The Secret Society – How to Crash a Gallery

26 May

Like most geeks who still read Tintin and can’t quite find the drive to, y’know, get a life, I’ve always liked the idea of secret societies. I guess the appeal comes from the desire to know where you stand, without anyone else knowing you’re standing there; you’re either IN with the group or completely oblivious to the fact it exists. It’s secret, duh. Whatever- the fact is, I was pretty sure I’d never gain membership to one, and even if I did, how could it ever be sufficiently exclusive? Even the Freemasons are pretty open these days- what motive could possibly bring together a properly secret society in Twitter-age London? Well reader, I found out- and the answer was just as underwhelming as it was genuinely fucking weird.

After I left university, I ran out of money depressingly quickly. The combined circumstances created by a lofty sense of entitlement and a near-debilitating lack of competence left me jobless and hell-bent on getting drunk enough to forget it. One day, a friend who’d gone on holiday e-mailed me an invitation to a private view in Spitalfields. Having nothing particularly better to do and – I swear to God, cross my heart and hope to die – a genuine interest in contemporary art, I turned up at the allotted time, turned my nose up at a few canvases and skulked off to the reception to collect one of the showy Japanese lagers on offer.

Five beers in and paranoia had started to grip me; how come everyone here knew each other? They were primarily in their thirties and forties, sporting self-consciously shabby chic; some of them even looked vaguely familiar, from the society pages of the ES Magazine, I fancied. Every attempt to work my way into their conversation went the way of the minidisc. I turned to leave, but a tall man in glasses swayed into my path and asked me what I’d thought of the show. I stuttered out some pseudy answers and watched his face go blank; clearly, he had even less opinion than I did. I relaxed a little as he spewed out a succession of questions about my background, current circumstances, alcohol preferences etc etc. I didn’t know it then, but I was being vetted.

After that I was ushered out and led to several more openings. I was introduced to the rest of his entourage, including a former scientist who claimed to have been raised by the Aga Khan, a literary translator who professed to be on good terms with Umberto Eco and a one-time publishing mogul, current occupation undisclosed. The man who’d approached me admitted to a more prosaic background as a cityboy-turned-“entrepreneur”, but he seemed to be in charge so I did what he said.

I can’t remember what happened after that, but when I woke up the next morning feeling like a dissected cow in formaldehyde, I checked my e-mail and found a fresh message from the man in glasses. It was headed:


It contained was a list of exhibition openings colour-coded to indicate the quality of alcohol on offer. The scale went from a rare red (champagne) to a ubiquitous green (supermarket own-brand wine). Blue signified quality imported lager, turquoise spirits, maroon decent wine. At the end of the message was a brief caveat:


Alright, a secret society that exists solely for the purpose of knowing the whereabouts of free booze hardly rivals Fight Club in the intrigue stakes, but for an unemployed loser with no social life, this was the key to the city; I was sold, and very happy to keep to my benefactor’s code of confidentiality. I knew I need never go sober of an evening again.

And so began an extended bender in which I got as close as possible to the group without ever really knowing how fanciful their claims were. I quickly came to realise that my companions’ “self-consciously shabby chic” was in fact just shabby, and their familiarity came not from the pages of a glossy but from going into Soho pubs in the middle of the day, watching them nursing their halves towards the galleries’ 6pm watering call.

I made particular friends with the oldest member of the group, an art-historian-turned-bankrobber who’d spent most of the last 30 years in prison. Our sorties through Mayfair, necking everything from Ruinart to rum punch and introducing ourselves to gallerists first as ‘serious art critics’ and thence ‘major collectors’ were tremendous fun, but, alas, my companion went too far; at one gallery that Christmas, he actually attempted to buy a painting. Bad mistake; not only did the bounced cheque bring a hasty end to his parole, but his actions attracted unwanted attention to the LCAS. Galleries began to refuse entry to my chums, and on account of my association I guess, I stopped receiving the lists.

