:Action (one of which featured a headline quotation from one of my father’s books), my own (failed) mail art project used a box at British Monomarks, the same mail-forwarding company Home used. My connections to Home and Childish are precisely Sinclair’s tangential, anecdotal, coincidental connections. Not enough to build anything but a meandering thousand words or so out of.

Nevertheless, in the final days of Thatcherism, in the last decade before the internet exploded, Home and Childish offered evidence of a meaningful samizdat popular culture. Self-published chapbooks, small press book fairs, Xerox art workshops, the AK press catalogue and postal exchanges were all part of a real alternative to the depressing monotony of mainstream literature and music. It’s halfway to archaeology now, but it’s become a personal archaeology. That’s why the records are still in the collection, that’s why the books are still on the shelves.

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It’s best not to have literary or artistic heroes. Leaders will always betray you, and heroes will always let you down. As they slide into their dotage, as their work becomes weak and repetitive, someone will always taunt you with their latest fatuity, reminding you how much you once loved them (in my case a role usually played by my father). Their books and records on your shelves, their pictures on your walls, are like mementos of an ex you can’t bring yourself to chuck away. So, best not to have the heroes in the first place. Except: some people’s work grabs you, and you can’t let it go. In the mid-nineties, three people who fell into this category for me were Stewart Home, Billy Childish and Iain Sinclair. Not only for how or what what they wrote, but also because they wrote about an interweaving, overlapping knot of things that mattered to me: poetry, resurgent Londophilia, anti-art polemics, post-Trotskyist politics, popular culture and the Situationist International.

Both Childish and Home have a history of polemic against my old employer, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (worse than either heroes or leaders, places like that: if you make the mistake of forming an attachment they’ll rip your fucking heart out). Home imagines its violent destruction by the masses in Defiant Pose; Childish as recently as last year targeted the place as part of Art Hate Week. And now, in the space of two weeks, all three of them appear at the ICA, just when it’s going through one of its episodic convulsions (mass redundancies and a departed head of exhibitions; the chair of its council is said to be flinging papers across desks in fury and falling through chairs at meetings). It’s like… well, it’s like something out of an Iain Sinclair book. A storm of synchronicity. This can’t be missed.

At the Childish’s private view it’s good to see old colleagues and catch up on current horrors. The new Childish paintings are better than the ones I saw at L-13 a couple of years ago. Estuarine landscapes and defunct steamboats, portraits of Robert Walser’s snowy corpse, a character that Billy integrates his own self-image into, via Knut Hamsun’s yellow-suited Nagel. Essays in the accompanying Roland catalogue/magazine contain plenty of typical cringe-inducing combinations of forensic over-explanation and missing the point; Childish’s own writings and poems, and a short story by Walser are much more powerful. In the upstairs galleries, a wall of album covers featuring Pop Rivets, Headcoats (and Headcoatees) and Buff Medways, is a reminder of Childish’s prolific output in all creative fields. Poems as black vinyl words on the white cube cement the feeling that poetry can certainly be read in an art gallery, but preferably not on the walls.

A week or so later, Childish reads his poetry and shows some recent Chatham Super-8 films in the ICA Cinema. I’m prepared to be disappointed, and have a little bet with myself that he’ll sing The Bitter Cup (“whiskey runs through me like a sorrowful river”). Of course he does, but it’s also quite good, not least because he keeps up a self-deprecating anecdotal monologue (he offered to oil-wrestle portly Guardian art pontificator Jonathan Jones, apparently) between poems, and takes the piss a little out of the audience (who don’t look like a typical Childish audience, but what does a typical Childish audience look like?). Some of his intense hatred for family hypocrisy seems to have mellowed since he’s become a dad himself, and the patriotic stuff escapes me (a 20-minute movie about the re-enactment of a first world war march through France is the evening’s one bum note) but he’s hardly yet ready for treasure status. In both verse and person he remains committed to a open, egalitarian vision of human creativity, a harsh critic of art education and any kind of detachment from influence.

