The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

Grubby Mitts Cecil Sharp House

There was something so perfect about The Grubby Mitts playing Cecil Sharp House. Bedford’s art rockers at the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society nestled in the well-heeled streets of Primrose Hill. London’s village hall. In my mind they belong in large spaces, I’d first seen them at Bob and Roberta Smith’s Art Party Conference at the Spa in Scarborough, an even more cavernous venue.

When I arrived Andy Holden was on the stage holding up ceramic cats to a camera under a table lamp as the band played and the close-up cat images were projected on the big screen while Holden narrated. This wasn’t the main gig, but a performance piece called Catharsis. The cats had belonged to Holden’s Grandmother who left them to him in a series of large cardboard boxes after her death – his performance taking the form of a peculiar ‘unboxing video’.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

The main hall at Cecil Sharp House is huge, with echoes of folk heroes and grand dances. The Grubby Mitts crowd stuck mostly to the bank of seating around the wall leaving the ballroom floor clear aside from a handfull of die-hards forming a line across the middle of the space. It worked – seemed to fit the mood, the awkward school disco kids, let the sounds fill the void. The show was apparently linked to Andy Holden’s current Art angel show with his father Peter Holden, Natural Selection.

The Grubby Mitts at Cecil Sharp House

I only lasted half a song before taking the floor and joining the ranks of the standing, barely dancing line. The band worked through most (if not all) of their album What The World Needs Now Is along with what I presume were newer tunes. A three-piece brass section joined some numbers swelling the sound into the high vaulted ceiling euphorically. Holden twisted knobs hunched over at a table of electronics, played the guitar, and gesticulated at the drummer. It was a majestic performance from the whole band.

It ended with a stunning rendition of To A Friend’s House the Way is Never Long. The band departed the stage and then stood in the hall with the rest of us as the lights came back on and the audience dribbled out into the Primrose Hill night. I rarely go to gigs these days aside from local nights in Leytonstone, this was perfect. Wandering down into Camden Town, freezing cold, I fancied a pint but turns out Camden Council have rigid licencing laws with no booze sold after 10.30pm on a Sunday. Rather than pissing me off it just added to the quirky vibe of a magical event.

Somers Town – around Chalton Street

Churchway Somers Town NW1

After mid-morning coffee with a friend in Fitzrovia and a mooch in Park Cameras my feet led me to Somers Town, that uncanny zone between Euston and St. Pancras at the heart of the old Ossulstone Hundred.

“I will not declare that those who have not visited Somers Town have missed much. … At every street door women stand gossiping with each other, and others talk out of the windows; while others yet wheel perambulators along the pavements. There is much waste paper and other refuse in the roadway”

A Londoner’s Own London, Charles G. Harper

Written in 1927 Charles G. Harper was clearly not impressed with Somers Town, and neither was James Bone who described the area in his 1925 book The London Perambulator as a “debatable land”.

Churchway Somers Town NW1There were no ‘gossiping street door women’ on Friday lunchtime and I was drawn further into Somers Town by this beguiling remnant of former times, Churchway, that led to the front door of one of the area’s more well-known establishments, The Coffee House on Chalton St.

Somers Town Coffee House

In the 18th Century The Coffee House had been a popular meeting place for French refugees fleeing religious persecution:

“At this time the coffee-house was a popular place of resort, much frequented by the foreigners of the neighbourhood as well as by the pleasure-seeking cockney from the distant city. There were near at hand other public-houses and places of entertainment, but the speciality of this establishment was its coffee. As the traffic increased, it became a posting-house, uniting the business of an inn with the profits of a tea-garden. Gradually the demand for coffee fell off, and that for malt and spirituous liquors increased. At present the gardens are all built over, and the old gateway forms part of the modern bar; but there are in the neighbourhood aged persons who remember Sunday-school excursions to this place, and pic-nic parties from the crowded city, making merry here in the grounds.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878

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Chalton Street Market is in a post-Christmas slumber. The fabric trader I talk to says January is very quiet. Even so he has his full range of embroidered and sequined shawls and throws on display. I buy one that has been reduced to £2.

Charlton Street Market

Children’s clothes hanging from a metal rail flutter in the wind, a table is laid out with a mound of assorted clothes priced at 50p, loud reggae blares from the Crepe stall. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it had become a centre of small trades:

“At the end of the last century this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution. Indeed, it became nearly as great a home of industry as Clerkenwell and Soho. It may be added that, as the neighbourhood of Manchester and Portman Squares formed the head-quarters of the emigrés of the wealthier class who were thrown on our shores by the waves of the first French Revolution, so the exiles of the poorer class found their way to St. Pancras, and settled down around Somers Town, where they opened a Catholic chapel, at first in Charlton Street, Clarendon Square, and subsequently in the square itself. Of this church, which is dedicated to St. Aloysius, we shall have more to say presently.”Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

Breathless Latex Euston

I turn off Chalton Street into Phoenix Road past Breathless Latex Couture and on into Brill Place. The great antiquarian William Stukeley, famous for his surveys of Avebury and Stonehenge, believed that the name Brill was derived from the Saxon name Burgh meaning high ground or hill, an idea slightly undermined by the fact that the area is relatively flat compared to the nearby high ground of Islington. Stukeley also placed Caesar’s Camp in the area.