The rub is that this lot had figured out something extremely simple- too many people who might otherwise be extremely receptive to a nightly dose of free alcohol with a side-ordering of dodgy art were too intimidated to merely roll up and expect hospitality. There are a lot of galleries in London, and all are in competition to look busy when they open a show. If you can’t afford the pub and fancy cultivating the sort of mystique I initially saw in my erstwhile chums, why not do them a favour? This was my reasoning, at any rate, and secretive as they were, the society were perversely obsessed with how others perceived them. I don’t know what they’re up to these days – I see various characters waiting at bus stops looking fretfully at their watches as the afternoon slumps to its conclusion – but I wish them nothing but the finest wines available to humanity.

Digby Warde-Aldam.

Originally Published on The Urbanaut, August 2013.


Up the Junction and Over the River: Battersea and its Bridges

10 May


Albert Bridge, (Mason-Ordish & Bazalgette, 1873-87) And a very serendipitous rainbow.

Albert Bridge, (Mason-Ordish & Bazalgette, 1873-87) And a very serendipitous rainbow.

Battersea isn’t a glamorous part of London. What little recognition it gets outside of its boundaries focuses on Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic power station (which isn’t even in Battersea) and the cruel-but-sort-of-true ‘South Chelsea’ jokes suffered by its famous red trouser brigade. It’s an in-between place, separating capital-W West London from South London proper.

I know lots of people my age who live here; none of them fit the guffawing sloane stereotype. They’re cash-strapped young professionals rather than trustafarians, people who don’t see the sense in stumping up the deposit for a bedsit with no lav in Earls Court or a hyper-inflated rent in Hackney.

Defaced sign outside the now-closed Duke of Cambridge pub, Battersea Bridge Road.

Defaced sign outside the now-closed Duke of Cambridge pub, Battersea Bridge Road.

There are still some extremely deprived areas in Battersea. But in terms of bourgeois attractions, it’s home to some awful, awful night spots, a first rate Vietnamese restaurant and an unfortunately mis-attributed mainline railway station. It’s getting a tube station. Battersea is residential, unremarkable and fairly central. Few places evoke the phrase ‘it’ll do – for now’ quite like it.

But for a long time, Battersea was a poor borough with a history of radicalism and progressive politics. In 1892, the constituency elected the union activist John Burns, who had been arrested on numerous occasions for ‘sedition and conspiracy’ as an independent Labour MP. He later became one of the first working class cabinet members, before resigning from government in August 1914 in protest at the declaration of war.

John Burns circa 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Burns circa 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1913, while Burns was representing Battersea’s interests at a national level, John Archer, a liverpudlian of Barbadian extraction, was elected to head the council, becoming Britain’s first black mayor. Archer stayed active in local politics until his death in 1932, and was instrumental in Shapurji Saklatvala’s historic electoral victory in Battersea North in 1922. Representing the area until 1929, Saklatvala was one of only four members of the Communist Party of Great Britain to win a seat in the Commons. Imagine that happening in ‘Nappy Valley’ now.

It’s also racked up a respectable number of pop culture references. There’s Black Hearts in Battersea, of course, and Up the Junction (as in ‘Clapham’) is another obvious one; a great panorama over Chelsea Bridge and Manfred Mann’s title music make it a must for this piece:

Norman Foster’s Albion Riverside complex played on-screen house to Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson in what might be the worst film I’ve ever seen, Ben Elton’s Maybe Baby. Money shots of Albert Bridge are not in short supply: (for masochists only, this)

Here’s Richard Burton keeping a low profile at the labour exchange in Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold:

Richard Burton at 'Battersea Labour Exchange' (probably a studio set) in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

Richard Burton at ‘Battersea Labour Exchange’ (probably a studio set) in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

Burton returned to nearby Nine Elms six years later in a cult video nasty called Villain, in which he played a gangland psychopath:

Richard Burton by the Nine Elms gas rings in Villain, Michael Tuchner, 1971

Richard Burton by the Nine Elms gas rings in Villain (Michael Tuchner, 1971)

