Finisterre

I eventually caught St. Etienne’s psychogeographical film about London ‘Finisterre’ at the ICA the other week. The band and directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans openly acknowledge that their project was a response to Patrick Keiller’s classic, ‘London’. In the year that Patrick Keiller was shooting his seminal film ‘London’, Saint Etienne recorded their second album ‘So Strong’. Both film and album captured a raw slice of the capital in 1992. Keiller’s film set against the backdrop of John Major’s election triumph, IRA bombs and Black Wednesday, just as St Etienne’s album was an audio tour of Greasy Spoon cafes and cold Kentish Town pavements.

Keiller’s influence is immediately apparent in the opening sequences of Finisterre. We see static establishing shots that are ‘London’s’ signature and hear the voice of an unseen, un-named narrator as with Paul Schofield’s perfect dry delivery of his account of excursions taken with his former lover Robinson. In Finisterre it is never obvious who the ‘flaneurs’ of the piece are, we merely see a train arriving from Croydon at 06:01. Suburban boys out to explore the capital. It is implicit that this is the story of the band’s journey through London.

The other key inspiration is the James Mason fronted film of Geoffrey Fletcher’s book ‘The London Nobody Knows’ with it’s celebration of the forgotten and neglected city of the sixties; Chapel Market, Percy Circus, Gin Palaces, public loos. We see Bob Stanley in a café flicking through its pages.

As the film unfolds these influences recede as other characters are introduced delivering their meditations on London. Artist Julian Opie, who designed one of St Etienne’s album covers, the guy at the record pressing plant where their first single was committed to vinyl, Vic Godard punk hero and postman.

The London we see is invariably the one inhabited by the band their collaborators, Hackney, Islington, Highgate, Soho. In this sense it represents more of personal topography than a ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The references here are more towards the films of John Smith, particularly ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ and ‘Black Tower’.

The personal element to the film becomes its most compelling aspect rather than its stylistic homage to Keiller. The voice-over delivering lists of observations and associations reminiscent of the hypnotic prose of Hackney writer Iain Sinclair’s dérive reports from the unseen city. Fused with the visuals it constructs a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

Islington gets good coverage in the film: Percy Circus, the old dairy on Amwell Street, the world’s most uninviting dentist’s on Copenhagen Street (with a hand-painted sign in shaky letters), Packington Estate, Barbican, the Water Rats on Grays Inn Road, and Lubetkin’s Bevin Court with its famous stairwell.

The new St. Etienne album is named after a block of flats on the City Road, Turnpike House, and their follow-up film to ‘Finisterre’, ‘Caff’ featured the Golden Fish Bar on Farringdon Road, the recently deceased Alfredo’s on Essex Road (now S&M), and the Rheidol Rooms in Rheidhol Street.

I showed Bob, Pete, and Paul (another Wycombe boy and onetime member of Heavenly Records band East Village) my battered copy of Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ which they hadn’t seen and earned me a copy of the DVD (which is on sale now) – well worth its place next to my copies of ‘London’, ‘Galivant’, and ‘London Orbital’.

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The White Conduit

White Conduit House

On a whim I popped into the print shop in the antiques arcade in Upper Street. The friendly vaguely Irish fella who owns the place welcomed me in and drew out a selection of prints to peruse. I was looking for one of White Conduit House (now the Penny Farthing and boarded up awaiting its latest incarnation as a Greek Taverna). “Yes and of course there would have been a conduit there” he said.
Islington was famous for its springs, he told me a few houses still have them. A bit of a rummage online confirmed his suspicion about the conduit which apparently fed the Charterhouse down on the edge of Smithfield. “…from 1430 the London Charterhouse had a piped supply from the place in Barnsbury where the White Conduit House became a popular resort, and its aqueduct was mentioned in 1545 and 1553.”
I’m going to retrace the route of the aqueduct with a walk, a smaller version of the yomp I did with Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou and photographer Peter Knapp last week along the West Middlesex Drainage Scheme – see Pete’s photos here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/knapster/sets/632564/

It also confirms that symmetry between the springs as places of pagan worship, their later use as pleasure resorts (which is a modern form of worship in the industrial age), and the resonance which comes down to us through the pubs that still mark many of the springs (I sank 3 pints of Timothy Taylor at the Harlequin with Jacob and some of his mates last night on the site of Sadlers Well).

On an aside, the chap in the print shop showed me a wonderful cartoon of a visit to Middlesex County House of Correction from 1799, which was in Cold Bath Fields just off Rosebery Avenue near the Fire Station.