The talk by Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair is unconnected to the Childish exhibition, purloining its title from a forthcoming Verso book of urban essays, Restless Cities. Two such massive egotists on stage without a disciplinary interlocutor is always a risk: Sinclair begins by claiming that he may have invented Home as a character, or at least some of his ‘psychogeographical’ writings. Home puts him right on a couple of points about the London Psychogeographical Association and the Neoist Alliance (attempts to recuperate Italian left-wing communism through the establishment of one-man splinter groups) before launching into a series of anecdotes about the gangster antics of distant relatives. Home speaks in the same monotone he uses for his fiction readings, with an added air of weary resignation implying that he could tell you how everything really is, if only it was worth it. He’s oddly compelling: you think you’ll get bored of listening to him long before you do.

Sinclair reads a little from Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. He’s at his most convincing in his opposition to the Olympics and the clear-cutting of East London. I’ve come across  several people recently slating Sinclair for his adolescent pseudo-romantic solipsism and self-indulgent prose, but his consistent digs at the Olympics, as previously at the Dome, are an honourable sally. Sensitive to accusations of being a pair of ageing men only interested in the past, Home responds by mentioning his enthusiastic use of the internet (I can vouch that he posts a lot of videos on facebook), and the vastly improved quality of contemporary café food. Sinclair by contrast regrets the contemporary immanence of media: journeys of discovery are his bread and butter.

The subject of the ICA’s current crisis itself comes up: is it at risk of becoming a lost venue, like the Scala? Home mentions the notorious 1989 Situationist International exhibition at the ICA that historicised the SI (a trajectory aimed squarely at the gift shop) at the same time as it was coming into focus for the generation of avant-garde leftists that gave birth to the LPA. The first visit Home himself made to the ICA was to see an exhibition of Marvel comics in the bar. He mentions JJ Charlesworth’s analysis of the current crisis in Mute, and mounts a surprising (but half-hearted) defence of current director Ekow Eshun, arguing that the precarity and corporate orientation of the ICA goes back to Philip Dodd, and Mick Flood before him.

They seem in danger of historicising themselves. Sinclair offers that what matters to him, the work that he produces, is the connections offered by anecdote and coincidence. Old men trading on past glories? Here’s where the web tightens and pulls me in. The first time I visited the ICA was for the SI exhibition Home mentioned (people were handing out leaflets outside: who demonstrates outside an art gallery?). Childish is indirectly responsible for my early persistence in publishing my own poetry, via a friend, whose own chapbook, Jack the Biscuit is Skinhead, was inspired by Childish’s Hangman Press. I remember the friend who typeset Childish’s first novel, for another publisher, complaining about what a pig the job was (too fond of Celine, too particular about his ellipses). I used to send Stewart Home stamps in exchange for copies of Re:Action (one of which featured a headline quotation from one of my father’s books), my own (failed) mail art project used a box at British Monomarks, the same mail-forwarding company Home used. My connections to Home and Childish are precisely Sinclair’s tangential, anecdotal, coincidental connections. Not enough to build anything but a meandering thousand words or so out of.

Nevertheless, in the final days of Thatcherism, in the last decade before the internet, Home and Childish offered evidence of a meaningful samizdat popular culture. Self-published chapbooks, small press book fairs, Xerox art workshops, the AK press catalogue and postal exchanges were all part of a real alternative to the depressing monotony of mainstream literature and music. It’s halfway to archaeology now, but it’s a personal archaeology. That’s why the records are still in the collection, that’s why the books are still on the shelves.

The absence of architecture

Community Garden, Lower East Side flickr.com/neatnessdotcom

Community Garden, Lower East Side flickr.com/neatnessdotcom

Nothing is better about contemporary London architecture than a lack of it. After the demolition of the Swiss Centre on Leicester Square, a beautiful rectangle opened up – eating dim sum in Joy King Lau we could look across the void to Whitcomb Street and see the jumble of mismatched adjoining buildings and balcony bars. The breathing space lasted barely a breath: now another soulless behemoth of a hotel is being assembled, consuming the space, chewing out the sky.

Meanwhile, the multicoloured slab-sides of Renzo Piano’s new Central St Giles development (the kind of building that makes you wonder if Al Qaeda does requests) are a grim reminder that the governing principle of urban architecture isn’t any kind of plastic artistry, but rather the brutal economics of floor space measured in square metres. It’s clear that we can’t hope for any more good buildings: the best we can hope for is that they demolish the awful ones we already have.

In Walthamstow, the site of a failed shopping development has been paved over and a few desultory benches added: the cheapest possible form of public space, a skatepark for empty crisp packets. On Oxford Street, Land Securities, developers of proposed flats on the site of the old Park House have run into trouble and want to turn the wasteland into a temporary corporate hospitality venue for film parties and reality TV shows. At least some are campaigning to turn the Middlesex Hospital site into community allotments. Better by far would be the kind of community gardens that the residents of New York’s Lower East Side have been developing since the 1970s. Community gardens don’t just provide for diversity, playgrounds and public art, but through their membership require intelligent and collective decision-making about the shared use of green space. London could do with some more of that, and a bit more demolition, too.

Recent acquisitions: poetry

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

The horror of buying a novel is having to read it. Fascinating discoveries from second hand bookshops and chainstore threefertwos alike pile up on the shelves, taunting you with your laziness and their unreadness; novels that have been read are no better, merely taking up space as you slowly forget their plot and characters, destined to either be lugged from house to house as you move, or given away as fodder for Oxfam in its quest to become the Tesco of secondhand bookselling.

A book of poetry, on the other hand, is never finished. The most dog-eared and memorised volume of verse is all the more valuable for that; the smallest anthology is always capable of revealing new lines and new perspectives. And never being finished, starting is easy. Dip in, find one good line, one satisfying couplet or image, one short poem that you can read to your other half in bed, and the book has already paid for itself. Moreover, there’s never any reason not to buy a book of poetry today just because you bought one yesterday.

And so, recent acquisitions include:

Jerome Peignot, Typoesie
A gorgeous anthology of visual poetry, bought for me as a leaving present by my lovely colleagues at the ICA. It contains some beautiful flower poems by concrete poet Mary Ellen Solt, who shares with abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute not only a first name but being a true pioneer in a field dominated by men. I have a small dream of one day curating a small Mary Ellen festival devoted jointly to the work of both.

Tom Chivers, How to Build a City
I did my little bit to save Salt by buying this (great though they are, their constant self-publicising does border on the annoying). The author is not to be confused with the London Paper hack of the same name, though this book is all about London. Dense, allusive stuff. Contains the word ‘lozenge’ in the first line of the first poem.

The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. led me here, looking for Robert Creeley (title) and Clark Coolidge (Guston collaborations), as well as some Beat context. Postmodernism’s a dirty word: postmodern less so, the further you get from the 1980s. Very familiar names rub up against very (to me) unfamiliar. There could be a lot of education in this one.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
A P.O.T.H. impulse probably led me here, too. I wish that Koch’s name rhymed with Hanhan Höch’s, but instead it rhymes with Coke. Seven hundred-plus pages of poems I will probably never read most of, but a few short beautiful and funny ones including  ‘Permanently’ and ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

Johannes Kerkhoven, Mixed Concrete
Acquired in Housmans and published by Hearing Eye, a book of contemporary visual poetry. Intriguing, but some of it borders on the tritely aphoristic.

Pot! Poetry Olympics Twenty05
An output of Michael Horovitz’s small empire. I saw Horovitz, editor of Children (and Grandchildren) of Albion,  perform at a recent London Liming at the RFH. Coming on with his ‘anglo-saxophone’ after a young woman had read a rather self-righteous poem about how she preferred the power of words to the power of drugs, he performed an excellent poem about being stoned out of his gourd which was many times better than hers. Later he could be seen by the side of small the stage tapping his foot to the dubstep poetry of Spaceape. This book also contains the very funny ‘Spam’ by Stacy Makishi, who performed at London Liming’s QEH outing last year.

