Whats Cookin down at the Birkbeck

Last night ventured down to Whats Cookin’s new home at The Birkbeck Tavern in Langthorne Road, between the cemetery and the old hospital – perfect place for a knees up. Ramblin Steve and Ally now run the pub as well as the music night – an Americana boozer in the Lea Delta, serving up Maldon Gold ale from Essex’s Mighty Oak Brewery.

A trip to the Birkbeck is like time-travel for me – back to the London I first experienced as an 18-year old fresh up from the provinces and decamped to a terrace in Forest Gate. The Birkbeck is still there in 1989. The spirit of Whats Cookin reminiscent of the music nights that inspired me (drunk) to write reviews for the City Poly student rag.


Colour film of Leytonstone 1938

This fantastic 8mm Kodachrome amateur film of Leytonstone was shot in the same year as the photographs of the cyclists in Leyton (below) were taken – 1938. It’s tantalizing to imagine one of them is cycling past the camera at some point – or even that they knew the man who made this brilliant celluloid topographical record.

It’s interesting to see Harrow Green, little changed, the War Memorial to the dead of the First World War and soon to gain more names carved into the granite.

The Academy Cinema (0.36s), like all of Leytonstone’s cinemas, is sadly no more. They’re showing William Powell in Double Wedding and Conrad Nagal in Bank Alarm.  Waltham Forest now stands as the only London borough without a permanent cinema (the Leytonstone Pop-Up Cinema organises monthly screenings in the library).

The Police Station at 1.50 is boarded up now. Alfred Hitchcock was locked in the cells here as a young child at the behest of his father to teach him a lesson for some misdemeanor. It apparently left him psychologically scarred for the rest of his life – but I suppose, on the upside, he did turn that trauma into a lucrative career.

I’m going to watch it again to see if I can spot any of my Leyton cyclists. And a huge thank you to Mr S. Redburn for sharing his father’s film on Youtube.


Found Memories

Before Christmas I found a collection of old photos in a junk shop on Hainault Road, E10 which had come from a house clearance not far away in Leyton. The first handful I dragged out of the 1980s Marks and Spencers carrier bag contained these pictures of a bike shop on Church Road Leyton, Graystone’s, and what looks like the gathering of a cycling club.

The date “1938” is written on the back of this photo. When I zoomed in, one of the posters on the wall behind reads, “HANGED BY HIS OWN FATHER”. The name of the road is also clearly visible – Capworth Street.

They look such cheerful bunch – I wonder if they were worried about the events in Europe. At the beginning of 1938 the government announced that all British schoolchildren would be issued with gas masks. I bet the kids loved it, but as a parent, I can imagine that would have created a real sense of anxiety, a fear of what was possibly to come. Maybe it never crossed their minds – they were too busy flirting and showing off – discussing the best route to take through Epping Forest.

This is the site of Graystone’s on Church Road now. Although there is no sign of the shop you can see the detail around the front door next to it has survived and the exterior of that house looks pretty much the same.

And Capworth Street seems little changed – although a large group of cyclists posing for a photo in the middle of the road would soon be shunted out of the way by an aggressively driven customised car.

You can’t help wondering what happened to them during the war. I know that the owner of the photos was in the navy and obviously survived – but the rest? 

This photo looks like Marsh Lane Fields from the view of the gasometer behind the line of trees, augmented by the proximity of the house to Marsh Lane (and also to Graystone’s). There’s no date, but another one from the same set is dated 1953, the Goon Show was on the radio, Christie committed his murders at 10 Rillington Place and both Stalin and Dylan Thomas went to their graves (not together of course).

It feels odd to be in possession of somebody else’s memories. Aside from the few photos of local interest the majority of them are classic family snaps – weddings, birthdays, holidays, spanning at least 50 years.

I’m curious to know why some member of the family didn’t want them when the owner died and there was the inevitable sifting through of possessions. Some of them seem to date back to the early part of the century – you’d imagine they’d be treasured heirlooms.

My wife finds them “creepy”, and although I disagree I can see what she means – we weren’t supposed to see these photos (this is well before the Facebook age of obsessively sharing every moment of our lives with a legion of tangetial virtual ‘friends’). The people in these photos are ghosts – not half-remembered school mates.

My Mum’s family were naval folk so I was familiar with the names neatly written on the backs of these photos – Alexandria, Malta Harbour, Gateway of India.

But this one has a different story begging to be conjured out of its fading ink. The writing on the back (in ink this time rather than pencil) says:

“WE THREE”, Nathanya Camp, Palestine Nov’ 1945

From what I can glean online Nathanya Camp was a ‘leave camp’ for British forces serving in the middle east during the war. In November 1945, when this picture was taken, President Truman announced an inquiry “to look into the settlement of Jews in Palestine”. In November 1945 Zionist guerilla fighters were carrying out violent attacks on the Palestinian Railway system leading to the death of a British soldier.

But this is probably the most curious of all the photos. The huge (plastic?) swan, dancer emerging from a grotto on an isolated jetty – it is Lynchian, a still from a discarded work by the Blue Velvet director found in a faded, crumpled Marks and Spencer carrier bag in a junk shop in Leyton, east London.


Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

Passage des Panoramas Paris
Passage des Panoramas

From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Paris Arcade at night

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

Paris arcade at night

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

Paris arcade at night

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

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Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine