Author Archives: donbrown

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Bar Italia

bar-italia-3I’m having a coffee in the last of the Soho coffee bars.

An absurd statement on the face of it; there are probably more places to get a coffee in Soho now than at any time in the past.

But I’m talking about the Bar Italia, a place that justifies the label ‘Soho Institution’ and a world away from your chai lattes and skinny decaffs.

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Latest walks and tours

401231By almost popular demand, I’ve added some more dates for some of my walks and tours for February next year.

There’s another trip around ROCK AND ROLL SOHO, a Sunday morning at the BRITISH MUSEUM, a walk around the CITY OF LONDON and two successive Friday evenings at the NATIONAL GALLERY.

For full details and tickets, visit my other website, www.donbrown.london

These do, of course, make IDEAL CHRISTMAS PRESENTS for loved ones, or people you can’t think of anything tangible to buy.

Billingsgate

img_3945It’s five a.m. – 5 o’clock in the morning – in a misty Canary Wharf. You can’t see the top of 1 Canada Square and there are few lights on in the HSBC HQ, but where I am is buzzing with workers and shoppers.

I’m at Billingsgate Fish Market, one of London’s historic wholesale produce markets, the places – like Smithfield, Covent Garden, Spitalfields – that used to feed London.

And, despite the supermarkets and the chain restaurants, they still do to a certain extent. Around Billingsgate you’ll see buyers for fishmongers and restaurants, notebooks in hand, buying boxes of fish that are then loaded onto big steel trolleys by the white-clothed porters and taken out to the buyers’ vans. (“Your legs. Your legs” is the warning shout of the porters as they hurtle down the aisles.) Continue reading

The Development Plan for Greater London

lonsoc-london-plan-e1406632951632Before Abercrombie and Forshaw, with their 1943 and 1944 plans for modernising London , with new ring roads, ‘zoned’ areas and satellite new towns, there was the London Society‘s Development Plan.

Put together between 1914 and 1918 (the coincidence that both plans were the product of wartime is interesting), the Society’s plan grew out of a widespread feeling in the early part of the 20th Century that London had grown too much, too rapidly and without any overall supervision. At the RIBA Town Planning Conference in 1910, William Riley, architect of the London County Council, said that London was “one of the most costly examples of the evils resulting from the lack of proper [planning]”.

From the 1910 conference came the London Society,  its founder members including Riley, Sir Aston Webb (architect of the front of the V+A and the processional route along the Mall), Raymond Unwin (the architect-planner of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Letchworth Garden City) and a wide array of other architects and planners (including the splendidly named Arthur Beresford Pite)., politicians, newspaper moguls and businessmen.

Identifying transport infrastructure as key to the capital (plus ca change) the Society proposed that one body should be responsible for developing the arterial roads into and across the city, and its 1918 plan proposed a whole new network of main roads, by passes, the north and south circular and a new orbital road way that prefigures the M25 by several decades.

Allied to this were proposals for “new parks, parkways and waterside reservations”, connected by belts of green parkways, and the nationalisation of the railways to better control and coordinate the passenger and goods traffic coming into and through London.

The Plan was incredibly influential. In practical terms its concept of the ‘green belt’ was accepted and many of the roads it suggested were built, but more broadly, its idea that the growth of cities could be planned and managed with a view to making these developments better places to live and to work was widely embraced. Further plans and activity followed, and it’s fair to say that this work formed the foundation of Abercrombie’s vision.

You can buy a copy of the original plan, along with descriptive notes and context of the London plans at the London Society website.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Soho Walk

The map below (click the top right corner of it to get full screen) is the plan I’m building up of central London sites associated with (predominantly) ’60s and ’70s rock and pop.

So we have the site of the Beatles’ last live performance (and possibly their first London gig), the flat where Mama Cass Elliot and Keith Moon both died, the pub where Brian Jones auditioned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for his new band, the club where the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Jimi Hendrix and The Who played, and the offices where Elton John worked.

