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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.

 

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.

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‘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

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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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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).

TREMORS 2: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On

23 Feb

Stop what you’re doing and get your wallet out. The second issue of TREMORS magazine is now out in selected shops across London, most of which are fabulous, independent and well worth a visit should you find yourself at a loose end in their respective vicinities. I know it’s terribly unfashionable to, y’know, buy words printed on paper these days, but the new number really is a very fine-looking object- no artfully rumpled tote bag is quite complete without a copy.

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Helmed by the ever-stylish Maksymilian Fus Mickiewicz, TREMORS is an independently-published title that focusses on Architecture and Art. Highlights of the new number, which concentrates on “Outsider” forms and architectural teratology, include Maks’s interview with the indestructible Jonathan Meades, Hannah Newell’s analysis of Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex and my own article on Ferdinand Cheval, the eccentric postman who built a palace in his back yard. TREMORS 2 also takes in everything from rebarbative visionary 19th Century literature to post-ironic electronica- and if you’re wondering what either of those things are, buy the magazine, ‘cos I’m giving nothing away.

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.