Brill Place is all that remains of an area that had been known simply as ‘The Brill’ and had a thriving Sunday market that is said to have drawn thousands of people from the surrounding area. Curiously, there is a reference in Old and New London (1878) to ‘barrows’ on the Brill that  ‘were swept away during the formation of the Midland Railway Terminus.’ If this is a reference to ‘barrow’ as in ‘burial mound’, does that mean there are perhaps Saxon and/or prehistoric burial sites under St. Pancras International? The thought is tantilising, after all what drew Stukeley to the site in the 18th Century aside from St Pancras Old Church and the River Fleet.

According to Wikipedia, author Gillian Tindall “has suggested that the lumps and bumps in the fields to the west of the church that Stukeley interpreted as a Roman camp were actually traces of the original medieval village of St. Pancras, before the centre of the settlement moved north to the area now known as Kentish Town.” All we can do now is speculate on this intriguing aspect of the history of Somers Town.

Paradigm - sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

Paradigm – sculpture by Conrad Shawcross at the Francis Crick Institute

But whether you are seeking out romantic legends, the former stomping grounds of French emigres, a latex suit, or just some pretty fabrics, it is well worth your time sliding along the side of Euston Station for a wander around Somers Town. After all, this is where William Blake saw Jerusalem’s pillars of gold stretching all the way to Marleybone.


 

Have a listen to this episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography recorded in November 2009, where we explore the area ‘North O’ Euston’ inspired by James Bone’s book The London Perambulator.

Return to Tin Pan Alley

It was just over a year ago that I visited Denmark Street with Tim Arnold of the Save Soho campaign. Tim was giving me a tour of venues under threat and those that still give live music a home in the West End. We decided to start outside the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street – a venue Tim had played many times. As I started filming we noticed crates and boxes leaving the building in a steady stream – the 12 Bar Club had hosted its final gig in Tin Pan Alley, forced out by the Crossrail sponsored destruction of this corner of Central London.

When I met Henry Scott-Irvine of the Save Denmark Street campaign outside the boarded up venue last month, news had just filtered through that the 12 Bar had just closed its doors again at its new home on Holloway Road. As Henry put it – music needs a hub, Denmark Street/ Tin Pan Alley was the beating heart of London’s live music community and when that heart is damaged you can’t expect things to survive out along the arteries (I’m paraphrasing but Henry explains it more eloquently in the video above).

Save Tin Pan Alley

Superficially for now Denmark Street retains the guitar shops and a couple of venues. This is undoubtedly a good thing, particularly when you consider the way that the iconic Astoria was brutally erased from the map with a few swings of a wrecking ball (I couldn’t think of a Miley Cyrus gag there but insert your own).

Andre in Hanks Guitar Shop was upbeat about the situation – thinking that the surrounding developments could bring new trade to the street and lead to a revival of the shops and venues. Although he did sound a note of caution that the developers – who are also the landlords – needed to keep the rents at realistic levels for the traders in Tin Pan Alley. The various music industry offices occupying the upper floors of this historic 17th Century street have already been forced out – gone are the music publishers and agents who brought the music to Denmark Street in the early 20th Century – who invented the music press and the pop charts, then the pop stars and punk rock.

Good news arrived this week that the house where the Sex Pistols lived and daubed graffiti on the walls has been given a Grade II listing. Finally official heritage recognition for at least one chapter of this richly storied thoroughfare. Henry would like to see the London Borough of Camden give it the same protected status for music that Hatton Garden has for its jewelry trade.

Without dogged campaigning the developers could already have destroyed this vital part of London’s heritage – thankfully people such as Henry and Andre are keeping the music alive in Denmark Street and long may Tin Pan Alley rock on.

There Is No Plan

Went for a wander after leaving work in Kentish Town. Decided to just follow my nose and it wasn’t till I reached St. Pancras Old Church that I realised I had followed the course of the submerged River Fleet all the way.

It’s a steep old climb out of the Fleet basin behind St Pancras International – I was puffing slightly as I came upon whatever they’re calling the newly created piazza beside the Regent Canal. It’s the kind of odd new privately-owned ‘public space’ you’d expect to see in an ambitious regional town. The slogan in the window of the new-old Central St. Martin’s building says it all, ‘There Is No Plan’.

