Category Archives: The Blog

London’s Green Parakeets

parakeet-1Perhaps 15 years ago, I was sat by the river in East Molesey, just past Hampton Court. Across the water the trees on the opposite bank were full of bright green parrots, the first time I had seen these now ubiquitous London birds.

Tow or three years later they started appearing in Richmond Park; less than ten years ago the first colonists put in an appearance on Tooting and Clapham Commons. They now cover the city, west to east, south to north, their characteristic squawk being heard in all of London’s green spaces, as literal flocks of them cross the skies. It’s estimated that there are now anything up to 30,000 of them, with the population growing rapidly. Continue reading

Putney, SW15

A short piece I did for Essential Surrey on Putney’s history, and some of the famous people associated with the area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow a thriving, popular and leafy suburb of London, Putney is recorded – as ‘Putenhie’ or ‘Putelei’ – in the Domesday Book as a ferry and a fishery, and for much of its history was a small village well outside the orbit of the capital. Despite this, it has produced or been the home of a number of people who had a significant impact on the country.

This includes Thomas Cromwell, the ‘enforcer’ to Henry VIII who rose from being the son of a Putney blacksmith to the King’s Chief Minister. It was Cromwell who pushed through the break with the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries, and Cromwell who was the moving force behind the executions of Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. He met the same fate himself in 1540, when Henry had him beheaded on Tower Hill, after Cromwell had arranged Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, and Anne proved to be less attractive than her portrait (Henry is said to have called her ‘The Flanders Mare’.)

Cromwell is the anti-hero of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ (the third in the trilogy is due out this year), and Mantel unveiled the Putney Society’s plaque to Cromwell at Brewhouse Lane in 2013. However, all the historical evidence indicates that the home of his father was almost a mile away, on the fringes of Putney Heath, possibly on the present site of the Green Man pub, so why the Society chose the spot it did is something of a mystery. Continue reading

Hallie Rubenhold’s “The Five”

the-fiveShould you want a wee bit of titillation, there is a ‘Jack the Ripper tour’ just about every day of the year. In fact, so popular is this murder tourism, that some summer evenings the streets of Spitalfields are crowded with groups of people enjoying tales of violence and brutality against women.

The ‘Ripper Industry’ is big business – tens of thousands of tourists, hundreds of books, millions of words. ‘Ripperologists’ (“you’ve got an ‘ology, you’re a scientist”) indulge in fatuous speculation on the identity of  the murderer, safe in the knowledge that a) the wilder the conjecture, the more attention it will receive, and b) no one will ever know the real identity of the killer.

Go on a tour though, or read the latest spurious analysis of ‘the evidence’ and you’re unlikely to hear much about the victims, other than some hideous details of the butchery inflicted on them. You might be told their names; you’ll probably hear that they were all prostitutes, but their actual lives, their suffering, how they ended up in Whitechapel in the summer/autumn of 1888 is regarded as incidental. They are the set-dressing to a fog-shrouded melodrama. Continue reading

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist

 

lammassu-1-1The fourth plinth in Trafalgar square was meant to have an equestrian statue of William IV, but funding could not be raised (this was in 1841, just four years after his death). Over the next 150 years, various proposals for permanent statues on the plinth came and went (and the space might still be used for HMQ when she eventually turns up her royal toes), then in 1998 the RSA commissioned three temporary sculptures (including a witty Rachel Whiteread cast of the plinth itself) and from 2005 there have been a succession of commissions.

These included Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (now outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich*), Hans Haake’s “Gift Horse”, and Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant”. There was also a wonderful Anthony Gormley project where, over 100 days, 2400 members of the public were each given an hour each on the plinth to do what they liked.

For the past two years (and due to be replaced early in 2020) the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz has been displaying a piece from his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist”. This is an attempt by Rakowitz to recreate some of the more than 7,000 objects from Iraqi culture which have been lost forever:  some were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, others were destroyed at archaeological sites across the country during the Iraq War, still more were destroyed during the period of the Islamic State.

The Trafalgar Square piece is a lammassu, a protective spirit of ancient Assyria, a winged bull, with the head of a man. Rakowitz’s reconstructions are made from recycled packaging from Middle Eastern foodstuffs and this artwork is made from 10,500 empty date syrup cans: a once-renowned Iraqi industry now decimated by war. On the side of the Lamassu is an inscription in Cuneiform which reads: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, had the inner and outer wall of Ninevah built anew and raised as high as mountains.

lammassu-1In the British Museum you can walk between other lammassu, built as guardians to entrances to Assyrian palaces, including the biggest objects in the museum, the giant ‘Winged bulls’ from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (close to modern day Mosul, ironically the ‘capital’ of the Isis ‘caliphate’).

 

 *Poor William IV. He eventually got a statue, near the top of the old London Bridge, which was moved to the National Maritime Museum in 1935. This is now completely upstaged by Shonibare’s work.