Musically, SW11 offers a lot but delivers little. Latchmere by the Maccabees is about a swimming pool in south Battersea. I’d post a video, but having just listened to it for the first time in seven years, I’m not going to. (It’s not very interesting, but nor is it as stand-out bad as the trailer for Maybe Baby.) Squeeze’s Up the Junction is decidedly Clapham-centric, so it wouldn’t count even if it weren’t shit. Babyshambles recorded a characteristically terrible song called Bollywood to Battersea and Morrissey’s You’re the One for Me, Fatty (‘All over Battersea/Some hope and some despair’) isn’t much cop, either. Better is the Super Furry Animals’ Battersea Odyssey 

So Solid Crew came from the soon-to-be-demolished Winstanley Estate, near Clapham Junction. (A link between Manfred Mann and Asher D – who’d’a thunk?) The cover of Irish new wave group Microdisney’s first album is a shot of the World’s End towers in Chelsea, taken from Battersea Bridge. For no reason other than its wonderful opening lines, here’s a song from it:

My correspondent acb of this:

This is without mentioning this godawful Petula Clark ode to Battersea Park from 1951:

It’s connected to the U-world by three magnificent bridges – from east to west, the Chelsea, the Albert and the Battersea. In the Londoner’s imagination, the two most central of these are inextricably linked to the grandeur of the north shore, the first by name association, the second by dint of its high-maintenance beauty and unreliability in times of need; the cameramen on Made in Chelsea are keen on dropping in shots that ogle its suspension. Happily, this distracts viewers from the ghastliness of the cast.Albert Bridge, cast of Made in Chelsea not shown.But to the Royal Borough, Battersea is welcome to its eponymous river crossing. Jospeph Bazalgette’s bridge of 1890 is a sturdy, practical design that, by comparison to its society neighbours, feels like a staff exit. It’s thin and busy, and due to the restrictions on the Albert, often constipated with traffic.

Traffic on Battersea Bridge, yesterday.

Traffic on Battersea Bridge, yesterday.

On the south eastern corner, there’s a slippery staircase which leads all the way down to the sludgy beach. This liminal slip of not-quite land can’t help but remind me of the characters in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, which is set on a group of houseboats just a little further down the river. My shoes sink into the slime and beer cans rattle over the mud in the wind. Even with the architectural cupcakes of Chelsea in sight, it’s bleak as hell.

A view from the beach, looking east.

A view from the beach, looking east.

Looking west towards World's End

Looking west towards World’s End

On the north shore, there’s a small garden that leads down to a balcony, from where you can throw stuff at low flying pigeons. From the parapet of the bridge, a statue of James McNeill Whistler, who painted the bridge and the stretch of river around it numerous times after moving to London in 1859.

James McNeill Whistler (Nicholas Dimbleby, 2005)

James McNeill Whistler (Nicholas Dimbleby, 2005)

The American painter’s depictions of Old Battersea Bridge are interesting, to say the least. He described Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, the most famous – and most exciting – of these, as ‘an artistic interest alone, divest(ed) of any anecdotal interest that might otherwise have been attached to it.’

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (James McNeill Whistler, c.1872-75)

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge (James McNeill Whistler, c.1872-75) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

He had painted the bridge in a more naturalistic style shortly after arriving in London:

Brown and Silver Old Battersea Bridge, 1859 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brown and Silver Old Battersea Bridge, 1859 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From a 21st Century perspective, the later painting seems almost hallucinatory; the supports are stretched out of all realistic proportion, turning the squat, rickety wooden structure of the earlier painting into a towering, awe-inspiring arch. Could the figure by the boat – is he pulling it in? – at the base of the support be one of the men we see pushing out a similar vessel a decade before? He’s there to show the distortion of scale, just as the figures in Brown and Silver provide a measure of perspective.

Meanwhile, a dusting of gold illuminates the masts of the tall ships further down the river. Whistler would take this disintegrating firework effect further in the extraordinary Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket of 1875. The painting depicts a celestial explosion of lights over Cremorne Gardens, just upstream from Battersea Bridge. It was the last of his London Nocturnes, and by far the most controversial.

