Category Archives: The Blog

London Calling

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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

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

The Bomb Damage maps


During the war the London County Council surveyors chronicled the devastation caused by enemy bombing on the capital. Hand colouring street level OS maps, they plotted the buildings damaged; generally speaking, the darker the colour, the more the devastation – black was “total destruction”, purple “damaged beyond repair”, right through to yellow “blast damage: minor in nature”.

Take a look at the example above, the area around St Paul’s cathedral showing the destruction caused by ‘the second great fire of London’ on the night of 29/30 December 1940, when huge swathes of the City burned and the firefighters struggled to contain the conflagration.

Generally speaking, the further east one goes the more the damage, the docks being a strategic target for the Luftwaffe, but there is hardly a district that didn’t have some bombs falling, regardless of whether they were close to ‘legitimate targets’ or simply the rows of residential terraces. (The ‘Bomb Sight’ project maps these.) As well as the damage caused by the main Blitz of 1940/41, the LCC also recorded the impacts of the V1s and V2s in 1944 and 1945, these terror weapons falling genuinely randomly across the capital.

The maps have been available in book form for some time, and each visit I make to the Cabinet War Rooms I leaf through a copy and wonder how to justify the thick end of fifty quid. However, today those lovely people at Layers of London made the map available online, but it’s even better than that.

Because the whole concept of Layers of London is that one can superimpose historic maps on those of the present, or merge two multiple old maps together, making the historic relatable to the present or to another period. So one can look at the bomb damage on a modern map, the maps of the 1960s, or even (should you wish to try it – and I have) in relation to 18thC maps of the city. Below is a screen grab of my street, with the bomb damage superimposed on the modern map (there is infill housing in both places).


This is a stupendous and wonderfully generous piece of work, and I for one will be wasting several hours on the map over the next few days.

You can find Layers of London here.

London Buses


img_1473I’ve done a book review for the London Society on a new collection of writing about London buses and the bus network called ‘Bus Fare’.

It’s a great read – about 100 different articles, letters, diary entries, journalism, biography, even fiction – about the history of ‘the buses’ and, more importantly, the cultural associations and the place they inhabit in the soul of Londoners.

We probably all have our favourite or most-used routes, the ones that we have travelled on so often that we can make the journey in our mind’s eye.

For me that is currently the 87, from Battersea Arts Centre to Whitehall, the long haul down the Wandsworth Road giving views right across to North London as the land falls away toward the river, the megalopolis that is growing up around Nine Elms and the forest of cranes at the Power Station; Vauxhall, which has gone from being the site of the Big Issue and a Sally Army hostel to being yet another hipster nexus; then across the bridge past MI6, MI5, Tate Britain, the Abbey and Parliament.

And when I lived in Stoke Newington it was the 73, cutting its way down the Essex Road and swinging past the (hugely seedy) Kings Cross. Back then – obviously when most of London was still fields, with cattle drovers, satanic mills and men in stovepipe hats – not only could you smoke on the top deck, the 73 ran all the way to Hammersmith (which I found out after getting on one very drunk one evening. It was a long ride home from there.)

I hope you enjoy the review, and if you can grab a read of the book itself, it’s well worth the time.



Up on the Roof

I’ve tried hard to like the Walkie Talkie, Rafael Vinoly’s skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful. The thing dominates the surrounding streets, blocking out the whole sky from the narrow cobbled alleyways that lead up to Eastcheap, and its solitary position away from the cluster of tall glass and steel buildings that form the new vertical City means it intrudes into views from Waterloo Bridge and along the south bank, as well as seeming to loom over the Tower of London.skygarden-1-3

It is blessed, though, with a wonderful, free viewing gallery – a couple of floors of space some 150m up – higher than the London Eye – and with a 360 degree view of the capital.

This is the Sky Garden. The architect’s plans (of course) were for a mini-Kew, a verdant ‘public park’ accessible to all; it hasn’t quite worked out like that (of course). The accessibility involves navigating a clunky website to book tickets (which are released every other Monday), queuing to get through ticket barriers, trudging through airport-style security, and then queuing for the lift. Continue reading

Urban Wine

A dozen or so years ago my father in law brought back a stick from his land in Sicily. It was about two feet long and the thickness of a bamboo cane and he planted it deep into the soil, drenching it with water.

This vine is now solid and woody. The ‘trunk’ some six feet tall and as thick as my wrist, and the vines growing all around the garden. We prune it back hard each January and every spring it explodes, throwing off new long green arms that now cover most of the back of the house, and which have spread into the neighbours’ gardens on each side of ours. And we get grapes. In the first years these were the size of peas and all pip and skin, which even the birds didn’t bother with. They’re now just about the size of eating grapes, dark, dark red, and the whole growth needs to be netted to stop the pigeons stripping the vines bare.

These are wine grapes; in the past we’ve juiced them, turned that into granita, tried (unsuccessfully) to dry them off as raisins, but this year we finally signed up for the Urban Wine Co.

We’d heard about this outfit about five or six years ago, a local collective who’d got together the produce from their wines and handed it over to a commercial wine maker.

It’s grown somewhat since then, and in early September I took our harvest – 18kg no less – to the collection point off Lavender Hill. According to Paul of Urban Wine there were two and half tonnes of grapes brought in that day from over 120 people, and they turned away some 40 more as they were over capacity. Of course the grapes are all kinds of varieties, both red and white, so the wine – the gloriously named ‘Chateau Tooting’ – is rose. Past vintages are reasonably well regarded (and available at selected outlets in SW17 and online).

Come April next year I’ll be taking delivery of nine bottles of the 2018 vintage, bathing in the smug knowledge that just under 1% of the bottle is my harvest. I’ll report back on whether the stuff is drinkable.

The Ravens of the Tower of London

Just about everyone knows the legend of the Tower of London ravens; that should they leave the fortress then it and, by extension, the entire kingdom, will fall.

It’s meant to be recorded that when the astronomer John Flamsteed (who had set up his telescope in the White Tower) complained to Charles II that the birds were impeding his work and had to go, that the king insisted the ravens stay and that Flamsteed must relocate. This is why the Royal Observatory ended up in Greenwich. (Another version of the story has it that it was Charles himself who wanted the ravens removed and it was Flamsteed who intervened on their behalf.)

Even earlier, the ravens were said to be present at the execution of Anne Boleyn, falling silent on the battlements of the Tower as if knowing the momentousness of a queen’s execution.

The only small problem is – well, all the legends are nonsense, at best late Victorian inventions, at worst cooked up by some imaginative Yeoman Warders some time after WW2. Continue reading