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The Book Genie

I like to imagine there is a spirit that guides my fugues at times – that rewards me for surrendering to its lure. The rewards come in the shape of stumbling into unexpected corners of the city at the end of unpromising schleps. But sometimes they come in the form of books. Today I succumbed to the fugue and found these four books virtually side by side on the same charity shop shelf.

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Rising in the East (1996) unlocked the door. A book of essays on East End regeneration written in a pre-Cool Britannia London – when to talk of a renaissance of the East may still have sounded optimistic or opportunistic. The first eager read turned up an essay on the importance of the North London Line Overground train at a time when it was fighting for its life. I skimmed the first few pages of this thesis as I glided eastwards from Haringey to Leyton on one of the brand new trains running on the 160- year old line. ‘Traversing the Great Divide: The North London Line and East London’ the essay is grandly titled, by Bruce Jerram and Richard Wells, and such is their passion apparent for the NLL that they produced this brilliant diagram demonstrating how it arcs West – East across the capital, or as it was viewed at the time from “a rich desirable west to a poor, dull, possibly dangerous east”. With the stations being upgraded, gleaming pre-graffiti trains and the East London Olympics at the end of the North London Line, it looks like they won their argument.

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The Romance of London from 1910. The first pages pouring cold water of talk of the myth of King Lud but all the same acknowledging Tacitus’s observations that in AD61 he finds London “celebrated for the gathering of dealers and commodities”. A Roman refuting the idea that the Romans founded our city.
A guide to Camden written at the height of Britpop and an archeological examination of the relationship between town and country in Roman Britain (wonder whether urban sprawl was an issue back then?)

Ode to an English Caff

Yesterday returned with the boys to a much loved spot – Coram’s Fields. The first time we’ve been back for at least a year to this city oasis where adults are only allowed to enter if accompanied by a child. A kid’s paradise among the dying plane trees.
When we lived on an estate atop Penton Mound, Coram’s Fields was a valuable bit of open space to escape to – swings, sand-pit, slide, goats, rabbits, geese and a lovely little old fashioned caff tucked away in a corner under a whitewashed colonnade, a surviving remnant of Thomas Coram’s 18th century Foundling Hospital. A bowl of pasta pesto at £2 was a standard order on those long days out in the Bloomsbury air. Simple sandwiches of the ilk I scoffed myself as a boy – cheese and tomato, ham and cheese, tuna and cucumber a mere quid. Little cupcakes 50p, ice-cream in a cone 60p. Public park prices, kids prices, queueing up clutching their fistful of coins in a sweaty palm. Despite it’s centrality and trendy associations, the area that Coram’s Fields services has some of the poorest estates in London, ranking among some of the most economically deprived in the country. This is council run play-schemes for working Mums, and only a smattering of Yummy Mummies.
My horror yesterday then when the caff was gone replaced by some dreadful poncey continental Upper Street colonial outpost of a place. The name was some meaningless combination of consonants, the staff young, beautiful, indifferent and mainland European. Where was that lovely old weather-beaten cockney maid who dished out the cookies and cordial? Delicate pastries had replaced our slabs of sponge cake. The pasta boasted of being served with a homemade sauce and weighed in at a hefty £4.50. Who gives a toss when you’ve had that mangy goat licking your fingers. Get the local kids onto that stuff and it could trigger a crime wave. I stood in the queue and watched as a Dad despondently shelled out £9 for a few juices and biscuits – I think there was some sort of claim of being organic or some such guff.
As I waited for the staff to finish fixing their hair between customers my horror turned to anger – this was a cultural invasion. How had we let the locally specific Caff be replaced by the ersatz Cafe? Where will it end? Would I mind so much if they kept the prices the same? Probably not. I’d let it pass in a minor huff. But the point of the over-margarined sandwich bar, the strong tea stand, the too-sweet biscuits was an idea of democracy, a day out for all, a food we all understood because our Nan’s plated it up for us. I can see the Cappucino Tsar for Camden Council condemning the old caff to a fate befallen by all too many before, and dreaming up the list of Conranista criteria that a cafe should have. And here it is – sending the disappointed kids slouching away with nothing but an over-priced Fredo Frog.

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Pictorial Year – well half of it anyway

Some images grabbed on my phone in the last 6 months of the year – from a pilgrimage to the Chilterns, a walk in an autumnal Epping Forest, a Camden Cafe that I pass sometimes, the car-free day in Leytonstone when it’s never been so difficult to walk in the street, the last tower blocks in E11 that continue to fascinate and repel, the first test projection by the Leytonstone Film Club, and the postie’s trolley parked up for Crimbo in my street (not necessarily in that order)



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