City State, New London Poetry
Edited by the aforementioned Chivers, a sampler of new London writers from Penned in the Margins, every one of which is younger than me. More by Chivers himself, Chris McCabe and Caroline Bird (another Liming performer). East London references probably win out over any other corner of the city, but the range of poetic practice is satisfyingly wide.

Generation Txt
Another Penned in the Margins/Chivers effort, a self-consciously zeitgeisty collection of six young poets. Better than it sounds: there are already some favourites here, including Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Sestina for my Friends’ which he performed at the recent Oxfam launch of The Manhattan Review. James Wilkes’ ‘A Postcard from the New Forest’ is a piece of visual poetry curiously reminiscent of Ben Marcus’ invented worlds.

Peter Finch, Selected Later Poems
Signed by the author, and acquired at a reading at the ICA. Hearing Finch read was like feeling poetic horizons physically widened. The fact that his reading was so viscerally oral is neither undermined nor lessened in  works committed to dead tree. Some of it borders on the concrete, some of it can be heard with the mind’s ear; all of it adopts a relentlessly unforgiving playfulness with language (From ‘Paint’: “Winter Arse …  Blueberry Sandinista … Mango Vagina”). This is the second book in the list to contain a parody of William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’, entitled ‘The Plums’. (Tom Leonard has written another: I may devote a tiny aberrant corner of my Mary Ellen festival to this form).

Two threads of commonality: four of the books contain poets who I have recently seen perform. Five of the books in some way relate back to the ICA’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. All of them remain resolutely unfinished books. Forever.

Babylon is burning

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy, 1980

Babylon, Dir Franco Rosso, UK/Italy 1980

Sometimes it feels like independent cinema is a charity case itself, so it’s pleasantly surprising to find a new independent cinema just around the corner that sustains a South African community project on its proceeds, even if Sunday matinee tickets are a tenner each. The Lexi Cinema, ensconced since last October n the Pinkham Lighthouse, a refurbished Edwardian theatre in Kensal Rise, is the first ‘social enterprise’  digital cinema in London. Set up by entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Sally Wilton, it’s located right in the corner of North West London that suffered a freak tornado three years ago, ripping a handful of streets to pieces. It’s a strange kind of tribute to community on a heading-to-dull suburban road.

The cinema itself is a comfortable 80-seater; and the projection kit’s not bad at all: it’s set up to take the industry’s encrypted hard drives for recent releases like Telstar, but it also projects from disc, and I can finally see the point of Blu-Ray: in a small screening setting like this, the HD really makes a difference to the sharpness and clarity of the picture; unfortunately, this particular screening jerks every second or so, just enough to be noticeable on a fast-moving pan (I have a geeky conversation with the projectionist, or at least the bloke who pushes the buttons on the players, about this afterwards: he’s apologetic & thinks it’s about the aspect ratio; on reflection I reckon it’s a frame rate conversion problem; Blu-Ray discs can hold a multiplicity of different formats, codecs and broadcast standards).

But what’s on screen is far more interesting than the jerks: winding up the London on Film Festival, this is a chance to see Franco Rosso‘s Babylon, a reggae film from 1980, starring Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, and soundtracked by Linton Kwesi Johnson’s musical collaborator Dennis Bovell. The story has echoes of The Harder They Come: Forde’s Blue, an aspiring toaster with the Ital Lion soundsystem, booked for a clash with Jah Shaka, has to negotiate his way through the urban jungle and a long dark night of the soul on his way there.

The film isn’t an overt story of politicisation like Pressure or Burning an Illusion, but it presents a credible and depressing picture of a pervasively racist Britain at the end of the seventies: National Front slogans daubed across council estates, routine police brutality, and casual prejudice at work: Blue’s boss, played by Mel Smith, calls Blue a ‘coon’ and sacks him when he gets lippy. In the end Blue triumphs with a storming toast at the clash just as a police raid breaks through the doors and the credits roll, but there are no false victories: Babylon is all around. When a white woman interrupts the Ital Lion crew to tell them to get ‘”fuck off back to your own country”, Beefy yells back at her “This is my fucking country, lady! And it’s never been fucking lovely!”

Testament to South London’s unloveliness are the bits of scenery caught in the location shots: derelict Victorian terraces, waste ground and grim acres of council housing. Nobody would let nineteenth century housing like that rot today. On my way to Brixton a day earlier, I stumble across Niall O’Sullivan‘s You’re Not Singing Anymore, a book of poetry about half of which concerns Brixton. In Between Worlds, we get a bird’s eye view of the liminal zone between grit and suburb:

We’re just a few reels away from the cracking of skulls,
unshaven faces denting car bonnets,
flecks of blood, slivers of tooth, wasted beer…
But the bus that you’re watching from
turns the corner and now it’s Victorian terraces
flowering Forsythia, budding plane trees,
Audis and Volvos snoozing uncomfortably.

Then walking to the Ritzy via Suzie’s place, by the Somerleyton Estate’s barrier block (its hideous arse-backwards frontage aligned to protect the estate from a 1970s motorway that never was), the police have a family car pulled over to the side of the road and are going through the boot’s contents. Plus ça change: Brixton still hasn’t quite managed to commodify its edge in the way parts of East London have.

At the end of the 1980s, in 1991 New Departures published Grandchildren of Albion, Michael Horovitz’s sequel to his groundbreaking sixties anthology Children of Albion. Between its covers you’ll find recently-annointed laureate Carol Ann Duffy alongside John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Attila the Stockbroker. Not only is there a cultural baton passed from Babylon to Albion in the form of dub poetry, but the whole collection coruscates with the energy of resistance to injustice on all fronts. If Albion’s children took a poetic engagement with politics to be a kind of provocation against an age of plenty at home and war abroad, its grandchildren found the war on their own doorsteps in the form of racism, sexism and mass unemployment. Poetry like this, and films like Babylon can induce nostalgia not only for the mind-blowing dub sounds of 1980, but for a decade in which poetry, music and struggle all seemed to matter together.

Ten reasons West London is better than East London

Westway and Canal. Photo: Pkabz flickr.com/30903003@N04

Westway and Canal. Photo: Pkabz flickr.com/30903003@N04

Posh people who act like proper posh people. They dye their hair blonde, put their sunglasses on their head and bray about the price of their shares. They don’t pretend to be artists, the new working class, or hipster urchins. You know where they are, and how to avoid them.

Portobello Road market. Antiques, comics, food, clothes, music. A little bit more than second-hand tools and bootleg tobacco, if you know what I mean.

Iain Sinclair has already bored everyone to death by writing everything possible about the history of East London. Michael Moorcock’s a better novelist too.

Brick Lane’s all right for a curry but for Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Mexican or almost any other kind of food you’d be better off west of King’s Cross.

Your neighbourhood isn’t full of pestilential artists busy putting up everyone’s rent and then moaning about how it isn’t as ‘edgy’ as it used to be.

The Westway: a majestic and legendary piece of urban engineering, a work of true post-Victorian hubris, it swoops like a mighty concrete eagle over the city. I’m still waiting for that ‘From the M11 Link Road to the World’ documentary.

Freedom from the relentless recooling of everything. Harlesden isn’t the new Willesden. Acton isn’t the new Shepherd’s Bush. People aren’t turning perfectly good shops into hip new nightspots. I’d rather have a fresh red pepper than another night of bad poetry.

Your allotment’s safe from the Olympics.

Mela? Shoreditch Festival? Lovebox? Carnival.

Being the other side of London from anyone who has anything to do with Vice magazine has to be a good thing.

Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.