London Calling

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I came late to London Calling, the Clash album being celebrated with a mini exhibition at the Museum of London. When it came out I was 17 and more into heavy metal than punk, but I still remember the effect the album had on me when I finally bought it in around 1982 (still have it, gatefold cover, vinyl); from the first thuds of the first, title, track – a march, a wail of rage, a dystopic vision of a dying city. Remember that in the 70s London was dying, it’s population falling. No one wanted to live here, it was grey, cold, oppressive, violent, and closed on Sundays.)

For those brought up on streaming or even CDs, London Calling  is a double vinyl album – two records, four sides. I still contend that record one (“London Calling” “Brand New Cadillac” “Jimmy Jazz” “Hateful” “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Spanish Bombs” “The Right Profile” “Lost in the Supermarket” “Clampdown” “The Guns of Brixton”) is just about the greatest 40 minutes of rock ‘n’ roll committed to vinyl, at least in the 70s. In fact, so fantastic did I find this record that it was literally years before I played the second half of the album. Continue reading

Number One London

 

800px-apsley_house_1You’re likely to have been past this place several hundred times, because Apsley House is the big, honey-coloured building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, facing into the traffic with its back to the park.

Formerly the home of the Duke of Wellington, victor over Napoleon in Spain, Portugal and at Waterloo, Prime Minister under George IV and William IV, the house is still occupied by the current, 9th, Duke.

That particular corner of the Park is awash with Wellington monuments (it was once called Wellington Place). The Wellington Arch (through which the Household Cavalry ride each morning, and under which the cycle path runs) is in the centre of the glorified traffic island, and close by, facing the house, is a mounted statue (by Joseph Boehm) of the Duke himself, flanked by a grenadier, a Scottish highlander, an Irish Dragoon and a Welsh Guard. And in the Park, just behind the house is the actual ‘Wellington Monument’, a statue of Achilles by sculptor Richard Westmacott, cast in bronze from cannons capture at Waterloo and erected in 1822. Achilles was the subject of some controversy when it was unveiled as it is a nude (except for a fig leaf), and so felt by some to be an outrage to public decency.

The house was bought by the Duke (from his own brother, who needed the cash) with some of the £700,000 given to him by the state after the final defeat of Napoleon. That’s an amount of money worth about £90 million in today’s prices. The original house was by Robert Adam and was considerably smaller; Wellington commissioned Benjamin Dean Wyatt to extend and radically remodel the place – and had the classic client/architect relationship, in that Wellington fell our with Wyatt about time and cost overruns to the extent that he refused to speak to him. Continue reading

“One of the sights of London”

buzz-bingo-1Miss the Tower of London, if you have to, but don’t miss this” wrote Ian Nairn in his 1966 guide, Nairn’s London. A Nash terrace? A Wren church? No – the inside of Buzz Bingo in Tooting.

Of course, Nairn din’t know it as a bingo hall, but as the Granada cinema, and it dates from 1931, a sumptuous expression of Art Deco design (interiors by the Russian-born director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky) that now has Grade I listed status.

It was a monster auditorium that could seat 3,000 patrons, the owner of the Granada chain, Sidney Bernstein, reckoning that the transport connections of Tooting Broadway’s multiple bus routes, underground station and the nearby overground would pull in customers from across south west London and beyond (at that time the border of the county of London and Surrey was close by, and Surrey did not permit cinemas to be open on Sundays, while London did). Continue reading

Walks and Tours for October

Now that the summer rush is over, I’ve added some tours and walks for October, so if you’d like to come along (they’re small group tours, so always fewer than a dozen people) visit my eventbrite page to see what’s available.

enigmaThis Autumn you can join one of my five star reviewed tours of the British Museum or National Gallery, or explore Soho’s rock and roll history. I’ve also added a new tour, exploring the Imperial War Museum to give “a history of the second World War in 20 or so objects” – those objects including a V2 rocket, an Enigma cypher machine, a Sherman tank and a Spitfire.

Recent instagram hits

 

So the top four photos on my instagram feed this month are the following: Margaret Thatcher’s grave at the Royal Chelsea Hospital; a Grayson Perry vase in the British Museum; an old road sign in Chelsea; and one of Bletchley Park’s Enigma machines.

Go, as they say, figure.

For more of this sort of thing, either follow me on Instagram, or on my Facebook page.

 

The Painted Hall Greenwich

 

paionted-hall-3James Thornhill is sometimes called “the English Michelangelo”, although that’s less to do with a comparability of talent – he’s good, but he ain’t that good – than with the fact that he painted a lot of ceilings. Examples include the Great Hall at Blenheim, inside the dome at St Paul’s, the ‘Sabine Room’ at Chatsworth and, firstly and most conspicuously, the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Continue reading