Nocturne in Black and Gold - The Falling Rocket (James McNeill Whistler, 1875) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (James McNeill Whistler, 1875) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unsurprisingly, the endlessly tiresome John Ruskin didn’t approve. When the painting was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, Ruskin’s review of the exhibition dismissed Whistler as a ‘coxcomb’ and expressed exasperation at the artist asking ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ Having slagged off a fair few contemporary artists in reviews myself, I can understand the temptation to write nasty things about cocky stylists. But Ruskin really did make an arse of himself with this one.

An Appeal to the Law, Punch Magazine, 1878

An Appeal to the Law, Punch Magazine, 1878

Nevertheless, the review severely damaged Whistler’s reputation; patrons abandoned him and sales dried up. In 1878, the notoriously hostile artist sued the critic for libel, initiating a farcical court case. The jury ruled in favour of Whistler, but awarded him only token compensation; the action contributed significantly to his declaration of bankruptcy the following year. It would take a long time for him to re-establish himself.

London skyline, seen from Lavender Hill, SW11

London skyline, seen from Lavender Hill, SW11

But back to Battersea, and a detour back inland to Lavender Hill. Rarely do you see such a vast swathe of low rise buildings in inner London. While Whistler and Ruskin were battling for their reputations at the High Court, Victorian developers were knocking up a modern town. The population rose from 3,000 in 1801 to 169,000 a Century later. Huge agricultural estates were sold to speculators, and terrace after terrace sprung up in the hinterland of the old riverside settlement to accommodate the influx of labourers. Stretching from the river to Clapham Common, the borough looks much as it did then. The contrast with the deranged hedgehog of development on the horizon is astonishing.

Hancock on Battersea Bridge, May 2014.

Hancock pays homage to Whistler’s Nocturnes, Battersea Bridge, May 2014.

As our old friend John Archer told his constituents in his 1913 victory speech,

‘Battersea has done many things in the past. But the greatest thing it has done has been to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done.’

Even apparently uninspiring and drab places can be rather remarkable.


Italians Do It Better : A View Of The Brompton Oratory, SW7.

17 Mar
Brompton Oratory from Montpelier Street, SW7

Brompton Oratory from Montpelier Street, SW7

Funny how grand buildings can get swallowed up by their surroundings. The Brompton Oratory in South Kensington is a case in point – it’s huge, but from the front it’s just another bit of high Victorian cod-Italiana, dwarfed and out-weirded by the giants that surround it; Harrods, the Ismaili Centre and the V&A. Even the much smaller Holy Trinity church next door makes more of an impression, but perhaps this is just because of its association with the evangelical shamanism of the Alpha Course.

Herbert Gribble, the Oratory's architect.

Herbert Gribble, the Oratory’s architect.

The Oratory of St Philip Neri, to give it its proper name, was designed by the wonderfully-named Herbert Gribble, who based it on the Chiesa Nuova in Rome. For about twenty years after its completion in 1884, it was London’s main Catholic church until the bizarro-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral opened down in Victoria. If we’re going to play public figure/public buildings metaphors, it’s Anne Widdecombe to the Cathedral’s Nancy Dell’Olio.


‘It could be a middling Baroque church in any big Italian city : and this is not enough.’
– Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, 1966.

But from these similarly unremarkable sidestreets towards Knightsbridge, it casts a continental view like no other in Britain. It has none of the survivor’s guilt or grandeur of Saint Paul’s, none of the Olde World disapproval of Westminster Abbey. My photos don’t do the view justice, but it shows Victorian ersatz  at its absolute Canaletto-lite best. On a sunny day you could mistake it for Florence – in the rain, too, for that matter. From here, it’s not just Italian architecture that’s plagiarised – it’s Italy itself.

What else? Nick Cave wrote a song about the Oratory for his 1997 masterpiece The Boatman’s Call. It’s one of the best things on the record. A friend of mine wrote off his car when he smashed it into one of the bollards outside – he claimed he’d lost control because he was playing his Tindersticks CD too loud. More improbable things have happened, I suppose .

Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Churchyard

4 Sep


St Pancras Old Church squats on an island of pre-industrial London, cut off from its parish by riptides of commercial road traffic gushing into the Euston Road and trains thrusting piledrivers northward from the great stations of the ‘Cross.

I visited yesterday to find Soane’s tomb, bouncing up the Midland Road past the British Library, thirsty, hot and not a little irritated by the lack of pedestrian crossings. A plod up the steps into the churchyard and suddenly the temperature changes- it’s entirely, improbably disconnected from the sweltering roar of Somer’s Town at rush hour, the other end of Autumn from the rest of the city.

“Spooky” doesn’t come close to describing it; my immediate impression was of Gothic Horror made material. This proved altogether more literal than I could have known- John Polidori is buried here and Dickens wrote about it as the preserve of grave robbers and body snatchers. By comparison to St Pancras, Highgate Cemetery feels like a corporate hospitality area at the Millennium Dome.

Soane located and logged, I turned around to face a stone cross of preposterous girth, behind which stood a tree that appeared to be sprouting tombstones from its roots; not so much a monster as a miscarriage of teeth and hair.


Thomas Hardy worked here as an architect’s apprentice in the 1860s, exhuming corpses and shifting tombs Westward to make way for the construction of the Midland Railway. Myth dictates that the extraordinary, nightmarish outcrop around the tree is his handiwork.


The New Pet Shop Boys Single

22 Aug

And so, contrary to my predictions, Daft Punks’s Get Lucky has indeed faded into All-Bar-One muzakocrity. But fear not, my career in kitchen karaoke! There is hope, and it comes in the form of an absolutely first-class new Pet Shop Boys single, which I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I’ll hear this year. No you didn’t misread that, and it isn’t a typo- it is indeed a new Pet Shop Boys single that I think is the best thing I’ll hear this year.

‘But surely,’ you might respond, ‘new Pet Shop Boys songs are at best mildly enjoyable dance-pop tracks that make you want to listen to old Pet Shop Boys songs?’

Just you wait, stupid, imaginary you: this new Pet Shop Boys song is a disco leviathan in the high-ironic style perfected on singles like Yesterday When I Was Mad and Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), with a lyric to rival Left to my Own Devices as a contender for Neil Tennant’s all-time best impersonation of Neil Tennant. It’s called Love is a Bourgeois Construct, and it’s a million times more funny than its already rather amusing title suggests.

Our narrator is a recently-dumped ‘full-time lonely layabout’ with a humanities degree who appears to be having some sort of mid-life crisis; he’s ‘digging out (his) student paperbacks, flicking through Karl Marx again, searching for the soul of England- drinking tea like Tony Benn’. He has decided to tell himself that far from being heartbroken, the break-up has opened his eyes: ‘When you walked out you did me a favour- you made me see reality’, he declares, ‘Love is a bourgeois construct- it’s a blatant fallacy’.

I know (and occasionally am) the sort of person who wallows in this sort of sub-Houellebecqian crap- you probably do (or are), too: ‘No I’m not going to clean my kitchen- sanitation is just a capitalist myth, man... It’s odd how these massively important political statements often sound remarkably like laziness or, as this song would have it, ‘talking tough and feeling better’. Blokes will tell themselves pretty much anything for an illusion of emotional strength, so for us lefty wimps who can’t do the whole macho thing that inevitably means droning on about politics and popular philosophy.  By the way, I did clean my kitchen this morning, so I’m obviously not under any illusions.

Anyway, the final chorus delivers the pay-off we’d been guessing at all along: ‘Love is a bourgeois construct, so I’ve given up on the bourgeoisie…’, he tells us for the fifty-seventh time, ‘…until you come back to me’. Doesn’t it make you feel just a bit sad? I think it’s proof that the Pet Shop Boys can still write songs that for all their celebratory banality and conceptual nous nonetheless hit hard on the empathy dials. Essentially- and even if you can excuse the geekiness of this “joke”, it’s still rubbish- it’s I Want a Dogma. 

