the sign spells it out – rising hill or spring. on penton street you’ll find risinghill street.
10am this morning. A liberal littering of bright blue bin-liners. Cast iron bin tossed on its side yards from its base. Smashed glass of white, brown and green everywhere, but particularly on the path and around the swings. This is a usual scene in Barnard Park on a Sunday morning when I take my son to the playground. He loves picking up the broken glass and putting it in the bin. Last Sunday there was a large pink plastic elephant on a metal platform, probably lifted from outside a shop somewhere, smashed and partially burnt, offered up as a ritual sacrifice. Toddlers sat and played on it nonetheless. The sandpit has been emptied, not by the slack-jawed teens but by the council, they got tired of extracting the shards of broken glass. What they’ve left is a 3- foot deep empty concrete pit with metal barriers around the perimeter chained together at intervals of a metre or so, perfect for the mangling of a toddler. Even the malicious yobs sucking down alcopops here at night couldn’t devise a more lethal kiddie trap.
The scene this morning was relatively peaceful though. No motor-scooters hurtling by the playground gates at full-throttle. The building site next to the Lark in the Park pub resting from the job of building a block of ‘luxury apartments’. All the kids are excited by the presence of a real-life ‘Cranky Crane’ dominating the skyline and they can compare their own plastic ‘Scoop’ against the real thing chucking up mud six days a week. Be interesting to see how the new residents of Barnard Park will take to the weekly sacking of the space beneath their luxury windows. Will the estate agents include it in their advertising pitch, “the authentic inner city experience, prime views of feral youths burning out stolen vehicles.” One violent rape and one attempted murder (a random stabbing at four in the afternoon) within the last year. A bouncer at The Elbow Room across the way in Chapel Market shot after refusing someone entry last week. A teenager beaten unconscious on Barnsbury Estate opposite the park. Tony Blair lived about fifty yards away from the swings.
The kids love it though, and so do we. The view from Barnsbury Road down over Kings Cross should have its own blue plaque. There’s talk of reclaiming the concrete football pitches – in two and a half years I haven’t seen a single match played there, only dog training. The chain-link fencing is routinely pulled down and left contorted with sharp rusting spikes jutting out at all angles. Grassed over there would be a long sweep of green down to the One O’Clock Club (a prime piece of the park fenced off to be used for two hours a day and not at all weekends and autumn-winter). In summer with the water plaything on it’s packed with screeching kids and sunbathing parents. In the London borough with the least amount of greenspace, we have to appreciate what we’ve got.
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’.
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:
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 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.