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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.


‘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 .

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.

Blog Posts you were bound to read some day no.2: Daft Punk v. The Sun

20 Apr

Can buy a thrill. Or a bottle, even (sorry)

Having little to do at the moment (and less money to do it with), the recent sunshine has been making me do a lot of  thinking. One of my main preoccupations has been a typically pointless measure of short-term happiness. If that sounds, like, profound (man), don’t be fooled-  my “investigtion” has so far progressed no further than asking myself whether I prefer waking up to nice weather or,uh, buying stuff. Sadly for my soul (but happily for the second-hand shopkeepers of West London), my muted responses seem to suggest the latter. In a way, I suppose, this is quite fortunate- the weather’s nearly always shit here and, for all its negative connotations, material acquisition can give you satisfaction even in the murkiest fathoms of February. Depressing though this may sound, even a very minor thrill is still a thrill, and contrary to the philosophy of Steely Dan, you can buy one pretty much anywhere. So far, so Warhol-lite, but stay with me- this is going somewhere, I promise. I picked up a pack of pickled onion Monster Munch in a Clerkenwell pub last night, and ripping open the packet launched forth a blast of fragrance a million times more evocative than any literary madeleine or perfect Summer’s afternoon on Hampstead Heath could ever be. While you’d have trouble comparing my pack of crisps with daffodils and verdant lawns in terms of freshness, the near-maniacal joy with which I savoured each of the notoriously malodorous potato snacks was happiness itself- in a foil bag.

This, in a roundabout way, leads me to Get Lucky, the new single by the gratifyingly weird French duo Daft Punk. Like most housebound losers of my generation, I’d been in a state of suspense ever since they uploaded the “trailer” for the song, an infectiously high-church Disco loop of rhythm guitar and bass that sounded exactly like Chic circa Rebels are We. My excitement was inflated yet further by hearing that not only did it sound precisely like Chic, it was Chic! For secular music geeks, the image of Nile Rodgers being coaxed out of bed by two men dressed as robots is basically the Second Coming, but with more flashing lights and a better soundtrack. Every morning, I checked for further news of the record, but bar a couple of characteristically look-at-us statements about unveiling the album at an Australian agricultural fair (no, seriously), none was forthcoming.

I read about it over my toast and Marmite yesterday morning, and practically snorted yeast extract from my ears. This was an event, and no mistake. I swallowed my anti-digital pride and immediately downloaded the track on iTunes. And then? Well…

For some people, purchase-power paradise is the crack and hiss of a freshly popped can of Coke or the rough/smooth cardboard surface of an Amazon package; for others, it’s that unmistakeable tang of new-car smell hitting the nasal passages. For me, though, there is nothing that can quite compare to the experience of walking really fast through Central London with a brand-new pop record blaring through my headphones on repeat. This was pure bliss. I marched from Earl’s Court to Soho grinning like a Happy Shopper logo on MDMA, bursting into song whenever I felt I could no longer keep the euphoria to myself.

If this makes me sound somewhat… unsound, allow me to qualify my testament; I’m a dedicated listener. I determine to wrench every ounce of satisfaction from an obvious future hit before it is robbed of its dignity by the sound editors of Changing Rooms and in-store supermarket radio. Few great pop songs can survive proper, genuine popularity- can anyone who’s ever suffered the Saturday night TV shitestorm of Paddy McGuiness’s Take Me Out ever listen to the once-bulletproof Franz Ferdinand single of the same name again? Or what about The Universal by Blur? Can anybody honestly claim it reminds you of anything other than those creepy British Gas adverts? Not I, my dears, not I.

But Daft Punk are different. Their singles- from Da Funk to Robot Rock via the certifiable perfection of One More Time and Aerodynamic- have a longevity and resistance to outside interference that is almost completely unique in modern pop music. They can withstand any amount of repeated listening, and if anything only reveal new depths with each play. If my demented walk through London yesterday is anything to go by, then Get Lucky– with its rare, non rape-y (and winningly banal) vocal contribution from Pharrell, its spacehopper bassline, its subtle but dominating drums and wonderfully stupid android backing vocals- isn’t going to break the continuity. Come on, oh arbiters of muzak mediocrity- do your worst. 

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…

NW6’s most Rock’n’Roll sidestreet

11 Sep

Do you know of any other cul-de-sacs named after second-rate British rockers of the 1950s? If so, you know who to call…

Absolute Rubbish

13 Aug

Occasionally, consensus makes fools of us all: nature dictates that as the years roll on, received ideas are more often than not rendered obsolete by things and time. Vague as this may sound, I don’t think it’s an invalid statement to make: it is, after all, why historical revisionism exists. Pop culture is no stranger to this principle: as a phenomenon, it is shaped and based around ever-shifting interpretations of received ideas- the convenient shorthand for which is “Fashion”. If you believe the myth, only about four people ever bought a Velvet Underground album during the group’s short life-span, and Hitchcock’s Vertigo– recently named as “The Greatest Film of All Time” in the influential Sight & Sound critics’ poll- was written off as “not worth-while” by more than one hack on its release in 1958. You could be forgiven, then, for arguing that universally-ackowledged critical opinion is nothing but a stale old construct, an inherently futile and limiting set of prejudices that mean absolutely fuck-all.

It was with this iconoclastic spirit, then, that I finally bit the bullet and watched Julien Temple’s 1986 film Absolute Beginners. For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing horror stories about this much-discussed but little seen (and astronomically expensive) Colin MacInnes adaptation: “much-maligned” doesn’t even come close. In London, complete strangers will literally stop you in the street to tell you how shit it is- and what’s more, they finish off by admitting they’ve never actually watched it. It is the Failure of failures, the Turkey of turkies, a film which not only bankrupted its production company, its studio but caused its director to flee into exile and to obliterate the reputation of almost member of its cast. I didn’t understand: on paper,  Absolute Beginners had everything: Julien Temple is a good film-maker: the Colin MacInnes novel is a tremendously enjoyable cult classic: the theme song is wonderful, the saving grace in David Bowie’s woeful mid-1980s oeuvre. How bad could it really be?