The blue line is my ‘rock n roll Soho’ walk, taking in many of the places mentioned above, as well as the street where Bowie was photographed for the Ziggy Stardust album, the studios where Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded, and the shop where Eric Clapton (reputedly) bought his first guitar.

If you want to come on this walk one Sunday, click here to put your email address into my newsletter list and I’ll send you the dates as they are scheduled.

Curiocity – a very different type of guidebook

curicoityI’ve just done a review of Curiocity for the London Society (which you can read here).

If you’ve not seen the book, go and do so, because it’s a fantastic piece of work – page after page of stories, trivia, maps and itineraries that take in a huge amount of London’s history, sites, legends and literature. Like the city itself, it’s a place you can be happily lost in for hours, discovering new things and experiences.

The authors describe it as the ‘reimagining of London in 26 ways’. “While some people attempt to hold London still to map it and document it, everyone else is changing the city simply by being part of it.”

Single Spies | Richmond Theatre

Review of the Alan Bennett plays that form Single Spies, at the Richmond Theatre, March 2016. First published in Essential Surrey

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In the 1930s, the British security services were penetrated by a group of double agents who passed on many secrets to Stalin’s Soviet Union over the next two decades. The group became known as the Cambridge Circle (they had all been friends from university) and included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and the art historian Sir Anthony Blunt. Burgess and Maclean fled to the USSR in 1951, Philby followed in 1963. Blunt was granted immunity from prosecution and anonymity on the basis he cooperated with the authorities.

Alan Bennett’s Single Spies, at the Richmond Theatre until Saturday, actually consists of two plays. The first is an adaptation of the script for the 1983 TV movie An Englishman Abroad, about a meeting in Moscow between the actress Coral Browne and Guy Burgess. The second is A Question of Attribution, an imagined encounter between the Queen and Blunt, who was Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures until he was exposed as a traitor and stripped of his knighthood in 1979. Continue reading

Merry Wives | Northern Broadsides

Review of the Northern Broadsides’ production of Merry Wives at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. March 2016

Northern Broadside’s Merry Wives, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston this week, is Shakespeare redone as a classic English farce, with entrances and exits timed to perfection, and all the characters that have become staples of the genre – the lecherous old man, the jealous husband, the dopey servant, thwarted lovers and the bawdy old woman.

In a fast-paced production the cast pull off the performance with great energy, communicating their enthusiasm to the audience throughout. Continue reading

Beryl

Review of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Maxine Peake’s Beryl at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. March 2016

main-image-listing-recoveredBeryl Burton is the cycling superstar that you’ve probably never heard of. British All Round champion for 25 consecutive years from 1959 to 1983, she held every national title (at one point simultaneously), won seven world titles, and her 1967 record for the 12 hour time trial is unbeaten to this day.

Maxine Peake’s Beryl is an entertaining celebration of this extraordinary woman’s life, told with a cast of just four, in a series of short scenes linked by narration.  There’s humour as well as drama, as we go from Beryl’s childhood in Leeds and her marriage to Charlie, to the years when she was the all-conquering champion of the road and track.  Samantha Power captures Beryl’s single-minded dedication to becoming the very best, and her refusal to give up, whatever the odds. Continue reading

Bye bye bonfire night

Over 400 years of tradition is coming to an end in London:- the public celebration of Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night.

Of course there are still some fireworks shows to go to, but these are now (with one or two exceptions) tightly-controlled, ticket-only, paid events. And they are displays of fireworks, disassociated from the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ of the rhyme; Guy-less, ahistorical.

Ten years ago one could – and I did – watch the free fireworks on Clapham Common and see in the distance the rockets from Lambeth’s other free shows in Brockwell Park and Tooting Bec. After cutting back these shows from three to one, this year Lambeth have axed the fireworks completely. In Wandsworth the free fireworks across the borough were condensed into the expensive Battersea Park event years ago, and it’s a similar story in Wimbledon and across the rest of the capital. Continue reading