The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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1 O’Clock Club

“Open the doors and let the kids play”, is what one Mum said to me. She was talking about the 1 O’clock club in Barnard Park but I took it on a metaphorical level. Open the doors and let the kids play, take down the barriers and unleash the little tykes’ creative energies. It seems odd that in one of our precious bits of greenspace (Islington has the least amount of greenspace of any Borough in London) the doors at the 1 o’clock club should remain closed keeping the children inside the little concrete cube with the gossiping women. I’m too intimidated to go in myself, I rely on the hearsay of others. It comes across as a tight cabal of fiercesome grannie-childminders and fag smoking baby-mums spouting Daily Mail headlines.
One source reported a conversation about Mike Leigh’s film ‘Vera Drake’ that went along the lines of “Saw that Vera Drake”, “Me too, boring…”, “Dreary,” “I walked out”. The irony being that Leigh has said in his mind the character of Vera Drake lived in Copenhagen Street, the street that runs right past the 1 o’clock club; these lovely ladies could be the real Vera Drakes.
‘Course you’d never find Mike Leigh at the 1 0’clock club, it’s far too working class.
The conversation about getting the doors open literally and metaphorically and ending the club’s status as a free coffee stop for the childless women of the area ignited my political instincts. We were still bathing in the glow of our Sure Start playgroup being taken into the hands of a parent-led management committee and had successfully changed the time of the kids’ morning snack to 11.15. “A coup d’etat”, I suggested, “a 1 o’clock club putsch”.
“Sing song time”. One of the group facilitators rounded us up and soon talk of the march on Barnard Park was drowned out by “Wind the bobbin up, wind the bobbin up…..” A song glorifying exploitative piecework labour practices of capitalist mill owners.

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Writing the Great Necropolis

I cross the border into deepest darkest Hackney, a journey worthy of Conrad, taken aboard a 394 all the way from Angel to Homerton High Street. This journey should have its own blue plaque, a magical mystery tour through the fringe of the old City, through its plaque pits, burial grounds and hunting fields. White Conduit House, The Eagle, Shoreditch, London Fields. It’s a moving expo of public housing schemes from the best of the LCC 4-storey blocks built but idealists to seventies efforts fit only for crack-dens.
The purpose of my pilgrimage back to my post-Poly stomping grounds is to listen to London’s seer, Iain Sinclair sharing a platform with two other writers who use the city as their muse, Maureen Duffy and Ferdinand Dennis. The venue is a treasure, Sutton House that boasts to be the oldest dwelling in East London and I’m guessing that it’s C16/C17th. I remember it as the place I could never get into, kept impossible hours and my days back then were divided between the Job Centre, the library and Mare Street pubs.
Sinclair reads for perhaps 15 minutes but it’s long enough to deliver a few choice lines on how working in freight yards and parks he created a kind of “mythic geography” of the area; that his London is defined by invisibility and secrecy, and Mike Moorcock turned back at the river unable to cross the Thames heading south.
Duffy and Dennis offer slightly different visions of our great necropolis. Duffy has memories of the blitz and Dennis delivers fruity slices of the post-war immigrant experience. But as Duffy reminds us we’re all immigrants in London (in England I’d say).
It triggers off various thoughts. For me London is a city that dis-locates you rather than gives you a sense of location. So much is buried beneath our feet and behind the brickwork that echoes of past lives pulse up through the pavement and seep through the plaster.
When I walk to work I cross the River Fleet, “River of Wells”. Despite being beneath Kings Cross Road/ Farringdon Road there is a tangible divide when the river is crossed. Again when I emerge from Fetter Lane into Fleet Street the atmosphere alters as I enter the realm of Sweeney Todd and Samuel Johnson.
I came home from Hackney via the more prosaic No.38, one of the last surviving Routemasters and alight at the end of Essex Road. Homerton feels a million miles away, down below us on boggy ground while we swan around on the sacred Penton Mound.

The Historic Symmetry of Caledonian Park

clocktower, Caledonian Park

In the days of the Friday pedlars market, the Clock Tower bell tolled at 10am and let the traders in. In its day the Caledonian Market was one of the wonders of London right up till 1939. Stories abounded of punters picking up priceless treasure for a few shillings amongst the old eggcups, odd shoes, false teeth and pieces of rusty iron. A famous racing tipster called Ras Prince Monolulu dished out winners for a price. HV Morton describes the scene in ‘The Heart of London’ and tells of a friend who picks up an Egyptian Mummy for 10 shillings.

The painter Walter Sickert, who lived nearby, haunted the market and proclaimed that it was his idea of heaven.

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Metropolitan Cattle Market

Sex Workers use the park and accost people on Market Road”, warns the bulletin put out by The Friends of Caledonian Park. The working girls have been pushed north by the development of Kings Cross. It’s a different kind of meat market now. Pimps, prostitutes, kerb crawlers, undercover police surveillance twitching in the bushes, men reading their papers on the park benches get approached for business. The girls have the faces of ghosts, the spirit having departed the body for protection. The Gazette carries the gruesome story of a prostitute picked up in Market Road then pushed out of the seven and a half tonne lorry after rowing about the cost of oral sex and crushed to death under its back wheels.

When HV Morton visited the market in 1926 he was offered a skeleton for sale. Down the road a woman’s mutilated body was fished out of the Regent’s Canal by a group of kids. “Ripper Killing Horror” screams the Islington Gazette. She was a prostitute, probably from the Market Road meat-rack, chopped up in a crack den round the corner on Conistone Way, an area that once housed abattoirs and horse slaughterers. Some believe that Walter Sickert was the real Jack The Ripper, his paintings depicting his victims’ anguished faces. The girls I see working the park gates have something of the Victorian about them. Dr Crippin murdered his wife not far away in Hilldrop Crescent and was hung in Pentonville Prison down the road. Is this another case of historic symmetry.