I’d love to say I’d delved deep into the bowels of the internet to find the film and emerged with a triumphantly revisionist endoresment; I’d love to write that it had unexpectedly blossomed into the all-singing, all-dancing masterpiece it was so cruelly mocked for not being; I’d be happy, in fact, to be able to write that it was quite simply not as bad as it’s cracked up to be. But I can’t. It is dire. Truly, madly, deeply shite- and given the fact that it resembles not so much a feature film but a horrifically dated, carelessly stuffed grab-bag of early MTV clichés, I think it may actually be even worse than anyone thought in 1986. How? HOW?!? How can a film with so much promise be quite so abjectly grotesque? Even with the novelty value of seeing Ray Davies fall down a flight of stairs in a Pimlico terrace, or the sight of Bowie driving around Notting Hill in a convertible with two life-sized plastic models of Father Christmas, it still felt like a jaw-dropping waste of my in no way precious time. Decency wasn’t the only thing Temple took a liberty with in Absolute Beginners: while there’s nothing inherently wrong with an unfaithful film adaptation, it must justify its deviations. Temple’s film presents no reason whatsoever for turning MacInnes’ novel into a (wait for it) Rock Musical. The film cannibalises the source text, vomits it back up and wipes it all over its hideously ill-judged 1980s sheen with no enthusiasm whatsoever. It has one foot wobbling dangerously on the edge of period detail and the other sinking into a quicksand of pointlessly fantastical day-glo theatrics; I hate it when people use the word “authenticity” as a sort of all-important value judgement, but Absolute Beginners’ dearth of thematic direction is quite honestly unbearable. The script- lifted awkwardly from dialogue in the novel- is lamentable and the performances are excruciating: Patsy Kensit seems like Meryl Streep by comparison to Eddie O’Connell’s cardboard turn as ‘Colin’, the retroactively named protagonist, and the less said about Bowie’s proto-Don Draper figure, the better. Now that I’ve established that it’s practically unwatchable, I think it’s probably only fair to acknowledge the sole redeeming feature: I may be wrong, but even with this disaster, the director was addressing the upheavals of gentrification and its impact on communities, as in his recent (and actually very good) documentary London: Modern Babylon. It informs the principle narrative strand of the film, which differs significantly from the novel; developers home in on the poor but unprejudiced multicultural area of Napoli (in the novel, slang for the W10 district around Latimer Road, here a somewhat more confused location- of which more later), unscrupulously hiring gangs of racist Teddy Boys to do their bidding and drive out the largely black population, culminating (as in the novel) with the savagery of the Notting Hill race riots. For bringing a contemporary  problem- one which is perhaps even more relevant today than in 1986- into discussion, it is commendable, but it plays irritatingly fast and loose with its treatment of History and Geography. Here I must bastardise the painstaking research and ordered methodology of writers (like The Cine-Tourist) who actually know what they’re talking about; as I mentioned earlier, the novel is incontrovertibly set in W10, the film’s dialogue locates it slightly to the South-East, in W11- a more desirable postcode even back in 1958 (‘not fashionable, mind you, but quite graded’, according to the narrator in the novel). The development (as you can see in the still above) is given as White City, the name of a real-life estate over the borough border in Shepherds Bush and a dark play on the racist agenda of the gangs tasked with the clearances. So, relatively specific, then- there’s even a shot (see above) of Bowie showing O’Connell a model of the proposed development- complete with a maquette of what must be the Westway. The trouble is, White City is not- and never has been- in W11, and is a good half-hour walk from Ladbroke Terrace (which is given as O’Connell’s address). If this all seems needlessly pedantic, I apologise- but White City and the surrounding area are little short of obsessions for me. The White City Estate was not, in fact, built over existing housing (as implied in the film), but replaced the crumbling splendour of a similarly named exhibition complex, so-named for its once brilliantly white paint job, rather than any conspiracy of racial segregation. For more on this, check out my article in TREMORS (wooo!) about the exhibition pavillions and their fate.

The film was shot almost entirely at Shepperton Studios, and while some sets are genuinely extraordinary, many are just plain wrong. Look at the still above: that Tube Station on the right bears no resemblance whatsoever to White City station on the left- : it is, in fact, an almost absurdly accurate recreation of Latimer Road, a stop on a different line a significant distance away. Interestingly, it was at Latimer Road Station that the Notting Hill riots of 1958 were sparked, and it is here (in the novel, at least) that the narrator of Absolute Beginners lives. What confuses me is why a studio would go to the time and presumably hefty expense of recreating one train station almost brick for brick only to mock it up as another, completely different tube stop. Like so much else in Absolute Beginners, it doesn’t really make sense. Why White City, then? While it is possible to argue that the exaggerated artifice of the studio sets permits the film a degree of topographical licence, it is nonetheless extremely inconsistent with other details. For a film that goes out of its way to linger over specially-made street signs as characters turn corners- and even to locate us at various exact addresses (there are lots of shots featuring specific blue plaques, as above), it just doesn’t wash. I can only suppose that it is an extremely overplayed visual gag, a laboured riff on the racial tensions sparked by Oswald Moseley’s white supremacist ranting, as re-enacted by Steven Berkoff in the film. I think the only real conclusion to draw, though, is that it is in keeping with the general cluelessness that characterises Temple’s adaptation of Absolute Beginners.

Right. That’s enough pedantry for now. I really need to get a job, don’t I?