The music is pretty marvellous, too. It’s a slamming, heraldic blast of what we used to call “electropop” that- in stark contrast to the triumphal archness of the lyrics- grabs every cliché in the mid-00s dance music repertoire and blasts them back into relevance. It’s preposterously naff yet undeniably thrilling, and a lot like Madonna’s 2005 single Hung Up. Both songs were produced by the same man, so this isn’t particularly surprising; just as beardy gloom enthusiast Rick Rubin has become a kind of one-stop-shop for boring Country crooners in need of a makeover, Stuart ‘Jacques LuCont’ Price is clearly extremely talented at galvanising good performances from strangely-dressed quinquagenarian synthpop stars.

Tremendous though Hung Up was (and indeed still is), Love is a Bourgeois Construct is better. This is not only for the obvious reason that it’s called Love is a Bourgeois Construct (while Hung Up is called, um, Hung Up), but because the Madonna track is a disco epic built on a sample of an already exciting Abba hit, and that feels a bit like cheating, dunnit? This, though, has to work with an extremely annoying bit of music from Michael Nyman’s score for The Draughtsman’s Contract, itself based on something by Purcell. Handicap or not, the pumped-up Nyman sample actually out-Abbas Abba as it thunders through Love is a Bourgeois Construct’s six minute-plus duration, all the way thriving on its leprously contagious hook.

Excepting Thursday (a slightly limp ‘hey-hey-it’s-nearly-the-weekend’ track with a mildew stain of a guest verse from clueless basshead Example), the rest of the new Pet Shop Boys album is pretty ace, too. If you remember Fischerspooner, it’s a bit like what their massively-hyped first album might have been were it not utter shite; that is, the theme music from Airwolf stuffed into a sock and smashed against a bass drum to a 4/4 beat. Like all the best Pet Shop Boys records- and this is quite clearly the best one since Very in 1993- it sounds neither new nor old, even if Stuart Price’s production does occasionally hit on motifs so predictable that Chris Lowe’s groans are still echoing around South Eastern England. It’s immensely enjoyable, and some of it is even almost as good as Love is a Bourgeois Construct– which, as I think I’ve established, is very, very good indeed.

Magic Bus: Mike Nelson’s Pumpkin Palace

16 Aug

It bears the emblem of the Red Crescent and chugs around- albeit very slowly- with the sort of laconic roar you’d associate only with superannuated lions and London Routemasters. Mais ceci n’est pas un bus… or is it? Anyone who has ever visited a Mike Nelson exhibition may have some idea of what lies within: prayer mats, stale décor and the air of a none-too recently-abandoned dwelling are the order here, and dead spooky it is, too.
The work, entitled Pumpkin Palace, was commissioned by CCAC Wattis in San Francisco and transported to Britain for the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. I’m not sure how it happened but shortly afterwards it turned up in a disused barn outside my parents’ house in Northumberland, where it stayed shrouded in secrecy and a canvas tarpaulin until 2006, when these photos were taken by a former Polish Army border guard called Arkadius.
Insofar as it can be glibly summarised as I pause between job applications, Mike Nelson’s work concentrates on the eerie crossroads where the Counter-Culture of the 1960s and 1970s came into contact with nascent fundamentalism, institutionalised paranoia and the cult of the conspiracy theory. Walking into his Pumpkin Palace, you could be forgiven for thinking that even the dust and your own dead skin flakes might be pregnant with meaning.

Party planning

6 Jul


Tesco Inferno is 2- whoopee. Honestly, if you’d have asked me if I thought I’d still be writing this shit back in 2011, I’d have been slightly offended. Nevertheless, this birthday is cause to celebrate; I considered inviting some friends for lunch but realised that might seem a bit weird. I then decided to buy a cake but in the end I couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop- cue an agonised trawl around my kitchen for something I could stick candles in. I settled on the last remaining piece of bread in a loaf I bought last week and then ate most of it. The resulting centrepiece is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a fitting tribute to the calibre of work that this blog has proudly been publishing for the last two years.

Oh dear. At least it was Vogel’s.