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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.

 

Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Churchyard

4 Sep

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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.

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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.

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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.

Melbury Road, W14

9 Mar

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Located in the triangular vacuum created by the traffic vortex of Addison Road, the second-rate shopping of Kensington High Street and the splendid rococo weirdness of Holland Park,  Melbury Road might be the most discreet tourist attraction in London. There are more commemorative decorations here than living inhabitants, and even they look to be turned into blue plaques sooner rather than later; Michael Winner spent most of his life resident in the Norman Shaw-designed No.31, and not to suggest I have a death wish for Jimmy Page (who owns the Tower House, pictured above, itself once occupied by Aleister Crowley) or anything, but I really do hate Led Zeppelin. Of the dead, notable are painter Luke Fildes, William Hamo Thornycroft, Holman Hunt, Marcus Stone (who illustrated the serialisations of Dickens’s later works) and Michael Powell, a film director who was famous for, uh, making films rather than being rude to restaurant staff and appearing in viral insurance adverts.

Given its decidedly necropolitan character, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest there might be something a little stalkerish about those  few sightseers who do venture up the street, even if they are posing as connoisseurs of bravura Victorian architecture or as overspill from the nearby Leighton Museum. The pavements are more often than not deathly quiet, but since January distraught fans of the late Fat Pig Diet author have been holding a stubborn vigil outside his former residence. When last I happened to find myself traversing Melbury Road’s noble concourse (as a keen supporter of the Leighton Museum and, uh, connoisseur of bravura Victorian architecture myself), I couldn’t help but notice this sorry fellow:

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The Winner takes it all (forgive me).

Fishcothèque, Waterloo

21 Feb

IMG_0260My friend Lily pointed this out to me a while ago; while I can’t say I’ve ever dared cross its threshold, any place that offers both fried fish and disco music must be worth the risk of food poisoning.

 

Paddington Bearings

20 Feb

I was born next door to Paddington station, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve ended up arsing around its environs, stroking my chin and taking crap photographs. This post is basically a pun (which, I must say, I’m rather pleased with) in search of a point, but hopefully the buildings look nice enough to justify its existence.

Great Western Hotel, Praed Street: '...one of the earliest buildings in England with the marked influence of the French Renaissance and Baroque... a crushingly Victorian programme, in stucco (although stone was intended)' Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 3: North West

Great Western Hotel, Praed Street: ‘…one of the earliest buildings in England with the marked influence of the French Renaissance and Baroque… a crushingly Victorian programme, in stucco (although stone was intended)’ Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 3: North West

Paddington Station, I.K. Brunel & Matthew Digby Wyatt, 1850- '... this is no ordinary station... It is subtle, unexpectedly allusive, where St Pancras and King's Cross are grand and straightforward. The plan belongs to a cathedral, not a railway station... it has the same kind of lyric poetry as the best rooms in the Soane Museum; so the result has to be taken all at once and not broken into constituents. It makes the other lines look uncultured and obvious, and by all accounts this was the effect of the pre-War GWR. Buy this Keats sonnet for the price of a platform ticket or see it from the high-level footbridge up at the far end, which takes you almost up to the roof' Ian Nairn, Nairn's London

Paddington Station, I.K. Brunel & Matthew Digby Wyatt, 1850- ‘… this is no ordinary station… It is subtle, unexpectedly allusive, where St Pancras and King’s Cross are grand and straightforward. The plan belongs to a cathedral, not a railway station… it has the same kind of lyric poetry as the best rooms in the Soane Museum; so the result has to be taken all at once and not broken into constituents. It makes the other lines look uncultured and obvious, and by all accounts this was the effect of the pre-War GWR. Buy this Keats sonnet for the price of a platform ticket or see it from the high-level footbridge up at the far end, which takes you almost up to the roof’ Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London

The station, from the Bishop's Bridge Road

The station, from the Bishop’s Bridge Road

The Hallfield Estate, Tecton, then Drake & Lasdun, 1947-1955:I've always thought this estate looked like a massive pile of Jenga blocks. '...(it was) deliberately at odds with the stuccoed streetscape of the neighbourhood. The estate was intended as a radical model for the borough of Paddington's post-war rehousing programme... it was one of the first post-war estates to include comprehensive communal amenities such as primary schools, shops, laundry etc... Hallfield also made a determined effort to break with the convention in other ways and show that working-class housing should not be merely utilitarian in appearance... the aesthetics of the ten and six-storey slabs are those of abstract art, one of the most confident and rigorous applications of such principles in Britain at the time'. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 3: North West

The Hallfield Estate, Tecton, then Drake & Lasdun, 1947-1955:
I’ve always thought this estate looked like a massive pile of Jenga blocks. ‘…(it was) deliberately at odds with the stuccoed streetscape of the neighbourhood. The estate was intended as a radical model for the borough of Paddington’s post-war rehousing programme… it was one of the first post-war estates to include comprehensive communal amenities such as primary schools, shops, laundry etc… Hallfield also made a determined effort to break with the convention in other ways and show that working-class housing should not be merely utilitarian in appearance… the aesthetics of the ten and six-storey slabs are those of abstract art, one of the most confident and rigorous applications of such principles in Britain at the time’. Pevsner, The Buildings of England, London 3: North West

Paddington Fire Station

Paddington Fire Station

The Battleship Building, Harrow Road. Built in 1969 as a railway maintenance depot, I will always remember it as the HQ of high street clothes chain Monsoon. Driving North out of London with my Mother, it was a first landmark that signified the end of the City as I then knew it. Built astride the Westway, it has become a topotrope of London-set film and TV, livening up countless in-car scenes in everything from Chris Petit's Radio On to BBC1's recent drama Sherlock.

The Battleship Building, Harrow Road. Built in 1969 as a railway maintenance depot, I will always remember it as the HQ of high street clothes chain Monsoon. Driving into London with my Mother, it was a first landmark that signified the beginning of the city as I then knew it. Built astride the Westway, it has become a topotrope of London-set film and TV, livening up countless in-car scenes in everything from Chris Petit’s Radio On to BBC1’s recent drama Sherlock.

Joe Strummer Subway, Edgware Road

19 Feb

P1040341When I was really young, my family lived next door to Joe Strummer. I don’t remember much about this period, but he was, by all accounts, a complete pain in the arse. Perhaps this is why despite quite liking some of their music, I’ve never been able to admit to liking The Clash- or maybe it’s just ‘cos, well, they were a bit fucking silly, weren’t they? Nice songs, shame about the moronically earnest boyscout “politics” and Action Man-meets- The Godfather dresscode. Not a good look.

Anyway, I rather like this slightly rubbish bit of retrospective commemoration. London doesn’t really go in for the whole culture-of-memory thing, which in my books is a bit of a shame. When I’m particularly bored, I like to plan my tube journeys on Simon Patterson’s iconic Great Bear. According to Patterson’s map, I make regular journeys from Vasari, Spinoza and, err, Gary Lineker back to my home station, Robert E Peary. Sounds a lot better than Brixton to West Brompton via Victoria, doesn’t it? In Paris, they name serene Boulevards, elegant Métro stations and triumphal Avenues after their cultural heroes; in London, we celebrate our notables by slapping their names onto dingy pedestrian subways. Whether or not the former John Mellor would’ve approved, we can but speculate…